Sweet loot! Thankfully Mr. Dino is docile if not provoked…

For some reason I find myself playing through at least one Final Fantasy each year. Even if summer vacation would usually be a better time for lengthy JRPGs, there are so many games vying for that hallowed time slot that I decided to get this weird formality out of the way now. Instead of the latest game in the main series, I’ve gone with Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which is a HD remaster of the 2006 PS2 classic. Then again, calling it a classic is open to debate. For me, XII was the breaking point of having to grudgingly admit to myself that Square Enix was never going back to the PS1 mold that it used to fabricate three of the perhaps most loved games in the entire series. As much as I still tried to like XII, I gave up on it. Twice. Now, coincidentally 12 years later, it’s as good a time as any to see if third time would be the charm.

If anything’s to blame, the story isn’t it. XII takes place in Ivalice, a world wreathed in magic and technology. It is populated mostly by humans and some Moogles, but also lizard-like Bangaas and hare-like Vieras. Although the various races live in relative harmony, mankind is once again showing its uglier side. The two superpower states of Archadia and Rozarria are on the brink of a global war and Dalmasca, a tiny kingdom wedged in between them, is but a pawn in their power play. Its king is assassinated and although the country still holds on to formal independence, its woeful fate is to fall into an Archadian vassal state.

Two years later, Dalmascan war orphans Vaan and Penelo try to fend for themselves in the kingdom’s occupied capital, Rabanastre, running miscellaneous errands and occasionally getting into mischief. A crafty burglary into the palace treasury is a bit too much, though, and with one thing leading to another, the two find themselves caught up in events that will eventually decide the destiny of the whole of Dalmasca. They are soon joined by suave sky pirates Balthier and Fran, as well as treasonous knight Basch and princess Ashe, both of whom were rumored to have died after the original coup d’etat. These six then run hither and yonder Ivalice, trying to find ways to end Archadia’s oppression.

From the very beginning, the game’s highly original battle system is questionable at best. It feels like an action-RPG with all encounters taking place in the maps without transition or victory screens whatsoever. Although it is possible to move freely at all times, actions won’t take place until a traditional battle gauge has filled up. Furthermore, when choosing said actions, the game pauses completely. At first the system feels (and looks) like a ridiculously cumbersome mishmash of real-time, semi-real-time, and turn-based combat. However, it doesn’t take long for gambits to be introduced. They are macros that can be set up for each character in an effort to automate combat altogether. These macros consist of simple little rules such as “focus attacks on the foe with the least health”, “use a recovery potion if an ally has less than 50% of health remaining”, “activate a buff at the beginning of each encounter”, etc. There are hundreds of such variations and by coming up with a suitable set of rules and then prioritizing them properly, it is possible to come up with strategies that work in almost every occasion. Sure, it’s still possible to throw in manual commands as well but on whole, the aim is definitely to fine-tune the gambits of each character so that in combat, the game practically plays itself.

It’s a quirky system but also a welcome one, given how heavy XII is when it comes to grinding. After an introductory tunnel of about four hours, the world of Ivalice slowly opens up to provide vast areas teeming with monsters. Fighting is a constant must as leveling up is fairly slow and bosses show absolutely no mercy towards weak adventurers. The bigger baddies become even more annoying when nearing death by suddenly throwing themselves into a truly incomprehensible rage mode that causes all player attacks to suddenly do almost no damage at all while they start throwing crippling attacks with such power, speed, and ferocity that even everyone concentrating on healing might not be enough.

Thinking back, it’s precisely this excessive amount of combat and the utter cheapness of the bosses that drove me away from the game all those years ago. Thankfully The Zodiac Age introduces a bunch of handy little improvements such as being able to fast-forward. With the press of a button, the game can be switched into 2x or even 4x speed mode. This is more than enough to turn boring grinds into slapstick comedy of suitably macroed heroes scurrying to pummel mob after mob for some welcomed experience. This also makes overly long transition legs of the journey a breeze. It won’t help in boss fights but even they are doable by keeping each character’s strongest special attacks in reserve and then unloading all of them on the boss in an uninterruptible barrage as soon as the so-called normal rules no longer seem to apply. It’s not a particularly elegant approach, sure, but hey, whatever works.

Thankfully all balancing and pacing problems fail to take away from what seems like a very intriguing story. It’s a nice change of pace to be worrying about the fate of a small kingdom rather than saving the entire world, especially when the surrounding global politics are full of internal strife and ruthless back-stabbing. There’s plenty of stark drama and it’s always a plus when even the bad guys have a hard time getting along. Even Ashe isn’t just compassionate and cute royal baggage but a distressed, battle-weary princess, torn emotionally asunder trying to ensure a future for her country even when all the options available seem to range from bad to worse. As a nice bonus, The Zodiac Age also allows all of this to be experienced in original Japanese audio, so this remaster is certainly a bit more than just a hasty coat of new paint. It it wasn’t, I might already have walked away from it for the third time but at least for the time being, I find myself quite interested in finding salvation for Dalmasca.

