2469: OK Google

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With the courier work I’ve been doing for the past few days, I’ve been relying heavily on Google Maps for navigation around the area, and I’ve been discovering the benefits of voice controls — it’s much easier to simply say “take me to…” and Google work it out for you than to type in a postcode using Android’s cumbersome and clumsy keyboard.

I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the accuracy of the voice recognition, since it even recognises non-standard words such as street names without too much difficulty, and it uses your location to make an educated guess at which one of the many Alder Roads in the world you might have actually wanted to go to. I counted only two hiccups in an entire day’s work: one when it wanted to send me to Hedge End (which is the other side of the Southampton conurbation to where I was working) and one when it wanted to send me to Birmingham. Granted, one of those mistakes was pretty large, but given that it understood me on all the 50+ other occasions throughout the day, I think I can forgive it.

I find myself wondering if voice recognition will actually become particularly widespread or accepted. Apple now includes Siri with Mac OS as well as iOS, Microsoft has Cortana in more recent revisions of its operating systems, Google seems keen to bake voice recognition into Android and all its services and even my TV will let you talk to it. The technology is certainly there and seems to work reasonably well in most cases — certainly considerably better than it did even just a few short years ago — but it’s still painfully awkward to use, particularly if you’re in an environment where there are other people around you. And while I’ve seen the benefit of being able to shout at my phone while I’m in my car, I don’t see the same benefit from talking to my computer, TV or games console when its physical controls are right there and allow me to complete the task I want to complete just as quickly “manually”.

I think we’re still lacking a certain degree of artificial intelligence necessary to make voice activated technology truly useful, worthwhile and ingrained in society. The aim, presumably, is to have something along the lines of Computer in Star Trek, where you can say pretty much anything to the voice activated computer and it will successfully parse what you say (within reason) and perform any task from turning the lights on to inverting the phased magnetic resonance coils into a Gaussian feedback loop. Specify parameters.

I wonder whether that’s something that is truly desirable, though. Is it really more convenient to be able to vocalise something you want your computer to do? It probably is for those who aren’t as computer-literate, but then there’s still a chunk of the population who don’t use computers or mobile phones at all. A shrinking chunk, admittedly, but a chunk nonetheless, and I’m not sure fully voice-capable hardware — which will probably still be on the expensive end of the spectrum — will convert that sort of person into being a believer in technology.

Still. “OK Google” helped me find my way around today, and that, at least, impressed me. Perhaps I’ll discover more interesting uses of it in the future.

2389: Mobius Final Fantasy: Also Doing Mobile Free-to-Play Games Right

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Square Enix is on a roll with the mobile games at the moment; a few months after Final Fantasy Brave Exvius hit the market, we find ourselves faced with a brand new free-to-play Final Fantasy game for mobile devices in the form of Mobius Final Fantasy, a game that has been shrouded in a considerable amount of mystery for a while, but which is finally available to play for both iOS and Android devices.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: this is a distinct experience to both Final Fantasy Record Keeper and Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, and has a very strong identity in its own right. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that despite it being based around the usual “gacha” core of drawing and upgrading cards to progress, it is one of the most distinctive, original mobile games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. And if you know how much I hate 98% of mobile games, you’ll know that’s high praise indeed from me.

Mobius Final Fantasy casts you in the role of (insert your name here), who finds himself drawn through time and space to the ruined world of Palamecia, which appears to have been laid waste to by the malevolent force that is Chaos. Alongside the other “Blanks” who appeared in Palamecia alongside you, you must begin a journey to determine your worthiness to become the Warrior of Light and defeat Chaos once and for all.

If all this sounds rather familiar, you’d be absolutely right; Mobius Final Fantasy draws heavily from the very first Final Fantasy game in terms of thematic ideas, even going so far as to include a number of characters with the same names — most notably Garland and Princess Sarah of Cornelia. It remains to be seen whether these individuals are actually the same people as in the original Final Fantasy — Palamecia was the name of the empire in Final Fantasy II, not the original, so it’s entirely possible their resemblance and nomenclature is pure fanservice — but it’s a nice touch if nothing else.

Gameplay-wise, however, Mobius Final Fantasy is entirely original, although its overall aesthetic is somewhat similar to Final Fantasy XIII in terms of character and interface design.

