Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Early Christmas Pic by Nanukk Luik


Friday, September 25, 2020

Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl

 Etrian Odyssey Untold The Millennium Girl.png

Over a decade ago, I became fond of RPGs published by Atlus, such as many entries of their flagship Megami Tensei franchise, and in 2007, they began the World Tree Labyrinth series, making extensive use of the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen capabilities with customizable maps. I actually had a fun experience with the first game in the franchise, titled Etrian Odyssey in English, in spite of its above-average difficulty, to the point where I happily purchased and played its sequels. The franchise would eventually move to the 3DS in the form of a remake of the first game, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, which very well builds upon the original.

When starting a new game, the player receives a choice to play on Classic mode or Story mode, with the former allowing players to use their imagination and create a party of up to five characters of a variety of classes. The latter, on the other hand, has named characters with fixed occupations, lead by a highlander dispatched to the eponymous city of Etria to discover the cause of earthquakes. The player’s character quickly meets the subtitular “millennium girl,” Frederica “Ricky” Irving, frozen in a thousand-year-long stasis in ruins of Gladsheim. The rest of the highlander’s party consists of employees in the service of the Midgard Library, including Simon, Arthur, and Raquna.

Aside from the oft-imitated RPG trope of amnesia, the narrative is well-told in Story mode, with an endearing cast and some decent twists. The translation definitely helps the game, with nary a spelling or grammar error, and some occasional battle dialogue that’s actually helpful, for instance, pointing out things such as enemies’ elemental weaknesses. Many characters also have dialects, such as Raquna’s pseudo-Canadian speech and shopkeeper Shilleka’s “Australian” voice. As with other entries of the franchise, however, titling it Etrian Odyssey in English was a bit shortsighted as only the first game occurs in Etria, but otherwise, the plot and translation are far more than functional.

Solid gameplay backs the narrative experience, with the characters, in Story mode, fixed to their occupations, each having skill trees where the player can invest points obtained from leveling into active and passive abilities, allowing for things such as TP consuming skills, increased attack and defense, and the like. The turn-based battles themselves occur randomly, though a colored indicator, as in other entries, notes how close the player is to an encounter. When an encounter triggers, the player’s party of five characters, with up to three able to occupy a row at once, squares off against the enemy.

Each character can attack with their equipped weapon, defend to reduce damage, execute a TP-consuming skill, “boost” when a special gauge is full to increase the power of a command, use a consumable item, or attempt to escape, with up to five opportunities to do so if the player feels the enemy outmatches them. Once the player has inputted all characters’ commands, they exchange turns with the enemy, turn order likely dependent upon agility. The typical JRPG trope of sometimes-unpredictable command order plays part, although it’s pretty much only critical on higher difficulties.

Winning battles nets all living characters experience points for occasional leveling, along with parts of the defeated monsters that the player can sell at the shop in Etria for money in turn used to purchase equipment and consumables, with new merchandise appearing as the player sells enemy parts. Dungeons too have enemies more powerful than those in random encounters termed FOEs, which have certain movement patterns in the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, and the game encourages their avoidance at least when first encountered. Luckily, after defeat, FOEs don’t respawn for several days, and sometimes different enemy sets appear during nighttime.

The game mechanics definitely work well, with the difficulty being adjustable, the easiest setting warping players back to Etria in cases of defeat by an enemy party, whilst higher challenge options maintain the harshness of defeat for which the original game was known. The endgame is also fair, with several bosses encountered towards the end of Story mode, although fortunately the player has opportunity to go back to town, save, and heal in between these encounters. In the end, Etrian Odyssey Untold definitely sets the standard for turn-based RPG combat.

As in prior games, the player must use the stylus to map each floor, although options exist to map walls and visited tiles automatically. Mapping the dungeon has its perks, as once a floor has a decent-enough map, the player can instantly travel to ascending and descending staircases. The menus are easy to get a handle of, it’s nigh impossible to get lost at any point during the central storyline, and exploring the maze can be fun. Most of the sidequests such as bar requests are also beatable without a guide, and aside from the lack of an in-game clock, Untold interfaces well with players.

The remake remixes Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack, which is easily one of the game’s high points, given the instrumentation of each peace remaining faithful to the original digitized tracks, the player further able to switch between classic and modern-style music. Notable tracks include the peaceful town theme, the music in the first stratum, and the energetic battle themes that rarely loop, given the quick pace of combat. There’s also voice acting, which is top-notch, with no character ever sounding miscast, and akin to Skies of Arcadia, dialogue isn’t always fully-voiced. Ultimately, an excellent-sounding game.

