Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review

For the uninitiated, the Dragon Quest series can seem like a daunting prospect. As venerable and well respected as that other giant of the JRPG genre, the Final Fantasy series, the Dragon Quest games quite literally laid the template that developers still follow to this day. But where Final Fantasy titles reinvent the wheel with each iteration, Dragon Quest refines it’s core conceit, evoking a nostalgia in long time fans in a way other games rarely do. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age has a simple design mantra… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Traditional, perhaps to a fault, DQXI recalls a bygone era. An era where heroes were silent and destined to save the world. It is a tale that you have probably heard before, but it’s not in the telling that it succeeds, but in the execution of its seemingly simplistic mechanics, unbelievably charming characters and beautifully realized landscapes. Everyone, from the companions that aid you in your journey, to the foes that oppose you, down to the descriptions of the items you find, are crafted with love, care and a fiendish attention to detail

You play the role of The Luminary, a legendary figure in the world of Erdrea, who is destined to defeat the Dark One. Born to the king and queen of Dundrasil, our hero still only an infant at the time, is one of only several to survive the complete devastation of the kingdom as an army of monsters raze it to the ground. Taken in by some kindly villagers that raise him as their own, a big part of the Luminary’s journey is discovering who his family were and what his role will be in a world beset on all sides.

You are joined on this journey by what just might be one of the most colorful and likable cast of characters ever seen in a JRPG. Of course each character is given time in the spotlight, and considerable time is spent explaining each’s motivations for aiding the Luminary, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, that with the protagonist being of the silent persuasion, your companions do the bulk of the narrative lifting, and its through their eyes that we really see the world.

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Each is much more than just an archetype, Erik for example seems at first to be a standard rogue type character, from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint. But while certainly roguish, he is plagued by doubt and indecision. He can be built to deal insane damage and apply all kinds of nasty status effects to foes, or more of an AOE damage dealer by specializing in boomerangs.

The twins Veronica and Serena fill the traditional mage and healer roles respectively. While initially a little bit tropey, Veronica quickly came to be one of my favorite characters due to her spunky nature and explosive damage dealing potential. Serena is perhaps a little underdeveloped, maybe the most of the core cast, but her role as a dedicated healer is virtually essential, at least in the mid to late game. The sisters have a very endearing dynamic to them, and their familial bond is a strong part of their story line throughout.

We must, of course, spend sign some with the incredible, the fabulous, Sylvando. A famous troubadour, Sylvando is initially portrayed as quite mysterious, always evasive about his own past. But he wears his heart on his sleeve, his only goal in life to bring smiles to the people of the world in his own spectacularly flamboyant style. Mechanically he functions as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, able to deal damage and dual wield with swords and knives or deal group damage with whips. He can heal, buff allies and debuff his foes. Truly the star of the show, Sylvando is a standout character and a wonder to behold.

Rounding out the core cast is Rab and Jade, wandering martial artists initially portrayed as antagonists. They are a little harder to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say they play an important part in the games narrative. Rab is an elderly gentleman, whose role lies somewhere in between Veronica’s and Serena’s – that of a magical damage dealer and healer. He can also dish out some decent damage by dual wielding claws. Jade, meanwhile, is pure physical damage. Playing something of a femme fatale, she is murderous with polearms and brings some much needed physical punch to the group.

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The turn-based combat is simple but incredibly satisfying, honed to a razor edge. Your party learn various abilities at certain levels, and can specialize into branching skill trees that are reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, if a little more streamlined. There is an incredible amount of synergy between the different party members, and you really can find success with any combination. Further complicating things is the Pep system – each turn, there is a certain chance one of your party will become “pepped up”, a state in which they can do increased damage, or have a higher healing ability or dodge chance, depending on the character. This lasts for a few turns, or can be spent by unleashing cinematic pep powers. The cool thing about this is that, like Chrono Trigger before it, if multiple characters are pepped up, you can unleash very specific full party combos that can have a variety of uses, and are glorious to behold.

But what’s a good role playing game without some great loot? DQXI features an interactive forging system that I found myself addicted to, in which you need to use very specific strikes to forge items in a mini game that is surprisingly in depth. While min-maxer’s will obsess over forging the perfect equipment, its nice that even if you fail, you still receive the item at a base level, and your carefully horded ingredients don’t go to waste.

