Soul Hackers comes out today and Atlus was kind of enough to send a free copy my way as thanks for being such a long-time fan (and writing the first walkthrough for the game way back when). I’ve only been able to play a few hours on the 3DS version so far but between that and my experience with the Saturn version of the game, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grasp of the game’s quality.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first – this is a mostly straight port of a game that first came out in Japan in 1997. And though the art designs are quality, the actual tech running the graphics aren’t. The 2D art ain’t bad (though of limited animation) but the 3D exploration & the animated cutscenes are pretty laughable. The story can also be laughable at times but in a charming sort of “This is what people in the 90s thought the future might be like” sort of way.
However, the gameplay in Soul Hackers is gloriously sophisticated in an old-school way. 6 party slots (2 for your human characters, 4 for your summoned demons). Lots of fun equipment to mess around with. Software add-ons for your gun-computer (yes, this is a thing) that you can install for various bonuses. Monster negotiation (complete with little smiley faces to indicate which monsters might be swayed over to your side with the right persuasion techniques). An ally AI & alignment system. Demon-infused sword crafting. Spirit Quests where you take control of new characters for special mini-scenarios. And so on and so on.
Besides the obvious change of “THE GAME IS FINALLY IN ENGLISH WOOHOOO!” most of the changes in the 3DS version are quality of life improvements. There are some basic 3D effects. Load times have been dropped to basically nil. Combat is super-fast even on the default setting. The bottom screen of the 3DS is used to show off typical useful information like maps & enemy stats. Additional options have been added to the game to let players customize their experience and make the game easier (or harder) than it originally was. A streetpass feature has been added that lets you trade in streetpass coins for new allies. One improvement that was a bit of a welcome surprise is the voice acting – it’s both of high quality & there’s more of it than I expected.
Now that it’s in English, I think Soul Hackers has overthrown Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne as my favorite Atlus game that isn’t Persona 4 Golden. Yes, the visuals are dated but if you can look past that, you’ll find a game that’s at the pinnacle of the 32-bit RPG era. Highly recommended.
Go Home Dinosaurs! is a tower defense game with a Tetris-twist. You see, each of your “towers” has a certain shape to it and you’re only able to place them where you have enough room on the level map, thus forcing the player to mix up their strategies from level to level. In addition to your towers, you also have an avatar who can move around the map to collect coconuts (your tower-buying currency), act as a weak mobile tower, and who can be temporarily upgraded with power-ups if you need a sudden burst of power to take down a particularly difficult wave of dinosaurs. The visuals are clean and colorful, the music is inoffensive, and the voices of your fighting force are mildly funny at first before becoming annoying (but luckily, you can turn them off).
Go Home Dinosaurs! is a lot of fun while it lasts which unfortunately isn’t very long. Most tower defense games have high score competitions, higher difficulty levels, endless modes, and sometimes even all-new bonus modes, but there’s none of that here. According to my Steam client, it took me about 6 hours to complete every level in Go Home Dinosaurs with the highest score. I could probably stretch out another hour to that playtime if I wanted to get the 6 achievements that are gained by beating certain levels a specific way, and a few more hours if I cared about getting the more grind-heavy achievements (like buy all of the stuff in the store & defeat over 10,000 dinosaurs) but there’s no denying that Go Home Dinosaurs is a lot shorter than other favorite tower defense games like Plants vs. Zombies, Pixeljunk Monsters, Defense Grid, and Defender’s Quest.
Still, better short & sweet than long and boring, right?
I was going to review Elminage Original for the site but after playing it for a bit, I just couldn’t take any more.
DO NOT BUY ELMINAGE ORIGINAL!
The game itself seems like a decent enough old-school dungeon crawler, but there are a few major problems that preventing me from enjoying it.
The translation is atrocious. It feels like they did a rough draft over about 80% of the game, didn’t bother to edit it, and then used machine translation to cover the rest. It’ll start sentences in the middle of words from the previous sentence. In the same menu, some of the choices will be capitalized, some will have periods, and some will not. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a translation this bad; maybe the 8-bit era?
