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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Yakuza 0

A prequel game to Sega's hit Yakuza franchise, starring series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in an open-world RPG experience.  But does it retain the series' charm as well as those that follow it chronologically, or is this game, like its title, a zero?

Yakuza is a modern franchise celebrated among RPG fans and open-world action fans alike, melding elements of both into a relatively realistic world of organized crime drama.  However, it also has a surprising sense of humor about itself, with a lot of exaggerated characters, silly moments and questlines and some downright funny dialog in places, so it's not all betrayals, violence and murder despite its premise.

However, despite being around since the days of the Playstation 2, it wasn't until relatively recently that its popularity really began to pick up in the west.  The series remained a low-key cult favorite throughout the PS2 and PS3 era, though its popularity was hampered by a sporadic release schedule and a lack of marketing from Sega.  When the Playstation 4 began to take off, though, Sega began to take its fanbase more seriously, releasing later games with heavy fanfare and, through an aggressively compressed schedule of updates and remakes, eventually got every mainline game in the series ported over to the platform (with the 7th entry slated for later in 2020).

Yakuza 0 - a prequel to every other game released thus far - is one of the first I recall to really take off, affording long-time fans more of what they liked while newer fans could jump on board, confident that they could understand its storyline without having played the previous games.  Sure enough, the game follows Kazuma Kiryu in his earliest days, being framed for a murder at a piece of real estate coveted by several members of the Dojima family.  Suspecting a conspiracy among his superiors, he departs the Tojo clan and begins an investigation, hoping to clear his own name as well as his mentor's.

As ever, Yakuza makes no secret of its brutal melee combat, with vicious and bloody fights being a near-constant occurrence.  In addition to four different fighting styles, you can pick up and wield almost anything you find in the environment as an improvised weapon, from bicycles to signs to parking cones.  Building up one's heat gauge unlocks new moves, as well as special moves that play all sorts of vicious animations - pinning an enemy to a wall and unleashing a flurry of punches, picking up a downed opponent and smashing their face in, and dropping them back-first over a railing, as well as many others, make very effective and brutal ways to finish off foes.  Indeed, you get into fights so often as you wander around that finding new animations and weapons to wield becomes as much a part of the experience as quickly dispatching foes to maximize bonuses.

One can also purchase a number of upgrades for each of their four fighting styles, granting a number of positive effects - new moves, faster charging and slower decay of the Heat meter, or just extra health so you can take a few more hits in a fight.  This is done somewhat unconventionally, though, in that there isn't really an experience System in the game - instead, you spend money.  You upgrade your skill trees with it, you buy healing items at shops and bars, and equipment can be randomly acquired by spending money at vending machines or completing sidequests - both defensive items and more traditional weapons like baseball bats, knives and even firearms (though these still have limited usage, so they should be used sparingly).  Hitting certain milestones in the game, such as defeating a certain number of enemies or earning a set number of cash, also earns the player Competion Points, which can be spent at the shrine to earn upgrades, letting them dash longer, earn more money from fights, or occasionally spawn enemies that carry large amounts of money (distinguishable by their golden suits).

Yakuza as a franchise also quickly became famous for its dense design - despite the game mostly taking place in a relatively small geographical area, it's one that really does feel like a district of Tokyo, with no shortage of things to see and do.  There are a lot of shops, restaurants and bars to visit, NPCs to interact with, dozens of side-quests to undertake (only a handful of which have anything to do with the yakuza), and a lot of of full-fledged minigames give you no shortage of things to do.  Some of these are just included for fun - notably a few classic Sega arcade games like Outrun, Super Hang-On, Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier - but others can provide you tangible benefits and side-stories too.  You can earn prizes at the batting cages, compete in bowling, Mahjong and Shogi to earn money and meet new characters, and, later in the game, even have the opportunity to manage a hostess club for a variety of benefits (and reunite with numerous characters from elsewhere in the game), among many others.  One of the more controversial series additions, Pachinko, is absent in Yakuza 0, so completionists need not fear there; however, you'll still have to learn other very Asian games like Shogi and Mahjong.

Basically, Yakuza 0 was the shot in the arm the series needed.  A prequel story that allowed new players to dig into the franchise for the first time, and showing off the best of what it had to offer - dense design, inventive combat, a captivating storyline with plenty of twists, and a solid sense of humor in spite of its dark themes.  Between it and Yakuza Kiwami (a remake of the first game) and the numerous HD ports released since, the franchise has finally gotten its big break in the west, and I for one am glad it has, because Yakuza is great. 

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, PC, XBox One
Released: 2015, 2017, 2018, 2020
Recommended version: All versions seem to be pretty much identical.

Tags: Action RPG, Modern Setting, Customizable Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Strong Language, Real-Time Combat, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Optional Minigames, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Downloadable Content (Meh), Cinematic Experience, Humorous

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete

Lunar's first remake for the fifth generation of consoles was a hit with fans of classic 2D RPGs, so it was inevitable that its highly-acclaimed sequel would soon get a remake of its own.  But does this remake do justice to the Sega CD cult classic, or is it simply a flawed counterpart?

