Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the category “Nintendo 3DS Games”

Master Blaster Zero for Switch and 3DS

I’ve played most of the most famous NES classics, but Master Blaster passed me by. Master Blaster Zero is a heavily altered remake, but the core mechanics of the original are essentially the same. It’s an interesting cultural artefact to be sure, but I can’t claim to have fallen in love with it. I think Mario, Mega Man and Castlevania remain the kings of the NES platformer for me.

The plot for Master Blaster Zero is incomprehensible guff. I think it’s post-apocalyptic and about mutants and stuff, but who cares? The original NES game was about a boy whose pet frog jumps down a hole and he uses a tank to rescue him. A frog does still go missing at the beginning of Blaster Master Zero, but it’s only the catalyst for a larger story. I’d prefer it to remain entirely frog focused personally as I quite like the goofiness of the original premise. Final rating for the story of Master Blaster Zero: all frog scenes 10/10, all non-frog scenes 0/10.

Master Blaster Zero can be split into two clear parts. The stronger half is a fairly straightforward platformer, as you manoeuvre the tank Sophia III through a series of caverns. There’s a lot of jumping and shooting, as well as some light Metroidvania elements, although this never becomes particularly extensive. It feels good and controls nicely, with some nifty abilities like hovering and climbing the walls, but it ends up feeling a little bit half baked. You can also leave the tank, where you’re incredibly weak and tiny. There are some interesting ideas at play when you leave the tank, but again, it never quite goes as far as it needs to.

The other half of the game begins when you leave the tank and enter a cavern, where the camera shifts to a top down, almost Zelda-esque perspective. In these you move through short dungeons, shooting enemies. You have variety of weapon types, from a simple blaster to a fast wave shot that shoots through walls. Every time you are hit you are bumped down a tier in the weapons. When you have the wave shot a lot of the game becomes ridiculously easy, with bosses going down in seconds. This is probably a good thing though as these sections aren’t that much fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the idea, but the execution left a bit to be desired for me. There are some cool ideas and variety, like some stealth focused sections (which work better than you might expect) but overall I| got tired of the core gameplay loop after a couple of hours, which isn’t great as the game isn’t particularly long to begin with.

That said, it does look nice, with the NES aesthetic updated very well and some genuinely imposing boss creatures. There are some scenes which are impressively cinematic and the soundtrack is pretty good too. Purely visually, Master Blaster Zero is a good case study in how to bring an NES aesthetic into 2017 but with enough tweaks to make it still feel modern.

All said, I wasn’t too impressed by Master Blaster Zero. I get why it’s so respected as it does a lot of interesting things, but it’s not about to break into my favourite NES games any time soon.

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Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment DLC for Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The third Shovel Knight campaign was the second game I ducked into on the Switch after Breath of the Wild. It was a good choice; after the sprawling grandeur of Zelda, a nice, tight platforming campaign was exactly what I needed and jumping back into the world of Shovel Knight seemed the best way to do so.

Specter of Torment tells the story of how Specter Knight came to be the ghostly presence we see in the main campaign, as well as how he first recruited the Order of No-Quarter for the Enchantress. Yet again, Yacht Club provide a masterclass in how to include story in this kind of games. It’s light, it never gets in the way, but there’s enough to add an extras layer of engagement to the rock solid platforming gameplay.

Ah yes, and speaking of the gameplay, Specter Knight is just as fun to control as Shovel and Plague Knights before him. Just as with Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment reuses the same locations and boss fights from the base game. Although I certainly hope we get some truly new levels down the line, the subtle alterations that are made to each level make them feel distinct. Alongside Shovel Knight’s bouncing shovel and Plague Knights bombs, Specter Knight has some interesting, fun traversal mechanics. One is the ability to slash towards enemies and certain objects, launching you across the screen. This can be combed to cover large gaps, with close timing being frequently required. Less commonly, you can also grind on your scythe along rails, which is fun but perhaps a little underused.

There’s a lot of joy in catapulting yourself around the areas and the boss fights are as fun as ever, even if Specter Knight’s abilities make them a little too easy. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of an overworld this time around, with Specter of Torment instead simply containing a level select screen inside a small version of the Enchantress’ castle. It doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as Plague of Shadows, but it’s still a really fun, challenging experience.

By this point, the base game for Shovel Knight is bloody good value, with three excellent campaigns. Specter Knight is distinct and fun to play as, although I do hope that Yacht Club begin to move beyond the original campaign as their basis.

