Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “square enix”

Nier: Automata for PS4 and PC

I don’t even know where to start with this one. I never played the original Nier, although I’m aware of its cult following. I approached Nier: Automata more as a fan of Platinum Games than anything, but it’s the storytelling and fascinating themes of the game’s director, Yoko Taro, that ultimately lingers in my mind.

Nier: Automata is a sequel to the original game, but it’s set thousands of years later and the connections are slight. I didn’t feel like my enjoyment was in any way impacted by the fact that I had not played the original. Thousands of years into Earth’s future, the last vestiges of humanity have fled the Earth after an alien invasion, and now live on the moon. The aliens do not fight directly, but instead send machine lifeforms to do their dirty work. Project YorHa is an organisation of androids that fight the Machine menace on behalf of humanity. Androids 2B and 9S are sent to the surface to take down a massive machine, but soon they discover some machines acting strangely, as if they have emotions, thoughts and complex feelings and that the conflict between the androids and the machines may not be as clear cut as first thought.

It’s difficult to talk too much about Nier: Automata’s plot without spoiling what makes it so special. It does all the fundamentals right; likeable characters, clear motivations and satisfying resolution, but it also explores some pretty heady and intense ideas. The machines resemble toys more than anything else, rounded and generally harmless looking, and it is through these that Nier: Automata explores some complex philosophical themes. The nature of humanity is the core theme of this game and Nier: Automata explores this from a lot of different angles. Storylines which would just be too dark to touch with humans become explorable with machines and some of the true horror seen in Nier: Automata isn’t readily apparent. This is a story which sticks around, thought provoking and, at times, desperately moving.

The indie scene is stronger, but AAA games rarely use unique qualities of the medium in interesting storytelling ways. Examples such as BioShock and the Spec Ops: The Line are few and far between, but Nier: Automata is fascinating. I had heard beforehand that the game required multiple playthroughs to get the whole story and I was not really up for it in terms of the time investment. Actually, Nier: Automata’s multiple playthroughs are more like chapters of a larger story and it takes three to see everything. Nier: Automata is very aware of itself as a videogame, but not in an irritating, masturbatory fashion that some post-modern experiences can be. Things get weirder the longer they go on, with the first playthrough is told in a relatively straightforward fashion. It all crescendos into an audacious and hugely moving finale that simply could not have been pulled off in any other medium.

The story was my favourite part of Nier: Automata, but the core mechanics are certainly very solid as well. It’s an action-RPG, but there’s significant gameplay variety. As android 2B you’ll be hacking and slashing your way through a variety of enemies. With two weapons available at a time and a variety of ranged attacks, there are lots of options. You can also heavily customise your character using ‘plug-in chips’, some of which give passive and straightforward buffs to health or attack strength, but some are more interesting, such as introducing a counter attack. You have a limited number of slots, which can be upgraded, with elements of your UI taking up slots. You can uninstall things like the health bar or text pop ups to make room for more interesting things. The game is full of clever little things like this, even if the actual upgrade menu is cumbersome and awkward. The core combat is really fun and never fails to look stylish as hell, but it doesn’t land as one of the better Platinum combat systems. I felt myself missing the heft and variety of Bayonetta, with the combat is Nier: Automata sometimes feeling a big floaty and lacking in impact. I kept waiting for a new layer of complexity to fold into the combat and it never really does. Instead, the game introduces a clever new mechanic, which I won’t spoil, which is a lot of fun but exists almost parallel to the core melee combat rather than as an additional layer. Again, I never had a bad time slicing and dicing hordes of machines, but it would have been nice if there was a bit more to it.

Nier: Automata takes place in an open world, but I’d be hesitant to call it an ‘open world game.’ The world is quite small, and feels more like a series of connected zones rather than a coherent setting. That’s fine! After Zelda and Horizon I can’t claim to have been denied vast worlds to explore, but there is an awful lot of unnecessarily running back and forth. I don’t think a huge amount would have been lost for turning this into a more linear game. There are a range of side quests; some are pretty straightforward, but some are genuinely wonderful and contain some of the most devastating stories in the game.

One area where Nier: Automata really shines is sheer gameplay variety. There are semi-regular shoot-em-up sections in your mech suit, as well as shifts to a 2D platforming perspective. The bullet hell genre, where much of the challenge is focused on simply dodging increasingly dense waves of attacks, is a really interesting influence on Nier: Automata, and pervades all elements of the combat. I haven’t really encountered 3D bullet hell before. I still think it works best from a top down perspective, but it’s still interesting and speaks to Nier: Automata’s ambition to be a genre polymath.

Nier: Automata is a fascinating experience and a testament to the fact that interesting things can be done within AAA game development. It’s a game which waits to reveal its true cleverness and ambition, but the dawning sense of awe at what this game attempts to do was truly special. This is my first Yoko Taro game, but after Nier: Automata I don’t intend it to be my last.

