Now Playing August 2019

Beaten

Crash Bandicoot 3 Warped – wrote about it here.

Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon – wrote about it here.

Paper Mario: Color Splash – wrote about it here.

Celeste – I think I lied and said I beat this before. I actually quit with something around half of the last stage to do. Celeste is great. It requires and inspires mastery. One of the things great about the game is how it slowly teaches the player to do things that look absolutely amazing or impossible at first glance. This is just a great game.

Ongoing

Judgment – Slow going, but I am starting to ease into this. I am having to kind of unlearn some things I picked up playing Yakuza games. The game looks and plays largely the same as its sister series, but there are enough differences to slow you down if you think you know how it works. The combat, for instance, is largely the same as it is in the Yakuza games, but protagonist Yagami doesn’t really fight anything like Kiryu. If you go in trying to use Kiryu tactics, the game will be much more difficult than it should be. I am just to the point where this game opens up and lets the player go their own way in the world. It feels so promising in the early going that I am hoping the meat of the game.

Persona Q2 – I made almost no progress on this last month. I am not ready to give it up, yet. The time I would normally use with my 3DS got filled up with Paper Mario on my WiiU. I will get back to this, but my complaints from the last few months still stand. This game really isn’t doing it for me. I was hoping for a farewell to Etrian Odyssey and probably a lot of Persona characters. Instead, I got a slog. I’ve had similar problems with other dungeon crawlers early on; maybe I will get to a moment where this one clicks.

Sonic Mania – This really should be in the beaten section than the ongoing, but for some reason I never found the time to get to the last few stages. It has been a long time since I’ve played a 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game, but this really feels right. I have always found them to be simultaneously somewhat sloppy feeling and continually compelling. The levels feel sprawling and labyrinthine, but it doesn’t really appear to matter when you are playing, so long as you can get from beginning to end. This game nails that feeling. The only downside I would point to so far is that it has too many bosses. Each stage in each zone ends with a boss of some kind. It is frustrating. I don’t remember many bosses from the Genesis games; they aren’t something I played Sonic for. I know they were there, but I only recall them at the end of zones. There are way too many bosses in this game. Still, it is excellent though about 11 zones or so. I should finish this up soon. At least my first playthough; there is a lot more to this game. I haven’t yet played as Tails or Knuckles, let alone got the DLC to play as Ray or Mighty. I don’t know how much of that I am going to do, but I am glad it is there for me to maybe do it.

Upcoming

Monster Hunter World: Iceborne – I am really itching to get back into Monster Hunter, so this couldn’t come at a better time. I might need to finish some things up in the base game, but I think I had it beaten. It seems like it has been a long time since I’ve hunted some monsters.

Final Fantasy VIII: Remaster – It has been a long time since I’ve played Final Fantasy 8. It isn’t one of my favorite games to play, but it is a game that meant a whole lot to me growing up. I’ll get into it more when I write about it, but it is one of the first games that I followed the development of. I plan to jump on the remaster and see how it feels 20 years on.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse – I am working through the last few unbeaten WiiU games I have, so I can sadly unhook and retire one of the most underrated consoles ever made. Actually, I won’t be unhooking it, I need it to play a similar stack of unfinished Wii games that even I know I’ll never get to.

River City Girls – This looks delightful and I love Kunio/River City games. I will absolutely be jumping on this as soon as possible.

Yakuza 3 – Maybe. I am going to buy this on PS4. I am not going to do so until I beat Judgment. I really should get back to Final Fantasy 15 and Dragon Quest 11 before I buy any new PS4 games. I also have Ni No Kuni 2 and Uncharted 4 sitting unplayed on my shelf. I am likely to buy and play this.

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Crash and Spyro 3

I was prepared to give Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped an hour or two, conclude that it was roughly the same as the previous two entries in the series and move on to Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon. I had already all but concluded that the PS1 Crash Bandicoot games just weren’t for me. I didn’t begrudge the people who do like them, but I didn’t consider them among the cream of the early 3D platforming crop. Honestly, I didn’t really find the first two games worth my time in 2019. I was only sticking with the game to keep up this gimmick of writing about Crash and Spyro in tandem. Then I started playing Warped.