The visuals are perhaps the remake’s weak point, given the total first-person perspective of dungeon navigation and combat, but they too have their share of redeeming aspects. The color scheme, for instance, is pleasant, with each stratum having different designs, and their respective environments look pretty, despite some occasional blurriness and pixilation regarding the texturing. The enemies in battle are also animate, with good ability effects from the player’s party, although there are occasional reskinned foes. The art direction is further solid, with pretty character portraits with effects such as different emotions and blinking eyes. In the end, Untold is far from an eyesore.

Finally, the game isn’t terribly lengthy, with total playtime of around a day or so, and there’s plenty of lasting appeal in the form of finding all monster parts, a post-game stratum, and a New Game+.

Overall, Etrian Odyssey Untold is very much what an RPG remake should be, given things such as its tight and straightforward game mechanics, the engaging dungeon-mapping system, the developed narrative, the excellent soundtrack, the pretty graphics, and plenty reasons to come back for more. There really isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement, except perhaps in regard to the visual style, although as mentioned, it too has its positives. The adjustable difficulty is also sure to appeal to hardcore and casual players, and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the game.

The Good:
+Quick, straightforward battle mechanics.
+Engaging mapping system with Floor Jump feature.
+Enjoyable narrative.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Pretty visuals.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Dungeon and battle graphics strictly first-person.

The Bottom Line:
A great remake and high point of 3DS RPGs.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 9.5/10
Story: 9.5/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 10/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~1 day

Overall: 9.5/10

The Umbrella Academy

 The Umbrella Academy logo.jpg 

Netflix series centering on several supernatural children born to woman who had shown no prior indicators of pregancy, with the second season largely focused on time travel. I enjoyed it decently, even if it's a little violent.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Sly 2: Band of Thieves

 Sly 2: Band of Thieves Box Front

The spice must flow…or not.

I’ve lately been attempting to broaden my horizons in the genres of videogames I play, going back some console generations to do so, with among the classics I’ve given a try being the Sucker Punch-developed Sly Cooper series, with which I had a passing interest due to being a furry and all. I honestly didn’t believe the first game was all that great, although it most certainly did have its share of redeeming aspects, and given my completionist spirit, I ultimately played through the first sequel of the franchise, Sly 2: Band of Thieves. While it does somewhat build upon the initial entry’s gameplay, not all changes are for the better.

The sequel opens with a new group of villains, the Klaww Gang, stealing the pieces of Clockwerk, the main antagonist of the original game, with the raccoon Sly Cooper and his cohorts, the hippopotamus Murray and turtle Bentley, seeking to recover them and stop the resurrection of the mechanical avian adversary. As in the first game, the villains contain decent development, although the sequel oftentimes feels like a dull retread of its predecessor, given occasional elements previously elaborated upon such as Sly and his friends’ backstory. There are also punctuation errors aplenty in the dialogue, and ultimately, the narrative falls short of endearment.

Sly 2 features many mechanical differences from its precursor, such as giving the eponymous purloiner and his companions life gauges that, when exhausted, force the player back to the last point of interest and repeat whatever progress in a mission they had tried to make. Sly has a particularly-useful skill where he can sneak up behind guards, lift them up with his cane, and instantly kill them, with the death of most standard enemies yielding coins and sometimes health recovery. His cohorts have their own set of useful moves, such as Bentley being able to tranquilize foes and plant bombs to kill them.

Unfortunately, the health system proves completely irrelevant when it comes to the game’s many mandatory minigames necessary to advance the central storyline, and while there are a few that are genuinely enjoyable, such as the top-down shooter sequence when Bentley tries to hack into a computer system, most leave very little room for error, and very rarely, if ever, have checkpoints when the player has advanced far enough in them., Moreover, the absence of a suspend save is totally inexcusable, and there’s no indicator of the game saving at all, although the sequel seems to preserve progress after Sly or one of his cohorts successfully complete a mission.

In general, the game mechanics don’t function nearly as well as they could have, and there are some points where the player has to purchase specific powerups with coins to advance, with the standard acquisition of coins by killing enemies being generally time-consuming. In between missions, the player can find artifacts to sell for a decent chunk of change, although taking one hit when bringing them back to headquarters breaks the artifact, makes it respawn, and necessitates that players repeat the return process. Loose platforming also mars the gameplay, which really proves unenjoyable.

