Wild Arms

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Video review


 Text review

It's no secret that Sony's original Playstation console was something of a landmark system for JRPGs. While it's true the NES and Super Nintendo had a healthy library of the genre which was one of the contributing factors for their massive success in Japan, it wasn't until Final Fantasy VII launched on Sony's grey box that the genre became popular in western shores. The attractive CGI visuals, well developed turn-based combat and plot-oriented adventure was a runaway hit, create a sudden influx of imitators and competitors.

Yet, there was a time before Final Fantasy took the world by storm. In fact, there were even a handful of JRPGs released worldwide during the brief two-year period between the Playstation launch and the release of Final Fantasy VII. For this reason I was looking forward to Wild Arms, as I assumed it would be a window of what would happen had the tale of Cloud and Sephiroth been unknown. However, much to my surprise, I quickly discovered Wild Arms shares so many similarities with Final Fantasy VI, it could almost be considered an unofficial sequel or spin-off.

Now this isn't a stab at Wild Arms, much to the contrary. Seeing a game that is visually and thematically so similar to my favorite entry into Squaresoft's flagship franchise was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

Equally welcome are the strong first impressions, as the game begins with a nicely rendered Anime cutscene created by Madhouse, the same animation studio behind shows like Hunter X Hunter and Card Captor Sakura. Sadly, as attractive as the intro it is, there are no other cutscenes similar to this throughout the entire adventure. Bait and switch aside, it does a wonderful job at setting Wild Arms' mood and the visuals are complemented beautifully by a western-themed song. In fact, the game's soundtrack is easily one of Wild Arms' high-points, employing a full blown orchestra with renditions taking classical fantasy tunes and adding a western flavor, not unlike the previously mentioned Final Fantasy VI.

Oddly enough, Wild Arms tries to surpass its inspiration by combining elements of fantasy, sci-fi and western into one package as the world of Filgaia features guns, lasers, space stations, demons made of metal, magic, swords and much more. 

Yet, there seems to be a disparity between what we're told narratively and what we see. Both the soundtrack and plot would have you believe the world is made to resemble that of a steampunk spaghetti shooter, however, every town and city looks like your typical fantasy JRPG. The visuals, for as beautiful as they are, rarely seem to fit with the world we're supposed to be exploring. If it weren't for the music or side characters like Calamity Jane, I could easily assume this is a land of myth and magic. In that regard, it seems Final Fantasy VI did a much better job at visually conveying its own world by making steampunk vehicles and houses a common sight. 

I know I keep returning to this topic, but both games are surprisingly similar in visuals, themes, music and even gameplay. Anyone who played Squaresoft's classic RPG franchise will feel right at home with Wild Arms' random encounters and turn-based combat system. You only control a maximum of three characters, each taking a clear role. Rudy is a tank, dealing decent damage and taking the largest amount of punishment. Towards the later stages he even acquires the ability to guard allies. Jack is a damage dealer, featuring a high speed and physical damage output, but is low on armor. Lastly we have Cecilia, the group's mage whose abilities ranging from healing and buffing to damage dealing though I found little use for the latter.

The party formation is definitely a little too safe, leaving no ground for experimentation as level and skill progression follows a strictly linear path save for the order in which Cecilia learns magic spells. Moreover, these are the only playable characters, no guests ever join the party and little is ever done to spice-up combat despite Wild Arms' relatively lengthy campaign. 

I would even go so far as to argue the battle system seems poorly thought out. For starters the game is simply too easy. Random monsters rarely pose a threat and boss fights are too easy and unsatisfying. It wasn't until I ran into an optional arena towards the endgame that I finally met my match, though even those challenges were doable with enough tactical reasoning. Characters can also summon guardians, a feature that is once again reminiscent of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy series, and though they play a pivotal role in the narrative, I generally found them underpowered, verging on the useless.
Even Rudy's titular wild ARMs weapons paled in comparison to Jack's sword skills or Cecilia's healing and buffing skills, but I suppose calling the game Sword & Sorcery would be too on the nose.