I can’t articulate why or how, but this game just feels better than the previous two. It has all the hallmarks of the third game in a series on a console; the built up junk of repeated iterations trying to make something new without actually innovating. There is nothing I can point to and say that Crash Bandicoot 3 does better than 1 or 2. All I can say is that I really enjoyed playing it. It just feels like the game that all three of the games in the series should have been.

There are things in Crash 3 that should be the signs of an aging series. There are a lot of weird gimmick levels. Some with Coco on a jet ski, some with Coco riding a tiger, a few with Crash on a motorcycle, a few underwater levels. a level with Crash flying a biplane. With only 25 or 30 stages, having a full third of them being something other than the traditional stages should be a point against the game. But most of those stages are fun. They largely don’t completely change the game, they just put it in a different context. I hated the motorcycle races, but otherwise they were a lot of fun. That leaves a dozen or so regular stages. They are the same mix of fun and frustrating as before, though I encountered less of the frustration. The jumps still have that arc that I haven’t quite mastered. I still have a hard time judging distances going forward, though I learned to use the slide more than the spin as an offensive weapon in that context really lessened that problem.

It all just worked for me this time. There were some small frustrations, but I found Crash Bandicoot Warped to be a solid game. Especially considering its vintage. It almost makes me want to go back and give the first two another look. Almost.

While I went into Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped with little in the way of expectations, I went into Spyro: Year of the Dragon a little wary. I loved Spyro the Dragon, but Spyro 2 left me cold in the worst way. It wasn’t that the game was bad, but that it frustrated me in so many small ways that my memories of playing have curdled. It likely isn’t fair to the game, but I went into Spyro 3 scared that it would continue a downward slide. It is one thing to not like three straight games, it is another to love one and have the sequels disappoint. Luckily, Spyro: Year of the Dragon did not disappoint.

The game is not quite as good as the first, but Year of the Dragon was still a delight. It wisely gets rid of Spyro 2’s annoying upgrade system. Spyro has his abilities and those abilities are pretty static. For the most part, stages seem a little more simple, at least the Spyro sections. (I’ll have more to say about that clarification in a second.) Not every dragon’s egg, which are this game’s macguffin of choice, are hidden behind an elaborate set piece. Some are just hidden off to the sides of a stages, in well crafted nooks and crannies. For the most part, it plays just like the previous two Spyro games. You collect gems and find some other doodad.

There are different sections. Spyro meets a handful of allies on his quest and they are are playable at specific spots. They play close enough to Spyro that it is not completely jarring, and some of the sections actually add a fun dimension. The least enjoyable ones, aside from some of the weird one offs with the Yeti, are those featuring the monkey Agent 9 with a sort of proto-Ratchet and Clank style gameplay. Then there are the sections that kept me from 100% this game like I did with the first; the skateboard sections. Yes, I realize that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was popular, but these are out of place and frustrating. They show something that often crops up after a few games in a series.

Both of these games illustrate a problem that often happens with long running series; cruft builds up around the core gameplay and the fun little asides start to overwhelm the actual game. It often starts to appear in third entries, even good ones. Look at Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (And Knuckles). The game adds a lot of complementary ideas and extra playable characters. I choose that game as the example specifically because it shares something with both Crash 3 and Spyro 3; it is an excellent game. The accumulation of unnecessary stuff is there, but it has yet to really hamper the game. With Crash it is evident in all the vehicle levels. There are motorcycle races, jet skis obstacle courses, and bi-plane dogfights. They are not the game you came in expecting, but only the motorcycle stages are bad. In Spyro 3 it manifests itself as extra playable characters. Lots of sections of stages are there for Spyro’s new, and largely annoying for one reason or another, friends. There are some frustrating parts, but they are largely fine.

Both of these third entries show series treading water. They know they’ve hit on something successful and they do not seem interested in evolving that idea, instead the games merely iterate. The extra stuff is here to try to show growth without actually risking messing up a good thing by attempting to grow. The third Crash has softened me on that trilogy, and I genuinely enjoyed Spyro 3 almost as much as the first. Still, I am ready to be done with these series for a while.

