Monday, August 3, 2020

Disgaea 1 Complete

Disgaea 1 Complete

Japanese videogame developer Nippon Ichi Software first dove into the roleplaying game genre with the Marl Kingdom titles, the first of which Atlus localized as Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. Given the rather polarized reception for that particular game, N1 wouldn’t reemerge in North American markets until the English release of Makai Senki Disgaea, known initially outside Japan as Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, which would receive several ports to systems such as the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo Switch, the latest of which came to iOS devices as Disgaea 1 Complete, perhaps the definitive version of the game.

From the start, the player can choose to play as Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld, or one of his servants, Etna. The former wakes from a years-long slumber to discover that his father, King Krichevskoy, has died, and the Netherworld has plunged into chaos, with Etna having tried for a long time to wake the Prince, and he seeks to secure his patriarch’s throne from other contenders. In Etna Mode, she accidentally kills Laharl while trying to wake him and thus tries to affirm her succession as Queen of the Netherworld. Both stories are generally enjoyable, humorous, and well-developed, with multiple endings and the potential for variant events, although there are occasional clich├ęs such as amnesia, and some ass-pulls later on. Regardless, the narrative is one of the game’s high points.

Lamentably, the localization effort felt fairly rushed at times, given things such as misspelled words during and after the ending credits, that vocal tracks with English versions in Hour of Darkness regress to their Japanese iterations, and so forth. Granted, most of the dialogue is alright and ably-translated, and the story is far more than coherent. Regardless, the translation team could have definitely put more thought into the English text.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the narrative experience, with among its many positive aspects being the total absence of random encounters, and tactical battles only occurring at the player’s will. Party maintenance occurs in Laharl’s palace, where he can walk around, talk to NPCs, check Etna’s secret room to view her diary entries, shop for consumable items and equipment, and, of course, engage in one of many story or side-battles. There are various battlegrounds that unlock as players advance through the central storyline, often one per episode but sometimes more, with cutscenes, mercifully skippable, usually preceding and following fights. The same rules apply in Etna Mode.

Battles occur on 3-D grid-based maps, the player able to withdraw up to ten characters from a base panel and move them. When close to enemies, they can attack with their equipped weapon, which, except in the case of monster-based classes, will cause the character’s proficiency with the armament type gradually increasing and leveling to unlock SP-consuming skills. Important story characters usually have special skills obtained with experience levels, with the termination of enemies resulting in the greatest point gain, although an improvement over prior versions of the first Disgaea is that magic-based classes now obtain experience through the use of healing and stat-boosting spells.

Also helpful for leveling weaker characters is that the player can have them stand on any of the three open sides of an attacker, with a certain chance the adjacent allies will perform a combo, and they share in experience gain, should the combination succeed. Characters also gain Mana that the player can use at the Netherworld Senate to create new characters (with the ally-creators able to learn abilities from their “pupils” in battle when standing alongside them, and this can be particularly useful for allowing classes such as healers to learn offensive spells from attack-magic-based characters for easier leveling).

Different humanoid classes have base incarnations and four or five advanced versions that have higher stats and proficiency with certain weapons. Leveling lower-level classes unlocks higher incarnations, and when the player wants to upgrade, they can “transmigrate” a character to that particular higher-level class, in which case their experience levels revert to zero, and the player gets a certain number of points depending upon how much Mana they have to distribute among initial stats. Monster classes exist as well that have different higher-level reskins, with the player unlocking them through killing the specific monster type in battle, with the more of one particular incarnation killed lowering base Mana cost.

In order for characters to be able to transmigrate, the player needs to get them up to three ranks, which involves the characters on their own fighting an enemy party. This can also unlock higher-Mana-costing proposals that the player can bring before the Netherworld Senate, with the player before a vote able to bribe Senators with items in their battle inventory. After a vote, the Senate either approves or denies a request, and in the latter instance, the player can either go back to Laharl’s castle, with the Mana used lost (and if the player will likely want to, they can reload a prior save before the vote), or attempt to force the proposal through by fighting the dissident Senators.

I was unable to take on the Senate to force through proposals in Laharl Mode, although I was eventually able to do so when I carried my stats to Etna Mode, which requires a tad more grinding. One bright spot that may appeal to those reluctant to try the game is the ability to unlock, through a Senate proposal, Cheat Mode, where the player can adjust the gains for battle rewards such as experience that can make grinding significantly easier (though this still doesn’t make the game necessarily a cakewalk). At the Senate, the player can also make enemies more powerful or weaker (with a fixed base level as to how weak they can be), and increase or decrease the quality of goods at the castle shops.

