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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

One Step From Eden

An action-roguelike with combat and deck building inspired by the long-dormant Mega Man: Battle Network series, One Step From Eden has gotten a lot of acclaim in the short while since its release.  But is this another worthy one for fans of short-but-tough games, or is it one they can pass up?

Roguelikes are of course primarily associated with classic PC gaming, with numerous genre classics like Beneath Apple Manor, Nethack and the eponymous Rogue being highly acclaimed even now, decades after their release.  They never quite had the same presence on consoles, though, mostly being relegated to cult classic status or mixing in action elements to make them more accessible to fans on those platforms, with a few of those going on to become cult hits in their own respect (Binding of Isaac being a prominent example).

One Step From Eden is another action-oriented roguelike, this time also working in elements of another cult favorite series, the Mega Man: Battle Network franchise.  Getting its start in the early 2000s for the Game Boy Advance and spawning six total games before being getting a sequel series in StarForce (which spawned three more games), it was quite a popular series for a while.  It wasn't hard to see why, either - the basic premise of Mega Man was present, having you battle a plethora of creative bosses and foesm but it was put into an RPG-like format centered on a deck-building element.  You would build a deck of one-use weapons (referred to as "chips") and have a few of them randomly given to you each turn, utilizing them to clear a 3x6 grid of enemies while evading their attacks.  Winning battles, as well as completing story events, would give you more chips to choose from, as well as allowing you to purchase character upgrades to make later challenges easier to tackle.  Another interesting element is that you have the option to spare defeated bosses, which causes them to heal some of your HP and occasionally show up to assist in later battles; killing them, on the other hand, may cause them to drop rarer spells or artifacts, so it's another tactical decision to be made in the course of any given run.

Much of that remains present in One Step From Eden, though there is more strategy required here too owing to the setup.  The grid is expanded to a 4x8 one, allowing you a bit more freedom of movement, and the challenges you face in each stage vary.  Some stages may have you defend hostages for extra rewards or free healing (a valuable resource in any roguelike), some may contain a chest that will vanish after a short while but will award an item when broken open in time, and others may contain hazards that hinder your effort to clear the board, like a missile launch that will deal massive damage to everything on the board after 30 seconds have passed or a volcano randomly setting tiles ablaze.  Finding a camp will allow you some free HP recovery, while visiting a shop lets you trade money for new spells, make "pacts" that put you at a disadvantage for a few battles in exchange for some kind of reward, or purchase upgrades for existing spells.

Spells serve as the equivalent to Battle Network's Chips, and each character begins with a small handful, gradually gaining more as the adventure progresses.  Spells all run off of "Mana", a continually-regenerating meter at the bottom of the screen, with their costs varying based on a number of factors.  Each time the player runs through all of the spells in their 'deck', they will have to wait a short while for the deck to be "Shuffled", refereshing all of their used spells so that they can be used again.  Spells can be purchased from shops or awarded by completing special events, though the overwhelming majority are simply rewards from battles - every battle will give you a pick of three, letting you select one (or none if you choose).  The deck size itself has no real upper limit, though having too few or too many spells can be detrimental - too many will make it hard to get a particular spell the player may need in a pinch, while having too few can constantly force you into shuffle, leaving you helpless for long periods.  Forging a good balance is key, as is picking up cards that further a particular strategy and ditching any that don't.

Spells often have secondary effects which can aid or hinder the player, which may affect the player's choice in wanting them in their deck.  For example, some add temporary "Jam" spells to the player's deck, which have no effect, effectively making it harder to get a spell they want at a particular time.  (However, Jam spells can be upgraded with Artifacts, making Jam spells useful if the player manages to get some of those).  Flow spells add Flow counters to the player, and will get additional effects if the player casts them while they have Flow counters, such as faster mana regeneration or getting an additonal spell cast at no cost.  Similar to those, Trinity spells will add Trinity counters, with special effects activating once they have three Trinity counters - usually casting a more powerful spell instead, or casting a spell twice for the price of one cast.  Others can leave behind mines, fire or spikes on tiles that damage anyone passing through, crack tiles (making them temporarily impassable), or have additional effects like rooting the player in place for a short while, applying Fragile counters (causing the player or enemy to take extra damage from the next attack they receive), or rooting the target in place momentarily if they hit.  Many of these effects can also be applied randomly to spells; both those found randomly as rewards and those the player chooses to upgrade at shops.

