Now Playing June 2019

Beaten

Yakuza 6 Read about it here. Goodbye Kazuma Kiryu

Spyro the Dragon – I’ve got the Reignited Remasters. Full post coming soon.

Ongoing

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth – I hate to say this, but I am not really feeling this game. It kind of feels like the worst of both worlds when combining SMT/Persona and Etrian Odyssey. They tried to jazz the map making up with some of Persona 5’s style, but they succeeded only in making the whole process infinitely more tedious. The game starts you with the Persona 5 crew, understandably, minus the characters you’d actually want to play as (meaning no Makoto) and one strange, atonal addition. The game also just inundates the player with pointless text. Everything is over-explained and every character feels the need to pipe up at every opportunity. I don’t see how adding two more games’ worth of cast is going to fix things. I’ve just unlocked the Persona 4 crew and this has not improved. The battles at this point, when I don’t really have a lot of skills to work with, have been slogs.

Crash Bandicoot –

I gave up on this about halfway through and I have a sizable post about it in the pipeline. I was playing the PS4 N-Sane Trilogy remaster. I hope the sequels are better.

Horizon: Zero Dawn – This is very much a modern open world game. Strong shades of Assassin’s Creed. It is also, apparently, a modern WRPG. Experience levels, skill trees, the works. The only thing that differentiates this from Bioware’s stuff is in how it is presented. I am liking it; I just cleared the first chapter and the world has opened up. I could see myself losing a lot of time in this game.

Judgment – I think I’ve made it perfectly clear that I love the Yakuza series. A game in that world, but you instead play a lawyer turned detective who is investigating crimes sounds like the best thing in the world to me. And maybe it is, I haven’t played enough of Judgment to decide one way or the other. I will say that it doesn’t make the best first impression. I just finished playing Yakuza 6, and this game clearly shares a lot of DNA with that one. However, in putting in the new investigation elements, it feels like it has fractured the experience. Things just feel a lot less fluid than they do in Yakuza. The most obvious example is running. In Yakuza you hold a button to run; in Judgment you push a button to essentially toggle run on and I have yet to find a way to stop running outside of stopping moving altogether.

Upcoming

Sword Coast Legends – I enjoyed the time I spent with this last year and I’m tired of it taking up space on my PS4 harddrive, so I think I am going to rush through it before I really get into Judgment.

Wii Game – I had Epic Mickey on here a few months ago and I might make another attempt at that. I’ve also got a solid list of games I have either never played or barely played.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – I was long intrigued by this game, but when I finally bought it I barely got started on it before kind of just giving up it up. I want to get back to it. I have several other PS3 games I’d like to knock off my backlog, so I might try something else out.

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Yakuza 6 The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 was conceived and sold as the end of the Kazuma Kiryu story. And it is that; it is supposed to be the last time we see the Dragon of Dojima in a starring role in the series and it really does close out his story. I have some spoilery thoughts about how it does that which will be at the end of this post, but it is an ending. The Song of Life is a strange game for the send of the series iconic hero, as it removes him from nearly every character he has built up a relationship with over the course of the series.

Before I dig into the story, a few words about the gameplay, which is solid. I first experienced this new Yakuza engine with Kiwami 2, and this feels much the same way. The game is a little more fluid than it was before, moving more seamlessly into and out of fights with roving bands of thugs that accost Kiryu in the streets.

One thing that is absolutely disappointing with Yakuza 6 is how little the series usual cast has to do. Yes, it stars Kiryu and nearly every game in the series has introduced a full new cast to spend time with. But the series has built up quite the stable of regulars and most of them are MIA for the bulk of the game. If you played Yakuza 0 and love Majima, this is not the game for you. I don’t know that he even speaks a line. The same goes for Saejima, a co-protagonist of Yakuza 4 and 5. He appears briefly at the end and does nothing. Daigo Dojima is absent as well. Haruka Sawamura, who is vital to the plot of the game, is barely there outside of some bookend scenes. Kiryu’s detective friend Date makes the occasional appearance, and Akiyama at least gets to show up occasionally, but they are tertiary here, at best. Maybe it’s just me, but I expected a game that is saying farewell to its hero to let him interact a little more with all of the allies he’s built up over the course of the previous six games.

