To Be Continued…

Haku’s self preservation skills failing yet again

I guess I should have known that the very second I claim Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception not to be a harem adventure, Haku’s troupe is complemented by a couple of unabashed harem beauties. Thankfully Haku is such a genuine gentleman (no, he really is!) that the adventure still managed to continue in a fairly chaste manner. After almost 30 hours of lull, the story finally caught wind in its sails. That long sought gust was a little too rowdy, though, as the next 12 hours featured not just more characters but also a couple of sizable border wars and plenty of political scheming. As far as pacing goes, Utawarerumono is all over the place. It first spends a ludicrous amount of time just lollygagging before putting the pedal to the metal with loads of epic moments conveyed in rudimentary 3D scenes that require plenty of forgiving imagination to work out.

In a way, the game is still hard to put into words as even after those 42 hours, I’ve only experienced the first half of the adventure. After kicking into high gear, the game more or less just ends, leaving behind a number of (partly painfully asinine) cliffhangers for Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth to follow up on come September. I should be a little annoyed with this twosome as it really feels like just trimming excess fat would’ve made it possible to tell the whole story in a single, more refined manner. Still, can’t say for sure until experiencing the other half, so I guess I have to give Mask of Deception a hall pass for now. Maybe its follow-up will focus on the cavalcade of characters that now felt way too numerous and largely underutilized.

To end on a slightly brighter note, I still admit that I’m intrigued by the fates of Haku and Kuon. Also, the frequency of the strategic battles towards the end almost felt normal at times. Big thumbs up for the final battle in particular, in which damage both given and taken was just plain brutal. While this might be my last endeavor into Japanese RPG stories cheekily split into multiple games, I guess my wallet still wishes to have an audience with Mask of Truth.

Lazy Summer Days

Spoilsport…

Thanks to another leisurely weekend, I’ve managed to make progress in Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception. Its characters seem to be spending equally leisurely time themselves. What first seemed like a travel story has now rooted itself deeply in the capital of the empire of Yamato. There, Haku and his gang are doing occasional odd jobs while mostly concentrating on eating, boozing, shopping, and cooking. Their troupe has increased in size, welcoming aboard Nekone, the mercenary Ukon’s awfully tsundere little sister, as well as a couple more royals from the neighboring countries; a scatterbrained and romance-hungry princess Atuy, as well as a young and virtuous prince Kiwru. With a couple of dozen side characters thrown in for good measure, the cast is already more than adequate, and that’s putting it mildly.

At this particular moment, my biggest gripe with Utawarerumono is the way it meanders aimlessly. Even after 22 hours played, there has been preciously little of relevance going on, apart from a continuous barrage of new characters being introduced. The player is stingily given brief, enigmatic glimpses into the veiled pasts of both Kuon and Haku, but as for the plot, it’s still hiding somewhere. There are just tons of small, disconnected scenes about the everyday fuss of living in a big city. They’re a good source of some excellent, unabashed character chemistry, and can occasionally be even a little touching. Still, the storytelling is currently like a sailboat stuck in a dead calm. I’m mostly just waiting for stuff to start happening.

The game’s turn-based skirmishes, fought on checkered isometric maps, have been brief and exceptionally rare. They only lasts for maybe 5-10 minutes, and so far there have been eight of them. Of those, most have been designed to give the player such a huge advantage from the very beginning that there’s barely any need for any kind of strategic thinking. If you can be bothered to check how far the enemy units can move and attack on their turn, it’s a piece of cake to bait them into individual, easily toppled targets. There are little gimmicks such as being able to slightly increase or decrease damage with a well-timed button press right before a blow lands, but they do very little to improve what is an extremely crude and barebones battle system. Battles won can be replayed in free battle mode but since the experience reward of doing so is negligible, it’s not really worth it. Besides, there never seems to be any real need to grind, anyway.

As awkward as all this might sound, Utawarerumono isn’t still a lost cause at all. Even if it’s easy and 95% passive, its characters and their interplay continue to work. I’m especially pleased to see that even if Haku is surrounded by several beautiful maidens, the game isn’t a tired old harem adventure. There’s plenty of love in the air, sure, but when pretty much everyone has their own quirks and persons of interest, even the romantic comedy feels fresh and versatile. A much better approach than, say, having everybody going after the protagonist. I’m probably close to the halfway point, so if only the story would kindly start moving soon, this could still become quite a ride.

E-Threesome

Either I need a vacation or I’m just getting old (or most likely a bit of both) but this year’s E3 galloped past without leaving much of an impression. For the first time in years, I skipped the live press conferences of the Big Three and didn’t even bother to watch them afterwards. Even if that was a subconscious decision, the overall feedback seems to support it; the traditional big companies showed off their traditional big stuff, and their showpieces seemed vaguely nice but not really anything more than that.