Artifacts are another major element of strategy in the game, and are received as rewards for completing challenges or defeating bosses.  These serve as "armor" and "accessories", usually granting upgrades to the player with few or no drawbacks.  Granting the player seven seconds of invincibility at the start of a battle, giving all enemies Fragile counters at the start of battle, granting a small chance to follow up any spell the player casts with an additional effect, and so forth.  It can be difficult to get a particular one you want owing to the highly random nature of the game, but as few of them have major downsides, they're often worth taking regardless.

Of course, no roguelike game would be complete without unlockables, and One Step From Eden certainly has no shortage of those.  At first you only have one character to play as, but playing the game will unlock more spells, artifacts and playable characters to make later runs with.  The bosses in the game all double as unlockable characters, and each character also has several different variants to play with, allowing for a wide variety of different strategies.  Most characters also have unique weapons they can utilize at any time and may have unique artifacts as well, giving them all a very distinct feel.  For example, Saffron's default variant gets a weak but rapid-firing gun with no mana cost, affording her an attack option even with no spells ready to cast, while Reva is a more defensive character, utilizing her unique Eschaton Artifact to generate shields each time she moves and her Reflector Gem weapon to bounce enemy attacks back at them.

In the end, I was surprised at how fun and addictive One Step From Eden really is.  It's easy enough to pick up and play, but deceptively deep, with a lot of mechanics to weigh and challenge in building the best deck and character loadout you can with whatever options you're given at a particular moment.  It gets very tough as the game goes on, too - you really do have to stay on your toes, learn to recognize and counter enemies and their patterns, and make the most of every ability your character has in their arsenal if you want to survive all the way to the end.  Still, like any good roguelike, it never feels "cheap" or unfair, and because of that you keep coming back again and again for "just one more try" before you realize that it's 2 AM and you've got work the next morning.  Great game, and easily one of my favorites of 2020 thus far.

Developer: Thomas Moon Kang
Publisher: Humble Bundle, Maple Whispering Limited
Platform: PC, Switch
Released: 2020
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be pretty much identical.  The PC version does have Lua modding support, though, and already has a considerable presence on Steam Workshop (including several characters and weapons from the Battle Network series - appropriate considering the game's inspiration).  That's the one I'd personally go for.

Tags: Action RPG, Roguelike, Science Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Real-Time Combat, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Randomized Content, Extreme Difficulty, Save Anywhere (Cleared upon load), Very Short Campaign, Great Music, Humorous

Monday, May 25, 2020

Atom RPG

A new turn-based role playing game by an independent Russian game developer tries to fill the void left by Bioware and Black Isle studios. Is it a worthy successor or just a rehash of a decades-old design?

Atom RPG (that’s its full name) takes place in 2005 in the remnants of an alternate Soviet Union. In 1986 American President Ronald Reagan started a nuclear war which ended with both countries in ruins. The player is a cadet for the secret agency A.T.O.M., which is tasked with the restoration of society. The player’s first assignment is to uncover the fate of a team of operatives who went missing while investigating rumors of a pre-war research facility. In true RPG fashion, the cadet gets sidetracked into organizing a local election, investigating a strange cult, going undercover in the local mob and of course, running innumerable errands for farmers, shopkeepers and the elderly. This isn’t quite as unreasonable as usual, since one of A.T.O.M.’s primary directives is to help stabilize local communities. As an operative, you are expected to lend aid whenever possible. This, however, doesn’t prevent the player from being a complete bastard, if that’s they want. 