Menus & controls are clunky & unintuitive. To talk to stuff in dungeons, you press the Triangle button (what game does that?!). Items & even gold is distributed on a character basis so there’s lot of transferring stuff between characters before you can use it.
Very little in the way of tutorials or guidance. For example, there are several classes and races to choose from and the only way to figure out what they do and their strengths & weaknesses is through trial and error.
It’s REALLY old school. Items all need to be appraised, LVs can only be gained at the inn, D&D style AC, etc.
If it wasn’t for the translation, then I could see fighting past the interface issues if you really like really old-school RPGs with lots of classes & equipment, but this kind of release is completely unacceptable. I’ve played games with problematic translations before, but a translation this bad almost makes the game unplayable and certainly makes it unenjoyable. Do not buy Elminage Original! If you want a dungeon crawler RPG on your PSP, Unchained Blades is rather good & Class of Heroes 2 looks promising (should be out early this year). And if you’ve got a DS or 3DS, you’ve got other good options like the Etrian Odyssey series & Shin Megami series.
I finished Persona 4 Golden last night. Hard mode, best ending. Just under 58 hours. And well, when I finished, I was tempted to start right back again on New Game+. That never happens.
Persona 3 was a great RPG and Persona 4 fixed many of its problems, while improving on its strengths to become one of my favorite games of all time. Likewise, Persona 4 Golden fixes & improves on the original P4 release. It’s a much more user-friendly game this time around – you can skip & rewind story sequences, creating new personas is much less of a hassle (you can pick inherited abilities & you can also see a list of all personas that you can currently create), death is less of a penalty (it starts you back at the beginning of that floor instead of at your last save), and you can easily see what you can do each day via the online feature. And since it’s a game that still has save spots, it’s wonderful to have it on a portable device so that you can just stop and start wherever you like.
Some people have complained that there is ONLY one new dungeon in the Golden version and ONLY 2 new S-Links compared to Persona 3: FES which added a whole slew of new dungeons & Persona 3 Portable which added an entire new playable protagonist and a bunch of new S-Links for them. I think these people are missing the point. Yes, there’s only one new dungeon but it’s an interesting one with some new gameplay ideas and some neat story to it and it adds another 3 hours or so to the game. Yes, there are only 2 new S-Links, but between the new S-Links & the new dungeon, the overall story feels a lot more coherent (especially the ending which was one of the weak points of the original version). And though those are the big additions, they added tons of little stuff here and there in the form of various events & activities you can participate in. For example, you can now hang out with party members in the evening and you’ll get fun little conversations depending on who you’re hanging out with and how far along in the story you are. I was also surprised to find that there’s a new extended epilogue ending to the game if you get the best ending & complete the bonus dungeon. There’s also a large Special Feature section of the game that lets you do things like watch cutscenes & trailers, listen to music, watch & listen to songs from the Persona 3 & 4 concerts, view concept art, and even learn about the psychology behind Persona’s world.
As far as gameplay changes go, there are two that I think improve the Persona 4 experience greatly. First, they did away with the twitch-based “Select a Card while it’s quickly rotating in front of you” game from the previous Persona versions and have replace it with a very fun mini-puzzle game. A number of cards are placed in front of you, each with a positive or negative effect. Some cards (mostly the negative ones) also allow you to pick additional cards and if you manage to select every card, you get an additional bonus so it becomes a fun little game to try to maximize your bonuses after each battle.
The other big change to gameplay they made is with your allies. They’ve rebalanced their skillsets and also allowed them to gain additional abilities via S-Link ranks & taking day trips with them. You can also give them XP & stat bonuses by going to see movies with them (but just once per character per movie). The end result is that your allies feel much closer to the main character’s power level than they did in Persona 3 & 4 (at least, until you fuse the perfect persona for your main character that’s immune to pretty much everything).
If I had to complain about one thing, though, it would be the difficulty cure. Persona 4 Golden has an inverse difficulty curve – the first couple of bosses are the hardest in the game since you’re still limited in your party options, everyone’s S-Link levels are low and you still have weak persona. However, if you play your cards right, you just keep getting more and more powerful with the result that I’m guessing most people will start to feel overpowered before the game is over, at which point, you’re just going through the motions trying to finish things off with no real challenge from anything other than maybe the occasional boss.
