Sunday, 31 January 2016

On the Deluge of Japanese Games Coming to PC

Growing up, I always leaned more toward what Japanese companies were releasing when it came to video games. Being about 10 when the NES came along, it was just the right age where I would be hit by one game after the next that wound up creating an affinity in me for the stuff coming out of that part of the world. Whether it was big series like Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Contra, or just one-offs like Faxanadu (yes, I know it's part of a much larger series), Excitebike, or Blades of Steel, I was hooked. It just continued from one generation to the next as I migrated to the SNES and Genesis, the PlayStation and Saturn, and then the PS2 and DS.

However, when the PS3 came along, something unfortunate happened. The amount of games coming out of the region slowed down, and Japanese publishers started to hit a real funk. Interests were shifting in the West and a new generation of gamers were hungry for Gears of War, CoD, Battlefield, and the like. Sales were dropping and Japanese developers were not necessarily porting games to overseas markets with the same zeal as before. Moreover, with the rise of mobile gaming, especially in their home region, a number of them were shifting their focus to that sphere instead. So, for people like myself, options were feeling somewhat limited. It wasn't so bad for people who enjoy handheld gaming. The DS and 3DS as well as the PSP then Vita have seen a number of very good Japanese developed games come to their libraries over the years, but when you compare it to the heyday of the early 2000s, it's still not as vast.

Lately, though, with the swelling number of games that have been showing up on PC from Japanese developers and the constant uptick in announcements for more games to come, it feels like things are slowly starting to change. Sure, a considerable number of these are ports, especially stuff from the Vita and PS3, but we're also seeing it as a target platform for new releases with increasing regularity. Bandai Namco have been pumping out stuff on the PC for a while now with Dark Souls, Naruto games, and the Tales series leading the charge. Square-Enix has been porting more and more of their stuff to the platform. NIS America, XSEED, Idea Factory, Capcom, and legions of others are also bringing their games to PC.

It's feeling like a resurgence to the West to some extent as many of these games start to see a wider audience. Some of the PS3 and PS4 stuff would already get into quite a few people's hands, but with them coming to PC that's an even broader base who can and will plunk down their money on these games. Vita ports in particular are able to reap far better sales in the West by going this route because as snazzy as the handheld is, it just didn't catch on in this part of the world. Moreover, these games have the benefit of becoming relevant and easily accessible across multiple generations. They aren't shackled to a specific console, leaving fans at the mercy of publishers as to whether or not they'll add backward compatibility support for these games in future systems. Given the quite niche nature of some of these games, it can go either way in that regard.

So, it is nice that we're seeing more and more of these games come to PC and between announcements, leaks, and reliable rumors it looks like this trend will only increase in the future. However, even now, a few years after this whole practice started, we're still seeing a number of quick, down and dirty ports. A lot of companies are pretty much dumping their games on Steam without really giving them much polish. Koei Tecmo is particularly bad for this with a lot of half-assed ports of their games. Namco Bandai are still sketchy in this regard with fans like Durante often being the ones to enhance their games, getting resolution and the like up to spec for what PC gamers expect. Then there are are a number of others that could have used some tweaking before coming to Steam. A couple of examples would be Neptunia and Fairy Fencer F. I've been playing these lately, and they work fine, but they are both games that took the express train from Vita Land. Their keyboard and mouse controls feel barebones and the games handle much better with a traditional controller. Moreover, they have issues with the visuals, especially during cut scenes, that, while not overwhelming, are still noticeable enough to make me think, "Ah!" when they happen.

I'm really hoping that at some point Japanese publishers will start addressing things like this, and put a little more TLC into their PC versions. By the looks of things, I get the feeling that this will happen later rather than sooner as there are quite a few more ports coming down the pipe in the next few months that sound like quick conversions of older games. I'd love to be proven wrong, but will take a wait and see attitude for the time being.

There are a few occasions in recent months that are giving me some hope that this is slowly starting to change. The best example of this is Capcom's PC port of Dragon's Dogma. This is a game that really went above and beyond when doing this. It has a ton of graphic setting options (including an FOV slider which isn't all that necessary in third person games, but the gesture is appreciated nonetheless), giving us something that can run in very high resolutions and at 60FPS for those who want to push the game that hard. The game was ranking high on the Steam charts when it came out, so here's hoping that it does well and turns some heads not only at Capcom but also at other companies, encouraging them to take the next step and not only bring their games to the PC but also improve them for the platform.

In the end, it's great to see this shift from Japan where publishers were traditionally hesitant to put their games on PC. Now it looks like they're finally seeing that there is a demand for their games on the platform. Usually when something like Valkyrie Chronicles, Neptunia, or the like goes on sale, they see a big jump in the charts. Stuff like Tales of Zestria and Dragon's Dogma both had a fairly hefty contingent of folks who pre-ordered it. The demand is definitely there for more games from the region. It would just be nice if we could get a bit more polish and the technical options for them that most native PC games get. Hopefully, with time we'll see improvement on that front.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Noteworthy February 2016 Game Releases

With the shortest month of the year right around the corner, February doesn't seem to be lacking for interesting game releases, especially for PC. I remember a time when the first three or four months of the year were nothing but tumbleweeds rolling by as game web sites licked their wounds from having to review dozens of games in short succession in the run-up to Christmas. Memories...