Fans of the Black Isle Fallout games will be familiar with the layout- very familiar in fact; character creation, the overland map and combat are almost exactly like Fallout 2. The UI is not as similar, but still close enough to feel familiar. This, however, can lead to confusion when the player looks for a game feature that’s been moved to a new button or screen. Which brings me to my first real complaint- tool tips, or rather, the lack of them. There are a few placed erratically around the UI, but for the most part the player will have to click on a button in order to figure out its purpose. The game is definitely intended for someone who has played through either Fallout 1 or 2.

On the surface, Atom RPG appears to be a clone of Fallout. Scratch that surface though and there are some significant style differences. Besides the Russian setting and atmosphere, there’s the matter of time. For the people of the Soviet Wasteland, the apocalypse occurred only 19 years ago. Most of the npcs will tell you what their careers were before the bombs fell. Some are still traumatized by the devastation while others bear it stoically. Towns are in various stages of rebuilding and you can often tell how well a village or farm is doing by its condition. Whether you enjoy the dialogue may depend on your familiarity with Russian culture. I’m not sure how much is deliberately written to give the feel of speaking in Russian and how much is poor translation, but overall I liked it. There is very little slang, but the turns of phrases the npcs use feel authentic to me. There is a ridiculous amount of dialogue and character description written and you have to speak with a lot of npcs before you start running into duplication. One exception are the random encounters with caravaneers and scavengers. There are maybe four or five variations, but since they mainly exist to resupply you on the road, that’s forgivable.

One of the biggest, yet most subtle differences is theme. Beneath the usual post-apocalyptic trappings, Atom RPG is a game of Cosmic Horror. Wonderfully, it’s not in your face unlike most nods to Lovecraft. There are a few obvious references and easter eggs. The diary of a hunter that gets hunted himself by a ‘shadow man’. Odd wooden totems and stone circles in the wilderness. A mystery involving a cult and forbidden scientific research. Beyond that, however, the game captures the heart of cosmic horror- the feeling that you are very small and dealing with vast powers beyond your control. The cadet is a puppet with many masters and as the game goes on the question of whom do you really serve becomes increasingly difficult to answer. Layer a healthy dose of Russian folklore and urban myth on top and you have the makings of an enjoyably grim RPG.

The graphics are excellent overall but nothing groundbreaking. Character portraits in the dialogue option are static and occasionally reused (mostly with the random encounters mentioned above). Its occasionally difficult to notice small objects, although Atom Team has compensated for that with a highlight key. On the plus side, the models are detailed enough that you can get a good idea of what a human adversary is outfitted with, which is useful when it comes to combat. The palette is mostly brown and grey, but there are appropriate splashes of color- a sprinkling of flowers on an untouched verdant hillside; the occasional gaudy neon sign and the nauseous green of toxic mushrooms.

The sound is less impressive but overall acceptable with occasional flashes of inspired music or sound effects. Again, the use of Russian and Soviet-era music is a pleasant change. But then there are the development short cuts. I noticed that when certain creatures are nearby but out of sight, the game will play appropriate sounds (wolf howls, the chitter of rats, etc). The downside is the animal calls will continue to loop even after you’ve killed every animal on the map.

The gameplay as I noted earlier, is very similar to Fallout; you have seven characteristics (strength, intellect, endurance personality, attention and luck) and a list of skills that go from 01 to somewhere past 100. Skills over 100 are important because they allow you to perform under situational penalties or, in the case of combat, make it easier to target specific body parts. Rounding out characters is the ability tree, which is Atom RPG’s version of perks. There are no stat or skill requirements for abilities, but you must progress up the branches, buying lower tier abilities as requirements for the better ones. The tree is fairly simplified with several branches to choose from and you can either go wide or deep.

In addition to health, your character has three major numbers to keep track of: radiation, toxin and hunger. Radiation can be lowered by either taking anti-rad medicine (which is expensive and rare) or by drinking good old Russian vodka (which is cheap and common- and comes with addiction and other side effects). Toxins can be flushed out with either anti-venom (very effective and expensive) or water which is uncommon but fairly cheap. Water isn’t very effective and bottles weigh a fair amount though, so it’s often worth it to spring for the anti-venom. Hunger is annoying but not so much that it takes away from the game. Since you can eat anywhere out of combat and food heals damage, you’re going to want to keep well supplied anyways. On top of that, cooking is easy, can be done at any campfire (or anywhere in the traveling map) and not only heals you more than raw or processed food but lowers your hunger more. Also you get a small xp reward (generally 5 to 10 xp) every time you cook.

