Category Archives: PlayStation 3

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!

Rugged Rallying

Working my way through the PlayStation Plus backlog continues on the good old PS3. Back in the summer months, it was given WRC 5 and as it has been quite some time since my last driving game, I eagerly took it for a spin. This turned out to be not the best of ideas, as the game didn’t provide much in the form of entertainment. In terms of numbers, it should’ve been a good one, featuring rallies of a whopping 13 different countries, a total of 65 special stages, and 21 cars. All of these are instantly available either as single runs or in a career mode that guides the player through rally school and Junior WRC all the way to the very top of WRC itself.

I usually prefer my driving games in cockpit view but in this case, it doesn’t really work that well. Not only do the cabins look awfully spartan, general visibility is often so poor that the feeling of speed is very much amiss. Switching to bonnet view helps things tremendously but sadly the developers’ idea of rallying is rather eccentric. Only about a fifth of the special stages are such that one can press hard enough to even make it a little bit scary. Most of the stages, however, are just bends following each other with such frequency that driving becomes a chore. The most egregious stages are so twisty that average speed drops closer to forty miles per hour, which no longer resembles rallying whatsoever.

Although each car has a pleasantly distinctive sound, their handling is always uncomfortably floaty. Grip is still decent on dry tarmac but especially on gravel, snow, or in heavy rain, driving turns into slalom. While that is basically realistic, utterly hopeless brakes and almost unnaturally smooth road surfaces make the cars feel more like bobsleighs. There are no impressive crashes as straying off course simply turns the screen black and returns the car back to the middle of the road. Blunders closer to the track damage various parts of the car, though. Careless driving with wild abandon can knock out individual shock absorbers, chassis, engine, gearbox, or even the in-car radio. Should any of that happen, there’s no choice but to try and limp to the next service park where mechanics are given 45 minutes to mend the car as much as they can.

The career mode is hardly inspiring, given the short length of the races. Each rally consists of only six or seven special stages that take about 2-7 minutes each. What’s worse, these half-hour races aren’t really about racing at all as the player’s performance is effectively ignored altogether. Unless driving extremely slowly or absolutely wrecking the car, each stage yields the best time with the second best always being 0.2-2 seconds slower. As every stage and every race ends the exact same way, the career mode is just mind-numbingly boring.

WRC 5 isn’t that good technically, either. It’s prone to frequent crashes and every now and then the car apparently doesn’t hit a point that would activate notes for the next three or four corners. While the co-driver eventually wakes up from such naps, having to drive blind even briefly can be quite jarring. The graphics are fairly bland, too. Trees and whatnot are sparse and especially on stages run early in the morning or late in the evening, merely discerning the road becomes a needless challenge.

Despite all this naysay, WRC 5 is still decent enough to quench at least a casual thirst for rallying. Given that it was technically free, its faults are forgivable and I suppose there’s some longevity in trying to improve one’s own times or heading online, even if two years after release there are hardly any players around anymore. Still, on whole the game is mostly just lackluster. While it basically has all the ingredients of a good rally game, it only manages to feel uninspired with more emphasis on quantity than quality.

Daishi’s Longest Month

How about a game of Spot Ranko?

It seems like early spring lethargy has become a tradition for me. Despite the days getting longer and winter slowly but surely starting to yield, I just don’t seem to get any gaming done. While the pile of sizable games requiring dozens of hours of commitment just keeps on growing, I’d much rather enjoy something more lightweight and fleeting for a change. Thankfully my backlog had something for that itch, too, namely Bandai Namco’s multimedia project from 2014, Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day. It’s a peculiar little anime/game hybrid that consists of four short films, about 15 minutes each, and a game. They have been produced by heavyweights such as Katsuhiro Otomo and Goichi Suda, so my expectations were high from the get-go.

The anime half of the release is visually stunning, although really quite random in content. Possessions is a story of a skilled artisan spending a night in a possessed hut while Combustible tells a tragic love story in Edo period Japan. The violent and gory Gambo focuses on a fight between a bear and a demon, whereas A Farewell to Weapons follows a squad battling robotic tanks in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Although these shorties sport impeccable style and animation, they’re mostly just vague concepts; loose, momentary glimpses into various worlds. Even if A Farewell to Weapons, at least, serves a tasty morsel of gallows humor about mankind’s self-destructive tendencies, it feels like these films are not so much about poignant stories than about promoting Japanese animation and what it can be capable of.

