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Monday, May 3, 2021

Nier Replicant Ver.1.22474487139...

 A remaster of the low-key hit Nier, which proved to be the last game released by cult company Cavia before their closure.  But does Ver 1.22474487139 prove to be a worthy update to the original cult classic, or should fans simply stick to the original?

Cavia as a company was a pretty low-key name for a lot of its existence, mostly known for producing licensed titles and a few originals like Drakengard, which were largely regarded as mediocre save for their grim storylines and twisted themes.  NieR was the last game they released before being absorbed into their parent company (who would later merge with Marvelous Entertainment to become Marvelous AQL), and like many of their original offerings, its reception was muted at first; however, it went on to become a cult classic over time for its grim, emotional storytelling and innovative narrative design, probably helped in no small part by the runaway success of its sequel, NieR Automata.

NieR's original release was an odd one, though, owing to some regional disparity.  In Japan there were two versions that differed slightly; "NieR Gestalt" was released for the XBox 360 and had the player control Yonah's father, while the Playstation 3 got "NieR Replicant" and instead had them play as Yonah's brother (a much more bishonen design).  However, when the game was localized for other regions, we only got Gestalt's protagonist regardless of platform choice.  The narrative and gameplay was nearly identical regardless, but it seemed that Square was trying to appeal more to a Western audience (whose games, movies, shows etc. generally feature older protagonists) when the game was published outside of Japan.

The 2021 remaster, however, goes in the exact opposite direction, only affording you the opportunity to play as Yonah's brother, with the "dad" protagonist making an appearance in some of the game's added content.  The story has also had some content added - some that was intended for the original game but cut owing to time constraints, and some new scenes that help bridge the story gap between the original NieR and Automata.  They do a surprisingly good job with it too, as it all feels natural and well-integrated; more than I can say for the added content in games like Final Fantasy and some of the more recent Atlus outings.

Another point of criticism for the original NieR was its rather bland visual design; environments were large and empty and combat animation was rather stiff.  This of course gets updated in the remaster too; while the environments' designs don't change in any significant way, they definitely take advantage of the added technological power of modern platforms, with much nicer-looking textures, flora and fauna seeing a new level of detail, and more expressive character animation on the whole.  The overall style also more closely matches Automata's, with a dark-clad protagonist standing out against the lighter washed out environments.  It looks really good for the most part, though some of the brighter character designs (Grimoire Weiss in particular) don't stand out nearly as much, going from a distinct black-and-gold motif to looking more gray.

The voice acting for the remaster was also overhauled, with the protagonist getting two new VO's (Zach Aguilar and Ray Chase); no surprise given the protagonist shift.  Nearly all the dialog in the game is now voiced as well, with many actors from the original reprising their roles - definitely a good thing to most fans, as the voice acting was one of the major highlights of the original NieR.  Liam O'Brien in particular is perfect as the arrogant Grimoire Weiss, while Laura Bailey's KainĂ© perfectly captures the pain and angst of her character and the tragedy she's endured.

Probably the most significant change overall, though, was the revamped combat system.  While not hugely different from the original NieR, Replicant 1.2's physics and overall feel have received a major overhaul under the supervision of PlatinumGames' Takahisa Taura, who also worked on Automata.  The result is certainly evident, too - combat went from being a stiff, tedious affair to feeling much more fluid and satisfying, with every blow feeling significant and affording the player the ability to seamlessly switch from attacking to effectively dodging, parrying and countering enemy blows.  As in any good combat-focused action title, one can also easily switch between ranged attacks and melee owing to the intuitive setup, using the shoulder buttons to govern blocks, parries, ranged projectiles and stronger ones that must be charged up before firing but do significantly more damage.  It's still not on the level of depth as something like, say, Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but I actually ended up looking forward to battles instead of dreading them, so it's still a major improvement over the original.  One can also now access items (both healing and temporary buffers) and change up their special attack selections via a D-pad quick menu, ensuring that the player is never drawn away from the combat for long.

In short, NieR Replicant 1.22474487139... is an excellent remaster, taking a cult classic game, keeping everything that made it such and improving upon nearly everything that drew criticism in the original.  It's still the same game at its core, but with smoother action and combat, nicer visuals on the whole and some very well-integrated new elements, there's a lot here to enjoy for fans of the original and newcomers alike.  If you skipped the original NieR or just found its combat too clunky to be fun, give the modern remaster a go; you'll see why it's such a beloved game amongst fans of strong storytelling in games.

Developer: Toylogic
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4, XBox One, PC
Released: 2021
Recommended Version:  The console versions seem to be more or less the same.  However, there are reports among some users that the PC port features bugs and bad optimization as that platform's port of Automata did, so keep that in mind.