 

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Pokémon Sun and Moon for Nintendo 3DS

With my Switch pre-ordered and all eyes upon Nintendo’s (hopefully) glorious handheld/home console hybrid future, 2016 was largely the death knell for both the Wii U and the 3DS. Where the final Wii U game I’ll buy was the likeable but largely forgettable Paper Mario: Colour Splash, the Nintendo 3DS went out with a much bigger bang: Pokémon. I know that the Game Boy existed prior to Pokémon, but for me it is the series which has defined Nintendo’s handhelds. It therefore seems fitting that what is probably Nintendo’s final pure handheld ends with the latest instalment in this now venerable series with an entry which shakes up the formula to the greatest extent seen in years.

Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in the Hawaii inspired Alola Region, which is structured differently to other regions seen previously. Where in all previous games a rigid structure of collecting eight Gym Badges before challenging the Elite Four has been enforced, Alola instead sees children sent across the four islands of the Alola Region to complete a series of Trials before confronting the leader of the island, known as the Kahuna. This being a Pokémon game there is also an evil team with nefarious aims; this time it is the unbelievably silly but oddly lovable Team Skull.

Pokémon games aren’t exactly known for their story, but since Black and White there’s been a marked improvement and this continues in Sun and Moon. The story goes to surprisingly epic places, from parallel dimensions to personal family struggles. Pokémon Sun and Moon has actual honest to God plot twists and it’s clear that real effort has been put into the writing and localisation. It’s quite funny at times, as most localised Nintendo games generally are these days. Look, I’m not claiming that Sun and Moon are particularly complex, but there’s a genuine narrative impulse to keep on going, something which could not really be said about most past Pokémon games. I particularly liked the dopey and loveable Team Skull, easily the most (only) memorable team since the original Team Rocket. They’re so…silly, with their juggalo aesthetic and white boy hip-hop hand waving. They’re so desperate to seem tough and scary but so not. The world of Alola feels alive and vibrant in a way previous settings haven’t.

Whilst a lot of the trappings have changed, the core gameplay is still much the same as it was 20 years ago. There are lots of big sweeping changes, but the ones that made me happiest were the simple quality of life fixes. When choosing a move, you can now see whether it is effective/super effective/not very effective beforehand, meaning that memorising type charts is a thing of the past, and any changes to stats like attack or defence are tracked and easy to see. There will doubtless be people why decry this as dumbing down, but memorisation was never an interesting part of the Pokémon tactics anyway. A pointless barrier is removed. There are all sorts of little changes like this, such as being able to add a new Pokémon to your party immediately upon catching them. Pokémon has been full of little niggles for years and Sun and Moon obliterate a large number of them. Bigger issues are fixed too; HMs are finally gone, replaced by the Ride Pager which summons Pokémon to do the same thing. Rather than teaching a Pokémon to Surf, you summon a Lapras to carry you. Rather than learning Rock Smash, toy summon a rideable Taurus who can do it for you. The days of having to lug around a Pokémon with ‘Cut’ and ‘Strength’ and all the others are finally gone and good riddance. Another nice change is an expansion of the Pokémon Amie feature from X & Y, which saw you directly petting and feeding you team. Now called Pokémon Refresh, after every battle you can cure any status ailments and boost their affection, which drastically quickens their rate of experience growth. The virtual pet element of Pokémon has never been stronger than it is in Sun and Moon.

Other changes include the addition of ‘Z-Moves’, which largely replaces the previous games’ Mega Evolution. Z-moves can be used once per battle and are essentially super powered version of regular moves. They’re…fine I guess, but don’t feel nearly as interesting or game changing as the previous generation’s Mega Evolutions. The new trials which replace Gym Battles are generally fun and varied, although not that far removed from the simple puzzles which you would often get in previous games’ gyms. There is one addition which I really hated and that was the ability to wild Pokémon to call for help, summoning in another monster. You can’t capture Pokémon with two on the screen at once, so you have to knock one of them down. The real problem lies in the fact that it doesn’t take up a turn to summon a new Pokémon, meaning that battles can get incredibly protracted and there’s essentially nothing you can do about it, as every time you knock down one Pokémon a new one is immediately called in. This mechanic is used to interesting effect in Totem Pokémon battles, which see you battling powered up versions of regular Pokémon during some of the Island Trials, creating some gloriously tense and challenging encounters. The problem lies when the random Zubat you encounter in a cave starts doing that and you’re stuck fighting Zubats in the same battle for five bloody minutes. It’s an annoying blight in an otherwise extremely solid game.

