Thursday, November 28, 2019

Yakuza Kiwami

The cover art shows a colored render of a young girl walking through a city, framed by a gray-scale render of two men's faces.

Kiryu for Prison

While the original version of the first installment of Sega’s Yakuza series, known as Ryū ga Gotoku (“like a dragon”) released in Japan in 2005 and the following year outside the country, I didn’t hear about the franchise until recently, with this reviewer starting his venture into it with its first and thus far only prequel, Yakuza 0, and resulting in a general positive impression. A remake, Yakuza Kiwami, released for the PlayStation 3 and 4 in Japan in 2016 to commemorate the franchise’s tenth anniversary, with a worldwide release only for the PS4 occurring the following year, and again giving me a good impression of the series.

Kiwami opens with protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza lieutenant, spending a decade in prison due to taking the blame for a murder caused by one of his criminal brethren, before seeing his release on parole. Upon his exodus from imprisonment, Kazuma discovers that the real murderer, Akira Nishikiyama, has become a powerful yakuza boss, his childhood friend Yumi is missing, and everyone is seeking ten billion yen stolen from the Tojo Clan. Kazuma also has a rivalry throughout the game with Goro Majima, which generally ranges from serious to comical.

The narrative is generally well-told, feeling like a Japanese Godfather or Grand Theft Auto, having a likeable cast, plentiful meaningful development, interesting subplots, good twists, and clear direction. There are some occasional story clichés such as amnesia and a few fetch quests, but these hardly mar an engaging storyline. The localization luckily doesn’t hamper the plot, with cohesive spelling and grammar, and little Engrish, with the decision to leave the voices in Japanese definitely creating an authentic feel of a Japanese criminal drama, although not everyone will appreciate the Nipponese honorifics.

Fortunately, the gameplay backs up the narrative, with Kazuma regularly encountering street thugs who wish to take him on, in which case he can use four different fighting styles with their own strengths and weaknesses. Subduing antagonists rewards Kazuma with experience the player can use to increase his abilities and move set, with XP further acquired through actions such as eating food at restaurants (although he can’t do so when his health is full until players acquire a reward for acquiring a number of capacity points sometime into the game).

A prominent quirk of gameplay is in-game achievements alongside the PlayStation Trophies, with CP rewarded for things such as subjugating enough adversaries with specific fighting styles, the player able to use these special points for new equipment or abilities such as increased dashing capacity without becoming tired. Kazuma can equip one weapon, one piece of body armor, and two accessories; whilst weapons have a certain limit of uses before becoming unusable (in which case they luckily don’t break), players can repair them with special items. Kiryu also gains yen from defeating enemies he can use to purchase consumables to recover health.

As Kazuma fights, he builds up “heat” to execute super-powerful moves against enemies, and while one can find it difficult to track the different heat moves he can use at points, there is satisfaction with beating the tar out of foes through such means, and combat is enjoyable. There are only a few minor issues with the targeting system, which requires players to hold the R1 button and doesn’t automatically adjust the camera (although the player can turn it towards Kazuma’s current direction through another button), and players might find higher difficulties to be daunting, given some potentially cheap foes.

Control is generally solid, with Kiwami being semi-open world, with tons of side content such as helping victims of street criminals and a fighting arena where Kazuma can acquire points to spend on things such as special scrolls that can unlock more moves in his Dragon fighting style, not to mention plenty of minigames, some of which aren’t half-bad. The ability for players to save their progress mostly anywhere is a definite boon, as well, the menus are easily navigable, and there is largely clear direction on how to advance the main storyline. The only shortfalls are the unskippable text during cinematic cutscenes and inability to see the attack and defense stats of equipment before purchase.

As mentioned, the English version of the game leaves the voicework in Japanese, with mostly solid performances, and no voices ever sounding out of place. The sound effects, as is expectant of any title in the game’s generation, are superb as well, and there are some occasional good tracks such as the battle themes and occasional instrumental of “Joy to the World” played in convenience stores. Part of the ending theme, moreover, is a vocal of “Amazing Grace,” and while most of the soundtrack’s remainder is generally unmemorable and there are plentiful silent portions, the aurals serve the game well.