Anyway, looking at the games due out next month there are quite a few that stick out for me. As much as I'd like to play them all, time and my wallet won't be having any of that. Nonetheless, let's take a moment to look at some of the stand out titles due out then, at least the ones I'm interested in and know I should probably avoid so to whittle down my backlog instead.

Tales of Symphonia

While I've not religiously followed the series, I do enjoy picking up Tales of games every now and then. They have nice, light stories that feel like something out of an anime series and tend to sport fairly interesting combat systems. Missing out on Symphonia was something that I'd always regretted, especially when the Wii game's price started going up on auction sites as folks realized it was a bit rare and in-demand. Now, with it getting ported to PC there's a chance at getting the thing at a reasonable price, assuming Bamco doesn't get greedy.

Arslan: The Warriors of Legend

An anime where big armies face off against one another? Sounds like the ingredients for a musou game. Tecmo Keoi certainly seem to think so. Musou's gonna musou, so I suspect fans of the genre will keep an eye on this one while the haters will keep on hating. It looks pretty nice visually, and the folks at Famitsu rated it reasonably well with all eights, so I guess it plays reasonably well. I'm not in a rush to pick up the game myself having recently binged on some Dynasty Warriors, but could see myself being tempted by it at a Steam sale.


Part of me is genuinely a bit annoyed that this game broke with tradition and put a number after "XCOM". That's just not how these things are done. We've had Enforcer, Interceptor, Terror from the Deep, and a bunch of others. Those are interesting. Engaging. Sexy. "2"? Not so much. I'm sure this won't be enough to stop folks from grabbing this day one and embarking on another adventure to save earth from an alien threat, marveling at just how bad some of their units aim is. "The thing is right in front of you! Why do you keep missing?!?"

American Truck Simulator

Before Euro Truck Simulator 2, I had no idea that I could fall in love with big rigs and drive them like proper semis. Previously, the only time I'd play a game with such a vehicle in it was in GTA or Twisted Metal because the things were big, heavy, and could wreck carnage with ease. As it turns out, these mighty vehicles can also haul freight across vast distances and the whole process can be extremely relaxing. I even developed a new found respect for backing up trailers and roundabouts while playing that game. Soon, we'll be heading to the even vaster, though less roundabout-intensive, United States where the highways are numbered and roll on for miles. Will there be opportunities of raunchy rendezvous in remote rural restrooms as players embark on long, transcontinental hauls? Only time will tell, but even if there isn't maybe someone can patch it in with Steam Workshop or something.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

This has been out for ages on the Vita, but it's heading to the PC in February, which has caught my attention. A visual novel that combines Battle Royale and Phoenix Wright, high school students try to get away with murder in order to escape the facility they've been trapped in by a sadistic robot bear. You don't see a premise like that every day.

Street Fighter V

After several years of dominating the fighting game scene, it's finally time to put Street Fighter IV out to pasture and bring in number five. It's Street Fighter, so most people have a pretty good idea of what to expect here and those in the know have been playing the beta for months now. I'm just happy to see a mountain man Ryu skin. There will also be a lot of other outfits, as that's the thing folks demand in a fighting game nowadays. So, if you want to see Chun Li, Laura, and the gang oozing out of their clothing, that'll be an option. Personally, I'm holding out for a Rufus outfit that does this.

Disgaea PC

Miss console strategy RPGs of the early 2000s? Like grinding out hundreds of levels on each of your characters? This may be a game to consider. Disgaea getting a PC port is quite the pleasant surprise, as it's something that I don't think anyone was expecting, but here we are. It's a solid game with a fun, lighthearted, and often rather humorous story. What I want to know is if we'll see more of these games if this one does well. There are tons of Disgaea games, as well as stuff like La Pucelle, Phantom Brave, and Makai Kingdom. I'm kind of hoping that this game succeeds and opens the flood gates for other titles in the genre.

Project X Zone 2

Sometimes when franchises crossover we can be in for a fun ride as popular characters team up. I was hoping this would be the case in the original Project X Zone, but found it got bogged down by trying to introduce too many characters. It got to the point where the first few hours of the game felt like the fight scenes from the Anchor Man movies with its cavalcade of cameos. By the sound of things, the sequel will be addressing this with a more fleshed out story which happens to focus a lot on Ryo from the Shenmue series. On top of this, the game will still have the interesting team-based combat system of the first PxZ, so it could be one to watch.

Fire Emblem: Fates

It's finally almost time for a new Fire Emblem game (February really is a great month for fans of strategy games and RPGs). Combat is shaping up to be what one would expect from the series with characters gaining an affinity for one another, permadeath, and all that good stuff. Interestingly, or expensively depending on how you look at it, the game is being split into separate editions. Each of these will focus on a different country in the game as war breaks out. There will be a lot to do in each version of the game, as they clock in at around 30 hours each, but it'll be interesting to see how sales do for the game with Nintendo trying this unconventional means of release out.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation Anime Review

Look hard enough and you're likely to find anime themed around just about anything. Whether it's cooking, fishing, a myriad of sports, video games, or countless others, it is truly impressive just how many different things the medium can find to hover around. In the case of Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation, bones play a prominent role through the lead character, Sakurako, who is an osteologist, and, thus, obsessed with the things. This plays into the show being a series of whodunits as she and her assistant, Shoutarou, solve a series of deaths through forensic investigation.