As for the Pokémon themselves? Sun and Moon may very well be my favourite generation in a long time. There are lots of brilliant brand new Pokémon with some interesting type combinations. For example, my adorable grass owl starter Pokémon Rowlet eventually evolved into the mixed Grass/Ghost Decidueye, not the Grass/Flying I was expecting. One of the absolute best additions are the Alola Form Pokémon, which are Gen 1 Pokémon redesigned and given a new type combination. For example, the previously fire type Vulpix/Ninetales become Ice/Fairy. My favourite of these was the incredibly adorable Alolan Raichu, who is now Electric/Psychic and surfs on his own tail. I wasn’t convinced on the concept at first, but now I see it as clever merging of nostalgia with invention. Some of the most unique type combos can be found in these Alolan forms and they play very different roles in the party, but they nonetheless feel familiar and tickle you right in the nostalgia. I played Sun and Moon entirely with new Pokémon and Alolan Forms and felt no temptation to go for any of the old ones.

Sun and Moon are easily the most beautiful Pokémon games ever made, with gorgeous environments and brilliant character designs. The music is solid too and the genuine sense of atmosphere created on the dinky little 3DS is impressive. By far though, the best part is the Pokémon themselves. They are best seen in the Pokémon Refresh mode. Every single Pokémon has several unique animations which are truly brimming with character. Some like to be rubbed certain places and not others; Pichu’s bereft face every time you rub it somewhere he doesn’t like never failed to get a reaction from me. The thing that blows my mind is that there are 802 Pokémon and that’s not even counting alternate forms, which likely add at least another few dozen. Every single one is given this level of love and attention and the work involved, as well as fitting it all on the cart, is truly impressive.

There are lots of other features I haven’t mentioned; like the whole series, this is a very feature rich game. There are whole mechanics and systems I essentially ignore as I’m here for the core gameplay of collecting, battling and levelling up, but as always there’s so much here for you if you want it. Pokémon Sun and Moon has a couple of niggles, but all round it’s a hell of an achievement. It’s the perfect swan song for the 3DS, a console I’m really going to miss. If you like Pokémon you’ll get this anyway, but if you haven’t played Pokémon in a few years and want to get back to it, this is a pretty damn good place.

 

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Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice: Turnabout Time Traveller DLC for Nintendo 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice: Turnabout Time Traveller DLC, to give it it’s full and most unwieldy name, is primarily an exercise in nostalgia for the original Phoenix Wright trilogy. Whilst it was nice to spend more time with familiar faces and in familiar scenarios, following the re-invention of Spirit of Justice this DLC feels a little bit lacking and low stakes.

The accused in Turnabout Time Traveller is Ellen Wyatt, a maid for the wealthy Sprocket family who was due to marry the heir to the fortune, Sorin Sprocket. When she is attacked on her wedding day by another servant, she is accused of killing him in self defense. She claims that, at the moment of her attack, she travelled back in time to before the wedding and the killing of the other servant. She is delivered to the Wright Law Offices by none other than Larry Butz, Phoenix’s childhood best friend and general idiot, and the case is prosecuted by the much loved Miles Edgeworth. Maya Fey, returned from her training, re-joins Phoenix once again as his assistant.

The best thing about this DLC, easily, is going up against Edgeworth for an entire case. There’s a reason that this is probably the most popular character of the series; he’s impossible not to like, particularly for long term fans who know him pretty well by this point. I was not so enamoured with the return of Larry Butz, who I didn’t find particularly funny in the original trilogy and I don’t find particularly funny now. It was very nice having Maya Fey along for the ride again, although on balance I still probably prefer the newer character Athena Cykes. The problem with this case is that, when not appealing to nostalgia, it’s just not that interesting. I was waiting for a mind-blowing or ridiculous twist in the classic Ace Attorney style and it simply never came. Compared to the silliness of the whale case DLC from Dual Destinies, Turnabout Time Traveller feels very safe, like a not particularly interesting filler case in a main game. The time travel element never gets as interesting as it should and I couldn’t find myself invested in this case’s story. Still, seeing Edgeworth back on the prosecutor’s bench was enough for me.

This case is a two investigations/two day trial type deal, but to be honest this feels like an attempt to make this DLC look more substantial than it is. In the main game each of these investigations and trials would have been a full day in its own right. There certainly isn’t the substance here needed for a case with this structure. I can’t help but compare it to the final case of the main game, which was so extensive that it was essentially two separate and complete cases in their own right. There’s not point really talking about the gameplay mechanics because it’s…well, an Ace Attorney game.