The other areas of control aside from platforming don’t fare any better, with a serious need for in-game maps that would have made sidequests such as finding bottled scrolls in each episode’s area easier, and while the game tracks time spent on each episode, viewing playtime is generally troublesome. The voiced dialogue is also unskippable, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers, and the total absence of a suspend save, as mentioned, definitely proves a deterrent towards players with more limited playtime. Happily, there are some redeeming aspects such as pressing the PlayStation button serving as a universal pause feature, but there’s little excuse for the other parts of interaction.

The soundtrack is also nothing to write home about, being stylistically similar to that in the first game with a film noir feel, along with cartoony sound effects during things such as sneaking along edges, although there are far too many areas that rely on ambience, and a general dearth of memorable tracks. The voice acting is largely hit-or-miss, with Sly Cooper, as with before, having the strongest performance, although other characters such as Bentley are really irritating, and that the voiced text is unskippable doesn’t help matters. That the game sometimes takes shots at the player for losing certain minigames hurts, too, and there’s little reason in the end not to listen to other music while playing.

Sly 2 is further visually similar to its predecessor, with a cel-shaded style for character and enemy models, along with some well-executed animated cutscenes, although the models oftentimes contain a blocky, jagged feel that would make the game easily pass for a late PlayStation One game. Moreover, there’s noticeable popup of enemy models and other elements of areas as the player is progressing, and the environments themselves contain blurry and often-pixilated texturing. Ultimately, the developers could have certainly made a concerted effort to make the game look more at home on the PS3.

Finally, the game is a little longer than its precursor, taking somewhere from twelve to twenty-four hours to complete, with a little lasting appeal in the form of trophies and collecting bottled scrolls, though frankly, a playthrough isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to warrant additional playtime.

In summation, Sly 2 is a disappointing sequel, given its overabundance of frustrating, repetitive minigames, loose control with deterrents such as unskippable voiced dialogue, the narrative not breaking new ground, the forgettable aurals, the subpar graphics, and the general lack of enjoyment that make it torture to play for a longer period. There are some redeeming aspects, with maybe a couple of the minigames being genuinely enjoyable, the decent execution of the plotline, and some good artistic vision, though the first Sly Cooper sequel’s remaster ultimately has more bad points than good, and while masochistic players may appreciate the challenge, others may want to look elsewhere for fun.

The Good:
+Some fun parts of gameplay.
+Story decently-executed.
+A little good art direction.

The Bad:
-Many frustrating minigames.
-Weak control.
-Story doesn’t break new ground.
-Forgettable music.
-Subpar visuals.
-Not fun enough to play to completion.

The Bottom Line:
A poorly-executed sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 3.5/10
Controls: 3.0/10
Story: 3.5/10
Music/Sound: 3.0/10
Graphics: 3.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 1.5/10
Difficulty: Artificial
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 3.0/10

Saturday, September 19, 2020

RIP Terry Goodkind

 This news definitely came as a shock. Thank you for creating one of my favorite fantasy series. You will definitely be missed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Tech Mage

 36177506. sx318  

The first entry of Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles series is a mix of science-fiction and fantasy, opening with a hunt of tech demons. One of the primary protagonists, Aran, is conscripted into the Confederate Marines as a “wipe,” a term used to describe those who have their memories wiped. Aran and his companion Nara endure training as Tech Mages, and face several battles that put their skills to the test, notably against space dragons known as Void Wyrms. A race known as the Krox also serve as antagonists, with Aran stuck between a rock and a hard place as to whether he wants to serve.

Most of the book involves Aran wrestling with the choices of abandoning his service and surviving, although doing so would open his galaxy to Krox conquest, and he’s forced to trust the very people who conscripted him. All in all, this was an okay book, although I didn’t find it particularly memorable, with the chapters being generally short and not having much action, although that does somewhat make it a quicker read than usual. I definitely appreciated the mix of science-fiction and fantasy akin to the Star Wars franchise, and am still interested in how this particular series will progress.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Editorial - YEMV: Your Experience May Vary

Even with dozens of reviews for most videogames, high or low-profile, it can always be a challenge for gamers to decide what title to purchase and play next, and as I noted in a prior editorial, even with scores, said reviews oftentimes don’t match up with the actual experience players may have with particular titles. I can name dozens of times I’ve tried games that have gotten wonderful reviews, only to be horribly disappointed due to game-breaking flaws that “professional” reviewers either downplayed our outright neglected to mention in their critiques, and conversely, have played titles that received average or even bad reviews that I actually enjoyed than many gaming “masterpieces.”

