Monday, 30 November 2015

Gocco of War: If You Like PSO, You Need to Try This

If there's one online, lobby-based game that will always hold a special place in my heart it's Phantasy Star Online and all of the subsequent follow ups that it got. I just loved logging into the hub cities, picking up a quest, finding some people to do it with, then heading out to smack around monsters, get items and materials, then find ways to improve existing equipment or get new gear. It's a simple process, but very enjoyable.

Sadly, nowadays Sega doesn't seem to think Westerners want to play PSO games, so we're stuck patching PSO2 so that it's in English since it looks like the game will never get an official release in this region. Sega's gonna Sega, so we're left fending for ourselves.

Recently, however, an interesting little game just showed up on Steam called Gocco of War, and it hits all of the right buttons for fans of Phantasy Star Online. It's a lobby-based co-op game where players pick-up a quest, then warp to the zone its in, shoot / stab all of the baddies, complete mission objectives, and get various materials from chests strewn throughout the area. When the quest is completed, you'll get some bonus gold, some badges, and get plopped back in the hub city.

From there it's a question of hopping right into the next quest, going to the shop to buy stuff, or depositing the materials at the crafting vendor where you can combine them to either make rarer materials, articles of clothing and so forth, or consuming them to upgrade weapons. These all cost gold as well, but the basic gist is that players get to craft quite a lot of stuff through trial and error between missions. A lot of it is aesthetic, but it's fun nonetheless.

Clothing is pretty much just there for looks as far as I can tell. The only things that affect combat are upgrading weapons and equipping badges that are rewarded at the end of the quests. Badges actually help a fair bit and players can have more than one on at a time. It's a bit of a grind to get them all (something that I'm nowhere near doing yet), as there are 1,600 of them and they are rewarded somewhat randomly after finishing a quest based on performance and the difficulty setting selected when at the quest giver.

When on missions, combat can be toggled between ranged and melee. Personally, I prefer to stick with guns so to keep enemies at a safe distance, and only go melee when I'm getting swarmed and using my sword is the only viable option. Melee does hit for more damage all things being equal, but there is more risk involved.

The nice thing is that this is totally co-op, though, with both an online and offline mode. When online you select a lobby to go to, each capping at 32 players, then when on a quest a total of four players can go together. When in the quest, you get to share rewards, so there isn't any bickering about who gets what. Just hop in, blast stuff, have a good time, and call it a day afterward. If you want to play offline for whatever reason, that's perfectly viable as well. When doing these quests, you'll often find NPCs that will come along and help, so you can still get some wingmen for the mission. It's very carefree and enjoyable regardless of playing online with others or going offline by one's self.

Aesthetically, it's a very cute game with characters sporting a decidedly chibi look, bright colors, and monsters that look almost like plush toys. The music compliments this as well with bouncy, happy tunes playing in the background. It reminds me of something that I'd expect to see during the height of the PlayStation 2's popularity in this regard, and given that it's one of my favorite consoles, I'm just fine with that. My only qualm right now with the visuals is that the frame rate needs work. As it stands, it's a little choppy. The developers are constantly making tweaks to the game, and they've said that 60FPS is on the to-do list, so I'm hopeful this will be addressed soon, as it's about the only thing in Gocca of War that bothers me at the moment.

In the end, though, I'm quite impressed with this game from what time I've spent with it. As someone who really, really likes PSO, this game is a welcome entry on Steam. It's nice that the developers are continuing to support it and there's even plans to add new quests and zones in the future, so there could be even more to do. For now, though, I'm content to enjoy the co-op experience while farming materials to doll out my character. If you consider yourself a fan of Phantasy Star Online, it's well worth trying out Gocco of War. It's the closest thing to a spiritual successor to PSO that I've seen in years.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Some Thoughts: Age of Ishtaria (Android / iOS)

It looks like it's happened. I may have become a bit of a filthy casual. Earlier in the year, I'd picked up a small tablet on the cheap and hadn't been doing much with it besides streaming anime while playing Final Fantasy XIV on my laptop. A couple of weeks ago, though, I got curious about the games I could play on the thing so went and installed a bunch. Mostly RPGs and strategy games, mostly of the gatcha variety, and mostly with a suspiciously anime-inspired artistic motif.

