Category Archives: Personal and Opinion

Most posts fit in here. Things where I write from the heart about all manner of subjects. As is the norm on personal websites these days, I remind you once again that everything I say here is my own opinion and doesn’t reflect the opinion of my employers — past, present or future.

1924: Journeying Ever Onwards

So One Way Heroics Plus has pretty much devoured my soul with its wily ways and new features. I’ve been playing it a whole bunch, dying a whole lot and having a great time in the process.

I made a video of two unsuccessful runs earlier; here you go:

I’m really impressed with the additions to the base formula. In particular I’m excited about the fact that there are a number of new quests involved in unlocking the additional character classes; these quests replace the standard adventure to defeat the Demon Lord (or win in a couple of other super-secret ways) and task you with additional objectives, confronting you with new challenges and powerful foes on the way.

The small additions to the game’s interface are great, too. The hotbar in particular is an excellent addition, even if you only use it to quickly access skills like Awakening (your default “stop time for three turns” ability, which is very useful for getting out of a pinch) and Lockpicking. It’s also great to be able to customise the interface somewhat; it’s still a little cluttered thanks to it running in 640×480 (or upscaled 640×480 now, at least) but simple changes like being able to put your gauges at the bottom of the screen and the minimap up the top make it a lot easier to see where you’re going.

More subtle changes only become apparent if you’ve played both games. The pace of levelling has been considerably increased, but in exchange the “Goddess Statues” at which you can “spend” levels to get numerous benefits are considerably more expensive to use, and no longer provide the same possible bonuses every time. Skill merchants offer the ability to learn new abilities in exchange for stat levels, Iron Hags will make a random item for you (including “air”, which just means you’re out of pocket), benevolent Force practitioners will teach you defensive, utility or restorative spells… the list goes on.

And the game is still absolutely packed with charm and a surprising amount of depth. Most notably — and this was true of the original, too — is the fact that, despite initial appearances, the game does have a plot. Or, more accurately, a number of different intertwining narrative threads that only become apparent if you come into contact with the recruitable NPCs, figure out a way to stop the Demon Lord trying to set fire to you long enough to have a chat or try some of the daily “special campaigns” that add small but significant tweaks to the basic formula. A particular favourite that I had the other day was a world where every normal attack had a massive knockback effect on it, so you had to take care not to fight with your back to the encroaching Darkness lest you get slammed into it by your foe landing a blow. It shook up the way I played a great deal; unfortunately I didn’t quite get far enough to take full advantage of it by whacking the final boss of the Force Knight unlock quest into the Darkness — the main means through which you deal damage to this rather unpleasant adversary — but it was an enjoyable journey nonetheless.

I’m well and truly hooked then. And if you’re yet to discover the fun for yourself, I recommend giving it a look now. It’s just $6.99 and it will keep you busy for a very long time. You can grab it from publisher Playism, or soon from Steam, too. (If you buy it now at Playism, you’ll get a Steam key when that version releases.)

1923: Target: Bahamut

After successfully clearing The Second Coil of Bahamut in Final Fantasy XIV a while back, our raid group is now on to the Final Coil of Bahamut — the last four encounters in this particular part of the story, and, like its predecessors, some of the toughest fights in the game.

Since we’re approaching the release of expansion pack Heavensward, which will feature an all-new raid set inside giant fortress/robot thing Alexander, The Final Coil of Bahamut has been “nerfed” slightly in order to allow a few more people to make it through. Specifically, the “Echo” bonus that was gradually introduced in previous Turns has been brought in, giving anyone who enters an immediate 10% boost to their maximum HP, damage dealt and healing.

This doesn’t make the encounters easy, by any means — although we’ve all cleared Turn 10 (aka The Final Coil of Bahamut, Turn 1) several times, today we had real difficulty with it for some reason. So after a while we gave up and took a look at Turn 11, which none of us had seen at all before.

For the unfamiliar, the Binding Coil of Bahamut storyline in Final Fantasy XIV is effectively a direct follow-up to how version 1.0 of the game ended — with “The Calamity”, which saw artificial moon Dalamud called down from the sky, only to burst open and reveal a very angry dragon god called Bahamut, who promptly proceeded to blow seven shades of shit out of Eorzea. Archon Louisoix — grandfather of Alphinaud and Alisae, the former of whom is a main character in A Realm Reborn’s main storyline and the latter of whom serves as the “protagonist” of sorts for the Binding Coil of Bahamut narrative — did something appropriately spectacular when all hope looked lost, leaving a number of adventurers temporarily trapped in limbo until they woke up five years later in an Eorzea that was in the process of being rebuilt. What happened to Bahamut? That’s the question that the Binding Coil of Bahamut sets out to answer, and you gradually discover bits and pieces about what really happened as you progress through it.