The main issue with videogame reviews is that each one represents only one person’s subjective opinion based on their experience with one particular game, and while sites such as Metacritic may collect the varying scores reviewers assign games, that they represent collections of individual biased opinions is incredibly problematic and unfriendly towards the average consumer. In my opinion, every player’s experience with videogames is unique, and incomparable to others, and as an autistic adult, I have a unique perspective of games that oftentimes clashes with mainstream, mostly neurotypical, opinion, and as a reviewer, I feel obligated to make my positions clear for likeminded individuals.

Japanese RPG series such as many Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and Megami Tensei titles do have amazing aspects—there’s absolutely no question about that. However, many entries of these respective franchises have serious flaws that mainstream, casual players need to consider before purchase and play, with virtually no mainstream videogame reviewers, for example, mentioning the total inability to undo movement or avoid random encounters in the almighty Final Fantasy Tactics, which I found to be serious issues. There have also been many instances of such games taking noticeable nosedives in quality in their endgame sequences, such as the tenth and twelfth main Final Fantasies.

Conversely, there lies the possibility that reviewers could exaggerate trivial flaws in games, for instance, GameSpot’s review of the game version of Alien: Resurrection that spent a sizeable time complaining about a first-person control system that other first-person shooters would adopt. Moreover, I read a review of Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity that grossly overstated the amount of time between character dialogues during cutscenes, which conflicted with what I experienced when I played the game. There’s further the possibility of reviewers being inconsistent in their opinions, making certain criticisms for particular games, but neglecting to mention the same flaws when discussing other titles.

Fear of online harassment also plays a significant role in videogames receiving more favorable reception that most other media like books and movies, and I can attest from personal experience that this view isn’t wrong. Many reviewers, sometimes fans as well, have a tendency to put certain media on pedestals of praise (and their brethren within the same series on walls of shame) simply because they’re part of established, “beloved” franchises where specific entries are seen as among the greatest of all time. Perhaps the single greatest cause of my conflict with others on the internet has been the view from individuals that certain books, movies, games, and even themselves, are infallible.

Those who enjoy certain games others may not appreciate as much are definitely obliged to help those who mightn’t like them enjoy them more, for example, with tidbits in their reviews such as tips critical to success and enjoyment. Moreover, a possible solution to the game review dilemma is to have several individuals collaborate on single reviews, maybe one who liked a game, one who didn’t like it or didn’t enjoy it as much, one with limited experience with a particular series, one with lots of experience with a certain franchise, and a consumer with limited experience playing videogames.

In summation, no person’s experience with certain videogames will be identical to that of another, something all game reviewers should keep in mind. What games one person finds easy another may find incredibly difficult. What may not bother one person when playing a game could seriously irritate another. No two videogamers are created equally, and reviewers in particular should definitely keep in mind those with more limited playtime, and help the average consumer to make more informed decisions when purchasing games. Even if certain games are perceived to be “masterpieces,” one person’s treasure could very easily be another’s trash.

Commission by LolliDoodle


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Akalabeth: World of Doom

 Akalabeth box.JPG

That ‘70s RPG

Those who have played computer roleplaying games since their inception are probably familiar with Richard Garriott’s Ultima series, among the earliest in the gaming genre since the 1980s. Before then, however, he developed an RPG that many today refer to as “Ultima 0”, entitled Akalabeth: World of Doom, which saw limited release all the way back in 1979, and saw a later release in 1998 as part of a collection of Ultima games. I’ll admit I’m not a huge, huge fan of western RPGs, and while Akalabeth shows its disposition as the first of its genre, it was in respects a welcome surprise.

When starting a new game, the player can choose to play as a fighter or magi, with the former versed in use of melee weapons but not magic amulets, and the latter with weak physical prowess but skilled in the use of magical amulets, and choose a difficulty setting from 1-10. Players start in a town where they can shop for things such as weapons and other items such as the aforementioned magic amulets, not to mention food, which is critical to surviving in the game’s world, with total expenditure resulting in a Game Over, as does defeat at the hands of enemies in dungeons.

Combat occurs exclusively in dungeons, with the player receiving tasks from Lord British to slay certain monsters, and battles are generally straightforward. Pressing the A key in first-person 3-D dungeons puts the player in combat mode, where they can attack enemies with a weapon they encounter. Combat is generally a quick affair, and food consumes more slowly than on the overworld. One particular helpful trick when playing as a magi is the use of magical amulets, which can turn the player’s character into a lizard man and dramatically increase their stats, which is pretty much the key to completing the game.

Akalabeth can definitely be difficult if the player hasn’t referenced any material on the worldwide web, and saving is only allowed on the overworld. The mentioned magic amulets also double to allow the player to warp instantly to ladders leading upward or downward through dungeons. Regardless of whatever issues the game mechanics may have, I found the gameplay actually preferable to that in future western RPGs, given the lack of influence from complex tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons. Those expecting a deep, engrossing battle system will definitely be in for disappointment, although I’m definite a fan of the “keep it simple, stupid” school of game design.

