Saturday, 6 August 2016

#12: Astonishia Story

Sometimes, when I visit used game shops, I like to pick stuff off the shelves simply because I've never heard of it. It doesn't hurt if they only cost a few pounds. This game is one of those.

Astonishia Story for the PSP is actually a remake of some 90s Korean PC RPG. Amusingly, the title screen specifically bills it as an "easy RPG for beginners". If you were expecting an experience akin to Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, you might be slightly confused. This game has a tactical battle system like Fire Emblem. It's closer to Shining Force in execution, though, as all the characters will get their turn according to their speed, rather than each side taking turns. There's also an elemental system which I honestly could not understand the effects of, despite the manual explaining it.

So, the story starts off in a rather standard manner. You're a knight, you're protecting a convoy, it gets attacked, everyone except you dies, etc. The entire rest of the game is spent trying to get this for-some-reason-important staff back from the guys who stole it. One of the last things you do in this game is pick it up and leave. In-between these two events, you are drawn into a series of vaguely-related side-quests with a cast of almost two-dimensional characters. Instead of going the route where you slowly build up your strength and get to know how well you can proceed through experience, Astonishia Story instead constantly throws people at you then takes them away a dungeon or two later.

Infuriatingly, the developers knew they were making a thoroughly average game and decided to try and spice it up with (ugh) humour. This takes many forms, though usually the slapstick kind. At one point some shady character offers you a hacked item, and if you accept, some guy appears and punishes you for not playing the game properly. Between this ill-fated attempt to make me smile and the consistently dreadful translation, it doesn't win many points on this front.

The graphics are generally not bad, late-SNES/early-PS1 in appearance. There are a few scripted fight sequences which are done with care. The music is pretty bad.

Now, about that "easy RPG" thing. While it's true that the game is not particularly complicated, it has a difficulty curve like a roller-coaster. Partially this was because of my usual unease about using consumable items, but the main problem is spell-casting enemies. On any given turn, they could walk up to you and smack you on the head with a stick for five damage, or cast any number of bizarrely spelt/named spells and hit everybody for three hundred. It's maddening! The last boss gauntlet is the pinnacle of this, which necessitated many resets. There were also a number of boss fights which require whittling down over the course of perhaps half an hour.

As you might be able to tell, I don't think it's a very good game. Thankfully, the battle system is fine and the menus are nice and responsive, so it goes on my "speedrun this when I'm retired and I have no cares or worries" pile.

My next two games to beat are Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (might take me a while) and Motocross Madness (haha avatar racing game). Woo!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

#11: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All

So, Phoenix Wright. The series sticks out in my mind as having a ravenous fanbase, amusing in-universe adverts and being one of the first things to run correctly on DS emulators. It also receives a lot of credit for good localisation; the script is huge, but puns and other such frivolities are painstakingly recreated.

Emily owns all three of the WiiWare ports, which are generally the same as the DS versions except for a few annoying realities introduced by only having one screen. I've previously played the first game, which has no subtitle, and over the last few weeks I've been playing the second entry, Justice for All.

If you want to skip a lot of invective, here's the brief: "It's not my kind of game".

Phoenix himself is consistently presented as the standard anime protagonist, i.e. dumb but well-meaning. This is despite him being a lawyer. At various times through the narrative, he reveals how little he knows about legal proceedings, ignorance of self-incrimination laws for example, preferring to win his trials by arguing over endless minutiae and blindly guessing. However comedic the setting is supposed to be, this just rubs me the wrong way; I'm not fond of playing as idiots, no matter how righteous they are. His saving grace is in the depth of his relationships with others, though he is consistently used by those around him. I might enjoy seeing him become more bitter over time because of this.

The other characters are an eclectic mix. From memory, here are some of them:
  • A ventriloquist who doesn't talk without his puppet, who has an eye-rollingly acerbic personality.
  • A paranormal researcher who, like, is clueless and like, stops talking mid-sentence, like, you know?
  • An old lady who crushes on every single handsome member of the cast, changing loyalties at the drop of a hat.
  • A prosecutor who whips people all the fucking time for no reason why the hell are they not arrested immediately
Again, I know it's the nature of the series to be outrageous. My problem with this is that when everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous anymore. There's no sensible baseline which allows you to approach the game with a modicum of logic. Any stupid thing could happen at any time, and because magic is actually real in this universe, you can never know if something is possible or not. One of the cases has a stage magician who flies, and the game doesn't even consider his ability to fly an open question. He just can't, because magic doesn't exist. Except for the spirit channelling stuff which happens constantly.