Uh Oh…

Adding some duet prowess for Hibiki

Those of you who have been following this blog probably recall that its strongest swear word so far has been The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, that utterly abhorrent loot hell in which I masochistically dwelled for several months. Last January, I solemnly swore never to touch crap like that ever again but only a month earlier Bandai Namco had already released The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage. Darn. Thankfully all news coverage about that one asserted that it wouldn’t be nearly as inane as its predecessor, so while I was still extremely wary, I decided to give the idol girls one more chance to woo me over.

The premise of the game is not promising in the slightest. All the idols who I had painstakingly nurtured to shiny platinum stardom are once again just feeble F-class newbies, and the same applies to the player’s alter ego of Producer-san. The head of 765 Production talent agency entrusts you with just one idol out of 13 with the rest remaining behind lock and key until you prove your managerial worth. So, is this just the same nightmare all over again? Broadly speaking, yes, although much to my relief it seems like Stella Stage fixes pretty much everything that was so hopelessly broken in Platinum Stars.

First of all, this time around there’s actually content to speak of. The selection of 45 songs, 116 costumes, and 140 accessories is almost thrice as much as before. Granted, those numbers include practically everything that Platinum Stars had but should you have been lucky enough to miss that one altogether, Stella Stage is an even better reason to forget that it ever even existed. Even more important, though, is that the costumes and accessories are no longer random presents but guaranteed rewards for successful lives. They can also be bought from the local tailor or unlocked with coaching points in a brand new board game. It’s a cute little mini-game in which you walk around the 13 idols in their chibi form on a board that has tiles containing permanent performance bonuses, costumes, accessories, and new songs. Presents are also still around but now they only contain minor stuff such as fan letters and exp drinks, on top of which there’s always a bunch of them after each and every live. Playing is still as grindy as ever but at least those who are into collecting stuff will feel rewarded on a constant basis.

Also, the grind itself feels much more tolerable. Even if you’re once again tasked with raising all girls to sterling S-class, it now only requires one million fans instead of ten. Song levels improve after just five plays rather than 20, and even when enhancing costumes and accessories, their level cap has been lowered from ten to seven. New songs still become available in an annoyingly slow pace but on whole Stella Stage is – at least for the time being – actually fun to toil at.

As for the rhythm part, improvements are fairly modest. Songs can be played with ensembles of almost every size from solo runs to All Stars medleys that include everyone with each variety even being available pretty much from the get-go. The same applies to the second hardest Pro difficulty of each song, although anyone marinated in rhythm games will probably find that so easy that even with new songs, perfect chains on first attempts are more norm than exception. To counter that, the hardest Master difficulty is now even more difficult, mostly thanks to sections that require two right-hand buttons to be pressed or held down at the same time. This either requires baffling thumb acrobatics or moving your left hand to assist, which in turn causes panic with notes that require a simultaneous press on the d-pad. At least for me, Pro feels a bit too easy whereas Master is frustratingly hard, so an additional difficulty between these two really wouldn’t go amiss.

For a main project, Stella Stage feels a bit too familiar and grindy but it works remarkably well in short bursts between other releases. Only half a year ago, I never would’ve believed to have any sympathy left for Project iM@S, yet it still feels like Stella Stage could very well be the rhythm game I always wanted Platinum Stars to be, and that’s actually saying a lot!

Although my backlog of candidates to enjoy alongside Stella Stage is massive already, perhaps it still has room for a couple more. While Initial D: Extreme Stage provided a fun weekend on Japan’s mountain roads, Wangan Midnight promises similar fun but on the country’s highways instead. I’m certainly keen to see if its iconic Nissan Fairlady Z would be slightly less demanding than the AE86. Then again, perhaps taking it easy for a change would be nice, too; Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon promises carefree farming days in some sort of sci-fi setting, which doesn’t sound half bad at all.

Cold Hard Shoulder

Ha! Found a Trueno-sized hole to squeeze through!