 

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Final Fantasy XV for PS4 and Xbox One

I’m not what you’d call a massive Final Fantasy fan. I’ve only played 1-4, then 8 and then 13 of the main series, although I’ve spent more time with spin offs like Tactics Advance and Crystal Chronicles. Final Fantasy XIII was one of the worst games I’ve ever played; I hated its linearity, its lack of respect for the player and its bland protagonist. I was therefore quite intrigued by Final Fantasy XV, which looked set to reverse all of these problems; a big open world, more challenging quests and a group of loveable boy band protagonists. Final Fantasy XV has all of those things and I frequently loved it, but it shows too many scars from its troubled development to be a classic.

Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis of Lucis, a land which is one of the last hold outs of independence from the conquering Niflheim Empire. The city is protected by the magic of the King, Noctis’ father Regis, who maintains a great shield protecting the capital city of Insomnia. An ambassador from Niflheim has come to offer peace and end a war that has blighted the world for years and King Regis agrees. A condition is that Noctis is to be married to his childhood sweetheart Lady Lunafreya of Tenebrae (a protectorate of Niflheim), as a political union. Noctis, alongside his friends Gladiolous, Ignis and Prompto set forth on a roadtrip to the relatively neutral city of Altissia for the wedding. It is not long before events are complicated and Noctis is plunged into a conflict which threatens the entire world of Eos.

The story for Final Fantasy XV is, unfortunately, an incoherent mess. If you thought the second half of Metal Gear Solid V (a game FFXV shares a lot in common with) shit the bed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The immediate problem is that it is almost impossible to work out what is going on if you haven’t watched the spin off movie Kingsglaive, which takes place parallel with the opening chapters of the game. For some reason FFXV seems entirely unwilling to give the player backstory; I guess it’s trying to avoid classic exposition dumps, but anything would have been better than this. I dutifully watched Kingsglaive (not an experience I can recommend) which did finally explain what was going on, but I shouldn’t have had to in the first place. Things only get worse as it goes on, with new characters introduced and abandoned with no explanation, shockingly underdeveloped villains with impenetrably bizarre motivations and sudden, disorienting lurches in time and place. Some of these characters are likeable and I’d have loved to see more of them, but there just isn’t enough story here. By the end I had almost no clue what was happening, with major plot twists announced and then never spoken of again. There are some interesting ideas here, particularly in the intriguing and charming main villain, but pretty much every element is shockingly underdeveloped.

The thing is, for all these flaws, there is one element of the story which the developers absolutely nailed and that is the relationship between your four party members. Where Final Fantasy games have tended to have sprawling parties made up of members which join throughout the journey, in FFXV you start and finish with the same core four, outside of a couple of brief guest appearances. I was surprised to see an all male party in this day and age, but after playing the game it feels like a legitimate creative choice. The lovely boys of FFXV are pretty much the least toxically masculine bunch of lads I’ve seen. They clearly love and support each other throughout the entire story, to the point that any tiff is a bit hard to watch. It’s hard not to get attached to this lot, even though they can’t be called complex characters by any means. The tough guy with a heart of gold Gladiolus, the wise-cracking but insecure Prompto and the responsible and fastidious Ignis are characters I became really fond of by the end, with the best moments of writing to be found in their little joke-y asides to each other as they adventure around Eos. One of the most charming details are the passive skills each party member has, distinct from combat. Noctis can fish, Gladiolus can scavenge, Ignis can cook and, best of all, Prompto can take photographs, which was displayed at the end of each day. These skills develop over time, so watching Prompto’s photos get better and better is really charming stuff. The lighter, road trip stuff works really well, but does feel completely at odds with the oppressive ‘evil empire’ narrative looming over everything. FFXV has an interesting approach to open world design mechanically, but it’s story is not built for an open world at all. That said, few open world games do pull this off, with only The Witcher 3 coming to mind as one that does.

FFXV ditches the turn based battles entirely for something much more engaging. All battles are in real time. Holding one button attacks, whilst holding another allows you to dodge. Noctis is the only playable character and can equip four different weapons at once, which can be switched on the fly. Different enemies are weak to different weapons. Noctis also has the ability to warp around the area, sometimes to strike directly into foes and sometimes to reach high ground which speeds up health and MP regeneration. Alongside this, Noctis can also activate techniques to be used by one of his three bros. Positioning is key, as back attacks (as well as parries) can trigger link strikes where Noctis double teams an enemy alongside one of the team. All these elements combine into a system which is fast, frantic and really engaging. It looks hack and slash-y at first, but that will get you obliterated later on and you have to play more defensively and intelligently. Constant motion is key, with magic functioning like a grenade. There are a lot of complex mechanics at play, but they all feel valuable and build towards a genuinely unique and engaging battle system. One flaw is that it perhaps isn’t quite visceral enough, with strikes having that weightlessness which usually comes with MMOs. More visual and audio feedback to make the strikes more satisfying would be icing on the cake, but the cake is still delicious. Delicious FFXV combat cake. Unfortunately, the camera really suffers in indoor locations like buildings and caves and is really made for wide open spaces where you can zip all over the place. Precise placing becomes pretty much impossible and in a lot of these encounters all I could do was spam potions to stay alive.

