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.

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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

Etrian Odyssey V

The Etrian Odyssey series is one of my favorites of the last ten years. I have spent a lot of time with my 3DS methodically mapping out dungeons while trekking ever deeper in the their dangerous unknown. I was greatly anticipating Etrian Odyssey V last fall. Then I played it for a handful of hours and put it aside. As I picked it back up and played through it recently, I realized my lack of enthusiasm was because this is a lesser entry in the series.

Most Etrian Odyssey games have a moment when it all clicks; when the party fits together and you have a strategy for taking on a dungeon. I put this down just before I hit that point, when I realized that I was going to get the bulk of my damage out of my Pugilist and the synergy between the Fencer and Warlock, while my Botanist was going for pure healing instead of status effects. But even at that point, the game didn’t really click. I pushed through and enjoyed it, but nothing about this game really stood out. The classes are interesting. Pugilist is one of my favorite classes I’ve encountered, but none of the rest really did much for me. It seemed to take a lot of set up to get most of them going and I don’t really like fiddly classes. Pugilist, a hand to hand fighter class that powers up based on HP shenanigans, is really easy to use and has a great risk/reward mechanic. Otherwise, they classes left no impact. The same is true of the different dungeon stratums, which were either nothing new, all but the third stratum, or new but not especially interesting, like the third strata’s graveyard. It is the motions of the series, but nothing to really make it interesting.

Etrian Odyssey V’s big innovation are its races, but while they add quite bit if customization to the characters, it ends up being largely unnecessary and I honestly forgot about it for much of the game. There are Earthian, Celestrian, Therian and Brouni. They roughly translate to traditional fantasy races, humans, elves, and dwarves, with the Therian’s being the only ones who don’t. They are rabbit people. The Celestrians make good mages, Therians deal a lot of damage, Earthian’s are good all around. There is a lot to consider, but the game doesn’t require it at all. At first the races are restricted to specific classes, but eventually you get the ability to reclass. It rarely makes sense to do so, because a race’s stats are generally closely aligned with their initial classes. Its neat, but unnecessary.

For the most part, the game just feels kind of rote. It doesn’t do anything memorable or interesting. EOIV had the world map, with multiple little dungeons instead of one big one. EO3 had story choice and the sailing mini-game. The first game had originality going for it, and the Untold games had the novelty of a set party. This game is just fine. It doesn’t do anything necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t really do anything interesting either. I enjoyed this outing well enough, but it is one of the last entries in the series I would turn to for a fix in the future.

I thought this was going to be the last Etrian Odyssey on the 3DS, but Atlus has announced Etrian Odyssey Nexus, which is likely to be the series swan song, at least in it current incarnation. While the first Etrian Odyssey hit a little further into the DS’s life than I remembered, (it came out in 2007, more than two and half years after the DS) this series was always one that seemed like a backbone of the system. Etrian Odyssey was certainly never a big seller, but when I think of the DS, it comes to mind, along with Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center. While Trauma Center has kind of disappeared and Phoenix Wright comes and goes, Etrian Odyssey has been there all along. A new game every other year or so, no big changes to the formula, just new classes and new dungeons and new adventures. I am glad I get that one more time and I hope it is more inspired than this one was.

Super Mario Replay: New Super Mario Bros 2

I thought I had written about this game back when it was released, but apparently I didn’t. That is a shame. New Super Mario Bros 2 was released amongst a uncharacteristic deluge of true Mario games. From 2009-2013, there were 6 full Mario games released, not including Super Luigi U, a full-sized DLC add-on. NSMB2 was released right in the middle of that, and it got overshadowed by the games around it. That really isn’t unfair; most of those games are straight up masterpieces. NSMB2 is not quite on that level, but it is also a decided step up from its immediate predecessor New Super Mario Bros. Unfortunately for this game, excellence is overshadowed by brilliance.

The first New Super Mario Bros game was a phenomenon, but it is actually pretty pedestrian compared to the rest of the series. As you play it, you can almost feel Nintendo working through the rust of not having made a 2D Mario game in more than a decade. That time gap also allowed people to give it a lot more leeway. It had been a long time since there had been a 2D Mario game, the sheer newness of it covered a lot of the games lesser moments. Plus, its not like NSMB was bad, it just wasn’t on the level of the first four games. After that, Nintendo followed up with the multiplayer focused New Super Mario Bros Wii, (my copy of which unfortunately won’t play, so I can’t revisit it at this time) which was its own thing. NSMB2 feels much more assured than the first game; by the time of its release the developers knew how to make Mario games. But it also adds little to the formula.

