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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

The Zelda franchise's first outing on the Game Boy had a lot to live up to, particularly as it was on a less-powerful platform than other games in the series.  But did Link's Awakening provide a good time for fans of the series, or is this just the series' first black sheep?

The handheld wars were beginning to kick into high gear in the '90s, with Nintendo easily taking the lead with a system that sported strong battery life, a surprisingly good library of games and, of course, being packaged with one of the most popular games of all time in Tetris certainly didn't hurt its appeal either.  But with the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear soon joining the fray, Nintendo had to compete with two systems that sported color graphics, backlights and respectable libraries of their own.  Naturally, they would turn to one of their most beloved franchises to answer that call, promising a Zelda adventure that would be exclusive to the Game Boy, but provide no less fun and content than its console counterparts. 

Thus came Link's Awakening, and to nobody's great surprise, it provided another worthy adventure in spite of the system's limited palette and graphical resolution.  While slightly restricted in design (being once again broken up into distinct, non-scrolling "screens" that load individually and not having the wider, open-world feel of the second or third Zeldas), you certainly weren't hurting for content.  The game's world is a vast one with a plethora of hidden secrets, NPCs to interact with and a wide variety of enemies who each require their own distinct strategies to deal with, and almost every screen has something interesting to see or interact with - very few don't have something distinct about them.  The world had just as much variety as its console counterparts too, with locations like a swamp full of carnivorous flowers, a mountaintop with falling boulders, a desert and a maze of rivers and waterfalls that serves as a minigame later in the quest.

Awakening has considerably fewer pieces of equipment to utilize than Link to the Past, but it ultimately gets more mileage out of the ones it has.  While LTTP's items often had specific uses and saw little function beyond a handful of places in the game, almost every item in Link's Awakening can be used in numerous ways, and can even have their effects combined together to create new ones.  For example, the shield must now be manually activated by assigning it to a key and pressing a button, but is generally more useful, blocking most every attack Link endures from the front and even being able to flip some enemies over to make them vulnerable to attack. Roc's Feather allows Link to jump over small gaps, but also serves its purpose in battle by letting him hop over enemies and attack them from a more advantageous position.  When combined with the Pegasus Boots, he can leap over gaps that are three squares wide instead of just one and reach areas he couldn't before.  Combining the Boots and sword lets Link smash through certain types of blocks and plow through enemies for heavy damage, and my personal favorite: Combining the bomb and the bow causes Link to fire a bomb-tipped arrow that explodes on impact and deals heavy damage.

Link's Awakening's dungeons also distinct.  While they do retain the theming seen in Link to the Past, it's not nearly as prominent - you see ice puzzles, for example, but not really a full-fledged ice-themed dungeon.  There is a water-themed dungeon and a lava-themed dungeon, but they don't really factor too heavily into the enemy designs and puzzles, instead mostly just serving as obstacles for the most part (and having bosses based on the theme).  What truly sets them apart is that they're fairly bizarre by Zelda standards, working in not just some sidescrolling platforming stages (taking the place of the nondescript tunnels from the first game), but actually having cameos from other Nintendo properties appear in them  Goombas, Thwomps and Piranha plants from the Mario games appear, with Goombas in particular providing a cute easter egg in that they will always drop a heart if Link defeats them by stomping on their heads with the Roc's Feather.  Kirby, surprisingly, also makes an appearance as a fairly dangerous enemy in the later stages, being immune to Link's sword and able to swallow him whole for significant damage.  Even Wart from Mario 2 makes a cameo as a prominent NPC, teaching Link an ocarina song he will need to finish the game.  Basically, Nintendo took the concept of a Zelda game set in a 'dream world' and ran with it by letting their game break the fourth wall a bit, which adds to its off-beat charm.

Link's Awakening's aesthetics take advantage of this too, with the exaggerated character designs and expressive animations giving even the mudane NPCs a lot of personality and a distinct feel not seen in earlier Zelda games.  Some animated cutscenes appear throughout the plot (moreso in the DX version of the game), adding a slightly more cinematic feel.  Even little touches like the Piece of Power making your sword flash on the HUD and changing the music to a more fast-paced, energetic theme contribute to the style, giving the game an overall energetic mood to compensate for its lack of color.  And of course, as per Nintendo's high standards toward all of their games, but Zelda in particular, the music is excellent, conveying a strong atmosphere of a grand adventure in a strange and captivating fantasy world, and a truly sinister feel to the dungeons and bosses.

