Thursday, August 16, 2018

Steamworld Dig 2 Review

Ok, after my recent streak of personal and retrospective posts, it's time to get back to a good old fashioned review:

Steamworld Dig 2 was an acclaimed Metroidvania when it came out on Switch last year. I put it off after getting a little burnt out on the genre. Eventually, I got the PC version for free via Twitch Prime and decided to give it a go as a buffer between all the RPGs I've been playing lately.

  • Charming character and world design. I really liked the vibrant colors and quirky cast of NPCs.
  • The controls feel really good. Maneuvering Dot around is fun in classic Nintendo-like fashion. This especially true once you acquire upgrades like the grappling hook and jet pack.
  • The puzzle rooms add some clever challenges and let you explore all the different ways you can use your gear.
  • Exploration leads to collecting the items needed to upgrade your character, which opens up even more places to explore. This makes for a very satisfying gameplay loop.

  • I felt that the game overly limited exploration in the beginning. Having to frequently return to town to recharge the lantern and empty your backpack was kind of irritating. Thankfully, you can get upgrades after a while that ease up these restrictions.
  • Many areas of the game  are traversed by digging tunnels (think Dig Dug). This was a novel idea at first, but eventually, I found having to smash rocks all the time got a little old. This made me appreciate the freedom of exploring the open areas a lot more.
  • Metroid and Castlevania would break things up periodically with big boss battles. This game has very few boss battles and they weren't particularly memorable.

Overall Steamworld Dig 2 is a quality Metroidvania and I think any fan of the genre should check it out. However, I couldn't help but feel like it was over-hyped by the time I got to it.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 8 hours, 45 minutes

If reading this post has put you in the mood to pick up a new game while also supporting this blog, you can do so via this Amazon affiliate link: Amazon Video Games 

Monday, August 13, 2018

For Pinky

Well, here we are with another non-game-specific post. This one just felt like the right thing to do.

Those of you that have been reading my posts for a while or have been following me on Twitter or Twitch probably have seen my cat Pinky make some guest appearances. For the past several years she has been my faithful gaming companion, co-streamer, and assistant reviewer. In fact, in the over 100 posts I've written in this blog, she was sitting in my lap for the majority of them. Unfortunately, our time to say goodbye to her was last week, but rather make this a mournful post, I'd like to dedicate this entry to her and celebrate the time I got to spend with her.

In addition to keeping me company during gaming time, Pinky often liked to take an active role in the vanquishing of digital enemies. Based on her interest in batting at the monitor or mashing buttons while I was playing, I’m pretty sure her favorite games were Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser and The Witcher 2 (she was a cat with diverse taste). On the topic of taste, she also contributed to some of my hardware reviews by taste testing the peripherals. Pinky was also a presence on my Twitch streams, her color commentary was picked up on the mic during several broadcasts.

Pinky may have been a small cat (~ 6lbs) but she had a huge personality. She will be missed and I’m very grateful for her companionship.

Farewell, Pinky, and thanks for all the wonderful memories!

One of her many peripheral taste tests (you'll see a theme here).
This blog doesn't cover non-gaming electronics. Pinky's work had a wider scope.

The Horipad was probably her favorite controller.
Here's some of that signature personality I mentioned.

Normally, this where the affiliate link would go. However, today, instead of buying stuff online, I encourage you to go hug your pets and tell them you love them.


