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Review – Cosmic Star Heroine – PC

…they’re getting there.

Zeboyd Games is a development studio that’s hard not to root for.  It’s one of the few studios bringing professional talent to bare on reviving the look and feel of the golden age of SNES era JRPGs while updating them to reflect modern sensibilities.  In an era of independent studios exploring new ideas and mindlessly copying old ones in equal measure, Zeboyd tries to take the best of both approaches.  Sadly, for all the good intentions behind Cosmic Star Heroine, it reflects the very real limitations of the development studio that made it.

The game begins with titular star Alyssa La Salle, infiltrating a robotics factory on behalf of a secretive government agency to stop a terrorist attack.  Le Salle ultimately discovers sordid motivations of her employer and must defend the galaxy from a new evil with the help of a large cast of characters.  The setup is standard for most JRPGs, but Zeboyd’s additions are sadly to the game’s detriment.  Most notably is the rushed approach the developer takes to the plot points.  CSH feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of a larger game with smaller narratives almost absent and major developments lacking connective tissue to link them together.  The broad story beats manage to stay (mostly) consistent, but the lightening speed robs the characters of time to develop.  Each of the game’s substantial cast gets a mini mission, but none move past their initial archetype into anything interesting.  Nor is the dialogue well written as Zeboyd falls back on the humor of their previous games rather than invest in earnest character development needed for a space opera.  The fundamental problem of Cosmic Star Heroine’s narrative is scope where the developer clearly wanted a larger story and cast than they could support.  The end result is a narrative and cast that can’t move beyond the basics.

Unlike the story, the gameplay’s ambition largely pays off, but is in sore need of polish before declaring it a success.  Fights are patterned off Chrono Trigger without the active time battle system.  Instead, characters attack based on their speed relative to their team and then the opposing team takes a turn.  The attacks reflect the usual array of elemental weaknesses and status effects, but with the interesting twist of including style points and bursts.  Most attacks boost the characters’ style which increases the potency of successive attacks.  The style fills up a burst meter which unlocks super powerful moves that deplete style and burst.  This creates a tension between increasing style and executing powerful burst attacks.  It’s an interesting system, but lacks feedback.  Despite having played the game for over 12 hours, I’m still unsure of the exact effect style has and how it changes the damage rolls.  Add in a wide variety of attacks and the combat feels deep without helping the player understand that depth.  More devoted players will certainly create powerful combos, but less invested gamers will fumble through while periodically wondering why an attack failed.

While much of Cosmic Star Heroine needs more time, the graphics and sound truly shine.  The retrofuturistic environments feel gritty and neon in a way that remains true to the 1980s’ vision.  The songs create mood while still including a few hummable tunes.  It’s hard not to ascribe some of the success of the aesthetic to the scoping that Zeboyd failed to apply to the rest of the game.  Environmental assets were clearly designed to be reused so that they could be repeated rather than needing whole new iterations.  Songs don’t last very long, but the short dungeons and constant scene shifts ensure that no track wears out its welcome.  Smart creation and deployment of the visual and sound design result in these being the stand out elements of the game.

Cosmic Star Heroine isn’t a bad game.  For gamers interested in an SNES era JRPG nostalgia trip, CSH will scratch that itch.  Unfortunately, the story blemishes and gameplay clumsiness won’t bring new players into the fold.  On the broader scale, I hope that Zeboyd Games learns from their first outing into serious JRPG land.  They’ve nailed the feel of the era, but need to work on the quality of the story telling if they really want to establish new classics of their own.

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Review – Owlboy – PC

What the hell happened?

Owlboy had me going.  For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on.  This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened.  Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation.  Make no mistake; this is a good game.

It could have been a great one.

The interesting bit starts right from the beginning.  The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio.  Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters.  Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds.  The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters.  Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events.  Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come.  It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off.  Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all.  At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members.  The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does.  The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game.  Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.

Sadly, the level design does the same.  Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands.  Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up.  The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter.  Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time.  This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game.  D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun.  The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly.  The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump.  Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights.  None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems.  It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.

If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design.  The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level.  They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment.  Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene.  Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.

It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is.  The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience.  Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time.  Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.

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Review – Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.

