Friday, August 29, 2014

Pocket Review - The Walking Dead: Season Two

Caution: This review will contain spoilers for The Walking Dead: Season One, but will NOT spoil any specific story moments from Season Two. Only vague references will be made to major plot points.

As I stated in my review of The Walking Dead: Season One, I found it to be one of the greatest narrative experiences in gaming. That's not a statement I take lightly, so when Telltale games revealed the sequel I was curious how it would stack up. The Walking Dead: Season Two had some big shoes to fill, so Telltale did the best thing it could do in this situation and didn't try to fill them. The team instead took things in a different direction from the first season by shifting the focus away from an adult like Lee Everett and putting players in the role of young Clementine from the first game. This paradigm shift means that those expecting an experience exactly like Season One could be disappointed, but the direction this new season is great in its own way.

The gameplay and structure have changed very little since the first season, as Season Two is still an episodic. narrative-focused, adventure game with a heavy emphasis on decision making. Technically, this title is also much smoother than the first game, though there are occasional issues with graphical textures on Vita, but it's never a problem. The first episode of the season was released in December of 2013, but with the Vita version taking a while to get off the ground, I opted to wait until all five episodes were released in order to play them all back to back with worked out much better for me. Season Two starts off a little rocky with Clementine being stripped out of her element, finding herself alone with no food, friends, or shelter. There are a few moment during this initial episode that felt a little too game-like with too many easy-to-fail quick time events and not enough decisions to make, but that thankfully doesn't last very long.

Before too long Clem once again finds herself in a makeshift family, and that's when the dialogue options really kick back into play. During Season One, Lee's objective was always clear. He was seeking to find a way to keep Clementine safe. The murkiness always came in finding the best way to make that happen, as people and their own unique human natures always ended up getting in the way. This time around Clem is just trying to find a way to survive, and that makes the path she's on sometimes feel less focused. In a way it actually feels more natural considering she's a young child often surrounded by a group of adults. She gives input and tries to influence those in her group, but as adults are wont to be, they often end up doing what they want to do and dragging her along with them.

The early episodes of the game act as building blocks for Clementine's development as a character. As we know from Season One, she's already seen some awful stuff and had to do some painful deeds, but Season Two gives you the option to control her path now. In this way, Telltale does a great job of helping players relate to and even identify with this young girl growing up in a zombie apocalypse. While she often comes across as way smarter than the rest of the adults in the group, and there are a few awkward moments where all the adults seem to be waiting on her to make an important call, at the same time it shows that she still seems to have a bit of hope left in her that the older folks have lost.

The supporting characters this time around vary greatly in terms of development. Some you learn very little about some despite them having a large role, and others you meet for only a short time, but come to care for and understand. Considering how quickly this season plays out in terms of in-game time, this is an understandable and natural issue. In a situation like Clem finds herself in, it's hard to imagine a group of adults sharing their innermost secrets with a young girl, but as such it means that the game sacrifices character depth to give things a more natural feel. That said, there are still certain characters that are fantastic, special moments of bonding between this new family, and even a strong villain to add a bit of depth to the narrative. Overall things just felt more real and less like a game during Season Two, which might seem mundane to some, but made the game even more personal to me.

The heart of Telltale's The Walking Dead series is the decisions the player has to make and how things play out as a result. This is where I found Season Two really shines, as I felt less like I was taking sides with my favorite characters and more like I was being forced into making gut decisions with no real idea if the consequences were going to be something I could live with or not.

At the end of Season One when the game shifted from Lee to Clementine, the situation she was put in was a painful one. There was no happy ending, and Clem only had one choice to make. The way things played out were still extremely emotional, but both Lee and Clem knew it had to happen. Season Two takes that peaceful feeling of knowing you did what had to be done because it was the only option away from you. Clementine is put into situations where there is no right answer and instead forces you to go with your gut. And as such, the game often punches you right in the gut right after you make a call.

You get to truly role-play as Clem and decide which path she wants to follow in term of her character. Whether she will side with a friend in a situation that's clearly not in the best interest of the group or shun that person for the sake of self-preservation is totally up to you. It's your call if she's becoming hardened to the world around her or if she still has a bit of innocence to her. The final couple of episodes are emotionally rough, as the game shifts away from a direct narrative path and instead begins to unravel all the webs spun to this point. The concept of right and wrong fades away and only shades of gray are left, making it harder to decide which direction to go.

You have to decide where you think Clem's loyalties lie and the consequence of those actions can sometimes be tough to deal with. Season Two doesn't try to cheat you or pull the rug out from underneath you, but instead force you think in a way the first game didn't get an opportunity to do. Even though the multiple endings don't necessarily change dramatically based on prior game decisions, those earlier experiences do a fantastic job of shaping what you as Clementine's controller have become by the end. While it might not be as strong as the original in terms of overall narrative, this season offers some of the best, and hardest, examples if decision making in gaming.