Tags: Action RPG, Science Fantasy, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Strong Language, Crafting System, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Banner Saga

Banner Saga is a Nordic-inspired tactical RPG and the inaugural game of Stoic Studio, a company founded by three former BioWare employees.  But does the Banner Saga manage to put its developers' talents on display and provide a fun and memorable experience, or does this game simply get banished to the icy stretches of Hel?

The Banner Saga caught some attention prior to its launch for a number of reasons, but mostly for the names behind its design - Alex Thomas, John Watson and Arnie Jorgensen, names long associated with big-name RPG giant BioWare.  After a successful Kickstarter campaign Banner Saga saw its initial public release with a free standalone multiplayer 'demo' in Banner Saga: Factions, showcasing the animation style and overall gameplay that would be featured in the single-player game (which wouldn't debut until nearly a year later).

Banner Saga promised a lot during its campaign, including subverting numerous RPG tropes (not focusing on a young hero, for example), downplaying the micromanagement element of most strategy RPGs and having a choice-based narrative that would force you to confront the consequences of your choices and force you to deal with loss (complete with auto-saving, ensuring you couldn't just load back when something went wrong).  To my surprise, though, they actually followed through on this quite well.  Your choices do really matter and will change the course of the story several times throughout - you'll face different battles, may recruit some characters (or lose some) and see story scenes that you wouldn't see otherwise - a pretty stark contrast to most games of this type I've played where 'choice' just feels like a joke more than anything, changing maybe a throwaway line of dialog or two and little else.

I was also a little surprised to see the game draw some cues from the computer classic "The Oregon Trail".  As your troupe travels across the land, you'll have to maintain a steady income of supplies (which deplete each day), as well as rest to maintain morale and deal with a number of events - some are scripted while others are random, and can be both beneficial (finding useful items) or detrimental (villagers fighting and you having to decide what to do about it).  While a relatively minor part of the game overall, I nonetheless enjoyed this part, as it ties in well to the theme of choice and consequence in a pretty clever way (and pays homage to a classic without feeling overly derivative).

There are only about seven classes in the game, but they prove distinct enough to keep the game fresh.  To name a few, Archers attack at range and are relatively speedy, but have low armor and Strength; Spearmen can attack from two spaces and have relatively average stats all around, while Varn (giants) are the biggest and slowest of units, takinh up four spaces as opposed to humans and dredges taking up one, but have very high armor and attack power; positioning them properly and having them take the brunt of attacks for weaker makes up a substantial portion of your tactical decisions, especially early in the game.

The combat element of the game is relatively simple, but challenging enough to stay engaging.  It's a straightforward, turn-based team-VS-team affair, and terrain generally plays little role in the battle - it's more about moving and positioning your units effectively to turn things in your favor.  Each character is governed by a number of stats, but the two most prominent are Strength and Armor.  Strength is both your health and your attack damage - as it goes down, your attacks become less effective, and once it's depleted completely, that character is KOed and out for the rest of the fight (and will be weakened in future battles if they aren't given a chance to rest).  Armor reduces the damage attacks inflict, and if it's particularly high, attacks have a much lower chance to deal any damage.  However, both allies and enemies can attack a unit's armor, dealing no Strength damage but weakening them against future attacks, and as the game's tutorial points out, you will have to do this a lot - heavily armored enemies are virtually impossible to defeat otherwise.  Each character also has Skills that aid them, doing things like knocking enemies back several spaces (and damaging anything in their path) or firing a piercing arrow that damages everything between it and its target.  Another prevalent mechanic is Willpower, which can be spent to fuel the aforementioned skills or deal extra damage or armor-breaking (with the maximum you can spend in a single action determined by another stat, Exertion).  Willpower does not regenerate on its own, but can be replenished if a unit takes no action in a turn or by using certain skills.  If an ally falls in battle you will get a point of Willpower in your "Horn", a cache of up to seven points which can be allocated to the active character at the press of a button.

After battle, you'll earn Renown, which serves as something of a catch-all currency.  Supplies can be bought with it, as can new troops and accessories, which grant small bonuses to units they're equipped to; however, they can only have one at a time equipped, and their rank must be sufficient to use it.  Raising a unit's rank is governed by Renown too, though a unit must also have a certain number of kills to their name before they can purchase a rank increase.  This allows them to upgrade their stats and, once a stat hits a certain threshold, unlock skills to use in later battles.  Kills earned in training battles do count toward the number needed for a rank-up, though, so don't miss a chance to train when you can - it could make a big difference!