Still, the game fills in with some really good new characters. I have long been a defender of Yakuza 3, and one of the things I loved about it was Kiryu meeting a yakuza family that initially knew nothing about him, only to win the group over just by being awesome. Yakuza 6 does the same thing, and I think does it a little better. Instead of a family of just three, this one is a little larger and feels a little more fully formed. Plus, they are led by Beat Takeshi. Kiryu shows up in Onomichi looking for clues about what happened to Haruka. AMong the first people he encounters is the abrasive Nagumo. Soon, he meets, and fights, all four of the underlings of the Hirose family; Nagumo, Matsunaga, Tagashira and Yuta. Nagumo and Yuta quickly become close allies. It follows a familiar set up, with first they fight Kiryu, then they grow to respect him, then almost worship him. By the time you get to the end and a former foe is agreeing to go on what is essentially a suicide mission with Kiryu, it all feels just perfect. Which is what makes the ending such a downer.

Here is my big problem with the ending: it is not the ending to the game that preceded it. It is a perfectly understandable ending, and fits with Kiryu’s characters, but it flies in the face of the lessons he supposedly learned during the preceding 40 or so hours of game. It is also clumsy and occasionally aggravating. I am going to have to really spoil things to explicate this, so consider yourself warned. Yakuza 6 ends with the apparent death of Kiryu. This is a fine ending, though a little disappointing given the perpetrator. Still, Kazuma Kiryu shot down while protecting his Haruka is a perfect way for him to go out. After 20 minutes or so of ending, the other shoe drops. Kiryu is not dead. He survived the gunshots. Instead, he took a deal from the government to cover up certain revelations during the last act of the game and has to disappear forever. So he does, leaving his family behind. And that is where the game loses me. Kiryu deciding or discovering that his family is safer without him around and then leaving to keep them safe is a very Kiryu thing to do. But the game just spent it whole story showing why that is a bad idea. Again, the relationships between fathers and children is the heart of the game. And the game shows a multitude of ways in which they work and they don’t, and one big thing, outlined by Kiryu in a letter to Daigo at the end, is that a father needs to be there for his family. The game opens with Kiryu, in order to be with Haruka and the kids from the orphanage, going to jail for his Yakuza past. The idea is that he’ll serve his time and be allowed to be with them as himself. When this attempt to deflect attention fails and people are paying attention to Haruka, she leaves the orphanage as well, because the girl with the adopted yakuza dad draws too much negative attention. She doesn’t tell Kiryu this, so when he gets out and find her gone he sets off looking for her, and finds her in a coma, the victim of a hit and run, and mother of a small child. The father of that child is revealed to be a low level yakuza member, though like Kiryu a good guy.

Along with several other plot threads, the clear message here, to me at least, is that Kiryu going to jail to protect Haruka didn’t work. He wanted her out of the yakuza or yakuza adjacent life, but she ended up in it anyway. Again, the most important thing about being a father, according to Kiryu, is being there for your kids. He shows this by not being there for his kids. If the lesson of the game was that Kiryu’s yakuza past will always catch up to him and the only way to keep Haruka safe is to leave her, then okay. She’s grown by this point anyway. But the game teaches the exact opposite lesson, that bad things are coming no matter what and he needs to be there. Plus, Haruka takes over the orphanage with her (ex?) yakuza beau, so everything is right back where it started. The whole thing just didn’t work for me. That missed note at the end kind of soured me on what was otherwise an excellent game.

I’ll still play Yakuza games going forward, and am interested to see who will take over has the protagonist. Will it focus on Saejima and Majima? Akiyama? Those are good options who have been playable in the past, but they are all also kind of old. Maybe Yuta will take over, but if so, why get rid of Kiryu. I know the next game set in Kamurocho is this summer’s Judgment, which is about a detective. I’m not sure if any Yakuza characters show up.

Now Playing May 2019

Beaten

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax – I think I called this game beaten years ago, but all I really beat was the Persona 4 side of the story mode. I recently decided to go back and finish up the other side of the story mode, the one featuring the Persona 3 characters. It is fine. I never quite connected with the P4: Arena fighting games. They look amazing, and have a kind of Marvel vs Capcom big flashy feel, but somehow I’ve never really found them that engaging. Fighting games are a perpetual dalliance of mine, and games that lend themselves to a little button mashing rather than being super technical are usually closer to my tastes. The P4 games do that, but there is a lot of technique under the surface that if I ever understood it, I don’t now. That said, I don’t necessarily dislike the games. I just find them kind of forgettable.