Playing Mobius Final Fantasy involves traversing a node-based world map, with each node housing a number of different battles and perhaps a stronger boss to fight. Most of the nodes represent your journey across the ruined world of Palamecia, but some are dungeons that have several floors to clear and sometimes even an area you can explore freely at the end. Unlike many free-to-play mobile games, after just a few short hours of gameplay, Mobius Final Fantasy opens up and starts to give you a considerable amount of freedom in where to go and what to do. There’s always an obvious place you should be going next to advance the story, but in some instances you’ll be presented with a path that won’t open until you clear a particular quest — and you’ll have to find the target for that quest yourself by exploring.

You don’t freely explore the areas (thankfully, since controlling free movement in mobile games using just a touchscreen is horrid) but rather advance from battle to battle, defeating enemies and earning rewards along the way. The emphasis, in other words, is very much on fighting.

So it’s fortunate that Mobius Final Fantasy has such a fun, interesting and original battle system. Rather than reskinning Brave Frontier as Brave Exvius did, or taking the retro approach of Record KeeperMobius Final Fantasy has its own take on how you fight. You’re alone, for starters; no party members to back you up here, but you are able to take a number of different “cards” into battle, each of which has an ability attached and an elemental affinity.

The flow of combat is relatively straightforward, though takes a little explaining. Normal attacks deal damage and also draw out elemental orbs of four out of five possible types: fire, water, earth, wind and life. Each Job can only draw three of the elemental types plus life orbs, which are drawn at a much lower chance than the others. These elemental orbs are primarily used to trigger the abilities on your cards, each of which have a requisite number of a particular element before you can unleash them.

The card abilities have two main functions: to exploit elemental weaknesses of enemies, and to make their “Break” gauge vulnerable. This latter feature is somewhat akin to Final Fantasy XIII’s “Stagger” system, whereby if you empty an enemy’s gauge, they will become significantly weaker against your attacks along with being unable to hit you for a short period. If you can Break an enemy, in most cases you’ll be able to press the advantage right up to victory before they’re able to get back on their feet.

But what if you don’t draw the right elemental orbs to use your abilities? Well, here’s the other use for them: you can absorb them, which removes them from your stock and gives you temporarily increased resistance against that element (or, in the case of life orbs, heals you). That’s not the only effect, though; absorbing elemental orbs in this way shifts the balance of elements, making you less likely to draw that type from enemies for a short period and consequently more likely to draw the others. In this way, you can absorb an element an enemy is strong against, which in most cases will make you strong against the enemy’s attacks, and increase the likelihood that you draw orbs suitable for unleashing abilities that will damage the enemy to a greater degree.

I don’t feel like I’ve explained that all that well. Let’s give a practical example.

Battle begins. You’re faced with an enemy that has a wind affinity. You’re playing a Ranger job, so your normal attacks will draw water, wind, earth or life orbs — no fire for Rangers.

You attack three times, the standard amount you are able to do in a single turn. In doing so, you draw a bunch of wind orbs and a couple of earth, though not enough to use an earth ability. A wind-element enemy would be weak against earth abilities, so it’s in your interest to get one up and running as soon as possible.

The enemy attacks. You take a bit of damage, though nothing to worry about.

For your first action, you absorb the wind orbs you drew last turn. This gives you temporarily increased resistance against wind attacks — i.e. any attacks the enemy will throw at you. It also makes you less likely to draw wind orbs for a few turns.

For your second action, you attack. This draws enough earth orbs to attack an earth ability, which requires four orbs to use.

For your third action, you unleash your earth ability, which causes the enemy’s Break bar to turn red and become vulnerable. Your turn is over.

The enemy attacks. You take a bit of damage again, though a bit less this time thanks to your increased wind resistance.

Next turn, you throw out three normal attacks, which are enough to empty the vulnerable Break bar of your opponent. It enters Break status, and you get another turn as it topples to the ground. You throw out three more normal attacks, which are now significantly more effective against your downed foe, and defeat it. You win! One step closer to Warrior of Light-hood.

What all this means for Mobius Final Fantasy is that it’s by no means a glorified clicker game with boring, automated combat like so many other “card battle” games on mobile. There’s depth and strategy here, but it’s presented with such glorious visual panache that you can’t help but be drawn in to this strange ruined world, particularly as the exciting battles are punctuated with fully voiced cutscenes (with dual audio, for those who prefer Japanese speech) and some beautiful sights.

