Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (PS2) – Initial Impressions

Haven’t gotten too far into this (have yet to hit on alchemy, which I’m hoping is closer to the first installment than the second, in that you can experiment a bit more with the alchemy recipes), but they seem to have taken at least some concepts from FFXII; while I’m sure there’s an overarcing plot, your characters are acting this out through performing quests and missions posted at a guild, and you can’t take some quests until you’ve reached a level at that guild.  This hopefully will make the game feel less linear than a typical RPG.

“Dungeon” fields are a bit more interesting; you warp to them from a special point near the town, and you can only stay in the field for a limited amount of time before you’re pulled back.  And just like FFXII, there’s a map of the areas within the field that indicates where your destination is to help you plan your travels better.   Each field also has a set of mini-goals unrelated to the mission (such as killing a number of a certain foe) to gain additional rewards.

Combat is much the same as before, though now the initiative bar is represented by a stack of cards; when you make a move with a character, their card is pushed back so many spaces in the deck.  As with the other Atelier Iris games, it’s possible to perform moves to time your next initiative better either to get an attack in before an enemy, or to have an attack work in conjunction with a teammate.  There’s a new overlimit-type mode, though based on how many consecutive attacks you do on foes and how much damage you take, but when full and activated, basically stuns your foes, gives you full mana power, and allows you to create long chains and damage cycles that lead to post-combat bonuses.

I’m finding a lot of similarities between this and FFXII, though it simply may be coincidence.  Otherwise, the game looks the same (the use of 2D sprites via a 3D engine, reusing numerous sprites and creatures from past games in the series), and definitely familiar.   Once I hit the alchemy section, that’s where I hope to see some interesting changes.

Forza Motorsport 2 (360) – Initial Impressions

Played a couple races on this last night, though I have played the demo as well.

Most of the basic overall play (arcade, career mode, etc.) is left unchanged from the first game, which is good.  The realism seems good as well; a little bumper tap can be disastrous (or at least pull you out from the lead and into the grass), and I have always liked the little help of the cornering arrows that you can toggle off as you get more experienced.

Graphics seem fine to me; I know people have been complaining that this doesn’t look as clean as the Gran Tursimo PS3 tech demo, but it’s certainly far from looking like a last-gen game.    The core of the game is racing, and the physics seem to get it down well, and I rather have that for something that is a driving/racing sim than super excellent graphics and less-than-realistic physics.

My only nit is that you get penalized for off-track driving and bumper hits.  Sure, if I intentionally go off, or drive wrecklessly into the middle of a pack, this makes sense, but I had a couple of times where I’ve taken a curve close to the expected line to have someone behind me tap my bumper or the like, causing the car to spin out to the grass, all the time ranking up penalty time.   Sure, I love that the cars are more aggressive than I’ve seen in the GT series, but it seems odd that I’m double penalized for that.

Have not played online but expect to do so tonight.

Shadowrun (360) – Initial Impressions

Short answer: this isn’t worth the $50/$60 out of the box, but it begs for more downloadable content that could make it worth that.  However, I’ve yet to hear of any, so in the short term…

The game takes a tabletop RPG and makes it into an FPS.  For something like Shadowrun, this is actually ok, because a lot of the tabletop RPG’s emphasis was the mix of magic and technology.  But unfortunately, there is no single player missions here: the game is all about the multiplayer combat.  I think that’s a big mistake: there’s nothing in how they’ve set up the game that would prevent even a mediocre single player FPS to be in place, granting the player powers over time like a typical FPS; some of the magic and tech like Gliders and Teleport would allow for interesting puzzles as well.    While you can play against bots in single player mode, this isn’t the same as a full-fledged campaign.

As for the multiplayer mode, the game itself is interesting.  You select one of 4 races with various advantages and disadvantages, and then at the start of each round, enter a Counterstrike-like menu to buy tech, magic, and weapons.  While in a match, you keep all tech and magic, but you have to buy weapons should you die.  Because of the mix of races and the magic and tech, this game then gets some elements of a Team Fortress classes, though well less defined: there’s obvious counterparts: teleporting elves as your scouts and minigun-wielding trolls for your heavy guns gun, but then there’s enough choices that you can create a class that works best for you.  In the current game modes (1-flag and 2-flag CTF), you don’t respawn after dying, though a teammate can revive you with Resurrection; however, this makes for an interesting gameplay mechanic that if that teammate should die, you’ll start bleeding out and either must find a healing Tree of Life to keep your health up, or make a quick sacrificial move before you die.  I played about 3 matches last night (and through the tutorial screens, natch), and there’s already a lot of different strategies that I can see.