Square Enix and its previous incarnations don’t have a great track record with movies.  Final Fantasy: Spirits Within and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children are extremely pretty bundles of complete nonsense.  While Square Enix displays some of the finest visual effects in both movies and games, it can’t seem to create a coherent, grounded story.  The developer consistently falls into the trap of deus ex machinas, not explaining key concepts, writing flat characters, and assuming the audience will go along with whatever craziness they put on screen.  Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is the next movie in this failed series, except it shoulders greater responsibility than just being a good movie.  Charged as the opening act for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV game, we must not only ask is the movie any good, but also what it says about the next iteration of this venerable series.

The story begins with a rushed introduction of the war between the Kingdom of Lucius and the Empire of Niflheim.  The evil, technological Niflheim is threatening to overwhelm Lucius and its magic wielding king.  The movie follows Nyx Ulric, a member of the titular Kingsglaive as they repulse Niflheim’s attempts at domination.  Being something of an Achilles heel for the series, I am delighted to say that the story for this movie is fine.  Nyx leads a cast of understandable characters (an achievement, considering the pedigree) whose grounded motivations help overcome Square Enix’s desire to do too much with too little time.  Approaching Kingsglaive as the introduction to the game, the developer crammed in too many concepts without giving them time to develop.  Character motivations and the broader narrative arch jam in new concepts right until the final scene with a desire to brief the future players overcoming the need for a contained movie experience.  It’s frustrating when the setup obscures the movie narrative, but the story beats and characters are strong enough that viewers can follow the broader plot and enjoy the action.

Speaking of action, Kingsglaive excels at it.  One of the opening scenes includes a battle that stands out as one of the greatest CGI fights ever made.  The sense of scale and delightful light show reinforce Square Enix’s reputation as one of the finest purveyors of visuals anywhere.  Square Enix uses the Kingsglaive’s method of transportation, throwing a dagger and teleporting to it, to setup fantastic aerial stunts.  Even without giant war engines and wild spells, the developer manages to imbue its world with a sense of wonder.  The Lucian capital city of Insomnia blends modern technology with a magical twist that turns the mundane into the wonderful.  Kingsglaive is a feast for the eyes and can almost be watched on that basis alone.

Taken as a movie, Kingsglaive is an enjoyable experience.  Better movies certainly exist, but this one is worth the five bucks for an Amazon rental (get the HD).  Taken as an introduction to its video game counterpart, Kingsglaive achieves what it sets out to accomplish.  In showcasing an inviting world of magic and technology, the movie provides a clear hook for players to explore that world through the game.  The background information, largely superfluous for the movie, provides a workable primer for the players.  Even the story’s penchant for doing too much seems less like a flaw given that the considerably longer run time in the video game will give Square Enix time to flesh out the concepts it crammed in to this movie.  The fact that Square Enix didn’t completely bungle the narrative gives me hope that the game will avoid the major narrative pitfalls for which the developer is known.  All told, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is a decent movie and an excellent lead in to what will hopefully be another success for the video game franchise.

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Review – First Impressions of Civilization VI

Baby steps.

I’ve played Civilization VI for 10 hours and largely enjoyed it.  Here are my first impressions.

Unpacking cities is pretty neat

The biggest innovation of Civ VI is expanding cities beyond their single tiles.  Whereas previous games confined the city to a single spot on the map, Civ VI requires that the player place districts on nearby tiles to then build associated buildings on them.  World wonders now require specific tile combinations in addition to their technological and labor costs.  Unpacking cities succeeds in two ways.  The first is to turn district placement into a minigame where districts derive benefits from nearby districts and territory enhancements.  Skilled players can arrange a city to max out these benefits to specialize the city’s production.  The second way is how it interacts with combat.  Unpacked cities force players to defend larger swaths of territory and allow attackers to destroy meaningful aspects of a town without overrunning it.  Cities effect the landscape of combat in a way that territory improvements simply didn’t.  This makes terrain matter more too as now the player is incentivized to keep enemies outside of their territory in order to defend districts.  On the whole, unpacking cities adds new levels of welcome complexity and shakes up the formula.

Eureka moments are pretty neat too

In addition to the unpacking of cities, developer Firaxis added puzzle elements to research.  Each technological and cultural advance now has an associated quest (called a “eureka moment”) that reduces the cost of that advance.  Killing three barbarians halves the cost of Bronze Working, for example.  Players are now rewarded for pursuing a path as these quests are often tied to the playstyle that wants that particular technology.  Once again, this innovation integrates many aspects of the game by turning them into meaningful boosts for advances.  While casual players will probably never fully take advantage of the system, more devoted players will quickly develop strategies to glide through the tech paths.

