I am Setsuna (spoiler free) review.

Tokyo RPG Factory’s first stumbling steps as developers suffers some face plants.

Man, it’s been a while since we had a nice review. It feels like we need to break up the usual feature pieces with some therapeutic game analysis.  And with Square Enix announcing a new game from the fine folks at Tokyo RPG Factory, what better time to have a look back at their debut game, I Am Setsuna.

For those not in the know, ‘Tokyo RPG Factory’ is a rather on the nose name for a development group created by Square Enix to…well, be an RPG factory. It seems both appropriate and slightly odd that Square, one of the biggest names in making RPG games, would create an entire development team for making the kind of games that made them a big contender on the gaming scene. Appropriate because who else would be that dedicated to the genre, odd because you would have thought Square would be content with being up to their eyeballs in developing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Still, since Square is just the publisher for anything Tokyo So and So puts out, I guess it makes a little bit more sense. Indeed, while exact details are hard to find, the story seems to be that Square more or less just threw Tokyo RPG Factory together, a completely new team with only a tiny fraction of Square’s finical support. It’s definitely an interesting story, if nothing else.

As for the group themselves, it’s worth noting that T.RPG.F seems to be focusing on making more (relatively) budget titles, and especially ones that are more reminiscent of older games that came out in the genre’s golden age. I Am Setsuna is, for example, extremely similar to Chrono Trigger, and has a few elements in the vein of the early Final Fantasy games. It’s likely that, with Square Enix’s main body pumping out mostly action-RPGs for the wider audiences, games made by this particular subsidiary is meant to sate the fans that still crave the now more niche classical turn-based RPG. Fans like myself, who flew in to pick this up in somewhat naïve hope that it might convince Square to go back to those glory days. A man can dream…

So, let’s continue our proud tradition of reviewing games ages after they actually came out, making the reviews mostly obsolete, and dive into I Am Setsuna.

Gameplay:
While an admirable attempt at making a unique combat system, I Am Setsuna’s combat is often lacking.

I Am Setsuna, keeping to the developer’s attempts at recreating the style of older RPGs, is a game with turn-based combat. Hell, it’s almost identical to the ATB system of the older Final Fantasy games, meaning character’s actions are determined by an ‘action gauge’ rather than a hard and fast turn order. This comes with the all the usual RPG goodness, such as characters having particular roles in the party, and certain character excelling in areas others suffer in. One character might hit like a runaway truck with physical attacks, but will be unable to even cast any type of magic. Even better, equipping certain skills with certain team compositions allow you to pull off ‘combos:’ two or more characters launching an especially strong attack at the cost of both their actions in a turn.
This is all good stuff, but not I Am Setsuna’s most unique systems (or at least not its totally unique systems, since a fair number of these ideas are from Chrono Trigger). The game’s particular mechanic is called the ‘Momentum Gauge.’ This is a system wherein if a character waits before taking an action, they can add ‘momentum’ to said action to make it stronger. This can have several different effects depending on the ability, from just increasing the damage to applying bonus buffs and debuffs. This sounds like an interesting idea: forcing you to choose between acting immediately, or taking a moment to beef up your attacks before you make them.
The only problem is, it’s a system that very quickly starts to wear out its welcome. Apart from one or two bosses who are particularly fast, there’s never a time where you wouldn’t want to use Momentum: it not only adds more damage and effects to you attacks, but also makes enemies drop more loot upon death, loot that allows you to gain more skills and more cash. This means that random battles start to drag on as you wait for the gauge to fill up, even though you know that you could one-shot any of these trashy mooks. Likewise, because the effects it introduces are universally useful, you’re going to need this thing to get past some of the game’s tougher enemies. All of this wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the gauge fills aggravatingly slowly. I’m certain I could have knocked off at least an hour or two of my playtime if I didn’t have to sit twiddling my thumbs as I watch the various bars slowly fill on the screen. The best comparison I could make is how poorly this system stacks up against another Square Enix property, Bravely Deafult. That game’s ‘Brave’ system not only encourages you to blow through random encounters as quickly as possible, it allows for some incredibly fun and creative set-ups without feeling cumbersome or unwieldy. I appreciate that there’s been an effort to shake up the usual turn-based formula for I Am Setsuna, but the Momentum systems feels half-baked and poorly implemented.
Another deliberating problem the game suffers from is how perplexing it’s subsystems are. There are a number of systems running under the hood which are affected by what kind of actions you’re taking in battle, which can activate and turn the tide in your favour. I would normally explain what these systems were called and give some examples, but these things are so vestigial and odd that I completely forgot they existed until I sat down to write this review. You see, these systems are completely random: your actions have some minor effect on whether they activate, but it’s difficult to notice since it’s an extremely low chance. Over the course of my play through, I only got these things to activate around four times, three of those times were in completely meaningless random encounters, and once during a boss fight. I couldn’t tell you what that effect was during the boss, but he went from dealing nearly 90% of my character’s HP to doing 0 damage, so it must have been a pretty lucky effect. I personally quite like having an element of randomness to a game (I’m the type to argue that X-COM would be pretty boring if you didn’t occasionally wiff a 95% chance to hit), but these systems feel both meaningless and pretty arbitrary.
A final issue I have to lay against the game is that it’s balance is all over the place. The early game introduces you to the concept that mana is pretty important to balance, since there’s no inns or cheap ways to restore it. To that end, you want to avoid using abilities or skills unnecessarily, since you’ll burn through mana you’ll need for the boss-fights. However, this potentially interesting balancing act is done away by the mid-way point, since you start to unlock a LOT of abilities that actually restore mana on use. At this point, you can safely bowl through most battles by using your still incredibly powerful skills while spamming the moves that restore mana. Not only that, but it doesn’t take too long to find the really powerful and useful moves, which can spammed with impunity even on bosses. Overall, it feels like I Am Setsuna is a game that has a lot of interesting ideas to play around with, but no idea how to balance them out.

Music and sound:
A delightfully minimalist soundtrack that shows an impressive range of tones from a single piano.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly the most musically gifted individual on this green earth, and thus am probably unqualified to be making any judgements about music, but even a pleb like me can recognise that a lot of heart went into this game’s soundtrack. I Am Setsuna makes the interesting choice of using only a single instrument in its entire repertoire, an extremely melancholic piano. The game actually gets a pretty impressive range out of this idea, having songs for both intense battles and steady treks through the snowdrifts, so props to the composer/s that put the whole thing together. What I like the most is how it sets the tone for the entire adventure: while there are upbeat and more whimsical tunes, the slow and often sombre tones from the piano are a perfect companion to the often desolate visuals and grim nature of the journey. There is very little voice acting in this game, but when the entire game has a singular ‘voice’ this strong, there’s very little need for much more.
On the sound department, there is some very effective and appropriate SFX in use. There’s a real sense of peace in the air as you hear the crunch of snow under your character’s feet and the rustle of the snow burdened trees. I Am Setsuna’s developers really went all in with the snow theme, and it really shows in every part of the game. The only real complaint I have in the sound department is that using certain abilities with Momentum creates this really high-pitched whine. This certainly sells the idea that your characters are using crazy potent magic that isn’t native to the rules of nature, but it becomes as grating on the ears as it probably is to the fabric of reality.

Graphics and Aesthetics:
An absurdly pretty game, with top notch character design and a neat style, let down somewhat by a lack lustre design for monsters and enemies.

As I mentioned before, this is a pretty budget title in the relative sense of things. So graphics in I Am Setsuna are fairly simplistic, and sometimes lacking in detail. Fortunately, the game more than makes up for that in its charmingly stylised visual. If I had to compare it to anything, it’s as if the early days of 3-D models had never ended, and this is just what they would look like if people had just kept at those kinds of graphics.
A big feather in the game’s hat is the actual design of the characters the player uses over the course of the game. They’re a varied bunch, and their designs are used to help both sell the settings (nearly every character is wrapped up in a lot of warm furs and coats, exactly what you’d expect from people living in a constant winter) and themselves. It’s easy to tell what role in combat and roughly what kind of character they are just on sight alone, and their artwork is undeniably very pretty. Extra points to the fact that the main character, a mercenary/monster hunter by trade, has god-damn monster hands integrated in his helmet.
Another thing I really like about this game is how well it can sell how an area ‘feels.’ In an land in a perpetual winter, you get used to seeing a lot of damn snow (like a LOT of snow), but there’s been a noticeable effort to really sell how blisteringly cold these areas must be to trek through, and how serenely warm and comfy the insides of buildings are in this world. A lot of this is portrayed through colour: nearly every house has this warn yellow/gold glow about, while nearly every part of the outside world has the colours partially bleached and warn out by the snow. It’s little details like that I really appreciate about the design of this world.
The one thing that I’m not super sure about is the actual designs for the enemies you fight for most of the game. There’s no issue with the bosses: they’re incredibly intimidating, and look sufficiently like terrifying threats. The reason they look so intimidating, however, is because everything else in this game is too damn adorable to take seriously. I mean seriously, look at the terrifying monsters that common towns people will lament are wrecking the peace:

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If the game was trying to make a joke or was more light-hearted, I’d chalk it up to those reasons. But there’s no such reason in the game. Everyone acts like monsters are a terror and that their increasing numbers are a problem (indeed, it’s a crucial plot point). Forgive me if I don’t find the adorable seal and funny looking snakes intimidating. This does get better as time goes on, and the last area has some genuinely creepy monster designs, but it feels odd that it took so long to get to that point.