I’m relatively early in the game so far, and the game as it stands only features two “chapters” of the main story so far (plus a special region for grinding XP and other resources against the clock) but it’s already clear that Mobius Final Fantasy is something quite special. And that’s the last thing I ever expected to say about a mobile game in 2016.

I’m very interested to see where the game goes next and how it expands on its already solid mechanics over time — and I’m invested in the story, too; I want to know whether or not this actually is Final Fantasy I’s world — which is plausible, given that part of Final Fantasy I’s plot dealt with Chaos creating a time loops, and “Mobius” can be used to describe the characteristic “infinite loop” symbol — and, if not, what on Earth happened to allow Chaos to ruin it as comprehensively as he did.

Find out more about Mobius Final Fantasy at the official site; there are links to download it for iOS and Android devices there, too.

2386: Final Fantasy Brave Exvius: Doing F2p Mobile Games Right

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A while back, I wrote a piece on my other site MoeGamer about how free-to-play games had quietly got good. While there is, make no mistake, still a veritable flood of absolute shit being released on a seemingly daily basis, occasionally someone gets it right, and it’s worth celebrating when they do.

Which brings us to Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, a free-to-play mobile game developed as a collaboration between Final Fantasy rights holder Square Enix and mobile game specialists Alim and Gumi.

The astute among you will recognise the latter two as being behind Brave Frontier, one of the mobile games I had previously praised for not being a total pile of shit. Brave Frontier wasn’t without its problems — most notably a lack of any real strategy in the combat thanks to a relatively limited number of things you could do — but so far as mobile free-to-play RPGs went, it was certainly one of the better ones, featuring an interesting story with some enjoyable characterisation and a wide variety of units presented in beautiful pixel art.

FFBE, as I shall refer to it from hereon, is essentially Brave Frontier 2 with a Final Fantasy skin. And that’s not a bad thing at all, because it manages to fix the few issues I had with Brave Frontier while simultaneously being a surprisingly decent Final Fantasy game in its own right.

I’ll rewind a moment for the benefit of those not already familiar with Brave Frontier and explain FFBE.

In FFBE, you take on the role of Rain, a young and rather idealistic member of the castle knights, who appears to have some unresolved daddy issues in true Final Fantasy tradition. Rain is accompanied by his longstanding friend Laswell, who ironically seems to have gotten on with Rain’s father better than Rain himself. While out on patrol, Rain and Laswell encounter some strange happenings, including a mysterious girl called Fina trapped in a crystal and a man in dark armour who appears to be up to no good.

Unsurprisingly, the man in dark armour is indeed up to no good, and Rain and Laswell return to their home city to find it has been attacked. Their adventure then begins in an attempt to determine what the motivations of the black-clad man are and who exactly this “Fina” girl actually is.

Gameplay has a number of components. Firstly is the metagame, where you collect various units by “summoning” them using premium currency (which the game is pretty generous about doling out for reaching significant milestones), summon tickets (which often come as rewards for logging in regularly, or as part of events) or “friend points” accumulated when making use of your friends’ units. The units vary in strength and their rough power level is denoted by a “star” rating — the more stars, the more powerful, or rather, the more stars, the more potential a unit has, because in order to make it useful, you’re going to have to level it up. In other words, a fully levelled two-star unit may well be a better choice than a completely unlevelled four-star unit.

Levelling up can be accomplished in two ways: by gaining experience from participating in battle (an option that was absent in Brave Frontier) or by “fusing” it with other, unneeded units. In the latter case, you can fuse a unit with any other unit, but there are particular benefits if you fuse with an identical unit, or with a special “experience” unit, the latter providing you with significantly more experience points than a regular unit and thus being the best means of quickly levelling a character if you happen to have any on hand.

Your party can also be equipped with weapons, armour and accessories, which improve their stats to varying degrees, and most units can also equip up to two additional Abilities above and beyond their innate abilities that they acquire as they level up. In this way, you can customise your units as you see fit according to the challenges you know you’re likely to be facing, or simply munchkin them all with the best gear possible so you can steamroller your way through every encounter.