While Sakurako is the person who the show is named for, Shoutarou is the one that it centers around. He's a high school student who happened to befriend Sakurako through a misunderstanding, and largely helps her out as circumstances throw one dead body after the next at the pair. The first few episodes are one-offs with the pair find themselves in situations where they stumble across a dead body. Sakurako is delighted whenever this happens given her field of expertise and is eager to both figure out how the person died and find a way to sneak the bones home to add to her collection (Shoutarou always prevents the latter, so she'll have to settle for collecting animal bones).

Watching her walk through what likely happened is always interesting, as there's a logic behind the techno-babble. She'll bring up a lot of stuff about how bones work, chemicals, or some such, but in the end the cause of death makes sense and isn't bogged down in the explanation. One thing that I didn't like early on in the series was when she would say she was about to solve the case, as it segued into a silly animation sequence where she would put on latex gloves and there would be these weird silhouettes of animals walking by. It was cheesy and nonsensical. I have to assume that the reason it was there was because the studio that made the show felt they needed some sort of catch phrase for when she was about to solve a case, and it also made a nice way to waste a few seconds on repeatable footage for killing time and bringing the budget down a bit. In any case, this was surprisingly off putting for me even though it was such a short sequence, but, thankfully, they did away with it later on in the season, which was a huge relief.

Such a terrible animation glad they got rid of it.

What's also nice is that not all mysteries in the show are murders. There are some circumstances where Sakurako is just trying to figure out how someone died with little to no foul play involved. I particularly liked the episode where she was helping Yuriko (one of Shoutarou's classmates) figure out how her grandmother died. There was still a death to solve, but more so it was about trying to find a way to bring Yuriko a bit of closure in the wake of someone very important to her passing away.

Some of the best bits, though, were anything to do with Hanabusa, a mysterious painter that is involved with many of the deaths and attempted murders that Sakurako has been trying to solve. The guy is obviously very smart and a master manipulator, making for a worth arch rival to her. The only problem right now is that the series ended on a big cliffhanger as of this writing and I have no idea if they ever plan to continue the anime or are they expecting us to get the light novel, which has not been translated into English.

The back and forth between Shoutarou and Sakurako feels very natural as if they're brother and sister, which begins to make sense as we learn more about Sakurako's past. While she can seem cold and distant at times, she obviously cares very much about Shoutarou and always has his best interests at heart. Also, it's humorous when we see a softer side of her should the opportunity for sweets arise, which she is quite fond of. While much of what the pair are investigating is serious stuff, often times there's very good use of lighthearted comedic elements in the banter between them.

Supporting cast also feels reasonably well done. Yuriko is likable enough, and the episode where she tries to help the lost child at the festival makes her out to be quite the sweet girl. Shoutarou's teacher, Ituski, can be fun too. His obsession with plants is almost as intense as Sakurako's is with bones, and he can be quite laid back in so far as teachers go. I noticed that he's voiced by Akira Ishida, which was nice, as I've been a fan of his since Katsura on Gintama. He sure does seem busy these days, being in many of the series I've been watching of late. Hiroki was the only supporting character that I never really warmed up to. Seeing as Sakurako and Shoutarou keep finding corpses, he's the local police officer that often is on the case first when they report what they found. He just seemed too much the stereotypical bumbling, easy going guy, and a bit cookie cutter as a result.

Conversely, the setting for Beautiful Bones felt comparatively unique seeing as the show takes place in Hokkaido. This made for a lot of rather pretty vistas as Sakurako and Shoutarou often ventured of into the wilderness in their travels. As a result, the animation was very colorful with all of the foliage, not to mention a number of scenes at sunset creating golden hues on everything. The detail in the designs of the different scenes and characters are also worth noting, especially places like Sakurako's house.

So, on the whole, the show was a good watch, and I do recommend checking it out. The mysteries are interesting, while the characters add more flavor to the story. My only concern now is that we don't know if there will be a season two, which is a bit worrisome given the ending to the first season. If this is all we'll get and it turns into a "Please Read the Manga!" series, I'll be thoroughly disappointed and have a slightly more bittersweet view of Beautiful Bones.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Wild Arms Revival Incoming?

One of the earliest JRPGs on the original PlayStation was Wild Arms. For a lot of early adopters of the system, it was what kept them busy as they waited for Final Fantasy VII to come out. What they discovered, though, was that the game was actually pretty good. While simple, it handled 3D visuals reasonably well, and the Old West aesthetic was a setting that just wasn't coming into play in the genre (or any other genre for that matter). With that, Wild Arms became a reasonably successful series, resulting in five mainline games and a tactical strategy RPG. However, we haven't seen a new entry in the series since 2007.

Now there's reason to be excited as the series creator, Akifumi Kaneko, tweeted about meetings he was having with Sony regarding Wild Arms' 20th anniversary. Gematsu has a translation here, and it looks like the series composer, Michiko Naruke, was there as well. That's all we have to go on right now, but it does open the door to some interesting speculation.

Will this just be a remaster of one of the early games, possibly with some new arranged music tracks a la Final Fantasy X / X-2 Remaster? Maybe a bit of fanfare for the Wild Arms PS2 games before they become available on the PS4? If it was a new game in the series, I could see people being pretty happy about that. There've been rumors floating around that Sony has two JRPGs in development for the PlayStation 4 with one possibly by Level-5, but we don't know what the other is. For all we know, it could be a new Wild Arms.