Combat is both easy to learn and brutal. Expect to die and reload repeatedly. It’s not unfair though, the player can take advantage of the same knockdowns, stuns and other combat effects as the enemy. The major caveat is that you are (especially in the beginning) almost always outnumbered and frequently outclassed. This gets easier as you acquire companions and better equipment. The enemies ramp up with you but not as quickly as in other games. Happily, random encounters give you a chance to run away or sometimes talk your way out of them before actual combat starts. Some areas, however, just have to be avoided until you have the skills, equipment and numbers to tackle them. One quest forced me to get creative and give up a portion of my hard-won loot (I hid the rest) in order to get out alive. This is after I tried to shoot my way out and died repeatedly.

The diplomat is a viable character build in Atom RPG, though I don’t think a complete pacifist run is really possible for other reasons. Obviously having a high speechcraft is recommended, but the game often lets you make strength checks (intimidation) instead. It’s also possible to just follow the dialogue tree down until you succeed, although you rarely get the better results that way.

For whatever reason, Atom Team decided to simplify the stealth mechanics in a way that limits its usefulness. There is no stealth mode, your skill is always applied if you try to steal something or get closer to an enemy unnoticed. If you have companions, the lowest skill in the group is used to determine detection. In practice, it’s very difficult to get away with anything undetected.

Companions by and large, have proven helpful for me, especially in combat. They level up with experience and you can assign skills and abilities to them. The combat AI is competent and their tactics are fairly customizable. That being said, I have been hit by friendly fire on more than one occasion. You will need to equip them, however, and if you give them multiple types of ammo, they will use the best even on trash mobs.

The crafting mechanics are fairly simple and feel right. Homemade weapons and armor look homemade and your character is not going to build a nuclear generator out of wire and two coconuts. They are useful enough to keep using quite a way into the game, but you will find better eventually. One major concern is ammo and since most pipe guns use the same homemade ammo, they can keep firing when you’re all out of precious 7.62.

Overall, Atom RPG is a fun and absorbing game with lots of replay potential. And at an average price of $15, it’s an inexpensive way to fill the Fallout void in your gaming library.

Developer: Atom Team
Publisher: Atom Team
Platform: Macintosh operating systems, Microsoft Windows, Linux
Released: November 28, 2017
Recommended version: I have only played the Windows version
Review by Lokitsu © 2020

Tags: Western RPG, Science Fiction, Freeform Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Crafting System, Voluminous Side Content, Extreme Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Long Campaign

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Yakuza Kiwami

A remake of the original Yakuza from the Playstation 2 era, bringing with it over a decade of improvements to the engine and numerous features from later entries in the series.  But does Yakuza Kiwami prove to be another fun time in Kamurocho, or is this reimaginging of Kazuma's first outing just not worth a look?

Yakuza has been around in the west for quite a while, but it took a good while to accrue mainstream appeal.  In particular, the earliest Yakuza titles on the Playstation 2 were criticized for having repetitive gameplay, and owing to their relatively late release on the platform and minimal push from Sega, didn't sell particularly well in the west.  It did pick up a bit more steam in the PS3 era, where much larger disc sizes allowed for a far more in-depth and immersive experience, but it wasn't until the PS4 era that its popularity really began to soar with the launch of Yakuza 0 and Kiwami.

Both games are very similar in terms of overall design.  Not only do they run on the same engine, but combat remains quite familiar, a lot of the minigames are carried over with only minimal changes (most for the better - more on that in a bit) and even Kamurocho's overall layout is almost identical.  However, like the PS2 original, it is a very linear game for a good while before you're given any chance to roam freely - about four hours of story preface any ability to partake of minigames or subquests.  Sadly, the game also does not carry over the English voiceover from the PS2 version - only the Japanese voice track is included.