For those who don't know, each case is split roughly in half between investigation and courtroom. Investigation is largely quite interesting, gradually unfolding the truth from witness statements and searching rooms for evidence. It can be slightly annoying when the game has a non-obvious flag to set to continue with the story, but generally this part is quite good. It reminds me of point and click adventure games, mostly.

In the courtroom, you are directly competing against the prosecutor to prove your arguments. This appeals to me the most; I think this is an incredibly rich area for games to explore. It's why it makes me so sad/angry that Ace Attorney doesn't really pull it off to my satisfaction.

Trials proceed in a circular fashion with testimonies punctuated by small factual discussions. In each case, witnesses have been "prepared" by the prosecution to be very unhelpful. Your task is to unfold their lies and find out the truth. This isn't too bad; mostly, the arguments make sense and are easy to follow if you paid attention during the investigation. Sometimes they hinge on a single phrase or even a word made by some random person, and those can be hard to remember. The game does go 'ding!' occasionally when you learn something important, but there are enough non-ding! parts with useful content that this isn't the best guide.

Where the game completely goes off the deep end is with the last case. The leaps of logic and grasping at straws here are legendary; the game lampshades this quite heavily, which doesn't exactly endear me to it. At one point Phoenix completely makes up his argument, with no prior hints at all, and is then accepted as gospel thereon. While in the context of this particular case it makes some sense, it still makes me grit my teeth that I have do such a bad job in order to win. Later on you are forced to do the exact thing the game tells you not to do, pressing a witness so far past rationality that everyone thinks you are insane. I began to get very frustrated at this point. Breaking the rules is certainly good to explore, though generally when you do it in a courtroom you commit perjury or something.

"Perjury" would be a good word for this series to learn, actually. Along with "mistrial".

I'm sure the ending was meant to be heartwarming and so on, but I was so tired and fed up of being mistreated by the narrative that I mostly just felt relief. This is generally observed to be a black mark against a game. There's a lot of philosophising about "what it means to be a lawyer" during the latter half which shows some promise, but essentially everything is resolved ham-handedly without you needing to make any serious decision either way.

I can see why people love Ace Attorney. Those reasons are kind of why I don't love it. I know at some point I'll play the rest, but I just don't know how to enjoy this stuff. I wish it were just a bit more sober.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Edutainment

It's an idea which has gained and lost popularity over the years, but it's still around. However, it has changed form slightly.

Never Alone is the first game I'll talk about. On a purely game-centric level, it is simple, easy, somewhat monochromatic co-op platformer. Where the game comes into its own is the rich heritage of the Inuktitut people. This provides the story of the game and a series of videos with real Inuk, offering a shallow but intriguing view into a very alien culture. The game is also narrated in Inuk language, providing its real title: Kisima Inŋitchuŋa.

I'm glad to see this kind of thing among the endless retro-inspired trendy platformers. However, the game does not control well, resulting in a fair bit of frustration despite the low difficulty and short length. Worth a try if you're patient enough to watch the videos.

Next up is Valiant Hearts: The Great War. As the title suggests, it is set in World War I, and switches back and forth between various viewpoints. It is eager to point out the similarities in each side, drawing parallels in the hatred and stupidity of officers everywhere. Like Never Alone, it is a simple puzzle/platformer, but it also has a few minigames to break it up a little. Despite the unavoidably grim tone imparted by the setting, it still manages to pull off some moments of levity.

While the two games share common goals and have some similar features, I much prefer Valiant Hearts for its poignancy and snappy art style. Also of note is its developer, Ubisoft, who are popularly seen as corporate and unfeeling; it's good to see that they can still produce compelling games.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

#10: Maximo

Yes, I finally beat this thing.