Buying items from the shops gradually increases their level, also contributing to the availability of higher-level consumables and equipment, and Laharl’s castle also has a hospital where the player can pay to fully restore characters dead or damaged from battle, which in turn occasionally provides players rewards such as powerful equipment. In battle, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, so there’s usually no question of who takes their turns when. Another bright spot, which the game’s sequels would implement, is a turbo mode to significantly reduce attack and ability animations, which in my experience shaved off well over a hundred hours of superfluous playtime to get through both quests.

If one of the player’s characters loses all HP, they disappear from the battlefield, with no chance to revive them except back in Laharl’s castle in between battles, and the number of units the player can have on the battleground consequentially decreases by one, with a Game Over and a trip back to Laharl’s castle the result of losing ten allies, with no experience in the battle preserved, an issue prevalent in most Japanese strategy RPGs. Thus, grinding is admittedly necessary to keep up with the enemy, and luckily, there are plenty of stages that make for good leveling grounds, namely those with Geo Panel tiles offering multiplied experience points.

On that point, many maps have colored Geo Panels with Geo Crystals providing various effects such as increased experience for enemies killed on the tiles, heightened attack or defense power for either the player’s characters and the enemy, or just the latter in some cases, adding a certain degree of strategy at times. The player’s units can also lift allies or enemies and toss them across the battlefield, with throwing one enemy onto another creating a new enemy with heightened levels and stats. The player can further destroy Geo Crystals of a color different from that on the tiles they’re sitting upon, which can potentially start a chain reaction with damaging color changes that increases the bonus gauge level.

One particular character class can alter the Geo Panel and Crystal makeup on the battlefield one time per map, which can definitely be useful in case the player falls short in increasing a bonus level a certain amount and they need an extra boost. Sparking chain reactions is especially useful in acquiring rare items in the Item World, where the player can delve into an item, with higher-level enemies and rewards the higher the floor number, players able to skip levels entirely via the portal to the next level or kill all enemies to acquire a floor’s prizes. The Item World can definitely be a good grinding locale, since a special consumable, Mr. Gency’s Exit, safeguards against wasted playtime there.

Ultimately, the game mechanics definitely serve the game well and are sure to please aficionados of the strategy RPG subgenre, although there are a few issues aside from the grinding such as the pickiness at points of elevation restrictions when executing certain skills, the lack of a forecast of how effective an attack will be before using it, the all-or-nothing reward mechanics of standard battle maps outside the Item World, and the gross unpredictability of the auto-battle mode. Regardless, I can say that despite not caring much for tactical RPGs, I oftentimes found the original Disgaea a joy to experience.

The rerelease is like prior incarnations linear, so there’s no getting lost or spending hours finding out how to advance. The menus are fairly easy to use as well, although given the potential for a large playable cast, auto-equip and equip-best commands would have been welcome, and there are other issues such as how the game only shows increased or decreased stats while changing equipment rather than old stats alongside new stats, not to mention the lack of a suspend save in areas such as story battles or the Item World. Overall, interaction isn’t game-breaking, but could have certainly been better.

Perhaps the best aspect of the original Disgaea is its aurals, mainly Nippon Ichi composer Tenpei Sato’s soundtrack, with the central series theme bringing to mind John Williams’ score to the Wizarding World franchise, and plenty of other catchy tunes such as the different castle themes for Laharl and Etna Mode. Other tracks such as Captain Gordon’s motif definitely evoke his disposition as a beloved superhero, and there are various vocal pieces throughout the game. The player also has a choice between English and Japanese voices, the former sounding good and fitting the comical nature of the game, although there are occasional weak performances. Regardless, the first game is an aural delight.

Although the developers “touched-up” the graphics of to be more artistically in line with the game’s successors, the results are mixed. For, most character sprites were replaced, and while in Hour and Afternoon of Darkness the main ones like Laharl faced eight directions, in Complete they only face diagonally. There are also inconsistences such as most winged characters not having visible wings with regards to their sprites, and the environments have blurry, sometimes pixilated texturing. The game certainly is far from an eyesore, but the touchups could have been far better.

Finally, given the turbo mode, playing through both storylines of the rerelease takes significantly shorter, a little over to days’ total, with a surprisingly-high amount of lasting appeal due to things such as being able to grind thousands of experience levels, the Item World, side content such as extra maps, in-game compendia with percentage-complete indicators, storyline variations, and alternate endings.

Overall, Disgaea 1 Complete for iOS devices is undoubtedly the definitive version, given the touch-ups to the game mechanics like the turbo mode and different means of acquiring experience for certain character classes, the well-developed storyline, the excellent aurals, and endless lasting appeal. Granted, it does have issues regarding the potential for its admittedly-dense mechanics to off-put some, the rushed translation, and the lackluster graphics. Despite its issues, those who truly enjoy strategy RPGs will likely appreciate the deep, engrossing mechanics, with Nippon Ichi proving itself to be among the prime producers of tactics games.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded by the reviewer and played on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil.