I may sound like I'm being harsh on Wild Arms' combat system, it's not that the fighting is bad, it actually verges on being good, but it lacks any challenge or personality and is bloated with features that you'll rarely use.

It also doesn't help that Wild Arms' simple, but attractive 2D visuals are replaced by rudimentary 3D polygonal graphics during combat. To say the game's polygonal showings have aged poorly is an understatement, featuring crude figures, poor animations and texture warping.  Even the sound effects are often oddly placed, with fierce creatures releasing cat sounds when hit, other times, they are mysteriously absent or cut off.

Final Fantasy isn't the only source of inspiration in Wild Arms, a few hints of The Legend of Zelda can also be detected. As you progress through the game, characters will acquire tools which are used to solve puzzles. Some are original creations like wands that allow you to speak to animals or glove to push objects away while others are clearly mimicked after Link's arsenal, such as bombs or Wild Arms' interpretation of the hookshot.

I generally enjoyed these puzzles as they added variety to dungeon crawling segments, however, the random encounters would often get in the way, making things especially frustrating when I was having trouble finding the correct progression method. Perhaps most egregious is the fact Wild Arms doesn't always make it clear what you have to do or where you have to go. For example, one puzzle requires you to put an item back into the treasure chest you picked it up from, however, no clear indication was given, nor did I even know the game allowed you to do that. Other times I was forced to wander the world map aimlessly simply because I had no idea what I was supposed to trigger the next story event.

Speaking of the story, I generally enjoyed it and its themes. It began with everyone having clear goals and motivations on who they are and why the demons seek to take over the world. However, as the plot progresses the demons' tactics become more extreme and their reasoning murkier. Towards the end of the game I had lost all emotional connection with them and viewed them as little more than cartoon villains.

Thankfully, the same cannot be said for our main characters, their backstories, interactions and character growth arcs are easily the highlight of Wild Arms' story. All three characters come from a background of sadness and loss and how they deal with their inner demons is intriguing and often genuinely heartwarming. However, the developers made the odd decision of making one of the characters, Rudy, a silent protagonist. This means that while we fully understand Jack and Cecilia's reasoning as they grow, we're often left to guess Rudy's. Moreover, having a silent protagonist among two talkative and likeable characters creates an odd clash. I understand the idea was to make Rudy a blank canvas for the player, but considering we later learn his intricate backstory, the whole idea of a silent protagonist backfires, damaging any conflict resolution.

I'm quite glad to have played Wild Arms, while the game isn't the departure from the Final Fantasy-based formula I was hoping for, it more than makes up for it with graceful 2D visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and a likeable main cast. The 3D graphics have definitely aged poorly, especially when compared to the 2D's segments more inspired moments of beauty. The combat is entertaining if a bit simple and the main plot starts to meander a bit towards the end, however, Wild Arms is a worthy acquisition and still worth a playthrough today.

Pros:
- Graceful 2D visuals that manage to surprise you when you least expect
- Beautiful orchestral soundtrack with a wild west twang to it
- Likeable main cast with engaging and heartwarming character arcs
- Legend of Zelda-like puzzles are generally fun and add variety
- Combat is easy to get into and a great choice newcomers to the genre


Cons:

- The combat is easy to get into, but rarely provides any real challenge
- Polygonal graphics during combat segments aged terribly
- Occasionally obscure puzzles made worse by random encounters
- The story and villains' motivations become somewhat murky towards the final acts
- The mix of fantasy, sci-fi and wild west isn't always seamless with the latter being forgotten in the visuals

Final Grade: B

Trivia: Perhaps as a nod to the two franchises that inspired it, Wild Arms features two subtle references to the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy VI. A doll dressed in a green garb that looks suspiciously like Link can be found in Cecilia's bedroom.