The story mode is about as good as a Pesona 3 & 4 mash up could be. It does a solid job of bringing back the characters and unlike in Persona Q, it lets the Persona 3 cast age, instead of catching them in some nonexistent moment in that game when the whole gang’s together. Here, the characters have moved on, in some ways. The fact that the game has to keep them focused on shadow hunting means that their futures have been a little stunted. Still, it is fun to see a somewhat more mature Junpei, or to see Yukari put all of her skills to use. And to see Ken all grown up. I am not as eager as I was a half-decade ago to return to these characters. When I was really into Persona 3 and 4, I wanted nothing more than some adventures with those casts (I say despite never finishing Persona 3: The Answer). Now, coming off of enjoying but not especially connecting with Persona 5, they feel a little like something I have outgrown. I do intend to replay Persona 4 someday, maybe I’ll find out if that is the case or not then. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a really good fighting game containing a pretty good Persona story. I’m glad I went back and saw most of the rest of what it had to offer.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – I am nearing the end on this. It is one of the best original DS games and it really picks up in intensity near the end. The combat system does feel a lot less refined than that found in later Shin Megami Tensei games, and some previous Shin Megami Tensei games. It is so simple, with it almost forcing the player to keep demons that share alignment with the player in their party and hoping that you get demons that are the right alignment and with acceptable weaknesses for whatever boss is coming up. I am going to take a break from this for Persona Q2, but I’ll get back to it after. Maybe I’ll do both if I can get my regular DS back from my brother after half a decade.

Yakuza 6 – I should have this beaten before too long. I intended to replay Yakuza’s 3-5 before starting this, but with Judgment coming out in June and this just sitting there, looking me in the face unplayed, I felt like I had to fire it up. I am glad I did. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the Yakuza formula. Replays of the three PS3 games are still on the docket.

Upcoming

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth – I may be out of Etrian Odyssey games on the 3DS, and new 3DS games in general, but that is not stopping me from getting on this last 3DS first person dungeon crawling hurrah. I liked the first Persona Q just fine, even if it flattened out all the characters to fit into the format and into the constraints of a story with that many characters. I expect this one to be even worse in that regard, but one last romp with characters I love from Persona 4 and Persona 3, with characters from Persona 5 there as well, is hard to pass up. Especially when it is bundled with the map drawing excellence of Etrian Odyssey.

Horizon: Zero Dawn – This is only on the list because I am writing this blog post so late. There was a PSN sale and I couldn’t resist picking this up. I know I’ve got another PS4 game coming in late June and an increasingly hefty backlog of titles to play, but the price was good and I’ve heard good things about this game. So once I finish Yakuza 6, I am going to try this game out. Dragon Quest 11, I’ll get back to you eventually.

Crash Bandicoot/Spyro the Dragon – I had some interest in the Spyro the Dragon trilogy remaster, but when I checked prices I found it was cheaper to buy it bundled with the Crash Bandicoot remaster. So I am going to relive my teen years but replay both series of platformer classics.

Judgment – It hits too late for me to likely get to spend that much time with it, but I’ve got this preordered and I am really looking forward to it. I’ll likely love it if it has even 75% of Yakuza’s charm.

Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse

Before writing about Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse, I tried to go refresh myself on what I wrote about Shin Megami Tensei 4. Turns out, I didn’t write anything. Or if I did, I somehow failed to post it. (I really should check my old laptop to see if I have any unposted stuff still on there). What I remember of that game, which I played more than five years ago, was that it was very ambitious and engrossing but had some balance issues and a chore of an ending. My thoughts are more vague than specific. Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse is something of sequel/expansion to that game, and while it fits inelegantly with the previous game storywise, it irons out some of the gameplay flaws.