As is usually the case with these games, the core gameplay mechanic is the combat, but FFXV offers a first for the series in their first truly seamless open world. The world is vast and beautiful and isn’t bound by traditional Western fantasy tropes. In fact, the setting is bizarrely modern for the most part, with mobile phones and cars and advanced technology. I’m a real fan of this sort of science-fantasy setting and wish we saw it more often in games. As strange as it all is, it works in practice and Eos is a genuine pleasure to explore. The landscapes vary from desert to lush plains to rocky volcano, with a good variety of scenery. The game reminded me a bit of Earthbound, in that it evokes 1950s Americana without really understanding it, a style of world building I find oddly endearing. You’ll be exploring on foot, on a chocobo or by your fancy car. The diving is extremely limited, you can’t go off road so generally it’s better to just let your buddy Ignis drive and take in the scenery, all whilst listening to your friends babble away to each other or classic Final Fantasy tunes through the CD player. I quite enjoyed the long drives for the scenery, but if this sort of thing would bore you it could be a turn off. When you’ve been somewhere once you can fast travel, which is somewhat hindered by lengthy load times. Night is dangerous in Eos, so you can stay at motels or caravans or camp in the wilderness, where Ignis can cook you a nice meal (if you have the right ingredients) which offer significant buffs for the following day. There’s a unique rhythm to FFXV that I haven’t seen in other open world games and it evokes the feeling of a road trip with friends very well.

Alongside the lengthy main quest, there are a plethora of side quests, most of which are unfortunately quite bad. The Witcher 3 spoiled me for good quests, but even Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition had better side missions than this. They’re generally repetitive ‘go here – kill this’ or ‘go here- collect this’ affairs. I actually don’t always mind this if it’s wrapped up in an interesting side story, but FFXV’s side missions are so mundane it’s almost funny. There’s a very lengthy quest chain about acquiring vegetables for example. Sometimes these quests will lead you to optional dungeons, which are actually really cool. This is frustrating as there’s no way of knowing which quest chains will eventually become worthwhile and which will stay boring forever. I’m sure I missed some decent content because I couldn’t bear to do another fetch quest. I actually preferred the straight up bounty hunter mission, which simply send Noctis and crew to go kill some monster then come back. The monsters encountered are often rare and these provided some of the more memorable encounters, whilst containing no story at all. I did a fair few side missions because I liked the world and wanted to spend plenty of time in it, but after I finished the main story I couldn’t quite bear to do any more. FFXV has an open world, but in many ways it isn’t designed as an open world game and this is typified through the side missions.

FFXV has the opposite structure to FFXIII. Where FFXIII was linear for the first half and then apparently opens up in the second (I never could make it that far myself), FFXV tears you from the open world in the second half of the story. You can return through hilariously convoluted means, but from a story perspective you’re out and the rest of the game is pretty much linear. It is here that the game falls apart to a spectacular degree. Other games have done this before; Metal Gear Solid V also had a strong first half that fell apart in the second, but at least the core mechanics remained fun even if it was repetitive. Since the second half of the game is mostly set in closed, cramped locations, the previously mentioned camera issues come to the fore making almost no combat encounters in the second half as fun as those in the first. FFXV throws you into some bafflingly awful moments, compounded by the fact that the story utterly collapses at this point too. A truly dreadful boss encounter and a stunningly ill-advised stab at survival horror stand out as memorably awful, but the whole thing isn’t good. The actual final hour is pretty cool, with a great boss fight and a cool location, but overall the whole second half is disastrous. Where the first half is a flawed but loveable diamond in the rough, the second loses everything that makes the core flaws of the game bearable.

Similarly, to The Last Guardian, FFXV shows its age in some places and it’s clear that this is a game originally intended for the PS3. The character models for less important NPCs are pretty poor and a lot of the animations very stiff and awkward. The environment is gorgeous with a genuinely unique setting, but significant texture pop in and an overall fuzziness to the visuals don’t allow it to shine as well as it should. I actually love the visual design for this game and these flaws don’t really hold it back from being a spectacular game to take in at times, but some of the visual impact is undeniably robbed. The voice acting is good for the core four boys and much of the supporting cast, but some of the NPC voice acting is hilariously bad. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between how characters look and how they speak. Although the setting itself feels like a well thought out and plausible, the characters in it really don’t. This would be fine if, instead of believable characters, we had grandiose and silly characters instead, but we don’t get that either. There’s a bizarre sense of lavish attention to detail in things that don’t really matter, such as the wonderfully rendered and believable food, but ignoring things that really do. The music is lovely, obviously, although the excellent main theme isn’t quite heard enough. It would only kick in sometimes whilst in the field and is interrupted with every combat encounter, meaning that it’s impact is robbed by the less memorable battle theme.