As long as players reference the in-game introduction, they shouldn’t have much issue with control, although one can find it easy to get lost on the overworld and find Lord British’s castle so they can get story missions to complete, and the dungeons themselves don’t have maps, either. The player also can’t save their game in dungeon, although given the food system, it’s a bit of a mixed blessing since it would potentially allow for an unwinnable situation had a save-anywhere feature been present. In the end, interaction is certainly by no means game-breaking.

As with most RPGs of its time, Akalabeth’s story mostly consists of supplemental material accessed outside the game itself, with the player’s character being blank-slate, and development for the game’s world being largely nonexistent. What very little narrative does exist is decent, and while this area has its issues as well, it’s far from a dealbreaker.

While there is little musical variety in the game, what few tunes there are sound pleasant, even if they aren’t overly-memorable, although the sound effects are unexpectedly primitive.

The visuals too show indicators of being primitive, given the dominant black hues, with a white cross indicating the player’s character on the overworld, squares representing towns where the player can purchase items, and jagged line patterns indicating mountains. The enemies in dungeons have a wireframe design, as well, though they have smaller versions when more than a space away, and the dungeons themselves differentiate in color the deeper the player goes. Ultimately, the graphics aren’t great, but again aren’t deal-breaking.

Finally, the game is beatable within an hour, with a surprisingly-high amount of lasting appeal for its time given the different difficulty settings and ability to venture deeper into dungeons even after the player has finished Lord British’s quests, although there isn’t any extra content otherwise.

Overall, coming from someone with largely limited experience in western RPGs, I actually found Akalabeth to be a decent start to the roleplaying game genre, given its straightforward combat, a few good if limited musical tracks, and plentiful replayability. Granted, it does admittedly have issues with regards to the minimalist storytelling and the simplistic visuals, although I definitely don’t regret playing, and am actually more interested in western RPGs such as the main Ultima series as a result. As the temporal and monetary investments aren’t that great (the game being free on, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to experience this critical piece of RPG history.

This review is based on the MS-DOS version of the game downloaded from

The Good:
+Straightforward combat.
+Some decent music.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Minimalist storytelling.
-Little musical diversity.
-Simplistic visuals.

The Bottom Line:
Not bad for the very first computer RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 3.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: < 1 Hour

Overall: 6.0/10

Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix


Men in Black: International, but Good

Given the success of Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) and Disney’s Kingdom Hearts, it was natural they made it a franchise, and released a sequel, but not officially numbered, Chain of Memories on the Game Boy Advance, later remade for the PlayStation 2. The actual Kingdom Hearts II would come out a few years later, and like the first game receive a Japan-only “international” version. In the PlayStation 3 era, Square-Enix started releasing high-definition remasters of the Kingdom Hearts games, releasing a collection in anticipation of the third numbered title on the PlayStation 4, The Story So Far, with Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix among the games included.

Instead of controlling Sora at the start, players assume the role of the enigmatic Roxas (whose backstory midquel game 358/2 Days relays), with the first few hours of the narrative being generally off-putting, given the initial laughable inability of Roxas and his friends to say the word “photo” out loud, with it and their photographs stolen by mysterious forces. Players do eventually regain control of Sora, who along with his companions Donald and Goofy has awakened from a slumber intended to help them regain the memories lost in Chain of Memories. Afterward they continue their quest to find King Mickey and Kairi whilst visiting various Disney-themed worlds.

The story has some things going for it, such as good mythos, in-game tracking of the game’s various narrative points, and even a major plot twist or two, although those who haven’t played Chain of Memories or its remake will certainly be lost, particularly with regards to the mysterious members of Organization XIII, who serve among the main antagonists. Moreover, the search for King Mickey and Kairi doesn’t seem urgent, with Sora and company distracted by various side-stories in the aforementioned Disney-themed worlds, and the humor, as in chronologically-prior games, that makes the films bearable for older audiences, is nonexistent. The plot ends up being bad not in an enjoyable fashion, but rather in an excruciating, infantile way.

The translation is definitely legible, given the relative lack of spelling and grammar errors alongside some dialogue from the Disney films faithfully recreated, with the various characters having fitting speech patterns, although the game text ultimately comes across as hackneyed, given emphases on hearts, light, and darkness, and the localization team would have definitely benefited from using a thesaurus. While Sora’s name is actually excusable, given one of the main twists with the plot, the “other” Rikku from Final Fantasy X and X-2 appears, and Riku could have easily had a different name in the English version. Regardless, the localization hardly hurts the game.