Still, digging around the outskirts of the big budget AAA swamp wasn’t a complete waste of time, given that E3 was still courteous enough to provide something for us pathetic hipster farts, too. First, there was Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom which finally got a solid release November release date. I’m not particularly thrilled that the children of the first game got replaced with teen protagonists but since Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, back in its day, was one pretty damn solid JRPG, I’m pre-ordering its sequel the very second it becomes available. The dub in the trailer isn’t particularly impressive but here’s hoping the original audio will be included.

The second place of this year’s E3 goes to Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. The first Life Is Strange readily challenged (the sometimes equally impressive) Telltale for the crown of emotion- and story-driven adventures, and if there’s more to be experienced then I’m first in the line. Sure, it’s still an episodic adventure split into three parts, so I’ll wait until they’re all out and dressed into a physical form but I’m very much in the line nonetheless. Before the Storm kicks off at the end of August this year, so with a bit of luck it’s going to be one awfully wonderful journey by early 2018.

For now, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim doesn’t even have a western release date (not even a Japanese one for that matter) but since its trailer has been localized, we’ll probably get to enjoy this Vanillaware latest eventually. Seems like yet another harrowingly beautiful 2D action-adventure but as it’s a recipe that has worked before, I have no qualms supporting it further.

Passive Strategy

Hoodlum about to get a face full of chocob… birdie!

If stereotypes were a bit too much yesterday, they’ve been quite wonderful today. If a game is a JRPG that stars a young protagonist who has lost his memories then surely it should be the dullest and most unambitious of experiences ever? Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception begs to differ, though, skillfully showing just how much can be salvaged with an excellent cast of characters and loads of heartfelt humor. To be exact, there are two protagonists, given that the amnesia-ridden youngster who is lost on the snowy mountains of the empire of Yamato is rescued by Kuon, a lone and upbeat female adventurer well-versed in medicine. She’s also remarkably stubborn, unanimously deciding that the boy’s name shall be Haku, and should he occasionally feel like nothing more than a pet in training, it’s just because everyone in Yamato has furry ears and a fluffy tail whereas Haku does not.

Even if Haku is exceptionally weak in this strange new world, he quickly shows skills in mathematics, engineering, and unparalleled laziness. Overall, he seems pretty much useless but for reasons unknown, Kuon still wants to look over him. If manual labor at the nearby village isn’t cutting it then perhaps the capital of the empire would have a job for someone with not much brawn but plenty of brain. Since the game is essentially a travel story, it doesn’t take long for the duo to meet up with other travelers, such as the easygoing captain of a mercenary squad, Ukon, his boozy aristocrat mage, Maroro, and a timid, bona fide princess of a neighboring nation, Rulutieh.

At least for now, Utawarerumono is a JRPG in name only. In theory, it’s an isometric, turn-based strategy RPG in which each unit gets a turn to move and act based on their agility. This part of the game seems incredibly puny and streamlined to the max. There are hit points, sure, but not really much anything else. Skirmishes won are rewarded with experience points that grant new skills, as well as random trinkets that can be equipped to buff various stats, but that’s it. There are no magic points, shops, weapons, or items whatsoever. It’s not that big a deal, anyway, considering that after almost seven hours, there has been actual playable content for maybe half an hour or so. In reality, Utawarerumono is a purebred visual novel.

Those hours haven’t been wasted time at all, though. As some weird kind of semi-anime, Utawarerumono works wonders. It might be preciously little else than pretty backgrounds housing still character portraits going through their fully voice-acted lines, but against all odds that is actually enough. This is partly thanks to the delightfully complacent Kuon but especially Haku, who is not just another mute reject of a hero but a genuinely written character who constantly shares his mind both aloud and in his thoughts. If you switch on auto mode, all the cutscenes (in this case main scenes) can be enjoyed without pressing a button. Just put down the controller and enjoy an excellent comedy adventure with a bit of ecchi thrown in for good measure.

I’m sure some might point out that if a game isn’t really a game then why couldn’t it have been anime from the get-go? Simply put, if my session today had been split into anime episodes, there would already have been around 20 of them while this adventure is more or less just getting started. Utawarerumono has taken a peculiar approach but as it’s an entertaining one, I’m not complaining!

Aria of No Soul

Whee! I’m done! Now let’s quickly get out of here!