These ingredients are found out in the wild and dropped by the games horde of delightful foes, each more ridiculous than the last.  I fell in love with Akira Toriyama’s monster design, I’ve long been a fan of his work and this is some of his best. It’s incredible to me that a turn-based game can be so comedic on a mechanical level. Bad guys might fall asleep, get distracted or fall in love with your party, all animated with loving detail. The boss fights too are fantastic, and there are a lot of them. This is a big game, with hundreds of enemies and dozens of areas and hours upon hours of dialogue. Each townsperson has something to say, and often something new to say after each story beat.

While not an open world game per se, there are parts of Dragon Quest that feel quite open. Generally you will enter an area, get some story beats, and then be let loose to accomplish some grand endeavor. The areas, while somewhat empty, are large and have multiple layers to them. They are filled with secrets and enemies to do battle with, but can be quite a task to walk across, and thankfully you are given several different modes of transport as you progress through the game. All are colorful and varied, and really add to the sense of a large, inhabited world.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a triumph of classic game design in the modern era. Few series today can boast of such a successful lineage and still put out games of such high quality. Even if you didn’t grow up playing these kinds of games, DQXI succeeds in its accessibility, and if anything will make you a fan of the genre, it is this game. Likewise, it appeals to hardcore fans of the series with its wealth of content and homages to prior titles, and is a high water mark in gaming worthy of your time. Plus, it has given us the magnificent Sylvando, and for that alone I’m grateful.

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NieR: Automata Review

For the Glory of Mankind.

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Square Enix

Reviewed for: PS4 Pro

Played: Around 35 hours, receiving endings A, B, C, D, and E, along with some post game cleanup.

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NieR: Automata is something unique in a landscape of games attempting to follow popular trends and genre norms. Much like the robotic foes you spend most of your time slicing through, Automata has been pieced together from the cast off mechanics of genres that we have come to know and love, and even those that are probably better off left by the wayside. This fusion of satisfying play styles is held together by a narrative penned by auteur game designer Yoko Tarō, and while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, NieR: Automata is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on any of its many, many different endings.

Taking place in the far distant future, Automata tells the story of three androids fighting a proxy war on a ravaged Earth, seeking to reclaim it from the machines occupying it. The human survivors of this robotic apocalypse sought refuge on the moon, where they have developed elite android combat units known as YorHa. These soldiers are the eyes through which the world of Automata is seen, and through which concepts like duty, emotion and individualism are explored by the player.

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The protagonist, at least initially, is 2B. A front-line unit designed to be the perfect soldier, 2B’s journey is one of exploration, as she discover’s there is more to the machines on earth than humanity’s leadership would have her believe. Accompanying her, and arguably the true protagonist of the game, is 9S. A scanner model, 9S is the emotional link to the games narrative, and has the strongest and most effective arc by far, once all is said and done. Finally, we have A2, an outdated model turned traitor to her YorHa brethren. A2 is a little one note, and really only present for the back third of the game, but her unique mechanics are a welcome change to Automata’s combat system, especially after some of 9S’s slower segments.

One of the games major supporting characters is Pascal, a pacifist, sentient machine that has a surprisingly large role to play, even if the majority of it is spent doling out fetch quests to pad out some of the middle sections of the game. I wish Pascal was a little more interesting, but like virtually every other character you will meet, there is very little actual growth. Most end up being one note, and rather flat. This is a shame, because Nier; Automata is well written, and the world these flat, one note characters inhabit is intriguing and full of mystery.

And before we get to the thing’s NieR gets right, we do have to talk about NieR’s greatest sin. The large, semi open areas that the majority of the game takes place in are unfortunately quite boring. While there are some beautiful vistas to behold, the world is sparse, which I suppose could be intentional, as it certainly feels desolate. Unfortunately, they aren’t very exciting to explore, and are for the most part quite straight forward. While there are some locked doors that cant be accessed until later playthroughs, most of the loot found hidden off the beaten path is fairly trivial, as the materials required for upgrading weapons is dropped by enemies fairly generously. I could forgive a lot of the above, if you didn’t have to travel back to each of these bland environments so many times. For example, the factory that the opening hour of the game takes place in, has to be revisited five times throughout the course of the game as part of the critical path. It isn’t that interesting to begin with, and that’s not even including the multiple times you need to return there as part of various side quests.