One notable changeup from 0, though, is that the game returns to a more traditional experience system seen elsewhere in the series.  Rather than using money for both items and character upgrades, you earn experience by completing side-quests and winning combat, and after filling the gauge, you get a point that can be spent on upgrades.  Rather than being broken up into trees for each of Kazuma's combat styles, though, they're broken up into broader categories.  Body for extra health and attack damage, as well as reduced damage under certain conditions; Soul for abilities tied to the Heat gauge, such as charging up when low on health or getting new finishing moves under certain conditions; Tech unlocks new moves across Kazuma's three combat styles and allows for more synergy between them (in particular, the ability to switch styles on the fly after completing a basic combo).  There is a fourth tree as well called "Dragon of Dojima" though this one cannot be upgraded by spending experience points.  I'll discuss that one a bit more below.

Another returning element from 0 are Kazuma's three primary combat styles - Brawler, which is relatively well-balanced with some skills for countering enemy attacks with Heat meter finishers; Rush, which is effective for dodging attacks and dealing a lot of weaker hits in rapid succession; and Beast, which is slow-moving but can resist knockdown and stun and plow through multiple enemies with each swing, making it best used against larger groups.  A fourth combat style appears in this game too - Dragon of Dojima style, consisting primarily of Goro Majima's moveset from Yakuza 0.  However, this one cannot be upgraded by traditional means - new nodes on the upgrade grid are only unlocked as you defeat Majima in battle.  Befitting this, Majima pops up near-constantly to fight you, with his presence indicated by both a gauge on the menu that steadily fills.  He shows up frequently between story beats as well, getting gradually tougher each time you fight him.

Full completion, as usual for the series, is a very time-consuming endeavor.  There is a ton to do in the game, with a lengthy bulleted list in the menu showing completion goals for virtually every element of it.  From defeating a certain number of foes in each of Kazuma's fighting styles to seeing a large variety of the Heat actions in the game to dining at restaurants to simply talking to NPCs, all of these things award Completion Points, which in turn can be spent to unlock rewards like alternate costumes, enemies that grant large amounts of money on defeat, or special weapons that cannot be acquired elsewhere (and, of course, tying into the Playstation 4's ever-prevalent Trophy system).  The numerous mini-games throughout are of course a big part of this too - you will have to play all of them quite a bit if you want to achieve 100% of the completion list.

Thankfully, they have taken some steps to ensure that the minigame element of Kiwami isn't nearly as much of a pain as in some other games in the series.  Not only are the goals much more reasonable this time, but the player can get some outside help elsewhere in the game.  Finding locker keys hidden throughout the world can grant the player a lot of rare and one-of-a-kind items; some of these are unique "cheat items" that can be used to grant players a one-time advantage in some minigames.  The Lucky Tile, for example, can be utilized to get a Yakuman right away in Mahjong, quickly scratching off one of the toughest completion goals to get normally.  Others will simply grant you a one-time advantage, letting you get some starting chips at minimal cost.  Even with cheat items, though, some will still take quite a while; Mahjong in particular does require you to get fairly adept at the game, and even then some goals tied to it just come down to luck and persistence.  Most of the casino games fall under this too; you will still have to play quite a bit of Baccarat, Blackjack, Poker and Roulette to get completion credit. You can also save the game at any time, though (not just at phone booths), so that can help with some of the grindier ones - quit the game and save whenever you get ahead, reload when you start to lose too much.

So, while it may not be a vastly different game from Yakuza 0 on a gameplay level, I think Kiwami is still a fine remake.  The story from the original game is kept largely intact while the gameplay retains the biggest improvements from later games in the series, making for a solid experience overall.  Those looking for a good crime drama story have a lot to enjoy in its relatively short campaign, while die-hard completionists have much to enjoy as well - combat, exploration, minigames and just exploring Kamurocho all bely a huge amount of content to explore and can easily keep a dedicated player engaged for hundreds of hours as they try to complete it all.  This is one to check out if you're looking for a quality action-RPG experience.

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, PC, XBox One
Released: 2016, 2017, 2019, 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 Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Downloadable Content (Meh), Cinematic Experience, Humorous