Friday, August 10, 2018

The Sega Gap

Earlier this week when I talked about my history with gaming, I mentioned my “Rip Van Winkle period” from 2005 to 2011. However, you may have also noticed another gap in my history with game systems; with the exception of the Sega Dreamcast, I didn’t own any Sega devices. During the 90s console wars, I was always firmly on the Team Nintendo side of the schoolyard. Despite my juvenile biases, I couldn’t help but admire some of the interesting-looking content Sega had on offer that I didn’t have access to. For example, I watched Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons and read Sonic comics, but never actually played the games with a Genesis controller in my hand. Many years later, after the fires of the console wars had died down, I sampled a little bit of what the other side was playing via ports to other systems. Here’s a quick rundown:
  • Genesis – Sonic 1 through & Knuckles (via a Gamecube collection), Gunstar Heroes (Virtual Console)
  • Saturn – Panzer Dragoon 1 and 2 (1 via Panzer Dragoon Orta on Xbox, 2 via emulation)
  • Dreamcast – Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, Shenmue 1 and 2, Jet Set Radio, Soul Caliber
Since the whole point of this blog is to clear backlogs and address “Gaming Shames”, I feel like there’s a rich wellspring of titles here that I’ve largely overlooked. I briefly skimmed the Sega Genesis catalog some years ago with an emulator, but I found it hard to focus on any one title. At this point, I’m looking to dig a little deeper and work a few titles into my Gaming Shames queue. I have a few ideas of what I could play but would love suggestions from readers of some must-play Sega titles (especially from the Genesis). Depending on the game, I might stream some of these Sega games on my Twitch channel. What are your favorite games from Sega history?

If reading this post has put you in the mood to pick up a game or two while also supporting this blog, you can do so via this Amazon affiliate link: Amazon Video Games 

  • The topic for this post was largely inspired by chatting with some fellow Twitch streamers: Keyglyph, BogusMeatFactory, and HungryGoriya. Be sure to check out their channels!
  • This post is part as part of the #BlaugustReborn event. For more information about Blaugust, see this blog entry by Belghast.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Octo Update

After writing my impressions last week, I’ve sunk a bunch of additional hours into Octopath Traveler. At this point, I’ve now played through the first chapter for all eight characters, and have started the second chapter for the merchant, Tressa. Some additional thoughts now that I have a bigger picture of what this game has to offer:
  • The original demo featured the first chapter for Primrose the Dancer and Olberic the Knight. I think Square Enix made a wise decision showcasing these two characters when unveiling the game to the world. Of all eight characters, I found these two have stories with the most compelling starts, even upon second viewing. Their darker themes of revenge and justice are probably best suited to older players like me that were reeled in by this game’s resemblance to 16 and 32-bit classics.
  • The second tier of characters have less interesting stories but have likable personalities that keep me engaged. My lead character, Cyrus the Scholar, is a wannabe Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for a lost book of forbidden knowledge. There’s a mysterious air to his story that appeals to me. Also, his haughty attitude and devastatingly powerful magic make him a fun character to have as my protagonist. (I neglected to mention in my preview that the first character you play serves as your main character for the whole campaign). Tressa the Merchant is charming in a different way with her happy-go-lucky attitude and thirst for adventure. She’s also a highly opportunistic capitalist, like you would expect from a merchant, which works its way into her plot in fun ways. Her quest is also motivated by a book, so I tend to group her and Cyrus together.
  • Some of the criticisms of Octopath Traveler from major review outlets have been about “generic writing”. I think this shows a bit once we drop down into the third and fourth tier characters. I put Therion the Thief and Ophelia the Cleric in the third tier; they’re not especially interesting but I think there’s potential for their plots to go in interesting directions. In the Final Fantasy series, Square Enix has done interesting things with thieves (e.g. Balthier from FF12) and clerics (e.g. Yuna from FF10) before, so hopefully, that’ll end up being the case here.
  • In the fourth tier, we have H'aanit the Huntress and Alfyn the Apothecary. While these characters are pretty useful in combat, their dialog doesn’t do much for me. H'aanit speaks in a strange faux-Elizabethan English that seems off to me. If the game’s writers wanted to go this way with her script, I wish that they would have committed to it more fully. The strange half measure that they went with just seems awkward to me (think the original Dragon Warrior). As for Alfyn, he just wants to be the best apothecary he can be... and that's about it. Not too interesting.
  • As I had mentioned before, I started off with Cyrus and thus he's my team leader. This has worked out exceptionally well. His powerful area-of-effect elemental spells and his ability to detect enemy weaknesses make him exceptionally useful in every combat situation I've encountered.
  • I've only just started my first Chapter 2 quest and there's a noticeable difficulty spike. Many basic encounter enemies now feel on the level of mini-bosses. When I finished all the Chapter 1 stories, Cyrus was at level 22 and everyone else was in the upper teens. It feels like I'll be able to handle Chapter 2, but just barely.
  • I managed to figure out some of the side quests, but other than earning money, I'm still not sure if they matter much.
 Octopath Traveler continues to be a joy to play and it will probably keep me busy for at least the rest of this month. Since I'm increasing my posting frequency for #BlaugustReborn, I'll likely post one more impressions post before writing my review. Since this post was mainly about characters and story, the next will probably focus on combat strategy once I've gotten a taste of higher level play. In any event, I still highly recommend that any RPG fan give this game a look.