That’s not all, though. Although Final Fantasy XIV’s setting of Eorzea is very much “swords and magic” fantasy, with a hint of magical technology lifted pretty much directly from Final Fantasy VI, there’s also a hint of sci-fi in there. Like any good sprawling role-playing game worth its salt, Final Fantasy XIV has an ancient race of long-dead weirdos who left mysterious, technologically advanced relics all over the world. The background of said weirdos — known as the Allagans — runs as an interesting undercurrent to everything else that is going on, and is specifically explored through both the Crystal Tower and Binding Coil of Bahamut story arcs, with it being necessary to complete both to get the full picture — or at least, everything that has been revealed about them so far.

The Binding Coil of Bahamut is where some of the most interesting, exciting and surprising developments in this aspect of the game’s overall lore come, and it’s also home to some of the most spectacular visual settings in the whole game. By jumping head-first into the sci-fi angle, the Binding Coil of Bahamut is free to let loose with some enormously creative, absolutely massive environments that are quite unlike anything seen anywhere else in the game. Turn 11 in particular, which we saw for the first time tonight, is quite astonishing to behold, unfolding in and around an enormous scale model of the artificial moon Dalamud, and I understand that 12 and 13 are even more spectacular. I’m looking forward to it.

The thing I’m looking forward to most about this, though, is the fact that it represents the “true final boss” of the game as a whole as it exists today. And, while I haven’t spoiled myself on the encounters in Turn 12 and 13 as yet — though I can pretty much figure out who/what you’ll be fighting there — I have had a listen to the music. And it’s going to be quite the experience battling with this — the music from Turn 12 — in the background, I feel.

We have a big hydra… thing to flatten first, though, and we’re taking another pop at it tomorrow. Wish us luck!

1922: Please Proceed to the Right, Again: One Way Heroics Plus

I’m planning on doing another video on this, but since I’ve been playing it a bunch today I thought I’d talk a little about One Way Heroics Plus.

As the name suggests, this is an enhanced and expanded version of the Japanese roguelike One Way Heroics, which I talked about a few days ago. It’s positioned as an “expansion” but it’s actually a new standalone game based on the skeleton of the original. Mercifully, however, you can import your saved data from the original game — though the conversion process means that you can’t send it back to the original game once you’ve done this, but why on Earth would you want to?

One Way Heroics Plus follows the same fomula as its predecessor in that it involves you, the Hero, attempting to save the world from the ever-encroaching darkness, represented by the screen that scrolls every turn, regardless of whether you’re actually moving “forwards” or not. Get pushed off the left side of the screen and you lose. Die and you lose. Beat the Demon Lord, who shows up after 400km of travelling on the easiest difficulty and at regular intervals on the other levels, and you win. There are also some other means of winning, but I won’t spoil those for you now.

So what’s new? Well, a few things. Firstly, the interface has had an overhaul. The original game didn’t have a bad interface — although it was rather cluttered thanks to the game running in 640×480 — but doing things like repetitive actions was a little cumbersome. The addition of a customisable hotbar alleviates this issue by allowing you to set a series of items and abilities ready for quick access at any time. Other little tweaks have been done here and there, too; items now glow, tough enemies pulse red, there’s a clear indicator when an enemy spots you, there’s an XP bar that appears when you can XP, there’s an auto-move function (with a customisable filter for whether or not it should automatically stop when enemies are nearby) and generally, the whole thing is just a bit slicker.

There are some new character classes and Perks, too, including some “negative” perks (or disadvantages, I guess they are, really) for those who want to make things a bit more challenging. There’s also supposedly an expanded metagame involving collecting “Dimensional Coins” throughout your travels and using them to upgrade a castle, but I haven’t explored this aspect of the game at all yet. Supposedly this unlocks new characters, quests and mechanics — I’m quite interested to see what it offers, as this is, from the sound of things, the most major addition to the game.

It’s the same game at its core, though, and that’s no bad thing, as the original was really solid. What One Way Heroics Plus does, however, is take that solid foundation and build an even more interesting, challenging and replayable game out of it; I’m very much looking forward to exploring it a bit more in the coming weeks — and at some point in the next few days, I’ll post a video showing some of the new features in a bit more detail, too.