So in short, being released on a system with much more limited graphical and technological capabilities did very little to weaken Zelda's charm.  With its expressive animations, highly polished gameplay and a world that is both bizarre and captivating, Link's Awakening provided just as much of a worthwhile adventure as any of its console counterparts of the time.  It may not be as highly-regarded as Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time among Zelda games from the 1990s, but it's just as good as they are, if not moreso.  Very highly recommended.

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Game Boy, Game Boy Color, 3DS Virtual Console
Released: 1993, 1998, 2011
Recommended Version: I personally have more attachment to the original version, being the first Zelda game I actually owned, but the DX version is well-regarded by many, featuring color graphics, a new dungeon that grants one of two armors when completed (boosting Link's attack or defense) and some Game Boy Printer functionality, letting the player print pictures of various new scenes they can encounter.  This is also the version that was released on the 3DS Virtual Console.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Optional minigames, Dungeon Crawler, Save Anywhere, Short Campaign, Great Music, Humorous

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete

A remake of a cult classic Sega CD RPG that introduced the franchise to a new console generation and gave it some substantial upgrades in the process. But did a 2D fairy tale RPG manage to hold its own in an era where 3d graphics, cyberpunk and urban fantasy were the new norm, or did it just sink into obscurity?

The Lunar games were some of the most influential JRPGs of the early 90s - niche to be sure, being released only for the Sega CD platform, but they were among the first to show western audiences what the CD format could do for the genre.  Not just providing a solid adventure with a lot of substantial content (and not just grinding to pad length), but high-quality music, voiceover and FMV to give them more of a cinematic feel.  Lunar 2 in particular is regarded as one of the best RPGs of the 16-bit era and has a cult following that continues to this day.

All that being said, I didn't play the original Sega CD games back when they were new.  While I knew of them from game magazines and catching glimpses at stores,  I wasn't really into RPGs yet at that point.  On top of that, I couldn't afford a Sega CD addon at the time, so I mostly stuck to the stock Genesis and the Super Nintendo.  However, once the Playstation era rolled around and remakes of the games were announced, I saw an opportunity to jump on board and see what I had missed in the last generation.

Luckily, what I saw did not disappoint.  Not only was it a breath of fresh air to see an RPG in that era that used good old 2D sprites instead of rough-edged, pixelated PS1 polygons, but even in the in-game cutscenes were hand-drawn and very good quality besides; maybe not Ghibli quality, but enough to rival any big-budget anime of the era.  Also unusually for the time, it featured voice acting of surprisingly good quality, giving the characters a lot of personality and adding perfectly to the humor - even in the non-voiced lines, it makes it easier to imagine the voices and timing of the jokes.

Combat retains a traditional turn-based style, though with some slight changes.  First is the fact that your hand-to-hand oriented characters can get multiple attacks per turn, and can even hit different targets with them, keeping their power level roughly on par with your more magic-oriented ones (unlike many RPGs, where mages tend to start out weak but dominate in the endgame).  Second, the game has a slight strategy RPG feel in that for said melee attacks, one must actually approach an enemy on the field and attack them - if they are out of range, then you just spend a turn getting closer and that's it (which can put you at a disadvantage when the enemies get their turns).  Defending also allows you to manually reposition your characters, which proves to be an essential tactic in some battles (particularly against bosses with large area-of-effect attacks).  Throughout the game you are constantly accompanied by Nall, who does factor into combat too - from time to time, he will revive a downed character with 1 HP and allow them to get back into the fight.  While only sporadically useful, this is still better than Nall's contribution in the Sega CD version, where he simply gave useless advice against monsters.  New to this version as well, Nall will revive any downed characters at the end of combat, thus preventing them from missing out on any experience points gained - generally a good thing (though if for some reason you want someone to miss out on gaining XP, you now have to command that individual character to run from the fight).

Something else that was unusual for the time was that Lunar's bosses do not have fixed stats - instead, their stats are all based on multiples of Alex's level, so they effectively power up as he does to provide a consistent challenge (and reduce the player's reliance on over-leveling).  Some unscrupulous players found that they could exploit this by having Alex flee from every fight and simply let the rest of the party gain experience instead, making every major battle beyond the first hours of the game into a total joke.  Probably little surprise that this mechanic was left out of the sequel in favor of more traditional fixed-stat bosses.

Being published by Working Designs had its benefit for the game too; before virtually every game with a well-known name attached had big-box Special Edition releases, Working Designs paved the way.  Silver Star Story was probably their most ambitious one yet with additions like a cloth map, soundtrack CD, hardcover manual and even variant covers for the disc box.  Those who preordered the game got a Ghaleon punching puppet (though the Alex puppet, planned for release alongside the PC version, sadly never saw the light of day), and even the player's guide for the game was unusual in that it was a high-quality hardcover release.  Naturally, this all came at a cost, retailing for significantly higher than the average Playstation game and being relatively rare and expensive nowadays.