I was also impressed with the game's presentation.  Banner Saga makes the most of its minimal budget, with limited but expressive animation that draws influence from names like Eyvind Earle and Ralph Bakshi and a surprisingly good, moody soundtrack that carries the dark tone of the story surprisingly well.  Voice acting is minimal but used effectively, never feeling apathetic or stilted as in so many big budget RPGs of today.  The dialog in the game is excellently done too, playing the characters off of one another perfectly and making them feel like actual people and not just stilted plot points.  There are a lot of nice bits of lore throughout (without ever relying on a lazy "plot codex" to fill you in) and you really get wrapped up in the journey the characters undertake, feeling the gravity of the scenario and the tough choices they're forced to make.

All told, the Banner Saga is a pleasant surprise.  While obviously not a AAA big-budget game, it shows that the minds behind it do have some serious skills and experience under their belts and can make something really captivating when they don't have hundreds of corporate stakeholders breathing down their necks.  Its gameplay is simple compared to most others in the genre but still surprisingly challenging and fun, it has some strong replayability owing to its choices and random elements actually having a substantial impact on events long-term, and the writing is great; grim in tone, yet very compelling, keeping you invested in its characters and in constant suspense at what's going to happen next.  It's a short game by modern standards (roughly fifteen hours), but what's there is gripping and flawlessly executed in just about every detail, so I didn't mind the short length at all.  It's another testament to the fact that less is often more, especially when what you make comes from a place of passion and really highlights your talents instead of having a board of directors mandate that you disingenuously pander to everyone you can to maximize sales, dumb down the design and writing for the lowest common denominator, and ultimately churn out another compromised, mediocre and disposable product that'll be dumped in bargain bins in half a year (conveniently just in time for that publisher's next big AAA game!).  Money can buy all the good reviews you want from hack gaming sites, but it can't guarantee you real quality or passion in your games.

Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, PS4, XBox One, Switch
Released: 2014, 2016, 2016, 2018
Recommended Version:  All versions are more or less the same, save for some minor resolution/UI changes.  If you're buying on console I'd also recommend getting the physical release titled "The Banner Saga Trilogy", which bundles the game with both its sequels for a very good price (and includes a bonus art book, poster, soundtrack CD and in-game item).

Tags: Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Randomized Content, Multiple Story Paths, Adjustable Difficulty, Automatic Saves, Short Campaign, Great Music

Monday, April 12, 2021

Suikoden III

 The third game in the Suikoden series marked the franchise's debut on the Playstation 2 and also a significant overhaul in its design and gameplay.  But does Suikoden III nonetheless prove to be another enthralling war epic, or does it simply tamper too much with the format and fall apart?

The original Suikoden was a low-key hit on the Playstation 1, providing early adopters a solid RPG that didn't attempt to stray into the realm of early 3D while also implementing some relatively unique mechanics - war battles, building up a castle, one-on-one duels and even some story changes and endings depending on who you recruit (and who ultimately survives the game's events).  Suikoden II didn't get nearly the same level of attention, largely due to Final Fantasy VII taking the world by storm and Konami only giving it an extremely limited printing run outside of Japan (reportedly as low as 30,000 copies); however, it vastly polished up the presentation and added much more content, becoming a fantastic sleeper hit and one of my personal favorite RPGs of all time.

I ended up being more than a little surprised that Konami continued to localize the series, continuing on with Suikoden III on the Playstation 2.  Suikoden III arguably proved to be its most successful entry, being released to overall positive reviews and becoming the best-selling game in the series in North America (and one of the few to remain relatively affordable on the secondary market).  Of course, that may have been in part due to it predating Final Fantasy X's release by about two months.

Like many classic RPG franchises that made the leap to the Playstation 2, though, Suikoden III definitely made quite a few changes to its existing format.  Instead of a linear story seen from a single character's perspective, you now see the game from the viewpoints of three different protagonists - Hugo, a child of the Karaya tribal clan who have been waging war against the Zexen knights; Chris Lightfellow, a Zexen knight herself, and Geddoe, head of a mercenary band who gets swept up in the conflict under the pretense of searching for a hero known as the "Fire Bringer".  Their stories frequently cross over - in fact, you see events concerning each character multiple times, just from that character's perspective - and some minor events can change based on another's actions (for example, if one character picks up a discarded armor on a certain path, it won't be there when the other two come through in their own scenario).  Occasionally you'll see a small subplot or side-story from another character's perspective, though these are almost always very brief scenes that only last a few minutes (and generally you aren't required to see them at all).  Of course, all three characters' stories eventually merge into one as they unite under a common banner to face a common foe, though this happens quite a bit later on than in the first two Suikodens, and you are still afforded some choices that affect later events even after that point.

