Saturday, March 28, 2020

Review - Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Strong Shadows, Little Light

While the franchise has existed since the eight-bit era of video gaming, the Intelligent Systems-developed and Nintendo-published Fire Emblem series wouldn’t see the light of day outside Japan until the company released its Game Boy Advance system worldwide, and since then, it has garnered acclaim to the point where it’s oftentimes impossible to find legitimate criticism amongst mainstream reviewers. When a remake of the franchise’s very first game, given the English subtitle Shadow Dragon, saw its release, I saw this as an opportunity to dive into the series, thinking the rerelease would deliver the experience promised by the posh pieces the series has received since its worldwide releases.

Unfortunately, Shadow Dragon proved one of the very first games I couldn’t complete, given its lack of opportunities to grind to make the endgame easier, and I wouldn’t see its ending until a year or so later, but just barely so. I would swear off the series until the Nintendo 3DS entry Awakening added a casual mode that made optional one of the series’ key gameplay mechanics, the permanent death of allies, and it got me reinterested in the franchise. I enjoyed all three flavors of the following franchise release, Fates, and would pick up the final 3DS entry, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a loose remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Famicom.

As with localized Fire Emblem games Awakening and beyond, Echoes allows players to make the permanent death of allies optional with an alleged “Casual” mode. The game divides playtime between primary protagonists Alm and Celica, each having their own set of allies with whom to participate in combat. Fights themselves mostly follow the same rules as in prior Fire Emblems, the player positioning their characters prior to combat before commencing, with the occasional option to retreat from the battle back to the overworld where each character is should players not think themselves up to combat at the time.

As in past entries, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, players able to move their characters across the map, able to attack foes when in range of being able to do so. One useful feature inherited from previous games is the ability to bring up a “danger zone” that shows where the player can advance their party without fear of reprisal from the enemy. When the player’s characters or the enemy do engage one another, they exchange attacks, with certain classes gaining the upper hand against others with extra assaults.

Gone from previous games is the ballyhooed “weapon triangle,” with characters, once they’ve acquired enough experience proportional to their levels, able to change classes, in which case they reset to level one to restart the process, with multiple class advancements possible. Mercifully, players can still see a forecast of mutual damage before deciding to attack enemies, although many times, especially late into the game, the random number gods can be fairly cruel, with a high miss rate, especially inconvenient against boss units that can slaughter characters in one hit. Moreover, in the last battle of the fifth act, while the game does give a “forecast” of damage versus specific major foes, they can hit the player’s attacking character first without any reprisal whatsoever.

Echoes can be downright unplayable with full attack animations and actions taken by the enemy turned on, potentially adding hours of superfluous playtime. In the last battle of the fifth act, even with animations turned off, the player must fully sit through actions that the final boss unit takes. As with most Japanese tactical RPGs, losing a battle results in wasted playtime, with no experience obtained retained and the mentioned final battle of act five being incredibly cheap with multiple cheating boss units. Moreover, the game only has three save slots, with the endgame of act five being a lengthy point of no return, and I had the special misfortune, in my initial playthrough, of overwriting the save slot I used for said portion before the mentioned difficult battle, resulting in my efforts being all for nothing.

One of the main differences from other entries of the Fire Emblem franchise is that there are multiple explorable dungeons with visible enemies that trigger tactical battles when contacted, although the player can slash a foe with the controlled character’s sort to shave only slight damage from all encountered foes, which is rarely critical. If enemies surprise the player’s party, they receive their phase first, though mercifully, the foes are almost always out of attack range. Regardless, an “instant victory” akin to Earthbound would have been preferable, and given the awful dash system, where the player can only list slightly left or right, these encounters are difficult to avoid.

Winning battles nets all survivors experience, but cap at ninety-nine points, and players must level their units within the battles themselves. Moreover, the player can only take up to ten units within a dungeon, in contrast to battles outside where all their allies actively participate, and after some time, characters become fatigued, in which case their HP decreases in battle, although this is recoverable at shrines where the player can donate a largely-useless consumable item to a goddess statue to recover. Players can record their progress in rooms with said statues, although some parts of the final dungeon have long enemy-infested stretches without save opportunities before fights with cheap boss units.

One improvement from previous games, however, is that weapons no longer have limited use, and through repeated usage unlock arts for each character, but these are rarely critical. In towns, players can improve armaments through the expenditure of silver and gold coins, although this feature is unavailable in the dreaded point of no return, and at times money is generally hard to come by. Another feature is the Turnwheel where the player can turn back time a few turns to undo things such as unit death, but has use-it-or-lose-it implementation, with no chance to utilize it if either Alm or Celica dies.