On top of the battle units, you’ll also acquire Espers a la Final Fantasy VI along the way, which can be attached to specific characters to provide them with various passive bonuses as well as a super Summon attack when a meter fills up to maximum in battle. Espers can be levelled up independently of characters, though you have to use collected materials to do this rather than just grinding, and each level awards them with Skill Points that can be used to unlock various abilities, both passive and active.

Once you’re finished fiddling with your party lineup, you can either visit a town or go into battle. Pleasingly, visiting towns is presented in traditional top-down RPG style and there are even sidequests to complete, giving a great degree of personality to the world that Brave Frontier lacked somewhat, thanks to it being entirely menu-driven. For those for whom time is money, however, there’s also a quick access menu that quickly warps you around town to the important places like the shops, though in doing this you’ll probably miss out on NPCs who might have useful information or quests for you.

When you choose to go into battle, there are several different ways you can do this. You can advance the story, which presents you with a string of battles that you have to complete without stopping, punctuated by cutscenes. You can “explore” an area you previously completed the story for, which again goes into a top-down RPG-style exploration mode punctuated with random battle encounters. You can visit the Colosseum to battle monsters and earn points towards various prizes. Or you can enter the Vortex to the Farplane, which has a different special dungeon every day, plus a series of other specialised dungeons that you can unlock as you desire — one for free, additional ones for premium currency. These specialised dungeons provide a convenient means of acquiring experience points for your units, money, crafting materials or other materials needed to power up units or Espers, but the payoff is they tend to cost significantly more energy to jump into than story missions.

Yes, there’s an energy system, but like in Brave Frontier, if you manage it carefully it never becomes an issue. Following story quests tends to see you level your player up regularly enough that your energy bar rarely empties — not only does its capacity expand when you level up, but it also gets refilled to maximum — so this is the best thing to do if you’re spending a bit of time with the game. Alternatively, if you know you only have a few minutes, by far the most effective use of your energy is to tackle the most difficult Vortex dungeons you can manage, as not only will this burn through your energy but it will also provide you with far more loot and experience than regular missions tend to provide in the same amount of time.

The battle system itself is very much like Brave Frontier, with one notable exception: units have more options than just attacking or using their special Burst attack when it’s charged up. Individual units can use items now, rather than you using items on your party from your omniscient overseer perspective, and each unit unlocks individual abilities as they gain levels, which are appropriate either to their Job if they’re generic units or appropriate to their original incarnation if they’re making a guest appearance from another Final Fantasy.

Yes, indeed, Brave Exvius features a considerable amount of series fanservice by incorporating characters from past Final Fantasy games, and they work exactly as they should; Edgar from Final Fantasy VI has his machinist “Tools” abilities present and correct, for example, while more magically-inclined characters have plenty of magic spells to fling around to take advantage of enemies’ elemental weaknesses.

Which perhaps brings us to an obvious question: is this better than Final Fantasy Record Keeper, which is also a fanservice-heavy Final Fantasy free-to-play mobile game?

Yes, it is. And I don’t hesitate one bit when saying that.

Record Keeper is a clunky mess of a game, with loading screens literally every time you tap a button. It’s slow, sluggish, poorly optimised and generally a chore to play, and even the wonderful SNES-style pixel art depictions of every Final Fantasy from to XIV don’t make up for this. Record Keeper also has no real focus; it sees you leaping around from timeline to timeline pretty much at random, attempting to act as a sort of Final Fantasy Greatest Hits but losing all sense of coherence in the process. This lack of focus also extends to its progression and collection systems, in which you collect characters, but also equipment items, and the main “fuse and improve” mechanics come with the far less interesting equipment than the characters; it’s way less fun to upgrade a sword that supposedly appeared in Final Fantasy XII than it is to buff up Balthier to the max.

Record Keeper makes nostalgia the main — no, the sole — point of its existence, and it suffers for this, particularly when it comes to the underrepresented Final Fantasies like XIV and XI. FFBE, meanwhile, uses nostalgia wisely; it just drip-feeds you classic characters without making a big deal about it, and it doesn’t demand any knowledge of the previous games — if you’re a Final Fantasy newcomer, you might just find that Firion is an awesome fighter, but if you know your Final Fantasy history, you’ll have an understanding of where he actually came from, for example.

FFBE, while suffering from occasional loading breaks and the requirement to be online at all times while playing, at least preloads enough stuff into memory for it not to have to load after every button press, and both in combat and when wandering around town, it’s smooth as butter.

