Saturday, June 26, 2021

Art by Nanukkluik


Media Update (6/26/2021)

Games I'm playing:

Kingdom of Amalur: Re-Reckoning (Nintendo Switch) - I've been having an absolute blast doing sidequests whilst scarecely advancing the main plotline. The lore is superb, with every quest adding to the narrative in some fashion.

Shining Force II (iOS) - I'm having a good time with this as well, given the fast pace of battles and leveling. The music is definitely awesome.

Shows I'm watching:

Castlevania - Finished season two. Definitely one of the much-better videogame adaptations.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - I watch one episode per day whilst I fulfill exercise goals on my Apple Watch. Definitely a deep show, but I sort of half-watch it and it doesn't really stick with me.

Art by Me, 26 June 2021

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Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch


Though released after Stitch! The Movie and the animated series, this is actually a more-direct continuation of the first film, with Lilo preparing for a hula dancing contest, although Stitch is showing signs of regressing to his alien form and personality, and something naturally has to be done. Definitely cute and funny at times (and there's even a reference to the film Patton), even if it reflects the "power of friendship" cliché, but given its basis on an original property, it's one of the better direct-to-video Disney sequels.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Black Cauldron (book)


In the second entry of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series, the Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his companions seek the eponymous MacGuffin, the Black Crochan, chief implement of the lord of the Land of Death Arawn, to destroy it and prevent the dark lord from summoning more Cauldron-Born. The book opens with a council at Caer Dallben, which Taran joins, meeting new figures central to the story. Gwydion ultimately lays out tasks in the plot to retrieve and destroy the cauldron, and Taran, on his continued quest towards manhood, receives his own sword as a gift.

Huntsmen of Annuvin the company Taran joins encounters, after which they meet the enchantresses Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, who aid in the quest to seek the Black Crochan, in the Marshes of Morva. A few members of the company come and go, with the witches having known Taran’s mentor Dallben when he was far younger. Certain treasure the sorceresses also request in exchange for assistance in their quest, with the need for a human to climb into the cauldron in order to destroy it, and a battle around the dark artifact terminating the second installment.

In the end, the second entry of the Prydain series, like its precursor, definitely packs a punch despite its meager length, with general straightforward action and a clear overall goal for the protagonists in destroying the eponymous dark relic, with some occasional twists and turns along the way, and likeable characters. The overall Chronicles of Prydain critics have touted as a Bildungsroman, in other words, a coming-of-age story, and The Black Cauldron does a great job in that respect, with Taran growing morally towards the end, and the sequel standing on its own as a high point of fantasy literature.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

 Cover art of Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order.jpg

Jedivania: Order of the Fallen

Ever since the videogame adaptation of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial on the Atari 2600, licensed games have tended to be a mixed bag, and the (conditionally-)beloved Star Wars franchise was no stranger to gaming turkeys. There would, however, be a handful to escape the typical curse of licensed games, such as the Knights of the Old Republic duology, although Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm would render them and most other Star Wars Expanded Universe material non-canon. This gave rise to a new generation of Star Wars games part of the new canon, among them being Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which takes inspiration from the Metroidvania subgenre and Soulsborne games.

Fallen Order occurs during the “dark times” between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope in the Star Wars chronology, with the Jedi order nearly exterminated thanks to Supreme Chancellor-turned-Galactic Emperor Sheev Palpatine’s execution of Order 66, a military directive that turned the eponymous human replicant soldiers of the Clone Wars against their Jedi commanders. Among the survivors is the young Jedi Cal Kestis, to teams up with the crew of the Mantis to seek a holocron containing the locations of all Force-sensitive younglings in the Galaxy, before the Empire discovers it and continues to thin out the fallen Jedi Order.

Among the main antagonists of Fallen Order are the Imperial Inquisitors, Force-sensitive hunters of the remaining Jedi, with several twists coming into play regarding who they once were before. The story excellently contributes to the canon Star Wars mythos, given some old and new worlds and faces, not to mention a few turns in the narrative, and a databank tracking most facets. It does some of the same issues as other media in the franchise, such as a few times when the Mantis faces the “problem” of getting past Imperial blockades that don’t seem to encompass entire worlds, and given the unskippable voiced dialogue, the plot somewhat feels forced down the player’s throat.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the experience, Cal armed with his trusty lightsaber, aesthetically customizable at workbenches, and serves as his main weapon against alien creatures and agents of the Empire. He eventually receives the capability to double-blade his lightsaber, but a single blade has its own advantages. Killing enemies grants experience that eventually accumulates into skill points the player can invest in a Force skill tree at meditation circles that can also fully restore his life, Force energy, and finite recovery stim uses whilst respawning dead enemies, in a nod to the Soulsborne series.

Mercifully, Fallen Order doesn’t bequeath the frustrations of that particular franchise, with difficulty being adjustable, the lowest setting allowing players to enjoy the story whilst breezing through the gameplay sequences. In a nod towards the Metroidvania subgenre, players can also collect fragments that can eventually increase Cal’s maximum life and Force energy, with the potential to increase his maximum number of recovery stims dispensed by his trusty droid companion BD-1, as well. He can also jump (eventually somersault in addition), use the Force to run along smooth walls, and Force-pull and push certain objects, necessary at times to advance exploration.