If this wasn’t much of a week then Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Anniversary at least follows suit. Even if it was still a cautiously entertaining adventure just last weekend, its latter half stumbled on so many clichés that it would have needed to be a self-conscious parody rather than a solemn action-adventure to work. It’s a real shame, too, considering that tech-wise Rise of the Tomb Raider is still nigh on impeccable. Both the overall imagery of the game as well as the detail of its heroine’s animation are absolutely spot on. When Lara admires the exceptionally gorgeous views, or quickly dries her ponytail after a quick swim, those are the moments when the player probably feels most in sync with the character. Movement is fluent, bullets fly true, and the environment is discreetly graceful at pointing out ledges that can be grabbed, vertical surfaces that allow an additional step, or cliffsides that can be leaped onto with a couple of climbing axes.

Even if the staff of Crystal Dynamics seem to be on the level from a technical perspective, the other aspects making up a game are a bit woeful. Two religious extremities – one strong but evil, the other weak but good – vying over an ancient secret really is a piss-poor motif to begin with, but it’s ten times worse approached seriously. Sure, Indiana Jones fights Nazis and Nathan Drake has his own treasure hunts, but at least those two know how to laugh at themselves. Lara does not laugh. Even if Rise of the Tomb Raider no longer treats its heroine in such a repulsive and sadistic manner than its predecessor (Tomb Raider of 2013), there’s still not even an iota of British charm present, as much as a treasure trove that would be. No one ever smiles, except maybe by accident, and when awfully stereotypical characters constantly end up in awfully stereotypical situations while spouting lines like “You do what you must”, or when Lara is sitting at a campfire, having a personal crisis of how awful it is for the good in this world to witness death and violence… It’s just plain cringe-worthy.

As for gameplay, it has similar problems. Whenever Lara can choose a stealthy approach, picking off her adversaries one by one from the shadows, the game shines at its brightest. To counter these occasions, however, there are tons of moments when you’re swarmed by alarmed bad guys and left with no option but to survive. At times, an endless rain of nades would put even Call of Duty in shame, and when all else fails there’s always the tired old cliché of slow but heavily armored baddies to fall back to. Rise of the Tomb Raider never finds a good balance between these two extremes. It’s either an enjoyable stealth encounter or a shockingly loud and chaotic skirmish but rarely ever anything in between. Towards the end, all gauges are turned up to eleven and everything is so flashy it no longer even matters anymore. Just a ridiculous barrage of unnecessarily dramatic explosions and close calls that are there only for their own sake (incidentally something that hampered the previous game, too).

I beat the game in 20 hours, including one of its story-driven DLCs, which was pretty much more of the same but with a hugely original twist of added chaos via psychedelic hallucinations. Oh FFS, game designers, get your act together already. If this is AAA, I’m happy to stick to the sidelines.

Auspicious second-stringers

Speaking of which, even if this time of year doesn’t sport that many new releases, a couple still caught my attention. Little Nightmares is, apparently, some sort of a dark puzzle-platformer that probably would’ve flown right past my radar without plenty of positive hearsay. As for Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, it’s something I’ve briefly covered already, and really a game I’m really looking forward to. Now if only I could get that one remarkably time-consuming and, at times, aggravating DS puzzle game done and dusted… If anything, I’m thankful of not having to cover these as work.

Ms. Drake, I Presume?

The audience is a bit dead

After a couple of less impressive subjects, this actual weekend has been quite a bit more entertaining. Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration has turned out to be a rather mellow, if also pretty generic third person action-adventure. This time around the horror of all tombs worldwide, Lara Croft, is following in her late father’s footsteps to discover no more and no less than immortality itself. Back in the 10th century, a cabal led by the prophet of Constantinople kept this awfully useful sounding secret safe and sound from a military organization known as Trinity. They’ve been doing an exceptional job, considering that after an entire millennium the descendants of these two factions are still at it. Remarkably persistent little buggers!

Thanks to her father’s notes, Lara is quickly up to the game, and it only takes a brief stop at sultry Syria to get bearings for the icy tundras of Siberia that allegedly harbor the hidden city of the prophet and his chosen ones. Sadly, the psychopathic leader of a Trinity battalion, Konstantin, has reached the same conclusion, so waiting for Lara are not only ancient revelations but a merry mob of mercenaries as well. That’s especially bad when our beloved archaeologist loses all her gear due to some careless mountaineering and has to begin her adventure by displaying such basic survival skills as building a fire and constructing a flimsy bow.

