Project X Zone

by bhayden
9. August 2013 16:58

“This is the most Japanese game I’ve ever seen.”

That isn’t something I said, my friend Watts said that as I was showing him this game on my last trip to Chicago.  We were sitting in a suburban sushi restaurant – one of those places that you only know exists because of the magic of Yelp.  We were getting ready to swap Fire Emblem armies and then do some multiplayer Fire Emblem (which deserves a post of its own).  I was playing X Zone at the time so I showed it off to him.  In the moment it didn’t actually register the full impact of what he meant.

It didn’t take long for it to sink in.  This is a game of pandering.  It panders to what, and I’m likely overgeneralizing here, must be the inner Hentai fan in every male.  There are jiggling breasts, suggestive quips between members of your party and innuendos galore.  There’s even sequences in the game where one of the characters snaps pictures of the females and the sub label Erotica is slapped over them.

This is  a fan service game.  It brings characters of all different games from several different companies into one universe and tries to meld it all into something coherent.  Normally I prefer not to delve deeply into mechanics but it’s important here.  Rather than the traditional strategy RPG mechanic of having a single unit, you’re given a pair of characters who can then optionally be backed up by a solo character.  Further, instead of having set attacks (they do have those some to an extent) when you fight an enemy you’re taken to a Street Fighter-esque  screen where you execute D-pad combos to perform damage and build up XP (not to be confused with EXP).  EXP gives you levels, XP unlocks your more powerful, unblockable attacks.  This is fresh at first but eventually becomes a mundane routine and by the end devolves into a chore.  In addition to this your units get AOE attacks, which makes combat more tolerable.  Unfortunately they have a high cost of When the enemy attacks your units you then have the choice to counter, block (reduced damage), full block (no damage) or do nothing.  Each one of these options takes XP.

I’d like to say there was coherence in presentation here but the story line was all over the place.  You’re dimensional hopping and picking up and losing characters and picking them back up again at a breakneck pace.  Still I fist pumped when KOS-MOS joined my party because she’s one bad ass motherfucker.  When Mega Man trotted out and joined my group I smiled.  This is the fan service and it is awesome and confusing and hard to keep track of.  There is at least consistency of presentation, if not coherence.  Meaning that each map plays out roughly the same way.  Your units appear, some bad guys appear, after a few turns the real boss for the level shows up and then the battle is on.

Despite all this, I found myself quite hooked.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the flaws I felt like this was a group of devs that just wanted you to have a good time.  It might also be because it’s part of my favorite genre and I’m willing to give those a bit more of a pass than other games.  X Zone delivers a solid, if not spectacular, experience.

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The Best Laid Plans

by bhayden
1. May 2013 21:55

I had this plan, a vision if you will, to keep up the pace of playing games and writing reviews about them.  But then Awakening kept happening.  And then it happened again.  I’ve beaten the game three times now which is a definite first for me.  I’ve never replayed a game that quickly, and then replayed it again.

Central to my gaming experience with all RPGs is character building.  In my gaming groups I’m always one of the first to look around and think about building a new character.  There’s something intrinsically rewarding about thinking of a concept and then breathing life into.  Awakening taps into this in a visceral and simple way.

I didn’t replay the game again for the story or even for the characters.  I replayed for what the characters could become.  With the marriage and children systems in place there’s tons of minor tweaks and gains that could then be parlayed into different concepts for what a character could be.  Case in point, Kjelle went from unused in my first party, to a tank assassin in my second, to an actual armored tank in my third.

The powergamer in me obsessed for hours over these combinations.  I had spreadsheets that spawned spreadsheets.  I boiled it down to a science.  Within a few hours I could take a character and transform them from sapling to redwood.  It was like clockwork, a character factory generation.  There was something soothing in the rhythm of it.

Over the course of these three playthroughs I discovered a twto things.  First is that switching to casual changes the entire perspective of the game.  Further, it turns the harder difficulties into annoyances.  When there’s no risk of permanent unit death, the increased difficulty in the game becomes a buzzing fly.  Not that quiet fly that buzzes you quick and then wanders off to wherever it is that flies go, but it’s that one with the loud wings that decides to hang around your house a while.  Eventually it goes away (your characters get stronger) but while it’s there it is there.

Second is how the DLC radically changes the complexion of the game.  My first time through I didn’t play any of the DLC.  I spent hours grinding reeking boxes for gold, experience and dates.  After buying the experience and gold DLCs I’m wondering if they can ever go back to not having them.  There are now tons of artwork and units from other games in the series that have now been created.  I can only hope that we see something other than three map packs from this effort.  If there is justice in this world then we will.  And when we do I’ll be there, ready to brave the gauntlet again.