The visuals are lightyears beyond those in the PlayStation 2 version, with a realistic style that largely utilizes the PS4’s graphical capabilities, believable character models containing a great attention to detail with things such as clothing textures, facial stubble, and so forth. The environments look nice too, with great water, reflection, and shadow effects, realistic colors, and plenty blood and gore during combat more squeamish players can mercifully tone down through a menu setting. There are occasional framerate issues and poor collision detection at points, but otherwise, the remake looks superb.

Finally, the game isn’t terribly lengthy, with this reviewer finishing in a little under twenty hours with a decent chunk of sidequests partaken, although there is plenty more to boost playing time such as completing all in-game achievements, completing sidequests, and a replay mode.

In the end, Yakuza Kiwami is for the most part a superb remake that largely hits the right notes regarding its engaging combat, tight control, excellent storyline, great sound, solid visuals, and plenty side content and reason to come back for more. There are only some minor hiccups such as the occasional fetch quests in the storyline, lack of a memorable soundtrack, and the localization decision to leave in Japanese honorifics, but otherwise, the game is sure to pacify gamers of all skills with its adjustable difficulty, and was a great lead-on to Yakuza 0 that convinces me to have every intent on playing its sequels in the future.

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

The Good:
+Engaging combat.
+Tight control.
+Excellent storyline.
+Great sound.
+Solid visuals.
+Tons of side content.

The Bad:
-Occasional story clichés.
-Honorifics won’t appeal to all.
-Soundtrack generally unmemorable.

The Bottom Line:
A great remake.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Localization: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 8.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: < 1 Day

Overall: 9.0/10

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Sword Play


The first installment of author Clayton Emery’s Netheril trilogy opens with a blurb where a glob has the maiden Ruellana in its grasp, with Sunbright the barbarian chasing her through a portal despite the elf Greenwillow’s warnings. The actual events of the story open with Sunbright eluding his enemies, orcs, in the Barren Mountains, whilst noblewoman Lady Polaris talks to the magicians Candlemas and Sysquemalyn about a rusty taint of a wheat harvest, the pair of sorcerers further making a bet as to whether Sunbright will survive. The barbarian battles a remorhaz, an ice worm, while the gambling wizards watch through a palantir.

Delegates of the Beneficent Traders’ Guild of Dalekeva see Candlemas, the merchants wishing to seek an audience with the enigmatic One King and demanding word of his submission to Netheril, the wizard wanting them to take Sunbright along. When Sunbright meets the One King, he is incarcerated, although the maiden Ruellana promises him escape. The barbarian is tasked with seizing a mysterious tome from the dragon Wrathburn, and, after convincing the wyrm to turn against the One King, attempts to barter for the release of the elf Greenwillow. The mentioned magicians continue their bet throughout the novel, with twists and turns along the way.

Overall, this was an enjoyable Forgotten Realms book, full of plentiful action, with occasional good twists such as true identities of certain characters revealed, although it follows many tropes of other fantasy stories and features nods to franchises such as Lord of the Rings, the encounter by Sunbright with the dragon somewhat imitating that of Bilbo with Smaug in The Hobbit, although it has enough elements to stand on its own, especially with some of the unique names such as that of the sorceress Sysquemalyn. Those seeking a fantasy yarn that doesn’t take much chances will likely enjoy this story, and I in particular will definitely read its sequels.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Ilse Witch


The first installment of author Terry Brooks’ Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy opens with Wing Rider Hunter Predd patrolling the waters of the Blue Divide north of the island of Mesca Rho, a Wing Hove outpost at the western edge of Elven territorial waters, when he finds an injured man. Meanwhile, Elven King Allardon Elessedil waits the arrival of a scribe to copy the map Hunter finds. The titular antagonist, the Ilse Witch, observes the buried keep of Paranor, where Allardon goes to meet Walker the last of the Druids, and his moor cat Rumor.

