Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Banner Saga Trilogy (Nintendo Switch)

The Banner Saga Trilogy Box Front

Kickstarter campaigns have become commonplace for videogames nowadays, prominent ones including the forthcoming third Shenmue game and the Metroidvania Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Ex-BioWare employees founded Stoic Studio, whose debut game was The Banner Saga, a tactical roleplaying game inspired by Norse mythology, and which saw initial limited release, although ports to other platforms ultimately followed. It would receive two sequels, all three games becoming available on the Nintendo Switch as The Banner Saga Trilogy, which is a great way to experience the games at home or on the go.

The trilogy follows two different sets of characters that travel the world whilst dealing with an antagonistic race known as the Dredge, with story scenes and Oregon Trail-esque wayfaring sequences with factors to consider such as tribe morale and supply consumption after entire days have elapsed. In most cases, if morale falls to an unsatisfactory level, the player can break from travel by setting up camp and resting for as many days as supplies allow, with above-average morale having benefits to combat, although the player must be wise about their supplies since there are finite opportunities to purchase them through points known as Renown.

Players will occasionally have to fight battles where they arrange the offensive party of up to six characters in a formation determining turn order, with the trilogy, unlike most other strategy RPGs, having its unique take on turn order, where one of the player’s characters executes their turn and then one of the enemy’s, with the process repeating until the first character in the player’s formation gets their next turn. The player can move their characters around the battlefield, and have a number of options such as attacks on the enemy’s strength, which determines attack power and health, or defense, dictating resistance to attacks.

Some units such as the giant horned humanoid varl take up four spaces, although most units such as humans and centaurs take up just one. Killing enemies grants the player Renown they can use to promote characters to advanced levels or use to purchase supplies or accessories from marketplaces, each character needing to secure a certain number of kills to be promotable. Upon promotion, the player can invest two points into a character’s different stats, each with a cap that when reached allows players to put points into innate abilities that dictate things such as supplemental defense.

Eliminating all but one enemy unit puts the battle into pillage mode, where all the player’s characters have their turns right after one another while the remaining foe just has one turn, the same going for instances where only one of the player’s units remains. In all but maybe one case in the first game (its final two battles), the demise of all the player’s units doesn’t result in a game over, but rather a continuation of the trilogy’s plotline, with difficulties higher than the easiest option necessitating defeated player units rest until they are able to fight again.

All in all, the trilogy’s take on tactical RPGs is definitely a breath of fresh air in the subgenre given the unique consequences of failing fights, and one can potentially see actual endings and credits without even winning the final battles of the games. Much like the original Final Fantasy Tactics, though, the trilogy features ratchet character movement, although moving the cursor on tiles fortunately clues players into how much damage to strength they can deal enemies before moving to them. There are a few interface obstructions, as well, but the battle system is definitely a boon to the games.

Control is perhaps the trilogy’s weakest link, with an absence of things such as a game clock in any of the games, but most of all an utter lack of indication as to whether the game is saving or not, with no manual option to record progress at all, making it a crapshoot in some cases as to whether the game will preserve things such as leveling characters before quitting the game. There are also some rare freezes, but fortunately, given the trilogy’s linear structure, it’s impossible to get lost, and while interaction has its issues, they’re by no means deal-breaking.

The characters and story are generally well-developed, with endless choices throughout the trilogy that actually have some impact on the plotline, with the potential for variable endings, as well. There are some rare and odd stylistic choices in the dialogue such as a use of “ok” rather than “okay,” but the narrative is definitely a reason to play.

Austin Wintory composes the trilogy’s soundtrack, which has a nice sweeping epic feel in many cases, and the voicework, if present, is superb, but there are some frequent silent portions in the games.

The trilogy sports a visual style inspired by animators such as Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth, and generally looks pleasant, although there is occasional slowdown and choppiness in the case of many character models populating the screen.

Finally, each game is roughly six hours long, the player able to transfer data between games to preserve choices made.

Overall, The Banner Saga Trilogy was a definite and welcome surprise for this reviewer, who hasn’t had very much experience with Western tactical RPGs aside from Gladius (which wasn’t wholly positive), and is generally skeptical of titles that receive widespread critical acclaim. The battle system, for one, leaves plenty of room for error regardless of the chosen difficulty level, narrative choices made actually matter, the soundtrack is surprisingly good for a Western RPG, and the visual style is generally pleasing. There are, however, some instances where it falters, particularly with its lack of manual saving and some minor issues with sound and sight, but it’s definitely worth a look by tactical RPG aficionados and newcomers to the subgenre.

The Good:
+Enjoyable tactical gameplay with adjustable difficulty.
+Great branching plotline.
+Nice soundtrack.
+Gorgeous art direction.

The Bad:
-No manual saving or indication of.
-A few interface issues.
-Some silent portions.
-Graphical choppiness at some points.

The Bottom Line:
A great way to experience the strategy RPG trilogy.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 9/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~6 Hours per Game

Overall: 8.5/10

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Preludes to War

Preludes to War by Joe     Jackson

The sixth entry of author Joe Jackson’s Eve of Redemption series opens with protagonist Karian Vanador watching her children play, having recently lost her husband Grakin to Dracon’s Bane, although the recent birth of her nieces has somewhat soothed the pain of loss, along with the friendship of a Warlord named Kris. Kari fears war with Mehr’Durillia, and agrees to meet King Morduri Irrasitus by his request of debt to him being due. The main antagonist of the series and an Overlord, Sekassus, is on the hunt for Kari, who battles several of his sons throughout the narrative.

