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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Child of Light

Ubisoft releases an RPG with gameplay borrowing elements of Grandia and Paper Mario, all set on the backdrop of a sad fairy tale.  But does their entry to the genre hold its own against some heavy competition, or should this tale have never been told?

Ubisoft is a name known to any gamer, having over thirty branches across the world and having a hand in developing and/or publishing on almost every significant game platform of note since the '80s.  Everything from Japanese RPGs to action-platformers to sports games, and of course, a number of sprawling open-world franchises that continue to get new entries on a regular basis.  While they have published a number of Japanese-styled RPGs, I believe Child of Light to be the first one to actually be developed by one of their subsidiaries.

But while Child of Light is one of their lower-key releases, only being available as a digital download on most platforms and geared toward a somewhat more casual audience than most of their games, I found it to be a worthy addition to the genre.  It's clear that the game's developers were passionate fans of the genre, as Child of Light combines elements of games like Paper Mario and Grandia, as well as a surprising amount of polish, to create a fun and memorable experience.

Child of Light's gameplay outside of battle is built around open-ended exploration with some light puzzle elements (one of the company's fortes); as they travel, the player can be damaged by traps and obstacles, and the sprawling, maze-like layout of many areas lends itself to a lot of exploration.  The latter is quite heavily rewarded, as each area has many (often a dozen or more) hidden chests, rooms and items to find, running the gamut from simple healing items to gemstones for crafting to stat upgrades.  The game effectively does a lot with a little in this regard; while the main storyline is relatively short and straightforward, the large areas give it quite a bit of longevity and allow the player to power up their party.

Combat in the game shows some familiar elements too; most prominently from the Grandia franchise.  Each participant in the battle (both player and enemy) are shown on a time bar that steadily advances throughout the fight, with characters gearing up to perform an action once they reach a line and performing it once they reach the end of the bar.  If they are hit while in the preparatory phase, though, their action will be cancelled and their icon will be pushed back, giving the opposing side an advantage.  Naturally, while this can work to the player's benefit by allowing them to stuff slower enemies' attacks, it can work against them as well; if they get greedy or come up against fast enemies, they can be heavily punished when they try to take actions.  For these reasons, prudent use of the Defend command (which activates instantly, reduces damage taken until that character's next turn and speeds the rate at which said turn will come) quickly becomes an essential tool in one's arsenal.  As the player can also only have two characters in a fight at a time, swapping them in and out  throughout to accommodate a particular hazard is important too.

One also gets aid inside and out from Igniculus the Firefly, controlled by the player at any time via the right thumbstick or touchscreen (depending on platform).  Outside of battle, he is used to solve puzzles by casting shadows against foreground objects, can open certain types of chests, heal the player for a small amount of HP at a time, or temporarily stun enemies, allowing the player to slip past without entering a battle.  In battle, Igniculus can continue to heal allies (at a slow rate and the cost of depleting a finite Light meter) or slow a single enemy's progression along the turn bar, which can grant the player the opening they need to slip in an attack or just defend if they would be hit before they could put up their guard.  The light meter slowly replenishes over time, but the player can also recharge it manually by having him float over flowers and collect the glowing points that come out; they appear regularly outside of battle and the player is given two of them per combat phase, allowing them to utilize them as they see fit in a fight.

A few familiar customization tropes appear too, with each of the playable characters having their own unique skill trees with multiple branches that the player can invest points in as they see fit.  Equipment in the game comes in the form of gemstones, which are frequently found in chests and dropped by enemies, and they afford small bonuses like extra HP, slightly faster turn speed or a chance to evade physical attacks.  This leads way to a crafting system, where one can combine two or three gems together to create new types of gems, or simply combine multiple lower-grade gems together to create a more powerful one.  Indeed, gems become so common throughout the game that the player is encouraged to experiment, combining them together in every way they can to see what results and whether it may help them overcome a particularly tough enemy.