After enjoying drifting in several arcade racers in Tokyo, I began to wonder if something like that would also be available for home consoles. Although there doesn’t seem to be much to choose from, at least there’s Initial D: Extreme Stage, a 2008 release for the PS3, which turned out to be pretty much exactly what I was looking for. It’s based on the late 90’s hit anime of the same name, starring car enthusiastic teens racing their souped-up rides up and down Japan’s twisty mountain roads. The player joins their ranks as a newcomer male or female with a customizable look and license plate, choosing from one of the 23 80’s and 90’s cars from eight different Japanese manufacturers (Civics, Lancers, Imprezas, Skylines, etc.) For devoted Initial D fans, of course, there’s only one viable choice: the unassuming, rear-wheel drive Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86, which racing prodigy Takumi Fujiwara used to beat even the most bad-ass rivals out there.

There are only seven routes, although they are all driven both uphill and downhill, during daytime and nighttime, and possibly with a bit of rain thrown on top. On them wait at least 26 opponents familiar from the anime. All races are duels that last for about four minutes and are delightfully loyal to the original source material. They’re preceded by short, manga-like cutscenes full of the usual bragging, after which it’s time to get noisy. Engines growl, tires squeal, shift pedals are slammed audibly, and all this is, naturally, backed up by 13 songs worth of lovably trashy eurobeat. The most memorable songs from the anime are sadly not present but the overall atmosphere is still very much there, especially as your chatty opponents frequently engage in either smug boasting or cursing your speed and skill, depending on whether they happen to be leading or merely admiring your tail lights. Each race concludes by accepting a graceful win (or defeat) after which it’s time to see who’s up next.

All this comes with a driving model that is… Well, let’s just say interesting. Although the view from behind the car would be ideal for an arcade racer like this, it’s nigh on useless. The cars feel like weightless lumps that have been pinned on a cocktail stick from their exact center with even the smallest nudge of the steering wheel flinging them into a drift at any speed and even on straights. The handling becomes a little better after switching to the more boring road view but it never feels particularly enjoyable. Such an awkward model is justified by the game’s nature, though, as the sheer majority of time is spent sideways navigating 180 degree turns while trying to get the front bumper to caress the inside shoulder as closely as possible to block the opponent from passing. Faithful to the anime, each corner is taken at speeds well over 60MPH and brakes often feel like nothing more than a cosmetic afterthought.

After accepting the floaty driving model as a necessary evil, Extreme Stage briefly turns into a most entertaining experience. The speeds are always excessive but at least on the gentler corners of the wider roads of some of the routes, maintaining a steady drift with slight steering adjustments is rewarding. The races feel a little scripted but at least the rubber band is pure anime. More often than not the opponent will make an early overtake by brute force, if necessary, only to slightly slow down in some later sections to give the player at least a theoretical chance to make an impressive comeback.

Although wins are frequent at first, the game soon bares its fangs. Driving can feel deceptively easy, especially when frequent minor brushes with roadside barriers only dent your own self-esteem. Despite being excessively arcadey, however, it soon becomes a must not just to learn the game but to learn it exceptionally well. After later opponents start to repeatedly disappear into the horizon, there’s still the option to level the playing field by investing points won from races to improve car performance. The engine, manifold, wheels, chassis, and miscellaneous parts can be tuned up to seven stages but not only is this noticeably expensive and requires a whole lot of grinding with races already won, even that won’t help in the end. After ten hours, I finally managed to tune my AE86 to the maximum but I’m still getting my butt kicked. I suppose I could try some other car to see if one would be better suited for the harder opponents but not only would it take an equal amount of time to get them up to similar performance, I’m fairly certain the only cure would be to git gud.

Granted, banging your head against the story mode wall isn’t the only option. Each route can be practiced alone in time attack mode, and even if the game is a decade old already, its online mode was still alive and well, at least for the one brief go I had over there. Still, for this middle-aged Sunday driver, one weekend with this game is good enough for now. While I might never learn the intricacies of graceful, yet blindingly fast drifting, at least my Initial D fan service thirst has been quenched way better than I even expected.

There are a couple of other recent additions to the collection, too. Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match is most likely exactly that, although before hopping into that one, I really have to find time to watch the related anime (and movie) first to get a better understanding on why school girls are driving around in WWII era tanks. It’s important to know! And, to make future gaming days even more Japanese than that, there’s Gal*Gun 2, a first person on-rails shooter unabashedly touting itself as a pantsu paradise. Unconventional camp humor? Yes, please!

Waifus in Bullet Hell

Must… Shoot… Must… Not… Shoot…

The success of PS4 has blessed the console with some surprising releases of which Game Tengoku CruisinMix is probably from the most peculiar end. It’s a port of a 1997 Sega Saturn game which in turn was an enhanced version of a 1995 arcade shooter by Jaleco. Going further, that one recruits six pilots from Jaleco’s arcade lineup from the eighties to step against the mad scientist Yamada who decides to conquer the gaming world by invading the cabinets of a local arcade. If that sounds a bit goofy then it’s perfectly normal as the game is a proud representative of the small but gallant genre of parody shooters, and even after all these years, it turns out to be none too shabby.