In the end, the negative elements hamper what could have been solid gameplay, the endgame of the fifth act the preceding part, which otherwise proves solid until then. The “all or nothing” system of battle also makes the game more inaccessible to casual players seeking to avert a frustrating experience, in contrast to tactical titles such as the Shining Force games more generous in this regard. I couldn’t imagine how much of a nightmare the game would have been to play with permanent death enabled, and overall the gameplay is a step down from Echoes’ more forgiving precursors.

Control doesn’t fare any better, although there are some bright spots such as a general linear structure and general difficulty of getting lost. However, the dungeons don’t mesh well with the gameplay, and the last of act five in particular can be borderline impossible to clear without referencing the internet. While dungeons do have maps, additionally, the player can’t open them up to view them fully, not even with the touchscreen. As seems to be the case with many Japanese RPGs, moreover, the game only allows players to view playtime within the save screen, and after saving, the interface exits, forcing them to bring it back up to see how much time they’ve logged. In the end, interaction is the weakest area.

The storyline also falters significantly, lending the impression that its writers watched a little too much Star Wars, given the focus on an “evil empire,” a rebel group hilariously named “the Deliverance,” and twists filched straight from the fabled science-fiction franchise. Some of the backstory, however, is actually somewhat passable, the main ending details the fates of living characters, and there is postgame narrative content, although upon noticing the derivative disposition of the plotline, I rolled my eyes and lost interest a few hours in.

The translation is largely adequate, aside from the terrible names such as Alm, Celica, Boey, the aforementioned Deliverance, and so forth, not to mention a mixture of faux old-world speak and contemporary expressions. One major bright spot is that contrary to Nintendo’s general family-friendly disposition, there’s more profanity than average.

Much of the music is actually pretty good, if unmemorable, but the English voice acting is simply terrible, with unconvincing grunts, moans, and other irritating onomatopoeia that plagues the dialogue.

The graphics are good, with okay use of the system’s three-dimensional capabilities, nice battle cutscenes, anime sequences, and superb art direction, although the battle scenes and dungeon graphics show pixilation and blurriness with regards to their texturing, and lips don’t move during story sequences that feature 3-D character models.

In conclusion, Fire Emblem Echoes is a step down from its precursors, particularly regarding the endgame and potential nightmarish experience on higher difficulties, alongside weak control. It does have some redeeming aspects such as its musical and visual presentation, but the voice acting really mars the aural element. Regardless, having really enjoyed Awakening and the three iterations of Fates, Shadows of Valentia ended up disappointing me, even when I did manage to beat the main storyline, and I would hesitate to recommend it to mainstream players.

This review is based on a playthrough purchased by the player on Normal and Casual modes.

The Good:
+Much of the music is good.
+The graphics, too.
+Some replayability.

The Bad:
-Endgame spoils the fun.
-Derivative plotline.
-Poor English voicework.

The Bottom Line:
A step down from the game’s more casual predecessors.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 2.5/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Difficulty: A little hard, even on lower difficulty settings.
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 5.5/10

Friday, March 27, 2020

Star Trek: Picard

In gold letters, the words Star Trek are written above the word Picard, with the A in Picard replaced by the Starfleet symbol reflecting a bright light.

Follow-up to Nemesis, occurring two decades after that film, and focusing on the effects the death of Commander Data, and the destruction of Romulus, have on retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, who finds himself thrust back into service, with plenty of old and new faces from the Next Generation-era series and films. I was somewhat cautious given its alleged disposition as a psychological drama, but luckily it has plenty of action and is worth a watch.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Parasite Eve

Christmastime in Hell

The decision of developer Squaresoft to produce titles for the Sony PlayStation was a turning point in the history of games, in part providing the system’s significant rivalry to the dominant Nintendo. Sony’s use of compact discs instead of cartridges in part played a role in their rise in the videogame market, certainly appealing to companies like Square with the medium’s flexibility. In addition to several Final Fantasy titles for the PSX, Squaresoft branched out into other attempts in the RPG genre, including Parasite Eve, a follow-up to the Japanese novel of the same name by Hideaki Sena.

The game opens with the protagonist, Aya Brea, a New York City police officer, attending an opera with her blind date, when the lead actress, Melissa, takes especial notice of Aya and incinerates the entire audience, although Aya survives. She pursues the supernatural Melissa through the depths of the theater, finding she’s evolved into a being that calls herself Eve, and Aya spends six days trying to protect Manhattan from the chaos she causes. The story is generally well-told, with good pacing for the game’s length, although the main ending is rather esoteric, and the translation, while coherent, overuses ellipses and capitalized words.