There were a few that managed to hold my attention. Terra Battle is neat, Chain Chronicle has its moments, and Dragon Blaze seems alright, but the majority of my time up until now has been spent playing Age of Ishtaria. Surprisingly, it's by the same studio that developed Bravely Default Flying Fairy. I wasn't aware that they were doing mobile games since it's a realm of gaming that I've not paid much attention to before now.

Not surprisingly, it's a very simple game where one collects cards which act as the player's party characters and one embarks on a very simplified RPG. You go through one dungeon after the next which is just a straight line with a few points along the way marketed as a circle where players fight a group of monsters. Dungeon maps actually look more like subway maps because of this. So far the majority of dungeons I've been through have been ones with five encounters before completing them, but now that I'm hitting somewhat higher levels the places are capping around six or seven.

I think the main reason I keep playing this game is for the part where I can get new cards and the anticipation to see what the game gives me. Cards are divided into seven ranks, 1-star to 7-star, where 1 is the weakest and 7 is the strongest. So, seeing what one gets can be pretty exciting. Will I get something with five or so stars or a bunch of duds? More than likely you won't get much about a five, but the fun of getting new cards is still there. It actually reminds me of the only thing I like about Hearthstone: opening new packs. There's something about the process that taps into people's basic pleasure centers for getting shiny new things.

The cards themselves can be leveled up and enhanced in various ways, but it can get pretty grindy. For leveling, this is done by picking the card that you want to level up, then choosing other cards that will be sacrificed as XP toward said card. The game also gives various grimoires that can be used for the same purpose. You'll be doing this a lot throughout the game, pouring trash cards that you receive in dungeons toward leveling others that are actually valuable. Cards can also be enhanced by combining two of the same card, which raises it to a new tier, making it more powerful.

This is all well and good, but the problem comes in trying to get multiples of the six and seven star cards. It's hard enough to get one. Getting a second or third requires the stars to align just so. Up until now, I've managed to get one of each and I have a feeling that it's only because there was a thing going on where there was a special promotion going on that allegedly bumps up the likelihood of getting one of these by about 10X. Even then, I did this twice and on only one of these occasions did I get anything good. The really fancy cards don't exactly grow on trees in Age of Ishtaria. The publisher does throw players a bone occasionally, having recently given everyone a seven star card to celebrate two million downloads of the game, as well as another high rank card for signing in for a certain amount of days but this isn't terribly common.

They don't feel absolutely necessary from what I've played, though, and going into a dungeon with a well put together deck of 5-star characters is very doable, especially if you level them up a fair bit. Nonetheless, the higher end cards are nice to have and once they get going they can hit like a truck.

The things' designs definitely go the titillation route as most of the characters are of the well-endowed anime girl variety with the occasional lolita complex jail bait tossed in. There are a few male characters as well but they don't come up often and seem to have a thing for wearing glasses. I almost feel compelled to hold on to those cards just to make sure that there's at least a couple of guys amidst the legions of comely lasses that the game keeps throwing at me.

When it comes to the actual combat, things are very simple. All one needs to do is decide what combination to have the party members attack in.  They'll be divided into three classes and the order in which they strike will impact the enemies in different ways doing things like making them lighter for better juggling, reducing their defenses for a turn, or making them attack for less. With this it becomes a race to take down the monsters as fast as one can, as they have a clock icon with a number next to it indicating how many turns until they attack. In some cases, if they aren't dealt with quickly, this could lead to powerful enemies really putting a dent in a party's hit points. So, it's all about efficiency during battles.