All in all, the game mechanics work well, given the superb recreation of two-dimensional Metroidvania gameplay in three dimensions, and while some have hailed the Soulsborne games as spiritual successors in the subgenre, Fallen Order, in my opinion, does it far better, especially considering the adjustable difficulty settings sure to pacify players of all skill levels, with additional accommodation to different styles of gameplay. The only real issue is the lack of a radar or minimap on the main gameplay screen, though the camera luckily isn’t finicky, and there isn’t much room for improvement.

As mentioned, Fallen Order does a nice job replicating Metroidvania gameplay in 3-D, and the presence of incredibly-helpful automaps aids tremendously in regards to exploration, with unexplored areas indicated in yellow, and secrets and shortcuts uncoverable noted in green. However, a minimap would have easily spared countless trips to the map screen, and there are some secrets difficult to uncover without use of a guide. Fast travel would have been welcome as well, given the sheer volume of certain areas, as would have been an in-game clock and skippable voiced dialogue. Control definitely isn’t horrid, but there are kinks the developers could have easily worked out.

The aurals are superb, with all characters having fitting voices with all-around solid performances for both the new and old characters, and the music contains great orchestration, along with expected sound effects such as the humming of lightsabers. There is a slight dearth of memorable music, but the audio aspect definitely helps Fallen Order more than hurts.

The game certainly looks the part, with a realistic visual style containing excellent polish, the character models containing great anatomy, the environments looking believable and having realistic color schemes, and lips moving in sync with voiced dialogue. There are some technical hiccups such as occasional blurry and pixilated texturing when scenery is close to the camera, along with some slight choppiness and slowdown, but otherwise, Fallen Order is a graphical treat.

Finally, playtime ranges somewhere from twelve to twenty-four hours, with plenty of extra content such as PlayStation Trophies, additional areas to explore, and a New Journey+ where players can retain items obtained from a prior playthrough. The absence of fast travel can add a bit of tedium to spending more time with the game, but there is definite lasting appeal.

In summation, the Force is definitely strong with Fallen Order, given its faithful three-dimensional take on the Metroidvania formula, with most of its aspects being all-around solid such as the general mechanics, control and exploration, superb contribution to the Star Wars canon, aural presentation, and graphics. There are a few issues such as the lack of fast travel within worlds, not to mention a few moments one can find difficult without a guide as well as some technical issues with the graphics, but the game is both sure to satisfy the most unpleasable Star Wars fan and scratch that Metroidvania itch, for fans of the subgenre.

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

The Good:
+Great 3-D take on the Metroidvania formula.
+General good puzzles and control.
+Solid contribution to the Star Wars mythos.
+Superb sound.
+Nice visuals.
+Plenty reasons to come back for more.

The Bad:
-Fast travel would have been welcome.
-A few moments that are difficult without a guide.
-Some technical hiccups with the graphics.

The Bottom Line:
One of the best, if not the best, new canon Star Wars games.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 8.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 9.0/10

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Dark Space II: The Invisisble War

The Invisible War (Dark Space, #2)The Invisible War by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second installment of author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space series does not immediately continue its predecessor’s events, but rather begins a decade before the franchise’s “present” with the villainous Sythians attacking Roka City and its population evacuating, among them being Destra Ortane, whose son Atton he allows her uncle Captain Reichland to take care of. There are many intermediary sections within the text following the adventures of Destra, who joins a man and woman named Digger and Lessie, along with their son Dean, and takes care of a wounded officer, their events ending on a planet paradoxically hot and cold.

The “current” events open ten years After Exodus (AE), with the antagonistic Alec Brondi listening to enemy transmissions, vowing vengeance against those who had stolen the Kavarath, with the Defiant lost as well, further surprised that a nearby Dark Gate is working, and quickly implodes. The forces of good, spearheaded by protagonist Ethan Ortane, recently reunited with his son Atton, seek alliance with enemies of the Sythians, the Gors, one named Tova seeking her mate Roan, who sporadically wreaks havoc aboard the Valiant. Throughout the book, the forces of the Imperium seek contact with Obsidian Station, from which Tova can contact other Gors.

Meanwhile, Ethan continues to mend his relationship with Alara, who still thinks her name is Angel due to intervention by Brondi, and she simultaneously makes an effort to become a star pilot, doing well in training, also dealing with her parents Dr. Kurlin and Darla, who also seek to rekindle her true memories. The use of holoskins to impersonate certain luminaries serves as a lynchpin in the major plot twists of the story, with Ethan and Kurlin ultimately receiving repercussion for their actions in the first book and partway through the second.

The mystery of what awaits the forces of good at Obsidian Station serves as a driving point throughout the story, which is overall a satisfactory read, being generally straightforward and consequentially easy to follow, the backstory on Destra Ortane keeping the narrative fresh and providing good backstory to the “present” events of the series. The division of the chapters into subchapters, however, would have been welcome to both clearly indicate a change of perspective regards to location and characters and make the book readable in smaller bursts. Regardless, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story to those who enjoyed its precursor.