Making use of the local biodiversity, namely flora, fauna, and mercenaries, is most straightforward; bow arrows can be crafted with sticks and feathers, ouchies heal with herbs and cloth, downed game is good for, say, larger ammo pouches, and empty bottles and tin cans be swiftly transformed into molotovs and grenades. If such an organic lifestyle or silent kills by a bow don’t hold allure, it doesn’t really take all that long to secure a traditional array of hand guns and assault rifles. As well as hunting-gathering, plenty of time is naturally spent admiring some pretty damn striking views, ascending mountainsides, making daring leaps, recovering long lost relics, solving relatively easy physics based puzzles, and constantly getting into explosive, Michael Bay -esque situations.

It’s a no-brainer to guess which series Rise of the Tomb Raider has been studying most fervently, and in more than one occasion it truly feels more Uncharted than Uncharted itself. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think I’ll still want to see it through in full first. For now, though, the game isn’t half bad at all.

Perfunctory Pantsu

Meh meh meh meh meh…

It’s often easy to foresee that a game will be bad. Even so, it might still be a game that is trash in a good way. In other words, it could be so deliberately camp that it works for that very reason. SG/ZH: School Girl Zombie Hunter could have easily been one such silly little gem but sadly, it’s just plain bad.

That’s not to say its premise wouldn’t be good. Zombies have once again taken over the world, leaving five students of a private all-girl high school to fend themselves from the undead until a rescue team arrives. That shouldn’t be a problem at all, given that they’re armed with anything from handguns to assault rifles with infinite ammo to boot.

This third person shooter consists of short missions that are mostly served in three variations; clearing out an area of all foes, defending the home base from assaulting hordes for a given time, or fighting through enemies to reach a designated checkpoint. As per ecchi tradition, zombies getting too close will shred the heroine’s clothing and after sustaining enough damage, there’s no choice but to fight in just underwear. Those either brave or desperate enough can also ditch their clothes voluntarily; a tossed school uniform acts as a temporary decoy for all male zombies at least. Seems like death is no cure for lewdness.

All this could be fun if the production values and gameplay were there. They’re not. It’s still somewhat forgivable that the game would’ve look dated even on the PS3. What isn’t, though, is that its gameplay is just plain appalling. While it’s generally easy to move, turning is quite sluggish. Switching to aim mode means losing pretty much all mobility and having to wrestle with a camera that yanks the crosshairs so erratically that actually hitting anything is pure luck. That’s a real pity, especially when shooting from the hip only deals about half the damage compared to “aimed” shots. This would still be tolerable if it weren’t for the enemies. Not even until the game’s midway point, they turn into depressing bullet sponges that not just rush the player but also respawn indefinitely. It’s hopeless to try much anything when being constantly swarmed by 4-5 zombies that might not go down even with a shotgun blast from four inches away.

Completed missions can be replayed in hopes of a better grade or completion time, and they give out both experience points and collectible items that can be used to customize the girls’ clothing and weapons. Still, since even a bit of grinding didn’t make progress any easier, I’ll leave this one be. Unfunny rubbish.

Fledgling

Oh, the ever-so-lovable public opinion…

The past week has been a dull display of nothing at all but at least I now have a little four day mini-vacation to enjoy. It could’ve started better, though. I finally waded my way through The Silver Case, and even if it’s probably not appropriate to question the genius of Goichi Suda, his early works sure were remarkably awkward. The game promises to be a stylishly dark, dreamlike serial killer mystery but by the halfway point, everything more or less crumbles into dust. What began as a gripping story slowly and painfully transforms itself into a disappointingly pompous metaphysical hodgepodge that ends up making very little sense even for those paying attention to it. The characters and their interaction, once the most stellar part of the game, are nonchalantly tossed into the maw of chaotic storytelling, and the last few hours are pure abstract.

As well as the bloated story, the rhythm of the game is all over the place. Each location, with its day and time, is always introduced with a little CG animation that lasts about 10-15 seconds. At first this feels like a neat little nuance but since you end up traveling between various locations for hundreds of times, such scenes soon become incredibly aggravating. They’re unskippable, of course. Deliberate, almost impish prolonging of the adventure is evident everywhere else as well. You’re sent running back and forth in staircases, forced to investigate several areas identical with each other, spend time on the world’s tardiest escalators, etc. The game took me about 13 hours to play through but I dare say that with a more honest design, it would’ve been possible to trim up to five hours without negatively affecting the overall experience. Quite the opposite, in fact.

All this is a real shame, as The Silver Case also knows how to be truly excellent. After clearing a chapter as a player, you can then experience the same events from the viewpoint of the journalist Tokio Morishima. Two protagonists, both interested in the same murderer, means that their paths cross multiple times, and their individual story halves complement and deepen each other nicely. I was also smitten by the game’s way of dealing with the internet and its impact on mankind. For a 1999 release, some of its observations are now, 18 years later, delightfully current and pertinent. Also, as I’ve said before, the characters and their dialogue are awesome for a while. Thankfully the ambient, cool instrumental music keeps its charm throughout the game.