For now, though, all we can do is wait and see if any more information trickles out. I for one wouldn't complain if the series came back. The Western theme always struck me as unique and the games are something I've closely tied with the PS1 and PS2. Star Ocean managed to stick around, making an appearance last generation. However, Wild Arms just disappeared. It could all be a pipe dream, but it would be nice if this is a beginning to actually reviving the series.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Spike Chunsoft Planning More PC Ports: Speculation Time!

The other day word got out that Danganronpa would be coming to PC via Steam in February and people were rather taken aback / pleasantly surprised by the news. It's a well-regarded visual novel that is a cross between Battle Royale and Phoenix Wright where students are trapped in their high school and the only way to escape is to kill one of their classmates and get away with it. First debuting on the Vita, the series has quite the cult following now, so this port is happy news indeed.

Now, word is getting out that the game's developer, Spike Chunsoft, are planning to bring more of their games to PC. The question, though, is which ones because they have a lot of them and many are quite good.

I suspect most folks will be clamoring for Zero Escape since that's the company's other big series. These had people trapped in a facility trying to escape as well, with a pronounced split between the visual novel and adventure elements of the games. If these games do come to PC, one of the questions on a lot of people's minds will be whether the 999 port is of the DS or iOS version of the game. If it's the latter, I can see some people having mixed feelings about it, but this is all idle speculation at this point.

After this, it's a hodgepodge of titles that seem plausible for release on Steam given that they mostly had Vita versions and that platform has been seeing a lot of PC ports over the last year or so. Games of this ilk that could come over include Exist Archive, a JRPG with some rather charming art, Shiren the Wanderer 5, which would make a lot of sense given how popular rogue-likes are these days, and the two Conception games.

It's really starting to look like Japanese developers are throwing the doors wide open for getting their games on Steam with all of these announcements of late, and now Spike Chunsoft expressing enthusiasm for it. My gut tells me that Zero Escape will be the other series that they focus on bringing over, but it's tough to say for certain given some of the very unexpected PC ports we've been getting. I'm not complaining, though, as I love these sorts of games. The more Japanese games we get on Steam, the better.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - Goodbye Productivity

A few years ago, Capcom turned some heads with their own take on the Western action RPG when they released Dragon's Dogma. It was non-linear with a huge world to explore, fluid combat, an interesting method for NPCs to help the player, and an inexplicable buttrock intro. All-in-all, the whole thing worked and the game earned itself a respectable following. With the company porting quite a few of its games to PC a lot of folks were hoping that this one would be going that route as well, but for the longest time Capcom remained silent, and the game's lead developer went so far as to say that it would never happen.

So, imagine the surprise and elation when it was finally announced that the title's follow-up, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, would be getting ported to Steam. There were quite a few happy folk that day, and I was one of them. Now that the game is finally out, I've been pouring an ungodly amount of time into it. Really, just a disgusting amount of time. It's ridiculous. For the last few months, I've been quietly lamenting that there weren't any games out there that have really sunk their claws into me, but this is the one to finally change that.

The game starts with a little tutorial level where you and a growing team of adventurers are hunting a dragon in some old ruins nestled in the mountains. While it largely acts as a means to familiarize players with basic gameplay mechanics, the experience does get the ball rolling with the idea that the big bad of the game is a dragon, which makes sense since "dragon" is right in the name of the game.

After steamrolling through this and not actually fighting any dragons (but you do fight a chimera), the game fast forwards to the present where players create a character, going through a surprisingly deep selection of features for fine tuning its appearance. I went for a brunette country girl named Paprika, and made her a strider, which is a dagger and bow wielding kind of class (Note: players are able to change classes later in the game).

From there it introduced her as a villager in a small fishing settlement on the cost. People are just going about their business when out of nowhere a dragon attacks. My character, seeing one of her friends in trouble runs in to try and fight the dragon. Of course, she loses, then the dragon plucks out her heart, utters an incantation, and eats the heart. After this, Paprika passed out, coming to a time later in one of the village houses with other survivors. Somehow, she's still alive with a huge scar on her chest and whenever she touches it the voice of the dragon speaks, issuing a challenge for her to come and find him for a showdown.

With that piece of knowledge in mind, I proceeded to do just about anything but that, gathering my stuff and wandering around the countryside in search of adventure. Exploration hasn't felt as completely open as something like Elder Scrolls or Fallout, being hemmed in by cliffs and mountain passes in the opening areas, but there are still plenty of wandering goblin packs, bandit camps, and the occasional cave to tempt passersby. Taking the time to indulge myself in these for a bit, I proceeded to pound out a few levels.

Paprika wasn't alone in doing this, however, as the game has a system whereby NPCs called pawns who will join her. These are beings that look human but don't quite have the spark of life that a real person has. They come from another realm and enter this one via portal stones. Since Paprika's run-in with the dragon, they view her as someone they call "The Arisen" so they're more than happy to tag along with her on adventures. What's particularly interesting about this is that each player creates a pawn of their own, just as they would a normal character (I named mine Cecil, and made him into a mage). They'll continue to grow and become more powerful just as your character does, gaining levels while the player gears them up better. Why this matters is that they're all kept track of on Capcom's servers allowing players to recruit other people's pawns. You'll see them wandering around town and along roads on the world map where you can talk to them and, if you have enough space in your party or want to boot someone else, you can add them to your group. It's also possible to go through their portal stones and select potential pawns. Of course, they'll need to be in your level range, and one needn't worry about other players being trolls as what they do with those pawns stays in their own game and won't have any impact for good or ill on your own.