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Art by Me, 20 June 2021


And here's the link on DeviantArt.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Wish Dragon

 Wish Dragon.png 

Sort of a contemporary take on the Arabian Nights tale of Aladdin occurring in Shanghai (and in the original story, Aladdin is Chinese), with a boy named Din finding a teapot containing a wish dragon, and yearns to get back together with his childhood girlfriend Lina. Long the dragon was pretty much the high point of the film, with the similarities to the tale of Aladdin being simultaneously a good and bad thing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Book of Three

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain, #1)The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The inaugural entry of author Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain opens with protagonist Taran yearning to make a sword, although his master, Coll, would rather he make horseshoes. Dallben, master of the farm where Taran lives, Caer Dallben, and nearly four centuries old, fears the Horned King, the champion of the dark lord of Annuvin, Arawn. Taran becomes an Assistant Pig-Keeper in charge of the oracular porcine Hen Wen, who runs away into the woods, beginning the young hero’s quest. Within the wilderness, Taran witnesses the Horned King, with Gwydion, Son of Don and war-leader of Prydain High King Math Son of Mathonwy, coming to his aid.

Hen Wen’s trail they follow, encountering the simian creature Gurgi, who regularly talks with close-knit words that rhyme, as well as avian gwythaints, which serve as Arawn’s spies and messengers, the Eyes of Annuvin. After an encounter with the Cauldron-Born, Taran is knocked unconscious and finds himself in a cell in the Spiral Castle, home of enchantress Achren. There he meets Princess Eilonwy, Daughter of Angharad, Daughter of Regat, ancestors to the Sea People, of the blood of Llyr Half-Speech, the Sea King, with Achren her aunt and instructor. Taran and Eilonwy escape, meeting the wandering bard Fflewddur Fflam, who accompanies them in their travels.

Wolves eventually attack the party, although they relent when Medwyn sees they are friends of Gwydion’s horse Melyngar, after which they go to a village where Gurgi, who received an injury from Cauldron-Born beforehand, recovers. Taran, Eilonwy, and Fflewddur make the Valley of Ystrad their next destination, braving mountains where a black lake attempts to ensnare then, and they find themselves in the court of the dwarven King Eiddileg of the Kingdom of Tylwyth Teg. Thence the dwarf guide Doli shows them the way to Caer Dathyl, culminating in a battle against the Horned King and his forces.

All in all, while The Book of Three isn’t a terribly-lengthy novel, it definitely packs a punch, given its tight, engaging action and occasionally dialogue and denouement, with an author’s note after the main text noting the story’s inspiration from Welsh mythology, similar to how J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series had its roots in Norse mythos. There are definitely similarities to Tolkien’s literary franchise, although in his time, one could definitely consider Lloyd Alexander the American equivalent of Middle-earth’s creator, and younger audiences in particular, for whom the author intended the Prydain series, will definitely find it an engaging read.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Dark Space I: Humanity Is Defeated

Dark Space (Dark Space, #1)Dark Space by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first entry of author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space science-fiction series opens with a prologue occurring in medias res, with protagonist Ethan Ortane thinking he and his fellow space pilots won’t be able to get back to the starship cruiser Defiant. Two days before, Ethan and his copilot Alara Vastra are in debt to criminal Alec “Big Brainy” Brondi, with Ethan wanting to join the military to get away whilst separating with Alara. At the Forliss Station, Ethan seeks a recruitment office, although he finds himself ultimately captive and agrees to sabotage mentioned cruiser for his debt to be forgiven.

Brondi keeps Alara as a hostage while Ethan sees through his mission, which involves his impersonation of a Starfleet officer, Lieutenant Adan “Skidmark” Reese, Guardian Five in his respective squadron. Ethan faces several complications during his masquerade, among them being finding his quarters since asking where they were would blow his cover, and he soon receives what seems at first to be the common cold, although it requires time in a recovery capsule. Several twists occur when Ethan emerges from his rest, with a major battle occurring through the latter chapters of the story.

Overall, I found this a fairly enjoyable sci-fi story, with some good action throughout it and some twists towards the end that surprised even me. Similar to the science-fiction show Caprica, moreover, the first Dark Space story uses a less-profane version of the curse word for fornication, which somewhat makes it accessible to a wider audience rather than just adults only. There does seem to be some inspiration from the Star Wars franchise, with Ethan and Brondi seeming similar to Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt, and it’s also uncertain as to whether it’s our universe, but I will continue reading these books.

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Dark Space: A Chance Encounter

A Chance Encounter (Dark Space #0.5)A Chance Encounter by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I actually found myself reading this prequel novella to author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space series after reading the first of the main books, focusing on protagonist Ethan Ortane flying his ship, the Atton, to the planet Losk, where his vessel gets stuck in a quagmire, and he surveys his cargo, meeting Alara, who would become his copilot, in the process, and showing her his ship. Ethan seeks to return the girl to her homeworld of Forliss, although authorities seek Ethan, who consequentially flees. I found this to be a good short work, although like the main entries of the series, the Star Wars influences are evident.

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict


A Shining Lynchpin

When Sonic! Software Planning developed the original Shining Force for the Sega Genesis, they didn’t jump right into producing its second numbered entry, instead producing side-stories for the portable Game Gear system, similar to what Squaresoft (later Square-Enix) would do with a certain crossover RPG franchise. After the release of Shining Force II, Sega produced a third gaiden game to link the numbered entries’ narratives, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict, which is a good lynchpin for the franchise, and inarguably one of the strongest games for the portable system never translated (except by fans), although it’s not without its flaws.