The game was originally a six-level vertical shooter that was given two additional stages on Saturn, all of which are focused on bona fide 90’s otaku fan service. You can play as an everyday space fighter jock, a sentient mecha, one of three cute girls, or even as a plump pork. The choice is fairly irrelevant as all of them have their basic gun that fires in some direction and a handful of mega bombs capable of clearing almost the entire screen in one way or another. At the beginning of each stage (or after each death), the game immediately gifts you with a couple of pint-sized helper drones while the main gun can be upgraded a few times with bonus icons picked up on the way. Each character excels in some parts of the game while sucking at others, but their differences are so minor that it’s almost disappointing. Actual shooting isn’t that promising either, introducing a model where constant button mashing only fires off weak shots while holding down the button gives a really short burst of rapid fire before starting to charge for a slow but admittedly powerful shot. That’s tactical, sure, but after a whole day of shooting my thumb is already screaming for mercy.

Each stage takes place in an arcadey setting, themed from an entire venue to pinballs, UFO catchers, racing games, or 80’s retro gems. The stages in the arcade version are mostly good for a wry smile but the additional stages of the Saturn version manage to raise a few genuine laughs. For example, there’s a level in which a cute gal is singing karaoke, filling the screen with hiragana that should either be destroyed quickly in hopes of a better score or desperately avoided so that your inner otaku can enjoy through the whole song. Even JRPG boss battles take a strange turn when Yamada, posing as an evil wizard with hit points and an entire role-playing user interface, faces off against some rapid-firing shoot ’em up justice. Should nothing else raise a smile, the destructive fetish bombs of the loliest character in the roster are likely to make the player both shake and nod at the same time. Oh, endearing Japan, never ever change!

Still, since we are essentially talking about a Japanese shooter, it can be a cold shower straight from the very beginning. I made the mistake of hopping straight into the Saturn port of the arcade version, which on normal difficulty and a 4:3 playing area was nothing short of torture. Bullets fly into your face with such intensity and accuracy that I was lucky to survive for 15 seconds and even if credits are infinite, constant dying ate away gaming enjoyment like a starved squirrel (fond of gaming enjoyment). Utterly demoralized by all this, I switched over to the original arcade version, changed difficulty to Very Easy, upped lives from three to five, and even activated a feature that automatically uses a mega bomb in case of an immediate death. After this, the game began to open up. The arcade mode is obviously even more narrow as far as the whole screen is concerned but at least I finally had time to react to things. Even with every possible training wheel in play, it took a few tries to complete a 1CC run but I’m happy the options were there. This is probably how learning any ruthless shooter begins, anyway.

After enough training, even the bonus stage inclusive story mode of the Saturn version became tolerable. Not only does repetition help in learning the enemy patterns, it also teaches when not to shoot at all. Since each downed enemy fires off one sizable bullet as a bitter thank you gift, it’s often better to concentrate on mere survival rather than a position on the high score table. Also, the story mode has an added benefit of adorable between-stage chibi cinematics. Nonsensical for those of us who don’t understand Japanese but still amusing, even if you can only pick up a word here and there.

One day on the easiest and most pathetic difficulty was perfectly fine to have a grand shoot ’em up time. The game might not have enough oomph to rival Konami’s ever-awesome Parodius series but I’m still thankful to Kadokawa Games for releasing this port of a port, even if only in Japan; at least in this household, silly shooters are always welcome!

This Is How to Sequel!

Another shitty day at school…

Minor disappointments in gaming are easily forgotten simply by shoving something entirely different into the disc bay. This weekend has once again been all about top-notch entertainment as I found time to let Life Is Strange: Before the Storm tickle my emotional strings. A few years ago, developer Dontnod introduced us to its five-episode graphic adventure Life Is Strange, which more or less shot itself straight to the top of the genre as far as I’m concerned. While I was kind of looking forward to Before the Storm, I also had plenty of reservations about it. An entirely new dev team, just three episodes, and focus no longer on the absolutely adorable Max Caulfield but instead her rebellious and slightly unpredictable BFF, Chloe Price, and don’t even get me started on the first adventure ending in a way that doesn’t really warrant a follow-up of any kind.