Kingdom Hearts II for the most part builds upon its numerical predecessor’s menu and Keyblade-based combat, with Heartless and new adversaries known as the Nobodies serving as the chief targets of Sora’s blunt weapon. Most worlds are mercifully devoid of platforming that would necessitate a retracing of steps, accounting for better battlefields and minimizing things such as the issues with the camera. Sora is also able eventually to fuse with Donald and/or Goofy in a powerful “drive” form, but there is the off-chance that he could turn into Heartless form. Shortcuts for consumable items along with spells are a nice addition, as well, and while the game doesn’t track what enemies drop what items for synthesis, one can finish the game, at least on Beginner Mode, without using a guide, and the gameplay is a large step forward for the franchise.

Control also has many things going for it, such as an easy menu system and clear direction on how to advance the central storyline, along with helpful in-game maps, with an indicator of “???” for unvisited areas in the different worlds, and the ability to pause the game most of the time. Granted, it does bequeath many of the issues as the first numbered game, such as the inability to skip through voiced cutscene text, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers, not to mention the significant time one needs to get back in the game after quitting. There’s also the slight annoyance of NEW indicators flashing in the menus constantly after plot advancement and the acquisition of new item types, but otherwise, while interaction isn’t perfect, things could have certainly been worse.

The high point of Kingdom Hearts II is its aural presentation, with Yoko Shimomura providing a nice variety of tracks, with the fact that each world has a different battle theme somewhat similar in style to the main themes when exploring negating the typical JRPG problem of repetitive combat music. Standout tracks include the technic Space Paranoids theme, the Timeless River music, and some tracks from the various Disney films including “He’s a Pirate” from the Pirates of the Caribbean films that serves as Port Royal’s main battle theme. The voice acting is also good, with standout actors such as James Woods reprising his role as Hades from Hercules, Haley Joel Osment his as Sora, and Sir Christopher Lee as the enigmatic DiZ, although the cartoony voices of characters like Mickey, Donald, and Goofy somewhat clash with the game’s serious tone. Regardless, a great-sounding game.

The visuals also stand out, with some well-designed worlds such as the monochrome Timeless River, the digital-looking Space Paranoids, and the dark, dreary Port Royal that had back in the PlayStation 2 version’s time featured some of the most realistic character models on the system. The other models look nice as well and contain great proportions, and the occasional CG FMVs round out a strong visual presentation. Granted, some of the foibles common in three-dimensional graphics occur such as slight jaggies, blurry and pixilated texturing, and even some pixilated edges at some points. Regardless, the game is largely a graphical treat.

Finally, the second numbered title is a little longer than its numerical precursor, around a day’s worth of playtime with a straightforward playthrough, and while there is no New Game+, things such as the different difficulty settings and side content such as completing in-game puzzles with pieces scattered across the world, the Gummi ship missions, the PlayStation trophies, and Hades Cup, will keep players coming back for more.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts II is for the most port a solid sequel that hits many of the right notes with regards to its quick, enjoyable Keyblade combat, the superb sound, the pretty visuals, and plentiful reasons to go back through the game again. Granted, it does stumble with regards to some areas of control, especially the excruciating plot and writing, and some rough spots in the visuals, although to date I found the first numbered sequel in the series to be one of its high points, despite what others may say. Younger audiences, especially those with a vested interest in the works of Disney, will mostly likely be the ones to appreciate the game the most.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version included with The Story So Far (purchased by the reviewer) on Beginner Mode.

The Good:
+Engrossing Keyblade combat.
+Superb sound.
+Good graphics.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some control quibbles.
-Excruciating narrative.
-Hackneyed dialogue.
-Some visual blemishes.

The Bottom Line:
One of the high points of the franchise.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 3.0/10
Localization: 6.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~1 Day

Overall: 7.5/10

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Runelords: The Sum of All Men


The first entry of the epic fantasy series The Runelords opens with maps of the world and the various cities and castles where its events occur, and is divided into five “books” that indicate the days in which the narrative transpires. On the nineteenth day of the month of harvest, effigies of the Earth King festoon the city around Castle Sylvarresta, with a man named Dreys imperiled in an attempt on his life. Around a hundred miles southward, Prince Gaborn Val Orden faces his own troubles, and Chemoise gets word that her betrothed was attacked while on guard duty, and the assassins are sought.