Rather than continue the story of the first two gaiden games, Final Conflict opens with Max, leader of the original Shining Force, pursuing the villainess Mishaela alongside his robotic companion Adam, who receives damage and becomes unable to fight, although he does serve as an assistant to the enigmatic Ian, leader of a new group of heroes. The narrative is superb Continuity Porn, with a few characters from the second numbered entry alongside the occasional descendant of the character from the first game, although development of the playable cast is somewhat scant, and ties to the first two gaiden games would have been welcome, as well.

Final Conflict’s basic tactical mechanics mimic those of the first two Gaidens, with grid-based combat where the player’s active party of up to twelve playable characters squares off against opponents, gaining experience, up to fifty points at a time, a hundred to level, from performing actions, the bulk attained through eradicating enemies. As with before, given the absence of a turn order gauge, some foresight is necessary, though boss units don’t seem terribly cheap, and leveling characters to twenty before promotion makes the endgame a breeze, given consequential faster grinding in more powerful classes. Like with other games, however, leveling weaker characters can be difficult, and status ailments such as sleep can prolong fights, but otherwise, the gameplay serves the gaiden well.

Control is one of the weakest aspects of Final Conflict. While the general structure of the game is straightforward, with the impossibility of getting lost, tasks such as reviving characters in camp or shopping for new equipment involves a great deal of confirmations, with an additional lack of descriptions for items and magic spells and absence of an in-game measure of playtime. There are, however, some amenities such as a suspend save in the middle of battle, adjustable text speed, and skippable cutscene dialogue, with no need most of the time to rewatch narrative scenes if a battle is lost, but interaction could have definitely been better.

Composer Motoaki Takenouchi’s soundtrack is one of the Gaiden’s high points, with many tracks lifted from Shining Force II such as its main theme, “Warrior of the Reviving Light,” the player character and enemy battle scene tracks, and so forth, although there are plentiful original tunes such as the title screen theme, among others. There isn’t much in the way of sound effects except perhaps for the wing flapping with aerial player characters and enemies, but the aurals definitely serve the game well.

The same goes for the graphics, with great character designs, even if all but the girl on the save screen lack lip movement during story scenes, the combat scenes being the high point of the visuals, although standard attacks appear telekinetic. The character and enemy sprites largely resemble their respective designs, although there are a few palette swaps on both sides. Regardless, while the visual presentation isn’t superb, it’s definitely above-average.

Finally, the Gaiden is fairly short, taking somewhere from twelve to twenty-four hours to complete, with very little lasting appeal given the lack of different difficulty settings and side content aside from secret playable characters.

Overall, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict is a short but sweet tactical offering, given its general straightforward strategic game mechanics, great link between the first and second numbered entries of the Sega franchise, its excellent sound, and its good artistic direction. However, there are some issues such as the necessary foresight at times with regards to participating in combat, the weak control, a few nitpicks with the graphics, and especially the lack of significant extra content, but fans of the other games in the franchise will likely enjoy this one, with fan translations available to those who would prefer to play the game in English.

The Good:
+Tight tactical mechanics.
+Great link between stories of first and second numbered games.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Good art direction and visuals.

The Bad:
-Requires some foresight.
-Weak control.
-Some graphical issues.
-Little replay value.

The Bottom Line:
A good short strategy RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Game Gear
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 3.5/10
Difficulty: Just Right
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 7.0/10

Raya and the Last Dragon

 A promotional poster of Raya and the Last Dragon

Watched this this morning and early afternoon on Disney+. Sisu in dragon form was definitely cute, and it was an enjoyable film overall.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster

An Immaculate Conception

The PlayStation 2 has the honor of being the videogame console for which I’ve played and reviewed the most roleplaying games, among them being Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which I received as a gift the Christmas after its release. I didn’t care much for it at first, but experiencing other spinoffs of the MegaTen series, namely the Digital Devil Saga duology, gave me a new appreciation for Nocturne. Generations later, Atlus would rerelease an upgraded version of the game worldwide, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster, with plentiful tweaks and an ideal way for a new generation of gamers to experience the classic title.

If the player has downloaded certain DLC alongside the core game, they’ll have the option of starting a new game in “Maniax” mode, which keeps Dante from Capcom’s Devil May Cry series as an extra recruitable demon. The latest iteration of Nocturne is based on the Chronicles edition of the game released in Japan only as part of the release of the second PlayStation 2 Devil Summoner game, with that subseries’ protagonist, Raidou Kuzunoha, replacing Dante, and generally being significantly less fanservicey. Available as free DLC, as well, is a casual difficulty option, Merciful, which further makes the remaster accessible to mainstream players.

Nocturne opens with a Japanese high-schooler in Tokyo visiting a hospital to visit a teacher, only to find it seemingly abandoned, and a cataclysmic event known as the Conception transforming the city into a Vortex World centered by a sun/moon hybrid, the Kagutsuchi. The main character himself transforms into a Demi-fiend, and traverses the Vortex World, able to recruit demons to fight alongside him and encountering various survivors of the Conception that formulate their own Reasons with or against which the hero can align himself, accounting for different storyline events and varied endings.

Some have accused Nocturne of not having a narrative, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a central storyline, which just isn’t forced down the player’s throat as various other RPGs have attempted through efforts at creating “cinematic” experiences. Virtually all dialogue is skippable, and the extra dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala, provides supplemental backstory on the Vortex World, with the additional labyrinth’s completion necessary towards the acquisition of the “best” ending in the game. Granted, regardless of which ending the player receives, they largely feel anticlimactic, the occasional poor direction of how to advance the central plot not helping.