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Where Automata truly shines though, is in its combat. Developed by Platinum Games, hardened veterans of the action-rpg genre, the combat is lightning fast and deeply satisfying. Playing as 2B, you are able to dual-wield any weapon in the game, of which there are dozens across four categories. For example, say you had a sword equipped to your first slot, and a spear in the second, each weapon has its own string of attack’s and can be combined fluidly with the other at any point. Further, each weapon has a differing move set, depending on which slot it is equipped to. So, a spear in slot one has a wider, more sweeping move set when compared to a spear in slot two, that consists of stabs and thrusts. Further, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, each time adding more attacks to the combo chain and providing additional benefits, such as extra damage while at full health. There is nothing stopping you from equipping two spears either, to become a whirling dervish of death.

Each android is also accompanied by a pod, a little helper drone that supports you in battle and acts as a kind of robotic commentator to everything you do. By holding down the appropriate button, your pod will unleash a barrage of laser fire, functioning as your basic ranged attack. There are different types of pod, all upgradeable, with different methods of attack, but I found the starting unit to be the most effective. Your pod can also be equipped with various programs, that function as special attacks. Again, the default is a powerful ranged blast attack, and I found myself using it for the majority of the game. Embarrassingly, I assumed that the limited selection at shops were all the programs available. It wasn’t until I was about to complete the game I discovered exotic programs like a grappling hook that could be used in combat, or a gravity bomb that could be used to set up groups of enemies for devastating AOE’s.

Your android can be upgraded by attaching what are known as Plug-In Chips, which can be bought and are frequently dropped by enemies. These function as Automata’s upgrade system, and it is incredibly robust once fully unlocked. Like any machine, YorHa units have limited memory, and can only equip a certain number of upgrades. Once all of these upgrades have been purchased, you will have a lot of options to play around with, and you really can create a unique build or playstyle. For example, I built 2B as a real glass cannon, with multiple attack and speed upgrades, but also several chips that would not only heal me for every machine I destroyed, but also every time I even hit one. This translated into an ultra aggressive play style where I was constantly on the offensive, and the game felt more akin to something like Bloodborne. Conversely, playing as 9S, all of my chips buffed his unique hacking skill, his movement speed and his pods ranged attack, which felt like playing a ranged caster in other games.

And we should talk about the music, which is uniformly incredible. I think the highest praise I can give it, is that I listen to it out loud in my apartment when I’m working. I’m listening to it as I write this in fact. The soundtrack to NieR; Automata is, much like the game itself, loud, bombastic, epic and deeply weird. Whether its one of the booming orchestral epics that accompany boss fights, with melodic Gregorian chants that make you believe you might be fighting God himself, or any of the more stripped back tunes that you might hear in the Resistance Camp or in Pascal’s Village, the OST is fantastic, and one of the games greatest strengths.

Another strength, although not as consistent, is the games emphasis on differing game styles to mix thing’s up. You might be exploring an open three dimensional space, and upon entering a hallway the perspective will shift to that of a two dimensional sidescroller or platformer, not unlike Mario. Of course, you can still be laying down constant fire with your pod, which makes these segments reminiscent of sidescrolling shooter like the Metal Slug series. 9S has a hacking mechanic that plays out like a top down shooter, and while used in interesting ways, can become a little tiring with repeated use. Even the most mundane fights in an open area can end up feeling like a third person shooter, as the weight of enemy fire that you are forced to dodge can feel like area-denial attacks. Boss fights especially can come to resemble games from the bullet hell genre, and are truly intense in the latter stages of the game. And of course there are the flight suit segments, that play like Ikaruga or Space Invaders, with you vanquishing wave after wave of enemie fighters. A personal favorite section of mine featured a full motion FMV battle taking place in the background while you fight off enemy aircraft in the foreground, strangely reminiscent of the Battle of the Garden’s in Final Fantasy VIII, to date one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game.

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In this way, NieR: Automata truly keeps you guessing. It’s a weird beast, that you cant ever truly pin down. It constantly bombards you with ever shifting gameplay styles, keeping you on the back foot, fighting through by the skin of your teeth. Then it might deliver a quieter moment in the form of philosophical monologue on the nature of self determinism straight from the mouth of a strange looking robot. There is the childlike sense of humor present throughout the game, with gags that sometime work, but always succeed in selling this world as alien and unfathomable. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games insistent sexualisation of 2B to an uncomfortable degree, with the camera angle always gently trying to peek under her skirt. But aside from that last part, every aspect comes together in a way that just works. This game should be a mess of confused ideas and concepts, but aside from some pacing issues in the middle and a few too many fetch quests, the game as a whole comes together in a big way.