Currently, I have three pawns with me, a fighter and two mages. This has been proving a good mix thus far as the fighter acts as a tank while my mages cast healing, offensive, and support spells from afar and I have the option of hanging back, bombarding enemies with arrows, or running in knives ready for melee combat.

Surprisingly, the pawns are reasonably bright. In a lot of other games with NPC helpers, their usefulness can be debatable. Skyrim's house jarls are a fine example of this with those guys' legendarily poor judgement. In Dragon's Dogma, the pawns look like Rhodes' Scholars by comparison. My fighter will bang her sword on her shield to distract monsters so that everyone else can go after its weak point. On humanoid enemies, if she gets close enough, she will hold it from behind so that others in the group can get some free shots on it. Meanwhile, my mages are quick to figure out what elemental weaknesses a baddy has and exploits them. So, if it appears susceptible to flame, out come the fireballs. Even more interesting, if the same monster somehow gets soaked, say it fell in a lake, the mages will pick up on this and stop using fire spells since they'll be ineffective and switch to lightning or ice spells since they'll work better on the soggy foe. The pawns are very impressive in how well they can fight on their own. Players do have some basic commands they can issue like telling them to charge into a fight, follow the player, or help the player, but a lot of the time they can be left to their own devices without much trouble.

When I finally got around to actually doing some of the main quest line, it became quite apparent that the game is not shy about pitting players against large enemies. In short order, my group found itself fighting off a cyclops and a host of goblins, then a massive hydra not long after. Big baddies like this actually feel like major battles as they have a ton of hit points and if there are a lot of other NPCs around they'll join in trying to stave the thing off. Best of all, you can actually climb up these things. If they have a weak spot on their head, it's worth it for a melee character to grab onto its leg, then try and leap to its back, and finally swing up behind its head in order to cling on and bludgeon it into submission. The thing won't just sit there doing nothing and will try to fling off anyone scaling it, but this can be offset by various stats on gear and unlockable abilities. In any case, these fights are pretty nuts.

After making my way through a few more of the main story quests, my party finds itself in the capital with a nice big stack of quests for them to get on. They've just now finished a jaunt into some old dungeons below the city that are normally watched over by the local pawns. There've been some strange goings on there that they haven't been able to deal with so it was up to us to go down there and see what was wrong.

At first, it felt like a fairly standard romp in a dilapidated dungeon with hordes of undead to fight through. However, when we finally got to the bottom and took a look at the area in question, we were set upon by these tentacles that kept coming out of the ground. After a couple of minutes, it became obvious that attacking them was pointless because all that would happen is more would come out of the ground. Looking around the room, there were no signs of levers, magic items, or anything else to deal with them. So, without any real idea of what to do about the things, I called over my pawns and got them to follow me so we could escape. Maybe I'd need to talk to someone about finding a relic or some such in order to defeat the things? As we neared the exit, it triggered a cut scene and my group finally made it to the safety of the pawn-held stronghold above. As it turns out, the correct way of dealing with the tentacles is, in fact, to run away. This surprised and impressed me because the vast majority of the time games just have players kill all the things and press on. Running away isn't an option, and in the rare case that it is, the whole thing is heavily telegraphed by cut scenes. Dragon's Dogma didn't imply this at all, with the pawns saying that attacking the tentacles was useless and nothing more. It's interesting that something like retreat can play such a major role in a quest, and the game leaves it up to the player to figure it out.

And that's where I am now. Figuring out to do about some out of control tentacles (I wonder if I could convince them to take up a career in the seedier side of anime), and a small army of other odd jobs I could be doing, but the only thing I actually want to do is venture off in some random direction and see what's out there. Normally, this is the approach I'd take to a game like Skyrim, but that feeling is ten times stronger here. There's something about the way the combat, aesthetic, and exploration works so well together in Dragon's Dogma that makes me like it far more than Elder Scrolls. Crazy talk? Maybe, but I'm just glad to have finally found a game that I really want to sink my teeth into after all this time.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Read Only Memories: A Love Letter to Snatcher

While point-and-click adventures dominated PC gaming in much of the 80s and 90s, we largely saw a Western interpretation of the genre. Games of this ilk were a rarity in Japan, as RPGs were what folks tended to gravitate toward over there when they wanted a narrative heavy experience. That's not to say no adventure games ever came out over there, because they did, but they were a rarity by comparison, and developers' take on the genre was quite different. These games, while still having puzzles and whatnot to solve, were often much more focused on story and visuals with two of the most well-known games of this sort being Snatcher and Policenauts.

Both of these were created by Hideo Kojima before Metal Gear Solid became his primary focus in development, being heavily inspired by films like Blade Runner and The Terminator with their cyberpunk, film noire undertones. The games were a fascinating take on adventure games as they went about story, puzzles, and ambience in their own way. These days, they're largely viewed as classics, and only now are we seeing people put out a game that is very much an homage to them with Read Only Memories, a game that goes for this much more Japanese approach to adventure games.

Just like the games it's emulating, players set on a cyberpunk romp, exploring Neo San Francisco as they help a little robot named Turing figure out what happened to its creator, who also just so happens to be an old friend of the main character. All the while, visuals akin to late 8-bit and early 16-bit games fill the screen, and synth-heavy tunes stream from the speakers. It's something I'd expect to see on a Sega Genesis with a slightly more modern sensibility in terms of artistic style.