Paper Mario Color Splash

Nearly three years ago, my brother’s got me Paper Mario Color Splash for Christmas. While I had been greatly anticipating the game, for some reason the game pretty much immediately fell on the back burner. For some reason, I got the notion to finally give a play a few weeks ago. It turns out that Color Splash, like most of Nintendo’s WiiU output is an excellent game.

Color Splash is built in the same mold as its predecessor, Sticker Star for DS. That surely was a big disappointment for the people who hated Sticker Star, but Color Splash truly refines what that game did and feels like the culmination of this conception of Paper Mario. Like Thousand Year Door took the original Paper Mario and perfected it, Color Splash perfects the enjoyable but flawed Sticker Star. Super Paper Mario was perfect the first time out. (No, I haven’t played the game in nearly a decade, but I am sure my memory of it is perfect.) There are no companions and Mario’s abilities are still represented by a randomly drawn deck. Here they are cards instead of stickers, but the concept is generally the same. Mario can only do what he has the cards to do. The game has also been almost completely lost its RPG elements. There are almost no numbers to be seen, no levels or experience. Mario still does have HP, but that is about it.

Mario can carry up to 100 cards and use as many as four a turn. Cards are plentiful, meaning there is rarely any reason to horde them. Sure, you might want to make judicious decisions when using them, using regular jumps to take out weak enemies like Koopa Troopers and saving the huge jump and five jump cards for bosses, but nothing sticks in the inventory for long. The game is divided into levels and each one has a gimmick of some sort. Some of these play into the real world looking items that are in the paper world, others just have a neat hook.

Where it really shines, especially in comparison to Sticker Star, is in the story and characters. The main complaint with Sticker Star is still there in Color Splash; the game’s characters consists almost entirely of Toads. Bowser is almost completely absent, Peach makes only a slightly larger appearance. It is mostly Mario and Huey, a paint bucket, messing around with Toads and Shyguys. Still, the game manages to use the interchangeable facelessness of the Toads to its advantage this time. There are some with personality, like a feisty yet fearful ship captain, but mostly they are just folk, letting the events of the game happen to them. Still, they are worked in perfectly in every environment. They panic and are resigned. They try to help, but are generally ineffectual. Like they do with the eternal second brother Luigi, this time Nintendo has turned that into wonderful comedy. The highlight of the game is a big train rescue. Lemmy of the Koopalings has hijacked a train and Mario has to defeat him to gain a Paint Star. (More on those in a second.) Mario makes his way through the train, saving Toads from various torments at the hands of enemies. Then he reaches a peaceful train car. There, with the sun setting in the background, Mario and a Shyguy have a philosophical discussion. Then you go on. It is a brief aside that manages to be both humorous and thoughtful at the same time; it is great. The game is filled with moments like that.

About those Paint Stars: the big gimmick of Color Splash is that Bowser and his army are sucking the color out of the Paper World. So Mario gets help from a sentient paint can named Huey and sets about restoring the Paint Stars that protect the worlds paint and filling in the whited out parts of the world. It is the perfect gimmick for Paper Mario. It also works well with the entirely papercrafted world of game.

Like nearly all Mario RPGs, Color Splash goes on a bit too long. It is too easy and there are some tedious levels. But it looks amazing and is a great time for the bulk of its run time. There aren’t too many games left on the WiiU that I haven’t played. A part of me wants to argue for the underrated greatness of the WiiU, but that feels like a completely lost cause at this point. Especially since most of the best WiiU games have migrated to other systems. And I am sure that most of the rest will at some point. Maybe not Wonderful 101, which is an all time classic that needs more love. I don’t have the time or energy for this cause. If this is the game that is my farewell to the WiiU, I am glad I sent it off with a great game. I do still have Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, so I do have that still to look forward to.

Now Playing July 2019

Finished

Crash Bandicoot 2 – I didn’t exactly beat it, but I am done with it.

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage – I finished it off. It is a good time, but a step down from the first game.

Ongoing

Judgment – I like playing Yakuza as essentially a PI. I need to play this game more.

Sword Coast Legends – I tried to get back into this. Something about it is not quite right with, it feels like one of the old Black Isle Infinity Engine games that is just not put together correctly. I am still working through the early portions, though, so maybe it gets better. I don’t know if I will have time to stick with it.