Even if I’m inclined to say that The Silver Case is just plain bad on whole, it wouldn’t be the full truth. It’s cumbersome and crude, sure, but it’s also irresistibly uncompromising in a manner that almost feels arrogant. Personally, I’ve come to prefer Suda’s later works, such as Lollipop Chainsaw and the really most dashing Shadows of the Damned, both of which strike a much better balance between his playful anarchy and being games with actual gameplay. Even as a visual novel, The Silver Case feels lacking, but perhaps mostly because the genre has already given birth to so many other perfectly impeccable scions. Maybe this one would’ve been more impressive back in 1999 but as a re-release, it’s mostly just an interesting curio by an interesting designer.

Like Clockwork

Maybe just one more before calling it a day…

I’ve pretty much run out of screenshots, yet Picross 3D just keeps on going. It seems to do that in an extremely punctual fashion, too, as after its tutorial and easy levels stole 24 hours of my life, its normal challenges pilfered another 24. I really should’ve knocked on wood after the previous status update, though. That same evening, I was almost ready to give up due to a couple of puzzles that felt just plain impossible. Still, I guess listening to your own advice occasionally works, as the very next day I managed to solve them with minimal fuss. Picross 3D is a game where banging your head against a wall is usually only good for getting a headache. Give it a little break every now and then, and the move you previously missed might suddenly be clear as day. I’ve had some very tense moments with ten-minute puzzles that didn’t open up until the last few seconds but after over 200 of them, going through them now is mostly relaxed, mechanical work where your brain kind of rests, only giving your hands minor stimuli to make them transform those lumps into eventual shapes.

Picross 3D is pleasant, too. Its controls take a little while to get used to, but the basic gameplay is solid. Pretty much my only gripe are the zero columns, which always need to be cleared out before actually starting to solve anything. At first, I removed blocks with a zero one by one, until the manual (or the tutorial, which I inadvertently skipped) told me to just hold down on the touch screen to remove an entire column at once. Still, even that style requires you to have more or less a direct view to the end of the column, so in the end you have to slightly adjust your viewpoint for most of them. Also, some of the bigger challenges have so many zero columns that merely getting rid of them all can take closer to a minute. Once you’re done with them, then make a mistake, and then start all over again… It’s not exactly fun. Sure, getting rid of all the pointless columns is an empowering start into any puzzle, but I’d much rather have a button that would simply remove all cubes obviously serving no other purpose than needing to be removed.

My other little niggle is actually more about the hardware than the game. Instead of a feathery DS, I’m playing this one on a New 3DS XL, which has a weight of 329 grams and is pretty darn heavy to be held with one hand for long periods of time. Even if the game is very much about solving “just one more” puzzle, sessions with it usually end in the finger joints of the hand holding the console screaming mercy. As a handheld, the New 3DS XL is perfectly fine for games played while holding the console with both hands but if one of them has to use a stylus, it gets mighty uncomfortable after an hour or two. Still, as the 3DS so lovely tracks the time spent with each game played, I’ll stick by it. Anyway, all normal challenges are now faultlessly done, so surely the remaining hard ones won’t be impossible, either (although this time I’m banging my fist on wood, just in case). Onwards!

Inis Is Back!

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Some of the younger people might not remember but back in the middle of the last decade, Inis was bad-ass! Their Nintendo DS games Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2, and the western adaptation of those two, Elite Beat Agents, represented the best and funniest rhythm gaming out there. After these gems, the firm ended up developing notably less interesting karaoke games for the Xbox 360, after which they went mobile. In my heart, I had already bid this once brilliant studio my sad farewell, but now it looks like they’re ready to make one hell of a comeback!

Inis has joined hands with the equally forgotten NanaOn-Sha, who are probably best known for PaRappa the Rapper, the game considered to be the first ever modern rhythm game. I’m still baffled as to why that silly game, lasting only an hour or two, enjoys such a fame as it seemingly does, especially now with a HD remake out and everything. Still, I’ll admit it was pretty neat despite its short length. Whatever the case, these two cult studios are now working on Project Rap Rabbit. At this point, all we know about it is the above teaser video and a Kickstarter page that promises a 2018 story-driven rhythm game for PC and PS4, should the funding be met. I sure hope it does, as I’m actually a little bit surprised how developers of such caliber even need to resort to Kickstarter in the first place.

…and if anyone was left wondering about all this weird Inis worship then come on, surely these were the best rhythm times ever:

Random Rambling of a Gaming Otaku