For now, though, I have to mourn my journey from earlier today, where I successfully travelled for over 850km and reached experience level 76 before making the ill-considered decision to swim across the ocean to a small island and rescue a little girl; sadly, my swimming skill was too low to allow me to outrun the creeping Darkness, and I, along with the little girl and Queen Frieda, who had been accompanying me for some distance (and gradually revealing her surprising backstory in the process), were swallowed up by oblivion, never to be seen again… at least until I hit the “New Game” button again.

1921: Keeper of the Records

I’m not sure what’s inspired me to check out a few popular mobile games recently, but hot on the heels of Brave Frontier, which I talked a bit about the other day, I decided to take a peek at Square Enix’s newest attempt to make a free-to-play mobile Final Fantasy game after the absolutely atrocious Final Fantasy: All the Bravest.

Final Fantasy Record Keeper was initially a little offputting by its association with DeNA; my past experience with this company is that they churn out identikit free-to-play games — mostly of the “gacha” variety, where you randomly draw various things each day in the hope of collecting a complete set, and can pay more to get more draws — that tend to be devoid of gameplay, polish and indeed any reason to play them whatsoever.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that Final Fantasy Record Keeper is actually a solid, interesting game in its own right. It’s not a narrative-heavy Final Fantasy game, mind, but it’s pretty up-front about this. What it instead provides is the “gacha”-style collecting mechanics that DeNA have so much experience with combined with some actual gameplay, with mechanics and everything.

The basic formula is pretty simple. Over the course of the game, you assemble a team of characters from past Final Fantasy games, reimagined in 16-bit era pixel art in the case of the more recent installments (VII onwards). You equip this team with “relics” (equipment) and abilities, then take them into a dungeon to work your way through a series of battles and eventually defeat a boss. There’s no exploration involved; a dungeon is simply a string of predefined enemy encounters, with each costing a particular amount of “stamina” to participate in, meaning that your play sessions are throttled after a particular amount of time and until either your stamina recharges or you pay up to immediately refill it.

This is pretty much business as usual for gacha-style games, but Record Keeper actually fleshes out the battles with something akin to Final Fantasy’s traditional “Active Time Battle” system, whereby battles are both turn-based and real-time at the same time: characters’ “time bars” gradually fill, and when they’re full, they can take an action. (In a twist on the original formula, somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII, they then have to charge the bar again before the action is actually performed.) While this is happening, enemies are making use of their abilities in the same way.

The battles are fairly straightforward, though the ability to exploit elemental weaknesses and challenge special objectives during boss fights makes things a bit more interesting than just tapping the “attack” button over and over again. Where things get interesting is in the customisation aspect, which is always the strongest part of any gacha-style game.

In Record Keeper, the things you “draw” each day (or exchange the game’s premium currency for) are the relics, not the characters. These items of equipment have set bonuses to various stats, and certain characters can only equip certain types of equipment. You can level up equipment by sacrificing unneeded items or specific upgrade materials, and when a piece of equipment reaches its level cap, you can combine it with another instance of the same item to buff it up to the next rarity level and then begin the levelling process all over again with a higher cap. Certain pieces of equipment also have special abilities attached to them, all of which are unique to particular characters and based on their iconic moves from their respective games.

Alongside this, the abilities your characters can use have to be crafted using orbs you find in battle. Each character can initially equip just two abilities, and initial abilities only have two uses, meaning you have to carefully think about whether you really need to use that ability when you’re in a dungeon, as they don’t recharge until you leave, are defeated or are victorious. Abilities can subsequently be upgraded using additional orbs, however, which makes them more effective and gives you more uses of them; they can also be swapped around between characters, too, so if you make changes to your lineup the newcomers don’t have to start with crap skills.

Alongside all of the above, you then have the makeup of your party to consider. Characters get large bonuses to their stats and experience points earned if they are from the game the dungeon you’re currently playing through is from — for example, Cloud is much more effective in Final Fantasy VII-themed dungeons, while Kain is much more effective in Final Fantasy IV-themed dungeons — but have certain restrictions on what abilities and equipment they can use. Level up an ability too much and you might find a favourite character is no longer able to use it, so you have to be a little bit careful and plan ahead.

Like Brave Frontier, I’m not sure how long I’m going to stick with the game, particularly as it appears to be devoid of any sort of social features and thus the incentive to compete against — or cooperate with — other people. For the moment, though, it’s an interesting “collection”-style, battle-centric RPG featuring characters and settings from a series I’m very fond of — though I’m a bit disappointed that, as usual, Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV are ignored thanks to their “online game” status as opposed to the series’ more traditional single-player installments.

You can find out more about the game and get links to download it — it’s available for both iOS and Android devices — on its official website.