One of the best JRPG’s of the modern era, NieR: Automota is a flawed masterpiece that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s fantastic soundtrack complements its brilliant combat system perfectly, and guides you down the rabbit hole of its desperately compelling narrative. Yoko Taro and Platinum Games have crafted something truly unique, and like 9S and 2B themselves, complement each others strengths while masking their weakness’s. In a landscape full of sequels and stale ideas, Automata has taken something from virtually every genre that has come before, and in doing so, it feel’s like they have created something that defies definition.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review

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Developer: Spike Chunsoft

Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, NIS America

Reviewed for : Vita

Played: 40+ Hours

 

With Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Spike Chunsoft delivers an explosive and somewhat divisive third entry in the Danganronpa series. Without spoilers, its kind of hard to describe just exactly why this game is so controversial amongst longtime fans. I wont spoil anything here, but V3 stands out as one of the best visual novels on the market due to its impeccable writing, despite ultimately falling short of true greatness due to its clunky gameplay mechanics and some pacing issues around the middle.

For newcomers, the basic concept of Danganronpa goes something like this: Sixteen Ultimate students are imprisoned together and forced into a killing game. To escape, a student needs to kill one of their fellows and get away with it. The flip side of this is that if the “blackened” (the murderer) does succeed, everyone else will be executed instead.  Once a body has been discovered, a class trial will ensue after an  investigation period. During this trial, the player engages in a bunch of mini games and shoot “truth bullets” at key phrases to progress the plot. All of this is overseen by the maniacal series mascot Monokuma, a monochromatic bear that presides over this crazy kangaroo court, dolling out his own dark brand of justice. In V3, he is joined by his evil offspring, the Monocubs.

If all of that sounds like a lot to take on, its because it is. Danganronpa has always been insane, but that’s part of the charm. Take for instance the Ultimate’s themselves. These students have hyper advanced skills in their chosen fields, whether it makes sense or not. From the Ultimate Anthropologist to the Ultimate Tennis Pro to the Ultimate Supreme Leader, each character is wildly colourful and has a lot of personality, even if their Ultimate abilities don’t actually come up thematically or in gameplay a whole lot.

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But where V3 really sells itself and its twisted world is in its aforementioned writing, which is really top notch. From the characters themselves, to the twists and turns of each of the murders and the ultimate reveals of the overarching plot itself, Danganronpa is rarely predictable, V3 in particular. Unfortunately, at least for me personally, the big twist of this entry falls a little flat, which was kind of disappointing. The narrative had me completely enthralled for around 35 hours, but sadly lost me with a reveal that I didn’t quite feel was earned, either through the narrative buildup or by the groundwork laid by past entries in the series. Now, that last point is totally subjective, I respect what the devs where going for, it just didn’t entirely work for me. I think they should be applauded for the risks they took though, as it may be one of the most ambitious endings  to a piece of media I’ve yet seen, and very unique to the medium of video games.

Well done, too, is the dialogue of characters during the free time events that occurs several times in a chapter. These give the player a chance to learn more about the other Ultimates, and if you spend enough time with a certain character you will unlock a Friendship Fragment, which can be used to buy skills for the various mini games used in class trials. I appreciated getting to know more about the other characters in the game, not only because they are all interesting, but because in hindsight some of them foreshadow future events. Remember, some of these people will commit murder, while others are potential victims. These relationships are on a timer, without explicit time limits!

I wish I could heap praise on the aforementioned mini games as well, but sadly these have always been the series weak point. I really wish that the Danganronpa games of the future would just get rid of them all entirely, they really bring nothing to the table and actually take away from the product as a whole. It would be fine if these were a once off thing, but you end up doing each one several times per trial. Spread out over the games six trials, and you’re looking at hours of awful mini games just to advance the narrative. I think, of all of them, the Non-Stop Debate is probably the best, because it has a sort of narrative focus. Characters will chime in and throw dialogue at you, and you need to “shoot” a certain phrase to either agree or disagree with that character. This is actually where the series gets its name, Dangan (bullet) Ronpa (refutation). I’ve seen it translated literally as ”winning an argument with a bullet”, which I think is pretty cool. New to the series is the ability to lie during these encounters, which ends up being thematically quite resonant with the overall story, but only occurs a handful of times.

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The games best character. Sadistic, psychotic, and incredibly entertaining!