On the twentieth day in the month of harvest, Prince Gaborn rides through the forests of Dunnwood silently, and turns back to face the army in pursuit. Sylvarresta’s people are still preparing for battle, with Iome understanding little of what transpires. Iome herself ponders love, with the lord Raj Ahten busy battling the North. Gaborn is summoned to the Dedicates’ kitchen, where he poses as “Aleson the Devotee,” and finds that master magician Binnesman administers an herb to a kitchen maid. Gaborn himself ultimately speaks with the earth and is named Earthborn.

On the twenty-first day in the month of harvest, thirty miles south of Castle Sylvarresta, a high rock called Tor Hollick rises above the Dunnwood, and Orden’s water wizards assemble enough mist in a flask to hide an entire army. Binnesman is captured and brought before Raj Ahten, with Iome a witness. Meanwhile, Gaborn carries his companion Rowan to safety, and witnesses an eighty-foot-tall flame woman as he hides in an alleyway, and eventually flees into a necropolis. Raj Ahten’s army marches for Longmot, and Iome soon hears about Gaborn being named an Earthborn.

On the twenty-second day of harvest, Borenson begins a gruesome night as a storm comes, with Raj Ahten’s army coming to Hayworth. King Mendellas Draken Orden ponders how to best defend his stronghold, with fellow monarch Sylvarresta having sent a message that the Duchess had overthrown Raj Ahten’s forces where she resided. King Orden laments his missing son, who rides into the village of Hobtown with Iome. Several climactic battles end the first entry of the series, with Gaborn still a novice in his newfound abilities, and Iome feeling closer than ever to him.

Overall, the first Runelords book definitely shows promise, given its decent mythos and depth, but somewhat falters with its slight convolution, with the general narrative not being overly memorable, along with some odd nomenclatural choices, although the novel is fortunately not oversaturated with characters. Some definition and reminders of the mythos that the story weaves to distinguish itself from other stories within the fantasy genre would have been welcome, as well, particularly with terminology such as “Days.” There’s definitely potential in this series, but I’m somewhat hesitant to recommend it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Capsule Review - Pokémon Shield

 Pokemon Shield (US)

Game Mechanics: Same as in Sword. Still a little grindy, and you pretty much have to play favorites in terms of what Pokémon to use. I did figure out you could use the Pay Day ability to somewhat lighten the financial burden I had initially suffered in Sword, and I took advantage of the jobs this time around.

Control: Also the same as in Sword; while you can save your game anywhere, the menus are still a little clunky and reliant upon flash and pizazz.

Story: Same as in pretty much all of the game’s predecessors, with the narrative later on borrowing elements from games such as Final Fantasy VII.

Localization: Functional, but still has plenty of unnatural dialogue like using “champion” as an adjective.

Music & Sound: Has some good tracks, but much of it sounds like plain noise and isn’t overly memorable.

Visuals: Definitely the best part of the game, with a nice cel-shaded style and no palette swaps.

Lasting Appeal: Gotta catch ‘em all, of course.

Conclusion: Those who liked Sword will most likely enjoy Shield. Pokémon in general is one of those videogame series you have to “git gud” at, but oftentimes in a good way. It seems to me the series has been getting better with each generation, and very much don’t want to play older entries of the franchise, since Sword and Shield are somewhat more accessible.

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

Overall Score:

Friday, September 4, 2020

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

 Valiant Hearts The Great War.jpg

All Quiet on the Western Front: The Videogame

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, while dining on a sandwich, inciting the First World War, initially termed the Great War. To commemorate the conflict’s centenary, Ubisoft Montpellier developed the action/puzzle game Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which follows several different characters on both sides of the conflict, eventually porting it to the Nintendo Switch in a bundle with fellow Ubisoft title Child of Light. Is the game a fitting tribute to the memory of the war or does it do injustice?

Valiant Hearts is divided into four chapters in turn split into several sections, with the player alternating between controlling four different characters: French soldier Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, the American soldier Freddie, and the Belgian nurse Anna. Each character can also give orders to a dog named Walt, necessary to solve the puzzles that frequently come throughout the game. The narrative is generally enjoyable and never feels dull, given the alternation between perspectives, not to mention historical tidbits and diary entries by each character, with only a few minor errors in the text.

Each character has specific moves: Freddie can cut through barbwire with pliers, Karl can punch debris to get past it, Emile can dig through soft ground with a shovel, and Anna can tend to the wounded with timed button presses. There are also plenty of minigames, such as dodging obstacles, bombs, cannonfire, and such while driving an automobile, and the occasional boss battle that requires throwing dynamite to damage the enemy when it explodes. Fortunately, in regards to some of the gameplay such as driving down a road, there are mid-minigame checkpoints that effectively minimize wasted playtime.