NSMB2 is not helped by its gimmick, which is based around collecting coins. It is a good thought; coins were a long time part of the series that had little to no mechanical import. Sure in Mario 64 they acted as health, but for the most part they seemed to be there because they always had been there. Without changing anything, NSMB2 emphasizes collecting coins. It almost feels like it should have been a Wario game, since he is the one that loves treasure. It adds almost nothing to the game.

That said, I still think NSMB2 has been unfairly dismissed. While it lacks that spark that makes a lot of the Mario series so great, the game is still excellent. Now that Mario games have again slowed to a trickle, the routine excellence of NSMB2 is more easily appreciated. Not all games can be Super Mario 3D World or Super Mario Galaxy 2. Sometimes just doing everything right can be enough. Sometimes you just want to play more Mario levels. That might be all that New Super Mario Bros 2 brings, but it brings it so well that it is hard to hold it against the game. At least, it is now that it is not coming less than a year after Super Mario 3D Land and a few months before New Super Mario Bros U. Those are the more essential games, but once one has finished with the essential, there is more than a little to recommend in the excellent.

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario 3D Land

I’ve already reviewed this game here, and I mostly stand by what I wrote about this game more than a half decade ago (dear god). Now as then I find it to be a near perfect execution of the Mario formula. Now, though, I am a little more forgiving about how much of a formula the series uses, and how much of a departure this game is from that formula.

Playing it all again, the tight design of this game shines. It starts off probably too easy. That is a common complaint with this game, though an over blown one. It is easy, but Mario games are for everybody. It eases players into things to give new players a chance to learn the ropes. That is a good thing. The counterargument is that many people grew up loving Mario games started with games that are much harder than this one. That is true, but it also misses some crucial points. One is the greater degree of competition for young players attention. Super Mario Brothers might not have been the only game in town, but it was one of only a few when it came out. Super Mario 3D Land faces a lot more competition, with children more likely to turn the game off forever if it is too frustrating. Also, 3D games are more complex than 2D games, and it would naturally take a new player longer to learn to play those than of the original Super Mario Bros. So 3D Land walks a fine line, and maybe errs by being a little too easy, by making a game playable for new players but with enough bite for veterans. It definitely does have that bite at the end; the last few of the special worlds are pretty devilish. So yes, the game makes you wait a little too long before getting to the good stuff, but that stuff is good enough to be worth the wait.

Super Mario 3D Land continues the trajectory from Super Mario Galaxy of bringing the 3D games more in line with the 2D games, with smaller, more inventive levels. Super Mario 64 turned the levels into open playgrounds, and Super Mario Sunshine continued that. The series retrenched after that. In many ways, SM3DL is as much like Super Mario Bros 3 as possible. That is clear in how much emphasis it places on SMB3’s signature power up, the racoon tail. While it doesn’t work quite the same way here as it did there, it is an excellent power up as balanced. It gives an inexperienced player a cushion for ill-advised jumps. But it also gives expert players a lot of tools. The only problem with it is that its ability to break blocks is kind of necessary at some points.

Super Mario 3D Land is one of my favorite games in the Mario series. It is the game that sold me on the 3DS and remains maybe the best game on the system. It is only an incremental movement from the Galaxy games, but it is a meaningful evolution.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadow of Valentia

A new Fire Emblem game is out and even though over the last year I played what was essentially 3 new Fire Emblem games – each of Fates campaigns, Birthright, Conquest, Revelation, are full games – I was still really pumped for this one.  Hold on, I mean I played 4 Fire Emblem games, because I completely blanked on Fire Emblem Heroes on my phone, though maybe that is a good thing.  The point remains that I will take all of this series that Nintendo is offering, while they are offering it, because I don’t know when it might disappear again.  Still, with the Fates trilogy being a little bit of a letdown, with its fractured storyline making each of its three campaigns feel compromised in some way, the back to basics promise of the Fire Emblem Echoes, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the famicom, sounded like a good idea.

Fire Emblem Echoes is the truest of mixed bags.  It does some things that I absolutely love, but it also does just as many things that frustrate me. On the plus side is pretty much everything outside of the specific mechanics of this take on Fire Emblem.  On the negative side are some of those mechanics. Or lack of mechanics.