Less cool, segway, are the other mini games. Hangman’s Gambit is literally just the word game Hangman that we all played in primary school, but you pick out moving letters with the help of a sonar. There is a minesweeper-esque mini game that is forgettable at best. Another new section is the Debate Scrum, in which two sides will face off over a point of contention by way of a word association game. Again, if that sounds interesting, it might be the first time you do it, but quickly wears out its welcome, like an unwanted house guest that moves in to your spare bedroom when you weren’t looking. But the most egregious of all is Psyche Taxi. I would audibly groan whenever this one popped up, as it meant I would be spending the next several minutes of my life driving a taxi that controls poorly down a neon stretch of highway gathering orbs that represented part of a phrase the game was trying to spell out. Its not that this segment is bad per se, it is just so aggressively bland that it might as well have not existed. Oh, and when you spell out the word you run over women who then climb into the taxi with you. Again, just unnecessary.

And despite spending so much of your playtime slogging through the boring mini games, Danganronpa V3 is, as a whole, better than the sum of its parts. While it would invariably be a better title without the dead weight of the series baggage, would it still be Danganronpa? That’s not for me to say. What I will say is that V3’s strength’s far outweigh its weaknesses, its narrative is compelling and somewhat controversial. It rewards its players with a well crafted story, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Waterfield Designs Gaming Cases – Nintendo Switch and PlayStation Vita

I love gaming accessories, I really do. And for me one of the most crucial accessories a portable gamer can have is a carrying case, to keep those precious devices safe from any mishap that life might throw at you. But there are just so many to choose from, and we as gamer’s have different needs and expectations of a carrying case. There are the heavy duty, almost military supply cases that seem like they might be a little bit overkill. On the other end of the spectrum we have the more light weight cloth cases that seem like they aren’t doing enough. Then of course we have branded cases, like the awesome Breath of the Wild Shiekah Slate case.

But recently I came across a little company based out of San Francisco that go by the name of Waterfield Designs. They make bags, awesome backpacks and even wallets. And they also make GAMING CASES, and they might just be some of the highest quality gaming accessories I’ve ever had the pleasure to own. What sets them apart, aside from the high quality of their make, is that they are stylish. They look cool, which is of course hugely important. They feel adult, like I’m not embarrassed to take them out in public. And while they are a little pricey, I truly feel like these cases are a long term investment I have made that to me seems extremely worthwhile.

Lets take a look at them, shall we?

 

 Nintendo Switch CitySlicker Case

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Material:
– Full-grain cowhide leather flap
– Ballistic nylon body
– Rear power mesh pocket
– Soft liner

Weight & Dimensions:
Switch CitySlicker: 10.5″ Length x “1.5” Width x 5″ Height; 7.5 oz.

Hardware:
-Optional 1″ Heavy Duty Shoulder Strap extends to 54″
-Optional 3/8″ Leather Shoulder Strap made from full-grain leather
-Optional 3/8″ Leather Wrist Loop made from full-grain leather
-Optional Aluminum Carabiner
-Optional Brass Nickel-plated Carabiner
– YKK locking zippers

Features:

  • Protects the Switch Joy-Cons from nicks and bumps
  • Optional attachments for carrying at an additional fee: carabiner, strap, or wrist loop
  • Includes a Microsuede lining for cleaning the screen when inserted in the case
  • Pocket for screen cleaner
  • Can be inserted into bigger bags or backpacks

The Switch case is actually what brought me to Waterfield, after doing a bunch of Google sleuthing. This thing is beautiful, you can really feel the quality and it even smells great. It starts out at $79 USD, which is pretty steep, especially as I am Australian and had to pay a bunch extra to get it half way around the world.

 

 

PlayStation Vita CitySlicker Case

PS Vita Case

 

Material:
– Full-grain cowhide leather flap
– Ballistic nylon body
– Rear power mesh pocket
– Soft liner

Weight & Dimensions:
PS Vita: 8″ x 4″ x 1″; 4 oz.

Hardware:
– YKK locking zippers

Features:

  • Assorted leather flap colors
  • Rear power mesh pocket for larger items including charger

Couldn’t leave my trusty old sidekick naked while his brother got a fancy new house, could I? The Vita case is awesome too, although you can tell that this  case is an older design, its buttons need some slight pressure applied to them to seal the case, where as the Switch’s are magnetic and lock into place by themselves. At $59 USD its a little cheaper, and fantastic value IMO.

Important to note, I’m not affiliated with WF, just a very satisfied customer. Take care of your portables people, look after them and they will look after you!

K.

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment Review

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is the latest expansion to the fantastic retro platformer – Shovel Knight. Much more than just a rehash of the base game, Specter of Torment stands on its own thanks to its twitchy new move-set and badass boss encounters. It is standalone, and can be played independently of the original campaign, and is provided for free by the wonderful folks over at Yacht Club Games.