The localization definitely helps the plotline rise above average, with intelligible dialogue that has plentiful profanity and occasional humor, an absence of honorifics despite the Japanese setting, and strong religious overtones that escaped censorship. The menus are also well-translated and free of blemish, with the skill names unique to the series helping Nocturne stand well apart from other RPG franchises. However, Atlus could have certainly made effort to Anglicize more of the Japanese names of demons, items, and such, and there are occasional glaring errors such as “Decreased all stats performance!” Regardless, the translation helps the remaster more than hurts.

A tasty way to exploit elemental weakness.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the experience, the Demi-fiend acquiring Magatama that determine strengths and weaknesses to various damage types, also functioning akin to Espers from Final Fantasy VI in that they may provide him an active or passive skill when leveling, the protagonist able to hold eight at any given time, and needing to “forget” one ability to learn another when his skillset is full. The movement and illumination of the Magatama icons on their respective interface screen hints at how close the Demi-fiend is to acquiring a skill from one of them when leveling.

During dungeon exploration, the color of the player’s compass, in enemy-infested areas, gradually shifts from yellow to red to indicate how close they are to encountering enemies, which as always alleviates the tension affiliated with random battles. Certain items and abilities can adjust the encounter rate, as well, which is perfectly fair even without modifications. Treasures in the various dungeons also come in two varieties: floating cache cubes that may bear an item, trap, or battle, and mystical chests, which provide the best loot when the Kagutsuchi is full, else they may yield inferior treasure.

Battles themselves pit the Demi-fiend against an enemy party, the demonic protagonist able to parley with enemies to get them to join his party, or give money and treasure, the first choice typically the most preferrable option. Demons will make demands such as money or items including Chakra Drops and Life Stones, and tend at times to flake out on negotiation and run away with the provided offering, although one demon skill can eliminate this loss. Monsters may also ask philosophical questions that the player needs to answer “correctly,” else they may flee or surprise-attack the player’s party, with some occasional inconsistency as to which responses are “right”, even with the same demons.

Once the player acquires a demon, they register in the Demon Compendium, from which the Demi-fiend can summon a registered incarnation for a price, which I personally found vastly preferrable to recruiting the same monsters again through the unpredictable negotiation process. Regularly registering current demons, especially if the player has leveled them, spares them the need to regrind them, and also at Cathedrals of Shadows, the player can fuse two demons (and sacrifice a third during a full Kagutsuchi) to create another, with this method being my chief method of acquiring new allies, occasionally resummoning older ones from the Compendium to either grind them further or fuse them.

As with most other RPGs, though, the player can battle encountered demons, with the Demi-fiend’s party consisting of himself and up to three demonic allies squaring off against foes, with each side having separate turn sessions. Each side has a number of Press Turn icons depending upon how many units there are for either party, with the standard successful performance of an action consuming one of the icons. However, either passing to the next character with the next-highest agility, exploiting an elemental weakness, or landing a critical physical attack or skill strike, consumes only half an icon, which is a significant strategic aspect towards success throughout the game.

However, if one character or opponent’s command the other side voids, two Press Turn icons disappear, with the reflection or absorption of skills outright ending one side’s session and letting the other take their turns. Battles are significantly quicker than average for a turn-based RPG, with standard fights rarely exceeding a minute, or even half of one, making grinding for experience and money (each of which the player can accomplish even more easily through paid DLC maps) largely a cinch. When leveling, the Demi-fiend may learn a skill from his current Magatama, with ally demon skills occasionally unlocked as well, like the hero only able to have eight at once.

Demonic allies may occasionally give the Demi-fiend gifts in the form of gems the player can use at a special shop in Ginza to purchase rare items and elemental allies or powerful consumable items, with the protagonist gaining one point per level obtained that the player can invest into one of five different stats, with several areas in the main extra dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala, requiring a certain amount of strength (as does the acquisition of a Magatama from behind a locked door), magic, or luck to access, so players may wish to focus initially on those stats.

Especially on difficulties above Merciful, Nocturne is definitely one of those games the player has to “git gud” at, since death can come easily if the player isn’t careful, the Demi-fiend’s death giving players a trip back to the title screen (although the Game Over is one of the more creative ones in JRPG land). There are a few Guide Dang It! moments as well, particularly with respect to acquiring some of the higher-level Magatama, and there are other things of which the player, especially if new to the game or franchise, needs to be aware of, such as the loss of access to the main extra dungeon if advancing far enough without exploring at least the First Kalpa. As long as the player plays their cards right, however, combat is a very satisfying, rewarding experience.

Most of the dungeon design is absolutely superb.

Nocturne also sports some of the strongest dungeon design in the history of Japanese RPGs, with the automaps in particularly especially helping players through some of the more complicated ones, although a minimap on the main exploration screen would have spared frequent trips to the maps. The Vortex World, however, doesn’t have a map, and the game is occasionally vague as to where the player needs to go next to advance the central storyline without the use of a guide. Control does have plentiful positive aspects such as the easy menus, skippable cutscene text, and ability to warp between major visited areas via save terminals. Interaction, however, does have other issues such as the sometimes-iffy placement of save points and inability to view playtime except on the save screen, but otherwise, Nocturne generally interacts well with players.