It really is the best looking 3D game in the series.  I have long been a partisan of the GBA game’s beautiful 2D sprites as they dance through their attack animations.  None of the 3D games have been able to match those for looks. While they have gotten progressively better, but it wasn’t until this game that I thought that they had equaled the GBA games.  I also prefer the character designs in Echoes to any the series has had in quite some time. They feel like character designs from the era this game originated, with some slight modernization, but not the pure modern aesthetic of Fates or Awakening. The animations are also top notch, with plenty of unique animations for the game’s characters, a touch that really helps bring out the personality in some characters that could otherwise feel somewhat flat. This is just a great looking 3DS game.  I also like the return to a less comprehensive support system, with the pair up mechanic being completely gone.  I didn’t mind those pair up mechanics in Awakening or Fates. They changed the game significantly, but once I got used to how they worked it became second nature.  However, playing this game without them kind reinforces how unnecessary they are.  The strategy here just feels more pure, with your units better able to fulfill their roles.  The role of character supports is also scaled back.  A big part of the last two games has been seeing those supports for as many of your warriors as possible.  This game cuts back on the number of possible supports and makes them less important overall. They are there to flesh out the characters.  There is no marriage/child mechanic, which is more than fine.  I like that idea, and Awakening did good work with it.  But it felt forced in Fates and it really didn’t need to be added here.  If they go back to that in the future, I hope we get a full generational game, instead of a weird work around.

I have some minor complaints with parts of the game, like how one set of units seems to have uniformly dreadful growth rates or that the third person dungeons seemed unnecessary, but mostly I liked.  Still there are two things that stood out to me as flaws.  Fire Emblem Echoes mostly did a great job removing the cruft that had built up on this series, I think it went a bit too far.  While I think this is true to the original version of this game, I really felt the absence of the weapon triangle. Without that, parts of the game devolved into throwing magic users against non-magic enemies and regular fighters against the mages.  There is no nuance to it; it turned kind of simplistic. I also felt the lack of varied map and win conditions.   While Fates, Revelation especially, went overboard with the gimmick maps, something other than kill all enemies would have been appreciated here.  Just a few battles with survive or escape or capture would have helped spice things up quite a bit.  Those aren’t deal breaker problems, but they were big enough faults to keep from holding the game in the same regard as I do for the first few Fire Emblem games I played.

Last but not least is the story.  I was not a big fan of the story in any version of Fates and really haven’t loved the story of a Fire Emblem game since the Radiant duo.  Echoes is a fleshing out of an NES game’s story, but I greatly enjoyed it. Some developments are abrupt, but none are as nonsensical as most of Fates storyline was. I liked being in control of two separate armies, each with their storyline to play through but not being locked into one story or the other. I see how much this game influenced Sacred Stones, another series oddball.  I am glad this weird entry in the series got a remake and I am glad it is so much better than the remake the original Fire Emblem got for the DS.

Pokémon Sun & Moon

Checking my posts about previous Pokémon games, I am confident say that this game is my favorite in the series since Black & White. Maybe since all the way back to Red and Blue. Pokémon Moon is a phenomenal game. While I found Alpha Sapphire tedious, just like I found Sapphire tedious, I did like X & Y and Black & White 2, they didn’t quite grasp me like the game’s I’ve truly loved have. White grabbed my attention with its collection of all new Pokémon. There was no finding the same old monsters you’ve been seeing since 1998; throughout the main game all that could be found were new monsters. Y, which didn’t grab me the same way, tried to differentiate itself by finally moving the series into 3D polygonal graphics. It was a good and necessary change, but it wasn’t enough on its own to get me to love the game. Moon keeps the graphical improvements from Y, but also shakes of the series usual progression in some fun and interesting ways.

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Pokémon Moon may be the most plot heavy games in the series. There is more than just the usual 8 gym badges interspersed with showdowns with the local Team Rocket equivalent. In fact, there are no gyms at all. The evil team stuff does take a bit of a step forward, but their plans are less world dominating maniacal and more street punks on a rampage. This is mixed with a plot about Pokémon from another dimension crossing over into this one. Replacing the gym leaders are Trial Captains and Kahunas, which are essentially the same thing, except instead of a gym they have trials for the player to complete. This works into the expanded story parts by letting the Captains and Kahunas show up more often on the adventure. Some are just the guys you see in the one scene where you fight them, others are encountered all over the island helping the player out. Each of the game’s four islands has a Kahuna, chosen by the island’s guardian Pokémon, who appoints the Captains to test people before they battle the Kahuna. A big part of the game is the local Pokémon Professor going around trying to set up an elite 4 like in the other regions. All of these different elements come together to make a game that is much more about the story of this area than previous games and a little less about the player’s quest to be the Champion. It isn’t a huge change, but it is a big enough one to make Pokémon Moon seem fresh compared to the previous generation.