I like this series enough that even on autopilot I still have a good time, and there is an undeniable charm to returning to a trial against Edgeworth, with Maya Fey at your side. Still, after the interesting stops forward made in the Spirit of Justice this DLC feels like a bit of a step back. I think that if they were going to pull on the nostalgia strings they should have gone the whole hog, brought back Gumshoe, made the victim and defendant someone we know, things like that. If this DLC goes on sale it’s worth a look, but I don’t think it’s a great investment as it stands.

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Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice for Nintendo 3DS

I was quite excited to download a new Phoenix Wright game; it’s a series I’m rather fond of and have been for a long time. What I didn’t expect was to play one of my favourite games of the year and one of the best in the series. I absolutely loved Spirit of Justice.

Spirit of Justice shakes up the formula by moving most of the actions to Khura’in, a small and beautiful country in Asia which is the original home of spirit channelling, an element of the series missed in the last couple of games. Khura’in is not as idyllic as it first seems, with an oppressive government enforcing the ‘Defense Culpability Act’, which sees the defense attorney sentenced to the same punishment as the accused if found guilty, often death. This has led to there being no working defense attorneys in Khura’in, with all trials being shams. Opposing the ruling Queen of Khura’in are the rebel group known as The Defiant Dragons. Into this mess arrives Phoenix Wright, who has travelled to Khura’in for a holiday and to meet up with his former assistant Maya Fey, who has spent her time since her last appearance training to master her spirit channelling powers. It is not too long before he sees an innocent party charged with murder and so, predictably, he heads to the Khura’inese courts to do what he does best, but now with his own life on the line.

I enjoyed the last Ace Attorney game, Dual Destinies, but neither it nor Apollo Justice came anywhere near grabbing me to the extent the original trilogy did. It turns out the change of scenery was just the shot in the arm this series needed as I was pretty much enraptured in Spirit of Justice. This is the funniest, strangest, most complex and epic of the Ace Attorney stories in a long while, all culminating towards an intense final case. The best character of the game is Apollo Justice, who you could make a strong case for being the real protagonist of this game. He’s the player character for the final case for example. Where Dual Destinies felt in some ways like a soft reboot, Sprit of Justice fully embraces the previous games. I was very disappointed when Dual Destinies completely ignored the interesting revelations about Apollo’s parentage in his titular game, but Spirit of Justice makes up for it by delving deeply into Apollo’s backstory and, surprisingly, building much of the game around his past. I ended up finding the whole thing quite moving and I won’t deny that this game brought a tear to my eye; not a first for this series, but definitely the first since the original trilogy. The new characters are great too, such as the Khuar’inese Princess Rayfa and the new prosecutor foe Nahyuta.

Of course, this is a Phoenix Wright game so the core mechanics are pretty much exactly the same as always. This game features the widest range of protagonists and sidekicks in the series history, meaning that pretty much all gameplay gimmicks re-appear at some point. We have the Psychelocks detected with Phoenix’s Magatama, we have Apollo’s lie detecting bracelet, Athena Cykes’ mood matrix, Ema Skye’s luminol blood tests. I was very happy to see all (the latter excluded, it’s just not fun) return, giving Spirit of Justice a ‘greatest hits’ feel. Joining these gimmicks is the Divination Séance from the Khura’inese Princess Rayfa, which allows the court to see the final moments of the victim’s life. It’s fun and another neat little twist on the formula. Obviously, you’ll still mostly be pressing court testimony and presenting evidence to highlight contradictions. It’s easy to knock the simplistic and linear gameplay of this series, but the thing to remember is that these mechanics exist pretty much exclusively as a tool for storytelling. The genuine heart pounding excitement of the final stages of a trial create the illusion of control and some will always be put off by the lack of player agency, but if you just surrender to it I honestly find very few games for satisfying.

Spirit of Justice is a lovely looking game, retaining the art style from Dual Destinies. Once again, everyone is brimming with character and charm and the divination séance visions are all fully animated and look wonderful. The music is great, although I still miss some of the great themes from the original trilogy. I was very amused to see the Steel Samurai theme tune play a vital role in one of the murders again. There are a handful of fully animated and voice acted cut scenes, which are good but so rare as to feel a little superfluous. They don’t add much. The writing is obviously the best part and the translation team did a great job. Translating Japanese games for Western audiences has become something of a poisoned chalice of late. A lot of people (idiots) think that a good translation is simply achieved by hewing as closely as possible to the original Japanese, which always just ends up coming across as stilted and awkward. A good translation, which this is, captures the original spirit of the characters and the dialogue whilst putting enough of their own spin on it to make it flow well for an English speaker. The localisation team did a wonderful job here.