Playing through it, the game ticks a lot of the right boxes as a fan of Snatcher, although it does feel a tiny bit more like a visual novel than an adventure game. A lot of one's time is spent in conversation with people either chatting or trying to get information out of them. So, the most players have to worry about in these situation is the kind of persona that they want the main character to project, usually selecting from a nice guy answer, a dickish answer, and something in the middle. The answers do matter in that there are multiple endings to the game and they're impacted in part by what Turing thinks of you once it's over, making it something to keep in mind.

This isn't to say you'll spend your whole time talking to people, trying to solve a crime. There still are some puzzles to solve and other non-conversational activities, many of them quite novel. Nonetheless, that is what a majority of one's time will be spent doing, so have a cup of tea ready and settle in for some reading.

Thankfully, the story is good. Solving the mystery of Turing's missing creator takes a fair bit of sleuthing, and feels very noire while going about it. There isn't anything that is hugely novel about it, but a cast of charming characters with some nice plot twists keep things interesting. ROM does try to touch on some social issues, but it doesn't feel like the game is being preachy about it. If the player wants to sit down and have a good think about them, they can go down quite the rabbit hole, but that's on the individual, as the game doesn't dwell on the stuff, simply putting it out there as food for thought instead.

Fans of games like Snatcher and Policenauts should seriously think about giving Read Only Memories a shot. It really does a good job of revisiting the sorts of games these were, rare gems in their own time that didn't get the attention they deserved when they first came out. From recapturing the aesthetic to giving us a nice little cyberpunk story, the game will be most welcome to folks who miss this sort of adventure game even if it does lean a little bit more toward feeling like a visual novel.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

PSO2 Anime: Best Unintentional Comedy of 2016?

As much as I adore Sega, there will forever be this small pit of animosity that I'll harbour toward the company for never releasing Phantasy Star Online 2 in the West. There's not even much point arguing it anymore, as it just isn't going to happen at this rate. If I want to play it, I'll need to just use the English patch and never be able to give Sega any money for it since the game doesn't accept foreign credit cards in-game.

So, imagine my surprise when I found out that an anime based on the game was in the works, and not only that but it would be getting simulcast on Crunchyroll. It really made me wonder if some part of the cosmos was mocking me, rubbing salt in my wounds knowing how much this would get on my nerves. Sega can't be bothered to bring PSO2 our way but screw it, they'll greenlight an animated series pretty much designed as a glorified advertisement for their game to be shown in the West. Up yours, Sega. Do you seriously think I'm going to watch this and open myself up to wave upon wave of heartache as this show constantly reminds me of a game that will never get an official localization?

Of course, I'm going to watch it. This is the sort of self hate that Phantasy Star fans routinely inflict on themselves. The first episode is up, so it's time to hop on board this train.

Not surprisingly, the show is quite bad. There's probably worse out there, but I don't usually go out of my way to find bad anime. PSO2 doesn't have any standout qualities to it. If anything, it feels like the show's main character, Itsuki Tachibana, is a metaphor the the show. He's touted as someone that is "just okay" at everything. He gets okay grades and helps out with lots of activities around the school in an "okay" manner. The guy isn't good or exemplary in anything, merely adequate. The anime is just like that with everything about it being "just okay." Even the soundtrack manages to be "just okay" which is flabbergasting when one considers how good the music in Phantasy Star games normally is.

Actually, there is one area in which PSO2 excels, and that's in how bad the story is. Obviously, one shouldn't go into this show expecting much. It's basically a 12-episode advertisement for an MMORPG. Nonetheless, the unabashed way in which this thing flogs the game is pretty embarrassing and I've seen porn with better mechanisms to justify advancing a plot point than some of the stuff PSO2 pulls.

In the first episode, it basically introduces the main characters, beats viewers over the head telling them how great PSO2 is, then somehow the student council decides to recruit Itsuki to fill in the role of vice president because the girl who usually occupies the that post is studying abroad for a year. Then the show informs us that his sole responsibility as vice president is to play PSO2 because apparently it's what the school is doing to test how good its Wi-Fi network is. Call me crazy, but there are probably much better ways of going about that.

With that, Itsuki installs the game on his PC and plays it for a bit where we see him get into a battle and meet a CAST player named Soro, formally introducing the game to viewers. After he'd finished, he had to write a report on his session for the student council and submit it. The president said, "Good job!" and earnestly reminded Itsuki to make sure he kept his grades up while working on this project.

Looking back, I don't think I've ever in my life cringed and laughed in such a way as I did. The whole thing was such a mix of brazen product flogging and bad writing that I'm pretty sure my brain shut down multiple times during the show as a defense mechanism to protect me from all of the stupid. The crazy thing is that we have eleven more episodes of this, and part of me is darn tempted to keep on going down this rabbit whole to see just how bad things gets. This really could be something amazing for all of the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

EA Starting Subscription Service for PC Games with Origin Access

Throwing their hat into the ever expanding world of subscription-based services, EA has announced Origin Access. With this, people will be able to pay a monthly subscription for access to Origin and the PC games that they have on it for about $5 per month, expanding the service beyond the Xbox One where it originated via EA pun intended...