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There have also been rather significant to the gameplay. The big one is dumping HMs. Hidden Moves, or HMs, were a gameplay element that let the player use moves on the world map. The series relied on these for environmental puzzles in previous generations. They were also on the whole not terribly useful moves that were impossible to get rid of. It lead to most players carting around one Pokémon whose only skill was the ability to learn 3 or 4 of those moves. Sun & Moon have eliminated them in favor of several Pokémon that can be called to solve those puzzles and are gradually unlocked as the game progresses. I was never a big detractor of HMs. There were occasionally a chore, but the series has scaled them back since Diamond & Pearl and they weren’t much of a hassle. Still, I can’t claim losing them isn’t an improvement. The solution keeps the basic functionality without clogging up the player’s team.

Instead of filling up the Pokedex with tons of new monsters, the highlight of each new generation and something that is quickly becoming untenable as the number of Pokémon approached 1000, Sun & Moon adds a ton of new forms for old Pokémon. It works with an idea that has already exists, region variants that look different from others of the same kind of Pokémon, except now they can have new types. Stuff like adding dark type to Rattata. It essentially takes old Pokémon and makes them new Pokémon, but in a more interesting way than X&Y’s Mega Evolutions.

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I really didn’t care for Mega Evolution. I found them goofy and not especially fun. Most of the Mega Evolutions went to Pokémon who were already strong, making them largely unnecessary. Sun & Moon add Z moves, a similar concept that just works better. They are powered by an item the Pokémon holds, and any Pokémon with the appropriate attack type can use them. Plus, they are accompanied by a goofy dance the trainer does. Instead of making one Pokémon super powerful, it gives a Pokémon on superpowered move. It is better balanced and more easy to customize to the player’s team.

I really liked Pokémon Moon. I enjoyed it enough that I am thinking of spending some significant time with the post-game. Usually I make a token effort before putting the game in my get back to pile and never getting back to it. (The big exception to this was Pokémon Pearl, which I put nearly 400 hours on.) Much like the second generation on the DS, the second 3DS generation really feels like it got things right. I again feel excited to play whatever the series has coming next. Maybe I’ll finally get around to downloading one of the original games on my 3DS.

Bravely Second: End Layer

A couple of years ago, I was wowed by Bravely Default, at least at the start. By the end I was pretty darn sick of it. The problems I pointed to in my review were pacing and balance, but I had others. The characters varied from grating to nonexistent and the plot ran about 2 chapters too far. Bravely Second, a game built on the bones of its predecessor, manages to fix all of those problems. I started out being somewhat underwhelmed with it, mostly due to how sick I still was of the end of Bravely Default, but by the time I finished it up I would rank it as one of the best RPGs on the 3DS. Bravely Second is a complete delight.

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There are so many small ways this game improves on its predecessor, starting with the characters. The party in BD consisted of Agnes, a completely generic female JRPG lead. She wasn’t bad, but she was exactly in the mold that has been used for that character since Rosa in FFIV. It had Tiz, a blank slate protagonist, and Edea, a hot headed defector the party’s team. Finally, there was Ringabel, a loveable rapscallion with a mysterious past. By the end of the game, Ringabel’s increasingly unfunny antics started to dominate the moments of levity. In Bravely Second, only Tiz and Edea return to the main party. Edea hasn’t changed, and didn’t need to. Tiz’s lack of personality has transformed with his demotion from protagonist to something of a laconic cool. He is now as close as this game gets to a silent badass. Joining the party are Yew, a wide eyed optimist suffused with bland enthusiasm, and Magnolia, who starts the same as Agnes as a sort of generic JRPG leading lady, but her quest is for revenge not activating mystical doohickeys. Agnes still has a prominent role as support, and it is a role that suits her well. Ringabel is held to a thankfully brief – and optional – cameo. The group in Bravely Second is more interesting and has a better rapport. The comic relief is split more evenly around the four party members and everyone comes off as fun instead of grating.