Trivia 2: When exploring the world of Filgaia, you might also come across an arena which resembles Final Fantasy VI's Colosseum. Inside, you'll find a female spectator with green hair and ponytail, reminiscent of Terra from Final Fantasy VI.


(excuse the condition, this game is becoming harder to find and sometimes we have to make due with what we got.)

I have to say, I'm not a fan of this cover. Not only do the characters lack the detail and colors found in the opening, but the poorly rendered mid-90s CG background clashes against the 2D design. If I had to guess, I'd say the developers took concept art and simply placed a bland, boring background.

Inside, we find a manual and the game disc. Note the disc uses different art from that found in the cover, little touches like these go a long way.

The manual is light on story, giving only a few paragraphs of background information on the world and our characters. Thankfully, this is offset by how in-depth it goes to teach you how to play Wild Arms. More importantly, much of the information here is actually useful, as they include descriptions for each status ailment and even give away some of the tools you'll have at your disposal for puzzle solving. There's even a few concept art images thrown in for good measure though sadly they're in black and white like the manual itself.

Unappealing cover art aside, this is a good packaging for a standard release, I wish the manual were in color and featured more concept art images, but few games did that in Europe.

Packaging Grade: A-

Rogue Stormers Review


I reviewed Rogue Stormers over at Tech-Gaming.Com. It was okay. It tries to be Contra with roguelike elements, but the two didn't mix that well.  Click here for the full review.

WASTED: a Post-Apocalyptic Pub Crawler Review


" Though WASTED’s first impression wasn’t positive, it eventually grew on me. The fast and chaotic action excuses much of the frustrations that come with losing all your progress in easy unforeseen strikes. Sadly, once you reach that point, you’re only a stone’s throw away from growing bored of all the repetition. "

This is an excerpt of my review over at Tech-Gaming. Click here for the full review.

Total War: Warhammer Review


I reviewed Total War: Warhammer over at Tech-gaming.com

" As with every Total War title, the strategic gameplay is some of the best among its contemporaries. Yet, many feel the formula is turning stale and in that regard Total War: Warhammer was a missed opportunity. This is still a quality entry into the series, but the decision to purchase comes down to whether or not you enjoyed previous releases and feel that a Warhammer makeover with a few added RPG elements warrants a purchase. "

Full review here

Hyperdimension Neptunia

Developer: Compile Heart / Idea Factory
Publisher: Compile Heart / NISA

I have always held a soft spot for the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, not too long ago JRPGs were stuck in a downwards slump and were often a subject of mockery by western developers. In fact, during the successes of Mass Effect 2, 3 and Dragon Age, several Bioware members went on record to state JRPGs were stagnant, on a decline and that were not "true" RPGs.

Yes, for a while, unfairly bashing the genre was a popular pastime for gamers and the media alike. Even I will admit to have somewhat followed the bandwagon with this, and when looking back, I really don't understand what my frustration was. Perhaps I was merely disappointed with Final Fantasy 13 and chose to lash out, but then again, I had played Lost Odyssey well before that and thoroughly loved the experience.

Regardless, despite the tide being turned against this struggling genre, Hyperdimension Neptunia not only persisted, it actually grew and flourished. As of this writing, the franchise is merely six years old and yet it spawned twice as many entries as well as an anime series. This is the sort of success you just don't expect a new JRPG franchise to accomplish. So my soft spot for it lies with the fact that this is a modern underdog story. Though I will admit,the set-up of it taking place in a world called Gamindustry with every major region and character representing either console or a studio tickles my funny bone,

So, it was with eager anticipation I finally experienced this series, beginning with the very first entry on the PS3, and sadly, I didn't like it.

Rather than immediately rag on Hyperdimension Neptunia, I'd like to begin with the positives, both of which lie in its narrative. The game introduces us to a land controlled by four Goddesses, each representing Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and Sega. All goddesses participate in what is known as the console war, a state of constant strife between these four participants which is currently in a stalemate. In an attempt to tip the scales the three goddesses representing Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony momentarily ally themselves to dispatch their remaining foe. Rather than being killed however, Neptune, the goddess representing Sega, falls to the mortal realm where she is struck with amnesia.