Persona 4 Golden is easily Atlus’ best remake to date of what is probably their best game to date. If you own a Vita & like RPGs, it’s a must-have and if you don’t have a Vita yet, it’s a strong reason to get one.
Long-time readers of the site may remember that I loved the shmup Sine Mora when it came out earlier this year. If you want the details, you can check my original review here but the gist of it is that Sine Mora is a well designed shmup with great graphics & music and an interesting & unusual story involving time travel. The game started out as an XBox 360 exclusive but in November, versions for the PC, PS3, and Playstation Vita were released. I was curious to see how the Vita version compared to the original version and so I procured a copy of the Vita game, sat down in front of my TV with an Xbox controller and a Vita at hand and alternated between playing parts of the game on each system.
I am pleased to report that there is little negative to report as far as the Vita version of Sine Mora goes. The visuals, music, and gameplay all appear to be identical between the two versions. The only major difference I noticed between the two versions was in the load times – the Vita version takes noticeably longer to load, averaging around 2-3 times as long as the Xbox 360 load times. This isn’t as bad as it sounds since the Xbox version’s loads are only a few seconds long but it is a minor annoyance.
There isn’t much in the way of new content. There’s a new character in the form of Wilhelmine Muller (making a cameo appearance from the game, Under Defeat). There’s a new touch-screen control option for the crazy people who felt like the game wasn’t hard enough using traditional controls and there’s a GPS-based art gallery. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more new content (if nothing else, more difficulty options would have been more nice) but the fact that it’s portable is a big bonus in and of itself.
Sine Mora on the Vita is a fantastic port of one of the best games of 2012. I highly recommended to everyone who enjoys a good horizontal shmup.
Cherry Tree High Comedy Club
Available on Steam here.
The premise to Cherry Tree High Comedy Club should be familiar to anyone who has watched a lot of anime. You are a high school student who wants to start an unusual school club – in this case, a comedy club. Unfortunately, the school rules require a minimum of five members for a club to gain official status (i.e. receive funding & a club room on campus) and you only have two people so far (yourself and your roommate). Oh and you’ve only got a little over a month to come up with three more members before the submission deadline has passed.
Gameplay is very similar to the non-combat portions of Persona 3 & 4. If you were ever interested in trying out a Japanese dating sim but weren’t interested in the whole romance aspect, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is for you – the game is about funny dialogue & making friends, not finding potential dates. Your goal is to reach maximum friendship level with at least 3 people, at which point, they’ll agree to join your club. You do this by spending time with them and talking with them. Each potential club recruit has topics that they like to talk about and others that they don’t so choosing topics that match their personality is key to success. Also, your character has a score in each conversation topic that can be increased by doing various activities – for example, spending time & money at the arcade will increase your skill at talking about video games. Oh and to make things a little harder, you also have to keep track of your money, your fatigue level, and your homework assignments.
There isn’t much in the way of depth to the gameplay so luckily the story & writing is top-notch. Nyu Media teamed up with Tezuka Productions of Phoenix Wright fame for the translation and it shows. Like the Phoenix Wright series, Cherry Tree High School’s dialogue is light, fun, and frequently funny, and is definitely the highlight of the game.
Visuals & music are pretty good, although limited in quantity. Resolution options are limited (640×480), however you can switch to full-screen mode by pressing Alt+Enter. Controls can be edited by pressing F1.
The game is fairly short and should only take a few hours to complete but after you beat it, you unlock a New Game+ mode where your stats carry over (thus making it much easier to befriend everyone in the time given). All in all, I’ve enjoyed my time with Cherry Tree High Comedy Club but it’s not for everyone. Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is just one step away from being a visual novel so if you want action & deep gameplay, look elsewhere. If you like slice-of-life animes & fun well written dialogue, this is your game.
Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten Review
Available on Steam here
Defender’s Quest originally came out on January 19th. An enhanced version of the game with better graphics & new features was released on August 30th at a few places (mostly the developers own site) and today, the game is finally coming out for widespread release at a number of major storefronts, including Steam.