Story and narrative
An intriguing premise, good character interactions and simple but neat setting make the game’s journey enjoyable, though some last minute plot developments let the narrative down.

The game opens with an intriguing question: what kind of man sends an assassin to kill someone who’s already marching to their death?
This is the situation the player is presented with at the very start of the game. They take control of a masked mercenary by the name of Endir (though, keeping to the idea of emulating old RPGs, you can actually rename all of the playable characters), who is sent to the Land Of Snow to find and kill ‘The Sacrifice.’ As the player finds out by talking to the various townsfolk, it turns out this sacrifice has to make a pilgrimage waaaay across the country to the fittingly named ‘Last Lands’ in order to give up their life so monsters don’t overrun the entire continent. Why someone would want to sabotage such a mission won’t become clear for some time, though Endir isn’t worrying too much about the details right now. He manages to have a stroke of luck, and finds his target alone, hours from civilisation, and in a situation where disposing of the body would be a simple matter. The only bad point is that the girl notices him approaching, his sword already poised to cut her head off.
Then, the strangest thing happens. The girl doesn’t panic. Indeed, she seems to be unusually calm about the fact that someone with the intent to kill her is standing right in front of her. Probably pretty perplexed at this turn, Endir doesn’t strike her down. The girl, as politely as you’d expect one to address a non-murderer, introduces herself. On that snow peeked cliff, the sea crashing against the rocks below, the girl with red hair happily tells her would be killer:
“I Am Setsuna.”
…Unless you rename her. At which point, the title never makes sense. Bit of an odd choice to allow players to rename her, really.
Through a series of events, Endir eventually ends up agreeing to help Setsuna with her pilgrimage, with the justification that she’ll be dead by the end of it, and thus his job will be fulfilled either way. After that point, we get the some good old-school RPG adventuring shenanigans, including finding a group of misfit party members, getting embroiled in the local troubles of every town we come across, and eventually uncovering the mysteries that surrounded this entire sacrificial pilgrimage.
There’s a lot to like about I Am [Insert Name Here]’s story: there’s a healthily level of inter-party banter, and while the Land of Snow isn’t exactly a varied place (as its name suggests), it’s an interesting landmass to explore. Likewise, it definitely puts its best foot forward at the start, as the premise and start of game pose some interesting questions to seek answers for.
Where the story starts to weaken is the fact that the characters start to fill their archetypes a little too well. The Girl Formally Known As Setsuna is a selfless and self-sacrificing young maiden, and that’s perfectly fine: one of her most interesting characteristics is just how much she takes marching to her death in stride. But she can only make a ‘all life is precious’ speech so many times before it sounds like she’s just repeating herself. And while the rest of the party is a colourful bunch that’s a joy to watch in motion, there’s no denying that you’ve seen these characters many times before.
I’m of the mind that just because something has been done before, you shouldn’t write it off: clichés, tropes, and common story telling element s became that way because, ultimately, they work. If you want a series that uses every trope and cliché in the (fantasy) book but works really, really well, look up the book series ‘The Belgariad.’* That stuff defined my childhood, and it’s no worse for working within a well explored framework. So while the party filling in the checklist for ‘every RPG party under the sun’ doesn’t really bother me, I acknowledge that it’s undoubtedly going to be a problem for some people.
Another, an even more pressing issue is that the game makes some odd narrative decisions in its third and fourth act. This is a spoiler-free review (we might get around to a spoiler-retrospective in the future, we’ll see), so we won’t dive into details, but it introduces elements that you could build a whole game around, and loads it all into the game’s final hours. To be fair, it makes some interesting choices with them, including a very cool instance of ending the game where it began, but it makes the entire story feel eclectic and unfocused. All of the themes and elements from the rest of the game are unresolved, and these new elements are introduced too late to do anything significant with. While less of a problem than the combat, the story feels like there were a lot of good ideas, but maybe not enough time or resources to actually implement them fully.

*The Culling Blog, the only video game blog on the entire internet which gives you homework.

In Conclusion:

I Am Setsuna is a game that stumbles in a LOT of places: the story has a number of issues, and I made my opinion about the gameplay more than clear. However, it’s a game that also has a lot of love and heart put in it. While I feel justified in my criticisms, I can’t find it in me to truly dislike this game. This is the first game from a brand new team that Square Enix more or less just threw together one day. It tries a lot of new ideas and experiments with a lot of concepts, and while a lot of them didn’t pan out, I admire the game for just making the effort. Some people deride the game for sticking to the elements present in older RPGs, saying the game is banking on nostalgia. I won’t deny the possibility, but I don’t see that when I look at the game: I see the product that a new and perhaps not quite coordinated team managed to put together, using the  love for the classic they themselves grew up playing as the foundation.
I don’t have it in me to recommend the game at full price: I was struggling to work up any enthusiasm to tackle the game’s combat, and was increasingly confused at where the story was headed. But I reckon picking this up in a sale wouldn’t exactly be the worst choice someone could make, either.

I Am Setsuna will, unfortunately, not be remembered like the classics that make the brick and mortar of this love letter to classic RPGs. However, the sheer love put into it does promise that the team behind it have a touch of greatness in them, and they just need to find and grasp it as a team to make something truly special. With Tokyo RPG Factory’s next game coming next year, you can be sure that I’ll be keeping a close eye on it, albeit an eye that’s hoping it won’t be seeing too much of this game’s combat in it.

Quick Review! Shadow Warrior.

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“You got Wang.”
– The protagonist, who happens to be called Wang, perfectly showing this game’s humour.

It’s always fairly surprising when a franchise that everyone thought was already long dead comes from the brink of obscurity with a new game. It’s even more surprising when it turns out that said new game is faithful to the series it’s revitalising without feeling the need to be completely the same. Shadow Warrior is, thankfully, one such game.

Shadow Warrior is one of those extremely hard to classify run-and-gun, action and exploration shooters of the early days of gaming. If you played Duke Nukem or indeed the original Shadow Warrior games, you already know what to expect from it in the game play department. However, in addition to the new coat of paint that modern hardware can give the game, Shadow Warrior also takes this chance to expand on the story and characters unlike the old games.

For the first point, let’s talk about gameplay. Shadow Warrior’s core gameplay is an extremely frantic and bloody melee, wherein Lo Wang’s (the game’s protagonist, and yes that is his name) only option of avoiding damage is to either dodge it or kill his attacker before they get the chance. Over the course of the game, you’ll be given access to a multitude of weapons, all of which will offer you new and satisfying ways to remove ‘problems’ from your forward path. However, one of the neat aspects of the game is that you can actually get by using nothing but your starting katana, mostly because it can become the deadliest weapon in your arsenal. Which is pretty impressive, considering your arsenal includes a god damn rocket launcher. Your katana eventually gets crazy useful magical attacks and powers via the games levelling and upgrade system, resulting in melee combat being as fun and viable as shooting from range.

When you’re not slaughtering your way through the hordes of enemies that want to make a mess of your day (and face, and organs, and pretty everything else) you’ll be scouring through levels looking for secrets. Secrets come in many flavours, from straight up EXP boosts, unlocking more magic powers, to pretty funny Easter eggs. Because of this, regardless of what you’re looking for, the game really does encourage upturning every rock and checking behind every corner for its secrets. In addition to all of this, the game has some really neat boss fights, and a good variety of enemy designs.

For the second point, the game’s story and narrative is actually really good. We play as one Lo Wang (seriously), a sword/gun for hire who is employed by a man by the name of Zilla. At the very start of the game, Wang is sent out to find an oddly well guarded katana; he recognises the whole situation is pretty suspicious, but he is loyal to his boss, and does everything he can to get the job done. Before too long, however, we get to the real meat of the matter: the earth becomes over run by demons from beyond our world, and the sword he was sent to find is the key to stopping earth from turning into a hellscape. To make things even more complicated, Wang picks up a sarcastic little blighter of demon called Hoji, and the sword he is looking for is actually three swords. Now, with his boss suspiciously keeping radio silence, both Wang and Hoji must try and set things right.