The remaster definitely sounds the part, with composer Shoji Meguro providing a number of excellent tracks that sound superb and create an excellent ambience. Nocturne further averts the typical JRPG issue of repetitive battle music with many different themes even during normal battles, different boss tracks depending upon how critical said bosses are, and the ability through paid DLC to switch the overworld exploration and battle music to those from other mainline Shin Megami Tensei games. The rerelease also sports voice acting in English and Japanese, the former sounding great for the most part, the occasional voice clips for demons in combat intact, as well. There are some areas without music, and occasional overlap of voice clips, but otherwise, the game sounds excellent.

The remastered visuals are look pretty, the cel-shaded style of the original version retained with significantly-fewer jaggies and superb character and demon models with realistic anatomy and animation. The art direction is also solid, with the humanoid characters containing distinctive designs, and there’s a noticeable deficit of reskinned adversaries. The combat graphics shine as well, with great animation on both sides and details such as units on either side flinching when attacked, which in the case of standard attacks occurs with actual combat instead of telekinetically like in older games. There are some parts that eluded remastery such as the FMVs and occasional blurry, pixilated textures, but Nocturne is very much a graphical treat.

Finally, the remaster is neither too long or short, taking somewhere from one to two days’ worth of playtime to finish, with extras such as the extra dungeons, different plot decisions and endings, PlayStation Trophies, and New Game+ enhancing lasting appeal very well.

In the end Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster is an excellent rerelease that hits many of the right notes, particularly with regards to its quick and tight game mechanics, above-average control, great narrative with potential variations, superb soundtrack, pretty visuals, and plentiful lasting appeal. There are some things, however, of which mainstream gamers need to be aware before purchase such as issues with control and plot direction, as well as the potential difficulty of going into the game blind, but it’s definitely a bucket-list game, and points towards a bright future for the series with the possibility of further rereleases of its many brethren.

This review is based on a playthrough of the Digital Deluxe Edition purchased and downloaded to the reviewer’s PlayStation 4 on Merciful difficulty with the True Demon Ending attained.

The Good:
+Quick, tight, strategic battle system with adjustable difficulty.
+Superb dungeon design with helpful in-game maps.
+Great story with multiple branches and endings that never feels forced down the player’s throat.
+Excellent sound.
+Remastered graphics create awesome atmosphere.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Don’t go into the game blind.
-Some issues with control and plot direction.
-A few parts of the graphics eluded remastery.

The Bottom Line:
“Required reading” for those with a passing interest in Japanese RPGs.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Localization: 8.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2+ Days

Overall: 9.5/10

Friday, June 11, 2021

Imperium Lupi

 Imperium Lupi

This standalone digital doorstopper by Adam Browne occurs in a steampunk world occupied by anthropomorphic animals, starting twelve years before its “present” with a rainstorm in the city of Lupa, where Werner the hog seeks Casimir the white rabbit, disease-afflicted wolf warriors known as Howlers on the move. A lupine cub named Bruno, his mother deceased, is found, and both the hog and rabbit take him to headquarters, the latter adopting him as his son. When the novel’s present arrives, the red wolf Rufus yearns for the countryside away from the polluted city of Lupa, interacting with his fellow Howler, the white wolf Ivan.

Ivan enters a restaurant known as The Warren, owned by Casimir, seeking Bruno and food on the way to headquarters. Ivan’s family, the Donskoys, had originated on the Great Steppes, a northern tundra of seasonal extremes. A key plot point is that hyenas receive treatment as second-class citizens and must live on reservations, with a magical terrorist attack perpetuated by one coming on the café. Ivan pursues the culprit, losing use of his monobike and briefly having to follow on foot, although he does get another from a ginger cat, Montague “Monty” Buttle, with the pursuit eventually occurring on a train.

The terrorist turns out to be the Chakaa hyena Prince Noss of the Jua-mata Tribe, and ultimately falls into the captivity of the Howlers. At headquarters, Grand Howler Vladimir Bloodfang Oromov calls out Ivan for stopping at the café, and another of the Howlers, the stocky Linus, for putting feline dignitaries such as the aforementioned Monty in danger. Meanwhile, two she-wolves, Sara and Olivia, care for a bee named Toggle, and worry for Bruno, who has been gone for weeks. The adopted son of Casimir ultimately gets into a brawl leading to his arrest, given his performance of a capital offense.

Noss, who comes down with the rot that mostly plagues male wolves, receives a sentence to the penal colony of Gelb, and Linus pursues a regal hog named Gustav who pinches the purse of his female companion Rosalina. Meanwhile, Casimir meets Sara in her flat and indicates that Bruno has come down with the rot, the country’s media “officially” stating that certain figures are deceased. Prince Noss proves resilient to torture, and talk also emerges of the potential restoration of lupine monarchy, with the Agency for Lupan Peace and Howler Accountability (ALPHA) keeping order.

The book contains interludes that provide looks into its various mythos, with the first being a codex about the Bloodfang pack of wolves, among the few able to have a record predating the Founders, Lupa, and the rot, with the chemical imperium then being a curiosity. There are also diary excerpts from the Howler Linus Bloodfang Mills, who initially tells of his fellow Howler Uther’s birthday. Further present are brief passages known as “blicks,” the first of which follows Rafe’s induction into ALPHA, although clear indicators such as their respective periods of occurrence would have been welcome.