FFXV is a frustrating and disappointing game with an undeniable charm. I’ve made the comparison a few times, but FFXV made me think of Metal Gear Solid V a lot. Both were heavily delayed entries in a long running, beloved series. Both were awaited with rabid anticipation. Both are known for convoluted storytelling and melodrama. Both released essentially unfinished, with clear scars from where content was cut. The thing is, I still maintain that for its flaws Metal Gear Solid V is a genuinely great game, even a masterpiece. I can’t quite say the same for Final Fantasy XV. I’ve enjoyed my time with it and I don’t regret it, but this is nowhere near the experience it should be. That said, I love the basic idea of a road trip game and the world itself and I hope they learn lessons from this game and release a sequel. Maybe an all-female team next time?

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Rise of the Tomb Raider for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I was quite excited to finally get my hands on this game after a year of Xbox One exclusivity; I really liked the last Tomb Raider game and it got good reviews at the time. Oddly enough, the year delay in release may very well have affected my enjoyment of this game for one simple reason; Uncharted 4 came out since the Xbox One release and outdoes this very similar game in pretty much every way.

Rise of the Tomb Raider sees Lara Croft trekking into the mountains of Siberia is search of the Divine Source, a fountain of youth of sorts which provides everlasting life. Lara’s father Thomas had been obsessed with it before his death, which had seen him ridiculed in the press. Lara’s experience on the island back in the last game has opened her mind to the possibility that her father was right and so she sets out to salvage his legacy. She is opposed by the sinister Trinity, an ancient group who seek the Divine Source for their own nefarious ends.

Put simply, the story in Rise of the Tomb Raider is unbelievably boring. The narrative of the first game worked because it was fundamentally a survival story about someone learning to harden themselves to the horrors around them. This element is naturally missing in the sequel and all the Divine Source nonsense had my eyes glazing over. The biggest feeling was that I’d seen all of this before; the villain Konstantin is so stunningly generic that it’s a wonder the writers felt comfortable to use him and Trinity are like any other evil organisation we’ve seen in any number of games. None of the characters, perhaps excepted by Lara’s friend Jonah, are particularly likeable, communicating almost entirely in portentous and dramatic dialogue. There’s none of the lightness or humour or charm of the Uncharted games in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Lara needs to be quipping every 10 seconds like Nathan Drake, but everything is so po-faced and serious and lacks a sense of fun. Exciting treasure hunting stories can’t really get away without a sense of fun. I had close to no investment in what was going on.

Thankfully, the core mechanics are strong enough to mostly make up for it. The term ‘game feel’ has come under some ridicule lately, but I don’t know a better way to describe the ineffable feeling of something just feeling good to play. Perhaps it’s the frame rate, perhaps it’s controller sensitivity, perhaps it’s the animations, or maybe all three and more, but this game just feels good to play. Leaping around the Siberian wilderness as Lara never really got old, with good core platform mechanics. Much weaker is the combat; I don’t know if it’s gotten worse since the last game or if my standards have simply got higher, but the shooting in this game simply isn’t good. Stealth fares much better, but it is not uncommon for the game to deny this as an option and to throw you into a shooting gallery. Dodgy shooting mechanics in stealth games is fine as they are meant to incentivise stealth, but by so regularly denying you even the chance to use stealth you’re left with them just being bad because…well, they’re just bad.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is just as guilty of all the open world tomfoolery you get in everything these days; namely an infuriating map filled with collectible knick-knacks with no discernible purpose. The most interesting parts would be the audio logs which fill in the back story if…y’know, the story wasn’t crap. The main story stuff is actually really fun and I’d recommend just focusing on that, with one notable exception; the Challenge Tombs. These are the best part of the game and left optional, which is interesting. I wonder if they expected audiences raised on the simple gleeful joy and scripted platforming found in the Uncharted games to resent puzzling and exploration based interludes. Either way, there are 9 in total and they’re undoubtedly worth seeking out and doing. The puzzles are never particularly difficult or anything, but they’re neat and satisfying and actually make Lara feel like a proper tomb raiding archaeologist than just another marauding adventurer.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is helped immeasurably by just how bloody lovely it looks. The icy setting works very well and offers a nice change from the lush jungle of the last game. In the incredibly dull PS4 Pro announcement, this game was shown prominently as one which shall be boosted by the extra power of the console. Well, Rise of the Tomb Raider has had the opposite effect on me because I realised that I don’t need games to look better than this. I’m sure there are people who will notice little drops in frame rate and visual niggles, but for me who’s not observant about that stuff, Rise of the Tomb Raider already looks close enough to perfect. I very much appreciate the team behind this game resolving my decision on the PS4 Pro, although I doubt Sony would see it that way. The environments are gorgeous, the weather effects hugely atmospheric and the character models expressive. This is s sumptuous and gorgeous game. The music is entirely forgettable and the voice acting bland, although that could be the writing, but those visuals were honestly enough for me to keep coming back.