As far as the battle system goes, Apocalypse continues to refine and perfect the press turn system that was first used in Nocturne and refined through the Digital Devil Saga games through SMT4, with similar systems also found in plenty of the spin-offs. It is a good system. Hitting a enemies weak point gives the player’s party another turn. Unfortunately, the enemies can do the same. So it is a game all about finding and exploiting weaknesses. It also has the Smirk mechanic from 4, where occasionally critical hits or hitting weaknesses powers up the next hit, guaranteeing a critical hit or giving certain attacks new properties. It makes for a battle system that is prone to big swings in momentum, where good play can almost make it impossible for enemies to git hits in, but a bad matchup for the hero might result in a quick, helpless game over. However, the game allows the player to retry after a loss and is generally pretty friendly in ways that this series almost never is. It is hard to describe just how good this game feels.

One mechanic that never works as well as this series wants it to is demon conversations. To recruit new demons, you have to talk to them in during battles. In order to keep the conversations from being repetitive, the game somewhat randomizes the monsters’ responses. There is no good way for this system to work. If all the same kinds of monsters respond the same way each time, the system is pointless and easily exploitable. If they don’t respond the same way, the whole thing is arbitrary. I know that demon conversations are a favorite of some players; I think they are a great idea that hasn’t worked yet. Luckily, Apocalypse smooths things out by giving the player experience from the conversations, meaning that the attempt no longer wastes opportunity to level up. I don’t recall if this was how it was in SMT4, but I know it wasn’t in Strange Journey.

Also, demon fusion is still great. It might even be too easy and intuitive now, but that isn’t a real complaint. It is always fun.

Where the game kind of falters is in the story. Apocalypse is very ‘anime,’ in a way that is incongruous with SMT4, which as already pretty anime. While the battle party consists of demons, the adventuring party is filled with teens and pre-teens. Including a pre-teen girl that spends half the game calling the protagonist master. It is uncomfortable. It isn’t that they are bad characters necessarily, but at no point did I find them really engaging. I wanted to see more of the world, but I didn’t care at all about the characters or their struggles.

There is also a simplifying of themes. People with a better grasp of Japanese politics that I noted some uncomfortable undertones to the previous game. This game replaces the philosophical tragedy of the previous games with childish nonsense. It comes down to the power of friendship. SMT4 was already a step back for the series along those lines, this game feels like a leap further down the road. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, except for this game’s plot is shoved into the back third of the original SMT4. So the new characters and stuff need to mix with the previous stuff and they really don’t.

The more Shin Megami Tensei games I play, the less special they feel. This is the first time that one of them felt so pedestrian. I liked the game. I played it for nearly fifty hours, I enjoyed the vast majority of my time with the game. But it really didn’t feel special. Maybe that is because it is so similar to SMT4. I don’t know. Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse is a very well made jrpg, but while I appreciate it on a mechanical level, it didn’t really engage me.

Now Playing April 2019

Beaten

Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse – I’ve got a blog post coming soon. The game does a lot of things well, despite never once getting me to care about the plot.

Ongoing

Monster Hunter Generations – I played this some with my brother. The formula is just so perfect. It was also fun to take down some classic monsters that aren’t in Monster Hunter World. I will probably never get to the last dozen or so quests I haven’t beaten, but I more than got my money’s worth.

Dragon Quest 11 – I played a little, but didn’t make any progress. It is still a great game that I plan to finish this Summer.

Disney Afternoon Collection – I very nearly beat Rescue Rangers 2. I have plans to actually do that soon. I’m kind of in the mood for some NES action, so I might follow that up with beating one or more of the DuckTales games or finally giving Darkwing Duck some serious time. All of these games, aside from TaleSpin, are solid NES action games. I don’t think any of them are Capcom at their best, but all of them are worth playing. The collection has a lot of extras; it is a good game.

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – I really doubt I’m going to have time for much more than that. The new futile project I am switching to is trying to beat all the Shin Megami Tensei games on my backlog. I already finished SMT4A and the second half of Strange Journey is up next. I guess maybe I should add Persona 4 Arena Ultimax to this, because I still have one half of the story mode of that to do as well.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus

In a fitting farewell to the DS family of consoles, Atlus has released Etrian Odyssey Nexus. The handheld consoles most consistent series essentially finishes off the console with a greatest hits version of the series. It isn’t the best game in the series, I still waffle between Etrian Odyssey III or Etrian Odyssey IV, but Nexus is a solid summation of the series.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus is essentially the same as the previous Etrian Odyssey games. It is a first person dungeon crawler where the player has a fully customizable party. The player builds their team out of the offered classes to traverse a couple dozen dungeon floors. The concept, as ever, is simple. The execution is generally elegant.