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth – I just don’t know with this game. All of the elements seem like something I would like, but for some reason it is pushing all the wrong buttons. Battles seem to take too long, with the hard hitting Etrian Odyssey style not mixing well with Persona’s knock-down critical hits. I hope I am just getting to the point when it all clicks together and becomes its own game instead of an inelegant mix of two others, but I am becoming increasingly concerned that that moment is not coming.

Shadows of Destiny ‒ I only played the opening this, but I am intrigued by it. It is an early PS2 game where the player time travels to prevent his own murder. I’ve only got through the first little prologue cycle, but it is very interesting. It is also apparently pretty short, so I see myself getting through this pretty quickly. If I find the time to get back to it at all, that is.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – I played through a chapter of this as well. I got this game a few years ago after hearing some good things from acquaintances. I like it, but I guess not enough to stick with it for more than a chapter or two. The dual protagonist gameplay is good. It isn’t really an escort game, except the parts where it is, but it does give the player two characters to guide through the game. I feel like it is just a little bit from clicking all the time. I’m not sure I’ll be getting back to it anytime soon, but I am not really giving up on the game either.

Upcoming

Suikoden II – I am really feeling a desire to replay one of my favorite all-time games. We’ll see if I can actually make the time to do so.

Crash Bandicoot 3 and Spyro The Dragon 3 – I’ll get back to the final games in these trilogies sooner or later.

Paper Mario: Color Splash – I don’t know why I’ve never played this. I need to fix that.

Dragon Quest XI – I’ve let this sit for too long. I was loving it when I started playing it a few months ago, then I got distracted and never really got back to it. It is likely in line after Judgment.

Crash 2 and Spyro 2

I have more to say about the slightly disappointing Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage than I do about Crash Bandicoot 2. Crash Bandicoot 2 is more Crash Bandicoot. Nearly none of the problems I had with the first game are solved. The game adds a slide/crawl ability, but it doesn’t really change much. The most positive change is that it opens up the level selection, from going one level at a time in a strictly linear path to giving the player five or so to choose from at a time. It is an improvement, making it less likely that a player will get stuck for an extended time on one challenge. My major problems remain. I find Crash’s jump trajectory hard to parse and hard to control. It isn’t so bad in the side scrolling sections, but when going into or out of the screen, I can’t tell where I am going to land. There is some of this problem that is skill, and I am honestly not interested in honing that skill, but I have played a lot of platformers and I would say that I am generally pretty good at them. Crash Bandicoot 2 just feels sloppy. I want to specifically call out the chase segments, which were showstoppers back in the day, but I do not have a lot of patience for the trial and error they require since it is almost impossible to see upcoming obstacles. It feels like the hoverbike sequence in Battletoads. So I got about halfway through Crash Bandicoot 2 before deciding that my time was much better spent elsewhere.

While Crash 2 gave players more of the same, though it did add a new playable character, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage feels like it did more to evolve. The problem is that that evolution did nothing to improve the game. I would argue that the new stuff actually made the game worse than its predecessor. And that more to evolve is only relative to Crash Bandicoot 2, for the most part Spyro 2 is just more Spyro as well.

Without being too harsh on what is still essentially a very good game from two decades ago, Spyro 2 is a bit let down after playing the first Spyro, a game that I am increasingly of the opinion is a masterpiece. Spyro 2 adds gameplay complexity to it simpler predecessor, but that complexity doesn’t make the game better, it only makes it somewhat more tedious.

For the most part, Spyro 2 is the same as the first game in the series. The new stuff is around the edges, clear attempts to make the game deeper and more complex, but they mostly succeed in making the game kind of a drag at times. The first game was mostly environmental puzzles; you explore the worlds and find all the hidden gems, with dragons generally functioning as checkpoints and the occasion egg thief chase to spice things up. Spyro 2 still has the gems, but it replaces the dragons with orbs. Some orbs are simply hidden around the stages. Those are great. They play into Spyro’s strengths, which are largely how enjoyable it is to just explore as the punky purple dragon. More of them are hidden behind some sort of minigame and that is where the game loses me.