Still, Deck Nine was given the reins and managed to turn impossible into reality. Before the Storm predates the original, heart-rending adventure of Max and Chloe by rewinding back to the time when Max and her family had already moved out of the little town of Arcadia Bay, leaving the now 16-year-old Chloe still trying to come to terms with the car accident that claimed the life of his father. School sucks, friends are irrelevant, and mom’s new boyfriend is about the most repulsive douchebag on earth. All this changes when the school’s prettiest and most popular girl, Rachel Amber, suddenly shows interest in Chloe, and during the three days that follow, the two of them get marinated in such potent and genuinely believable teen drama that it occasionally manages to triumph over even the game’s outstanding precursor!

If Chloe Price might once have felt a bit too reckless and rowdy for her own good, Deck Nine does a stellar job inducing her with not just attitude but cracks as well. The paranormal elements of the first game have been bravely binned, so Before the Storm is “only” about the happenstance friendship (or perhaps even more) of two teenage girls, full of fleeting slices of life that can be as absolutely awesome as they can stink to high heavens. At least from the perspective of my middle-aged, fairly unscathed male self, experiencing life with such an overflowing dose of teen angst is quite striking, especially when it has been told in such a superbly plausible and touching manner.

As usual, the gameplay elements themselves are nothing but dressing for the story. Chloe has to figure out a handful of awfully straightforward puzzles, and frequently choose her point of view from two to three dialogue choices, each slightly altering the way things will go. Whereas Max Caulfield was once all about hunting down photo opportunities, Chloe focuses on spreading her laconic world view by finding suitable targets for her snarky graffiti. That’s about all the interactivity there is, although the real challenge lies in having to pry oneself away from the game’s most lingering moments. Whenever Chloe decides to sit down for awhile, the game digs into its wide repertoire of great ambient indie songs and goes into full-on chill mode, letting each song and each wonderful scenery give the heroines some much-needed solace. Many games are beautiful on the outside but it’s moments like these when Before the Storm truly gets under your skin.

One would probably have to be pretty dead inside if the game’s strongest moments won’t manage you to get at least a little bit misty-eyed. Although the second episode is dramatically a bit weak, both the first and the third fire on all cylinders and with such intensity that it’s enough to cause goosebumps. Should all else fail, the final one-hour bonus episode, Farewell, takes the player even further into the past, making them relive that bittersweet final day when Chloe and Max, still just grade school kids, originally had to say goodbye to each other.

Short put, this is games at their finest. Narrative, harrowingly beautiful, immensely powerful, and as two separate studios have already proven themselves capable of moving the player on an emotional level, here’s hoping Square Enix as a publisher keeps supporting this in the future. I’m not crying, you’re crying!

I Take It Back

At least it looks pretty at times…

Phew… After roughly 60 hours, I’m finally done with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, platinum trophy and everything. As much as I wanted to like it, it turned out to be one of the most low-key JRPGs in a long time. Even ample development time and a generous budget matter little when the heart isn’t in it, and this is one of those rare occasions when Level-5 swings a miss. Half of my disappointment stems from the story. Young Evan’s growth from a displaced king to the savior of the whole world is a perfectly adequate motif but the adventure only ends up repeating itself in an awfully predictable fashion. Evan and his friends travel from one neighboring kingdom to another, listening to their problems, trundling through their dungeons, whooping a massive monster behind all the distress, and getting rewarded by some local notable deciding to tag along. After enough of this, an unimaginative main villain is given a thorough thrashing and that’s it. Sure, that’s basically how most JRPGs go but the story of Ni no Kuni II is so straightforward and uninspiring that it never feels like a proper, epic adventure. It only took a paltry 40 hours to get to the end credits, and maybe a fourth of that went to optional stuff.

Even that side content is a bit lackluster. At first building and improving Evan’s new kingdom is remarkably engrossing, and recruiting new inhabitants to live there almost feels as fun as hunting down the 108 stars in Suikoden. There are also adorable skirmish battles in which Evan leads up to four military units against enemy armies, utilizing simple rock-paper-scissors style strategy to emerge triumphant. Heck, even the world map is crammed full of dungeons, shrines, and treasures, so at least on paper there should be plenty to enjoy. Sadly, everything there is has been copy-pasted with such fervor that doing anything at all soon degrades into nothing but a massive chore. Skirmishes are silly fun for maybe half a dozen times but there are 50 of them. Slaying a dozen side bosses is okay but there are 50 of those, too. 50 Higgledies hiding around the world, another 50 to cook up in a magic cauldron back home, 64 facilities to build and upgrade, 170 side missions (most of which are just boring item hunts), hundreds of treasure chests full of inconsequential loot… There’s a ton of everything, sure, but none of it feels particularly exciting or worthwhile, especially during post-game.