There are two things I really love about this game’s writing: for one, it is just pure unadulterated fun. The banter between Hoji and Wang is fantastic, and serves as the basis for many of the jokes. The game knows that it’s completely over the top in many ways, and doesn’t shy away from making cracks about the whole thing, which becomes even more hilarious when juxtaposed to the actually pretty freaky locations you often trollop through. However, it’s the other part of the story that I really admire: for all of the jokes and gags, the narrative actually has some pretty heavy moments. As you find out more about why the demons are invading earth, and more about the key figures behind this whole situation, the more it becomes clear that this isn’t necessarily a clean and simple matter. I’ve said before (here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/an-exploration-of-tone-in-drakengard-and-nier/) that a great way to control the tone of something was to bring your audience’s guard down with something more light hearted, before hitting them with the heavy stuff, and that’s certainly done masterfully here.

While the game is great, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the levels, particularly towards the end, start to lack the openness to make exploring them fun. Early levels have a good balance of keeping the spaces open to encourage exploration, without losing the tightness of good liner level design, but later levels lack this quality. Likewise, there are a few enemies later on in the game that are more of chore to fight, rather than challenging or engaging.
A more constant headache, for me at least, was the rating system. At the end of large and major conflicts, you’re given a score of blank/5, and are rewarded with extra EXP depending on your rank. However, the scoring system isn’t really clear enough, which makes it difficult to consistently get high scores. It’s never clear if it’s more important to use a varied set of attacks and moves, or if it’s more important to clear the horde out quickly, or without taking damage, etc.

None of these points are really deal breakers, however. The game is a fun ride, with varied and fun combat and a surprisingly engaging story.  The game delivers a strong performance as a love-letter to its source material while also being fun for new and old fans alike. Jump in for a frantic sword and gun battle to the gates of hell and back, if you think you can handle the Wang.

 

Aviary Attorney review –

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A review trying to hold off on bird puns.

Video games, much like almost every piece of media ever devised, needs to have a hook. There has to be some element to them that draws in others, otherwise said piece of media is probably fated to fade away.
This phenomenon can be seen across all of types of fields of video games, in all different shapes and forms. In can be seen in big name games (Blood Borne’s entire hook can summed up as ‘a Souls game, but with guns and werewolves’) to humble indie games (ever wanted to be a piece of toast? I Am Bread fills that incredibly odd dream of yours). The hook can be in the game’s setting, or even its mechanics, such as Super Hot’s ‘time only moves when you move’ core game play feature. I honestly think this does a lot of good for the video game industry: it’s a good way to encourage creative ideas for the most part, even if some end up ill-fated or thought out.
However, the hook we have presented before us today asks a simple question; what if the Ace Attorney games starred anthropomorphic animals in a revolutionary Paris?
As it turns out, a lot of animal based puns, a lot of quirky characters, and a surprisingly heartfelt storyline.
Let’s cover the basics first. ‘Aviary Attorney,’ like its name would suggest, is an investigative visual novel where you balance your time between investigating crime scenes and verbally duking it out in the court house, created by a group called Sketchy Logic. The welfare of your defendants, friends, and sometimes all of Paris will rely on you effectively finding and using evidence in pitched legal battles.  This is all presented with an absolutely gorgeous art style, courtesy of one J. J. Grandville, a French caricaturist and artist back in the 1800’s. We’ll look at the art style in more detail in the relevant section below, but rest assured that the development team made absolutely great use of his detailed and extremely colourful designs.  Being a visual novel, this game has a strong focus on story and narrative and fortunately the writers made full use of the setting and characters to bring a vivid and often at times humorous Paris to life.
Taking us through Paris is Jayjay Falcon, a…well, falcon defence attorney. Along with him is his trusty assistant and friend Sparrowson (no points for guessing what species of bird he is), who provides some of the game’s comic relief and makes sure that Falcon stays on the straight and narrow. These two are hugely likeable, and their banter marks some of the game’s best writing.

Before we get into the nitty gritty parts of the review, I should probably just clarify some things. For those who are unfamiliar, the Ace Attorney games are a long running series of Japanese visual novels that follow the perspective of attorney’s having awesomely exaggerated legal battles, and are pretty fun games to boot.
The term ‘anthropomorphic’ is applied to various works of art wherein animals are given human characteristics (ie, animals wearing clothes or holding crazy trails for their legal system), usually used to draw attention to a character’s traits via the traits of the animal, such as ‘being sly as a fox.’ Or in this case, make animal based puns.
With those basics covered, let’s actually get into the main features of the game:

Gameplay: An interesting take on a tested formula, Aviary Attorney has enough twists to keep one’s attention.

The core game play of Aviary Attorney is very much like its clear inspiration, Ace Attorney. Both games have you combing over various crime scenes, questioning witnesses, following up leads and gathering other evidence before putting you in a court-house trail where you have to use everything you’ve gathered to defend an accused individual. The game doesn’t try to hide it’s influences (with several gags that couldn’t be anything less than purposeful nods), but conducts itself well: presenting evidence and flipping a prosecution’s entire accusation against them feels intuitive and satisfying, as does pulling a case out from the jaws of a guilty verdict.
However, there are some noticeable and pretty interesting design choices that help to pull it out of Ace Attorney’s shadow somewhat. One of the more noticeable of these is the limited time system: our intrepid heroes usually have a set time limit before the day of the trial, and since visiting locations to investigate them takes time, there is a very real risk that they could miss a piece of vital evidence because they spent too long shooting the breeze with the local bar-fly.
It’s a good addition, giving even the downtime between the actual trails a sense of tension, and encouraging the player to actually stop and think about where they need to go next rather than just forcing them to go down a checklist of locations. At least, on some trials: some do just have a checklist of options, which can feel a little disheartening in one or two of the later chapters. However, for the most part it’s a solid addition to the formula, especially since the game does go out of its way so you always have a kind of goal to work towards, so you’re not just wandering around blindly. Although, that doesn’t necessarily stop it from being frustrating when you waste a day because there was no sure-fire way to determine your destination was the correct one.
Another interesting addition to the formula is the fact that you can lose a trial and still continue on in the story, rather than being forced to restart. This does help in creating the impression that the world changes and reacts to the player’s successes or failures, since dialogue and certain events change if they managed to defend our bird-brained hero’s clients. This change to the usual is especially welcome, since this connects pretty snugly with one of the game’s core themes.
In terms of actual mystery, most the trails follow pretty reasonable sense of logic; even the most ‘out there’ trials have the characters following believable arguments. While not every trial is legal-battle-epic with twists and turns, there’s a fair selection on display here. I would just say, however, that the trials in the game are perhaps a mite bit too easy. True, most the difficulty is supposed to come from actually gathering said evidence without screwing up and forgetting a vital clue, but sometimes the trials can feel like they’re being too generous with the hints. This is kind of an issue that’s going to be pretty subjective, since the main appeal of the game lies in its story and characters, and thus a low difficulty might not even be considered a negative aspect. It’s slightly easier difficulty might just means you can focus all of your attention onto the characters, rather than agonising over every little part of a trail.

Aesthetics and Sound/music: One of the main hooks of the game; the game has an absolutely glorious art style, accompanied by a solid sound direction.

So, a little bit of back-story. Back in the 1800’s, an artist and caricaturist by the name of J. J. Grandville (which was actually a pseudonym for his real name, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard) gained a small amount of fame due to his extremely skilful drawings of comedy works, in part due to the fact that all the characters involved were anthropomorphic in nature. This small boost in popularity led to being hired as a caricaturist for numerous French publications, and for a while he enjoyed a general appreciated view by the population. When there was a crackdown to censor news publications by the government, however, his drawings were one of the things to be banned, and he was forced to find a new outlet. He would go on to draw illustrations for various books (including Gulliver’s Travels), but the one set to look at in this case is the drawings he made for a book called ‘The Public and Private Life of Animals.’ The drawings in this book, and several other pieces he made, would serve as the basis for Aviary Attorney’s artwork.
The developers at Sketchy Logic did a fantastic job of extracting and animating the illustrations. Not to mention they definitely picked some of the best of Grandville/ Gérard’s work, as well as using their writing to synch up how a character looks to how their personalities stand. The designs are varied and visually interesting, and all fit together well on the screen. I’m not really sure what else to say: I adore this art style.
That being said, there is kind of weird point about it that I wasn’t 100% sure of, namely the scale of everything. At one point, our intrepid heroes run into a mouse, who is as small as a realistically scaled mouse to them, and likewise a giraffe whose neck and head tower above them. This is all fun and fine, since this is keeping to realistic proportions while making some pretty good jokes about the whole thing. However, I do sort of question why our two intrepid heroes rival the size of the local crocodile. Now, I grant you that you can have REALLY big falcons and surprisingly small crocodiles in the world, but for an overall portrayal it feels kind of off. But this is a minor gripe, just a little case of artistic liberalities at work.
As for sound, the game has a good attention to detail. The sounds that make each character’s “voice” is widely varied, and helps to reinforce what tone each character has. The dramatic sound cues and effects during the trials really sell the over-the-top nature of the whole thing, and are a real asset to the more comedic moments. As for music, there’s a good selection at work: low and intense when the need calls for, triumphant and jubilant when necessary, etc. Nearly all of the music is transcribed or inspired by various classic pieces that came out of the era the game is based in, and perfectly fit the setting.