Where the game is aching is the fact that it feels like there could be so much more added to the MP experience.  Two gameplay modes is not enough, and there’s no reason for very similar modes like from Halo to work here such as Territories or even simple team deathmatch broken out into rounds.  I think I also would have liked to seen a few more magic and tech powers; I found it very easy to gain all of those available by the end of a 9-round match, where instead I would still like to have options to pick from.  The menus are set up to suggest the possibility of additional modes and content down the road, but I think for a $50/$60 pricetag, this game needed those in here from the start.  I’ve a sneaking feeling that when these modes are released, we’ll be having to put some points to them (though how this works with Vista users is unclear yet).

I will say that, without knowing the development history, it feels like Shadowrun and Crackdown were conjoined twins separated at birth.  A lot of the elements of both games have similarities even though they were developed by different studios but that the combination of the two games (the MP elements of Shadowrun, and the SP elements of Crackdown) would have made for a top notch game all together.  However, that’s just my impression, I may be way off base with that.

Breakdown (XBX) – Initial Impressions

As a short diversion between RPGs and other games soon to be out, I pulled out a cheap pickup of Breakdown.  An original Xbox title now playable through backwards compatibility on the 360, it’s a first person shooter that takes the “first person” concept to nearly as far as it can go without wrecking the fun of the game.  For one, while there is shooting and other weapons, you quickly become more involved with using melee combat to get past difficult foes, so you can swing one-two punches and upper cuts.   Certain actions not shown in many FPS are forced on the player; you have to actually reach down to pick up ammo from dead soldiers or objects from the ground, and when you reach security doors, you need to pull out a security card and then swip it to get through.  These actions aren’t overly trivialized – they’re just long enough that it’s risky to do them in the heat of battle; that is, the game prevents you, as you likely would in real life, from running to a dead soldier to grab their ammo while a gun fight is blazing because of the time it takes, as opposed to many FPS where you can do this as part of the game.  It may seem a bit silly at first, but it actually works pretty well once you start getting into the midgame.

The game is unfortunately very bland in the graphics department.  All the levels have been rectangular hallways so far with minimal decoration, and though while I’m still in a building, it would have helped to have some diagonals as needed.  There was at least one interesting point as per the character gaining memories, I stepped out momentarily into a desert region (possibly part of some hallucination) while still in the middle of the building, to return to find that it likely never existed.  But even there in the desert, there wasn’t much different to look at.

It’s also the type of game where I wish they spent a bit more time thinking about checkpoints (the only points that you can restart your game after game over or a save game load); there’s been a few that have had a semi-difficult fight followed by a rather hard one which, should you fail the hard one, you have to repeat both fights.  I know the idea of quicksaves/loads isn’t really good for FPSs, but it would help with as distant the fighting portions are in this game, to err on the side of more checkpoints.

Definitely no big rush to finish this, but definitely one to finish.

Mario Party 8 (Wii) – Initial Impressions

I know what I should be expecting of this (I only played MP7 before, but from what I’ve read, the approach the game takes hasn’t changed too drastically over the series), but you know, I still found it disappointing, and I’m glad to see I’m not wrong as several gaming mags are panning this as an average title.

I don’t think it’s the gameplay – at least, as noted, there’s a certain expectation of what you’re getting with this game.  The minigames of what I’ve played are suited to the Wii remote, and feel like expanding WarioWare minigames.

It’s the presentation that’s mediocre, and I’m usually the last one to slam a game for bad graphics.  The in-game graphics look just a bit of this side of klunky – better than the N64, but not seeming to be much better than Gamecube ones.   Sure, the levels are large, and I can understand keeping polycounts low to keep the frame redraws high, but there’s just something poor about this.  I’ve seen Mario Strikers for the Wii, (heck and for the Cube) and there’s a lot more detail and a lot more action to possibly slow the game down, and there’s no excuse for backing off the graphics on this one.

There’s also the fact that while the game is presented in widescreen (if you are running your Wii that way), it will have blank borders down the sides to force the game effectively to a 4×3 display.  This is a really bad design decision and makes no sense for why it was done that way.

And then there’s the fact that doing some actions seem to take one extra button press or toggle to complete, like starting a minigame or rolling the dice.  I understand that, particularly for Wii remote use, that it’s helpful to have an explanation screen of what the controls are, but I would think that if other games can make it obvious during the game what motions to use on the control (WarioWare, Cooking Mama, or Raving Rabbids), it could have been done here.

It’s definitely not as impressive a title as I was expecting – there seems to be a lot more they could have done with this game just simply because of the better power the Wii has on the GC.