As these events are unfolding, Redden Alt Mer patrols a Federation war camp, fighting for its government due to their pay, although he and the Rovers, despite fighting well, despise discipline, and his disobedience leads to his arrest. Walker meets the Elven King and wishes him to share magic with his people, although the monarch is reluctant to do so, after which assassins attack and wound the regent. Hunter and Walker ultimately rendezvous with Bek Rowe and Quentin Leah, making it a point to summon an airship crew to fight the Ilse Witch.

Bek eventually receives a phoenix stone from the King of the Silver River, with this encounter seeming a dream. They join the voyage of the series’ eponymous Jerle Shannara, an airship that takes them over the vast expanse of the Blue Divide into the unknown. Two months elapse before the vessel reaches the island of Shatterstone, with incidents such as a sentient jungle, an encounter with War Shrikes, and a couple of storms. The Ilse Witch’s own ship, the Black Moclips, encounters the Jerle Shannara, with a few battles and revelations concluding the story’s action.

Overall, this is an enjoyable start to the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, with plenty of action and a believable fantasy world, hints of olden Earth dropped throughout the narrative, and plenty of continuity nods to prior entries of Brooks’ franchise popping up. Sometimes, however, one can find it difficult to track the races of particular characters, and a list of dramatic personae preceding the action fo the novel would have certainly been welcome. Regardless, I certainly don’t regret reading this fantasy yarn, and very much look forward to reading its sequels.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Lady and the Tramp (2019 film)


Another live-action Disney remake no one asked for, but is still good in its own right. Jim Dear and Darling's rat problem plays a more significant role towards the end of the film.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Last Unicorn

Last unicorn hb.jpg 

This Peter S. Beagle novella opens with the eponymous equine living alone, being old and immortal, with a fat man coming across her and mistaking her for a standard horse, a butterfly teasing her as well, and being warned about the Red Bull. The Midnight Carnival also mistakes the unicorn for a regular steed, featuring many regular animals posing as mythical beasts, although among them is Schmendrick the magician, who recognizes the unicorn for what she really is. The wizard and the unicorn ultimately flee, with the latter asking wondering the possibility of others of her kind still existing in the world.

One of the primary issues with the story is that at times, despite occurring in what seems to be a standard medieval fantasy otherworld, there are references to Earth languages such as French and folktales such as Robin Hood, which makes it feel sometimes anachronistic. A woman named Molly Grue joins the unicorn and Schmendrick, heading to the town of Hagsgate, where the melancholy King Haggard lives. The Red Bull serves as something as an antagonist, appearing when the unicorn emerges from hiding, with the horned equine for a few chapters transformed into the human Lady Amalthea.

Haggard’s heir Prince Lir ultimately joins the unicorn the battle against the Red Bull, with the story generally being a short but sweet read, given some occasional good poetry and decent denouement, although the aforementioned issues with anachronism somewhat mar the narrative. Although there is some tragedy involved with the novella, moreover, it does end with hopeful notes and the potential for romance after its main events. Ultimately, this was a good fantasy story for its time, the late 1960s, and while it falls somewhat short of being a masterpiece, it is recommended overall.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure

JoJo Part 1 Phantom Blood.jpg 

An anime following the Joestar family starting with the end of the nineteenth century, with the first of the eponymous characters, Jonathan Joestar, having a rivalry with the adopted Dio Brando, with vampires thrown into the mix. Has some good, if a little violent, fight scenes, and the localization is overall sloppy, given the lack of translation for the opening and closing credits, plenty of Japanese onomatopoeia, and the convention of characters shouting the names of their attacks.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Chorus Skating

Alan Dean Foster’s final Spellsinger story opens with Flagyr the badger and his friend Invez the serval hearing a musical phenomenon, which is visible. Meanwhile, human spellsinger Jon-Tom and his otter friend Mudge are fishing while their wives are away, with their efforts at housekeeping largely being a mess. One of the cleaning sprites, Fugwheez, stands out, with Jon-Tom, desperate for a new adventure, visiting the turtle wizard Clothahump, who tells them of the wizard holiday Crixxas and the mentioned visible music, to which the spellsinger and his lutrine companion give chase.