Spirit of Justice is the best Ace Attorney game in years, through a combination of seeking the new and embracing the old. As ridiculously excited as I am for the Nintendo Switch, I’m a bit worried that uniquely handheld games like this will slip through the cracks and simply die out. If you can play Skyrim on your handheld how do you market Ace Attorney? That would be a crying shame as handheld game development has led to some wonderful games and series, including Ace Attorney. Here’s hoping that there will one day be a 7th game.
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Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation for Nintendo 3DS

After over 100 hours, my trusty little Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright card is now my most played 3DS game, although that is largely because there’s pretty much three full Fire Emblem games worth of play time on there. Revelations is the third path and definitely the one you should save for last, combining game elements from Birthright and Conquest to come together into an exciting finale.

In Birthright, Corrin chooses to side with her birth family of Hoshido against the conquering Nohrian Empire. In Conquest, she sides with her adopted family in Nohr and takes the war to Hoshido. In Revelations, Corrin takes the most interesting choice of all; refuse to take sides and flee. It isn’t long before Corrin discovers that the war between Hoshido and Nohr is simply part of a larger plan by a terrible entity and so must set forth to unite the two nations to have any hope to save the world. One problem; a curse means that Corrin cannot speak of the terrible being and so she must gather an army based on trust alone.

The finale of the Fates games probably has the second best story of the lot. It’s much better than the bland Birthright, but I don’t think it ever achieved the emotional resonance and compelling darkness of the Conquest path, which remains the best story of the three. That said, it is hugely satisfying seeing the Hoshidan and Nohrian characters come together, which makes for some interesting encounters. Having the sworn enemies from Birthright and Conquest team up feels pretty exciting and this is backed up in the gameplay; a Xander/Ryoma dreamteam pair up is pretty much unstoppable. In the end though, the actual main plot of Revelations isn’t that interesting, particularly in the final 8 or so chapters which all began to blur into one from a plot perspective. The best writing is still to be found in the support conversations, which are often laugh out loud funny and charming. This doesn’t really make its way into the main story, which is overburdened with portentous and cheesy dialogue. Revelations is billed as the instalment which reveals the great truth behind the Fates games, but the great truth winds up not being so…er, great.

Revelations probably slots neatly down the middle in terms of difficulty between Birthright and Conquest. Unlike Conquest you are allowed to grind between missions, although the sheer number of child mission paralogues available here rendered that pretty much unnecessary. Revelations also has the mission variety of Conquest, with lots of interesting little mechanics at play, such as stealth. Some of the map designs here are really clever and this definitely feels like a team which has got itself properly warmed up and ready to experiment. There’s little to say about Revelations that doesn’t also apply to Birthright and Conquest so I won’t repeat myself; this is still one of the best turn based strategy games around.

Revelations is a worthy conclusion to an excellent trilogy of games. On balance, I think I would prefer Nintendo to go back to a simple one game release for this series, both for the sake of my wallet and overall cohesion. As good as these Fates games were, I still preferred Awakening over all three of them. Although each individual story is worth the price, repeated dialogue in the support conversations and the same paralogues across all three games meant I spent a fair bit of that time repeating stuff. All said though, Revelations is a very good conclusion to a mostly successful experiment from Nintendo.

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Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest for Nintendo 3DS

Two down, one to go! This probably won’t be a long review as much of what I said about Birthright applies here, but overall I enjoyed Conquest much more.  
 
When the prince/princess Corrin is forced to choose between her birth family, the noble and peaceful Hoshido, or her adopted family, the aggressive and mighty Nohr, Conquest sees Corrin choosing the latter. This is a much darker tale than Birthright’s, which was a relatively straightforward march towards the enemy and revenge. It’s also a lot more interesting. Nohr are very much the more evil of the two choices and seeing Corrin and her friends try to balance their inherent kindness and nobility with the evil asked of them is quite interesting to follow. One of my biggest issues with Birthright was the lack of memorable characters and this is an issue which Conquest does not have at all. From the melodramatic sorcerer Odin to the psychopathic bloodthirsty Peri to the unlucky chivalrous knight Arthur, Conquest is packed with memorable and entertaining characters. It’s difficult to express just how much of a difference this makes; levelling up and building a warrior is pretty satisfying when they’re bland warriors but having them be a likeable eccentric elevates the experience. These aren’t complicated characters and frankly they’re better for it; Fire Emblem characters don’t need to be complicated, they need to be memorable.  
 