Occasionally, characters will use special abilities that make this a lot easier but they are by and large RNG and you don't have much control as to when they're unleashed. Each character has one special that actually can be used when their portrait begins to glow, but even the glowing is RNG so there's no way to completely escape it. Still, the abilities get used with a reasonable amount of frequency once a character learns it, so they are still quite useful.

What surprised me is how much all of this sucked me in. It's so simple, but I do enjoy firing the game up for a little bit each night so that I can stomp through some dungeons, level up my party to support more / better cards, level up said card, and earn points to get new cards. The whole thing just taps right into a very primal element of my psyche all while being conveniently ensconced in an anime veneer. It just makes for a nice time waster when I'm too tired to do anything else at the end of the night. Now I'm left wondering if this will just turn into a slippery slope where I start really diving down the rabbit whole that is Japanese gatcha games.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Golden Time Anime Review

It's one of those things that have plagued anime and JRPGs for years: a cast of characters in their teens. Sure, it makes them into people that a sizable proportion of viewers can project themselves into, but given the frequency with which it happens I can't blame people for angrily looking at the phenomenon as being a bit trope-like. These days there are so many shows that take place in high schools. We have magic schools, mech pilot schools, zombie schools, normal schools, you name it, all littered with 15-18 year olds going about their business. The saturation is pretty bad.

This is a big reason why I decided to check out Golden Time, as it takes place in university. No robots, aliens, or anything like that, just a contemporary post secondary institution with some 20 somethings becoming adults. It was a very nice change of pace with its combination of being a slice of life and romantic comedy, although the first half of the series was definitely much better than the second, but not enough to ruin the show. The characters kept my attention throughout and the humour was fairly well done, making me overlook the shows foray into the supernatural.

The show centers around a guy named Tada Banri who is in his first year of university as he makes new friends, goes to classes and winds up encountering one Kouko Kaga who is stalking her childhood sweetheart, Mitsuo. He just so happens to be in Tada's law class and one of the first friends he makes at the school. Over time, Kouko finally takes the hint that Mitsuo isn't at all interested in her, but she hangs out with Tada a lot and the two become an item. However, we quickly learn that Tada suffered a serious head injury in his hometown after graduating high school, took a year off, has amnesia, and cannot remember anything about his past. While things are going well at university and with Kouko, there's a good chance that one of his other friends, Linda, may actually have been his girlfriend in high school before he lost his memory, though she's mentioned nothing of this to Tada. So, quickly, the story becomes a hybrid college slice of life drama with a love triangle thrown in.

Since Golden Time involves college students, it does make for a nice change of pace from the scores of other series that would likely tackle all of this in a high school setting. You do get the sense that everyone is enjoying their lives while going to university, as it is often the case in Japan. High school is a lot more focused on education to get into a good college, but once one gets there things relax considerably since it's viewed by many as a last hurrah before entering the work force where everything gets very serious and very busy very quickly. Banri, Kouko, et al do seem to be enjoying themselves and watching them do their thing is quite relaxing.

Kouko herself takes a little bit of getting used to as she comes off as very aggressive and obsessive, especially in the early episodes where she's still stalking Mitsuo. Once she gives up on him and starts getting closer to Banri, Kouko becomes far more tolerable. She winds up being a bit clingy with Banri too, but not to the point of her being annoying to the viewer, and it becomes clear that she has her own insecurities driving this to an extent which helps explain her behavior, making it more acceptable.

Meanwhile, Linda is very much a level-headed, down to earth woman. She's pretty much the polar opposite of Kouko. She tries to keep Banri at arms length so that he can sort out his amnesia on his own, but tends to show up whenever he's in trouble, especially during the second half of the series. As the show progresses and the love triangle between her, Kouko, and Banri develops, it's easy to see viewers starting to fall into pro-Linda and pro-Kouko camps.

We don't really see enough of the supporting cast to get to know them, though. Sure they're around and everyone does stuff together but they aren't all that developed. Mitsuo's around and is obviously one of Banri's buddies but we don't really learn much about him. The same goes for Chinami, 2D, and Nana. It would have been nice if these people were fleshed out more instead of the series focusing so much on Banri, Kouko, and Linda.