Despite being released late in the system's life and garnering overall low sales as a result, Lunar 2 on the Sega CD quickly became a cult classic for the platform and is still widely hailed as one of its best games.  Its gripping story and high quality animated cutscenes were a sight to behold, as was a great CD soundtrack and even surprisingly competent voice-over for the era.  But it was marred with criticism as well, mostly for its publishers (the ever-controversial Working Designs) making bizarre and unnecessary alterations to both the gameplay and the script.  Like most of their games, it's translation was far from faithful to the original Japanese script, changing many plot points and adding in numerous juvenile jokes.  There are also an abundance of references to the movie "This is Spinal Tap" - even the company's motto at the time was "our games go to 11".  Many gameplay changes were implemented as well, ostensibly to add challenge but in practice making the game considerably more grindy and less fun.  The difficulty has been dramatically ramped up through higher MP costs for many spells, buying items and healing at shrines cost much more money, enemy stats were all cranked up, and most infamously of all, it forces the player to pay large sums of valuable Magic Experience (dependent on Hiro's current level) just to save the game - something that didn't exist at all in the original Japanese version. 

Thankfully, they seem to have finally taken that criticism to heart by the time Lunar 2's remake was announced.  Eternal Blue Complete was left largely untouched gameplay-wise, only making some minor tweaks to address bugs and other inconveniences (like disallowing items in fights the player is scripted to lose so that they don't go to waste). The translation is also a bit more subdued than their earlier efforts, though still laden with jokes, silly accents and pop culture gags (one that particularly stands out to me is a Who Wants to be a Millionaire reference, which dates the game quite a bit).  As usual, they also went all-in with the packaging, shipping the game in a foil-stamped box and including extras like a map, a bonus CD with a "Making of" commentary, a hard-cover manual and a set of miniature standees depicting all of the main cast.  They were very obviously passionate about their works and tried to invoke the mood you'd get buying an old big-box PC game with all the extras - you weren't just playing a game, you were adventuring into another world.  The downside, of course, is that complete copies of the game are now somewhat sparse and can go for over $100 online.

Eternal Blue Complete's gameplay is largely modeled on its predecessor's, retaining many of the improvements it brought. Random encounters are still a thing of the past, now allowing the player to see them on the dungeon map and evade them with the ability to dash. Combat retains a slight tactical bent, with each character having a finite movement range per turn and some attacks having areas of effect, giving the ability to hit large groups of enemies at once and lessen the damage from some moves by spreading out the party. The Magic Experience system from the original is done away with completely in favor of earning spells through levels, with some attaining more powerful upgraded versions after the player's level reaches a certain threshold.  Ruby (Hiro's dragon companion) also aids in battle, though in a slightly different manner than Nall from the previous game - if an enemy is reduced to very low HP but not quite dead, she will often fly down and deal a finishing blow at the end of the round.

A new addition to the game is the Crest system.  Crests are items that grant small stat bonuses/penalties and occasionally spells when equipped.  This allows for a degree of character customization, and some even allow any character to cast elemental attacks, letting you exploit weaknesses more easily than in 1.  Seemingly taking a cue from the Final Fantasy series, many items also have extra effects when used in battle; particularly staves, which often cast mid-ranged elemental spells for no MP cost.  One of the more interesting ones is the Thieves' Staff, which grants a chance to steal items from enemies; you won't get anything too rare from most enemies, but having a few extra Angel Tears or Star Lights around is never a bad thing, particularly late in the game.

Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete, simply put, is a great update to a classic, taking the same great story as the first and updating it to a new generation in style.  Higher-quality cutscenes with top-notch animation, remastered music that sounds fantastic, the same great reworked engine and design philosophy as the first Lunar remake, and a number of gameplay improvements over the first.  Working Designs resisting the urge to make the game more difficult certainly helps it too; the game is polished to near-perfection as is, providing just the right amount of challenge without ever feeling overbearing and rarely requiring the player to stop and grind for experience and resources.  It may not be the most visually impressive PS1 RPG, but it's an elegant, enjoyable and exceptionally charming one that still ranks as one of the all-time greats.

Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: Kadokawa Shoten, Working Designs
Platform: Sega Saturn, Playstation 1, Playstation Network
Released: 1998, 2000, 2015
Recommended version: Thus far, the only version of the game in English is the Working Designs release on the Playstation.  The Japan-only Sega Saturn version is the "non-complete" release and lacks some extra content that was added to the Playstation versions.  The Playstation Network release is an emulation of the Japanese version and is currently only available in that region.

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Wild Arms 4

Wild Arms 4 represented a major shift away from almost every norm of the franchise, and as a result is widely regarded as the black sheep of the series.  But is there still a good game to be found if you put the franchise's legacy aside and judge it on its own merits, or should it just be remembered as the beginning of the series' decline?