On the other side of that coin, Working Designs is a divisive name among RPG fans, making some controversial changes to many of the games they localized for western territories.  While not quite on the same level as Silhouette Mirage 's overhauled gameplay or having to spend Magic Experience to save one' s game in Lunar 2 for Sega CD, they nevertheless make for a substantially different experience than the Japanese release.  In general, enemy HP is about 10 percent lower, their damage output is 20-40 percent higher and XP and silver rewards were lowered around 15 percent, making combat tougher and the game require substantially more grinding.  All chests containing silver had their contents halved as well, and bosses were made significantly stronger, getting higher multipliers based on Alex's level and generally taking much longer to beat.  The translation also added many jokes (including several pop culture references and some generally juvenile moments) and a couple of puzzle solutions were obscured (mistranslated or left out completely) , making them tougher to solve.  I've never personally played the original Japanese release so I don't have a first-hand frame of reference, but I didn't find any of these to detract greatly from the overall experience.  In fact, the lowbrow jokes actually felt rather at home considering that the game also famously has quite a few fan-servicey moments, including allowing the player to collect "bromides" of the female characters to provide some cheesecake, and view bath scenes of both male and female characters with mild nudity (though the female baths are much tougher to access, being placed after one of the game's most dangerous dungeons).

But regardless of whether you agree with Working Designs' changes or not, there is no denying that Lunar is a solid update of a classic.  It provides enough old-school appeal for long-time RPG players, but enough charm, story and memorable characters to appeal to newer ones as well.  The 2D artwork in the game is downright gorgeous, the music is catchy and well-composed, and even the voice acting holds up remarkably well - while obviously not on the level of modern anime and game dubs, the cast is clearly trying and having a lot of fun doing it (with the post-credits blooper reel only providing more evidence of that).  Lunar is a fun and captivating fairy tale in video game form, and its charm will last for the ages.

Developer: Game Arts/Japan Art Media, SoMoGa (iOS version)
Publisher: Kadokawa Shoten, ESP, Working Designs
Platform: Sega Saturn, Playstation 1, Windows iOS
Released: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2012
Recommended version: If you can get ahold of a copy, the Playstation version is the one I recommend.  While the Saturn version apparently has cleaner spritework (little surprise as the Saturn was primarily built as a 2D system) and the Windows version has higher-quality FMVs, neither is available in English.  The iOS port is a hybrid of several versions of the game (based on the Saturn version's source code, using the graphics of the Windows port and having the script/VO of the PSP remake) and seems to be comparable in quality at a glance, though I have not played it firsthand.

(There are two remakes as well - Lunar Legend for GBA and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony for the PSP - that I will review at a later date)

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Humorous, Missables

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

World of Final Fantasy

Released to celebrate the Final Fantasy franchise's 30th anniversary, World of Final Fantasy is one one part fantasy RPG, one part Pokemon-style monster trainer game.  But does it provide enough content and depth to stand tall in the worlds of two RPG giants, or does it simply tip over and crash?

It seems that sooner or later every long-running series gets a celebratory fan service game, and Final Fantasy is certainly no different in that regard; in fact, it's had several.  But while some are mediocre (Final Fantasy IV: The After Years) and others are downright disgraceful (All The Bravest), World of Final Fantasy sets out to do something unique.

The game still does utilize quite a few of the familiar Final Fantasy elements - right from the get-go, you'll be seeing numerous familiar monsters, moogles, chocobos and quite  a few music cues, settings and characters from earlier Final Fantasies.  At its core, though, the story is a unique one, starring two new protagonists (a brother and sister named Lann and Reynn) and following an original story as they traverse the world of Grymoire.  It is built on a familiar archetype, though - Many of the inhabitants of this world are chibi-styled "Lillikins", while the antagonists are primarily more humanoid characters called "Jiants" who conquer the land via their ability to control Mirages (monsters), and seemingly only the protagonists have the power to stand against them.

This leads into the first major gameplay change; namely that it's a Pokemon-styled monster collection and training game.  Monsters encountered in battle can be captured and added to the player's party via a mechanic called 'Imprisming' when they are reduced to a vulnerable state.  Unlike Pokemon, however, this isn't simply limited to weakening them through battle and hoping the dice land in your favor; instead, each type of monster you encounter has differing ways in which they can be made vulnerable to an Imprism.  Often this means using a particular attack or element type on them, but it can also have slightly more obscure conditions, such as having them be the last hostile monster standing, reflecting their magic spells, using mutiple attack types, or even healing them first.  The Libra spell, which identifies monster stats, weaknesses and Imprison conditions, remains a very valuable asset throughout the game.