The second part of the novel opens with Linus and Uther dealing with a hostage situation instigated by rogue hyenas unwilling to cooperate, with the porcine Politzi Constable Werner Schwartz volunteering to parley with the Chakaa. Uther finds himself captive of the hyenas, whose respective group THORN (The Hyena Organization for Recognition of Nationhood) raids a refinery. Rufus Bloodfang becomes a sympathizer of the hyenas, and Linus attends an academic meeting known as the Arkady Symposium. Rufus himself ultimately receives the accusation of smuggling white-imperium and receives a sentence to labor in Gelb.

The third subsection opens with Linus receiving instruction of how to ride a monobike, the wolf providing his backstory on how he caught the rot in the first place. At this time, the Chakaa are amassing a sizeable quantity of black-imperium to execute another terrorist attack, with Rufus becoming chummy with one of them, Madou. Rufus finds himself changing hands regularly in terms of captivity, with occasional scenes such as a battle against larger-than-average spiders, a trait shared by other bugs in the novel such as centipedes. Falsified death also continues to play part in the story’s key events.

The fourth part follows the endangerment of Den Father Vito, not to mention Rufus’ continued affiliation with the hyenas incarcerated at Gelb, making their escape. The final section involves the formulation of a terrorist plot by THORN to dump black-imperium on a city to poison and kill its population through use of an airship piloted by the feline Buttles, and plentiful action erupts and culminates in a satisfying conclusion, with a few twists in the mix, and a diary entry by Linus indicating what happens after the primary events of the story.

All in all, while the book somewhat overstays its welcome, I found it to be a very satisfying read, one of the most definitive furry novels I read, and very much one of the much-better digital doorstoppers I’ve experienced throughout my life of reading and reviewing. There’s largely no issue with remembering the species of the various characters, with good descriptions that give them plentiful appearance and distinction, and the action contains superb development, with various twists throughout the narrative. The editing job is a bit inconsistent at times, but I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to those in search of a great standalone story, provided they have the time to experience it.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Sonic the Hedgehog (film)

 Sonic the Hedgehog poster.jpg

Sega's eponymous azure mascot is forced from his homeworld as a youngling and crosses dimensions into Earth, where he secretly hides in the vicinity of a sheriff in Montana readying to move to San Francisco with his girlfriend. After Sonic accidentally causes a power outage, notice of the strange circumstances is given, and he finds himself antagonized by Dr. Robitnik, with Jim Carrey doing a nice job portraying the villain. Definitely one of the much better videogame-based films, and I would gladly watch its sequel, which is hinted at in a mid-credits scene featuring another certain character from the franchise.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Deep Look: Borderlands Legendary Collection

A Legendary Experience

The Gearbox-developed Borderlands series began back in 2009 with its inaugural entry released for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and computers, combining first-person shooter gameplay with roleplaying game elements such as leveling through killing enemies and acquiring experience. The franchise would come to encompass two numbered sequels and an interquel, the second game and interquel released in the same generation and the third enumerated installment the following console generation. Various collections of the games would release, the latest of which was the Borderlands Legendary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, mostly a solid trio of titles.

The first three games the gaming community has dubbed “looter shooters,” with an emphasis on the first-person use of firearms, up to four eventually equippable in each game and of various types such as pistols, rifles, and bazookas. All games also have some form of equipment, including shields that serve as buffers against eventual damage to health and grenade modifiers that provide various effects to the player’s grenades. Different characters are playable as well, each with their own unique skill tree into which the player invests points gain from leveling to provide passive and active effects.

In all games, players can expect to die frequently, although each shares the mechanic of a near-death sequence where characters can score a kill against the enemy to revive with restored shields and some health, and should the player eventually encounter genuine death, they revive at the last checkpoint with a small proportional monetary penalty and the damaged enemies having their health fully restored. The game mechanics very much serve the collection well, with minimaps keeping track of nearby adversaries, although players may need to partake in the countless sidequests to acquire the experience and levels necessary to survive the story missions.

Probably the weakest aspect of the games, however, is area design, most having multiple levels that the in-game maps, otherwise helpful in keeping players going forward, don’t distinguish, the award for worst levels going to The Pre-Sequel, given its occurrence in space and dozens of tricky jumps. There’s also a limit on inventory space, although this isn’t terribly problematic since players ultimately can increase this capacity. Other control quibbles exist such as the lack of in-game measurement of total playtime, but the interaction aspect of the games in the collection could have certainly been worse.

The writing of the games, however, is a high point, with plenty of humor in the dialogue throughout all of them, with their setting being the distant world of Pandora where evil corporations reign, and Handsome Jack serves as the main antagonist. The sidequests also add brilliantly to their narratives, making the gameplay feel somewhat rewarding at times, and there are plenty of quirky characters such as the mentioned villain, the robotic Claptrap unit, Sir Hammerlock, and so forth. Granted, the stories somewhat feel forced down the player’s throat given the typical Western game issue of unskippable voiced dialogue, sure to alienate hearing-impaired players, but are otherwise enjoyable.

As with most Western RPGs, the collection’s games are largely devoid of memorable music, but their voice acting, even if forced down the player’s throat given its unskippability, largely compensates, with some solid performances like Handsome Jack, Sir Hammerlock, and the Claptrap unit.

All three titles sport cel-shaded visuals superficially pleasant, but there are glitches and imperfections such as poor collision detection, pixilation, choppiness, etc. Still, the graphics hardly mar the experience.