I really expected to like this game more than I did. It is good but I couldn’t shake the niggling wish I was playing Uncharted 4 again instead. When the sequel hits (and this game makes abundantly clear there will be one), I hope that a lot of the niggles are fixed, although I doubt they will be. Excellent general ‘game feel’ and stunning visuals only get you so far when core mechanics like combat are so poor and the game seems so willing to waste your time with pointless collectibles and a bland story. Unfortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider never lives up to its potential.
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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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Bravely Default for Nintendo 3DS

People sure have been making a big fuss about Bravely Default. After lots of campaigning for a Western release, it finally arrived, and I think it was worth the wait. Bravely Default is like a visitor from a parallel universe, a beautiful place where Final Fantasy XIII never happened and Final Fantasy continued to be excellent. Bravely Default marries the almost inherently conservative JRPG tropes with some intriguing gameplay and story undermining of genre tropes to launch what may be the most exciting new JRPG franchise in years.

Bravely Default appears, at first, to be tiresomely generic. A cataclysm strikes the farming village of Norende, with the only survivor being the young Tiz Arrior. He flees to the nearby Kingdom of Caldisla to seek the aid of the King, and soon encounters Agnes Oblige, the Vestal of Wind who is tasked with guarding the ‘Wind Crystal’, one of four crystals which support the world and the elements they match. The Crystals have failed, and Agnes is seeking help in re-awakening them, with the assistance of a fairy named, er…Airy. However, the Vestals are being hunted by the Duchy of Eternia, the most militarily and technologically advanced land in the world, who are opposed to ‘Crystalism’ and seek to end humanity’s reliance on the crystals. Tiz and Agnes are joined on their quest to re-awaken the crystals by Ringabel, an amnesiac lecher, and Edea, the daughter of the Eternian Grand Marshal who has defected following the cruelty of her colleagues.

Reading that, you’d be forgiven for expecting a tiring parade of JRPG clichés. Crystals? Check. Amnesia? Check. Destruction of home village? Check. The thing is, Bravely Default is well aware of this and manages to weave a genuinely compelling and interesting narrative with all of these familiar ingredients. Sure, you’re seen all of these ingredients before, but you’ve never seen them put together like this. Not everything is as it seems, and Bravely Default has a lot of fun undermining your expectations. Although I wasn’t necessarily too bothered about our central pair of Tiz and Agnes, the genuinely funny Ringabel and charmingly aggressive Edea make up for it. There’s a great supporting cast of weird and wonderful villains, who vary from entertainingly diabolical, to confusing and weird, to tragic and sympathetic. My one criticism is that it doesn’t feel like Tiz has a huge amount of agency during the story, and feels like a supporting character in his own game.

So, if you’re not a fan of classic JRPG tropes like turn based battling and granular statistics, you won’t enjoy Bravely Default. However, if you like these things, hell, even tolerate them, you’ll like Bravely Default. The main gameplay innovations in Bravely Default are the battle and job systems. Bravely Default treats ‘turns’ as a resource, with ‘defaulting’ saving up turns to be used later, and raising defence for that turn. You can stack up to four turns, to then ‘brave’ and use those turns all at once. You can also borrow turns ahead of time, creating a move deficit meaning that you cannot make any actions until you reach zero again, leaving you defenceless. Bravely Default’s combat therefore has a pretty fascinating risk/reward mechanic, with the conservative tactic of saving up moves vying against the temptation to finish enemies quickly through a volley of attacks. It sounds like a minor addition, but it makes Bravely Default feel completely distinct from anything else on the market.

The other major mechanic is the job system, which is probably closest to that in Final Fantasy Tactics. Jobs are levelled up distinctly from EXP, and with each level offer either an active or passive skill. Active skills are actual moves that can be used in battle, and passive skills are always active buffs which affect the character as long as they are equipped, although there are limited slots. Finding the right combination of active and passive powers offers a huge amount of strategy, and reduces the need for constant grinding. Your level isn’t nearly as important as your job and your equipment, which makes a nice change from empty levelling. Another lovely addition is the interesting flexibility that Bravely Default offers, such as tinkering with encounter rates and battle speed. It’s one of those tiny things that I will find intolerable if it isn’t in every JRPG from now on.

Probably the biggest problem with Bravely Default is the final few hours, which are unbelievably repetitive and dull. They’re justified for some really interesting plot reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that the final hours were a slog, which I could only get through by doing something else at the same time. It’s a difficult conflict between story and gameplay, and I have to wonder if there was a better way to have managed this. Bravely Default also contains some truly hideous micro-transactions, which whilst depressing are easy enough to do without. It’s horrible to see this kind of thing in a game like this, but, well, it could have been worse.