As mentioned earlier, the first half of Golden Time is much better than the second and this has a lot to do with Banri. For the first dozen episodes, he's treated like a typical college student getting on with his life, making friends, finding a girlfriend, and such. The amnesia is there and it's something he's dealing with, but one gets the sense he'll pull through eventually. However, when the second half of the series comes along we get Ghost Banri, which is just stupid.

Basically, he's supposed to be some sort of non-corporeal manifestation of Banri from before he lost his memories. He wants his life back and doesn't like the current Banri mucking things up, especially the fact that he's hanging out with Kouko instead of Linda. Ghost Banri becomes a mildly vengeful spirit and tries to find ways to interfere in Banri's life. He doesn't do anything huge but manages to give Banri a run of bad luck. It's a very silly plot element that didn't need to be there.

The first half of the series was shaping up nicely but this was tough to swallow. The last episode in particular was very confusing with the scene on the bridge. It was obvious that this was meant to tie everything up with Banri choosing someone and dealing with Ghost Banri but it came off as a convoluted mess leaving me thinking, "Okay, he chose someone, but I still don't quite know what's going on here."

Normally, this would have completely soured my opinion of an anime series, but the fact that the show was a slice of life series that didn't take place in a high school and seeing as how the first half of the series was quite entertaining, I'm not prepared to completely dismiss Golden Time. It is something that people who enjoy a slice of life anime should consider trying out. There are still good times to be had. Just keep in mind that the second half of the series isn't nearly as good as the first.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Thinking About the SNES 25 Years On

On November 21, 1990, the Super Famicom was released in Japan and with that the system has just turned 25. I still remember all of the hype when it came out because the thing wasn't released in North America yet and magazines like EGM and GamePro were talking about it constantly with tiny images of Super Mario World, Pilotwings, and the like smattered across their pages, while kids were being bombarded with terms like "Mode 7" and "color palettes".

With the NES pretty much ruling the roost in my neck of the woods, it seemed natural that most people would want an SNES when it came out. I was certainly among them, but wound up waiting until 1993 to get mine. Other choices were made by me in the early 90s that resulted in a TurboGrafx-16 and a Sega Genesis being the center of my 16-bit console gaming. A rather ridiculous amount of time was spent on the likes of Streets of Rage, Phantasy Star II, Dungeon Explorer, Military Madness, and The Immortal.

These games kept me plenty occupied and also in the minority as most of the folks I hung around with in high school were much more in the SNES camp or weren't into games in the first place. As time wore on, though, more and more games showed up on Nintendo's 16-bit system and it became increasingly difficult for me to resist getting one myself.

From the beginning A Link to the Past caught my eye, and it was also becoming quite clear that if I wanted to continue playing Final Fantasy games I'd have to get an SNES. Then Street Fighter II came to the system and I capitulated, finally scrounging together enough birthday money, cash from odd jobs, and the like to get one second hand.

It was a glorious thing in all of its ugly gray and blue grandeur, feeling noticeably firmer than the Genesis. I only had two games on the system for quite some time: Super Mario World and Final Fantasy II (which was actually IV, but got renamed to this since II and III hadn't been released in the West and the publisher wanted to avoid confusion). I did want Street Fighter II as well, but was tapped out by then, so it would have to wait. Diving into Final Fantasy was more than enough to keep me happy for months, though. I marched around with Cecil and the gang, got them to level cap, and remember just beating the final boss repeatedly to hear the music during the 20 minute ending because it sounded so much like an orchestra compared to the beeps and bloops of my other systems' sound chips.