If you'd like to check out the world of Octopath Traveler for yourself while also supporting this blog, you can order a copy of the game from this Amazon affiliate link: Octopath Traveler - Nintendo Switch

If you would like to learn more about #BlaugustReborn or sign up to participate, take a look at this post from fellow game blogger, Belghast: Tales of the Aggronaut - First of Blaugust

Monday, August 6, 2018

Gaming Origin Story

While I generally don't like to talk about myself and prefer to keep this blog focused on the games themselves, it occurred to me that in two years of game blogging, I've never really gotten into my history with my favorite past time. In the spirit of #BlaugustReborn, I figured I should probably fix that. Here it goes:

My start with gaming came from an unlikely figure: my grandma. She was probably the only 60+-year-old lady hanging out in the dingy local arcade, but she could clear Pac-Man boards with the best of them.

Naturally, several years later, once I was old enough to hold a controller, she taught me how to play Donkey Kong on the NES, followed soon after by Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. Three-year-old me was, of course, terrible at all of these, with the exception of Duck Hunt if I put the Zapper’s muzzle directly against the screen. None the less, I’ve been a diehard Nintendo fan ever since.

While I may have been a massive Nintendo fan, my 8 and 16-bit gaming was limited to genres like platformers, fighting games, and racing games. I didn’t come to appreciate other genres, some of which are now favorites, like RPGs and puzzle-adventure until many years later when my family got our first computer (we were pretty late to the party on that) and my sister bought a PlayStation. The PlayStation got me into RPGs; I literally emptied my piggy bank to buy Final Fantasy 7. The PC, on the other hand, accomplished two things: introduced me to genres that weren’t available on consoles at the time (e.g. FPS and point-and-click adventure) but also sparked my interest in computer hardware that continues to this day.

My journey has looked something like this overall:
  • Nintendo – NES, SNES, Gameboy Color, N64, Gamecube, DS, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, Switch
  • Other Consoles – PS1, Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox
  • PC – Dell Pentium desktop, HP AMD Athlon 64 Desktop,  ASUS i5 gaming laptop, Samsung i5 media laptop, self-assembled gaming desktop (current)
You may notice that there's a pretty large gap in my non-Nintendo gaming between the Xbox and the ASUS laptop (approximately from 2005 to 2011). Time and money were in short supply those years, so I missed the majority of a whole console generation with the exception of a few Wii games. I call this my gaming Rip Van Winkle period, and much of the focus of my backlog journey has been devoted to filling in that gap.

The past two years of taking that backlog journey with everyone in the world of game blogging has been a lot of fun! Thanks for joining me so far and happy Blaugust!

If reading this post has put you in the mood to pick up a new game while also supporting this blog, check out this Amazon affiliate link: Amazon Video Games

I'm upping my blog posting frequency for the rest of the month in celebration of #BlaugustReborn. I'm aiming for at least two posts per week. If you'd like to know more about Blaugust, you get more info from this post by Belghast.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Octopath Traveler Impressions