Nexus’s collection of classes is a lot of fun, even if some of them very watered down. Nexus attempts to take the most memorable classes from each game in the series to give the player options that represent all the options they’ve had before. But all of the classes have gone through some revisions to remove the idiosyncrasies from each title. Most made it through pretty well, but some, like EOV’s Pugilist, are shadow’s of their former self. Still, it is hard to not make a really fun party here.

Something is off with the ratio here, though. The game attempts to give you take you through a tour of the previous 5 (or 7, counting remakes) games, so you need to visit all the areas you’ve seen before. But if it did that with full strata, the game would be a hundred floors long. So instead it makes a lot of the early strata only 3 floors long instead of 5 and confines a few of them to one floor mini-dungeons. The problem with this is that each still has a boss at the end of it. So instead of hitting a boss every five floors, it works out to a boss every other floor for the first half of the game. The Etrian Odyssey series has some excellent bosses (all of which get featured in this game), the bosses force a different focus on the player’s party. It isn’t a case, generally, of there being one correct way to beat a boss, but the options for tackling a boss are more constrained than those for exploring the dungeon.

The player is free to craft whatever party they like to get through the dungeons. Not every strategy will work, but there is a ton of freedom in finding a strategy that works for you. I tend to focus on offence, hitting enemies with overwhelming force and beating them before they can do much damage. But it is genuinely just as effect to build a defense heavy team that prevent enemies from doing much damage or a team focused on status effect or binds to shut enemies down. Bosses, though, significantly cut down on viable strategies. And each boss cuts off different strategy. With a handful of floors between bosses, it is possible to make adjustments, where when you fight a boss every other level it is really hard to find space to make those adjustments.

It makes the game more of a slog than it needs to be. Personally, I’ve always preferred exploring the dungeons to fighting the bosses. The bosses were the roadblocks that kept me from the parts of the game I really liked. The somber solitude of exploring the unknown depths of the dungeon is soothing to me. Bosses, while frequently really interesting, get in the way of that. Fighting bosses as often as Nexus puts them in front of the player really mess up the rhythm.

That is a pretty big complaint, and keeps me from even considering this game among the best in the series, but it doesn’t sink the game completely. There is a lot of great exploratory goodness here and the game isn’t quite hard enough to make the bosses that much of a hurdle. And giving every game in the series representation really does make it feel all encompassing for the series. The only thing missing is the Shiren the Wanderer class from Etrian Mystery Dungeon.

There is only one more 3DS game on the horizon. (The Etrian Odyssey/Persona mash-up Persona Q2) Etrian Odyssey Nexus makes for a fitting farewell for the system. Etrian Odyssey has been one of the most consistent series on the DS family of systems. It is up there with Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton in my mind as the games that really made the system. Both of those series have moved on. There have been a lot of other great games on the DS, but there is no series that has been as consistent, good, present as the Etrian Odyssey series. Etrian Odyssey did not make the most innovative use of the secondary touch screen, but it’s use made the most sense. A lot of games put a map on the bottom screen. Etrian Odyssey let the player draw that map. It seems like a small thing, but it really added to the sense of exploration. It is both simple and essential to the appeal. That really showed off the genius of the DS, more so than games that tried to use the touch screen for controls or random tapping.

I am sure the Etrian Odyssey series will continue. Probably on the Switch, maybe on mobile. I am sure I will keep playing the series for the foreseeable future. But this really feels like the end of era. While Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a middling game in the series, it is a worthy way to wrap up this series and the 3DS.

Now Playing March 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – post coming soon. Great farewell to the series and essentially to the 3DS.