Maximo is a 3D platformer in the same franchise as Ghosts 'n Goblins. Here's a list of things it keeps from that venerable series.
  • Your armour explodes as you take damage (though you do have more health)
  • You wear boxers with hearts on (or other patterns, not sure they do anything...)
  • It's very easy to jump off platforms into lava/water/etc.
  • It's hard
It's not the hardest game I've played, but it wasn't satisfying enough for its level of difficulty. The camera was often a major culprit, forcing me to make leaps of faith when it got stuck behind something. Also, combat is rather finicky, with a long lag time after several swing animations. Of course, this is part of the intended difficulty; this isn't a mash-happy action RPG, oh no, you have to place your sword with accuracy.

The game proceeds through five worlds, in typical era-fashion. Graveyard, Swamp, Snow, Hell, Castle. Though the fourth is literally in hell, the third one made me feel like I was. At the very least, Maximo can actually affect his velocity mid-air, mainly through the use of the double jump, but sliding floor is never fun. Most of my deaths were in the Snow and Hell areas. Oh, and about death...

You have a normal lives system, but there are also these special blocks you can destroy which release fairies. When you get 50 fairies, you lose them and gain a special coin. What's this coin for? When you run out of lives, you have to pay Death to revive you, even though you are explicitly on a mission for him. At first, you pay one coin, but if you keep running out of lives, the price goes up. That's not annoying at all. By the time I had finished (I continued twice in the last world, because there are no save points), my revival price was four coins.

Where the game becomes interesting is in its power up system. Chests and enemies randomly drop from a pool of abilities; quite a variety here, like letting you throw your shield, or shoot your sword with power. You can pick up a lot of these at once... I think I managed 12 at one point. You have several 'lock points' on your ability bar, and are free to swap the order of abilities around. When you die (just a life, not a continue), you lose all the non-locked abilities. You start with three, and gain one per world beaten. This wouldn't be so bad, but I was going for an extra challenge where you keep four essentially useless abilities through the game, so I never did get any use out of those extra slots.

The music is just remixes of that one theme from Ghosts 'n Goblins. You know the one.

Each world is topped off with a boss encounter (of course), which are all simple pattern-based things with one weak point. Work it out and they become trivial. After the fight, you get to choose between a save, suit of armour or the useless ability I mentioned before. Yes, you can't save freely; you have to pay 100 gold coins at specific points in the world hubs.

Final thoughts? OK. Not great. Frustrating, but only people who like frustration are going to buy it. Not sad it's over. Not sad I spent £2 on it.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Half Way Ish

It's June! Almost half way through 2016. GOAL CHECK!

Watch few video game streams
Haha, no, I've watched tons.

Don't play League of Legends
Managed this one. It doesn't bug me that often, though I am occasionally tempted to watch some LoL play.

Stream game playthroughs
Barely. I need to stream more.

Record and submit speedruns
I have recorded some ILs of El Shaddai months ago, but other than a few Ultima II attempts, not much has happened on this front.

My strategy game prototype
Done lots of work on this! It's still not ready to show, though. While my natural engineering instinct is to fix things that seem broken to me, I need to knuckle down and create an actual playable demo or something, just to make proof of concept.

Redo the website
I keep thinking about it, inevitably while on the train to work, but not a lot has actually been done. I guess my main problem is that I don't really know what I should focus on. Doing searches online for other online game database type dealios reveals a lot of them, but they never really get to the obsessive level of detail I'd like.

So, not so great.

On the gaming front, there's rather a lot to report... my backlog of things to write posts about is huge! So, I'll totally flake out and make a summary...

Emily and I have been zooming through my Musou collection to try and make our progress look less pathetic. To that end, we've beaten Dynasty Warriors 3 (this was hard!), Dynasty Warriors 4 (not as hard) and Dynasty Warriors: Gundam (Amuroooo). I also beat Samurai Warriors Chronicles (mostly while at Emptyeye and Silver's apartment), Dynasty Warriors Portable (that's what it should be called anyway), Samurai Warriors: State of War (Samurai Warriors Portable), Dynasty Warriors Vol. 2 (Portable 2), Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires (PS3 version, so 20fps powerrrr) and Warriors: Legends of Troy (fun, but not many characters).

Even after all that, we still have fifteen left that we currently own, including Xtreme Legends and stuff like that. Onwards~

Saturday, 2 April 2016

#9: E-SWAT: City Under Siege

Damn, it's been a while!