The two encounter things such as intelligent paperwork and toll-takers Phembloch the ratal and Tack the shrew, who receive a more fanciful gate to defend through spellsong. Jon-Tom and Mudge soon meet the mongoose Lieutenant Naike, who seeks his country’s missing princess, the travelers agreeing to help. The grizzly bear Manzai holds several princesses hostage, with the company rescuing them and continuing on their way in chase of the fleeing music. The company eventually find a swamp buggy from Earth that conveys them across Karrakas. At the fishing village of Mashupro, they hear of a plague killing music, and incidents cause them to flee.

Afterward, the wayfarers endure a storm on the new craft for which they trade, although almost immediately after they escape it, they encounter an intelligent whirlpool that takes kindly to jokes. On one of the many islands they visit, they find a band from Earth that briefly tags along, after which they meet the main villain, Hieronymus Hinckel, a battle with him concluding the novel. Overall, this is an enjoyable conclusion to the Spellsinger saga, although many readers won’t get the musical references, and as with its predecessors the eighth entry references technology that didn’t exist when Jon-Tom first entered the novels’ world.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Secret of Mana (PlayStation Vita)

The Angels Need Not Fear

Once upon a time, Nintendo was pondering a compact disc addition to its sixteen-bit Super Famicom / Nintendo Entertainment System for want of competition with rival consoles of its generation, the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis and to a (far) lesser extent, the PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16. They first attempted a contract with Sony, which became serious to the point of a prototype CD system having physical proof, but negotiations eventually fell through. The Big N had similar experience with Phillips, behind-the-scenes politics resulting in the maligned Hotel Mario and “Unholy Triforce” of Zelda CDi games.

Among the planned launch titles for Nintendo’s CD add-on was a sequel to the Squaresoft Game Boy action roleplaying game Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, renamed Final Fantasy Adventure in North America. The mentioned fallout forced Square to strip down the first Seiken sequel to fit a sixteen-bit cartridge. Regardless, most consider the resultant game, given the English name Secret of Mana, a classic, later given ports to tablets and the SNES Classic, not to mention an overhauled remake for the PlayStation 4, Vita, and PC. One would consider the upgraded rerelease and opportunity to restore the purged content, but does it do so?

In ancient times, an advanced civilization exploited the world’s ethereal energy source, mana, to construct the Mana Fortress, an avian warship. This angered the gods, who sent giant beasts to war with civilization in a conflict that ruptured the world, until a warrior used the Mana Sword to destroy the fortress. When the game opens, an empire seeks to unseal the world’s eight Mana Seeds to restore the Mana Fortress. A boy named Randi happens upon said sacred weapon, resulting in his banishment from his hometown and rendezvous with the maiden Primm and androgynous sprite Popoi, who aid him.

Combat follows the same general rule as in prior incarnations of the game, where Randi and his allies happen upon a number of weapons with which they can assault the enemy. Each has a gauge that quickly charges to one hundred percent, which when full allows them to execute a physical attack for standard damage, although these may miss depending upon their hit percentages. Players can attack before these gauges full charge, although doing so is a bad idea, as damage will be far less, miss rates greater, and battles consequentially drawn out.

Killing enemies grants experience that levels weapons, unlocking charge attacks that slow their movement during charging and allow them to execute far-reaching physical strikes. However, these tend not to be worthwhile, as they can still miss, and given that only three enemies can occupy the screen at a time, standard attacks, given the ability to push foes around without fear of damage and close them in to attack them all at once, suffice just as well. The player gains Weapon Orbs from defeating bosses and occasionally from treasure chests that allow Watts the blacksmith to empower their armaments, allowing for further weapon leveling and more powerful charge attacks.