Story and Narrative: The story of one bird defence attorney and his assistant as they try to wrangle with the building revolutionary feelings of the people of Paris, all the while Jayjay must address the past he would rather leave buried.

A visual novel lives or dies on how invested it can make a reader to its characters and setting. To that end, it’s good thing that our two leads, Jayjay Falcon and Sparrowson, are hugely likeable characters, more or less from the word go. Jayjay is the main protagonist of the story, and one who brings his own emotional baggage to it: saying what kind of baggage would be a spoiler to one of the game’s running sub-stories, but it really does do a lot to flesh out his character. Even without that though, Jayjay is a strong protagonist. He’s a determined and driven bird who is never the less struggling with his own doubts, but he’s also not above getting involved with the sillier moments. Despite the fact that he’s got his own characterisation (and indeed his own history that comes back to haunt him) the game’s writing makes him flexible enough to fit in all of the crazy events that occur. Depending on your choices, Jayjay will develop in a number of ways, sometimes for the worse, but it’s difficult to not sympathise and root for the guy at mostly every turn.
Accompanying Jayjay is the wise-cracking, pun loving Sparrowson, who fills out the comedic relief of the duo, while also being a surprisingly driven force to be reckoned with when he applies himself. While he’s mainly there to ask stupid questions and nearly get Jayjay in trouble with his comments, he also provides some invaluable help to Jayjay, and indeed really pulls him out of the fire on a number of occasions. Another important facet of his character is that he’s one of Jayjay’s most important comrade: both of them go through a lot in the game, and Sparrowson is there to help pull his friend out of the gutter when needed. These two share some really great chemistry, and the jokes that come from their personalities bouncing off each other make for the game’s funniest banter and their more sombre conversations make the most heart-warming.
The more general story of Aviary Attorney follows these two bird-brained-…err, birds as they try to make a living as defence attorneys in Paris, meeting and often cross-examining a number of rather colourful characters along the way. You’ll have to follow them through their successes and their failures as they try to pry the truth out of whatever horrible crime they find themselves embroiled in. Along the way, our two heroes go from Paris’ most ritzy and glamorous quarters all the way down into the city’s infamous catacombs. Your choices will heavily affect how the two birds get on, and how their story eventually ends. The game does a surprisingly good job of connecting the seemingly disjointed cases by snowballing the themes of each into a greater whole, making for a rather grand finale.
Befitting of a mystery game, there is a healthy number of twists and turns to the story, both to each individual case and to the greater narrative as a whole. We won’t dive too much into spoiler territory, but I do believe that game does a satisfying job of subverting one’s expectations, even as early as the first case. Not to mention the game has a great sense of pacing, since we build up from a “simple” murder case all the way up to a solving mysteries and finding conspiracies that threaten to shake all of Paris, if not the entirety of France.

 Conclusion: While it is often a game that shows its smaller budget, Aviary Attorney more than makes up for its faults with its great style, instantly engaging characters, and superb writing.

It sometimes becomes clear that Aviary Attorney was made on a fairly limited budget, and the game occasionally suffers for it: while the game has plenty of variety and has a pretty diverse set of endings and outcomes, the game still comes off as a little bit short. There are not exactly a huge number of cases for you to tackle, and each case isn’t exactly over-long. Not to mention, the very few instances where the game makers have had to create wholly original artwork to fill in gaps of Grandville/ Gérard’s pieces are a little glaring since the style they use isn’t close enough to all the other art in the game to blend.
That all being said, it’s easy to overlook such shortcoming when the game’s writing is as good as it is. With a great control of the story’s tone, the narrative flips effortlessly between hilarious and light-hearted moments and more dark and gritty moments in the story, all while presenting some extremely colourful characters to take part in the game’s ongoing narrative. Combine that with the game’s extremely engaging main characters and it’s great use of old art, and the game’s onto a real winning formula.
For all of game’s flaws, I would heartily recommend it. Fans of the Ace Attorney games will get a kick out of the nods and winks to the game’s core influence, while others new to these styles of game will appreciate that it’s a great gateway into the genre that requires no prior experience with either the characters or the game play. Take a look if you get a chance, and let your delight take flight.*

*Look, we’re allowed one bird pun, right? After holding back on just flooding this review with them, I think I deserve that much.

Yakuza 0 review

yakuza-0

The Dragon Awakens

Way back in the early 2000’s, Sega had found its stride as a game’s company. They had built themselves a respectable place among the leading game developers of the time by focusing on a worldwide, child friendly audience. This ensured they were beloved overseas as well as in their home market of Japan, and the first few years on the turn of millennium were good ones. However, they started to find themselves in a bit of a financial crisis around 2003-2004, since arcades were quickly starting to lose popularity. While Sega did develop several games for home consoles, the revenue they earned from their most popular arcade titles was their main source of income. Knowing that they didn’t have long to act before their reserves were drained, Sega merged many of their development teams together, in a hopes of lowering costs and finding new ideas.
One of these teams, after a several days of team bonding exercises that consisted mostly of drinking a ton of alcohol in Tokyo’s red light district, came up with an idea. The idea was almost denied immediately since it would rely on a Japanese home market that might not even exist, and was a title aimed at adult gamers, a fact that minimised the potential audience. But the team persisted, and the idea was eventually green lit, though many were sceptical that the idea held any water.
The game created would be what Western territories call Yakuza (it’s Japanese name is ‘Ryū ga Gotoku’ which translates to ‘Like A Dragon’), the first game in what would later become the Yakuza series, and was a runaway success. After a ton of numbered sequels, several spin off games, and one game where the characters were punching the living dead back to re-death, we’ve come to Yakuza 0.

It’s important to know all of this before we talk about Yakuza 0, because Yakuza 0 is actually a prequel game, and one that’s a prequel to a game series with a vast and rich history. It was a game made to celebrate the series’ tenth anniversary, in which the characters (probably reflecting the developers during the first title) have to come to terms with the world changing all around them. It’s a game that celebrates how far the franchise has come for the veteran fans of the series, but is a great way for new fans to be introduced to its both stylish and brutal world.

Hop into your dancing shoes, press the wrinkles out of those colourful new suits, and prepare to throw some poor sod into a brick wall: we’re going back to 1988, Yakuza style.

Game play:
Fast, brutal, and satisfying, the series’ staple combat is refined to a dagger’s point, and the side activities are great fun.

Yakuza’s core game play is a third person brawler, wherein you will control a character going up against a myriad of opponents with varying levels of toughness. You can perform a basic combo by repeatedly tapping the square button to use light attacks, and then pressing the triangle button to use heavy attacks at different points during the basic combo. When you use the heavy attack will change the exact nature of how you end the combo (with some moves having different follow-up attacks for certain sequences), but it will always be a good, reliable source of damage. This is the very most basic form of combat, but it succeeds in having a real sense of speed and weight behind each attack. The use of sound and animations really sell the sensation of knocking some poor git half way down the street by just punching him really hard in the head, and it’ll be a difficult sensation to become tired of.

That being said, let’s talk about the two real stars of the game’s combat: its style system and the Heat moves. In Yakuza 0, you play as two different characters, each with three radically different styles of fighting. The main character, Kiryu, for example has the ‘Rush’ style that emphasises speed and dodging; The ‘Brawler’ style that focuses on exploiting weaknesses and pushing advantages, and the ‘Beast’ style that is best summed up as “grab the nearest heavy object and bludgeon a guy into unconsciousness.” Each style has its own strength and weaknesses, and in a situation where one style isn’t working, another will exceed. A key fact about these styles is that you can switch between all three on the fly, making it a fast and fluid system that encourages experimentation, as well as allowing one to adjust their battle strategy as combat unfolds. An incredibly neat detail is that each style has its own theme musically, and switching styles will change the background music to a tune optimal to each one’s own version of ass-kicking.

The second star of the game’s combat is the series’ own Heat moves. These are special attacks that expend energy from the Heat gauge, which fills up as you deal damage and empties if you take damage or go too long without dealing damage. It’s not enough to just fill the gauge, though; you need to be under specific circumstances to be able to use the Heat moves, such as grabbing an enemy next to a wall or being armed with a certain type of weapon. While that sounds like a lot to keep in mind, the game provides you with more than enough situations to activate Heat moves, and make them worthwhile, since Heat attacks deal crazy amounts of damage, can’t be interrupted or stopped, and look amazing. The sheer brutality of them are a wonder to behold; one of the basic Heat moves involves repeatedly slamming a guy’s head into a wall, full force, before slapping the guy across the chops for good measure. To sum it up, Heat moves are both visually impressive, highly practical, and quite rightly a core part of the combat.