So far, there are only about a dozen games from their library that are available for use with some glaring exceptions. Of the titles available, one can play any of the Dragon Age games, a selection of Battlefield titles, the Dead Space series, Need for Speed Rivals, Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare, FIFA '15, Sim City, and The Sims 3. So, there are some glaring omissions, such as the entire Mass Effect series, but the company says that more games will be added to the service in the future.

With us living in a world where many people have gotten into the habit of buy games on Steam simply because they're cheap, and then never actually playing them, I wonder if this may actually be a decent alternative. Paying a few bucks a month simply for access to games and playing them at one's leisure seems a reasonable way of going instead of just scooping something up and possibly not playing it ever.

That being said, the service could still stand to be improved in some ways, of course. As it stands, there's only a monthly payment option as opposed to a discounted annual one. A lot of folks do like to pay once yearly, especially if they make a lot of use of the service. Outlets like Netflix and Crunchyroll are good examples of places that have benefited from this. Also, we'll need to see more games be made available before it really catches on, I think. Expanding the sports games selection seems like a no-brainer in that regard.

I'm also curious how EA will handle adding highly anticipated newer titles to the service. Will they be delayed with people purchasing them first alongside all of the season passes and what not for big bucks, and only after that cohort of consumers have been bled dry will it be added to Origin Access? Notice that Star Wars Battlefront isn't on the service. There's probably more money to be made from traditional sales avenues on that game, so EA may be holding off on that one and I could see the same thing happening when Mirror's Edge Catalyst comes along.

This is something that I could see potentially revitalizing somewhat older online games with dwindling player bases as well. How many people will install some iteration of Battlefield that is available on the subscription and give it a go just for the hell of it? Assuming EA has the wherewithall to provide basic support on those games, I could see some people sticking with them. It could even breath some new life into games like Titan Fall and Syndicate too if they get added to Access.

As much as some people like to poo-poo EA and their business practices (and really, much of the time it's totally deserved), I can see this service being pretty good if the company supports it well. Games are becoming more and more commoditized all the time now, so a switch from straight up buying them to a subscription model for access to them could well be embraced by a sizable number of people. This all leaves me wondering if / when Access will come to the PS4.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

So, Final Fantasy IX on the PC...

A week or so ago, Square-Enix let slip that they're planning to bring Final Fantasy IX to the PC in 2016. It's a move that isn't all that surprising when you look at all of the other games in that series which they've been steadily porting to it over the years. At this point it's largely a matter of speculation as to which of the remain games in the franchise will be ported next rather than if it will be ported. (I'm honestly surprised that Tactics isn't on PC yet.)

Now that we know IX is coming our way shortly, we're also beginning to learn about some of the changes being made to the port. When the Steam page went active, one of the first things that I noticed was that the game is going to require 20GB of storage space. For a port of a game that originally released on the first PlayStation, that's a lot of real estate. As a point of reference, Final Fantasy VII only requires 3GB while VIII needs 4GBs. So, we're seeing quite the jump here which suggests a lot of changes.

I have to assume that the majority of these 20GBs comes from all of the high resolution movies that the developers are promising. Cut scenes were a big contributor to why the various iterations of XIII gobble up so much hard drive space. This move isn't exactly going to win brownie points with me, as I've come out in the past expressing my concern with the continuing bloat of game size in recent years.

For those who like their graphics extra pretty, FFIX is getting a bit of a discombobulated upgrade. As mentioned, the cut scenes are getting the HD treatment (whatever that means), and character models are getting polished up a bit as well. Unfortunately, backgrounds are not. You can thank Japanese design ethos of the 80s and 90s for this, when companies didn't make a point of keeping back-ups of all assets for that. So, for this release the most players can hope for is a bit of upscaling on the environments which, while not terrible, kinda stick out judging by the screenshots making the rounds.

Another thing we'll be seeing in this edition of the game is a number of methods by which players can speed things along. We know that there'll be a "high speed" mode that pretty much does as one would expect, speeding up actual battles, as well as a "no encounter" mode which eliminates all random encounters from the game. It sounds like there'll be more modes, but it's hard to be sure, and it is funny because they really do showcase one of the Achilles heels of traditional, old school JRPGs: random battles. They're often so tedious that revisiting them now almost necessitates accelerated modes of play like these.

Of course, there will be stuff like achievements and autosave features implemented as well, so a decent amounts of bits and bobs added for the PC release. Personally, that 20GBs of hard drive space is making the game a bit of a hard sell for me, even with all of the new stuff being added, and granted I do have the PS1 version of the game that I can play whenever I feel like it, so there isn't exactly a huge urge welling up inside of me to play this. Nonetheless, Final Fantasy IX is pretty much up there as one of the best games in the series as far as I'm concerned (alongside IV, VI, and XII), so I can see quite a few people snapping it up when the game releases. It's won't be lacking for demand at any rate.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Oculus Rift to Cost $600

With years of people shouting at each other on the internet about whether or not VR will be the next big thing, we have some numbers to play with now in terms of how much the Oculus Rift will cost. That number is 600. Dollars. So yeah, not cheap.

At this stage, though, the company is obviously going after the early adopters who will happily toss huge sums of money their way in order to get their mitts on the technology. It'll still be a while before we see a lot of games that try and take advantage of VR, so the Oculus Occultists will be a must in getting the word out and they seem content to spend the big bucks on this thing.

What I'm curious about now, however, is what price point will Sony's VR gadget clock in at. They can more readily go the mass produced route in all likelihood, which would make it more reasonable that they're able to put something out in the $300-$400 range. After that it all comes down to software for all parties.