It isn’t that all of those minigames are bad; it is that they are inconsistent. Inconsistent in quality and inconsistent in difficulty. That isn’t helped by the new skills that Spyro learns along the way. I was inordinately annoyed at how I earned those new abilities. The fact that those new skills are slowly doled out as the game goes on is as much a problem with presentation as conception. Does it make sense that someone teaches Spyro to swim? I guess so, but why does it have to in such a perfunctory manner. Similarly, why does he need to learn to climb when all he has to is jump on the wall and climb. That is mostly a presentation problem; instead of giving the player a decent explanation for Spyro’s new powers, it treats it as a joke. The minigames work kind of the same way. Some of them work, like flying along a set path or finding lost baby turtles. Others, like playing hockey or a shooting gallery, are less fun. As the game goes on, the frustrating parts start to overwhelm the fun parts, culminating in a final boss battle that feels like it goes on forever.

Spyro 2 is still a pretty good game; all of the stuff I didn’t like is on the margins. You can beat the game without completing many, if any, of the frustrating challenges. But the first Spyro is the only game I’ve gotten a platinum trophy in; I felt compelled to experience everything that game had to offer. With Spyro 2, despite really enjoying it, I couldn’t wait to be done with it by the time I got to the end.

I’ve got another month or so break before I come back to these two series, but I am eager to see how things go in their third outings.

Crash and Spyro

Caught up in a bout of nostalgia and suddenly having a bit of spending money, I decided to buy Spyro Reignited, the PS4 remasters of the original Spyro the Dragon games from the PSX. I remember really enjoying those games, or at least the first one and a demos of the other two, and haven’t really touched them in almost twenty years. Going on Amazon to buy it, I discovered that at that moment it was actually cheaper to buy the Spyro remasters bundled with the Crash Bandicoot remasters than it was to buy them on their own. I played less of Crash Bandicoot back in the day; I borrowed Crash 2 from a friend for a while and had a Crash 3 demo, but I while I remember enjoying them they didn’t leave much of an impression on me. But I still went the route of buying both, and I’m glad I did.

I’m not glad because it turned out the Crash Bandicoot games are better than I expected. I’m glad I did because it was simply fun to relive some teenage experiences. Honestly, I think the PSX/N64 generation gets short shrift. For the most part, the games don’t seem to hold the same nostalgic charm as their 2D predecessors and the limitations of the consoles make it hard to go back to them at times. There are exceptions. The idea that Super Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time are all-time greats is etched in stone. A lot of PS1 RPGs are still well regarded. Every system has classics; what I am looking at are the also rans. Sure, people love Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man 2 on the NES, but you’ll also find people who love games like Shadow of the Ninja or Power Blade. People seem to have a lot of time for mid-list 8-bit and 16-bit games and I don’t see that same affection for early 3D titles. No one is singing the praises of Syphon Filter or Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.

Honestly, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon fall closer to the classics than the also rans in people’s memories, at least in my circle. But they also don’t get a lot of mention. There is a gap. I am guessing a lot of this is my subjective experience, if people really didn’t remember Crash or Spyro, why did their games get remasters? They were kings in the late zenith of the mascot platformer. Sonic ushered that age in, and 16-bit systems are littered with colorful animals having adventures. They didn’t really go away until well into the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox days. I remember Microsoft trying desperately to find such a mascot, attempts like Blinx the Time Sweeper, before realizing it was unnecessary. For four or five years, while the PSX ruled the gaming world, Crash and Spyro were on top, facing off against Mario and Banjo from Nintendo.

I remember those days fondly. I was definitely a Nintendo kid, though I did eventually have both a PSX and a N64. I was adamant that my mascot games were better than those on the other system. I told myself that while salivating over all the jrpgs that were hitting the PSX. Sure, they have Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms, but I’ve got Banjo-Kazooie. It was nonsense, and it really only lasted until I got my own PSX and could play those games. By that time I was a little late for the early action adventure games, but I still played them some and was familiar with them from studious reading of EGM.