After being enthralled by the Octopath Traveler demo last year, it was pretty clear that this classic-style JRPG would be right up my alley. The wait until the release of the full game felt long, but it has finally arrived. At this point, I'm about 10 hours into the campaign and have added five of the eight characters to my party. Here are some early thoughts on my time with the game:
  • The music and environments on display in the original demo really wowed me. Now that I've gotten to see a wider variety of what the game has to offer, I continue to be impressed by its artistic presentation. The dark forests, glittering coastlines, snow-capped mountains, and medieval towns all look great in Octopath's faux-retro graphical style. The color pallet of the game world is muted compared to a 16-bit RPG but it works well for the game's setting and tone. So far every environment has been accompanied by great music in the form of stirring orchestral pieces, somber piano sessions, or folksy tunes as appropriate.
  • While the environments themselves look lush and deep, largely due to the 2D-3D hybrid style, traversal through the world is quite linear. The side-scrolling camera angle means that there's generally only one path through an area with the occasional short detour to pick up treasure. In a sense, it's actually more restrained than the 16 and 32-bit games that Octopath resembles. Furthermore, if the player somehow does manage to get lost, the map and radar are marked with distinct green icons showing the location of the next quest objective. As a player that doesn't like spending a lot of time figuring out where to go next, I really like this design decision. However, I imagine that players expecting "open world" exploration may be a bit disappointed.
  • Another efficient design decision that Octopath makes is dividing each quest into short chapters. So far each chapter has consisted of a few cutscenes, a visit to a town, a small dungeon, and a boss battle with save points liberally placed throughout. This makes the game much easier to pick up and play for short bursts compared to other JRPGs. Most of my play sessions have been under an hour and in portable mode.
  • A minor gripe: there is no option to auto-advance fully-voiced cutscenes. In most games, I like being able to set the controller down while listening to the dialog with my hands free to do other things (mostly eating). This game doesn't let me do that since I have to tap the A button after every line of dialog. I've gotten used to it by now, but it still makes the conversations between characters sound a little stilted. 
  • There are side quests in this game, but I have no idea how to keep track of which ones I'm working on or determine what the objectives are for each. The game prompts me when I've met the criteria to start a new side quest (usually talking to the right NPC), but I have yet to figure out how to progress things from there. I'm not sure if this is a game design issue or if I'm doing something wrong. Either way, the side quests don't seem to matter much yet.
  • Every time you begin a new character's quest, that character joins the party at level one. I was initially concerned that this would make the game feel unbalanced, but that hasn't been the case. The level curve is such that the new character catches up quickly and the older characters don't become too overpowered. In other words, the difficulty curve has been smooth.
  • Some of the early bosses can take quite a beating before finally going down, however, I have yet to have one wipe out my party. 
  • Right now, the five characters I have access to are the scholar, the cleric, the merchant, the huntress, and the thief. Each one plays a little differently, but there is some overlap in their skill sets. For example, if a quest requires acquiring a key item from an NPC, I can either use the merchant to purchase the item off the NPC, or just steal it using the thief. I'm curious to see how each character's field skills work together once I've assembled the whole crew.
I was initially concerned about some of the early reviews I was seeing for this game, but I'm having a blast with Octopath Traveler so far. I'm thinking that the eagerness of some outlets to brand this game as "the next Final Fantasy 6" did it a disservice. Octopath is looking less like one grand quest with an ensemble cast like Final Fantasy 6, and more like a set of smaller stories that occasionally intertwine, a la SaGa Frontier. Thankfully for me, that's exactly what I wanted.

If you'd like to check out the world of Octopath Traveler for yourself while also supporting this blog, you can order a copy of the game from this Amazon affiliate link: Octopath Traveler - Nintendo Switch

This month marks the two-year anniversary of Tales from the Backlog! The event that got me started with blogging is called Blaugust and it returns this year as #BlaugustReborn! If you would like to learn more about Blaugust or sign up to participate, check out this post from fellow game blogger, Belghast: Tales of the Aggronaut - First of Blaugust

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Persona 4 Review

Compared to last year, 2018’s release calendar has been fairly light. While some gamers might be
lamenting this, I’ve found it has been an excellent opportunity to go back and check out some titles from prior years that I missed. Thus, I’m jumped right into tackling yet another “gaming shame”, the Megami Tensei franchise. Except for two spinoff games, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and Shin Megami Tensei Synchronicity Prologue, I haven’t gotten the chance to get into Atlus’s hugely popular RPG series. A friend was nice enough to lend me his copy of Persona 4 for PlayStation 2 back in April and it's taken me a while to finish the game and put together my thoughts.