When you’re not teaching punks that they should be more careful about whom they pick fights in the street with, there’s a slew of other content to get your teeth into for the game play department. One of the key things you’ll be taking part in is the game’s many ‘Sub Stories,’ which are little optional encounters very much like side quests or objectives. I talked at length about them in the past (see here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/the-art-of-good-side-quests-feat-yakuza-0/), but to sum it up, they’re often humorous or heartfelt little side events that help to break up the more serious main story, while still being rewarding in a practical sense. They’re primarily helpful because each of the two playable characters run a business between all the head kicking they do, and completing these Sub stories will help you acquire assets that help you earn more cash. This, in turn, is important since cash serves as EXP in this game, and getting enough of it will let you buy new attacks or power up existing ones through literally ‘investing in yourself’ (don’t try to think too much on how that works).  It creates an elegant system where completing these side objectives will boost your business, which in turn powers you up, and it’s all fun to do.

That being said, I do have a couple of criticisms: both character’s side businesses benefit from you spending cash by either buying advertisements in certain buildings, or outright buying the whole establishment. This is all fine and dandy, but it is annoyingly common to find every building out of the list of available sites except for one, and that one will inevitably be damn annoying to find as you run up and down the same street multiple times trying to find it. I understand this was to encourage you to really explore the streets, and inevitably find more side content, but it can be a real pain. Likewise, while it’s great it’s truly immersed in its setting, a couple of the side quests benefit from you being able to recognize some basic Japanese staples: there’s a point where a character’s giving you hints about a type of food that’s just become available and wants you to guess from a list, but I couldn’t even tell you what the heck the names were. The translation smoothes a lot of these over, but there’s a few times where it felt like I had to just guess and hope for the best. Also, if I were being 100% honest, the combat in the game probably isn’t the deepest in the world: it is amazing good fun, and fits the tone of the game perfectly, but even at its most difficult your strategies will be the same at the end of the game as they were at the start. While this can be somewhat justified by the fact the Yakuza games are part of the brawler genre (ie, it’s more about the catharsis of beating past loads of mooks and fighting more unique bosses), I can see this being an issue for some.

Music and Sound:
Featuring a sound track inspired by its setting without limiting itself, Yakuza 0 features some great and hype as hell tunes.

I’ll preface this with the warning that I’m pretty tone tone-deaf, and the musical bug that seemed to bit every other member of my family seems to have skipped me, but I feel pretty confident in saying Yakuza 0 features some great tracks. It really embraces the late eighties setting, and immerses itself in the musical styles of the time, especially in the singing and dance-club mini games.
Even when it’s not lingering specifically in the memories of the eighties, the game has some strong musical backing. As previously stated, the game’s background changes to match whatever style you’re fighting with during normal battles, and has some great boss themes besides that. Likewise, the sound mixing for every kick and punch has a real sense of impact, and is a big part of what sells the combat.
Fun fact: in the Japanese version of the game, the player could actually buy a Walkman to listen to music as they went around the game, which included some of the best selling songs of the eighties in Japan. Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, this feature was cut from the international release.

Graphics and Aesthetics:
Pairing up amazing graphics with the dingy and decadent aesthetics of its setting, Yakuza 0 brings veteran players into a setting that is both familiar and foreign, while introducing new players to its weird and wonderful world.

The actual graphical quality of this game is something of a matter of debate: on one hand, there are pre-rendered cut scenes in the game where in the characters look so much like the all-star voice actors they’re based on (not that my filthy gaijin ass recognises them), it’s nuts. On the other hand, the graphics outside of cut scenes are of a somewhat lower quality than the previous entries in the series, especially in regards to the various NPCs and enemy thugs you encounter. On the unforeseen third hand that I want to focus on, the game runs at a silky smooth sixty frames per second at pretty much all times. To sum up the matter of frame rate for those who haven’t heard the term, it’s how smooth an action looks on a screen, but also heavily affects performance on something like a video game. Let’s use an example: a thug throws a punch, and you have to dodge out of the way. At a higher frame rate, it’s easier to see the punch coming, and thus more intuitive to dodge. At a lower frame rate, you might have needed to actually start to dodge a couple of moments before you could actually see the guy wind up the punch. To that end, I think the lower graphical quality in actual game play is more than justified, since in a game as speedy and reaction based as this one needs the extra frames. I might make a post that goes into the matter with more detail, but for now I’ll just say that the slight downgrade in sheer graphics is more than made up for in performance. Not to mention, even if the total quality is slightly lower than normal, the game still looks pretty damn good in motion regardless.

As for the actual aesthetics of the game, Yakuza 0 makes some interesting choices. For those not in the know, the Yakuza games often take place or at least revisit a singular location in every game, which is often highly tied up to the game’s story. This is the fictional red-light district of Tokyo called Kamurocho, which is based on Tokyo’s actual red-light district, Kabukicho. While the garish neon lights of the city are the same as they’ve always been, long time fans of the series will notice some pretty noticeable differences. Trash lines the street in unregulated piles, more drunks than the usual number can be see clambering out of bars come sundown, and women of questionable repute seem to be on every corner. While Kamurocho will always be a hotbed of crime and other such happenings, one does get the feeling that this is a city that is being swept up in a wave of unregulated decadence and the grit of the visuals very much reflect this. It’s important to remember the game takes place during a time where Japan was experiencing an unprecedented growth of wealth, where the already prosperous suddenly found themselves with more cash than they knew what to do with it. It was probably this idea of excess where the game takes its Money fuelled tone from, and this theme can even be seen in the game play, such as the new ability to throw money in the air to distract would-be attackers.

The more fantastical elements are also worth acknowledging. For example, money explodes out of enemies when you defeat them, as if you punched them so hard their wallets submitted to the better fighter. It ties into the money related themes as said above, but also fits the more humorous side the game has, since the implication is that the harder you beat someone down the more money you literally knock out of them. Also, let’s talk about Heat: there are few things more odd or as cool as characters surrounding themselves with the burning energy with their passion for combat, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Story and narrative:
An emotional roller coaster full of intrigue, crime politics, and more twists and turns than an actual roller coaster, Yakuza 0 brings the series’ characters back to the beginning to find out what it truly means to be a Yakuza.

Yakuza 0 is an odd duckling in the continuity of the series, considering it is actually set before the events of the very first game. This means not only is it set before all of the character development of the later games, but is actually showing how the characters aquired the traits they were known for in the first game. It does do a lot of interesting things with this unique opportunity however, especially with the game’s two playable characters. First off, Kazuma Kiryu is defined by his stoic nature and his efforts to avoid conflict in his debut appearance in Yakuza 1, but the Kiryu in 0 is a lot more hot-blooded. He often rushes into battles knowing he’s gonna have to fight a small army of goons to get anywhere, and won’t hesitate to throw down with Yakuza many years his senior. He’s not completely, and makes a lot of effort to avoid several outright suicidal situations, but his naivety and inexperience shines through. Even more glaring a difference is the second playable character, Goro Majima. Compared to the complete and utter madman that is basically a psychopath and a clown fused into a single entity in the later games, the Majima of 0 is a level headed and cool as ice individual. He can keep his outward emotions totally hidden, and (to start with) makes every effort to avoid unnecessary battles. If it wasn’t for the eye patch and love of doing crazy spins during his attacks, you would have almost thought he was a different individual.

An incredibly intriguing part of the main characters throughout the game is that you can see the very start of what would become their defining characteristics. As time goes on, Kiryu learns that he needs to think more with his head, and that he can’t stand by and let others dictate what it means to be a Yakuza to him. Despite wanting to follow in his adopted father’s footsteps, a man very high in the criminal chain of command (and for all intents and purposes the Yakuza’s equivalent of Sun Tzu), it becomes increasingly clear to him that he needs to decide for himself what actually being a Yakuza entails. This will become the bedrock of Kiryu’s sense of right and wrong as the series progresses, and heavily affect his later choices. On the other hand, Majima’s story is more a stripping down: everything gets taken from Majima, from his position in the criminal underworld, his freedom, and very nearly his life a couple of times. It becomes hard to argue with Majima’s assessment that following the standards others have set for him has led him nowhere, and there isn’t much reason to not let loose. This is the very start of him earning the title of ‘Mad Dog of the Shimano Family,’ and it’s fairly easy to see how he escalates in the years between 0 and Yakuza 1.

But that’s just our two main heroes; what about the plot that surrounds them? Oddly enough, the core crux of the plot lies in real estate. We join our main character Kiryu, still a fresh face in the criminal Tojo clan, just as he gets embroiled in a clan based civil war. It turns out that the lieutenants of the clan are not exactly big fans of his adopted father, who is away serving jail time for a crime they got him caught in. This is only a temporary solution however: the only way to ascend high enough in the ranks to actually deal with him is if they secure the ‘Empty Lot,’ a small patch of dirt that is right in the middle of Kamurocho’s poorest district. Kiryu finds out the Empty Lot is actually a key part in a project the Tojo have been working on for years, one that could make the clan richer than they ever thought possible. However, this final piece of the puzzle is proving to be the most difficult part to solve, and the entire clan is in an uproar. It’s quite the odd situation: people are losing their minds, beating each other down and even going as far as killing for what amounts to a dirty patch of useless dirt and concrete. The irony that so much is riding on such an underwhelming area of land is so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.