Mechanically Conquest is naturally very similar to Birthright, but a fair bit trickier in a number of ways. First of all is the lack of challenge missions to grind; as with the pre-Awakening Fire Emblems, EXP is a valuable and finite commodity which has to be shared tactically. Getting the best out of my forces was an added layer of strategy I really enjoyed. The actual mission variety itself is also greatly increased; in Birthright almost all missions simply involve killing everything. There are loads of very interesting missions in Conquest, which genuinely force you to adjust your strategies and play style. It makes for a much more challenging experience, but an all round better one.  
 
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is an excellent game and one which I enjoyed quite a lot more than it’s sister release Birthright. Only one left to go now; onto Revelation! 

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Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright for Nintendo 3DS

I love that Fire Emblem, one of Nintendo’s historically underrated franchises, has had a resurgence of late. The much better than expected sales of Fire Emblem: Awakening have seen us given not one, not two, but three new Fire Emblem games. I was cynical about the split of Fates into three parts initially; I’m of the opinion that if any company tried to pull the two game Pokemon thing Nintendo have been doing for years they’d be rightly criticised for dodgy business practices. However, after playing Birthright I can see that this comfortably stands alone as its own game as well as leaving me hungry to jump right into Conquest.

All versions of Fire Emblem Fates follow Corrin, a young prince or princess of the dingy, militarily aggressive nation of Nohr. I’m going to refer to Corrin as female for this summary as she was in my game. Corrin has been kept in a Nohrian fortress all of her life, but upon coming of age is sent by the King Garon to investigate a fortress held by the rival nation of Hoshido, near their border. On that mission Corrin is captured by Hoshidan forces and brought to their capital, where she is revealed to be a long lost child of the Hoshidan royal family, kidnapped by Nohr as a child. The Nohrian forces led by Xander, Corrin’s adopted older brother, comes to take her back and the Hoshidans go into battle to defend her, led by her real brother Ryoma. It is here that Fire Emblem Fates splits into its three separate paths. Birthright follows the path of Corrin joining with her birth family, the Hoshidans and taking the war to Nohr to defeat King Garon’s imperial ambitions, fighting her adopted family along the way.

Birthright only tells one third of an entire story, so doesn’t necessarily feel particularly satisfying in its own right, particularly compared to Awakening. The supporting cast contains a few of the interesting eccentrics which Awakening did so well, but there really aren’t anyone has memorable as characters like Tharja, Donnel or Kellem. The characterisation in these games is at its best when it’s big, unsubtle and silly, with a few too many characters in Birthright attempting to be a bit more nuanced which doesn’t really work as the writing simply isn’t strong enough to support it. Easily the most interesting element is the betrayal felt by her Nohrian family that Corrin has chosen Hoshido. Birthright definitely has some cool moments, particularly towards the end, but all told this third of the Fire Emblem Fates felt very safe and conservative. That said, from all I’ve heard this is intentional as Conquest and Revelations move in more interesting directions and that Birthright in some ways lays some groundwork for the other games. I hope this is true because on its own merits there isn’t a huge amount of interest here.

Birthright is structured in a very similar way to Awakening, with Conquest apparently being more similar to the older Fire Emblem games. The core mechanics are essentially unchanged, with the beefed up support system from Awakening making a grand return. Building relationships between the characters remains one of the greatest joys of the game, with the return of children of characters being recruitable. The plot reasoning for this is iffy, but it’s undeniably satisfying populating your army with your offspring. I love turn based strategy games and Fire Emblem is among the very best. The core strategic weapon triangle combat is the same, although things are complicated slightly the addition of shurikens for the new Ninja class. Birthright has fairly simple mission objectives, with almost all being about killing the enemy forces, which is fine as there are some neat level designs. The core mechanics of Fire Emblem are so damn satisfying that there don’t need to be many changes. A neat addition are ‘Dragon Veins’, which Corrin and members of the Hosihdan royal family can activate in a map to alter the terrain, such as releasing toxic gas which weakens enemy stats, or creating a bridge to allow you to flank the enemy. It’s a really cool addition which adds a nice extra tactical layer on top. There is an ability to create your own castle between missions, which feels a bit undercooked and superfluous. There’s potential there that it would be nice to see expanded in future games, but it didn’t interest me here

There are a lot of quality of life changes, like adjustable difficulty modes and the ability to turn off the infamous permadeath. People have been describing this as the easy one, which makes me want to weep as I found it quite hard. That said, I did play it on the Classic permadeath mode, as it just wouldn’t feel like Fire Emblem without it and I refused to let anyone die. I like that I was able to adjust not only my own level of challenge but also my own style of challenge. Purists will bitch and moan but I don’t care, play however you like. Returning from Awakening is the ability to grind and level up outside the core missions. All of these changes make this the most accessible Fire Emblem yet, which is a good thing. Nothing is sacrificed or ruined from the old games and now more people can get into it; it’s a win-win situation.