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The other characters, generally some sort of twisted embodiment of their class (inherited through an asterisk that bestows that class and its abilities on the player), were often interesting if underutilized. Except for Yulyana, who was neither interesting nor underutilized. In Bravely Second, the returning original asterisk holders have been given a slightly softened outlook. They are still kind of awful, but usually in a more comical than diabolical way. The new ones are split between plot centric ones with full characters and new toss off characters. Still, they managed to keep most of the good ones from the previous game and took a crack replacing the ones that didn’t work with new attempts, with some success. Like most of the game, BS’s characters are an improved revision of the first’s.

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The pacing and balance are much improved as well. No longer can you pick a strategy in the first 10 hours and use it for the rest of the game with total success. While I did attempt to experiment in the first game, it didn’t often feel rewarding. It was just as effective to stick with one or two strategies. Bravely Second’s classes dole out their effective skills a little slower, making it harder to find the perfect strategy and stick with it. Plus, the bosses do a better job of changing tactic to force the player to do the same. The game also moves at a snappier pace, with fewer bosses in each area. It is a revisit of all of Bravely Defaults haunts, but with new sights and new missions. Then there is the central conceit of the game, with the New Game+ being necessary to get the true ending. BD forced the player to run through the game several times to get to the real ending. BS has a one time trick that opens up two fully new chapters. The last half of BD was a slog, because the game was fully explored and you just had to keep doing it. BS wisely held some stuff back for the second run through.

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Bravely Second takes a good game and fixes almost all of its faults, turning a flawed yet fun experience into what should be regarded as a classic.

Fire Emblem Fates Birthright

When faced with the poorly explained choice between Fire Emblem Fates’ Birthright or Conquest versions, I went with Birthright. Given how the differences were explained, Conquest is that game the more closely fit with how I’ve played the series. I am just about as much of an old fan of Fire Emblem as exists in North America. I started with Sacred Stones, but quickly went back to play the first two GBA games, the fist using a translation patch and emulator, the only time I’ve actually completed a game that way. I’ve stuck with the series since, only failing to really enjoy the DS game. I liked Awakening, but I felt like it changed a little too much of the series core in an effort to expand the series fan base.

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It makes sense that when Nintendo explained what the differences between the two versions were that I would go with Conquest. Birthright was supposed to be more like Awakening; Conquest was the throwback to the early games in the series. There was one big change that I really wanted to keep, though: the world map. I started with Sacred Stones, the first game to try an Awakening like pivot for the series, but it was too rushed and too easy to have the impact that Awakening did. Still, a lot of the changes to Awakening were tried out for the first time in Sacred Stones. While I would agree that Sacred Stones is far from the best game in the series, its changes to the series’ structure were good. As much as I want an experience like Path of Radiance, I’d rather have some of the niceties of the modern games. Still, the choice for which one to buy (first, since I am going to be playing Conquest as soon as I finish with Birthright) came down to the fact that I prefer Birthright’s White and Red color scheme to Conquest’s Black and Purple.

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Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the game. Even Birthright pulls back from the cakewalk that Awakening was. There are some big changes to the pair up mechanic that stop it from completely wrecking the game’s difficulty curve. Now combo attacks always happen unless characters are paired up. Pairing up is now a defensive maneuver. It blocks enemy combo attacks and occasionally blocks main attacks. In Awakening there was no reason not to pair up, in Fates it is a situational tool. Not pairing up allows the player to combo and press the attack, pairing stops the enemy from doing the same. It turns a broken mechanic into an interesting one.

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The other big change to the formula is that they removed weapon durability. At first I thought this would simplify the game too much; judicious use of powerful weapons was an integral part of the series. The change was worked into the game perfectly. Now even the best weapons can have significant downsides and super powerful weapons are harder to find. It makes for fewer decisions for the player, but more important ones. The new weapon system really won me over by about the midpoint of the game.

It does continue the series strong focus on characters. The plot never moves past generic fantasy fluff, but the real draw is in the support conversations between the characters that make up your army. The start in out in pretty stereotypical roles, but the strong localization work really helps flesh out the collection of stock characters. The furor over this game’s localization is equal parts annoying and amusing to me. It is annoying because people who have done excellent work are getting yelled at by idiots; it is amusing because of how impotent those idiots have proven to be. Fire Emblem Fates looked like Nintendo taking a hard turn into some otaku jerkoff bullshit and the NA version deftly smoothed out the roughest, grossest parts of it, causing a teapot tempest of man-baby outrage. When the dust settled, intelligence won out and FE Fates was the best-selling game in the series in its first month. It is always good to see good work rewarded. Far from being a problem with the game the quality of the Fire Emblem Fates localization, like with nearly every game Nintendo’s Treehouse group translates, is one of its strongest features.