Speaking of knives, Majima has his own plot to deal with. He’s been left out dry by his superior after disobeying a direct order, and is now stuck running a cabaret under their control until he pays back his debt of obedience. This has him slightly peeved, though it’s more the fact that the entire city has become his gilded cage, and the fact that said superior had previously had him tortured for over a year before putting him up to the task. As if that wasn’t enough, he finds himself involved in a potentially devastating power play by his boss, and on a hunt that will take him all across the city and to the very heart of his clan’s ambitions.

These two stories start off completely unrelated to each other, but through the twists and turns of the narrative, end up coiling together just in time for an explosive, grand and extremely hype finale. The fact that the player finds out often key information way ahead of each character simply because we see both sets of events unfold is a perfect example of dramatic irony, and wonderful to watch unfold. Even better is that the story is wonderfully paced: in addition to letting the player spend some time between story missions screwing around with mini-games and side quests, the story’s own internal pacing is never too fast or two slow. It takes exactly as much time as it needs to, and it never feels like the characters are lingering too long before jumping into action. Because of that, characters feel much more involved in directing the events of the story, which is pretty essential in what is at heart a character piece. The Empty Lot stuff is really cool, but it never overshadows the development the characters are going through, or that they’re the main focus of the story.

There are a couple of things I wasn’t one hundred percent sure on, however. At the risk of spoiling, I thought it was kind of disappointing that Kiryu and Majima never met properly during the events of the story. They do technically meet right, right RIGHT at the end of the game, but it feels more like a fan service moment to close the game off. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t pumped as hell when the two player characters finally met face-to-face, but it didn’t feel like a meeting worthy of such larger than life characters. Hell, the biggest missed opportunity of all was that they didn’t fight or team up with each other (in either order) at all during the game, which really would have made the entire experience worthwhile. Majima and Kiryu’s relationship in Yakuza 1 is so entertaining and peculiar that it feels like a waste that we don’t see how it all begins, especially since they sometimes come within a hair’s breadth of meeting during the events of 0. A few other problems I had can be summed up as ‘inherent problems that a prequel introduces:’ since these events occur before the events of the first game, we know for a fact that all the characters we met during the series who are in peril in 0 must eventually live through it, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. This can take some of the tension away from some of the scenes of the game. Likewise, we know any new characters we meet will have their character arcs resolved in such a way that they’re either dead or permanently separated from any potential future events, to explain why they don’t show up later in the series. This can pose a few problems; chief among them is that some characters felt like they were gone before they reached their full potential as parts of the story. Despite all that, I would still rate Yakuza 0’s story pretty damn highly: even if the game had lacked it’s slew of optional content, I would have been happy to pay the entry fee just to take part in the very beginnings of Kiryu and Majima’s stories.

Conclusion
As brutal as it is heart-warming, hilarious as it is tragic, and god damn amazing at every other moment, Yakuza 0 is equal parts celebration and introduction.

I think there’s a question that’s been lingering over this review that I should really answer: would you enjoy this game more as a long time fan of the series, or as a complete newcomer? Honestly, the answer isn’t straight forward. Veteran fans will be able to see all the cheeky nods and winks to future events that will probably fly over the heads of newcomers, but at the same time I think there are a lot of points in favour of using this as a way to get into the series. There’s been a lot of care to make sure that all the call forwards won’t feel too out of place by integrating jokes around them (barring the time where Kiryu has his fortune read). Additionally, all the problems that a prequel creates won’t actually be an issue for someone who doesn’t know where the story is going. In fact, the events of Yakuza 1 will probably feel more powerful, if you see the set up that 0 creates.
Speaking of Yakuza 1, another reason this game would make a good entry point for the series is that a remake for the very first game is coming out very soon, under the name “Yakuza Kiwami” (kiwami could translate as either ‘extreme’ or the ‘height of’). This means if Yakuza 0 wets your whistle, you can see where the series began in its totality, with the added bonus of it being HD and re-updated to fix some plot holes.
Bottom line is, regardless of where you’re approaching the game from, Yakuza 0 is a real gem of a game. Filled to the nines with content and unapologetically in love with it’s both hilariously over the top tone and it’s more dramatic and serious one, Yakuza 0 really does earn its Japanese title: this is a game that rises infinitely and unerringly Like A Dragon.

Fun fact: Did you know that Yakuza 1 was very nearly scarped as early as the idea phase in its development? Or that Majima, resident mad man, very nearly didn’t have his incredibly sily voice acting? The game has a pretty fascinating story behind its creation: I’d highly recommend a series called ‘Forging the Dragon’ on YouTube (part 1 found here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbELDqMPZ3k) that goes into more detail. As of writing, the series in incomplete, but it’s an interesting look behind the curtain of all the work that actually went into making the first game. It shouldn’t be surprising it faced so many obstacles, in one essence: only something that is that much a labour of love could come out and take the Japanese market by storm.

Retro review! (Kind of) Samurai of Hyuga

So, we missed our Sunday deadline yesterday, and (even worse) the Yakuza 0 review STILL isn’t finished. The latter point is more because I’m hoping to finish off the game in it’s totality before reviewing, thus proving what blood massive hypocrite I am. In the mean time, here’s a odd thing: a retro review in the sense that the review is old, and not so much the game. It’s for a text based adventure called ‘Samurai Of Hyuga,’ and was written more as exercise than anything else. Due to it’s age, it’s not a great reflection of my current writing, and needed to be touched up a heck of lot, but what the hell. I was reminded of the game it was based on recently, and I thought it would interesting to post some older writing material. So without further ado, here’s the review:

Review: Samurai of Hyuga (Part 1)

I’ve always been a big fan of “Choice Of Games,” a game hosting service that make text based games exclusively, for those who don’t know.
In the eternal debate surrounding the need of story and narrative in video games, I’ve always been of the mind that having a cohesive story was important. Even if the gameplay is the most fun thing in the world, having a context that justifies that gameplay never went amiss. There are hundreds of games where I can kill zombies, but the Walking Dead stands as a game where I actually care about the people doing the zombie killing. This is not saying that every game NEEDS a complex tale filled with depth, nor does it mean that games that lack it hold any less value. Like a lot of things, this is more a matter of preference.
But with that preference in mind, you can probably see why I’m eager to latch onto text based adventures; especially Choice of Game’s extremely character focused ones. These games literally live or die by their story, since it’s the main feature. Rather than simply being the thing that justifies the core gameplay, the narrative and story ARE the core gameplay, and this all while retaining player control and agency.
These games come in many themes, shapes and sizes, but we’ll be focusing on just one for now: Samurai of Hyuga.
As I said before, Choice of Games is more of a game hosting platform rather than a developer. Due to the fact that a little code knowledge (and maybe not even that) is the only technical know-how you need, most entries into their catalogue were made primarily by singular people, editing notwithstanding.
Samurai of Hyuga therefore is the brainchild of Devon Connell, aka MultipleChoice. Connell’s writing style is very character based: while the settings and circumstances are interesting and well made, the most fun I had through SoH were the interactions between the characters and how they bounced off each other. His writing also lends itself very well to a balanced humour and drama tone, with light-hearted descriptions and jokes being effectively used to punctuate moments of seriousness and actual threat.

That established, onto the ratings:

Gameplay: Good level of variety, with plenty of customisation and a good few paths
I said before that the characters are one of the game’s strongest points; I feel like I should add that YOU are part of the equation, both as a character and a player. While certain elements are understandably set for plot reasons (your character’s past will always involve the betrayal of their master, and their life as a killer), this actually works in the game’s favour, seeing as you can’t change the past. One of the ongoing themes of the game is how much you let your inner demon, the part of you that craves bloodshed, has control. Whether your character is a bloodthirsty monster or a sorry soul who’s simply trying to recover from a past they regret is up to you, and each path brings a good deal of drama and character development. It’s also worth mentioning that you can play as either gender and either as gay or straight etc etc. (I mention this off headedly because this is largely a staple of the Choice of Games character creation, so it’s not as surprising as it would have been in most other platforms).
In a more simple fashion, there’s also a great deal of different ways you play in terms of attitude. Do you want to play as a stoic, emotionally distant swordsman with a steady hand? That’s perfectly possible. Do you want to play as perverted, lesbian ronin who’s highly protective of those close to her? Also perfectly possible (no points for guessing which one I picked). These options really let you craft what kind of character you want to make, and nearly every option feels like it makes perfect sense with the pre-established back-story.
This is, however, one of the issues I have with the game. The beginning of the game has you craft your character in an organic fashion: the choices you make effect the stats which you’ll have locked for largely the rest of the game. This is much smoother than just asking you to allocate them, and I’m glad it’s there, but sometimes the actual choices don’t seem to match up with stats. Some are pretty clear: any expression of worry or care for your companions will raise the ‘Protective’ stat, any lecherous motive or comment will raise the ‘Perverted’ stat* and so on. However, there are moments where it isn’t clear which stat is being appealed to, mostly in conversation pieces. There are one or two instances where being unable to hear the tone of voice means that you might accidently click on the Charming option when you meant the Protective one.
While this is an issue, it is thankfully pretty rare, and thus not much of a problem.