The Good:
+Deep, engrossing mechanics.
+Funny, developed story.
+Excellent soundtrack and voicework.
+Plenty reasons to come back for more.

The Bad:
-Mechanics may be too dense for some.
-Control can be finnicky.
-Inconsistent translation quality.
-Visuals haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
Sure to please strategy RPG aficionados.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 8.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 2+ Days

Overall: 7.5/10

Cursed

Cursed Title Card.png 

A somewhat-darker take on Arthurian legend, which has plentiful gratuitous violence, but was otherwise enjoyable, and I would definitely continue watching this series.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Nintendo Switch)

Artwork of a boy in a tropical island environment, with a mountain capped by a purple-spotted egg in the background; the game's logo printed in the center

Nightmares and Dreamscapes

I’ll admit it—I’m not a big fan of Nintendo’s Zelda series, and in fact consider it, alongside Soulsborne, one of the most overrated videogame franchises of all time. There are certain entries in the series I liked, such as A Link to the Past on the Super NES, albeit mostly due to nostalgia, and I had decent memories of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy, although I actually didn’t care much for critical darlings such as Ocarina of Time and more recently, Breath of the Wild. I actually looked forward to playing the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening, and while it does have plenty positives, it often exemplifies what I dislike about the series.

The remake, like the Game Boy original, opens with series protagonist Link braving the stormy high seas on a derelict boat, when lightning strikes and he finds himself stranded on the enigmatic Koholint Island, under temporary care of a girl named Marin, who resembles Princess Zelda. Link goes on a quest across the isle to collect the eight musical instruments of the Siren and awaken the legendary Wind Fish to escape. While there are occasional positives in the plot such as a village populated by intelligent animals, the narrative doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the franchise’s mythos, and is unremarkable.

The translation doesn’t have any glaring spelling or grammar errors, is legible, and doesn’t give much indicator as to its Japanese roots, although there seems absolutely no reason, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for someone to taunt, “Annoyance! You are only getting in the way!” There are occasional dated expressions as well such as “by the by,” it seems really odd that people would proclaim, “Yahoo!” when doing yardwork, and there is occasional odd onomatopoeia. The localization certainly isn’t game-breaking by any means, but the translation staff could have definitely made some effort to make the text sound far more believable.

Luckily, the gameplay largely compensates, with Link primarily wielding a sword with which he can attack normally and execute a spinning assault, and a shield he can extend forth to defend against and occasionally deflect attacks. The player can also assign two tools to two of the letter buttons, and while things such as his dash have permanent button assignment once acquired, things such as his ability to jump after receiving a certain tool would have definitely benefited from button permanence, given that I found jumping particularly useful at many times throughout the quest.

The randomization of enemy drops is another potential turnoff for players, although I didn’t experience any monetary difficulties throughout the game, and there are occasional offsets to keeping his health high such as being able to bottle a fairy for recovery, and a special medicine that fully restores his hearts when he loses all. Rules present in other entries of the fabled franchise such as receiving additional hearts when defeating dungeon bosses, termed Nightmares in the remake, and being able to collect four heart pieces for supplemental health, play part too.

Link can use the various tools he acquires to both battle foes and solve the puzzles in dungeons, and except for needing to sometimes kill minibosses and enemies to uncover secrets like keys, combat is mostly optional, and scarcely a burden. Granted, there are points that left me somewhat stumped and relying on the internet to find out how to do things such as beat certain bosses, in particular the various phases of the final battle, but luckily, the endgame isn’t terribly drawn-out, the player doesn’t need to worry about a lousy camera, and the gameplay helps the remake more than hurts.

The remake’s control is more of a mixed bag, since while the player can get tips from tree phonebooths on how to advance, direction on where exactly to go next isn’t always clear-cut without using a walkthrough, and dungeons, despite being small compared to other Zeldas, can be time-consuming and require tons of backtracking. One major redeemer, though, is that whenever link does things such as acquiring a key or treasure, the game autosaves, handy given that many players could easily forget the ability to record progress anywhere. However, saving doesn’t always preserve Link’s current location, namely in dungeons, even though the images accompanying save files would indicate otherwise, and while interaction doesn’t break the game, it isn’t always perfect.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the Link’s Awakening rerelease is its aural presentation, with a significant use of orchestration, and many tracks such as the various version of the traditional Zelda overworld theme sounding wonderful, with homages to other Nintendo titles such as the Super NES SimCity, given two variations of the “good approval rating” music from that particular game (which itself derives from Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”). There are also some catchy jingles such as Mambo’s Mambo, which resembles “Tequila” by the Champs, and while the dungeon music is often too ambient, traces of the original Game Boy version’s digital instrumentation show, and Link’s screams and the near-death alarm can be annoying, the sound is well above average.