Oh, and FFBE is also a beautiful-looking game. And a beautiful-sounding game, featuring one of the best Final Fantasy battle themes of all time. Yes, seriously. Listen.

Basically… look, it’s really good, all right? And regular readers will know I don’t say that lightly about free-to-play games.

Check it out here on Android, and here on iOS.

2238: Mobile Games Aren’t Always Shit: Mister Smith Edition

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A lot of mobile games are shit. Some are just a little bit shit. Some are really shit. The upside of this unfortunate situation is that when something enjoyable and fun comes along, it’s all the more noteworthy as it becomes as a sparkling diamond, floating majestically atop the sea of shit that is the mobile games marketplace in 2016.

The trouble with a lot of mobile games is that they try to be something they’re not: they try to be big-budget, triple-A experiences — inevitably using the term “console quality” somewhere in their description — but then more often than not ruin the experience in two major ways: firstly, by hobbling the player experience by making it free-to-play and consequently limiting their enjoyment unless they repeatedly pay up (or, in some cases, grind until they want to kill themselves), and secondly, by using god-awful touchscreen approximations of joypad controls, which never, ever work because touchscreens don’t have buttons you can feel and consequently you can’t do the “muscle memory” thing you can do with an actual controller in your hand.

No indeed, the best mobile games out there make the best use of the platform that they’re on and the context in which people use them. Mobile phones these days are used 1) when you don’t want to talk to people around you, 2) when you’re on the toilet, 3) when you’re waiting for some form of public transport and/or friends to arrive and 4) when you can’t sleep. As such, the ideal mobile gaming experience is something that you can do during any of these activities without having to think too much, display any sort of manual dexterity beyond tapping a few clearly indicated things with your fat, greasy fingers or commit yourself to any sort of lengthy play session — that train might turn up any minute, after all, despite the automated announcement assuring you that it is “very sorry” for the delay to this service.

Anyway. I found a good mobile game the other evening while I couldn’t sleep. It’s called Mister Smith and His Adventures, it’s published by Ayopa Games and penned by Scotland-based comedy writer Steven McDade whose work, in his own words, “hasn’t quite crossed the line to allow for fame, fortune, adulation or comedy legend status”. Based on Mister Smith, however, McDade should have a bright future ahead of him, as his breezy, conversational writing style is immediately appealing, and an excellent fit for a game such as Mister Smith and His Adventures.

But what is Mister Smith and His Adventures? Put simply, it’s a very straightforward interactive novel with quizzes. Telling the story of Mr Mister Smith [sic], it unfolds over the course of several distinct stories, during which you have the opportunity to make a number of choices to determine how things unfold, and how farcical the outcome of Mister Smith’s various adventures will be. Along the way, based on your choices, you’ll be presented with a number of quiz questions in various categories, which will ultimately score you in the fields of Knowledge, Bravery, Friendship and Love and present you with a final score for the story based on how many questions you got correct and how quickly you answered.

To be honest, the quizzes seem a little forced at times, but McDade recognises this and lampshades them effectively during the narrative, and given the light-hearted, silly tone to the narration, it’s not a big problem; it gives the game a degree of replay value, after all, particularly as it’s riddled with achievements for making different choices and answering certain particularly challenging questions correctly. For those who particularly enjoy the quizzes, there are some “stories” that focus exclusively on the quiz aspect, though these are still written in McDade’s distinctive authorial voice, which makes them a lot more entertaining than other, drier quiz apps on the App Store and Google Play.

McDade’s business model for the game is a good one: you can download it for free, and play the tutorial and first story without paying a penny, after which you have a few choices. You can unlock new stories by repeatedly playing the ones you’ve already done to earn “Smiths”, which can be spent on the new stories and quiz packs currently available. You can purchase bundles of Smiths to selectively purchase stories without grinding. Or you can slip McDade a couple of quid to unlock the game completely, remove all advertising (mostly for itself) and gain immediate access to all new stories as McDade writes and publishes them into the game through automatic updates.

After playing the first two stories, I was more than happy to take the latter option; McDade’s writing is very readable (although there are a couple of typos here and there), the game presents it in short, easily digestible sections with endearing stylised illustrations, and each story is enjoyable and self-contained while helping us to build up a more complete picture of who Mister Smith (and Paul) really is as a person.