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I will always miss the incredibly charming sprites from the GBA games, but Birthright is one of the strongest games in the series to date. Now it’s time to find out if its supposedly more difficult counterpart is just as good.

The Ace Attorney Against the Archaeologist

Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright is a crossover game that caters directly to me, featuring two of my favorite DS franchises, which makes me a somewhat sad that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped to. All the elements that make both series great are there, but somehow it doesn’t come together quite as well as the games from either. This is not a peanut butter and chocolate situation of two great tastes going great together; these two distinct flavors do not mix as well as one would expect.

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It is less a natural failure of mixing these two game series, but a failure of this specific game’s attempt at comingling those two worlds. While it was written by Shu Takumi the creator of the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix and Maya’s inclusion almost seems an afterthought. The structure of the game is much more like the Layton series, but the puzzles aren’t really up to snuff. Outside of the protagonist duos, the game does nothing to leverage the rest of these games excellent cast to help fill out the story. Finally, when it comes down to it, often this game just isn’t all that well written; a big problem when the game is essentially a visual novel.

It starts with Professor Layton and Luke having a girl show up on their doorstep in some sort of trouble. It is the starting point of most Layton games. Trying to help her out, Layton and Luke get pulled into a deeper mystery. And they get pulled into a mysterious book. At the same time, Phoenix and Maya travel from Japan America to England to learn from their legal system. When he gets there, he discovers that he has been put in charge of a case, a case involving the girl that Layton and Luke were protecting. After winning the case, Nick and Maya also get sucked into the mystery.

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While there are several cases for Phoenix to try, they are mostly unsatisfying affairs. Mostly because the legal system in the witch trials is pointless. It is annoying to use logic when the system itself ignores it. The rules in a regular Ace Attorney game don’t exactly make sense, but they are consistent. Cases build up to their conclusions. Here they tend to just go on until someone else admits to the crime. No matter how effectively you prove your client innocent, unless you can pin the crime on someone else it doesn’t matter. Yes, they are witch hunts; they have to find someone to blame things on, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying experience.

My complaints about the Layton portions are less pronounced. A lot of the puzzles are less brainteasers and more trial and error. There are also fewer of them than the usual Layton game. They are actually tied into the game more organically than usual, but at the cost of some of the Layton’s series unique charm.

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Outside of a cameo by Inspector Chelmey and Constable Barton, the supporting cast is all new. In a lot of ways this is a good thing, it lets the game tell its own story and build an organic way for these characters to interact. Still, the crossover appeal would have been stronger if they would have dug just a little deeper. Why does Flora constantly get shoved aside? Why couldn’t Gumshoe have shown up to bumble around with Chelmey and Barton? Maybe a role for Miles Edgeworth? While they definitely should not have been allowed to take over the game, a few more familiar faces would have been appreciated. Another problem is that the investigation group expands to five people, all of which have to give their two cents at every opportunity. It slows the pace down, particularly since Maya and Luke don’t really have much to do for the bulk of the game.

There are plenty of good things, though. The overall scenario is solidly entertaining, with a suitably Layton-esque escalation near the end. Both Layton and Phoenix get their chances to shine; opportunities to bring their unique skills to the fore. Plenty of the new characters are highly entertaining. There are some interesting advancements to the trial system as well. While letting the player cross exam multiple witnesses at once is kind of ludicrous, allowing the player the use pieces of testimony to point out contradictions to other witnesses is a nice touch.

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The game is pure fan service for fans of both series. It doesn’t make either of is separate parts better, but it doesn’t diminish them enough to make them unenjoyable. Plus, there is a good chance that this is the last we see of either of these protagonists. The Layton series is headed off to the unexplored territory of Layton 7, which is not going to be like the previous games in the series. And the Ace Attorney series is heading into the past for Great Ace Attorney, with Sherlock Holmes as a supporting cast member as they try cases in Japan’s America’s Meiji Period. Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright is not a perfect game, but it is a fine send off for two of the best new video game characters of the last decade.