The game's interface is somewhat simplified too.  By default, combat utilizes a more efficient command menu with four shortcut commands mappable to each monster, and the player can quickly select from individual shortcut menus via the D-pad (though if this menu isn't to your liking, the traditional-styled menu can also be made the default in the game's options).  Combat itself retains the franchise's familiar Active Time Battle system too, so those used to the 90's-era Final Fantasy games will feel right at home.

Mirages' ability pools are similar to the skill trees seen in Kingdom Hearts 3D, with monsters gaining AP as their levels increase,which they can then spend to unlock nodes on their respective grids in order to boost stats, gain new abilities or evolve to stronger forms.  The two protagonists, on the other hand, have something slightly more akin to Final Fantasy VII's Materia system; they have no abilities of their own, but can equip "Mirajewels" that grant them spells and abilities, with more slots being unlocked as their levels increase and certain tasks are completed.

Some creative new mechanics quickly show themselves too, though.  The most prominent of these is Stacking; basically, you stack up to three of your characters atop one another, which effectively combines their stats and move pools into a single, stronger whole. Though you get fewer turns doing this, a stack is much more resilient and versatile than its component characters, making this an invaluable strategy for surviving tough battles.  However, if a stack takes too many hits in a battle, they can be tipped over, forcibly separating the stack into its component characters until the player recombines them or wins the battle.  Enemies are also frequently found in stacks and get similar bonuses when they do so, which adds another layer of strategy to things.

The gameplay itself is primarily aimed at a younger audience, and as a result features relatively simple dungeon designs and puzzles.  That said, there are still numerous optional quests with items to find, shortcuts to discover and plot threads with classic Final Fantasy characters to experience to keep things engaging for more experienced players.  Many NPCs have the usual assortment of fetch and monster-hunt quests, while some monsters have abilities that can uncover hidden items or pathways -having a Mirage with the Wander ability in the party in certain environments can allow them to uncover secret items that otherwise would not be accessible, while having one with Flight allows the party to move over small gaps they otherwise couldn't, for example.  Most dungeons also contain at least one special switch, which can open new paths if certain conditions are met.  Most often, this entails building stacks with certain requirements, such as having a Weight of at least 8 and statistics (such as elemental resistances) above a certain value.  These are rarely required to progress, but often lead to secret areas with useful items, so it is worth collecting monsters to see what each one contains.

Befitting the colorful storybook style of the visuals and the more accessible gameplay, World of Final Fantasy's tone aims to be lighthearted and fun above all else.  To that end, the protagonists' interactions are often silly, with Lann often coming off as generally moronic and Reynn as the long-suffering 'straight man' of the pair.  Dialog with other characters is equally silly, with countless references and puns and a self-aware tone that even breaks the fourth wall at times.  It can get to be a bit much over long play sessions, but I found most of the jokes to work surprisingly well, especially as the voiceover in the game perfectly captures the timing of jokes and is well-acted enough not to get grating.  The localization and voice over teams really did an outstanding job here, and it's more than a bit ironic that a spinoff game built for a younger crowd does a much better job with these elements than most of the main-line Final Fantasy games.

World of Final Fantasy is an homage game at its core, but does much to set itself apart from others in that category.  Its Pokemon-styled collection-oriented gameplay gives it a lot of content, the writers do a very respectable job in creating a humorous tone, and the story, while simple at its core, provides enough fan service and twists to keep both long-time series fans and more casual RPG players invested.  So whether you're a series veteran or a relative newcomer, World of Final Fantasy is one that should keep you hooked for a while.

Developer: TOSE, Square Enix Business Division 3
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, PC, Switch, XBox One
Released: 2016, 2017, 2018
Recommended version: All versions of the game seem to be pretty much identical, but I would recommend getting one of the updated "Maxima" versions if possible; these add many new features and gameplay tweaks over the base versions, as well as numerous new cameos and quests to experience.  This is available as a DLC upgrade for the PC and PS 4versions, but comes as a free inclusion on the XBox One and Switch versions of the game.

Tags: JRPG, Monster Breeder, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, ATB-Like, Random Encounters, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Long Campaign, Downloadable Content (Meh), Great Music, Humorous, New Game Plus (Maxima only)