Even the pleasantly original, semi-turn-based combat system of the first game has been replaced with chaotic, Tales-like arcade brawling that might encourage blocking in theory but which in practice regresses into mindless bashing of an attack button, throwing in an occasional special move or two, and hoping that your two AI allies make themselves even remotely useful. Leveling up slows down significantly towards the end but with minor equipment upgrades, it is quite possible to beat adversaries even 20 levels above your own by simply rolling away from their strongest attacks. Further advantage can be sought with meals providing temporary bonuses, or investing points won from battles to adjust certain attack types to deal lower or higher damage, but even these are just minor, largely irrelevant features.

If exploring the world of Ni no Kuni II never feels particularly rewarding, at least it’s delightfully fluent. The world map is full of not just cities and dungeons but also portals that can be activated and then warped to from absolutely anywhere. I also liked the enemy mobs that are always visible and even polite enough to leave the player alone if their level is lower than that of the heroes. Even if the battle system is nothing special, at least the game knows not to shove it down your throat. If only the game around these kinds of considerate little touches was better, it’d be truly something!

Still, there’s no two ways about it. Ni no Kuni II is nowhere even close to being the sequel I had been eagerly looking forward to all these years. It’s just a short, run-of-the-mill JRPG with way too much filler and none of that childlike charm and pure magic that defined its predecessor, and that’s a damn shame.

Thankfully there are plenty of other candidates keen on becoming my game of the year. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life could very well be such a title, should I only manage to find enough interminable free time to start savoring it. Detective Pikachu was just an impulse purchase as I have never been much interested in Pokémon but silly spin-offs are always an exception. On the retro side, I grabbed The World Ends with You, Square Enix’s decade-old urban JRPG for the Nintendo DS, as well as the slightly naughty (?) cutesy shooter Soreyuke! Burunyanman Portable for the PSP. Never found that one in Tokyo but thank the gaming goddesses for internet.

Joy Is Optional

As one might surmise, this Sunday has been all about Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom as well. Evan & Co. have already allied themselves with all the other world nations, which naturally acts as a cue for the main bad guy to stop skulking in the shadows and get on with the end of the world. Preparing for that gives me just enough time to hunt down an ancient magical sword which most likely allows me to give him a thorough royal beating… Or scratching, given Evan’s feline nature. I’m still only 29 hours in, so for a JRPG the story seems not just a little tired but surprisingly short, too. That’s hardly an issue, though, as the game is remarkably generous in its side content.

The most entertaining aspect of this adventure is turning out to be Evan’s new kingdom, Evermore. It’s a place that the player can develop ever further, limited mostly by the slowly regenerating funds of its national treasury. Tax revenue can be used to build, enhance, and fund dozens of miscellaneous establishments for which there are 103 motivated individuals to recruit. These places provide not just weapons, armor, spells, accessories, health items, and battle food, but also a huge array of resources used for trade and as ingredients for ever-better gear. The layout of Evermore is predetermined, so there’s hardly any creativity involved in building the kingdom but even simple managing like this has proven out to be surprisingly entertaining. Once the nation’s coffers are empty, it’s just a matter of waiting for them to refill by continuing the main story or exploring the game world in over 150 side missions.

As well as trying to create the most awesome kingdom ever, the world features 50 tainted (read: extra tough) monsters to beat, as well as an equal number of Higgledies to be found; cute little elementals that randomly help the player in battles with their special powers. As my inner completionist is very much looking forward to accomplish all this, the game certainly compensates its seemingly weak story rather amicably. Besides, should there ever be a moment of nothing to do, there are always randomly generated mini quests that reward the player with tokens that can be exchanged for useful resources or hints on finding new recruits to Evermore.

Ni no Kuni II is particularly considerate with its exemplary resource management. If any side quest or a piece of gear to be enhanced requires any ingredients whatsoever, the game is polite enough to tell where the needed items can be bought or found. Most RPGs force their players to wander around aimlessly for hours or consult the internet, but for once these obligatory loot mechanics have been implemented like they should! I’m also quite taken by the ability to save pretty much anywhere. There are traditional save points, too, good for restoring all HP and MP, but it’s still a most welcome bonus to be able to end a game session whenever you feel like it.

Granted, the generous amount of side content sounds impressive only by numbers. Everything can turn remarkably repetitious and the swiftly rising challenge level of the main story more or less forces the player to spend time with said content. Still, today Ni no Kuni II didn’t feel nearly as much of a disappointment as it did yesterday. While it’s hardly on par with its predecessor, it still has plenty of good things going for it.