Barbarians are the opposite of neat.  One might even call them not neat.

Like Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians randomly pop up in the uncolonized places of the world and send a stream of angry relatives to go forth and murder.  Unlike Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians took a remedial planning course and now attack in larger numbers with coordinated strikes and weaponry beyond what they player might have.  Uncolonized areas aren’t just dangerous, they are now the home of hellspawn who penalize the player for daring to live without a coastline or mountain range.  In one game, I fought barbarians in my home territory for over 30 straight turns because of three encampments placed equidistant from my capital.  Boo.  If ever there were a feature in need of a slider, barbarian spawn rates is it.  On the upside, if you can get past the angry bastards…

Expansion isn’t penalized.  Huzzah!

Civ III had corruption which turned every city after the first few into tax absorbing vampires.  Civ IV made everyone cranky once the player established too many towns.  Civ V cut off the cultural aspect of the game for daring to have an empire.  Civ VI lets you build however many cities you want.  There’s no penalty!  It’s the first time since Civ II where the player can expand without their empire collapsing.  Finally.

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Review – Ratchet and Clank – PS4

What was old, is new again.

Do you remember when the consoles were flooded with friendly cartoon characters who ran, jumped, and flew through a wide array of environments?  Do you long for collectible hunting before it became synonymous with open world, GTA style gameplay?  Insomniac has got you covered.  With the HD rerelease of Ratchet and Clank for the PS4, the glory days of mascot platforming are on display for all to see.  It’s a happy return.

The story begins with Clank, a defunct Blarg warbot who discovers plans to attack planet Novalis.  Clank escapes the Blarg only to crash land near Ratchet, a furry cat like creature with mechanical talent and dreams of saving the galaxy.  Together, they team up to defeat the Blarg and save the day.  The story is about as straightforward as I’ve presented it with only the occasional stabs of humor to set it apart from your average kid’s cartoon show.  There isn’t much here to draw in adults and the plot largely serves as a vehicle to move the player from one planet to the next.  While a game like this doesn’t need a strong story, there are moments where Ratchet and Clank’s narrative feels like a missed opportunity.  A number of characters almost use pessimistic humor before they pull away from truly amusing territory.  It happens enough times that it feels like the writers wanted to go one step further before someone stopped them.  That’s a shame, because humor would have greatly livened up the proceedings.  As it stands, the story is functional.

The gameplay is where Ratchet and Clank shines.  The game has the platformer’s usual array of jumping puzzles, but the addition of clever weaponry helps it stand out.  Ratchet has a wide array of guns which can level up through use and benefit from upgrades purchase with a special material called raretanium.  While the leveling scheme encourages the player to constantly swap weapons, the usefulness of each weapon makes the experience a delight.  Each gun has its own value, but no gun is powerful enough to work in all situations throughout the game.  The powerful sheepinator turns enemies into sheep without requiring ammo, but is ineffective against bosses.  The groovatron turns the battlefield into a dance floor, but doesn’t hurt larger enemies much.  Taking full advantage of Ratchet’s arsenal is one of the true delights of the game.  Sadly, the Clank sections are less so.  Clank relies on puzzles based on minibots whose many forms help him overcome obstacles.  The puzzles are challenging enough to keep the player interested and they break up the gameplay, but they never really satisfy like Ratchet’s shooting sections.  They are also sometimes accompanied by Clank’s hints which repeat incessantly annoying players who are enacting the solution and those who already heard the clue and wish he would just stop.

One of the joys of the Ratchet and Clank series is the vibrant, cartoony environments.  The HD remake only enhances their quality and brings the fuller vision into view.  The dynamism of the original level designs stand out with many of them taking place on an active battlefield or bustling cityscape with the attending side fights or zooming cars creating the atmosphere.  None of the environments are technical or stylistic stand outs, yet they’re so well-crafted that they’re incredibly fun to explore.  Beyond the environment, character models are sharper, colors pop, and the tiny details from the original game stand out more.  My only grip is the tiny letters, though that is likely a function of my smaller TV.  The game is a lot of fun to watch.

The rerelease adds a few features, but it’s the original game that truly draws in the player.  Developer Insomniac understood that this is a game that doesn’t need fixing and only made minor tweaks.  If you own a PS4, I highly recommend dropping some cash on Ratchet and Clank.  You’ll enjoy it.

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