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The Awakening

by bhayden
22. February 2013 23:50

I didn’t own a 3DS.  I didn’t have any plans to own a 3DS.  Then Nintendo announced the release of a game that gave me pause; a new Fire Emblem.  I was reticent still, clinging to the belief that it would be ok to wait.  Then they upped the stakes again.   They released a special edition 3DS with Fire Emblem bundled.  It was like kryptonite.  A special 3DS along with the new entry in my favorite series?  Sign me up.  One credit fraud alert and a call to customer support later and my 3DS arrived on Valentine’s Day.  I told my wife thanks for that even though she had nothing to do with it .  She shook her head and smiled.  I bought her flowers.  I think I got the better end of this Valentine’s Day for once.

This game.

I don’t know how often I repeated that phrase to my former Gamer’s Logik alumni and fellow Fire Emblem enthusiast, Watts.  It has been some time since a game has reached out and grabbed me in such a manner.  I found myself consumed by the game, head buried in my DS while my wife and kids wondered what happened to Daddy.  My toddler found it especially enlightening.  I play games around him, but I never played games around him if you catch my meaning.  He loved the roads on the map, and always wondered where the cars were.

I was this obsessed before I discovered that who you married your units to really mattered this time.  I spent some amount of time debating if I should restart to scratch that power gamer itch.  I came to a compromise and made the best of my army with what I had already done.  To be clear, the damage was not crippling but it niggled at those power gamer instincts that WoW sharpened in me. 

I’ve always maintained that Fire Emblem games exist for the sole purpose to display their exquisite battle system.  While Shadow Dragon challenged this assumption; being a remake of the first Fire Emblem you could see the evolution in the series that was present in newer versions.  I almost gave up hope of ever seeing a Fire Emblem stateside again.  Awakening answered with a bang.  Like Lebron in the open court, Awakening is breath taking and beautiful sight to behold.

Back to the dating simulation.  By simulation I mean that you pick and choose who your characters love through the sheer act of killing things.  That’s romance and love.  Hi honey, I know we just killed fifty swordsmen together, I’m so hot let’s go make babies!  I’m being flippant. I made a spreadsheet of who should marry who.   That’s love.

This is the best strategy RPG since Final Fantasy Tactics.  Yes it maintains the tropes of the series.  It pays homage to its forbearers but it also cuts a new swath.  The brilliant battle system is still there, intact and refined as it has become.  It’s the new additions that raise it a level – swapping classes along with promotions and pairing up.  Those two things don’t sound like an awful lot, but they add depth and richness that I didn’t even know were missing.

The story is there, did I mention I play the game to enjoy the battle system and not the writing?  I actually found the writing to be ok.  It’s a Japanese RPG, and if you’re down with the anime, you’ll make it through this game.  The characters take a turn for the wacky, especially some of the second generation ones.  This adds to the game’s endearing charm.  It vacillates between serious and silly as anime often does.

The worst part about this game was that it ended.  Sure that’s kind of their purpose but it’s been a long time since I was disappointed that I finished a game.  I’ve still got that glossy stare and a hole in my mind that it burned through.  The after image lingers and I whisper to myself, we will meet again and you shall be broken once more.

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Grotesque Tactics

by bhayden
28. January 2013 21:18

Many years ago I fancied myself a writer of the game review kind, and while it didn’t work out I do miss it dearly.  Following is my (incredibly) rusty attempt at rediscovering that part of my brain.

I’ve had my eye on Grotesque Tactics for quite some time before playing it.  For reference the game was released in October of 2010.  I picked it up in the latest Steam summer sale and finally got around to playing it.  As a man starved for some strategy RPG action, I was hoping Grotesque Tactics would be an oasis in a veritable desert.  It’s not that strategy RPGs don’t exist.  They haven’t quite reached bigfoot level yet but outside of the handheld market they’re sighted almost as often.

Grotesque Tactics sets its tone early and often.  As the anti-hero Drake has failed has Hero test and seeks oblivion in the mouth of a giant mushroom.  From there the writing and wit is crisp, if sometimes overt in its pokes at the giants of the RPG industry.

The meat of any strategy RPG is in its combat system and this is where Grotesque Tactics turns out to be more like a mirage than oasis.  The combat is incredibly shallow and limited in its execution and rarely are you ever punished for a mistake by the AI (disclaimer: I played on normal difficulty).  The game’s one unique element, obsessions, are hit and miss.  It’s here where I think the desire to be witty and clever backfires.  The obsessions don’t behave in the same manner as your characters’ other abilities.  Whereas normal abilities exclude hitting your allies the obsessions hit both friend and foe.  While it is possible to mitigate this it often leads to annoyance over anything else.  It’s this inconsistency that ultimately left me wanting for some additional depth.  Clever plotting of obsessions would’ve added some extra, predictable depth that the combat was lacking.

In the end Grotesque Tactics provides a great tongue-in-cheek experience that’s easy to get into and out of.  While the combat could be better not every strategy RPG is going to be Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea.  Nor should they try to be.  By avoiding this pitfall it ultimately delivers a successful and satisfying experience that did leave me wanting for more.

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