Slow Simmer

Although the recent Japanese loot is awfully tempting, the exceptionally quiet start of the year finally turned into a veritable flood of slightly more interesting releases. Out of them, the first in line is naturally Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, the long-sought sequel to the PS3 JRPG gem Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch from almost eight years ago. The game follows the young, cat-like Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum who loses the kingdom of his recently departed father, and nearly his life, to a coup led by dastardly mice. Roland Crane, a young man mysteriously sucked into this same fantasy world from a parallel universe helps Evan to escape. Together they decide that if a kingdom is lost then the only option is to form one anew. All potential rulers first need a Kingmaker, though; a massive, magical beast tasked to defend its owner’s country. In Evan’s case, however, such beast turns out to be Lofty; just a yellow, pint-sized runt of a mascot. Even if adversities seem to follow one another, Evan is not dismayed but instead finds a piece of suitable land, sets up the foundations of his new nation, and heads off to the neighboring countries for official recognition.

I’m now about 20 hours in and at least so far, the game has failed to captivate in the same way that its absolutely marvelous precursor managed to. The story plays incredibly safe and straightforward, sending Evan and Roland from one kingdom and its related dungeon to another, making them solve conveniently appearing crises to forge new alliances and be joined by new party members. There’s a bog-standard, deliberately enigmatic bad guy dreaming of world annihilation, a ship to eventually enable traveling across vast seas, and an airship that opens up exploration even further but on whole, everything pivotal is such an overly familiar bowl of clichés that it’s really hard to get genuinely excited about any of it.

Even the unique charm of Level-5 doesn’t seem to be present in full force. The world map and some of the dungeons are once again astonishingly beautiful and in general, the game thoroughly looks like high-quality anime. Still, practically all event scens are not only woefully short but done with just the game engine, carrying no sensation of awe whatsoever. The same goes for the soundtrack. The orchestral music is always there and always “pretty nice” but the only track that has left a lasting impression so far has been the bombastic main theme of the first game and even that has been arranged more poorly. Even the amount of voice acting is remarkably stingy with most of the dialogue being delivered by text accompanied with a few random grunts and other utterances. This really isn’t the valiant Ni no Kuni we have been waiting for eight years but a feebly disguised Tales of game that Bandai Namco has managed to churn out four times in the same period of time.

There’s plenty of good in the side content and even in some of the design decisions, though, so expect a bit more positive rambling in the coming days as I dwell deeper into the adventure.

Almost all the other newcomers of this year fly the flag of PS4. Dead Island: Definitive Collection remasters two of last generation’s most impressive and entertaining zombie games in ages, so I’m definitely trying to find time to experience both of them again. Atari Flashback Classics Vol. 1, Atari Flashback Classics Vol. 2, Marvel Pinball: Epic Collection Vol. 1, and Yesterday Origins were all dirt-cheap bargain bin finds that carry no notable expectations. That’s hardly the case with Life Is Strange: Before the Storm and Final Fantasy XV, the former finally having been given a physical release and the latter having been released as a Royal Edition that contains all the DLC (although it was a massive disappointment to find out it’s just the vanilla game on disc and a download code for a few dozen gigabytes of additional content). As for The Witch and the Hundred Knight 2, that’s a sequel to one of the freshest and most beloved action-JRPGs I played last gen, so having really high hopes for it, too. Lastly, on hardware side, there’s the utterly adorable C64 Mini! It even features Winter Games, more or less the first game I ever played back in 1985 when my parents pampered me with a computer. Been a gamer ever since and wouldn’t trade away a single day!

Hanami Recharge

The complete lethargy that has been pestering me all this year is hopefully now a thing of the past, cured by the only way I know of. On Easter Monday, I flipped the bird at Finland’s cold and slushy spring and headed back to Tokyo after a break of a couple of years. That same day, the last winter storm hit the country pretty hard but the gallant professionals of Helsinki-Vantaa did a commendable job keeping everything running. Many flights were canceled, sure, but long-haul flights weren’t luckily among them. Although Finnair handled its part immaculately and the plane boarded on time, we still had to wait for connecting passengers from Sweden for over an hour. Because of Murphy’s laws, there also had to be that one poor sod whose luggage was already on the plane but the person was not. Still, we eventually got going and as a pleasant surprise, the originally overbooked plane had a couple of no-shows who would’ve been sitting next to me. The new Airbus 350-900 is a mighty comfortable plane even as-is with but when I had three seats worth of personal space, it was as much luxury as economy class can possibly offer.