While it may not be the most well-loved RPG of its generation, Child of Light is a worthy entry to the genre.  It's a well-crafted and beautiful adventure that has a number of design elements from games like Paper Mario, Grandia and even a touch of Diablo with its gem crafting, and its charming fairy tale atmosphere makes it an overall fun journey even in spite of its darker elements.  As it's available on virtually every platform, and at a low price to boot, it's certainly a game worth a look for any genre fan.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Wii U, XBox 360, XBox One, Switch
Released: 2014, 2015, 2018
Recommended Version:  The one to buy nowadays is the Switch release, as all of the DLC from the previous version is packed in, and it contains an exclusive two-player co-op mode (with the second player controlling Igniculus).  If you want a physical release of the game, however, your only option as of this writing is the Vita version.

Tags: Western JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, ATB-Like, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Mechanical Minigames, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Adjustable Difficulty, Automatic Saves, Short Campaign, Downloadable Content (Meh), Great Music, Humorous

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

The Kingdom Hearts franchise has its first outing on the Nintendo DS platform, changing its format to a mission-based one while expanding the franchise's storyline once again.  But does it prove to be an entertaining game, or is this an entry you can safely skip?

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (Pronounced "Three Five Eight Days Over Two") is the first entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise to be released for a portable game system, as well as the first to utilize multiplayer-driven gameplay, putting as much emphasis on its co-op Mission Mode as it does on its storyline.  Up to four players can join together to complete missions and collect items which could be transferred back to the story mode for use there, and even in solo play, it afforded the player an opportunity to play as several characters from the franchise.  The most prominent of these were all of the members of Organization XIII, villainous characters featured prominently in previous entries Kingdom Hearts II and Chain of Memories.  A few others could be unlocked by completing certain missions and achieving certain ranks; namely Donald, Goofy, King Mickey, Sora and a version of Roxas that dual-wields Keyblades, as well as a new character to this game named Xion all became playable via this method.

Both story and mission modes take on a distinctly different format from earlier games in the series, largely taking part in the same handful of environments, though with differing areas closed off and different sets of mission parameters between them.  Whether that's finding marked places on the map, defeating certain types of enemies, or just taking on challenges like surviving for a minute against an aggressive horde of Nobodies, this is a game based around completing levels and earning ranks much more than a traditional RPG.  Compounding this, your party members also vary from mission to mission, either being controlled by the AI, and you have essentially no room to customize them or what actions they will take.  And only after completing a certain number of new missions will new ones unlock and allow you to progress through the story.  Getting high enough ranks will make new items available at the Moogle Shop, as well as unlock some new abilities for your character to make later missions easier.

I found this to be a rather disappointing turn for the series, especially since Kingdom Hearts sold itself on exploring the various Disney worlds, encountering their characters and uncovering numerous hidden secrets within them.  Most of that is gone in 358/2, with the only real remnant being the opportunity to find a number of hidden chests in any given mission.  Keyblades do return as well, albeit in the form of "Gears" that must be placed on the ability panel (more on it in a bit) and offer at least a bit of variety to one's combat strategy, such as doing more damage with midair attacks or bolstering magic damage.

Panels are a new system in place to affect character growth, and a relatively creative one at that.  Essentially, the player is given a grid with fifteen slots (with more being unlocked as the game progresses) and they can fill these slots with a number of abilities, items or spells.  Equipping an ability such as Block or Dodge will allow the player to use it freely, while Item and Spell panels are one-use items that will be removed from the grid (and one's inventory) after a single use.  Some panels take up more than one slot on the grid, though the player can fit other panels within the blank slots on that panel to give added effects; attaching a power panel to a Gear panel, for instance, will boost the attack power of that Gear.  Many of said panels are earned through missions, though the player also has the ability to build custom ones at the Moogle Shop by trading in various crafting items they find on missions.  This can prove to be cumbersome, though, as the player has a limited inventory and they can run out of available space, leading to them having to frequently manage their ivnentory mid-mission.  Strangely, one's experience levels also take up slots on the grid; if no Level panels are placed, they will effectively stay at level 1, so the player does often end up having to use a substantial portion of their grid space just to keep pace with enemies they encounter.