Beyond Good and Evil –

I am not going to beat this game. Not this time through. There is a lot about this game that it still admirable. It is one of the better Zelda-likes of the PS2 era. But the game is just a touch clunkier to play than I remembered. Camera problems abound. The idea of Zelda with an active partner is a great one, but block pushing puzzles do not need the added hassle of waiting for the AI to come help push. I am about halfway through the game and I am simply done with it right now.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse –

I am giving this another shot and this time I am making some progress. I was going to compare it to my thoughts on the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, but apparently I never wrote about it. And honestly, other than remembering really liking it, I can’t recall too many details. Apocalypse falls into that void of memory even as I play it. That might not be fair to a game I started nearly two years ago, did all the foundational parts and then put down. I enjoy Apocalypse while I play it, but once I put it down for any length of time I forget what I was doing as soon as I pick it up. Still, this time I am intending to stick with it until I beat the game. Maybe it will have left some kind of real impression by then.

Dragon Quest XI – I didn’t play a lot of Dragon Quest XI last month, but I am still loving all the time I am able to put into it. This is a great game and if it keeps up this level of quality it deserved to be remembered with Dragon Quest V as one of the best in the series.

Upcoming

Disney’s Epic Mickey – If I ever get any time to play video games again, I still intend to finally get around to finishing this game. Maybe it’s not worth it, but I genuinely want to get to the last third or so of this game.

Yakuza 3 – Again, I still want to play this, but I just don’t have any time to actually play video games right now. Maybe I should abandon my plan to replay the whole series to build up to Yakuza 6 and just play Yakuza 6.

Monster Hunter Generations – My brother called me and suggested playing some Monster Hunter. So we are going to play this some. Honestly, there is a lot of this game I never experienced. I kind of only beat this one halfway, so going back to it gives me the chance to really dig into the back half of Monster Hunter Generations.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been feeling the need to play Chrono Trigger, so I think I might give it another run through, at least to a point to get another ending on my DS game file. Maybe I’ll finally do the added dungeon in that game.

Now Playing February 2019

Beaten

Celeste – Celeste is just about a perfect game. It is one part a meditation on depression, one part maso-core platformer. It does an amazing job of teaching its mechanics in each stage, slowly letting the player learn them in a safe environment before requiring performance in a treacherous setting. It is set up to kill the player a lot, but also to make the punishment for each death minimal. Instead of a death setting you back, it more affects your ‘score’ of deaths in each section. I’m sure someone who spent more time thinking about it than I did can think of a way the story interacts with the mechanics; instead I just found it to be a heartfelt take on dealing with depression. What a great game.

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – I think I am nearing the end of this. It is already the largest Etrian Odyssey game I’ve ever played; I am on something like the 30th dungeon floor. I pretty quickly settled into a solid team; I burn through resources like crazy and am super fragile, but they do some damage. While I apparently have a goldfish memory when it comes to these games, this does appear to be a very heartfelt greatest hits collection of all of the games in the series. I’m at the point where I kind of just want the game to end, but knowing this is the last entry in the series on the greater DS family of consoles, I also kind of never want the game to end.

Dragon Quest XI – slow progress, but some progress. I am still loving this game, I am just not loving the amount of time I have to play it.

Beyond Good and Evil – This is a fun club entry and a game I haven’t played in close to fifteen years. The first two hours reminded me why I liked it so much. This is a really fun world. The game feels like an evolutionary link between Ocarina of Time and Assassin’s Creed. I might have to do a longer write up when I finish this.

 

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei – Either Soul Hackers or 4: Apocalypse. I am in the mood for some Shin Megami Tensei, and I have these two unfinished 3DS games.

Final Fantasy XV – As soon as I finish Dragon Quest XI, I am going to put some serious time into this. Spring break is coming up and I am going to relax a lot.

Epic Mickey – Copy and paste from last month.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

For Christmas, I was given Dragon Quest XI for PS4. Playing it for a couple of hours reminded me of just how much I like Dragon Quest. It also reminded me that I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King when it was released for the 3DS a couple of years ago. So while I waited for Etrian Odyssey Nexus to be released, I dug out my copy to jam in my 3DS and finish off the playthrough I started back then.

Dragon Quest VIII makes an interesting counterpart to Dragon Quest XI because they are so similar. Even in a series known for sticking to a formula, these two games are nearly identical. They are both visually impressive, back to basics games. Both of them are games if not designed, at least positioned for success in the West for what is largely a Japanese series. With the caveat that I’m only about a third of the way through Dragon Quest 11, they are both two of my favorite games in the series.*

Dragon Quest’s reputation for staidness is a little overblown; it does occasionally tinker with the formula. VI and VII has some narrative innovation, with a job system that didn’t become available until too long into the game and some other strange pacing choices. Immediately following 8 was Dragon Quest 9’s Monster Hunter influenced take on the series, with its multiplayer stuff. Dragon Quest 8 was the only “normal” Dragon Quest game for about a decade on either side of it. Really though, the game is stripped almost bare of mechanics and characters, resting its accomplishments primarily on the purity of its vision.