Bravely Default has some beautiful hand-drawn environments, particularly in the major cities, but they’re few and far between. The majority of dungeons are pretty bland looking, and the character models aren’t too pretty either. When you do enter the beautiful hand-drawn areas, your chibi styled polygonal heroes look ridiculous and out of place, like visitors from another, less pretty game. However, the lacking visuals are more than made up for by the lovely sound. A great soundtrack is a key JRPG ingredient, and Bravely Default probably has the loveliest soundtrack on the 3DS.The voice acting is generally quite good too, particularly for Edea and Ringabel. There’s a fair bit of hamminess and standard JRPG voice acting silliness, but by and large I was impressed more than I was annoyed.

Bravely Default is the first great JRPG for the console, and one of the best in recent memory. It understands what the Final Fantasy series doesn’t, that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, the gamer friendly changes and adjustments are going to be just as welcome in this modern age, without the need to abandon everything good about a genre. It’s not perfect, but if you own a 3DS and haven’t enjoyed a JRPG in a while, Bravely Default is for you. download (6)

Sleeping Dogs: The Zodiac Tournament DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I admire United Front’s stated intent in their Sleeping Dogs DLC series to attempt to pay homage to different aspects of Hong Kong cinema, as the main game did with gangster movies. The first story based DLC, Nightmare in North Point, was successful in some areas but utterly lacking in others, and it’s pretty much the same story here. That said, The Zodiac Tournament in a  stronger  release than Nightmare in North Point, and cheaper too.

The Zodiac Tournament brings Wei Shen to an island just off the coast of Hong Kong which hosts an illegal fighting ring, where decadent millionaires pay exorbitant sums of money  to watch men fight to the death. Wei is sent undercover to infiltrate the fighting ring, and to fight his way to the top.

The island on which The Zodiac Tournament takes place is extremely pleasant, and a nice change of pace from the urban Hong Kong. One of my main issues with Nightmare in North Point was the way that it failed to offer any new locations, and although the island certainly isn’t large or even particularly explorable, a clear effort has been made to create a visually distinctive environment. There’s some exploration to be had to find statues which offer Wei new abilities, but your journey through the island will be largely linear. It’s a shame that we can’t explore this island more, but given the price of this DLC it’s perhaps not surprising that we don’t.

This DLC opens promisingly, with a classic grainy filter bringing to mind low budget kung-fu movies of the 70s as well as bombastic and cheesy music. The promise is of an endearingly ridiculous romp, but this never really manifests, for the primary reason that this DLC is just too short to tell it’s fun tale properly. That’s not to say that there aren’t entertaining moments, but it all feels rushed and the kung-fu vibe feels underused.

The Zodiac Tournament focuses almost exclusively on one aspect of Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay, and thankfully that element is the games strongest; the hand to hand combat. Yeah sure, it’s a blatant rip off of the combat from Batman’s Arkham games, but if you’re going to rip something off you should do it with style, something Sleeping Dogs had caboodles of. Where the boss characters of the main game were almost always less fun to fight, here they’re much better designed, and genuinely require faster reactions and more thought than the regular grunts. There isn’t really anything else to this DLC; there’s little in the way of driving, no shooting, although there are a couple of fun chase scenes, an element which I liked in the main game. Where Nightmare in North Point actually undermined Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay strengths, The Zodiac Tournament plays to them them.

As mentioned above, I’m a fan of the grainy filter image used throughout this DLC, although it only pops up in cutscenes and during some fights. I can’t help but feel that United Front should have just gone the whole hog and put the entire DLC in this style; it feels oddly underused. The voice acting is fairly dire, but this actually benefits the B-movie feel this DLC is attempting to evoke. The ridiculous pidgin English which the inhabitants of Hong Kong speak in Sleeping Dogs, whilst irritating in the main game, only serves to heighten the feeling that you’re watching a terrible Western dub of a movie intended to be in Cantonese. The style of this DLC doesn’t quite live up to its promise, but it makes a fair shot.

The Zodiac Tournament was a lot of fun, yet felt lacking as so much DLC does. There just isn’t enough content here. As I often recommend, this is probably worth picking up when it pops up on sale, but before then I’d hold off. What is here is fun and cool, there’s just so little of it. zodiac

Sleeping Dogs: Nightmare in North Point DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

It may not have exactly been a revolution in gaming, but last year’s Sleeping Dogs was a really solid, fun experience, a great way to close the chapter on GTA4 influenced games before the launch of GTA5 and it’s inevitable imitators. Since Sleeping Dogs was heavily influenced by Hong Kong gangster cinema, the creators decided to base their DLC on other schools of Hong Kong cinema, horror films in the case of the first release, Nightmare in North Point. This was perhaps a better idea in theory than it manages to be in reality, and sadly this doesn’t really work.