What it comes down to is that 358/2 Days is primarily built as a multiplayer action-RPG, allowing up to four players to team up, beat missions and upgrade their characters for later play sessions, that happens to have an offline mode with a storyline - not unlike Phantasy Star Online before it.  It works relatively well as a co-op game, but not so much as a single player experience; I quickly found myself getting bored of seeing the same locations and performing the same handful of short objectives over and over again just to progress the story slightly.  Fortunately, the PS4 compilations contain all of the cutscenes from 358/2, so you can simply watch that if you just want to catch up on the plot without having to play through 200+ similar levels.

Developer: h.a.n.d.
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo DS
Released: 2009
Recommended version: 358/2 days is only available on the Nintendo DS.  While it is listed on the Playstation 4 compilations, it's not playable there; it simply contains the cutscenes from the game edited into a roughly four-hour movie.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous, Direct Sequel

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Panzer Dragoon Saga

Team Andromeda's swan song for the Sega Saturn, Panzer Dragoon Saga was an ambitious cinematic RPG built to rival the likes of Final Fantasy VII; however, it was doomed to obscurity in North America owing to Sega's decision to print only 15,000 copies and not a single one more.  But did the Saturn faithful find a game that was worth a quest in itself to acquire, or is this buried piece of gold really just an overhyped chunk of pyrite?

Panzer Dragoon was one of the Sega Saturn's most heavily touted titles among the platform's fans, having great atmosphere and story for a relatively simple rail shooter with some severe technical limitations (most notably a very low frame rate that often fell into single digits during larger boss encounters).  Even fewer appreciated its sequel, which continued the storyline and added massive technical improvements, with many considering it a title to rival the likes of Star Fox 64.  Fewer still had the chance to appreciate the franchise's third entry, as Sega only released it via mail order and, despite completely selling out within an hour or two of its launch, adamantly refused to do more than a few short printing runs.  As a result, the game's English version is now almost impossible to find without shelling out large sums of cash.  Even those who know Japanese face hurdles, as the Japanese version of the game has some sort of lockout that prevents it from being played on an American system, even with an Action Replay or similar devices that work for nearly other game in the system's library.

It's all a bit of a shame, really, as Panzer Dragoon Saga is quite an experience to behold, expertly combining action elements into an RPG narrative.  One strange artifact of this is the game's interface, which is carried over from the series' rail shooter origins - opening chests and interacting with almost anything is done by locking on and "shooting" it, whether on foot or riding your dragon mount.  This actually threw me at first as you don't travel through caves by simply flying into them - you lock on and shoot the cave, which cues a cutscene of your character flying in, then the game transitions to the next area.  Strange for sure, but you'll adapt to it pretty quickly.

It is also clear from the start that this was intended to be the Saturn's big RPG title, geared up to compete directly with Square's Final Fantasy franchise.  The game is lavishly produced, with every line of dialog featuring full voiceover (in Japanese with English subtitles) and quite a lot of FMV footage to carry key story scenes - indeed, it's only after roughly 30 minutes of animation that you get to any actual gameplay, and when later cutscenes come up, they tend to go for quite a while.  Thankfully the game does allow you to skip nearly every FMV and in-engine dialog scene you encounter, so you aren't stuck watching them over and over again if you die on a boss that happens to be after one.

Saga is a standout game in its aesthetic design, too.  Unusually for the time, the game doesn't consist of simple 3D models on flat 2D backgrounds, or even vice versa; Andromeda instead opted for full 3D environments and character models, and they actually look quite amazing despite the Saturn's limited hardware capabilities - deep canyons, flowing waterfalls, rippling lakes with fish swimming beneath the surface, odd metallic architecture, a giant desert with flowing sands, and bizarre but elegantly-designed machinery and fauna are just a few of the many sights to see.  All of this is further compounded by compounded by a moody score that adds tremendous atmosphere to the environments, fully immersing the player in a dark but beautiful fantasy world totally unlike anything else on the platform.