Kari soon joins her companion Seanada and another named the Wraith (whose past he reveals later on) in Mehr’Durillia, agreeing to save threatened vulkinastra, Kari eventually undergoing the process of being turned into a mallasti to conceal her identity. As she crusades against demon princes, Kari occasionally attempts to rally townsfolk to her cause, with mixed results, and receives the occasional peace deal from demon monarchs. Several fights erupt with netherwordly princes, Seanada by her side, and eventually returns to her homeworld, with the story ending on a somewhat bittersweet note.

Overall, this is another enjoyable story in the series, with plenty of well-described action that kept this reader engaged, occasional romance, given Kari’s late husband’s wish not to mourn him forever, and some political intrigue. Given the many races in the series, however, one can somewhat find it difficult to keep track of their defining features, although the appendices after the main text somewhat alleviate this issue. In spite of its shortcomings, this reviewer has definitely been enjoying this dragon fantasy series, and very much looks forward to reading the next entry.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Commision by Horrified

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody poster.png

Haven't seen many biopics, but this one was fairly enjoyable, and follows the band Queen beginning in 1970 and ending at Live Aid in 1985. Great music, as was expected.

Art by Inkohaulyc-1

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Bravely Second: End Layer

Square-Enix’s Bravely Default originally started development as a sequel to Final Fantasy spinoff The 4 Heroes of Light, although it ultimately became a Divorced Installment, one that received positive reception in and out of Japan. Naturally, developer Silicon Studio produced a sequel like its predecessor on the Nintendo 3DS entitled Bravely Second: End Layer, which for the most part rectifies the issues of its precursor, and while some new problems abound, the second entry in some respects shows that Square-Enix somewhat listened to the positive and negative points of its prequel’s reception.

The four playable characters, two new and two returning, begin as Freelancers, although players eventually gain access to a variety of different classes, such as a great many magical types specializing in specific kinds of magic (with new spells of these sundry varieties buyable from shops), and jobs centered around melee abilities. Bravely Second for the most part follows the same gameplay rules as its predecessors, with each character able to Default (or defend) to build up Brave Points to expend to perform up to four consecutive commands during their turn, with negative Brave Points necessitating said ally wait a certain number of rounds until their Brave Points break even at zero.

A new mechanics is that if a player wins a battle in one round (except in battles where enemies gain a preemptive strike), they can continue to a consecutive battle where, if they win, experience and job points multiply, repeatable until encountering a fight that takes more than one round, which can be handy in leveling (and the game is nice enough to indicate recommended level ranges within each dungeon). As with before, the encounter rate is adjustable (albeit fixed in some instances like early in the game and in one dungeon), and selectable difficulty accommodates players of different skills. Overall, the gameplay tends to work well, with only minor issues involving the tedium of adjusting auto-battle commands.

In regards to control, things are for the most part superficially good, with things such as automaps for dungeons, an item allowing the player to return to the entrance of a dungeon and leave prematurely, easy shopping, seeing how equipment increases and decreases stats before buying it, and so on. However, while the game does a nice job for the most part telling players where to go next to advance the storyline, there is one point that leaves players completely in the dark about how to do so, with the solution not really obvious and driving this reviewer to use a guide, something no one should ever have to do when playing a game. In the end, interaction somewhat stumbles.

The narrative, however, stumbles even more, since, alongside the aforementioned poor direction, it doesn’t really break new ground in the RPG genre, and some people might find themselves lost if they haven’t played the first game or waited a long time before picking up its sequel. The translation is mostly good, although it somewhat goes overboard with pun-filled names, odd since the story itself doesn’t really have much humor, and there are some occasional oddities such as “coup de gravy,” Edea’s horribly-unnatural grumbling “mrgrgr” (“mur-gur-gur”), lots of untranslated French phrases, and the like. Ultimately, the plot is largely a deterrent.

Like its predecessor, however, Bravely Second has a solid soundtrack with many superb tunes like the first town theme, and players have a choice between Japanese and English voices, a boon since the latter leaves plenty to desire, with many annoying characters and incongruities such as newcomer Magnolia’s peppering her speech with French phrases despite not having a normal Francophone accent. There are also some silent parts such as towns at night, although the sound is generally great.

The visuals are largely the same as they were in the first game, not a bad thing since they generally look nice, with good use of 3-D and towns having prerendered styles that occasionally move around as the player navigates them, although, as with many other aspects, there exist some oddities, such as characters, during cutscenes, constantly flapping their lips even during dialogue pauses, and eating with no utensils or food in sight, not to mention city scenery appearing pixilated when the camera zooms in to the models.

Finally, the sequel is about a one-to-two-day game, with plenty sidequests and a New Game+ mode to prolong playtime.

In the end, Bravely Second is a solid sequel that mostly hits the right nodes regarding its gameplay that effectively builds upon its predecessor’s mechanisms, significantly-lightened repetition, solid soundtrack, pretty visuals, and plentiful lasting appeal. However, it still has issues such as one significant area of cluelessness regarding how to advance, the dry narrative, some issues with the localization, the weak English voicework, and some occasional graphical anomalies. Regardless, those that enjoyed the first game will most likely enjoy its sequel, and hopefully its developer will learn more from the game and produce an even-more-refined third entry.

The Good:
+Combat very well builds on that from first game.
+Eases up on first game’s repetition.
+Great soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some occasional poor direction.
-Dry storyline.
-Some translation issues.
-Weak English voicework.
-Graphics more or less the same.

The Bottom Line:
An improved sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 5/10
Localization: 7/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 8/10