Moreover, if the player finds himself or herself stuck on certain puzzles, the game gives a visual hint after a minute or so, with a higher difficulty setting disabling these hints. Granted, some of these tips would at times have benefitted from textual descriptions, since I found myself stuck on one without referencing the internet, and in places such as passageways difficult to see, there are no hints at all. Regardless, the mechanics generally serve the game well, and the constant automatic record of the player’s progress even more minimizes wasted playtime, with hardly any cheap puzzles.

Regarding the save system, there’s unfortunately no way to record progress manually, alongside the absence of an in-game clock and aforementioned potential to get stuck at times without hints being available, but the other areas of control are generally good, with the ability to pause anytime, the ability to skip cutscenes, and so forth. Ultimately, Valiant Hearts interfaces decently with players.

Valiant Hearts doesn’t have a lot of memorable original music, aside from a beautiful piano theme on the title screen that plays at certain points during the narrative, although there are plenty of public domain tunes such as France and America’s national anthems, some classic music such as the French can-can, “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and so forth. The voice acting, which mainly consists of narration during cutscenes between the gameplay, is good, as are the voices for the various characters of different nationalities, and overall, the game is easy on the ears.

The visual presentation is also above average, focused on 2-D artwork, with nice and diverse color schemes that very well paint a picture of wartime Europe. The character sprites also contain an interesting, if slightly unusual, design, where no characters have eyes, with helmets covering them in the case of soldiers on the different sides of the conflict, along with some standard videogame effects such as sprites disappearing and reappearing when going through doors. There are also colorized photos accessible in the game menus when looking at facts about the First World War, not to mention good 3-D effects in regards to the scenery and fluid animation of the scenery. Ultimately, a great-looking game.

Finally, playtime runs about six hours, with the primary sidequest being the collection of artifacts that reveal additional tidbits about the Great War, players able to jump to certain chapters and subchapters and/or view the cutscenes without the need to redo the gameplay. There are otherwise no special achievements, but the game definitely has a sense of lasting appeal.

In the end, Valiant Hearts was one of the more enjoyable non-RPGs I’ve experienced in a few years, given strong suits such as its accommodating gameplay, the excellent storyline with endearing characters, and the beautiful audiovisual presentation. It does, however, have some minor issues regarding things such as the lack of text for the hints (which are otherwise very helpful at points), the inability to record progress manually, and the absence of significant original music. Regardless, I don’t regret experiencing this game, and while I hate to make the analogy, it’s in my opinion what Ico should have been, given the less-frustrating emphasis on puzzle-solving and similar storytelling.

This review is based on a playthrough of the physical European Nintendo Switch version bundled with Child of Light, purchased by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Puzzles are enjoyable, with good in-game hints.
+Game fully pausable, scenes skippable.
+Mid-minigame checkpoints.
+Great story, with historical background.
+Good public-domain soundtrack.
+Pretty visuals.
+Artifact collection adds lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Textual hints would have been nice at times.
-No manual saving.
-Not enough original music.

The Bottom Line:
What Ico should have been.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Variable
Playing Time: ~6 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Earth Valor

 Earth Valor by Daniel Arenson 

The sixth entry of Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series opens with the ship, the Marilyn, traveling through a black hole, at whose other side its crew encounters a world still stuck in medieval times with human-appearing inhabitants, giving them the theory that they had been thrown back in time. Kemi’s mechanical hand has damage, and the group kills a unicorn for want of its meat, due to having not eaten for a while. Marco continues to lament his relationship with Addy, given their separation since living on the derelict human colony Haven.

In the meantime, Marco’s adoptive sister Addy guides her human resistance convoy through the snowy mountains of Northern Ontario, while HDF leader Brigadier-General James Petty keeps a lookout for the fabled Ghost Fleet that Marco had been searching for in prior books. Earth’s retaliation against the marauders begins with a bombing of planet Mars, with several battles following including one in the atmosphere above Earth, after which comes the ultimate showdown with the aliens, their leader Malphas making a den where Marco’s Earth home in Toronto used to be, another alien, Nefitis, afterward wanting human blood.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the box set of the first six Earthrise books, and would gladly be willing to read more of it in the future, given its endearing characters and storyline that never becomes convoluted, given the relatively-limited number of parallel plotlines. There are even occasional reminders of what the marauders look like, not to mention a few decent twists later on in the book. Granted, it’s not the most original science-fiction story, given the central goal of saving the Earth from alien invaders, but I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoyed its precursors.