Just a warning – I’m friends with one of the developers of the game, have been playing various beta versions of the game from before it was released, and am even mentioned in the Special Thanks section. To say I’m biased is an understatement. With that said…
I love this game!
Defender’s Quest is a hybrid between a Tower Defense game & RPG. Take a traditional tower defense game, replace all the towers with heroes that you can boost in battle and permanently upgrade between battles with skill points & new equipment, throw in a fantasy story with some fun characters, and you have Defender’s Quest. The basics are all well done here (level designs, enemy & hero balancing, user interface, etc.) but adding some RPG elements to the traditional tower defense formula really takes things to the next level.
Unlike most tower defense games, your hero “towers” in Defender’s Quest have multiple abilities, each of which has its own cooldown timer. The game does a pretty good job of using abilities automatically but you can assign various AI settings to individual towers if you want.
Surprisingly enough, grinding isn’t a problem in Defender’s Quest. The various stages are interesting and well balanced, but beyond that, if you find yourself needing more power, there’s no need to just repeat the same stages over and over for XP & gold. Rather, each stage can be played on a number of different difficulty levels, each with its own rewards. The advanced difficulty levels don’t just increase the power of enemies and number of waves – they frequently throw entirely new enemies, and new enemy spawn points with the result that the same stage can feel very different on a higher difficulty.
The game should take around 5-10 hours to complete, depending on whether you go straight for the ending or whether you try to beat all the stages on the higher difficulty levels. In addition to the main story stages, there are also a handful of bonus stages that are unlocked as you get perfect scores on the higher difficulty levels. Beyond that, the game features a fantastic New Game+ mode where you get to keep your stats & equipment from the main game as you return to fight much harder versions of the original stages. The New Game+ mode gives all enemies new abilities (like regeneration or temporary invulnerability), offers some new equipment (and the chance to upgrade old equipment into legendary equipment), and even offers a bit more story in the form of unlockable diary entries. And in a nice design decision, New Game+ mode and the regular mode can be switched back and forth on the same save slot, so you can do a few New Game+ mode battles and then go back and finish off some of the harder battles in the regular game if you haven’t already. I’ve only just started New Game+ mode but I look forward to playing through it in its entirety.
I really enjoyed Defender’s Quest in its original form, but with all the improvements they made to the game in the Gold version (bonus battles, New Game+, enhanced graphics, mod support), I can say that Defender’s Quest is quite possibly my favorite tower defense game of all time (narrowly beating Defense Grid & Pixeljunk Monsters Deluxe). Oh and they also added Steam achievements for those of you who like such things. It’s $15 but it’s on sale for $10 at the moment. I highly recommend a purchase.
If you’re at our site, you’re probably familiar with Carpe Fulgur’s work in localizing great Japanese indie titles like Recettear into English but they’re not the only game in town when it comes to bringing Japanese indie titles to a worldwide audience. The good folks at Nyu Media were kind enough to provide me with some review codes for some of the Japanese indie games they’ve brought out. Here are my impressions.
First up, we have Fairy Bloom Freesia, an action game that came out on Steam yesterday for $8. In it, you control a cute green-haired fairy with serious martial arts & magic skills as she fights monsters to defend the forest. Gameplay is pretty straightforward – you’re dropped into a 2D arena, a bunch of monsters appear and you have to beat everything up. No exploration as far as I’ve seen, just fighting, fighting, fighting. In between stages, you have an opportunity to purchase skills & passive abilities to make your character more powerful and before long you’ll have quite the arsenal of moves & spells. The game is great fun once you start figuring out the combat system and some cool combos, although be warned that it gets hard fast – it took me several attempts to beat the first boss and I’m still stuck on the second one (although I’ve gotten close).