Since my usual go-to- hotel, Ville Fontaine Kayabacho, had raised its prices uncomfortably high at least for the duration of the hanami season, I had to hunt down a slightly cheaper place to stay at. Equally near to the Tokyo City Air Terminal, I found a passable alternative in City Pension Zem. It’s a minuscule, 27-room family hotel that was quite modest and endearingly old-fashioned but as long as you don’t expect anything more than cheap accommodation, free Wi-Fi, and at least a little bit of breakfast every morning, it was most adequate. The sound proofing is abysmal but since each floor only has three or four rooms and fellow passengers were courteous enough to stay quiet most of the time, the nights were peaceful. The biggest drawback of the hotel is probably its location. It takes a five-minute walk just to the nearest metro station of Suitengumae, which isn’t even connected to anything noteworthy. Another five minutes of walking gets you to the slightly better aligned stations of either Ningyocho or Kayabacho but as these trips are always about plenty of walking, even short distances like these quickly add up to eventually murder your feet. Still, the hotel was good value for money and since the service was excellent, it’s certainly worth a recommendation on budget.

As for hanami, last year I was visiting the country a little bit too early and this time around a little bit too late. Japan had a chilly spring but at the last possible moment it turned into an unexpected heatwave that caused cherry blossoms to go crazy. Thankfully the first few days were still good enough to enjoy a bit of leftover spring celebration in Ueno Park, which was still teeming with people enjoying a relaxed picnic and food stalls offering all sorts of festival grub. Even Tokyoites seemed slightly perplexed of temperatures rising as high as 26° C but at least they later got down to more manageable 15-20° C. All in all, the weather was great for the entire week and for the first time ever, I never had to resort to an umbrella.

On whole, this year’s trip was mostly a best of selection from the past visits. I went to Odaiba to play some pinball and retro arcades (can be found from the fourth floor of Decks Mall Tokyo Beach), and enjoyed the new and impressively lit Unicorn Gundam in front of Diver City Plaza. For food, there was yakitori in the ever-wonderful Torigin in Ginza as well as on Omoide Yokocho, also known as Piss Alley, which featured loads of quaint little bars and grills on a narrow alleyway. The mandatory pilgrimage for Yakuza fans, Kabukicho, was also worth a visit. For thirst of culture, there was the Yebisu Museum of Beer, and a new Godzilla statue was featured in Hibiya, although it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Then again, the giant, steampunk-inspired Ghibli clock in Shiodome was truly a sight to behold, especially when it puts up an amusing three-minute show a few times a day.

I also checked out Yokohama, an hour away from Tokyo but easily accessible on the Tokaido line. For the second biggest city in Japan, it was a massive letdown. Sure, there was a little Nissan gallery, the observation tower of Minato Mirai, and Chinatown where steamed meat buns could be bought at practically every street corner, but that’s about it. The city is probably quite a bit more impressive during nighttime but as a day trip, it was just a waste of time. Thankfully Kawasaki, halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama, delivered big time. From the Kawasaki station, it’s just a five-minute walk to Anata no Warehouse, which very well might be the most wonderful arcade on this entire planet! This five-story complex, deliberately designed to look decrepit, imitates the Walled City of Kowloon and it’s just plain awesome! The entrance leads to a decontamination chamber good for a small jump scare, after which a dimly lit corridor leads you on a visually and aurally creepy time trip to the past. The elevator and the toilets in particular look like places to lose your life in bizarre circumstances, and the attention to detail is duly impressive. The main attraction, of course, are the games of which there are dozens and dozens, new and old, and many that can be played for just 50 yen a go. It’s a cheap, highly entertaining way to spend even an entire day, should your ears handle the cacophony.

Amid all this, there was naturally Akihabara. After paying a visit to the Kanda Myojin shrine and its wonderful manga prayer plaques, I rummaged through the arcades and game shops with huge fervor and ended up with a nice selection of all sorts of curios. For GBA, there’s Kessakusen! Ganbare Goemon 1+2: Yukihime to Magginesu, which at least looks like to be an action platformer of sorts. On PS2, it’s all about music (Taiko no Tatsujin: Tobikkiri! Anime Special and Taiko no Tatsujin: Wai Wai Happy Rokudaime) and bullet hell shooters (Dodonpachi Daioujou, Mushihimesama, Triggerheart Exelica Enhanced, and Twinklestar Sprites: La Petite Princesse). PSP retro comes in four flavors, namely Dariusburst, Capcom Classics Collection, SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1, and SNK Arcade Classics 0. For the 3DS, SoniPro: Super Sonico in Production promises gravure, rhythm, and idol management while Vita is good for music (DJMax Technika Tune) and shooting (Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours). My PS4 collection is bolstered with the Japanese trio of The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage, Game Tengoku CruisinMix, and Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone DX, and I even happened upon an import shelf that had a EU region copy of Shovel Knight. That’s probably the next summer vacation all sorted out, then.

Random Rambling of a Gaming Otaku