Specter of Torment doesn’t reinvent the Shovel Knight wheel, and that’s a good thing. At first glance you might think that its more along the lines of Yacht Club’s first expansion, Plague of Shadows, which I personally bounced off of. Its not, and that’s largely because Specter of Torment features eight brand new levels, as opposed to Plague of Shadow’s remixed stages from the base game.

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But the real draw here is the protagonist of Specter of Torment, the enigmatic Specter Knight himself. In the original Shovel of Hope campaign, Spectre Knight was my favourite boss encounter, and its a real treat to play as him here. His move set is completely unique, and it makes navigating through these surprisingly difficult stages a delight. This is a hardcore platformer, and a major part of that is due to one of Specter Knights most important new techniques, the Dash Slash. Requiring precision timing, the Dash Slash manoeuvre is initiated in mid-air, and cause’s Specter Knight to fly through the air in a vicious diagonal arc, damaging enemies and allowing the player access to normally out of reach areas. It’s simple enough to begin with and is fun and fluid to use, but some of the later level’s demand a mastery of this technique that was surprising. I was constantly impressed with the way Specter of Torment kept this mechanic fresh and innovative throughout the 3-4 hours it took me to complete the campaign.

The music and art style are much the same as in the original, with the 8-bit tunes getting some remixes. Both are of fantastic quality, which isn’t really surprising considering the love and attention Yacht Club has evidently poured into the base game. The Shovel Knight games really are a love-letter to a genre of games they are almost single-handedly responsible for reinvigorating. The story line was nice enough, told through flashback sequences interspersed between the regular levels. Its a little bit darker than the original’s narrative, and actually sets up the events of the main game, but it isn’t quite as memorable. Shovel Knight and Shield Knights tale was surprisingly heartwarming, and while Specter of Torment tells a serviceable tale, it really isn’t the main draw here.

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Spectre Knight also receives a full complement of new abilities, or curios as they are known. There is a decent variety here, from various projectiles to the ability to fly and even summon a skeleton ally. Personally I found the healing ability to be essential, and maybe even a little overpowered, as I barely found the need to use the more offensive powers. Red skulls are scattered throughout the game that allow the purchase of these abilities, and collecting them all can be really challenging, and some are fiendishly well hidden. This all adds to the games replayability, along with a much appreciated new game plus mode.

Specter of Torment is a super fun way to experience the already awesome Shovel Knight universe. If you haven’t played the original, you really should do that first, as its the contrast with the original that makes Specter of Torment feel truly unique. And if you do own the original, then you really have no excuse not to jump back in here. The series trademark humour and heart are on full display, and here’s hoping it continues with the upcoming King Knight expansion!

K.

 

Steins;Gate 0 Review

Steins;Gate 0 is a visual novel developed by 5pb and Nitroplus, and over the past week I powered through the 40-45 hours it takes to see its six different endings and earn its platinum trophy. It was certainly a whirlwind of emotions, and a roller coaster ride that I truly enjoyed, and I think you will as well. Before we dive into the review proper, lets get some basic housekeeping out of the way:

Firstly, Steins;Gate 0 is a pseudo-sequel to the original game, Steins;Gate. It takes place during one of the alternate endings of the original, but due in no small part to some masterful writing and the time-jumping nature of  the narrative, I consider it a prequel of sorts as well. It should go without saying then, that you absolutely should play the original game first. At the very least, consider watching the fantastic anime series. Also, considering this game features very little in the way of actual gameplay and consists almost entirely of reading a lot of text, it can be hard to discuss this title without at least referencing the events that take place within it.

And while I always do my very best to avoid spoilers in my reviews, it is virtually impossible not to spoil the events of the original Steins;Gate when discussing Steins;Gate 0. You have been warned. Got it? Good! 

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The Steins;Gate series is the tale of one ordinary mans all-out, no holds barred battle with fate and the laws of God and the universe itself. It’s incredibly in-depth narrative is not for the faint of heart, as it goes to some very dark places, but at its core is a tale of hope, faith in ones friendships in the face of adversity, and ultimately, of redemption. Like the best sci-fi, it is based in real world science, but very quickly goes off the deep end into territory that can only be described as fantastical.