Birthright is visually similar to Awakening, with impressive looking battles and a clear and uncluttered UI for the combat. The Hoshido characters are more influenced by Japanese culture than the more Western Medieval fantasy styles of the previous games. This means there are a lot of cool new looking classes with some really neat animations. The voice acting is generally decent, although I would have liked to see it used more extensively. I suspect that this may have been a pretty massive burden on the memory for a little 3DS cart, so I get why it’s not there, but it still felt like a bit of a shame. The music is good, although not quite as good as in some of the previous games. I like the amount of customisation available, from different angles to the battles and a range of difficulty options.

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is a good game which nonetheless left me a bit wanting. It didn’t grab me nearly as much as Awakening, particularly in terms of the characters and range of classes. I have heard many call this the weakest of the three Fates games, which I hope is the case as I leap headfirst into Conquest.

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Bravely Second: End Layer for Nintendo 3DS

Bravely Default was a really good JRPG that was somewhat overhyped. I liked it enough to play the sequel Bravely Second, which, although a bit uninspired, is saved by excellent turn based RPG mechanics. Bravely Second is no masterpiece and sometimes feels like it’s phoning it in, but it’s an all round solid experience.

Bravely Second picks up two years after the first game. The Duchy of Eternia and the Crystal Orthodoxy are ready to sign a peace treaty after their conflict in Bravely Default. The peace  ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of the mysterious Kaiser Oblivion who kidnaps former Bravely Default party member Pope Agnes and flies away in a floating castle. Yew, the last son of the noble House Geneolgia and Knight of the Crystalguard sets forth to rescue her. It isn’t long until he is joined by Magnolia Arch, a representative from a previously unknown civilisation on the Moon who has descended to Luxendarc to fight strange creatures known as Ba’als. Alongside returning Bravely Default party members Edea Lee and Tiz Arrior, the group travel Luxendarc to rescue Agnes and discover why the Kaiser has thrown the world into chaos.

Bravely Second made me think about just how rare direct sequels are for JRPGs, as well as why that’s a good thing. As many series progress they move between entirely different stories and settings, or are set thousands of years apart, such as the Final Fantasy or the Tales series. Bravely Second has made me realise that this is probably the right approach. Playing Bravely Second I was constantly left with the niggling feeling that anything left to say about Luxendarc has already been said. The plot isn’t particularly interesting and the two new party members never really develop. Edea is still the best character. That said, there are lots of elements of the story I liked. As with Bravely Default, the cast of weirdo asterisk holders you fight are varied, forceful personalities. Bravely Second also takes Bravely Default’s hints at fourth wall breaking and smashes it wide open. It’s really cool when it happens, but it’s hard not to feel in retrospect like it isn’t just sleight of hand to distract you from the fact that huge swathes of the plot make no sense. In the moment though? It’s pretty awesome. The real writing isn’t great overall, with no real grasp of tone. There are some great puns around the word ‘Ba’als’ though.

From a gameplay perspective Bravely Second is simply more of the same. With combat this good that isn’t a problem and the new jobs are just as satisfying to tinker with as the old ones. Some of the weirdest involve a pastry chef who debuffs the enemy or the ‘Catmancer’, who trains cats to mimic the abilities of monsters. Some of them are really useful, like the Wizard who can manipulate the impact of different spells, or the Hawkeye who can attach elemental damage to a weapon, or the Charioteer who allows you to equip three weapons at once. Experimenting with these jobs is probably the greatest strength of the game. Bravely Second has a lot of nice quality of life touches, such as the ability to disable random battles or alter difficulty on the fly. Purists may hate it, but I think it was a nifty way to make a mechanic many have grown to hate bearable.

So, while the core mechanics are still great the other pillar of a good RPG is unfortunately a failure; the exploration. The vast majority of locations in Bravely Second are recycled from the first game, a natural consequence of being a direct sequel. This isn’t really an excuse though and it made exploration an utter drag. Bravely Default had some beautiful locations and the new ones that are here are perfectly nice, but there just isn’t enough. While I like the characters and the world of Luxendarc, I strongly believe that creating Bravely Second as a direct sequel was a big mistake. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that this was simply a cost/time saving measure, with Bravely Second feeling more like an extensive expansion on the original rather than a new game in its own right. Bravely Second never quite manages to justify its own existence, which isn’t a good position to be in.