Finally, the collection will last players a while, somewhere from a minimum of four days total worth of playtime (the second numbered entry being the longest and taking at least two to finish), although the side content can easily boost that interval to somewhere around twelve days in all.

In the end, the Borderlands Legendary Collection is definitely one of the much better videogame anthologies available, given each game’s solid looter-shooter gameplay, even if there is slight repetition and the need for a steady trigger finger, the humorous writing and dialogue, the excellent voice acting, and the decent cel-shading, even if it still suffers from technical hiccups characteristic of most three-dimensional visual styles. The weakest link of them is their level design, not to mention the general absence of memorable music, but Nintendo Switch owners will likely have a fun time with the collection and get a good bang out of their gaming buck.


Borderlands 2: Game of the Year Edition


Bowling for Pandora

The Gearbox Software-developed Borderlands series attracted plentiful attention due to its fusion of first-person shooter and roleplaying game elements, ultimately becoming one of the best-selling videogame franchises of all time, and receiving several console ports. The latest anthology of the games was the Borderlands Legendary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, featuring the first three installments of the franchise, among them being the latest iteration of the first sequel packaged with DLC, Borderlands 2: Game of the Year Edition, which provides an experience largely on par with its precursor, largely a good thing.

When starting a new game, the player can select from one of four different Vault Hunters, each with their own skill tree into which the player can invest points gained from leveling (one per level), providing bonuses such as enhancement to a character’s action skill (with the commando, for instance, able to summon a turret that automatically attacks nearby enemies), quicker shield recovery, and the like. Gone is the Secret of Mana-esque system of increased weapon proficiency with repeated use of specific firearm types, although some abilities in the aforementioned skill trees can enhance attributes such as damage and maximum ammunition, the black market in Sanctuary requiring rare Eridium able to provide addition boosts to max ammo alongside increased inventory space.

Players ultimately get to equip up to four different firearms, alongside equipment such as a shield that provides a buffer to health, a grenade enhancement, a class modification that can provide additional points for skill tree abilities in which the player has invested at least one point, and a relic that can affect things such as melee damage or the power of a specific weapon type. As with the first game, furthermore, losing all health activates a near-death sequence where the player can kill an enemy to revive with shields regenerated and some health, the timeframe for doing so the more often this mode activates gradually decreasing until the chosen Vault Hunter does die.

Fortunately, the death penalty isn’t severe, less than a tenth of the player’s money expended upon revival, but the health of enemies damaged completely restores, which can make some boss fights and annoying enemies repetitive at times. Luckily, grinding isn’t too difficult, with plenty of side missions and DLC in case story quests seem tough, although even those with “Trivial” difficulty, especially timed ones, can still be tedious. Regardless of the flaws, the game mechanics definitely work well, although as with the first game, a steady trigger finger is largely necessary, but there is certainly room for error.

Control is perhaps the weakest point of the first Borderlands sequel. While there are in-game maps, the area design is somewhat horrendous at times, with multiple levels layered over one another and the mentioned maps not distinguishing between them. There’s also no in-game measure of total playtime, alongside the typical Western game issue of unskippable voiced dialogue. Inventory management, given the limit of items the player can carry, can be hard as well, though an upgrade at the Eridium black market in Sanctuary can increase item space. There are some good points such as the largely-clear direction on how to advance, but things could have been better.

Even though the links to the first game aren’t always clear-cut, the central narrative of Borderlands 2 is generally enjoyable, with plentiful humor, even if the storyline feels somewhat forced down the player’s throat, given the unskippable dialogue. The sidequests add plentiful plot as well, with many quirky characters, mature themes, and some coarse language, many of the severe swear words bleeped. Ultimately, the story is definitely a good reason to play.

The second game doesn’t have much memorable music, although the voice acting is top-notch, with plenty of memorable performances such as Sir Hammerlock, Dr. Zed, Handsome Jack, and the mascot Claptrap, and the sound department overall fares decently.

Borderlands 2 also utilizes its predecessor’s superficially-pleasing cel-shaded visual style, with plenty of nice hues and environments that give a comic book feel, although there are some technical hiccups such as poor collision detection and occasional glitches, not to mention blurry and pixilated texturing when the player views many environs close-up.

Finally, the first sequel of the series will last players a good while, somewhere from two to four days’ worth of playtime, depending upon how much of the side content they decide to partake.

All in all, I definitely had a blast with Borderlands 2, given its solid looter-shooter gameplay, humorous narrative, superb voicework, nice cel-shading, and especially its endless lasting appeal that led me to spend more time with it than I usually do on games of its kind. The above-average difficulty may deter some from the experience, as can the sometimes-horrid level design, that players who don’t immediately go from the first to second game may find themselves lost with regards to the plot, the lack of a memorable soundtrack, and various graphical glitches. Regardless, those who enjoyed the first game will most likely enjoy the second.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version digitally downloaded to the player’s Switch of nearly three days’ worth of playtime with the main quest and much post-game content complete.

The Good:
+Great looter-shooter mechanics.
+Humorous plot.
+Great voicework.
+Nice cel-shading.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Missions can be hard even with “Trivial” difficulty.
-Some horrid level design.
-Connection to first game not always clear-cut.
-Not a whole lot of memorable music.
-Some graphical imperfections.

The Bottom Line:
An enjoyable looter-shooter.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 6.5/10
Story: 8.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 7.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Moderately Hard
Playing Time: 2-4 Days

Overall: 8.0/10