It's true that an amnesiac protagonist is perhaps the most overused trope in an RPG, Japanese or otherwise. However, the set-up of all characters symbolizing consoles is just so delicious I'm more than willing to overlook it. In fact, the story itself isn't anything particularly noteworthy, rather, Hypedimension Neptunia's strenght lies with its characters and their interactions. Even the english dialog is surprisingly well delivered. It's obvious a lot of care went into voice direction and it feels as though all actresses had a lot of fun while playing their roles.

Now granted, almost every plot element in the game is derivative, but it's done so in a tongue in cheek manner. Often characters will point said clichés ahead of time, mock them, and then act according to said tropes for comedic purposes. In most cases, it simply works, the fourth wall breaking and the fun dialog between all characters is just so delightful that it makes me wish I had enjoyed the game more.

Characters will quote company slogans, characters catchphrases and even meet facsimiles of popular games that were altered just enough to avoid dozens of copyright lawsuits. From Sony's "it only does everything" campaign to "Genesis does", including "Jill Sandwhich" and Bowser running off with Princess Peach, it's all here. I was even surprised to see an event which clearly parodies the Gears of War franchise, not something I expected from Japanese developers.

And yet, the main issue begins right here; "facsimiles". You don't meet Princess Peach, you meet Princess Pear. Other times characters just get a description which anyone with a cursory knowledge in gaming could easily attribute them to Street Fighter, or Sonic the Hedgehog, but you never actually meet Sonic, just a parody character.

The odd thing is, some of Neptune's attacks are actually named after Sega's classic franchises and even feature sprites or logos taken directly from them. If you can use an attack called Altered Beast or Alex Kidd and it prominently shows the titular 8-bit platforming prince of Radaxian, why can't you speak to Sega's official characters?

Regardless, this is a minor gripe and can be easily ignored. Sadly, Hyperdimension Neptunia's issues lie almost exclusively with the gameplay. Simply put, this is one of the most poorly designed and unoptimized JRPGs I have ever played.

It all begins with a poor framerate. Hyperdimension Neptunia is not a smooth experience, flashy attacks and dungeon crawling can create an inconsistent experience. Sometimes, this even extends to menu browsing as navigating the equipment tab can be quite a chore as the game pauses to load a new weapon.

Battle encounters are a random affair as one would expect with classic Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star titles, but the encounter rate seems unusually high for a modern title. Perhaps the issue isn't their frequency so much as the fact that they tend to drag far past their welcome. Several minor enemies seem to feature unbalanced amounts of health, taking far too many hits to bring down. Though this is nothing compared to bosses, many of which you won't even see their lifebar move after attacking them, these encounters simply drag for too long. It's not that they're difficult, just that even when your level far surpasses theirs and they barely hurt you, combat still feels like a drag to how to the time investment required to beat it.

But Hyperdimension Neptunia's odd design choices don't end there. If battles were strategic perhaps I could have forgiven their length, but this isn't the case. Most times you either press the attack combinations that drain the most health or ones that lower your foe's defenses making them easier targets. Combat is motivated by combos, in which you chain several sequences together from one or multiple characters, but there was little need in mastering these, simply put, Hyperdimension Neptunia's strategic elements are lacking. There's even the option of assigning an element to your ranged weapons, though I never bothered with this feature because it rarely came into play.

One interesting gameplay feature I'll give the developers credit for is how items work. Rather than using a healing potion whenever you wish, character must instead learn skills that require their use and then assign points to each one, increasing the chance of them happening. So for example, there's a skill where you may use a potion that heals 30% health, but is only activated when your health drops below 50% and even then, there's only a chance it will actually be used depending on many points you allocate towards it. This adds a welcome element of randomization to an otherwise by-the-numbers battle design.