Game overview:
Persona 4 is an RPG in which the protagonist and his friends must investigate a series of grisly
supernatural murders that have been taking place in their town. The wrinkle is that the investigators are all high school students and must juggle their school and social lives in addition to gathering clues, fighting villains, and rescuing potential victims.

  • Persona 4 begins with an incredibly long set of introductory cutscenes. During the first two hours or so of the campaign, the game only requires player input two or three times. Putting non-interactive segments this long in a video game would probably even give a director like Hideo Kojima pause. Thankfully, the writing is pretty good, so this lengthy introduction still has entertainment value, but I still wish it the game’s designers would have broken it up a bit.
  • As the two hours’ worth of introductory material makes clear, Persona 4 focuses on developing its characters and story above all else. I found the central murder mystery to be interesting and enjoyed getting to meet the whole cast of characters. The English language voice-overs for these characters are excellent and add significantly to their personalities.
  • Atlus made some interesting choices regarding localizing this game. Despite being a 100% English translated game, locations, characters, and events all use their Japanese names (the game is set in Japan, after all). The dialog even includes honorifics with character names. It took me a little while to get used to hearing English-speaking characters calling each other -san and sempai but I have to give the voice actors credit for making it work.
  • Much of the gameplay reminds me of old-school dating sims like Tokimeki Memorial. The game follows the daily life of its typical anime teen protagonist over the course of a year as he goes to school, hangs out with his friends, works a part-time job, investigates a serial murder case, and battles demonic forces (I described it as “anime” for a reason). How and with whom the player elects to spend the hero’s time will affect his personal stats. Points in the hero's qualities like "knowledge" and "expression" open up new pathways for interactions between characters but also can affect his combat performance as well.
  • Since the hero juggles his high school life and his evil-battling life, I break the gameplay down into two modes: school mode and quest mode. School mode plays much like a visual novel or a dating sim (especially like the aforementioned Tokimeki Memorial). During the classroom segments, the protagonist may be asked questions by the teacher or may have to take exams. Scoring well on these segments improves his “knowledge” stat. After class, the player can elect to have their character attend after-school activities, work a part-time job, or spend time with his friends and family. These activities either boost general stats like “diligence” and “understanding”, or increase the “Social Link” score, which affects combat attributes when in quest mode (more on that later).
  • Outside of all the usual high school activities, the player can enter quest mode after school. The quest consists of gathering clues about the murder mystery that the characters are trying to solve by talking to NPCs and exploring dungeons to track down suspects or rescue potential victims. There are about eight dungeons in the game and the player is given a month or two of in-game time to finish each one; missing the deadline to complete a dungeon results in a game over. Thus, managing the character’s time between school mode and quest mode is crucial. 
  • The dungeons themselves are themed after each character’s inner struggle (similar to Psychonauts) but the layout of each is procedurally generated with the exception of the boss room. Most of the dungeons are eight to twelve stories tall and require and a considerable amount of time to finish (about three to five hours each in my playthrough). Running out of MP and items often means that dungeon runs have to be spread out across multiple in-game days in order to restock supplies. While I thought the character-specific theming was pretty cool and I didn't mind the procedure layouts, I couldn’t help but wish that the dungeons were a little shorter. After getting to about the sixth floor or so in a given dungeon, I found myself being a little bored of the slow dungeon crawl and wanting to just get to the boss as quickly as possible so I could advance the story.
  • The combat is in the form of traditional turn-based battles in which each character in the party can summon a demon (aka a Persona) to use special skills. Most of the strategy of regular battles involve figuring out the right skills to exploit enemy weakness and execute combos. The protagonist can collect new Personas by finding Tarot cards in the dungeon and can swap between these demonic allies in mid-battle. The rest of the characters only have one fixed Persona that they stick with for the whole game. This leads to the protagonist being the only strategic variable in boss battles which makes them less interesting than they could be. It’s important to note that bosses and regular enemies alike can exploit your characters’ weaknesses as well, which can mean that a bad roll of the dice can wipe out your whole party even during a basic encounter.