Of course, one of the big stumbling blocks for "cinematic RPGs" was that the gameplay tended to suffer, as the experience quickly became more about showing off overlong, flashy animations than providing a smooth gameplay experience.  Panzer Dragoon Saga thankfully hits no such issue, elegantly combining a movie-like presentation with a fast pace and a surprisingly strategic bent.  At a glance, combat is somewhat similar to Final Fantasy's ATB system, with the player able to build up to three "charges", then spending said charges to fuel their attacks or "Berserks" (spells). Normal attacks come in two flavors - the rider can fire his gun at a single target for more focused damage, or the dragon can fire homing lasers at random targets - useful against groups, though the lack of precise aiming means it isn't something you can always rely on.  Berserks work like typical RPG spells, either dealing elemental damage, restoring HP or even restoring a small portion of your Berserk Points so you can cast more of them later.

Two unique elements come into play in combat, though.  First is that the player can freely move their dragon around the enemy formation with the D-pad, coming to stop in either in front of them, behind them, or to either side.  They want to do this because enemies have much more dangerous attacks when the player is in certain zones (marked in red on the radar), and in others, the enemy may only be able to use weak attacks or even not be able to attack them at all (marked in green).  However, enemies can also force the player to move to a disadvantageous position, and the player's charges will not fill while they are in the process of moving (by their choice), meaning that maneuvering  too much will leave them unable to take actions.  Many enemies also have weak points that can only be attacked from certain angles, often requiring the player to put themselves in a disadvantageous position to exploit them; however, if they are relatively conservative with their movements and charging, they can easily move into range and unleash a battle-ending assault before the enemies have a chance to retaliate.  Taking minimal damage and using moves as little as possible keys into another part of the game's strategy - the ranking system.  Simply put, the more efficiently you defeat enemies, the better your Rank, and the more experience and money you will earn.  Enemies will also not drop items unless the player gets a Great or Excellent rank, so figuring out how to effectively defeat even mundane foes is a key element of the game.

Another element of strategy comes toward the end of the first disc, allowing a surprising degree of customization for one's dragon.  The player is granted the ability to freely adjust their stats, balancing between Attack and Spirit or Defense and Speed.  Not only this, but tweaking these stats will dynamically change the dragon's appearance, which is quite a cool sight to behold on the Sega Saturn.  Moreover, this also affects the dragon's growth - tending toward one stat with more than 150 points will change the dragon's form to Attack/Spirit/Defense/Speed, while remaining relatively centered will keep them in Normal mode; this affects what Berserks they will gain as the player levels (with Normal granting random Berserks from all four camps).  Each form also grants abilities that cost no BP, but can be activated by spending three bars - Normal form regains HP, Spirit regains BP and Agility cures all status effects, to name three of them.  This adds an element of strategy to battles too, as the player can dynamically adjust their dragon's stat balance mid-fight so that they can, say, push their Attack power up during a relatively safe  moment, then move their points to Defense when a boss is about to use a big attack.

It took me many years to finally get the chance, but after playing the game, there is no doubt left in my mind why Panzer Dragoon Saga is the definitive cult classic RPG for the Sega Saturn.  With its excellent presentation and atmosphere, an innovative combat system that is equal parts cinematic and strategic and an enthralling narrative reminiscent of a good anime series, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a hidden gem.  Not just for the Sega Saturn, but for role-playing games in general, remaining surprisingly faithful to the series' action-game roots while adding a grandiose, movie-like feel to rival any of Square's hits on the Playstation.  Sadly, its stifled release and prohibitively high prices on the second-hand market quickly made it into a game very few western  gamers will get to experience on its native hardware, but those that do are in for a treat that fully shows off the kind of magic the Saturn - and '90s-era Sega developers - were really capable of.  It truly is a shame that their corporate heads were too busy selling empty hype and making consistently terrible business decisions instead of flaunting their dev team's tremendous talents.

Developer: Team Andromeda
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Saturn
Released: 1998
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable  Characters, Disturbing Themes, ATB-Like, Random Encounters, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music