It’s an extremely simple idea, and one that works very effectively. It’s a well put together, well-presented game that uses the mobile format well, and I hope to see a lot more of in the coming months; I sincerely hope that McDade finds some success with it, and that it helps him to kickstart his comedy career.

You can download Mister Smith and His Adventures for iOS here, or Android here.

2100: Mobile Games that Don’t Suck

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Occasionally, I take a peek into the murky waters that is mobile gaming because among all the crap you occasionally find some good things. There’s a lot of derivative stuff, which can make it difficult to determine which games are worth spending your time and/or money on, and some of them do a better job of iterating on existing formulae than others.

Two games in particular spring to mind as having been casually keeping my attention lately; neither are fantastic games, but they’re good for a few minutes on the toilet or in bed or waiting for the kettle to boil or something.

I Love Pasta

I downloaded this for two reasons: the endearing name, and the cute artwork. Turns out it’s actually quite a nifty little restaurant management game that initially looks like a Zynga-esque “tap and wait” game, but which actually opens up and has an intriguing amount of depth the more time you spend with it.

The game opens with your father buggering off and leaving you with a pasta restaurant to take care of, and little in the way of training. Fortunately, a local chef comes to your aid and starts giving you some advice, and from here it’s up to you to make your own pasta, develop a range of dishes to serve on the menu, keep your customers happy, make as much money as possible and ultimately help build up the area of town around your shop.

As I said, the basic gameplay is rather Farmville-esque — you tap on a pasta machine or cooker, choose something for it to produce, then wait, either for the machine to make the pasta or the food on the cooker to sell out. Then you repeat. This is the basic activity you’ll be doing all the time, because it earns you money and experience points. From here, though, things get a little more interesting.

Rather than always serving the best meal you possibly can, for example, you might want to consider mixing things around a bit. Dishes each have their own experience level that rises as you make them more times, and levelling up a dish not only improves its quality, it allows you to add items to its “set menu”, which confer various bonuses when the dish is sold. Some dishes also have prerequisite experience levels in other dishes before you can learn them, too.

Learning a new dish sees you playing two minigames: firstly, a game of Concentration with the main ingredients, followed by an inexplicable but fun rhythm game in which you fend off ingredients being hurled at you with a frying pan in time to some delightfully upbeat music. After this, you’re able to sell the dish whenever you have cooker space available, though you’ll also need to manage your inventory of ingredients, as you can’t make a bolognese without tomatoes, for example.

Other activities include sending your employees into town to shop — they can do this a certain number of times according to their HP value and become exhausted after a while, but while they have the energy they’ll bring you stuff back from the market for free. Alternatively, you can order specific items, but these take varying amounts of real time and money to arrive at your restaurant.

There’s also an obligatory gacha component to the game, though it’s not immediately obvious: each of your employees have various equippable items which contribute to their HP, cooking and attractiveness stats, each of which allow them to perform more efficiently for you. As with most games of this type, you can fuse items together to increase their effectiveness, and draw new ones using in-game currency, the “friendship currency” of puzzle pieces or the hard currency that you buy with real money — naturally, the best items are more likely to appear if you spend real money, though I’ve still nabbed an A-rank top from a puzzle draw.

The game dribbles out new mechanics at a nice rate as you level up; initially it’s very simple, but later you’ll be catering to specific characters to raise their affection levels, building up a separate Market Town area, hiring people to staff the shops in the square around your pasta restaurant, and serving food to people on the street according to clues they give you. It’s a fun little game with adorable artwork and a surprising amount of depth; it’s no true simulation, of course, but as something to while away a few minutes with it’s worth a look.

Mabinogi Duel

mabinogiI was introduced to this game by someone over on the new Niche Gamer Forums, who said it was a genuinely good game. And it is! It’s a card game, but unlike most mobile card games, it’s an actual card game rather than a collectathon. It most closely resembles Blizzard’s Hearthstone in execution, but it has plenty of unique mechanics of its own that distinguish it — plus, for what it’s worth, I much prefer the art style to that seen in Hearthstone, but that might just be me.