Sadly, it's not like the developers didn't try to add their own specific elements to Hyperdimension Neptunia, it's just almost every design choice seems either questionable or poorly thought out. For example, all repeatable dungeons have a timer which ranks players, faster times bring in better rewards. However, combat animations are so long and drawn out that I soon found myself constantly skipping attack animations.

The most egregious example of bad design comes in the form of the combo menus. Rather than letting you choose which attacks you want to use and when, players are forced to pre-design a path for possible combinations by pausing and accessing a specific menu. Having to plot out each attack-course is a lengthy, thankless and near-unnecessary task. I spent so much time plodding along menus and windows setting up each character's possible attack combinations, only to never using them or even needing to.

Of course, one might find it entertaining to build a party with all four goddesses, especially when considering these characters can transform into an HDD form, which is essentially the embodiment of their console form. The issue here is that even though most of the experience is played with Neptune and two human characters symbolizing Idea Factory and Compile Hearts. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo won't join you until near the end-game.

I know this review is focusing too much on on the fighting aspect, but I simply cannot overstate how boring and badly designed it was. To me, this was the greatest deal-breaker, though it's not Hyperdimension Neptunia's only woe.

Traversing through this world functions much like a visual novel. Rather than freely walking about, you are always navigating menus, searching for newly unlocked events to select, ranging from plot-development, optional conversation scenes and missions to undertake. When an assignment is selected you can then enter its specific dungeon.

Sadly the dungeons themselves are of poor quality as well, often re-using the same songs and graphical assets over and over again, while others even recycle layouts. Quest levels also seem to have been randomly thrown in. For example, sometimes when completing high level quests, you're rewarded with a new, low-level mission.

Though I previously praised Hyperdimension Neptunia's videogame references, I have to admit that too often, these are also thrown around with little rhyme or reason. For example, there's a series of dungeons called "Neo-Geo", but they are completely generic, possessing no features that can be  in any way, shape or form associated to SNK's arcade machine. Then we also have a "Hyrool" Castle which is set in Xbox land for some reason and bares no resemblance to the Legend of Zelda.

I can't help but feel a tinge of sadness at how little I enjoyed my playthough. Hyperdimension Neptunia's concept is just so out there and it's hard to not grow an immediate fondness for it. Yet, all noteworthy elements in this title are likely best enjoyed through YouTube rather than playing it. It's surprising to see how much this franchise grew in such a short time when we consider how weak the first entry was. I can only hope future releases improved on the formula, because this is a game I can't recommend to anyone.

Pros:
- Offbeat story concept will likely appeal to anyone who was once a console fanboy
- Characters are fun, likable and a joy to watch them interact with each other
- English voice acting is surprisingly good with solid deliveries all around


Cons:

- Constant frame rate issues
- The combat is one of the worst I've seen in any JRPG
- Graphical assets and dungeon layouts are constantly recycled
- Videogame references are occasionally added just for the sake of it


Final Grade: D


I really like this cover, it manages to  strike a nice balance between the interesting character designs and an appealing color mix.

The artwork lends itself well to a bonus reversible cover, though sadly, none was added.

Its manual includes short character profiles for its main cast followed by basic instructions on how to play the game.

It's written well-enough and the profiles include an artwork piece for each character, but alas, this booklet is in black and white, greatly diminishing its visual appeal. 

Packaging Grade: B-

Pharaoh's Rebirth+



I reviewed the indie 2D metroidvania, Pharaoh’s Rebirth+ over at Tech-gaming.com

Pharaoh’s Rebirth+ is the sort of 2D game we should have gotten in the west during the heyday 32-bit consoles but never did. Beautiful visuals complemented by engaging gameplay and smart level design make this adventure easy to recommend.

Read the full review over at Tech-gaming.com

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I reviewed Xseed's and Team Grisgris' indie Japanese horror game, Corpse Party over at Tech-Gaming.

"  As a horror game, Corpse Party is entirely reliant on its story and sound design, creating a solid build-up with a payoff that is often less than what was promised. "

Click here to read the full review.