While I started this season expecting more of what I loved from the first, I instead found a different take on Telltale's adventure genre that I loved just as much, but for different reasons. While I couldn't directly relate to being a young girl in a world gone crazy, my own childhood still allowed me to identify with her struggles to be heard in situations where adults were at each other's throats and trying to pit her against the other. The Walking Dead: Season Two is a wonderful follow-up to Season One. It's an emotional experience that plays on what's come before and thrusts you into making gut-wrenching decisions that will stick with you for well after the game is ended.

Recommended? Clementine's journey stands side-by-side with Lee's from Season One with some of the best decision making in gaming.
Enjoyed By? Anyone who loves a game where your decisions matter should play this game. Make sure to play Season One first, though.

This game was played on Vita via a PSN code provided by the publisher.

Japan 3DS Goodies Galore Announced

Nintendo held a Japan-centered Direct today focused on the 3DS and revealed a lot of new footage for previously announced games like Bravely Second and Final Fantasy Explorers. Along with this news, it was also officially confirmed that Shulk from Xenoblade is going to be in Super Smash Bros for 3DS.

That wasn't all, as Nintendo also showed off brand new 3DS models that will feature NFC, more RAM, a faster CPU, ZL & ZR buttons, and a small right stick awkwardly crammed onto the system. This new hardware will be available in standard and XL sizes, will use microSD cards, and has a removable battery.

Though still called the 3DS, this new system will run games that will not be backward compatible due to using more of the system's power. One of the first games shown off for the new 3DS is a port of the Wii RPG Xenoblade, out in 2015. No details from the North American side of things have been revealed, but there's little doubt we'll hear about the new system soon. Now we just need to wait on localization announcements for these great games.

Bravely Second

Final Fantasy Explorers

(via Twitter, NeoGAF)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Move Over Pepper, Salt and Sanctuary is the New Hotness

Ska Studios, of I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 and The Dishwasher series fame, have revealed the company's latest game, Salt and Sanctuary for PlayStation Vita (& PS4). This new title, due out in 2015, mixed together action platforming and RPG content in a manner that looks very similar to the Castlevania RPGs. The titular character, Salt, can use a variety of weapons each with their own moveset and Salt's loadout will affect stats such as strength and movement. While this one is still a little ways off, you can enjoy the reveal trailer below along with a couple screenshots.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Theatrhythm Meets Type-0 Music in Glorious Majesty

In the latest tease for the upcoming 3DS music game, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, Square Enix highlights the fantastic music from Final Fantasy Type-0 and the Class Zero cast. Enjoy the new trailer below. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call releases on Sept. 16 in North America.

Note to PAX Prime 2014 goers: "As part of today's announcement, anyone who plays the game at PAX Prime 2014 (Booth #3630) will receive a set of rare Class Zero in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call CollectaCards. These cards feature three of the main characters from Final Fantasy Type-0 (Machina / Rem / Ace) as well as an in-game password that unlocks rare versions of those cards in Class Zero in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pocket Review - Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds

Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a very by-the-books brawler. This Vita game from 5pb is pure action with little to no story or dialogue, but the action is fast and the game offers just enough to not get old. Brawlers tend to be pretty solid on handhelds, and this one is too, but it's nothing impressive. It even seems like a quick port, as the development team didn't even take the time to change the Japanese button configuration standards to English ones, so even at the start you'll be trying to confirm with X and canceling out instead.

Once you dive into the game, players get to select who they want to play as. I used the DLC character Kurisu Makise from Steins;Gate. The side-scrolling stages simply require you to beat all the enemies on-screen and then move onto the next area. Enemies get progressively harder from stage to stage, but thankfully you're able to upgrade your character as you go along using gems you earn during combat. At the end of each stage, or when you die, you are granted experience points to put into stats such as attack, defense, and speed or to acquire new combat skills.

Characters have the ability to jump, attack, dash, charge attack, and perform special attacks or phantom breaks. Phantom breaks and some of the more powerful skills drain your power bar, but it can be replenished quickly through connecting with standard attacks. Despite the variety, I found a couple of skills that worked and stuck with them, because they were the easiest way to plow through the tons of enemies the game throws at you. It seemed cheap at times, but trying to be fancy with my attacks got dull pretty quick, so this sped things along. It was especially helpful on some of the challenging boss fights, which otherwise didn't seem fair on my end.

The story mode is pretty straightforward, and there is also an arcade mode and online play. It's a shame that it's nearly impossible to get to play online, because players would have to leave single player mode and search specifically for an online match in order to be paired up. It's not something that Phantom Breaker alone suffers from, as many handheld games do things this way and it rarely works there either.

As for the DLC, playing as Kurisu Makise is cute, especially if you're a Steins;Gate fan as you will get the easter eggs. It's still hard to justify the $5.99 price tag for the DLC, but at least you get some easy trophies if you like that kind of thing. To be frank, it was actually the DLC that made me plow through this one at all, because outside of Kurisu I didn't care about any of the other characters. Phantom Breaker didn't really care to show me more, because in the end it was just a mindless brawler. A shame it was made even more mindless by its lack of depth.

Recommended? Gameplay is decent, but it's pretty shallow overall.
Enjoyed By? Someone looking for a mindless brawler with cute anime girls might have some fun here.