So, time for some setup. In case you forgot, the original Steins;Gate story revolves around university student/wannabe Mad Scientist, Okabe Rintaro, who (with the help of some very likeable friends) accidentally invents a time machine and inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will change the world. As punishment for tampering with the laws of the universe and altering the past with an invention known as the PhoneWave (name subject to change), Okabe is forced to watch as his childhood friend Mayuri Shiina is killed over and over again, despite repeatedly attempting to fix the timeline and the events that cause her death. After a lot of trial and error, he discovers that by changing events drastically enough he can break away from his own Alpha timeline to a Beta world line, where Mayuri survives. But, in the Beta world line, it is Kurisu Makise, the genius teenage scientist (and Okabe’s potential love interest) that helped invent the PhoneWave (name subject to change) in the first place who is fated to die repeatedly. Also, in the Beta timeline, World War 3 occurs, which you know, isn’t great. The goal of the original Steins:Gate was to try and find a perfect timeline known as “Steins Gate”, in which both Mayuri and Kurisu survive and WW3 is averted, along with all of the drama that goes with getting there.

Still with me? Steins;Gate 0 pretty much just assumes you are familiar with all of the above, and drops you right in the deep end. I played the original multiple times around a year ago, and found that I needed a bit of a refresher course.

Set in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, the otaku Mecca, the story of Steins;Gate 0 takes place in the Beta word line, during the ending of the original game, but explores a different side of things. In this world line, Kurisu convinces Okabe to let her die, so that Mayuri can have a chance to live a happy life. Picking up several months later, the story begins with Okabe attempting to deal with the extreme depression and PTSD he has developed as a result of the horrendous events he has experienced. On top of that, he is wracked with the guilt he feels over not being able to save Kurisu. He destroys the PhoneWave (name subject to change) and swears never to tamper with the world lines again, and tries to live a normal life as a shell of his former self.

If that all sounds pretty heavy, its because it is. This game really doesn’t pull any punches, emotionally speaking, and expects you to keep track of a bunch of characters, concepts and timelines. All of the original game’s cast returns, and there are several new faces introduced that are integral to the plot. I suppose if the original game’s themes dealt with time travel and the effects of tampering with the past, Steins;Gate 0 deals with the ramifications of such a technology having been invented, and the power struggle and technological arms race that would inevitably ensue as nations and shadowy organisations scramble to obtain their device. An artificial intelligence known as “Amadeus” is also introduced and is pretty essential to the plot, as it possesses the digital memories of Kurisu Makise, and is the impetus for a lot of the decisions made in the game.

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All of this is presented in a series of incredibly long story vignettes. If you have never played a visual novel, the emphasis is on the “novel” part. The original game had some 40,000 lines of dialogue, and I would wager this one is even longer. While Steins;Gate 0 is available on consoles, I chose the PlayStation Vita version for the portability factor, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Basically, you stare at some admittedly pretty great looking characters that spout reams of dialogue at you (which is, impressively, entirely voiced but only in Japanese). The location are pretty great too, and are presented as static backgrounds for the talking character portraits. I have spent a lot of time in Akihabara, and to see locations and landmarks in this game that I have physically been to was an awesome nostalgia trip.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I really cant overstate the fact that you don’t actually “do” a lot in this game. You have a cell phone that will occasionally ring, and you press a button to answer it, or to reply to text messages. And while answering (or ignoring) specific phone calls is actually how you access the different paths and endings that can be achieved, that is really all you as the player are required to do. For me, that was fine, visual novels are something I have grown to really enjoy but they do require a lot of patience. Similarly, being set in Akihabra, Steins;Gate 0 really leans into its otaku and anime roots, and that might be off putting for some. One of the games main characters, works in a maid cafe and wears cat ears constantly. She also finishes every sentence with “nyan”, because I guess that’s what cat-girls do? It can be a little grating, but as the quality of writing is incredibly high, I can forgive some of these very Japanese quirks. More troublesome, in my opinion, is the games treatment of Luka or Lukako as he is mockingly referred to. A male character that is described as being incredibly feminine, the jokes that are made about his perceived sexuality/gender made me a little uncomfortable. Its nothing too crude, but it is constant, and seems a little off in this day and age. Another complaint I have is there is very little indication of what kind of narrative path you are on. I straight up got the worst of six possible endings on my first playthough, and I could see that deterring some players who might not even know how or why they went down that route.

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In summary Steins;Gate 0 is a fantastic title that I really enjoyed my time with. I didn’t even mention the soundtrack, and I find some of the slower piano pieces it features popping into my brain even days after seeing the credits roll. While the game may go on a little too long (especially if you want to see everything it has to offer), the strength and originality of its narrative more than makes up for any short comings it might have. It can also be incredibly meta, in a way that is truly unique to the video game genre: as you achieve certain endings, you learn more about the overall plot, and are able to load a save file and take a different path through the narrative, just like the characters in the narrative do with the use of time travel. Its incredibly clever, and especially after unlocking the true ending, was something I really appreciated. I would recommend Steins;Gate 0 to any fan of visual novels, and the series as a whole to any Vita owner. 