  • In addition to acquiring new Personas, the protagonist can also fuse his Personas together to form new more powerful ones. The power of these fused Personas is a function of the Social Link scores you’ve built up with each character. Every character has an affinity with one of the arcana of the Tarot deck, which correspond with the 22 races of demons in hell (yes, this game has some dark themes in it). Hence, the hero’s decisions in school mode can have a significant impact on his progression in quest mode.
  • The connection between the school mode and quest mode of the game manifests itself in some ways that are interesting and others that are jarring. Since the dungeons take place in a hellish parallel dimension to the real world (did I forget to mention that?), things going on in school mode, such as the weather, can reflect the situation in quest mode. For example, rain and fog in the school mode portion of the game foreshadow the death of a character in the dungeons, representing a quest deadline. Since checking the local news is part of the player character’s daily routine, the weather report takes on a foreboding tone that adds to the sense of tension in the story. However, there are other times where this connection didn’t work for me. If you finish a quest mode objective earlier than the game expects you to, you’ll be prompted each day with a message that says something like “you are waiting for the situation to change”, and nothing of any consequence will happen until the original due date for that quest passes. For the first half of the game, I appreciated having this bit of downtime to meet all the characters and develop the Social Links. Yet, as the game went on, I had completed most of the social links that I was interested in and found myself wishing I could turn the clock forward past all the mundane school days and get to the next main story beat. Another instance where the connection between quest mode conflicts with school mode is the relationship between social links and Tarot Arcana. When a character asks the protagonist if he’d like to hang out, the player is prompted with a message indicating the benefits of this social interaction on the strength of his Personas. I found that this made my character seem like some sort of psychopath who weighs all of his interpersonal relationships based on the perks they’ll confer to his personal arsenal of demons. I realize that this prompt is just clarifying a mechanic in the game, but the direct acknowledgment of it in this context highlights how creepy the whole thing is.
  • Regarding the character-specific theming of each chapter of the quest, Persona 4 attempts to tackle some rather heavy themes such as anxiety, depression, sexuality, and gender identity. These are ambitious subjects for a video game to tackle (especially a Japanese game from 2008) and the execution sometimes feels a little clumsy by 2018 standards. That being said, I really have to commend the game for trying. Generally, Persona 4 achieves its goal of developing each member of the cast into a relatable person that the player can sympathize and root for.
  • While I didn’t know this going in, Persona 4 has multiple endings and it is extremely easy to accidentally get the bad ending. There is a key set of dialog tree decisions during a scene late in the game that determines which ending you get. To me, it seemed unclear which choices would lead to which path. I ended up reloading the scene several times only to get different variants of the bad ending each time before ultimately giving up and looking up the exact path through the dialog tree to get to the good ending. Thankfully, the game explicitly prompts the player to save the game right before this crucial scene.
  • Something that is often said about the Persona series is how stylish it is. I agree. The music and character animations give the game an extra helping of personality over pretty much any other RPG.
  • Some notes on how I played this game: I played on the easy setting and used a PS2 emulator so that I could make liberal use of save states. I have no regrets about either of these decisions. Losing progress due to large gaps between save points and getting wiped in unforgiving battles would have significantly hampered my ability to enjoy and finish a massive game like this.
Overall, I found that the gameplay of Persona 4 was interesting at first but lost its luster as the game went on; it was the strong characters and compelling central narrative that kept me on board for the 70+ hour campaign. I'm really glad I got to experience this landmark game and I know it will stick with me for quite some time. That being said, the investment of time and mental/emotional energy required to tackle a game as large and deep as this is something that I'm only prepared to handle occasionally. In all likelihood, it will be quite some time before I'm ready to dive into another Persona title.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 73 hours

If you would like to pick up a copy of this game while also supporting this blog, check out the Amazon affiliate links below:
Persona 4 - PS2
Persona 4 Golden - PS Vita