Early on, Primm and Popoi receive elemental magic that consumes MP, its use acquiring them experience for occasional leveling and more powerful spells, their level cap dictated by how many Mana Seeds Randi has sealed with his sword. Primm specializes in support and healing magic, whilst Popoi specializes in attack spells, which can be incredibly useful if the player uses the Analyzer spell to reveal enemy weaknesses. Given that some enemies such as ghosts are only killable through attack magic, however, permanence in use of the Analyzer spell against specific foes would have been welcome.

Unlike contemporary three-dimensional action games, the remake retains the original version’s top-down perspective, negating the camera problems present in 3-D titles such as the Kingdom Hearts series. Even so, the rerelease inherits some problems present in the initial incarnation such as the occasional idiocy of the AI, with allies having poor pathfinding and occasionally snagging against walls and other objects, though in these cases the player can control them manually and bring them around. Regardless, leveling weapons and magic can be enjoyable, and the port has features that make it preferable to the original game such as autosaving between room and environment transitions.

Secret of Mana was the first game to utilize a ring menu system, with this interface being easily navigable, items and magic having descriptions, and so forth. Shopping also uses ring menus, the game luckily showing if prospective equipment increases or decreases stats. Within the menus, moreover, the player can bring up a world map that tells their current objective, although a mini-map during flight is oddly absent. Moreover, the remake, akin to many other Japanese RPGs, makes viewing playtime difficult, and the in-game clock is somewhat slow. All in all, control is perhaps the game’s weakest link.

Significant new content in the remake includes chats among Randi, Primm, and Popoi whenever the player pays to stay at inns, which give them some characterization absent from prior incarnations. The characters are generally likeable and have sufficient backstory, with some background for the game’s world revealed upon starting a new game and some implied at a temple adjacent to a town. Granted, Secret of Mana still follows the “evil empire” cliché, with a dash of amnesia for Popoi, and the translation, while more than functional, makes some odd choices such as referring to the sprite child as “they,” which mars a key endgame scene.

Further noteworthy is the addition of voice acting, virtually all storyline and non-player character text accompanied by voices, which generally fit the characters, although the dancing merchants sometimes have variants in their vocals, and while much of the voicework is hit-or-miss (with the somewhat odd battle dialogue not helping), players can change to the Japanese performances instead. Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack has also been remixed, for the most part sounding superb, although those who swear by the original version’s music might not care for some tunes; however, there is the option to switch to the Super NES incarnation’s 16-bit tracks, and the aurals are generally pleasing.

The visuals are fully three-dimensional, with superb art direction indicated by the scenes that play during the backstory narrative when starting a new game. The character models for the protagonists Randi, Primm, and Popoi very much resemble their art, although many will notice during voiced cutscenes that involve the 3-D sprites that lips don’t move in sync with dialogue at all. However, the top-down battle visuals definitely look nice, with good environments and colors, and enemy models, in spite of plentiful palette swaps, contain nice design. Although the remake could easily pass for a PlayStation 2 RPG, the room for improvement isn’t as great as some have suggested.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough can take from twelve to twenty-four hours (slightly uncertain given the game clock’s sluggishness), and while there are trophies that add a little lasting appeal, one can acquire them all in a single playthrough.

Overall, the Vita version of the Secret of Mana is for the most part a solid rerelease that hits the right notes regarding its game mechanics, autosaving, well-written plot, great remixed soundtrack, and pleasing visuals. It does have control issues and to a lesser extent the hit-or-miss English voicework, and those expecting significant new content might experience disappointment. To be fair, though, most of said material cut from the initial release found use in other Square RPGs like Trials of Mana and Chrono Trigger, and those who haven’t played the original may find it their cup of tea.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy purchased by the reviewer, without the multiplayer features utilized.

The Good:
+General solid game mechanics.
+Autosaving can be godsend.
+Well-written plot.
+Excellent remastered soundtrack.
+Pretty graphics.

The Bad:
-Some control quibbles.
-Occasional awkward dialogue.
-English voicework can be hit-or-miss.
-Not much reason to play through again.
-Not enough new content to lure those who swear by original version.

The Bottom Line:
A good remake that doesn’t take many chances.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 7.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 7.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10