So while I didn’t play a lot of the games, I remembered Crash Bandicoot fondly. Here’s the thing: speaking only as to the first game in the series because I haven’t gotten to the others yet, Crash Bandicoot isn’t very good. Or at least, the remaster is not. It is colorful and charming and intermittently fun, but it is also sloppy, imprecise and limited. I am not sure the sloppy controls were part of the original game, but it feels like they were. When in the console wars trenches, I would poo-poo Crash Bandicoot for not really being 3D. Honestly, that is one of the games strengths. When everyone else was trying, and mostly failing, to be Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot carved out a smaller, more manageable niche. It puts everything in a tunnel and while still polygonal, does away with any sense of exploration. That is fine. I actually really like that about the game. It is the closest to being a classic platformer done in 3D around. The problem is that the game isn’t actually all that good. It is hard, especially when jumping in and out of the screen, to tell where you are going to land. Also, it is hard to tell how the game is going to interpret how you are going to land. Sometimes, you bounce on the turtle, sometimes you land directly in front of the turtle and are immediately killed. I gave up on the game at the Road to Nowhere level. The game is just not equipped to deal with the precise jumping that level requires, which means tons and tons of frustrating deaths and I don’t have time for that. I might go back to Crash Bandicoot eventually, but not until after I finish the other five games in this collection. I still have some fondness for Crash Bandicoot, but sometimes the past belongs in the past.

Counter to that is the first Spyro the Dragon. I know it is a game that came along a little later than Crash Bandicoot, but Spyro is a classic worthy of canonization. It is clearly taking a lot of cues from Super Mario 64, but also not just trying to be Super Mario 64. The quadrupedal, winged protagonist is one way the game has its own feel. Spyro holds up, largely I think thanks to its simplicity. While it Spyro the Dragon is clearly following in the footsteps of Mario 64. Spyro has an effective but not particularly expansive moveset. He can breathe fire and he can charge. Those two skills set up the bulk of his options when dealing with obstacles. Some enemies must be burned, some must be rammed, others can be dealt with by either. The game slowly starts layering these together, with rooms filled with a mix of enemies, some that need to be dealt with one way and some the other. It adds in enemies that change form. It really taxes the player’s ability to recognize the threat and deal with it.

The only other skill in Spryo’s arsenal is the ability to glide. A second press of the jump button allows the little winged dragon to glide around, greatly expanding his mobility. This is where a lot of Spyro’s tricky platforming comes in, with much being tied to his ability to get somewhere high up and float to a place he could not reach before. There are also supercharge lanes, which propel Spyro to ridiculous speeds with his charge, and using those to launch him to distant, otherwise unreachable hidden areas. That is essentially the one expert technique in the game. The rest of them are just the moves that you have at the start continuing on.

Wisely, the game makes almost none of the difficult sections of the game mandatory to getting through it. That is in contrast to the strictly linear nature of Crash Bandicoot. In Crash, you have one level in front of you and the ability to replay the levels you’ve previously beaten. In Spyro, new stages unlock as you cross completion barriers. Sometimes you can’t go on until you rescue 50 dragons, sometimes it takes a certain number of found gems. It effectively gates the player without ever forcing the player to bash their heads against a particularly tough challenge until the player decides to walk away from the game instead.

With both Crash and Spyro, the remasters look great. They do that excellent trick of looking like you remember the games looked rather than actually looking like the games did look. Because your memories are not accurate. Nintendo did this with their 3DS Zelda remakes; they still look like N64 games without actually looking like N64 games.

The PSX/N64 generation was a time of great experimentation, as everyone struggled to understand how to make polygonal games. Some took to it like a duck to water, others struggled themselves out of existence. The great disparity in quality of games I think has lead people to discount a lot of games from that era. The small handful that are recognized as classics still get love, but most of the rest are ignored and forgotten. Spyro and Crash are right on the edge; I don’t see people sing their praises with the Ocarina of Times or the Metal Gear Solids, but they aren’t really forgotten; they did get modern remasters. But if games that were as popular as these were are as little thought of as they are, it does not bode well for the mid-tier stuff behind them. I’m done with Spyro the Dragon (and got my first platinum trophy with it) and probably done with Crash Bandicoot. I’ve got two more of each. After a few weeks off I’ll revisit Spyro 2: Ripto’s Revenge and Crash 2: The Wrath of Cortex to see how these two series evolved after their first outings.

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.

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.