The console never completely pulled me into its camp, however. Even when the console wars were just emerging and kids were picking between Sega and Nintendo, I was decidedly agnostic about the whole thing. Both systems had stuff I liked, so why not enjoy all of it. This was a time when lots of people rented games, so one could partake in all sorts of experiences for relatively cheap if they at least had the systems to play the stuff on. One week I might take out Secret of Mana, another Kid Kameleon, and some other time Veigues Tactical Gladiator. There's plenty out there to explore, so why be partisan about it?

If anything, I'd say that my SNES library didn't really start to expand rapidly until 16-bit systems were being phased out to make space PlayStation and Saturn games at most shops. It was a good time to get things on the cheap. I remember getting stuff like Ninja Warriors, Lufia, and A Link to the Past for about 10 dollars each and playing the hell out of them.

Ultimately, the SNES primarily functioned as a Street Fighter II and RPG machine for me. RPGs were a bit touch and go in terms of what got released here during the 16-bit era, but the SNES had a lot of stuff that I was very interested in. Most of my time on the system was spent ploughing through Final Fantasies, 7th Saga, Paladin's Quest, Ogre Battle, Breaths of Fire, Lufias, Chrono Trigger, and the like.

In recent years, the system has seen quite a resurgence in popularity as people who grew up with it have been going on a spending spree buying up the games they couldn't afford as a kid at online auctions, consequently driving the prices up so that they're games they can't afford as adults, but it is nice to see renewed interest in the system nonetheless. I'm just left to wonder how many folks will still have fond memories of the SNES after another 25 years have past, or will the system be long forgotten as a new generation of 30-somethings wax nostalgic about "classic" mobile games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Clash of Clans instead.

Friday, 20 November 2015

I Still Can't Decide Whether to Be Excited about Final Fantasy XV

Since the very first game, it's been easy for me to get excited for Final Fantasy games thanks to a combination of the series generally being quite good and a borderline unconditional love for JRPGs. However, the more I see of the fifteenth installment currently in development, the more my enthusiasm falters and I find myself not sure what to think of the thing.

A big part of this is probably the protagonists, as the game looks like Pop Idols Go On An Adventure more than anything else. To a degree it smacks of a "design by committee" approach where people in high places that really shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the design process looked at some consumer purchasing statistics, noticed what way the wind was blowing and went in that direction. Part of me wonders if this will devolve into Uta no Prince X Final Fantasy at some point when my cynicism gets going.

On the plus side, I suppose one could look at this as a bit of an about face in terms of character design, though. Instead of going with a cast of buxom beauties that have their tits jutting out, which is often the case in this industry, the game is going for some rather handsome men. So, now the female segment of the series fan base has some characters to oggle, and a slew of FFXV boys love fan art will surely proliferate through Google image search in the coming years. So that's something.

Questionable cast aside, combat is the big thing that makes or breaks an RPG for me, especially if it hails from Japan. There's something so charming about how developers from that part of the world put so much effort into this aspect of their games with unique systems ranging from resource management to party composition to special abilities. The fact that Final Fantasy XIII had a good combat system was one of the very few saving graces of that game, preventing me from completely hating it.

So now I'm left feeling a little bit uncertain about what's planned for this game, as the combat is very action-oriented and very simplified. It's more like something out of Elder Scrolls or Dragon's Dogma, which makes sense as Final Fantasy XV is planned to be an exploration-heavy open world game, just like those two. As such, this action RPG approach seems more logical in the greater context of the game. That being said, part of me can't shake my decades old expectation of a more traditional approach to combat in a JRPG that the Final Fantasy series has been known for. It's obvious bias on my part, but at the same time it leaves me wondering if this will feel like a Final Fantasy game or will it just be an open world action RPG with the Final Fantasy label slapped on the box cover. I don't think this would be such a big thing for me if this wasn't a mainline Final Fantasy, and initially it wasn't since the game was originally supposed to be Final Fantasy Versus, but with a mainline installment in this series comes certain expectations, and a much more robust battle system is one of them.