This DLC, as the name suggests, takes place entirely in the ‘North Point’ region of Hong Kong. This isn’t really a problem, as this was by far the best area of the main game anyway, and the most fun to explore. It’s certainly nice to see the area again, but it lacks the giddy thrill of seeing familiar areas grown monster-fied that Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare had, as the only real changes are in the scary glowing eyes of the passers-by and the odd inexplicable explosion. There’s nowhere new in this DLC, as it simply takes you through a tour of areas visited in the main game, and doesn’t do enough to make these areas feel new, as Undead Nightmare did.

Nightmare in North Point opens with Wei on a date with one of his girlfriends, Not Ping, because Emma Stone is too expensive to bring back, when a strange demon by erupts from the ground and kidnaps her. The kidnapper is Smiley Cat, a former Sun on Yee gangster formerly known as Big Scar Wu whose corpse was ground into cat food by his mob bosses as punishment for recklessness. For entirely unexplained reasons, Big Smile Lee has been able to raise an army of Jiang Shi and Yaoguai, demons from Chinese folklore. For further unexplained reasons, plenty of other dead people have risen as well, including some old allies of Wei’s to help him, as well as those he killed during the main game.

It’s all very lightweight and Nightmare in North point never really engages convincingly with the setting. There’s a fun thrill in seeing dead characters again, but the actual story is just so utterly lazy and boring. Smiley Cat is a disappointment as a villain; the fact that he’s dead doesn’t even seem relevant to the story, he’s just another jerk gangster with a grudge in a game filled with them.

Even worse, Nightmare in North Point actually plays less satisfyingly than the main game; the challenge of DLC is to offer something new and exciting enough to justify the price of re-entry, with the maintenance of the gameplay quality of the main game sort of being a given. This DLC fails at that first hurdle; you will spend most of this DLC fighting the Jiang Shi and Yaoguai demons and they are simply not in any way fun to fight. They must be fought in a slightly different way to the living enemies, but this difference removes any of the satisfying flow that made Sleeping Dog’s combat the best in the genre. There’s nothing else really to do in this DLC than to fight; sure there are a few chases, on foot and in cars, and one gun battle, but it’s all so brief and lazy that it’s hard to really care.

However, one thing that Nightmare in North Point does nail is it’s aesthetic. Smiley Cat looks great, as do the Jiang Shi and Yaoguai, and the world looks appropriately darkened and sinister during the whole thing. The voice acting is up to the quality of the main game, with the return of many characters both living and dead. It’s pretty clear that United Front took their time with working on the visual and audio design of this DLC, but then found themselves up against their Halloween 2012 deadline to actually give you anything fun to do.

Nightmare in North Point may be worth a go if it pops up on sale, if only for it’s cool aesthetic, but before then I can’t really recommend it. It’s not particularly long, although there are some boring side missions, but worst of all is that what you do in this DLC isn’t actually fun at all. Nightmare_in_North_Point

Sleeping Dogs for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Sleeping Dogs had a very troubled development cycle, and was in fact cancelled for several months last year. Originally intended as part of Activision’s GTA clone ‘True Crime’ series, originally known as ‘True Crime: Hong Kong’, the lack of success for the previous game in the series and concerns about how a single player focused game would perform (this is Activision after all) led to its cancellation. Although I’d had absolutely no interest in the series before, the prospect of an open world crime game set outside of America intrigued me, and the free running aspect shown in trailers looked appealing too. I was therefore rather saddened to hear of its cancellation, and equally pleased to hear of its revival by Square Enix as ‘Sleeping Dogs.’ The answer to the question as to whether Square Enix should have bothered rescuing this game is a resounding yes, as Sleeping Dogs delivers possibly the definitive open world crime game experience so far, although it also exposes the need for further innovations in the genre.

The real star of the game is the city itself, Hong Kong. It is so incredibly refreshing to be playing in somewhere outside of the US, and Hong Kong makes an excellent location for a sandbox game, being an island which such games naturally favour. Hong Kong looks best at night, with the neon glow creating a wonderfully seedy atmosphere. Although Hong Kong is a great setting visually, other aspects somewhat let down the immersion. Nothing quite breaks immersion like bad voice acting, and although the voice work for the main characters is excellent throughout, that of the random pedestrians more often than not devolve into ridiculous stereotyping. Rather than opting for the pedestrians to speak in Cantonese with the odd bit of English thrown in, as is apparently the norm of Hong Kong, we are instead get broken English in a silly accent. It feels uncomfortably like pandering to a Western audience, and I wish that the developers had been slightly braver and trusted us with subtitles. Overall though, although Hong Kong may not feel as organic and lived in as Liberty City did back in GTA4, it is still an excellent location for a sandbox game and a lot of fun to explore.