1920: Old-School Shooting

In the same bundle I grabbed primarily for Crimzon Clover World Ignition the other day, I also received a copy of Raiden III. I haven’t played a Raiden game since the original PS1 era, when the bundle of Raiden and Raiden II that came on a single disc (Raiden Project, I think it was called?) was one of my favourite games, despite it not exactly showing off the then-new hardware to its maximum potential.

Raiden III has been an interesting blast from the past, no pun intended. Although I very much enjoy danmaku (bullet hell) shooters, Raiden III is a pleasant reminder that you don’t need to completely fill the screen with bullets to be challenging, and nor do you need an overly convoluted scoring system to be interesting. Raiden III is simple and straightforward, but actually has a surprising amount of depth and strategy to it, particularly with regard to the various weapon pickups available to you.

I was pleased to see that the bendy laser I always used to find so hilarious in the earlier Raiden games is back, though this time around it’s green rather than purple. I was also pleased to see that the red weapon is still capable of filling the screen with as many bullets as a danmaku shooter’s default player sprite configuration. And I was delighted that the game is accompanied by an appropriately cheesy yet pulse-pounding soundtrack that complements the on-screen action perfectly.

What I was most surprised about, however, is how good it actually looks despite running at 640×480 resolution (and vertically letterboxed, to boot, thanks to most shoot ’em ups’ vertical screen orientation) and having precisely no graphical options to speak of whatsoever.

Raiden III, for the unfamiliar, eschews the sprite-based ships and 2D backgrounds of its predecessors in favour of full-on polygonal 3D. The backgrounds are 3D, too, which gives them the flexibility to pitch, roll, swoop and change altitude in a far more dynamic manner than the old-school 2D backdrops, making the game quite a thrill ride. (Recent shmups from Edelweiss such as the fantastic Astebreed and Ether Vapor Remaster have continued this proud tradition in glorious 1080p.)

The most surprising thing about the visuals is how much it still looks like a Raiden game. The distinctive appearance of the player ship, its weapons and even the enemies is kept completely intact despite the move to polygonal 3D, and I think this is a large contributing factor to the game still managing to genuinely look good on a 55-inch widescreen TV at vertically letterboxed 640×480. It runs as smooth as butter, too — although I’d hope so on my rig — and has proven to be a lot more addictive than I originally anticipated when I first booted it up the other day to kill a few minutes.

Raiden III, then, provided me with proof positive that resolution really doesn’t matter to me, even as the new generation of consoles has players becoming increasingly sniffy about games that don’t run in “true 1080p”. If your overall design is up to snuff, you could be running at 320×200 and still look great, and Raiden III, like many other ageing games, is very much testament to that.

1919: #WaifuWednesday – Shin (Criminal Girls)

The temptation to pick another Senran Kagura girl this week was very high indeed — I’ve just finished the main story of Shinovi Versus and there are, after all, 25 very interesting female characters in that game. But since I’m planning on doing a more comprehensive Senran Kagura writeup over at MoeGamer later this week when I’ve finished all the side stories in Shinovi Versus, I thought I’d mix things up a bit and show a bit of appreciation for the girl who currently graces my Windows wallpaper on my living room PC: Shin, from Criminal Girls on Vita, which I beat a few weeks back.

Spoilers ahead.

2015-03-22-001444Shin, real name Makoto, is based primarily around the commonly used anime trope of the hikikomori, or shut-in. A renowned, well-known and somewhat notorious MMO player who was viciously bullied in real life for her interests and passions, Shin had, over time, retreated from society to live in her own private world where she felt safe. She’d done this to the exclusion of everyone around her — going so far as to lock herself inside her room and only eat whatever food had been left outside for her.

When you encounter Shin for the first time in Criminal Girls, none of this is apparent. She simply seems like an overconfident “leader type”, wanting to boss everyone around and, as the oldest member of the group, believing that her opinion carries a considerable degree of weight. Her “leader type” personality is even reflected in her game mechanics; by herself, she’s not very formidable, but most of her power comes from her “Operation” skills, which partner with at least one other party member to effectively deliver multiple special attacks in the space of a single turn.

Over time, her facade slips, however; she continually makes poor decisions that put the group in danger, and throwaway comments she makes gradually reveal her otaku side. It eventually becomes very apparent that she’s trying desperately to be someone that she isn’t, and that by hiding herself away she’s hurting the people around her.

The main thrust of Criminal Girls’ story surrounds the player’s attempts to “redeem” the titular girls from their past sins, to prevent them being incarcerated in Hell and giving them another chance at life. Shin’s sin, then, is that of neglecting others; she personifies the Deadly Sin of Envy. She envies those who have a normal life and is embittered by her drop-out, shut-in existence; the arrogant persona she initially displays is both a reflection of the character she played online and of who she thinks she “ought” to be — a persona she believes to be more likeable.