So, with that, I'm having some very mixed feelings about Final Fantasy XV based on what we know so far. XIII made me very skeptical of the series and XV isn't doing anything to change that so far. It may turn out decent, but the cast of characters look set to be more annoying than Snow, Vanille, and Hope, while the battle system comes of as anything but what I've come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. Square-Enix will have a lot of convincing to do to make me want to try this game when it comes out.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Disgaea on Steam = Yes, Please

It looks like NIS America will be bringing Disgaea to Steam in Febrary 2016, so fans of strategy RPGs can develop legions of characters to their hearts content, bringing them to level 9999 and maybe even try and finish the game at some point.

This is something I certainly wasn't expecting to see happen. It's a series that's had countless iterations on consoles over the years with not a peep about it on PC, but now they've decided to port the first game over with some improvements (UI update and better textures, M/KB support, and they're tossing in Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness).

There really aren't that many strategy RPGs of this ilk on the PC, so I'm remaining hopeful that this could be the beginning of much more coming to the platform. It's not like NIS is lacking for games in the genre that they could follow up this release with. (La Pucella, Makai Kingdom, and Phantom Brave say hi) I certainly wouldn't complain if this lead to many more console-styled SRPGs coming to PC. Maybe in a perfect world we'd get Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics ports as well, but that may be wishful thinking.

For now, I'll just wait patiently for Disgaea, maybe play the DS version to build up my hype, and quietly speculate to myself what other games NIS could port to PC in the future.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Quick Thoughts: Mushihimesama on Steam

mushihimesama first boss
A while ago, there was that announcement that Cave's shoot 'em ups were going to start making their way onto Steam. It's been about a week since the first of these appeared there, and they went with Mushihimesama. I was wondering what game they would choose, and figured it would probably be either this or one of their Dodonpachi games since these are their most well known series. Of course, I wasted no time in picking it up because Cave shmups are amazing, and, minor technical issues aside, it's been a lot of fun playing this on my PC.

There are a few game modes including Novice, Normal, and Arrange. They're pretty self explanatory with Novice being a slightly toned down version of the game for those new to bullet hell shooters. Normal is just as you would expect, and Arrange has different music, tons of bullets (but a smaller hit box on your character), and crazy high scores. I've been spending most of my time in Arrange mode because all of the bullets flying around have me thinking, "Weeeeeeee!" the whole time I'm playing, and there's something immensely satisfying about seeing the big numbers flashing on-screen as they're added to my score.

Some folks have run into technical issues, myself included, however. The big thing that I was hit with is trying to get the game to run in fullscreen, as it left my monitor black with sound still working and no way to exit it. Even alt-tabbing had no effect, so there was no alternative but to force the computer to shutdown by holding down the power button. There have also been some issues with frame rate and resolution, but these as well as other problems are already being addressed by Degica. The game is still plenty playable on my end so long as I do so in windowed mode, but it would be nice to see these tweaks get implemented as soon as possible.

mushihimesama dodging bullets
Just in terms of soaking in the atmosphere of Mushihimesama, though, it's great. It just screams of the arcades from the art, to the music, and all of the stuff happening on the screen. Whenever I'm in Japan I make a point of playing this game at one of the arcades I like to pop by there, so it's nice to have a legitimate way of experiencing this at home.

It's hard not to smile while dodging all of the bullets are whizzing by, with the music blasting. I'm not very good at these games, but they're exhilarating to play, and pretty darn satisfying as one gets used to them and progress becomes noticeable. I'd even say that Mushihimesama is a pretty good game to look into for people who want something a little more entry level for bullet hell shmups. The Novice mode is great for introducing players to the genre, while Normal is a nice, logical progression to harder content, especially if playing it on Maniac setting or higher.

I'm certainly having a good time with the game, and it's been getting far more play time than a lot of other shmups in my library right now. It's great for a nice time waster or serious progress, depending on how you want to approach the game, or just soak in Mushihimesama's atmosphere. There really is a lot to enjoy here, and it's doing a lot to renew my interest in shoot 'em ups. Now I'm just curious what Cave game will show up on Steam next.