There's a few reasons for that. Most relevant is that I've been playing other games, which I really should write about at some point. I've even made some progress in Project X Zone... you can take that as indication to how I feel about E-SWAT: City Under Siege.

I didn't exactly wax lyrical about it last time, but now that I've managed to go through the game and watch the final boss die, I feel even worse about it. The levels get even less fun, becoming extremely repetitive and much harder. I really can't stress enough just how poor this game is.

I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I didn't beat E-SWAT entirely legitimately. The Mega Drive Ultimate Collection lets you keep three save-states per game, and I used them to maintain my progress between levels. Thanks to the terrible penalty of losing a weapon when you die, there's barely any point in retrying some levels. I guess in Contra fashion you might be able to swap to a useless weapon so you lose that one instead, but I really don't feel like giving this game any credit for strategy.

Do you like hard run and guns? Do you like bad endings to video games? Have you played all the good run and guns? Play E-SWAT. Or better yet, don't.

Emily picked my next game as Astonishia Story, a PSP RPG from Korea. Apparently this is actually "Astonishia Story R", a remake of the first game in the series, but you know how it is with Western JRPG releases.

We have a day out planned tomorrow, so I probably won't make much gaming progress.

Monday, 7 March 2016

#8: Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos

I complained to Emily so much about ESWAT that she picked another game for me to beat; it's inserting itself in my queue just before, but it doesn't replace it, so I still have to play that shitshow again soon.

Thankfully, she picked a good game, Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos, a game I originally bought purely because of the awesome Tim Follin soundtrack. It's an isometric puzzle platformer with pretty well-known difficulty, so I wasn't really sure how long it would take me to beat it. About 12 hours, it turns out.

You're dumped straight into it after a brief introduction, with no idea where to go. The game controls quite well, but it offers few clues that help you to play it; Shadax (your homie) does not have a shadow and individual tiles can be of several different heights - there are no visual cues like shading or lighting to know this. Many rooms are only beatable with trial and error. The goal of the game is to reassemble the Staff of Demnos (six pieces) and confront some evil wizard.

Aside from walking, jumping, picking up and dropping blocks, there is one other action you can take - using a potion. The four potions make you invincible, destroy all moving objects, freeze all moving objects or reveal all invisible tiles respectively. All of these effects only count for the current room. There are refills for each colour, but only a limited amount, so knowing where these are is fairly important. However, if you plan your route carefully then you'll barely need to use them.

At first I played randomly, exploring the various rooms and working out where things were. Eventually I decided that the map was too big for me to memorise, so I started making some maps on graph paper... they aren't perfectly accurate, but I was still able to gradually fill them in as I explored more. There is a missing room that I forgot to correct, but it's not overly important.

There are many extra lives scattered through the game, which you will need. There are also credits, which have a rather irritating function. These credits are essentially one-use save points; they remember your keys, staff pieces and location. If you run out of lives, you'll be transported back to the last credit you used; so if you keep dying, you lose more and more progress. It may be in your interest to skip credits early on in the game to come back to them later, despite the time loss.

I started my finishing attempt a few hours ago; I had already seen maybe 85% of the game, but the last part was by far the most difficult, relying on everything learnt until that point. One set of rooms in particular took me maybe 20 minutes to get past, because of strict timing constraints. In fact, I had no lives left for the final stretch (though there is a nearby credit) so I was anxious. Finally I prevailed, though I no idea what to do after finally completing the Staff! As a small act of mercy, the game makes you permanently invincible at this point (spikes still kill you), so I wasn't too worried. There's no final boss; a cut-scene plays and you get to listen to more awesome music.

I recorded my playthrough should you wish to watch; the video is about 55 minutes long. Emily also scanned in my maps, so you can take a look! I had to stitch these together from five A5 pages...

The upper halls; starting location is near the middle of the keep-like structure on the right
The dungeons and path to the final area (last 10 rooms or so aren't drawn)
After fucking ESWAT I have Maximo to play through, choice courtesy of SwoodDude who is currently trying to raise funds for a new computer. You should take a look at his stream, where he and some friends are currently developing an indie game!