Odin Sphere (PS2) – Initial Impressions

Atlus has been known to make some of the more interesting games in terms of mechanics (examples include Disgaia and Trauma Center), so whenever they do come out with a new game, typically people will take notice. Odin Sphere already has a couple of things going for it: the artwork is simply amazing – it’s based on bright colorful 2D sprites that look more out of a watercolor than a computer screen.  The gameplay is definitely interesting.  Battle is done real time on a map that’s like “Defender” but easier to think of as a roundabout/traffic circle in 2D, that you can move around quickly.  There’s some strange aspects of combat and leveling up that I’m still trying to figure out, but there are additional features like Alchemy that you learn as you go along.  A chapter in the game consists of clearing all of these “traffic circles”  (10 or so) and defeating bosses.

The sad part is that there are parts of this game that remind me of a failed Square Enix title, “Unlimited Saga”, in the presentation (as if a watercolor), and jumping from field to field.  Of course, combat is much more different, and there were aspects of USaga that were just nearly impossible to figure out without spending a lot of time in the manual.  So Odin Sphere definitely has a leg up.

Shadow Hearts (PS2) – Review

Shadow Hearts - CoverShadow Hearts, developed by Sacnoth and published by Midway, is pretty much a standard turn-based RPG that adds some new concepts to the usual mix, has a rather interesting story, and shows the signs of what the series will become in future installments, but is otherwise a lackluster title that looks like a PS1 game despite being released well after the release of the Ps2.

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Shadow Hearts (PS2) – Initial Impressions

I’ve recently completed a stack of new PS2 RPGs that I’ve put off, and with a bit of a lull here (though Odin Sphere just came out and I have my copy, and Atelier Iris next week), I looked through what RPGs I’ve not yet done and pulled out Shadow Hearts.  I’ve played both of its sequels and found them enjoyable, but I recognize that this is one of those games that came out just shortly after the PS2 was released, and thus has the feel of a PS1 game adapted for the PS2.  I have played this a little bit before, but that was before adopting the mantra of “complete one RPG before moving to the next”, so I restarted the game fresh.

That said, most of the Shadow Hearts is there.  The Judgement Ring which you need to hit to make your attacks is key in all aspects of gameplay, and the style of each character is also different, but only with the lead character (Yuri) does the player have miniquests needed to gain new powers (later games would have all characters involved in these to build up powers).   Sanity points are there as well, so combat is still quite familiar.

The biggest problem I have, and this is more related to the PS1-feel of the game, is that unlike the recent RPGs I’ve finished, there’s next to no voice work, with the entire story told by on-screen text.  Now, you’re not waiting for the text to spell itself out, though there are times you’ve got to wait for the characters to finish movements to advance to the next line of dialog.  But given the fixed, large font and such, I find I just have a hard time staying with the story.  I wonder …. arguably if I were to go to Zelda: TP or Okami, which the story is still all text, but there’s the fake voices with different “voices” for different characters, if that would help in a case like this, just to at least distinguish between the various characters.   The story’s not a great one (as yet), but its got potential and I know that it does tie to Shadow Hearts: Covenant, but maybe I’m more spoiled by modern RPGs and find it easier to keep my head into those.

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! 2 (DS, Import) – Initial Impressions

A followup up to Ouendan 1 from a storyline perspective while taking most of the improvements that Elite Beat Agents had to offer is what makes up Ouendan 2.  The gameplay is the same as both these games: tap the screen as colored markers come up in time with the music to cheer on the various characters you’re helping.  The biggest change for the best is that there seems to be a much sharper learning curve with this game.  I finished through the Normal difficulty and while the first 6 levels were easy, the last few had just enough tough tracks that played on musical off-beats to throw me off and require a few reruns at it.  Notably, there’s a couple songs that are equivalent to “Canned Heat” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from EBA in terms of their syncopation that threw me off.   However, I like that – the improved challenge earlier in the game feels much better than making Normal “too” easy.

It’s still all presented in Japanese, but, as with the first game, I think only one scenario seems a little odd and requires just a bit of Japanese culture knowledge; the rest are self-explanatory by pictures.  It is region free, so no need to mod your DS or anything like that.  Fans of the first game will see some of their favorite characters (crazy old pottery guy!) in some of the stories, so there’s nice continuity with the game.

.hack//G.U. Volume 2 (PS2) – Review

.hack//G.U. Volume 2 - Cover.hack/G.U. Volume 2 – Reminisce, developed by CyberConnect2 and distributed by Bandai-Namco, continues the story and gameplay from the previous volume, set in the near future and involving the spread of a computer virus in a virtual game world which causes the real-life players to fall into comas if infected. This RPG game, while technically standalone, really cannot be fully appreciated without having played the previous volume (Rebirth), and also may lose some things if you’ve not played through the original .hack series of games. While a few small additions have been added to the game play primarily due to increasing in character levels within the virtual game, the game still ends up feeling repetitive, drudging you through the same tasks to get from plot point to plot point.

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