The basic gameplay involves using collected mana points of various elements to summon creatures and cast spells. So far so Magic, and indeed the game wears its inspiration on its sleeve. It works well, though, with nicely streamlined game systems and one or two things that would be difficult to implement with physical cards. While in a fight, you can “level up” up to twice, for example, with a higher level making all your cards more effective and allowing you to take multiple actions per turn.

The game features a fun tutorial with an overwrought but surprisingly humorous tale about a half-elf suffering racism and wanting to turn himself fully human. His journey provides a convenient excuse for you to be presented with an array of different opponents who provide a good means of teaching you various different mechanics. By the time you’ve cleared the scenario, you’ll be ready to play more freeform games, and that’s where what looks to be an interesting metagame comes into play.

Unlike many games of this type, you can actually trade cards with other people in this one, as well as purchasing booster packs to bolster your virtual ranks. You can also use “rental decks” until you collect enough cards of your own to be competitive, and there are various Mission and Arena modes that allow you to participate with various restrictions and special conditions in place, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

For a game I’d never heard of before the other day, Mabinogi Duel is one of the most impressive mobile games I’ve seen for a long time, and I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about its meta. If you’re a fan of Magic-style card battling, it’s well worth a go.

1983: Drifting Along

Wedding in a couple of days (well, technically tomorrow at the time of writing), but there’s not a lot to say about it right now other than “it’s happening on Saturday”. So in an effort to write about something else — and spare you Heavensward gushing for another day or two, at least until I finish the main storyline — I thought I’d talk a little more about Drift Girls, a mobile game I discovered a short while back and have been playing at least a little bit every day ever since.

Drift Girls, lest you forget — or are unfamiliar — is an iOS and Android game by Korean developer NHN BlackPick, localised and brought to the West by a company called Toast. It’s a curious little game in many ways — in some respects, it’s similar to the “gacha” collectible card games that are a particular popular product of the Asian mobile development market, but in others it’s entirely its own beast. Either way, it’s a genuinely great, enjoyable game that I’ve been having a whole lot of fun with.

It’s kind of a driving game, and it’s kind of a dating sim. Both of those elements are intertwined, however; the girls you woo in the dating sim part of the game become passengers while you race, and different girls provide different bonuses to your car’s performance. There are also other benefits to dating, too; reach the maximum affection with a girl and you have the opportunity to whisk her away for an “overnight date” with everything that implies, which makes you “feel better” and improve your vehicle’s performance by a significant amount for the following day.

One of the interesting things about the game, though, is the fact that each and every one of the girls in the cast feels like they’ve had some effort put into their writing — not just in an attempt to show that they have a personality, but to make them feel like they’re all part of the game world. As you get to know each of the girls, it becomes apparent that some of them know one another, and you’ll often get to know several sides of what initially appeared to be a fairly simple story. Later in the game, too, as the overarching main scenario storyline starts to pick up speed with international smuggling, the Mafia and all manner of other silliness, you get the opportunity for another perspective on events by building up a relationship with the lead detective and prosecutor on the case.

The fact that there’s an ongoing narrative and each of the girls clearly has their own little mini-story to work through makes the dating aspect of the game far more than a simple grind to get the girl who provides the biggest bonuses as quickly as possible. Aside from that, too, a system for “exceeding the girl’s limits” by completing challenges allows you to boost their stats considerably as well as uncover a bit more of their personality and story.

But what of the driving bit? Well, it’s very simple, and I’m actually pretty glad of that. Full-on driving games on touchscreens suck beyond belief, so I’m extremely grateful to NHN BlackPick for taking a greatly simplified approach: all you have to do is rev your engine to get a good start, then time your drifts left or right as you enter a corner, then occasionally set off an nitro boost to go a bit faster. In many ways, it has more in common with a rhythm game than a driving game, but it manages to be genuinely exciting, with some lovely graphics, cinematic camera angles and cheesy but entirely appropriate throbbing dance music in the background.

The metagame is fun, too. While there is a “gacha” mechanic for drawing new cars and parts to attach to them, where I’ve found the most fun is in taking the car I started with — a “one-star” Mini-equivalent — and gradually building it up to remain competitive as the opponents in the game get stronger and stronger. So far I’ve successfully upgraded it to “four-star” standard, which is enough for story missions now, but I’m starting to run into a few situations where it’s not quite enough to beat tough opponents.