Next up, we have Ether Vapor Remaster, also available on Steam for $8. It’s a side-scrolling shmup with a twist – the game switches between perspectives so one second, you’ll be playing a vertical shmup, the next, you’ll be playing a horizontal one, and then it might switch to a behind-your-ship view for a bonus stage. The frequent switching between perspectives helps to keep things interesting, the selection of weapons is standard (shoot forward, spread shot, lock-on shot) but fun, and the music is great. I also thought it was very neat how there was an option to turn on hit-box displays on EVERYTHING – your ship, the enemy ships, and even the bullets. On the downside, sometimes it’s unclear when an enemy isn’t on the same plain as you and can only be targeted with your lock-on attack. Oh and it probably goes without saying, but like most shmups, Ether Vapor Remaster is tough – the first two levels weren’t too bad but it quickly ramps up after that.
Finally, we have my favorite game of the lot, Eryi’s Action. This one is not available on Steam yet but it can be purchased directly from their website for $5 or from a couple of the major indie game stores out there. Eryi’s Action is a masochistic puzzle platformer. Everything in the game is designed to kill you and in the cheapest way possible. You would think this would be very frustrating (and it is) but it’s also frequently funny to see just what new creative way they’re going to use to kill you this time. You frequently have to resort to some very creative methods to pass the game’s many levels. Luckily, the game gives you unlimited lives and most levels have save points scattered throughout them so things stay manageable.
I’ve enjoyed all 3 games greatly so far and intend to beat all 3…if they don’t break me first.
Silent Hill: Book of Memories Review (based on the first couple hours)
Available now for the Playstation Vita. $40.
Picked up Silent Hill: Book of Memories off the PSN last night and completed 3 zones, the 1st boss, and started the 4th zone (the demo only had the first 2 zones & the 1st boss). I don’t think there are any full reviews for the game yet (I don’t think anyone got an advance copy so everyone’s scrabbling to play through it now) so here’s my early review of the first couple hours of the game. I’ll post again later if my opinion changes after playing through the whole thing.
First things first, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is VERY different than other games in the series. Instead of being a survival-horror game, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a top-down Action/RPG. My initial expectation was that it was going to be like the Diablo series but with a Silent Hill coat, but in actuality, it feels much more like an old-school rogue-like RPG. You explore dark trap-filled rooms with your flashlight, you can only hold a limited number of items at a time (backpack space can be upgraded), and you’re constantly low on resources.
The weapon system is particularly interesting. There are a few dozen weapons that you can find, purchase, or win from quests. Each weapon type handles differently and they may have various elemental modifiers as well. What makes things interesting IMO is that since melee weapons tend to have low durability, firearms are limited by ammo, and your backpack is small, you’re constantly scavenging for new weapons, repair kits, and ammo. It gives it a very survival horror feel rather than the typical “I’m awesome” feel you get out of your standard Diablo-style game. Also, weapons slowly gain XP & LVs through repeated use and this XP carries over for all weapons of that type so there’s also an incentive to try to figure out how to use your favorite weapons as much as possible to make them more powerful.
Besides your weapons, you can gain character XP which gives you stat points which you can freely distribute between 6 different stats to customize your strengths. There are also artifacts that you can find and equip that will give various stat boosts. Depending on which class you pick at the beginning of the game, you can get small bonuses when equipping certain types of artifacts but for the most part, it feels like most of your customization depends on your in-game choices rather than your class choice. There are a handful of special moves you can buy from the store like switching enemy alignments (enemies come in blood & light forms as well as the stronger steel form) and power attacks which can be used with the game’s equivalent of MP (one special move = 1 MP). There are also 6 super karma attacks (3 for light, 3 for blood) that you can use if you fill up your karma meter in one direction or the other (which you do primarily by killing enemies of the opposite alignment); so far I have the rank 1 light karma move which drains health from an enemy and gives it to you.
The levels are randomly generated and though they’re not as well done as the randomly generated levels in Torchlight 2, they’re pretty good. The game gives you a special goal in each zone you enter (like find a certain item or kill special mini-boss enemies) and some rooms have challenge crystals which typically give you a wave of enemies to defeat although sometimes they have other goals (like don’t take very much damage) which helps to keep things interesting. I’ve also run into a few special rooms like one that gives you a temporary buff and another room that gives you a little story/puzzle that you can get 1 of 3 results depending on your actions (Good, Evil, Neutral). You periodically find notes & audio logs (ala every old-school horror game ever) that fill you in on the story and at the end of each zone, you’re given a puzzle (so far, they’ve just been lame “Put these things in the right order” puzzles) which you gain bonus money if you manage to complete it with no help (if you get stuck, you can ask for hints which lowers the reward). In short, there’s more to the gameplay than just fighting.