*This game wins the award of being one of the handful where being perverted is actually a mechanic.

Aesthetics/sound and music: Imagination out of ten.
                In Choice of Game’s own words: “It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fuelled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.” That more or less sums up why judging this game by these areas is kind of hard to do. By all accounts, this game (and others like it) has the greatest graphics seen to humankind, since they’re perfectly tailor made to each individual. That being said, we can comment on the descriptive writing.
The game does a pretty good job of writing in descriptions of the areas and characters without getting too bogged down in the details, and creates some interesting areas and settings. That being said, it does sometimes feel like the effort to accomdate the player’s interpretations might weaken it slightly: there’s one character who is definitely younger than the main protagonist, but how much younger (and thus whether they’re referring to them as a ‘kid’ in the teen sense or the child sense) is never clarified. This is most likely to allow the player to interpret the player character’s age to a certain extent, but that sometimes leaves the descriptions of both characters wanting.

Story and narrative: The tale of a ronin finding inhuman enemies, as well as finding themselves.
The setting of SoH is pretty intriguing. Based in feudal Japan, there’s clearly been a fair amount of work to make the experience authentic as possible, with the various ceremonies and locations all having their proper names and motions. However this realism is sharing space with effectively spliced fantastical elements: magic is very much real in this world (one of the core characters is basically a pint-sized mage), but is realistically cordoned off by the government. Demons and spirit animals exist, but are so rarely seen that they’ve become almost like the folklore of real life. This odd balance of fantasy and reality gives the game its own pleasant vibe, and successfully keeps one from guessing what’s going to happen next.
You play as a ronin, a master-less samurai, who succeeds in being the most badass swordsman/woman in the land while also being the most washed up. By the time you take control of the character, your ronin has spent far too much time getting wasted off cheap drinks and drifting from place to place. By an as yet undisclosed method, you find yourself in a ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ situation (props to anyone who gets that reference), namely that you’re travelling with a child who has no place next to the bloodshed that follows you. Only instead of the love of a father to his son, you have a loveably pouty kid mage with you, who is kind of one of the main characters. Some people are going to hate this character, who’s a know it all book worm, but ultimately they mean well and act as a moral compass for your jaded ronin. Regardless of whether you love this character or hate them, they act importantly as a naïve and good hearted person, a strong contrast to your character who sees the world in a far more dim light. I personally had great fun; seeing the interaction between a kid who’s read more than they’ve seen, and a ronin who’s seen too much creates an amusing and sometimes heart warming combo.
Without giving too much away (because for such a narrative focused game that can be a REALLY bad thing), the narrative is an engaging one that really lets you get a feeling for the world and characters. Early on, you’re given a definite goal that’s the main crux of your journey, but isn’t necessarily the focus; the characters participating in completing said goal is. Helping your character out, as well as opposing them, is a varied and dynamic cast, all with their own arcs to go through. With several twist to keep things interesting (some even from the player-character) and a fast pace that never falls into incoherency, the narrative succeeds in holding your interest from start to finish.

Conclusion:
Take note of the ‘Part 1’ in the title. As of the time of writing, Samurai of Hyuga is only up to part 2, and likewise won’t be seeing a part 3 for a very long time. I would heartily recommend getting this game even in its incomplete state, however.
Much like a lot of Connell’s other writing, Samurai of Hyuga knows how to deliver good jokes, good drama, and really good characters to fill out both of those things. It stays true to the feudal setting while also taking some interesting creative liberties.
Would I recommend this game to everyone? Not necessarily; some people don’t really like text adventure games, and that’s perfectly fine. However, would I recommend this to people who read good text adventure regularly, or want to get into text adventure games? Absolutely.

A charming and sometimes heart breaking tale, Samurai of Hyuga stands out as a great example of narrative focused text adventure.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD review

          You’re just my type

the-coolest

Back in 2011, Square Enix released a game for the PSP by the name of Final Fantasy Type-0 to its home Japanese audience; the latest game in the insanely successful Final Fantasy franchise. It was a game that followed the trend of many of Square Enix’s handheld Final Fantasy games in that it was an action RPG that forewent the turn-based style of its predecessors, focusing more on the player’s dexterity and reaction times than their lateral thinking.

It looked like quite the unique experience, since as well as being a fairly difficult game where even a single hit from an enemy would send the player to near death, it also promised to be one of the darkest games that had been released in the series at that point: it would be set in a land torn apart by war and bloodshed, where the use of mere teenagers as soldiers for the front line was not only common, but the recommended strategy.

When it was finally released in Japan (after several delays and at least one re-naming), it received very positive reception. It was praised for its quick and responsive combat and it’s refreshingly grim storyline, and sold well above expectations. Naturally, a lot of gamers in the Western territories assumed that it would eventually be translated and sent their way. While a fair number of Square Enix’s more niche handheld games were never released outside of Japan, this game was definitely one of their larger products, and one that outsold expectations. People were confident that the English version of the game would be released before the end of 2012.

It wouldn’t be until March of 2015 that the game was ever officially released outside of its homeland of Japan. And even then, it would only be the HD re-release for the PS4; the PSP version is forever out of reach.

So, after such an oddly long delay between creation and translation, how does the product actually look? Perhaps more importantly, did it survive the transition from the PSP to the PS4? Why did it take Oliver an ENTIRE YEAR to actually get around to completing a game he had practically been salivating over? All these questions and more are answered below…

Game play:
 A tricky but satisfying system, Type-0 offers game play that is always interesting, despite the bloat surrounding it.

In Type-0, you take control of one character from a group of fourteen students from the rather intimidatingly named ‘Class Zero.’ Every character follows some basic rules: no matter who you are, you have access to a simple physical attack, two special skill slots that you can switch and arrange depending on the character’s available skills or magic, and you always have access to a defensive or healing skill, as well as a dodge roll. In addition, you will have at least two other AI controlled buddies to back you for at least 95% of all encounters in the game. Said encounters usually consist of travelling through various areas and rooms, fighting off both humanoid foes and monsters alike.

While simple in principle, Type-0’s game play really shines in its swiftness and brutality. On the first point, neither you nor your enemies have large pools of health; even the tankiest of your controlled characters and the heaviest of enemy units can be fairly swiftly felled. While your characters are naturally a bit squishy (considering they’re all teenagers going up against giant robots and man eating monsters, it’s understandable), the main source of death for your enemies is going to be the game’s ‘Killsight’ system. Simply put, every enemy in the entire game has a moment where they’re more vulnerable to damage, notified by a distinct yellow or red mark appearing on them. Attacking in this instant will not only briefly stun them, but also knock off a HUGE portion of their health, as well as refill your capacity to use your more heavy hitting skills. Mastering this system is not only the key to mastering the combat, but is immensely satisfying: learning when a particularly tough enemy is weak will bring them down in short order, and make fights tense do-or-die affairs. Adding even more depth to the combat is the game’s fourteen playable characters widely varying move sets and special abilities: since you can switch between the fourteen characters almost freely, there is a good chance you will find at least one character that fits your preferred play style.

However, the game’s simple but elegantly brutal combat is hampered by unnecessary fluff surrounding it. During missions, you can receive bonus objectives that will boost your overall rating at the conclusion of the mission. This would be perfectly fine, but objectives are often given to you during combat, and the game doesn’t pause while you accept or decline it. Since the game is quick to punish slip ups, it becomes a frantic couple of seconds while you try to read the parameters of the bonus objective, and decide whether it’s in your ability to complete, while dodging enemy attacks. This is not even mentioning the pretty perplexing RTS-lite elements that crop up every couple of missions; while they definitely help to sell the idea that your part of a much larger, continent spanning campaign, they are neither deep enough or fun to ever feel welcome. At best, they feel like minor ‘puzzles’ that never really expand beyond they basic premise, and at worst they just feel like busy work that gets between you and the much more engaging ground combat. These fluff elements aren’t really deal-breakers: the bonus objectives are manageable most of the time, and the RTS-esque moments are rare enough that it doesn’t become too intrusive, but their presence is questionable.

Music and Sound:
Featuring both some entertaining remixes of classic tracks and some moving original pieces; Type-0 can be proud of its musical selection and sound direction.

Fans of the series will be happy to hear that this game has gone out of its way to include some great remixes of old classics. In particular, it’s worth mentioning that the game’s main hub-area has part of the ‘Opening’ theme (the song that’s present in more or less every Final Fantasy game*) worked into it, and the triumphant return of the track ‘Battle at the Big Bridge’ (featuring a certain character that long time fans will be fond of). The chocobo theme also makes a return in a catchy remix, although that might just be the conditioning talking: you’ll be very familiar with this theme by the time you’re done with the game.