Now if you will excuse me, I have some bananas in the microwave and I’m expecting a phone call. What could possibly go wrong?

El. Psy. Kongroo.

K.

 

Yomawari: Night Alone Review

Yomawari: Night Alone reads like a demented fairy tale straight out of Japanese folklore with a modern twist. The survival horror, from creators Nippon Ichi Software, immediately sucks you into its grim, dark world within moments of booting the game up, and continues to throw twisted monstrosities at you for the several hours it will take you to complete it. From its isometric view, Yomowari seems deceptively cute, as you play as an unnamed young girl with a lovingly animated red bow in her hair. This game is anything but, however, as it deals with heavy themes such as mortality, loneliness, and the supernatural.

Right out of the gate, the player is treated to an emotional gut punch in the game’s tutorial. I wont spoil it here, but suffice to say, I don’t think a tutorial has ever invested me in a character or a world so effectively. The premise of Yomowari is simple: A young girl loses her dog, and her older sister goes out to look for it. When she never makes it home, it is up to the young heroine to venture out to save them both. And they need saving, as the surprisingly expansive town they hail from in rural Japan is inhabited by scores of demons straight from the depths of hell.

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Gameplay is a fairly simple affair, and will not surprise anyone familiar with the survival horror genre. The game is broken into chapters, and each chapter sends the player to different corners of the map in search of keys and other items that will allow them to progress to the next. What makes Yomawari unique is that virtually the entire game world is open from the start, and while some areas are gated, there is a lot to see and do. You wander dark, deserted streets with nothing but a flashlight as your only protection from the evil spirits that roam the night.

And I think this is where the game really shines (pun intended). You are completely unable to protect yourself, so all you can do when confronted by an enemy is either run or hide. Some of these creatures will react (violently) to the light of your torch, and others come running at the slightest sound. You can sneak past groups of enemies, and distract them with thrown items. Its not an incredibly in-depth stealth system, but its varied enough and doesn’t wear out its welcome. Progress can be saved at Jizo statues that are spread fairly liberally across the map, and they also function as the games fast-travel points.

A flaw of this was that I never felt very punished by death. It really just meant I would be greeted by a blessedly very brief loading screen, and a short run back to where I had met my demise. Some of the games mini boss like creatures could be frustrating, though, requiring dozens of attempts, and perfect memorisation of their attack patterns. But that never took away from the genuine fear I felt after encountering some of these creatures. And I think that was because of their uniquely Japanese design. From massive tentacled beasts that would sweep entire streets with their appendages, to the souls of dead children who would attack only when you showed your back to them, the variety was quite impressive.

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But what really sold me, was realising that Yomowari has side quests, and semi unscripted events. Wandering down a particularly dark street, I came across a headless horse that galloped past me, off into the night. I would encounter the same beast again several chapters later, and while I never figured out its purpose, the horse was completely benign. I took to feeding stray cats  with some pet food I happened across, until I fed the wrong cat. After that, I swore I wouldn’t feed any animals that I encountered. I also engaged in a particularly creepy game of hide and seek with a ghostly little girl that really did just want to play. Then I came across a ringing cell phone, left abandoned in the street. What followed was probably the most chilling of my encounters, and the most memorable.

It probably took me around 5 hours to complete Yomawari, and I did it in a single sitting, but I think you could probably spend at least that long again scouring every nook and cranny. Thankfully, after rolling credits, you are able to explore the entire map (which seems to have been hand drawn by the protagonist, and suits the aesthetic perfectly) at your leisure to snap up any remaining collectables you might have missed. And you will probably miss some, as they can be fiendishly well hidden, or heavily guarded. I considered attempting the platinum trophy, it certainly seems doable, but would require a hefty amount of exploration.

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I’m very happy  with my time spent with the game. Its narrative is fairly open ended, and I immediately went online to see other peoples interpretations of certain events. And it has stayed with me, its the kind of game that creeps up on you. I will be keeping a very close eye on the recently announced sequel Yomawari: Midnight Shadows, as I cant wait to see what the team does next. All in all I would recommend Yomawari: Night Alone to anyone looking for something a little bit different. Its a short experience, but memorable, and it played exceptionally well on the Vita.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to double check my door is locked.

K.