As hyped up as VR has been, I'm still a bit skeptical of the whole thing. There are certainly genres that will benefit from it, but as someone who likes a third person perspective while playing stuff, being thrust into the first person via VR just isn't very appealing to me. In any case, we're getting all that much closer to the technology hitting the mass market, which will finally let us see if people really want VR beyond those on the internet that have been talking about it.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Tons of RPGs are Coming in 2016

As a fan of role-playing games it can be an exciting / daunting thing when there are lots of games coming out in the genre that look interesting. Part of me wants to play all of them, but then I realize just how much of a time commitment that would be and quickly back down from the idea. Nonetheless, 2016 has tons of RPGs due for release that look like they could be fun, so let's run down the list and start getting sad that there's no way we'll ever have the time for all of them.

Note - This isn't going to be some utterly comprehensive list, as we'd be here forever doing that. I'll just be talking about the games that have caught my eye.

Darkest Dungeon

This one sort of has my attention, but not in a huge way. I'm curious how the whole gameplay mechanic of party members getting scared will impact the game. Darkest Dungeon seems to be reasonably well-received from what people have said of the game in its Early Access form, so it has that going for it. It's also a rogue-like, which makes it something I'd probably be more inclined to spend some time with since I find those sorts of games far more palatable these days than the notion of having to dive into a 50+ hour juggernaut of a game.

Fire Emblem: Fates

It's getting to be that time again. With most people having gotten Awakening out of their systems, strategy RPG fans are getting thirsty for a new Fire Emblem game, and they'll be getting that with Fates. The game looks like what one would expect from an entry in the series with a fantasy setting, plenty of permadeath for those who like going that route, and a new Phoenix Mode for those who not only despise permadeath but want their characters revived by the next turn. The game is actually planned to be massive as it has two versions: Birthright/Conquest and Revelations. Both take place in the same story, but each has it's story focused on one of the two factions with side characters and the like tossed in. It can be handled by getting two physical games, but it looks like it may be cheaper to go a DLC route for folks that want to do all the things, however. Bare in mind that if you do want to experience every last thing to be done in Fates, I'm hearing the full game with both factions and such is expected to be three times the size of Fire Emblem: Awakenings, so that could take a while to get through.

Stranger of Sword City

I'm a sucker for dungeon crawls. From the moment I first played Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on the family Apple IIe as a kid, I was hooked. So, it should come as no surprise that I'm pretty hyped for this. It's a game that initially came out in Japan on the 360 a few years ago, but thanks to some Steam release leaks it's looking highly probable that we'll be seeing it later this year on PC. Give me some interesting races, monsters, classes, and weapons, toss me in a bunch of dungeons, and I'm happy.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows

Like pause-able real-time tactical RPGs a la Baldur's Gate? Have a thing for stylistic art direction? I know I do. That's what we're getting with Masquerada. Toss in the fact that the game takes place in a Venice-inspired fantasy world where magic comes from masks, and we have a potentially quite interesting game here.

Horizon Zero Dawn

There are a couple of games coming out this year that would get me seriously considering picking up a PS4. This is one of them. While a lot of post-apocolyptic games take place in worlds shortly after a disaster, war, or some such happened, with mutants, deserts, and hopelessness everywhere, Horizon appears to be set in a world well after the fall of human society. There are still cities in ruin, but nature has long since retaken those places covering them with plant life. On top of this, it looks like machines are a major threat to humans, but they've taken the form of wildlife with strange, animal-like contraptions roaming in herds and being hunted by the humans. Now, slap all of this into a very pretty package with a big, open world and we have plenty to be excited about.

Nier: Automata

This would be the other game that could get me looking closer at the PS4. I liked the original Nier. It was a fun little action RPG with interesting environments and some impressive swearing. So, now, with a sequel on the way I'm kind of intrigued by it, especially with Platinum working on it. I'm a sucker for their approach to combat, so that has gotten my ears all the more perked for Automata.

Project Setsuna

Centering around a mercenary who is escorting a girl named Setsuna to be sacrificed in order to appease some demons, this game is sure to be a real heart warmer. The developers are going for a decidedly retro approach to combat here siting games from the 90s like Chrono Trigger as inspiration, so as someone who grew up on games like that, this is music to my ears. The visuals also look quite nice going for an oil paint aesthetic.

Torment: Tides of Numenera

It was probably wishful thinking that this game would get released in 2015, but now it's a pretty safe bet that we'll see the game out this year. Planescape: Torment is one of my all time favorite RPGs, so I've been pretty excited about this new Torment game for some time now. Sure, it's going to have a lot to live up to, but so far what's been shown of the game looks promising.

Persona 5

Well, I guess I better toss this in as one more game that could get force my hand in getting a PS4. I do quite like the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei games that I've had time to play, so diving into Persona 5 when it comes along is quite tempting. It looks like the developers are going with an "if it's not broken, don't fix it" approach with the game, and I'm fine with that. The Persona games have always had good dungeons and interesting stories, and it's hard to think of a reason to deviate from that formula.

World of Final Fantasy

This is a game more intended to introduce younger audiences to the Final Fantasy universe, but after seeing the trailer I can't help but feel that the game looks so charming. It's tempting to snap this up and wander the lands meeting all the folks from various Final Fantasies while going on an adventure. It also helps that the combat looks pretty neat.