I compared this type of mobile game to a more traditional MMO a while back, and having spent probably more time with Drift Girls than any other mobile game of its type — along with my hefty experience with Final Fantasy XIV — I stand by that statement. The gradual creep of power; the joy of getting to a point where you can afford a new piece of equipment or get lucky with an item drop; the feeling of progression; the necessity to keep on the “gear treadmill” to continue to progress — all of these things are typical MMO characteristics that are very much present in Drift Girls, and they make for a compelling, addictive experience that has stuck around in my consciousness a lot longer than I thought it would after the initial “haha, wtf is this” appeal wore off.

Turns out it’s actually a really good game. So I think I might just sneak in a quick race or two before I go to sleep tonight…

1967: Drift Girls – Surpassing My Expectations

A few weeks ago, I happened to come across a site promoting an upcoming new mobile game called Drift Girls. On paper, it sounded like my sort of thing — a combination of dating sim and arcade driving mechanics — but I was wary of it for being on the mobile platform, primarily because playing driving games with a touchscreen suuuuuucks.

Regardless, I signed up to be informed when it was available (and to be in with a chance of winning some in-game goodies when it launched) and I was pleased to see this morning that the game had apparently launched either last night or early this morning. So, with some trepidation, I decided to fire it up and take a look.

And… and… well, it’s good. Really good, actually.

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The basic structure is similar to most other free-to-play gacha games out there, since those are a proven model for profitability, expandability and social features. In this case, the things you’re collecting, fusing, evolving and upgrading are cars and car parts, and as usual there’s more than a slight element of “gotta collect ’em all!” to the gameplay — though personally speaking, I find collecting things like cars somewhat less compelling than collecting characters, so I feel far less “guilt” in this game when sacrificing things I don’t need to level up the things I am using.

There are a few twists, though. Firstly, unlike some past street racing-themed free-to-play games that didn’t even bother to depict the races — yes, this is a thing that actually happened, and several times, as I recall — Drift Girls has some really rather lovely-looking 3D racing sequences that make good use of the limitations of touchscreen-based mobiles to provide an enjoyable, snappy experience that rewards skill as well as making the numbers on your stat sheet go up.

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The control scheme works because it doesn’t expect you to do too much. All you have to do is rev your engine at the start line, preferably so it’s in the green area of your rev counter to get a Perfect Start, and then press and hold one of the two directional “drift” buttons when you reach a corner. Timing your drift appropriately will increase your speed through the corner as well as earn you nitro boosts, which can be either triggered for a big speed boost or saved until you finish for some bonus monetary rewards when you finish the race. That’s it, essentially; the challenge comes from increasingly complex courses and increasingly unforgiving opponents, so you’ll need to improve both your own skills and your car’s stats in order to progress beyond a certain point.

Here’s where the dating sim aspect comes in. Shortly after the opening, the game presents you with three eligible young bachelorettes and invited to spend some time with one of them. You can take the girl on dates or buy her gifts to increase her affection, and higher affection means that she provides you with more significant bonuses as well as some other… benefits. Yes, if you max out her affection, you can shag her… I’m sorry, “take her on an overnight date”, which, if you pick the right place to take her, will confer on you a long-lasting 100-point stat bonus, which is significant in the early game.

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Mechanically, then, the girls are “equipment” of a sort, but the developers have actually bothered to put some effort into the writing, with each girl having a distinct personality, a backstory that she gradually reveals as you get to know her over the course of a few dates, and her own set of reactions to various in-game events such as winning, losing, challenging particularly difficult races and all sorts of other things. You’re even rewarded for each of these events that you see, even if it’s only a couple of lines, so there’s incentive to stick with one girl and get to know her fully — though you can also be a bit of a player if you really want to, too.

It would be easy to dismiss Drift Girls as shallow fluff of the usual sort you see on mobile, and sure, there’s a certain amount of the usual free-to-play stuff going on — energy bars, premium currency, that sort of thing — but like many of the other actually good free-to-play games I’ve had the pleasure of playing recently, the game isn’t stingy with rewards for non-paying players, and it’s overall a highly polished experience that is just plain good. Not “good for a mobile game”, but good.

If the premise sounds intriguing, then I recommend giving it a shot — and feel free to add me as a friend in the game under the ID “AstralFire”.

Grab it from Google Play or the App Store.