In addition to remixes of old songs, Type-0 features some fairly potent original scores. A heavy theme throughout is a lot of Latin singing, and some tactical application of an electric guitar, but it always manages to feel appropriate and executed to perfection. When it’s needed, the music can be grand and sweeping, and can sell the idea that you’re watching some amazing piece of history unfold before you. Likewise, it can be introspective and uncertain, such as when the characters are discussing the ramifications of the kinda twisted world around them. Annnnd, it can be kind of stupid. There’s a dedicated, light hearted ‘comedy’ track that plays during the more fun scenes in the game, but also plays at least once at an inappropriate moment. Apart from that, I have no complaints. (Just for the record: yes, the music that played in the credits, Zero by Bump of Chicken, does make me tear up just a little bit, thank you very much).

It’s a subjective concern, but it might be worth bringing up the voice acting for a moment. The game comes with both English and Japanese voice acting, but I stuck with the English dub. I won’t lie and say it’s the best dub I’ve ever heard, but it’s far from the worst. While some lines are awkwardly delivered, you can tell everyone in the cast is giving their 100% to sell the characters. I mostly give them credit for having some of the most genuinely sibling-esque voice acting I’ve heard in a while: a lot of it comes from the writing, but just the tone of voice Queen has when she berates Nine, or how the usually jokey Jack’s entire tone of speaking shifts when he’s trying to be serious kind of reminds me of my own experience with two brothers. Basically, it’s probably not as bad as people will make it out to be, and everyone involved deserves at least some credit.

*Except II, for some reason.

Graphics and Aesthetics:
A definite update to it’s handheld origin, though it didn’t survive the transition completely unscathed.

Considering the fact that the version I played through was literally called the ‘HD’ version, I guess there would definitely be a certain level of expectations on this part of the game. It first needs to be said that Square Enix definitely did some serious work when they ported the game from the PSP to the PS4: every major character was freshly remade with a HD model, the use of colours was expanded to look slightly less washed out, and the lighting engine was remade from the ground up. A serious amount of effort was made to try and bump up the graphics of the game to be truly worthy of that HD title, and it shows a pretty impressive dedication from Square Enix’s part. HOWEVER, there are some jarring leftovers from its PSP version. For example, while all the major characters have been fully remade and all minor characters have at least been fixed up slightly, there is a jarring difference in quality between our main fourteen heroes and everyone else. There’s several scenes where members of Class Zero are on screen, in all their shiny, pretty glory, and then the screen will cut to the NPC they’re actually talking to and… it’s really obvious. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty common in a lot of video games for the actual characters you play as to be much better looking than some random NPC you can talk to, but it’s usually not as obvious as it in this instance. Likewise, some environments can look a little polygon-y, with the same jarring effect against the HD playable characters.  Despite that, the game still succeeds in looking like a visual improvement over the handheld version, and it’s easy to get used to the odd differences in quality.

That all being said, that’s just the pure graphics; the aesthetics of this world is another matter entirely. The game uses a noticeably dark colour palette: while the time you spend wandering around the relatively lightly coloured academy that makes the game’s hub offers some relief, the game is otherwise in love with a lot of dark reds, murky browns and grim blacks. This definitely feels like a deliberate choice on the developer’s side, considering this game is one of the darker entries in the series (and was the first game in the entire series to receive an M rating in America). Even when using other colours, they tend to have negative connotations attached to them: the clinical whites and greens of the opposing Empire tend to come off as harsh and intimidating, even when put against our main hero’s red and black uniforms.

Story and
narrative:

While messy in many places, Type-0’s story is a compelling one that is set in a fascinating world.

The story in Type–0 is a bit of an odd one, in both its contents and how it’s told. In many respects, it has its roots in the tried and tested formula that many classic Final Fantasy games are based on: there’s a set of big ol’ crystals which is integral to the plot, a country being invaded by an opportunistic empire, and it comes down to our plucky group of misfits to save the day. But the similarities start to fade and become muddy when examined with greater scrutiny: the crystals which are so important to the plot are seemingly conscious entities all on their own, and work in oddly binary ways to both help and hinder the very people trying to protect it. Likewise, while the attacking empire is indeed the primary antagonistic force, the protagonist’s own government is full of schemes and plots almost as dangerous as the empire that’s battering down the door. And finally, the group of heroes setting out to save the world consists of 14 playable characters, many more than the usual ensemble, while also being much less autonomous than previous protagonists. A lot of what Type-0 tries works out pretty well: the story progresses along at a fair pace, and is full of enough twists and turns to keep one’s attention.

Since there’s a fair share of downtime between main missions, the game even spares an admirable amount of effort to try and flesh out its characters and settings, in particular the game’s fascinating subplot about the crystals’ power to erase the memory of the dead. As soon as a person dies, everyone who knew them looses their memory of them, almost as if the deceased had never existed. Many rationalise this, saying it’s a blessing the crystals give humanity, so that the living aren’t shackled by the memory of the dead. But others point out that the idea of being simply forgotten when you pass away- all memory of your achievements and life’s works gone with you – is a terrifying one. It’s a great piece of setting, and almost makes up for the fact that the main cast (which again, is fifthteen characters strong) never get enough screen time to really develop their characters as individuals. Outside of maybe two cases, none of the members of Class Zero really grow out of their one-note characteristics. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re fun characteristics, and watching the students bounce off each is always great to watch, but the group only really grow as a group. My personal feeling is that this might be enough, since the lovable bunch of maniacs are almost defined by their identity as a singular unit, but I would fully understand if others thought it made them less interesting for it.

As previously stated, another point to consider is Type-0’s method of actually delivering this narrative. Some of the various military and political movements that shape the events of the story are told through what I can best describe as a fake history channel documentary: a narrator walks us through the various happenings as an animated map visualises the events. They even use old grimy static images on screen, as if they were using some old war photography, and bring up the (fictional) months that events took place in. The effect is actually kind of neat: it creates this impression that you really are watching some grand event from history unfold before your eyes, even though it’s crazy fantasy history. In-between this kind of presentation is the more standard story telling method of just being present for the events as they happen, but the combination of both keeps the pace moving without sacrificing the feeling that the player is actually taking part in the story itself.

There is one particular point regarding the game’s story that I want to mention before concluding. At the end of the third act, there is a twist that appears with such force that I almost got whiplash from how heavily the tone shifted from its sudden appearance. Without spoiling things, it almost becomes a different kind of narrative because the already grim nature of the game’s world gets jacked up several times.*2 While there are a few hints to this twist coming, most of them are buried behind text logs and files, meaning the average player will have no chance of seeing this coming. While the nature of the twist leads to some interesting narrative ideas (and indeed the most disturbing way to justify a New Game + I’ve ever seen), it’s overall a little too sudden and perhaps sloppily delivered to be effective. Despite that blemish against it, however, the fourth act of the game also has some of the strongest characterisation in the entire game, and I’ll freely admit that I got a little choked up at the ending.

*2 Kind of weirdly appropriate that the game shipped with a demo to FFXV, now that I think about it…

Conclusion:

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is, in many ways, a messy game. There are a lot of ideas in there, and not every single one of them works. It’s a melting pot of creative systems and functions, all held together by the smaller budget that came about because of its handheld origin. It’s a list of references to other Final Fantasy games as well as a whole other list of completely new ideas, and it’s a game that risks having fourteen main characters in an already over-crowded cast. It’s a messy, messy game.

And you know what; it’s actually kind of great because of that. I love the main games and will defend them to my last breath, but Final Fantasy (even at its riskiest) wasn’t exactly opposed to the idea of playing it safe. Type-0 feels like it had risks not for the sake of having risks, but because the creative team behind it truly wanted to try something different while also making one big love letter to the franchise. This game has faults, sometimes really stupid ones, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t have a lot of love poured into it too.

The best example of this is probably Class Zero themselves: the characters never really have that much individual growth, and they definitely don’t have enough screen time each to truly endear themselves to the player, but it’s hard not to love those maniacs regardless. You’ve played as each and every one of those characters at least once, and you only realize how much you wanted them to succeed by the time the credits are rolling.

Type-0 is an odd game, and far from a perfect one, but it’s a game that I would heartily recommend.

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Fun fact: in the four year gap between the original Japanese release and the official English version, a group of die-hard fans were determined that the game would see a translation, and began to do the arduous process themselves. Line by line, scene by scene, they translated the whole thing (including the novel’s worth of bonus supplementary text). It was a crowning achieve that showed their sheer determination, and was finally completed after years of hard work by the now exhausted group. They could now rest, and could be satisfied that they had brought the game into the hands of many fans who would have otherwise not been able to play it.

…They could be satisfied. Until four days later, when the official translation was announced.

Square Enix had the fan translation discontinued, and the whole thing was swept under a rug to avoid hurting the sales of the official release.

Better luck next time, folks.