As the girls and the player character come to trust one another more, though, Shin starts to open up. She’s more honest and less confrontational, though she still bickers with the rather spoiled Kisaragi; the two are more similar than either of them would care to admit. Most importantly, she learns through others accepting her that it is also possible to accept herself without being ashamed; there’s no need for her to cut herself off from her problems and hide away. In doing so, in fact, she had simply made matters worse; the longer she was alone, the more she believed she needed to be alone, and so her resentment and envy towards “normal” people grew.

2015-03-22-001406

Those of you who know me well will surely not be surprised to hear that I found Shin to be one of the most relatable characters in Criminal Girls. While I haven’t gone to the lengths she has — I’m fortunate enough to have a good circle of friends (both online and off) and a wonderful fiancee who tolerate, understand and accept the things I’m interested in — I can very much empathise with her feelings of isolation, the suffering she endured while she was being bullied and her envy for people who seem to be able to go about their business “normally”. I’ve been through some of the things Shin has been through — though fortunately in my case it didn’t involve a literal trip to Hell and back — and as such she occupies a special place in my heart.

A toast to you, then, Shin; you were one of numerous reasons I’m glad I made that journey through Hell.

 

1918: GTA Online’s Identity Crisis

I’ve been playing a bunch of Grand Theft Auto Online recently. My local friends and I all acquired copies so we’d have something we all enjoyed playing and that we could all get something out of: past attempts to do this have led to one or more members of the group being dissatisfied with our choices for whatever reason, and ultimately our multiplayer gaming sessions falling by the wayside. We’re hoping, however, that Grand Theft Auto Online will provide some fun shenanigans for a little while yet.

And I think it might just do that, at least in part due to the game’s curious identity crisis that it has going on. It doesn’t feel like it really knows what it wants to be. In places it’s downright messy, and the “session-based” nature of getting people together is cumbersome, clunky, unintuitive and simply broken at times. But even with all that, it’s simply fun.

I talked a little about the basic structure of the game a few days ago, but having spent a few sessions actually playing it “properly” with at least one other friend now, I can see what it’s doing.

The core of the game’s identity crisis comes from the disconnect between typical Grand Theft Auto freeform open-world gameplay — in which up to 30 players can log in to the same session, run around anywhere on the map completely independently of one another and have fun doing whatever they see fit — and the “Jobs” that form the more structured activities in the game. This disconnect is nothing unusual for Grand Theft Auto in general, of course; ever since Grand Theft Auto III brought the series kicking and screaming into 3D it’s been like two games in one, and this contrast has only become more pronounced as the stories have got better and more ambitious over the years.

Open-world freeform multiplayer is great fun. You can effectively make up your own silly little games and challenges and take them on with friends. You won’t get much in the way of rewards for them, but if all you’re in it for is some silliness, it provides that in spades. What doesn’t quite work about the open-world stuff is that the moment someone activates an activity of some description — be it a race, a mission or even a game of darts — they are snatched out of the open-world session, temporarily unable to communicate with the people they were playing with, and put into a more traditional multiplayer lobby, from which they can invite people via several means: everyone from the open-world session, selected people from the open-world session, friends who are online or simply “anyone who is available”.

Once you’re into that lobby and with friends, you’re effectively in a “party” like you’d be in something with more traditionally structured multiplayer like Call of Duty or Halo. You do an activity, you all vote on what’s next, you do the next thing, repeat until someone gets bored or everyone votes to go back to Free Mode.

The activities are pretty fun too, and I understand why they’re “instanced” separately from the main chaos of the open-world gameplay — trying to complete a mission while up to 29 other people are careening around the map causing mischief sounds like a recipe for disaster. It’s the execution that is a little lacking: the absence of an MMO-style “party” system makes meeting up with specific people in public sessions tricky, and the way people are simply snatched out of the open world the moment they walk into a mission trigger is not explained at all well; if you don’t know that’s how it works, it’s entirely possible you’d be left thinking that your friends had simply left the game altogether.

As I say, these issues and the fundamental disconnect between the freeform gameplay of Free Mode and the structured activities of the Jobs don’t prevent Grand Theft Auto Online from being a good game. It’s a lot of fun, particularly when playing with friends you already know. (I don’t even want to contemplate how awful taking on the cooperative missions with random people might be.) There’s just an awful lot of things it could do a whole lot better, too.

Still, it’s enjoyable, and I’m confident it will provide some fun evenings of entertainment for my friends and I for a little while yet.