So far, enemies haven’t been very dangerous (typically taking 1-5% of your life bar with each hit) but I imagine this will change as I get further into the game. If you’ve played the demo, know that the full game has a much bigger bestiary than the demo did. Also the 3rd zone was a lot bigger (at least in my game) than any of the zones in the demo. The environment in zone 4 switched so you won’t just be playing through typical Silent Hill rust & blood industrial settings. Between the various weapons, artifacts, monsters, zones, and randomized elements, there’s a lot of content here. And from what I’ve heard, although the game does have several possible endings, you can keep playing it indefinitely to try to get all of the endings and see how high of a zone you can reach.
The controls deserve special mention for their excellence. I love how it mixes traditional controls with touch controls. Movement, exploration, and combat are handled with traditional controls but the UI doubles as touch controls for things like reloading firearms, swapping stuff in and out of your backpack, and using health packs. It works really well and I hope to see similar setups in other Action/RPGs on the Vita.
The graphics in Silent Hill: Book of Memories aren’t amazing but the game does look a lot better in motion than it does in screenshots (due to the lighting). I’d say it looks like a really good PSP game rather than a full-fledged Vita game. Music & audio have been excellent so far and very Silent Hill-esque. Load times are long and annoying but at least they’re infrequent – it takes about 30-40 seconds to load a zone but once you’re in a zone, there are no load times and it’s been taking me about half an hour to fully explore each zone. Haven’t tried the multiplayer (and to be honest, I have no desire to do so since I rarely play multiplayer games).
All in all, I’m really enjoying the game so far and can’t wait to play more. Silent Hill: Book of Memories provides a very entertaining & unique survival-horror take on the traditional Action/RPG genre and comes highly recommended.
EDIT: Zone 4 is definitely harder than the previous zones. It starts throwing out modified versions of monsters (like ones that explode soon after they die) as well as a few new types that are more difficult to deal with. Actually died once.
Sine Mora Review
Xbox Live Arcade (1200 MS points = $15)
Sine Mora is now my favorite horizontal shmup (Treasure’s excellent Gradius V held that spot previously).
How is Sine Mora so good? Let’s see…
Gameplay that takes the best elements from bullet hell shmups and more traditional shmups.
A unique health system where you can be hit multiple times but each time you’re hit, you lose time and if you run out of time (and don’t have a backup time extension power-up), you’re dead.
Wonderful 3D graphics (but played in 2D) filled with creative landscapes and impressive enemies.
Music and sound overseen by legendary Silent Hill composer, Akira Yamaoka.
3 playable ships (main gun), several playable pilots (secondary attack), and 3 time control abilities (slow down, reverse, and reflect).
A fast-forward button to skip through unplayable story parts on repeat playings.
It’s really long for the genre. There are 6 main stages (plus a final boss stage & tutorial stage) but each stage is made up of 2 different levels, each of which is about as long as a typical shmup level and ends with an impressive multi-step boss.
More variety (both gameplay and setting) than you find in most shmups. Tons of memorable moments.
A creative achievement system where most of the Xbox achievement are ranks and each rank requires several smaller achievements to gain.
Plenty of leaderboards to compete on.
An actually well-written story (although confusing at first) with many interesting characters.
Four difficulty levels (Casual, Challenging, Hard, Insane) and difficulty modifiers based on how well you’re playing make the game accommodating to both the experience and unexperienced shmup fan.
Sine Mora feels like Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture never got the memo that shmups are a niche genre these days so instead they decided to go all out with an AAA production. I would wholeheartedly recommend Sine Mora as a $60 retail game. That it is available for $15 as an XBLA title makes it one of the best gaming deals of the year.