It’s still a nicely presented package though, with some wonderful music and great visuals. The voice acting will be divisive, but the cheesy style works for the kind of story they’re trying to tell.  Unfortunately, the actual quality of the voice recording is sometimes appalling. I’m far from an audiophile; I don’t have great hearing so for me to notice how low the quality of recording is it must be bad. Bizarrely, it’s worse for one character in particular, Magnolia. It may not sound like much but I honestly think it affected my ability to respond to this character as warmly as I did the others.

Bravely Second has an almost perfect core turn based JRPG mechanics surrounded by a sometimes bland and repetitive outer layer. If a third game is made I hope they pull a Final Fantasy and set it in an all new location with all new characters. Luxendarc is definitely done after Bravely Second, although to be honest it was already done after Bravely Default.

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Shovel Knight for Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Every so often I think I’m bored of 2D platformers, until I play the next amazing one. It’s weird that the act of moving left to right and jumping, the most classic of gameplay actions, can be made to feel fresh in so many different ways. Although Shovel Knight evokes an NES aesthetic, it isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, being an exceedingly fun and challenging game in its own right.

Shovel Knight instantly separates itself from its NES inspirations by actually having a rather nice little story. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were friends (or maybe more) who adventured together before a journey to the Tower of Fate sees Shield Knight possessed by a mysterious amulet and sealed inside the tower. Grieving for his lost love, Shovel Knight quits adventuring. In his absence, a malevolent Enchantress rises and brings evil to the land. Upon hearing that the Tower of Fate has been unsealed, Shovel Knight sets forth to rescue Shield Knight, but finds his way blocked by eight Knights loyal to the Enchantress; The Order of No Quarter.

The story line is light, but is pretty much a perfect example of how a little bit of added context can help to elevate an experience. There’s just enough to make me care about what happens to Shovel Knight, but not too much that it gets in the way of the gameplay. This is a lesson that I’d like to see companies like Nintendo learn; I have to say, I much prefer Shovel Knight’s approach to story over the not-really-bothering approach we see in most other 2D platformers.

Shovel Knight gets the basics very right, with tight and responsive controls and a surprising amount of flexibility for playstyle. You fight using your trusty shovel and can also pogo on foes, DuckTales style. It’s the genius level and enemy design that truly sets this game apart. Every single level adds some interesting new mechanic or twist on expectation with some fantastic boss fights to cap off each one. I’m generally not a fan of boss fights in platformers, but Shovel Knight’s combat feels better than any other 2D platformer I can recall. There’s a lot of room for experimenting with different play styles, with a load of extra tools which can be unlocked. All of them are useful in their own way and allow you to approach many challenges in a variety of different ways, building replay value through strong mechanics rather than just a simple NG+ (although there is one of those too). Shovel Knight just feels good to play, which is the strong foundation on which all the other stuff is built.

There’s a fair but more going on in Shovel Knight than just the main stages; there are a handful of optional boss fights as well as two villages where you can purchase upgrades to things like your health, magic and armour. These are all bought with treasure, which can be found scattered liberally throughout the levels. The treasure hunting aspect is built closely into the level design, with all levels containing secret, challenging areas where extra treasure can be gained. The only punishment for death is losing some of your treasure, which appears floating where you died so you can pick it up again, Dark Souls style. Again, Shovel Knight shows an underlying canniness in it’s design; in many games the currency can feel awkwardly separate from what you’re actually doing, but there’s an immediacy to the reward of collecting treasure which other games lack. To be honest, if the treasure was gained by killing enemies and was called EXP we’d be calling this an RPG. Powering up Shovel Knight is satisfying and provides an immediate noticeable boost and can make taking unwise risks for more treasure irresistibly tempting.

I thought I was done with the pixel art thing, but I guess not because Shovel Knight is beautiful. The world and enemies are bursting with character, using the retro style to create something which feels new and fresh. The music is great too, with a lovely chiptune soundtrack. Shovel Knight does well what a lot of other people have done badly and proves that, even if the aesthetic could be described as retro, the experience can still look, sound and feel fresh.

Shovel Knight is a tight, challenging little platformer that is so much more than mere nostalgia. It succeeds in pretty much every goal it sets for itself. In an industry groaning under the weight of quirky indie platformers, Shovel Knight stands apart.

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