The gameplay for Suikoden III is changed up quite a bit too.  The world design is much less open and more linear (slightly reminiscent of Final Fantasy X).  The world map is reduced to something more akin to Final Fantasy Tactics - you just move your character to various nodes at which lie towns, small dungeons or pathways to other areas.  As a result of this, you aren't afforded nearly as much freedom to explore and the game in general just feels considerably more cramped.  Towns are still large and sprawling and thankfully provide a handy minimap to help you navigate (something I would have killed for in Suikoden V), but dungeons feel considerably shorter and more constricted.  You also don't get a lot of opportunity to customizer your party for a big portion of the game - characters mostly come and go as the plot dictates, and in Hugo and Chris's stories, there's little stability for your main party, which can be frustrating as you're reluctant to give them equipment, not knowing if they'll vanish for a long period of time after.

Combat in the game still utilizes three different systems depending on the context, though they've each undergone a number of changes.  One-on-one duels are the least changed, just adding a gauge that swings momentum in your favor as you land hits or deal heavy damage, or in the opponent's if the opposite happens.  Small-scale battles once again pit up to six of your characters against a group of enemies, though they now act in pairs - you essentially control three units of two instead of six separate characters, which cuts down on inputs but also doesn't afford you as much fine control over your team.  On the other hand, each character now has a passive ability, and who you pair them up with can allow these to sync up and produce some powerful combos instead of just relying on the series' usual Unite attacks.  War battles are the same thing, but with more teams in play - you form small groups of six units, move them across a grid and engage enemy units, with both sides automatically duking it out for a few turns.  Combat is somewhat more exciting to watch, with characters actively moving around the field instead of standing in a static formation, though as a result it's significantly slower than the Playstation 1 games, which can get a little irritating during war battles or when you're travelling through a long dungeon and fighting mundane enemies constantly.  Fortunately, the encounter rate is pretty reasonable this time around, so combat doesn't become too grating to deal with.

This was also the first game in the series to incorporate the Skill system, affording the player a more interesting way to power up as well as a degree of character customization.  Essentially, each character begins with a set of skills, and each is also accompanied by a Growth Type.  These cover things like Damage, Accuracy, Swing (the number of times a character can hit per turn), Parry (the chance to block and counter an enemy's attack), Magic skills, and so forth.  Winning battles earns the player Skill Points, which they can use to boost these skills up - the better their Growth Type for a particular skill, the less points it will take them to power up that particular category.  Most of these are centered around combat, though a few can grant you other benefits - Health will restore a small amount of HP after battle, Potch Finder causes you to earn more money, and Appraisal will allow you to identify items in the field, to name a few.

Of course, this was also the first Suikoden to utilize a full-3D perspective, and the result is somewhat mixed.  Environments and characters look pretty good for an early PS2 game, though they're considerably less impressive in motion, with somewhat stiff and awkward movements.  The low-to-the-ground perspective takes some getting use to as well, especially with the constantly shifting camera making it tougher to get your bearings (probably why they included a minimap), and the limited draw distance and non-connected maps makes Suikoden III feel much less like a contiguous world and much more like a stage play.  The mood is significantly different from the first two games, with the much different direction the soundtrack takes playing a significant role in that.  Rather the epic Asian themes of earlier Suikodens, this one has a more natural, almost tribal sound to it, with a lot of flutes and drums rather than orchestral beats.  Easily the standout track is the one from the game's animated intro - Exceeding Love, performed by Himekami - which is beautifully orchestrated and, paired with the excellent visuals, really gets you in the mood for another epic tale.

All in all, Suikoden III is a definite shift in design sensibilities from the first two Suikodens, changing up a lot of its familiar (and traditional) RPG elements in favor of something more linear, but also putting greater focus on its characterizations and personal drama.  You're no longer playing as a silent protagonist and the story is no longer focused on defeating a single, definite foe from the outset, taking several interesting twists and turns throughout before you get the full picture of what's really going on.  I was reluctant to give it much of a chance for this reason for a long time, but able to see it with a clearer perspective now, I can definitely appreciate it as another great entry in one of my favorite franchises.  It's a shame that it was series creator Yoshitaka Murayama's final contribution to the series, leaving Konami before it was completed, but that didn't stop it from being a great game.  I definitely look forward to Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes, especially if he can make it half as good as the first three Suikodens.

Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation 3 (PSN)
Released: 2002, 2015
Recommended Version:  The Playstation 3 version is a direct port of the PS2 game.

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Multiple Story Paths, Save Only at Checkpoints, Very Long Campaign, Great Music, Missables