That works for the game. There is a little bit of character customization, letting the player choose which of a handful of weapons each character can use. However, the party capped at 4 characters in the initial release. The 3DS added two newcomers, one who felt like she could have been on the team originally and one oddball. Still, they both join up very late in the proceedings and are mostly there for late and post-game shenanigans. The limited party with limited options lets the game be very specific with challenges. There aren’t a lot of ways to break the game, to do things out of sequence or blow up the difficulty curve. That is a mark against the game with many people, I know. I do enjoy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which just lets the player go nuts and tear it apart, or Breath of the Wild, which encourages the player to do things their own way. However, I am not one to dock a game for carefully calibrating the experience. There are no shortcuts and few tricks to getting through Dragon Quest VIII, you play at the games pace.

It works because that pace is good. The game starts with a fairly simple quest: King Trode, Princess Medea, and their entire kingdom have been cursed by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. The protagonist is the one lowly guardsman who escaped the curse, and now leads the quest to break the curse. At the start they are joined by Yangus, a burly thief with a heart of gold. Soon they are joined by the fiery Jessica, whose life has also been overturned by Dhoulmagus, and cool playboy Angelo, who has been cast out of his religious order. It is not a story in which characters change a whole lot. The protagonist is silent cipher, with the player having some ability to shape his personality. Yangus has already went straight by the time the game starts, and is always Eight’s, as the protagonist is called, right hand man, with insider knowledge of most of the lowlifes they run into. Angelo is always more than he seems, and most of his secrets are full revealed by the time he joins. Jessica maybe gets the most growth of the party, as she learns her potential after being stifled most of her life. It is a fun group, with different perspectives and reactions to everything the party runs into. But it is also a limited group; you pretty well know how each of them are going to react to anything by the midway point.

The game tailors the challenges around that limited party. Early on it knows that the player has only Yangus’s power and Eight’s all around qualities; that is a time for simple strategies as the player learns the game. Then it adds Jessica the mage, and gives her opportunities to shine. Finally, you get Angelo the healer, so the game can really take the gloves off and come at the player. Your options are always limited, but there are enough things to consider when fighting bosses. It just all works wonderfully. The new additions to the 3DS version add some wrinkles near the end, but that is too late to really change things.

The story, building off the simple quest, is Dragon Quest’s traditional vignettes, with each area telling a complete story that is also a piece of the larger story. That is the best thing the series has going for it; very few games work like that and even fewer do it as well as Dragon Quest. One detail I love is that there is a low key mystery through the game about how the protagonist avoided the curse that is never dealt with before the post-game. No other game would leave that detail for post-credits revelations. Also, the game is gorgeous. The visuals are slightly downgraded on 3DS, but they still create a wonderful cartoon world.

So far, everything Dragon Quest VIII does well, Dragon Quest XI does too. It is structured the same way, but bigger. The world is bigger and better looking. The party is more diverse and there are more options for each character. It still feels the same, though. After a decade of detours, Dragon Quest XI is the game the finally follows up on the game that really got me into the series. With it Western success, Dragon Quest XI feels like the game that Dragon Quest VIII always wanted to be. And really, mostly was.

*For the record: V, IV, VIII, (XI pending completion), IX, I, III, VI, VII, II

Now Playing January 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey V – read about it here.

Pillars of Eternity & The White March – As a big fan of Black Isle studios rpgs, I backed the Pillars of Eternity kickstarter way back in 2012. Unfortunately, when the game came out my old laptop was not quite up to the task of running it. So I let the game languish in my steam library for the last couple of years. Over Christmas, I realized that not only did I have a computer capable of running the game, I also had the time to play it. So installed it, bought the expansion and tried it out.