Throughout Parasite Eve, Aya battles various kinds of mutants with encounters triggered in many different chambers of the various maps, at most one per prerendered area, indicated by a monochrome flash of the screen. During combat, Aya can move around the battlefield, necessary to avoid the attacks by her adversaries, with an active time gauge akin to most Final Fantasies filling and allowing her to perform various commands when full. Actions to take include shooting enemies with Aya’s current firearm, changing her weapon, using a consumable item, and using Parasite Energy-consuming powers.

Should Aya choose to attack with her weapon, whether firearm or club (although the player probably won’t want to use the latter often, given the generous amount of ammo for her arms), a green hemisphere appears indicating the range in which she can execute her assault. If a weapon allows her to fire multiple bullets, the player can choose different enemies at which to shoot them, with her firearm eventually running out of ammunition and necessitating reloading in the middle of battle, although she’ll continue firing afterward, players needing to wait for the active time gauge to recharge, whilst avoiding enemies.

Aya can also use the various Parasite powers she acquires throughout the game, with the action of battle thankfully pausing as she does so, critical to things such as her healing magic. Luckily, her ability points gradually recover during the action of battle, although the recharge rate is slightly lower the less her current amount. The action also stops during her use of consumable items, with the limit the game places on how much she can carry at a time adding to the battle system’s effectiveness and challenge. One issue certain players may bemoan, though, is that things such as reloading Aya’s firearm and changing weapons wastes her turn.

Battles end when either Aya exterminates all her foes or she loses all her health, although having revival items in her inventory or casting a revival spell prior to death will resurrect her with some HP. Should Aya die standardly, it’s Game Over and back to the title screen, with no opportunity to restart the lost battle, and progress to the battle lost, which can sometimes waste the player’s time. Should Aya succeed in combat, which typically doesn’t take a long time in most cases, she acquires experience points for leveling, which happens frequently, and grants Bonus Points the player can invest in additional inventory space or quicker active time, along with occasional items.

Aya can also equip body armor, with the player able to use tools to transfer armor effects, such as automatic use of health-recovering items at low health, to other equipment, the same going for weapons. She can also use modification permits to add skill slots to weapons and armor, although these aren’t fairly common. Overall, the battle system works decently, although the potential to waste time, given the dated use of save points, is a main turnoff, and the endgame is fairly irritating, with the ability to get a Game Over after the last boss, and the potential to lock oneself into an unwinnable situation without keeping multiple save files.

Although Squaresoft billed Parasite Eve as a survival horror RPG, its most frightening aspect is not its narrative, but rather its control. While the player can pause, except during CG cutscenes, and the main interface is generally straightforward, there are serious issues such as the inability to skip any story scene, the inconsistent save system and consequential potential to waste time, the lack of maps for more complex areas, the limited inventory that constantly warrants discarding items, and the lack of indicators for interactable objects throughout the game. Overall, the first game isn’t user-friendly.

Yoko Shimomura composed the first game’s soundtrack, which has a central theme and good remixes of it, alongside realistic sound effects, although there are many areas without music, and most of the ambient tracks aren’t exactly memorable.

The visuals of Parasite Eve are one of its more positive aspects, with plentiful CG FMVs that look good even today, and lots of photorealistic prerendered environments, although there is occasional blurriness in this regard. The character models also contain nice, realistic anatomy, but have some pixilation and don’t show emotion other than flailing around. Even so, the game is far from an eyesore.

Finally, playtime is fairly short, form as little to six hours if one is lucky to twelve if grinding becomes necessary, with an EX Game allowing for additional playthroughs, with an extra dungeon unlocked upon completing the game the first time. However, the inability to skip cutscenes may be a hindrance to those who wish to go through the game again.

Ultimately, Parasite Eve is at best an okay start to the survivor horror RPG franchise, although it does have many things going for it such as the ideas behind the battle system, the storyline, FMVs that look good even today, and lasting appeal. However, it does have aspects going against it such as the irritating endgame, its user-unfriendliness, its general lack of memorable music, and portions of the visuals that haven’t aged particularly well. Regardless, it’s a superior experience to its more survival horror-leaning sequel, and warrants just a glance or two.

The Good:
+Quick gameplay with good ideas.
+Nice narrative.
+FMVs look good even today.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Annoying endgame.
-Too quiet at times.
-Parts of the graphics haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
An okay survivor horror RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 1.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 6.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 6-12+ Hours

Overall: 5.5/10