A franchise changing up its familiar format is always a risky move to take - the risk of alienating one's existing fans, paired with no guarantee the change will bring about new ones, has been a killing blow to more than a few beloved series.  But staying constant carries similar risks, with more than a few franchises being abandoned in favor of the new hot property on the market once the next big thing rolls in, so taking risks becomes a part of the territory even if it may ultimately doom a series.

Wild Arms 4 was Media.Vision's attempt to update Wild Arms for a new generation, and they really went all-in with the change, creating something that plays very unlike any prior game in the series.  In fact, it actually feels a bit like a puzzle-platformer rather than a straight RPG, at least outside of combat.  Movement is in three dimensions in some areas and two in others (helpfully pointed out to you with text reading "side view" in the corner of the screen).  You control only one character outside of battle (Jude), and he has some rather Mario 64-esque movement mechanics, utilizing a double-jump, slide and a stomp to get past obstacles.  Thankfully, despite the dynamic camera and perspective, the game does make navigation rather simple - a red arrow indicates the area you've just exited from, while blue arrows indicate areas you've already been and yellow ones point out areas you haven't visited yet, so it's easy too find your way around the dungeons.

Tools, formerly a mechanic that defined and distinguished the party, are no longer such. They are also not a permanent part of your repertoire - you find and use them in the same dungeon (and often in the same room), making that element feel more akin to something like Adventures of Lolo than Zelda.  There are at least quite a bit of variety to them - swords can break some objects, sword hilts can be thrown to activate switches, shields can block damage from fire and laser traps, and so forth, so while it doesn't work on the same principle as the previous Wild Arms games, it does at least keep the puzzle-oriented design to its dungeons.

Combat is another stark departure from the Wild Arms norm.  The game still utilizes a turn-based format, but battles are now based in large part around the "Hex Grid".  Players and enemies alike all move between seven spaces on the field, and attacks, items and spells target the hexes themselves - not the specific characters within them.  Moreover, multiple characters can be within a hex at the same time, though enemies and player characters cannot share a hex.  This effectively means that attacking a hex with two or more characters within it will do damage to all of them (barring a miss), and that most items and status effects are cast on the hex itself - not the characters.  Essentially, if one casts a Poison spell on a hex, the characters within it will take damage at the start of each turn, but they can also move out of that hex to get away from the effect.  Inversely, if a player uses a healing item, it will heal everyone in the hex, so grouping up the party momentarily would be beneficial in that case.  Controlling the field quickly becomes key to victory, especially as the game goes on and enemies become more aggressive, pushing your party into a single hex so they can attack them all at the same time. Hexes can also somewhat randomly be assigned as "ley points", granting bonus damage if the player uses a skill or spell that matches their element.  Inversely, casting from or into a ley point of the opposite element will reduce the effect.  Strangely, the game is also very forthcoming with enemy stats - you can view any enemy's stats at any time during a fight, even bosses.

Wild Arms 4 still utilizes random encounters, and unlike 2 or 3, there isn't a readily-available way to avoid them.  However, once a particular dungeon's boss is defeated, the player is often afforded the ability to disable them completely for that dungeon, letting them explore and find any treasures they may have missed on the way in.  Not quite as convenient to the player, but practical in its own way.

The game also retains the franchise's high standards for presentation, with some quality graphics and sound design in almost every area of the game.  It's definitely a departure in style and tone from the "old west" aesthetic of the earlier games, going for more of a futuristic science fiction bent, but nothing about it is inherently bad; just different.  Town music in particular has a very ambient, laid-back tone to it; I found myself thinking of games like Simcity as I listened.  The game's story scenes are significantly upgraded, giving the game a much more anime-like presentation - lots of cutscenes with choreographed animation, dynamic camerawork and professional voice-acting (which was still a relatively new thing for games of the time).  Even the introductory cinematic (seen when you load a save) has its lyrics dubbed into English, which was fairly unusual for a video game of the era.

Fitting with that, though, the game's story does fall into a lot of particularly cheesy anime tropes.  The characters are all rather stock and archetypal, and the dialog has a pervasive tone of "adults are all too cynical to save the world, the kids are the real heroes" that gets a bit grating.  The designs are more than a bit silly at times too, with multiple belts and chains and oversized accessories.  Still, I found myself getting wrapped up in the story, and it does at least retain a sense of humor about itself at times, so its more annoying elements are only a minor issue.

Wild Arms 4 is definitely the odd duck of the series, and it isn't hard to see why - it changed up its aesthetic and almost every familiar element of its gameplay in some rather strange ways, largely exhuming a "classic RPG" feel in favor of something more akin to an action game with an anime aesthetic.  However, I found it to be a competent and entertaining title in its own right; maybe not as fresh and captivating as its primary competitors of the time (Final Fantasy XII and Persona 3), but one that's certainly worth a look.  It's not without its faults for sure - an uneven difficulty level and some irritating writing tropes hamper it a bit - but it's an interesting and mostly successful reinvention of the franchise.

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: SCEI, XSeed Games, 505 Game Street
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: 2006
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags:  JRPG, Science Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Bugs and Glitches