The main deviation from GTA that the True Crime series had is that the protagonist is an undercover cop rather than merely a gangster. Although I’m unaware how well this was played in the True Crime games, it is very well handled here. You are Wei Shen, a Chinese-American man who grew up in Hong Kong but worked in the US for most of his adult life. Due to his somewhat brutal and violent nature, Wei is recruited by Superintendent Pendrew  of the Hong Kong police department to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, one of the leading criminal Triads in the city. Wei has contacts with the organisation from his previous life growing up in Hong Kong, and soon makes contact with an old friend to bring himself into the organisation, working in classic GTA style all the way to the top. Although the story doesn’t really offer much that hasn’t been done before, what Sleeping Dogs does really well is to convey the difficulties that Wei has in reconciling his conflicting loyalties. Wei, and by extension the player, forms close friendships within members of the Sun On Yee, fully in the knowledge that he must one day betray them. Wei is one of that most rare breed; a badass who is also capable of being emotionally engaging. A lot of credit must go to Wei’s voice actor, Will Yun Lee, for his excellent work in helping to create the best protagonist of an open world game since Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston.

Purely in terms of its mechanics, Sleeping Dogs puts other games in the genre to shame. Of particular note is the hand to hand combat, arguably the weakest aspect of GTA4, which fits into the Arkham Asylum/Assassins Creed mould. The player is encouraged to use the environment to their advantage, with often brutally violent context sensitive attacks giving the combat a real sense of flow and dynamism until now lacking in the genre. The driving mechanics have a pleasantly arcade-y feel to them, which make the inevitable races genuinely exciting affairs. Gun crime isn’t nearly as prevalent in Hong Kong as it is in the US, and the game matches this. The shooting aspect is very clearly secondary to the hand to hand combat, and never manages to be as entertaining as grabbing your foe and wrestling them off a roof. That said, the shooting mechanics are very much competent, and also has a well implemented bullet time mechanic. The cover system isn’t truly awful, but isn’t any better than 2008’s GTA4’s. Wei handles much more naturally than Niko Bellic, with a rather fun free running aspect giving the world a rather more tangible feeling than is the norm for the genre. It never approaches Assassin’s Creed levels of freedom, and it is mostly useful in linear chase scenes, but  at least it’s something.

There’s a lot to do in this game, with the main missions split between cop missions and Triad missions. Triad missions tend to be a bit more action packed and entertaining, and sadly the cop missions are something of a letdown. They often take a slower pace and require investigation, but these largely involve following a series of objective markers, requiring absolutely no critical thought of your own. Perhaps a little bit of LA Noire and a little less GTA should have gone into this game; the game does a great job of making you feel like a Triad with a secret, but Wei never feels convincing as a cop, perhaps due to the incredibly hand holding nature of these missions. There are your standard open world crime game side missions around, such as stealing particular cars and debt collection, as well as an incredibly repetitive series of missions which involve beating up a load of thugs, hacking a camera, going back to your house, and spying on a drug deal. It’s mostly fun enough, but there’s nothing that leaps out as particularly amazing, especially coming fairly recently from the unabashed craziness of Saints Row: The Third.

Sleeping Dogs is a good looking game by and large, although the textures aren’t incredibly detailed. There’s a specific time in Sleeping Dogs which looks utterly beautiful, and that is at night in the rain. The reflection of the neon lights in the puddles on the ground is stunning, and created a wonderful sense of immersion like nothing else in the game. Like many games releasing lately, Sleeping Dogs really pushes what current generation consoles can do. Although I played on Xbox myself, I’ve heard that the PC version is much better looking. The faces of the characters are expressive, whilst not reaching LA Noire levels of detail. Still, there is no uncanny valley effect here and it’s easy to tell what people are feeling just by looking at their face, a seeming basic which is absent in so many otherwise great games (I’m looking at you Skyrim). The voice acting for the main characters is excellent, with most characters weaving English and Cantonese throughout their speech, although there’s an unsurprising focus upon English. I can’t help but feel that perhaps this game would have been more immersive if more of it had been in Cantonese, but I suppose I can understand why a major game company wouldn’t want to fund a game primarily in a language unspoken by their main target audience. For what it is however, the voice acting is engaging and avoids stereotypes (with the exception of the random pedestrians as mentioned earlier).

Although Sleeping Dogs is very much the apex of the genre, it exposes the need for true innovation. With each new GTA game, Rockstar change the entire landscape. After GTA3, all open world crime games tried to be like GTA3, and after GTA4, all open world crime games tried to be like GTA4. There are therefore two distinct phases in the genre, and I feel that Sleeping Dogs represents the end of the ‘GTA4’ phase. Although the game is a lot of fun, there is a strong feeling that something more needs to be done with the concept of the open world crime game. With the release of GTA5 next year, I’m fully confident that this will happen. As it stands, Sleeping Dogs is a very polished and incredibly fun game. Will I still be thinking about it in six months? Unlikely, but not every game needs to be chock full of innovation and creativity. Sometimes it’s ok to just create an incredibly polished experience that builds upon the shoulders of giants. With Sleeping Dogs as the last game of the ‘GTA4’ phase, I’m pleased to report that this period of open world crime games goes out on a high.  

 

 

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