The Switch remake utilizes anime cutscenes during the game’s opening before the title screen and the ending credits, with the rest of the game using a top-down visual presentation that makes Link, his enemies, and the many nonplayer characters resemble chibi toy figurines, which somewhat clashes with the style of the aforementioned animated scenes. The environments do look good, with vibrant hues alongside plenty of polish, with little in the way of blurry textures or pixilation, although there is the occasional graphical slowdown and choppiness. In the end, the graphics don’t reach excellence.

Finally, a single playthrough is relatively short, somewhere from six to twelve hours, with side content such as acquiring all heart pieces, and a “hero mode” where the player’s health is restricted, although there isn’t the potential for much variation in future playthroughs, and things such as the ease of getting stuck mar the lasting appeal.

Overall, the Link’s Awakening Switch remake definitely has things going for its such as its solid top-down Zelda gameplay that doesn’t suffer from many of the pitfalls of the three-dimensional iterations of the franchise, not to mention the great aural presentation, but it does stumble with regards to the ease at times of getting stuck without referencing the internet, the minimalist storytelling, middling visuals, and lack of many reasons to go through again. It definitely improves over the Game Boy versions, but oftentimes exemplifies what’s wrong with the series, and is recommended only to true fans of the franchise.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy borrowed by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Good top-down Zelda gameplay.
+Great soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Easy to get stuck.
-Minimalist storytelling with lackluster localization.
-Middling graphical presentation.
-Not a lot of lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
An okay remake.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 4.0/10
Localization: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.0/10
Difficulty: Inconsistent
Playing Time: 6-12 Hours

Overall: 5.5/10

Sunday, July 26, 2020

BNA

BNA poster.jpg 

Non-manga-based anime about a girl named Michiru who awakes one day as a tanuki beastwoman, and gets embroiled in several events such as war with the humans that disdain the beastman. Definitely one of my favorites, for obvious reasons.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Scribbly Man

The Scribbly Man by Terry Goodkind 

This first entry of a series of novellas bridging the gap between Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth saga and The Nicci Chronicles opens with a man named Nolo wanting Richard, the Lord Rahl, to surrender the world to him, claiming to come in the name of an entity known as the Golden Goddess. Naturally, Richard and his wife, Mother Confessor Kahlan, are suspicious, and the latter unleashes her powers upon Nolo whilst interrogating him. Dead animals begin to appear on graves of the deceased, around which time a sorceress named Shale comes and offers the loyalty of the Northern Waste to Lord Rahl and the D’Haran Empire.

Shale’s people too have suffered mysterious deaths, and the eponymous “scribbly man,” whom Kahlan saw when unleashing her Confessor power on Nolo, imperils her, the ending revealing the meaning behind the sequel series’ name. Having enjoyed The Sword of Truth novels, I enjoyed diving back into Goodkind’s world, and in fact had waited for all entries of The Children of D’Hara series to come out before reading them. I definitely don’t regret my decision, and while there are occasional incongruities in the text such as a reference to six Mord-Sith and only five of them named, and the punctuation errors sometimes left by Goodkind’s editor, I would recommend this story to fans of its precursors.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Castlevania (TV series)

Castlevania netflix titlecard.png

Netflix series based on the (likely-defunct) Konami videogame series of the same name, largely borrowing from the third game for the NES, with Trevor Belmont and Dracula's dhampir son Adrian Tepes, or Alucard, battling against the vampire and his minions. Definitely one of the much better videogame adaptations.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Earth Alone

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This first entry of author Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series opens with the main alien antagonists, colloquially called the “scum,” precipitating from the skies above Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with protagonist Marco, a preteen then, a witness. When he turns eighteen, he’s drafted into the Human Defense Force (HDF) alongside millions of other youths, his girlfriend Kemi going to a military academy. Marco initially lives in an apartment above the city library with his father, along with an adopted sister, Addy, whose parents met their deaths in the scum’s attack on Toronto.

Once in service, Marco befriends the female cadet Lailani Marita de la Rosa, who becomes his new love interest, with Kemi having told him he could move on. Fifty years before the main events of the novel, the scum, their full scientific name the scolopendra titaniae, a predatory alien race from the Scorpius system, launched a surprise attack against Earth, and scientists have studied them for the half century since then. Marco and his fellow soldiers receive introduction to the weaponry designed to fight the scum, and endure the rigors of basic training.

Many of Marco’s fellow recruits have their quirks, such as one nicknamed Elvis for his long sideburns and musical leanings, and Hope “Jackass” Harris, who has an asinine demeanor. Marco eventually has a reunion with Kemi, although they both have moved on, and his adopted sister has ultimately been drafted into the HDF. An attack by the scum eventually comes, with a few casualties among the HDF, and the book concluding with the fresh recruits going into space for war. Overall, I definitely enjoyed this story, although a pseudonym for the aliens other than “the scum” would have sounded better.