The game delivered everything I hoped it would. I don’t know that it is quite as good as Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, but it delivered a substantially similar experience. It took me some time to learn the rules, but once I did everything felt right. The most important part of this sort of game is character creation. Pillars of Eternity gives you a lot of options. The hard part is choosing what direction to go. There is almost always a best choice, either with the goal of min/maxing the game or just choosing a class the fits the best with the rest of the team members you want to use. I went with a dwarven ranger with stag animal companion. I also tried out a chanter. On an initial playthrough, the game seems to have done a solid job of balancing the need for physical fighters and various spellcasters. The weakness is that there is no rogue party member without the White March expansion. You can get trapfinding abilities without being a rogue, but rogue do get an advantage there and aren’t pulled in different directions like mages. You can make extra party members to fill in gaps, but they won’t have personalities like the game’s premade companions.

The place where I at first found the game lacking but some came to see as a strength is its array of party members. The first two it hands out are Aloth and Eder, seem a little disappointing. They aren’t really exciting characters initially. I never really warmed to Aloth’s gimmick. But Eder’s gimmick is essentially that he doesn’t have one. He just this laconic fighter who occasionally drops in witty, wry comments. As the game went on, doing his character quest and otherwise, he developed into one of my favorite characters in the game. Mostly because he could have normal reactions to things while also occasionally having something interesting to say. No one is likely to find all the characters interesting, but on the whole they are largely well written and well developed. Aside from Eder, I greatly enjoyed adventuring with the proud Paladin Pallegina, and the dwarven ranger Sagani (having another ranger with my player character also being a ranger kind of limited options, but I liked her). I also used Hiravias quite a bit. The only character I didn’t warm to at all was Cana Rua, and honestly I didn’t truly give him a chance. And the new characters of the White March fit in surprisingly well. Even the robot character. I found Zahua’s backstory surprisingly effective and I really enjoyed Maneha’s general vibe.

I guess I’ve had good luck. Nearly all the kickstarter games I backed delivered. I am glad I backed this one. This game is excellent.

Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure – read about it here.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – read about it here.

Ongoing

Celeste – I am so close to the end on this. It is such a good game. I have played a lot of hard platformers, but I don’t think I’ve played one that is as devious as this game is and that trains its players how to beat it. You can point to the first stage of Super Mario Bros for a beginners guide for teaching a player how to deal with obstacles in a game and many games follow a similar progression, Celeste uses those tool more effectively than most. It is aided in this by its friendly to lives and respawning. The game all but encourages the player to try things out, because the penalty for death is so small. That small penalty makes it less frustrating when the game is really hard. It reminds me a lot of 1001 Spikes, a game I love.

Dragon Quest 11 – I got this for Christmas, and through the first fifteen or so hours it is everything I could possibly want out of a new Dragon Quest game. I like my party, half-formed as it is at this point. I love the way Dragon Quest tells its stories through vignettes that are largely self-contained but manage to advance the central story in small ways. Functionally, this game is not much different from Dragon Quest V. The change is almost entirely visual and this game looks astounding. I am sure those who are more technically minded could point out flaws and compromises in this game’s visuals, I see what looks like a near perfect realization of Akira Toriyama’s designs as 3D figures. I could see people complaining about the lack of innovation here, but I have no problem with a game effectively executing a formula so long as it is a good formula, and Dragon Quest’s formula is one of the best.

Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon – I cleared the first few missions on this. For some reason it has a bad habit of closing itself and kicking me back to the home menu. Maybe I am holding the 3DS oddly and hitting the power button. Whatever is happening, it is frustrating. This is fine so far, but it is getting kicked back down the queue as soon as Etrian Odyssey Nexus is released.

 

Upcoming

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – This comes out early next month and will take over my 3DS for the foreseeable future. Honestly, this is feeling as much like a farewell to playing new games on my trusty old handheld as much a farewell to this series that is likely ending with that handheld. Good night, sweet prince, et cetera, et cetera.

Disney’s Epic Mickey – My ongoing quest to finish up some old Wii games that have been sitting around half finished comes to this almost classic. I liked this game just fine a decade ago, but I got distracted before finishing it. Epic Mickey doesn’t want for ambition, I’ll say that at least.

Beyond Good and Evil – an online game club I am a part of is playing this game. I intend to dig out my copy and spend some time with it in the next few weeks. Maybe I’ll beat it, I don’t remember it being that long.