This game was played on Vita via a PSN code provided by the publisher.

Devolver Digital Loves Vita Owners, but Still Wants to Kill Them

No, Titan Souls is not a From Software game, but it sure will have you dying a lot. Acid Nerve is giving you one arrow and one hit point to take down powerful bosses. Will it be enough? It had better be, because that's all you get. This game is just one of many Devolver Digital published games coming to Vita, and Titan Souls hits in 2015. Check out the latest gameplay trailer below.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pocket Review - BlazBlue: Clone Phantasma

BlazBlue: Clone Phantasma is functional and the character art is cute, but sadly that's about all of the positive things I can say about it. This spin-off title is available via digital download on the 3DS, but it's hard to say if it's really worth the $5.99 it costs. Clone Phantasma is less of a brawler and more of a cash-in on BlazBlue, as it is hollow and bland.

The story mode offers ten characters to choose from, but even calling this a story mode is a bit of a stretch. You select a character, get a couple lines of nonsensical dialogue, and then start trying to swat enemies off the stage. The only goal in each arena-like stage is to knock a certain number of enemies off the edge before they do the same to you. Characters have a basic attack, a couple special attacks, and a jump button. Players get three lives before having to start over, so it's easy to just spam one of your power attacks to send enemies flying. After so many uses, the power attack causes you to be stunned, but recovery is quick enough for it to not be a problem. 

After beating enough enemies, you finish that stage and move on to the next. Every two stages (there are only six) there's a boss that offers a couple additional lines of dialogue, but nothing of substance. Bosses are not much different from normal enemies except they have to be knocked off three times.

The entire game is rather mindless and over in hardly any time at all. Playing with other characters takes you through the same stages with different bosses and slightly different dialogue, but it's the exact same process. It's not fun and doesn't even offer enough fanservice for BlazBlue lovers to care about. At least it didn't crash.

Recommended? There's little to nothing here, and what there is isn't even that enjoyable. 
Enjoyed By? Hardcore BlazBlue fans who want a mindless experience might find some fun here, but not for long. 

This game was played on 3DS via an eShop code provided by the publisher.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

BlazBlue Cloned for 3DS Brawler

Arc System Works, of BlazBlue fighting game fame, is self-publishing the 3DS brawler spin-off, BlazBlue: Clone Phantasma, available digitally today for $5.99. Players can select from Ragna, Jin, Noel, Rachel, Taokaka, Bang, Hazama, Makoto, Platinum, and Izayoi. Each of these characters is a "cute" version of their normal fighting game look, and they each have their own story. There is also a challenge mode where you simply knock all the enemies off the stage to win. Check out the screens below.

Oh, My Darlin', a Season Finale

The final episode ("No Going Back") of The Walking Dead: Season Two on Vita hits next Tuesday, Aug. 26. Here a special trailer for the finale. It doesn't spoil anything from the upcoming episode, but does spoil everything that's come before. Enjoy.

Pocket Previews - Azure Striker Gunvolt & Mighty Gunvolt

When Inti Creates opted to team up with Comcept, the company didn't know just how mighty its upcoming 3DS game, Azure Striker Gunvolt, was going to get. Next week when Gunvolt releases, those who purchase the game will also receive a code on their eShop receipt to download the retro-styled Mighty Gunvolt. This bonus 3DS game will be free for all Gunvolt purchasers from Fri., Aug. 29 until 9AM PST on Fri., Nov. 28, 2014.

I've played a few stages of Azure Striker Gunvolt, and it's fast and challenging. Gunvolt can do the standard jump and shoot, but when he shoots an enemy it tags it making it more susceptible to his electric attacks. His electrical field doesn't prevent him from taking damage, but can destroy missiles that are headed his way while heavily damaging any tagged foes nearby. This field is powerful, but balanced out by the fact it only has a limited usage before it has to recharge. It can power back up gradually overtime or players can double tap the down arrow on the directional pad for a quick charge.

Gunvolt also acquires skills as he progresses, the first of which is an area attack. Skills have cooldowns before reuse, but it's pretty quick making it useful, yet not overpowered. As for other aspects of the game, checkpoints have a good spacing so far and health packs are not too scarce, which is helpful. The story in Gunvolt is kinda silly, but the localization is surprisingly impressive. The text is well-written and the goofy lines are actually more entertaining than I imagined they would be. I look forward to seeing where this one goes.

I was able to check out the free bonus game, Mighty Gunvolt, as well. It's a 2D platformer with a serious retro look which stars Gunvolt, Beck (from Mighty No. 9), and Ekoro (from Gal☆Gun by Inti Creates). Players get to select one of these three characters, each of which have different abilities to help them through the game's five stages. Gunvolt has a double jump and can do a charge attack that creates a beam in front of him that players can up and down. Beck's charge attack causes him to dash forward smashing things, and he also has a slide dash to get through narrow pathways. Ekoro has a basic charge attack that does more damage and can jump and float to cross gaps. This game offers the same classic 2D platforming from the olden days and is a nice bonus, even if you'll likely work through it pretty quickly.