As for the game half, Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day isn’t any more full-bodied but at least it opens up all the floodgates of sheer anarchy. Its titular heroine is a 17-year-old high school girl slash assassin, who decides to avenge the death of her mother by killing his father. Ranko’s journey of vengeance is a rapid 2D platformer in which she slices various oncoming monsters with a katana while being chased by spirits that are kept at bay by shooting. The game also features hoverbikes, a dragon the size of a high-rise, one awfully feisty Pomeranian, Mexican professional wrestling, and several utterly bonkers cutscenes realized in pretty much every style imaginable. And all of this compressed into a package that lasts just a little over one hour!

The strength of Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day lies in its comprehensive and unrestrained frolicking. As a game, however, it’s a bit unwieldy. There’s never any breathing room as the aim is to get Ranko up to speed, Sonic style, and then keep the momentum going. Both attacking and bumping into obstacles slow Ranko down, so the game is essentially a stressful reaction test that requires an almost zen-like flow. There aren’t even any checkpoints, so if you die in a 2-3 minute stage, you’re ruthlessly returned back to its beginning. Disposed enemies explode into graphical, onomatopoetic fireworks, so most of the time the screen is full of pure, incomprehensible clutter. The short length of the game is compensated by dozens of presents hidden in its stages, unlocking concept art and additional costumes for Ranko. Of course, there’s also a bunch of trophies that reward exceptionally skillful and speedy gaming. All of that probably means there would be a couple more hours of entertainment to be salvaged. To my liking, though, Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day is just a wee bit too hectic and frustrating.

Overall, Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day is a one evening snack, which justifies its existence mostly as a shrewd curiosity. It’s like a small platter of assorted sushi, demonstrating Japanese entertainment culture in a delightfully compact and versatile way, but in the end that’s pretty much all there is.

Tokyo on My Mind

One more month of agonizing waiting and we finally get to enjoy Persona 5! Regarding the game, I’ve deliberately kept myself in the dark as much as possible but what the heck, one fast-paced trailer won’t hurt. I didn’t get into this outstanding and highly creative demon slaying / everyday high school life JRPG series until last year (!) on Vita but on that one, Persona 4 Golden instantly became one of my most beloved games ever. Compared to that, Persona 5 seems very much the same (even including the main characters) but with even more style. One of the only minor flaws in the fourth game was its forced dub, which ate away some of the ambience of such a deeply Japanese experience. The fifth game, however, also features original audio so come April 4th, it might provide an even more authentic virtual Tokyo than Yakuza 0!

Speaking of Tokyo, Spike Chunsoft announced some interesting news this week. Even if it’s not until spring next year, PS4 will be getting a localized version of 428: Shibuya Scramble. It’s some sort of peculiar visual novel that combines text, anime, and live action video clips. In Japan, the game was released on Wii in 2008 and on PS3/PSP in 2009. That’s pretty much all I know but since Spike Chunsoft is a true professional of the genre and since Famitsu awarded the original game a perfect 40/40 score, I’m most certainly picking it up come 2018. It’s delightful to see how even Japanese niche releases are slowly but surely finding a market here in the west, too!

Backlog Grooming

As for actual gaming, I’ve spent the past three weeks fixated on Dynasty Warriors 7. This 2011 release turned out to be quite an eternity project. It wasn’t even until 2013 that I picked it up from some bargain bin but back then, it didn’t seem entertaining for more than one evening. In summer 2016, I gave this ancient China brawler another brief go but it wasn’t until 2017 that I finally managed to get it off the backlog for good. Since the game is six years old already, I suppose no introductions are necessary; officers vie for the domination of the land by darting around large battlefields and beating the living daylight out of each other and their throwaway troops. I think the last game I played was 3, so it’s hard to say just how much the series has evolved. Still, 7 features at least horseback riding, siege weapons, quizzes, tons of melee weaponry, story campaigns for four different factions, and even a separate conquest mode in which the map of China has been divided into hexes that you conquer by completing the skirmishes they hold.

Dynasty Warriors 7 is actually an impeccable comfort game. Every now and then you have those moments when you’d just like to play something without actually concentrating on anything. This is when Warriors games shine. Pretty much all you have to do is learn three buttons (attacks of the light, heavy, and special variety). As the battles only last five to ten minutes each, it’s perfectly possible to just turn off your brain completely and gleefully mow down hundreds of soldiers and dozens of commanders without a care in the world. Throw in a sofa, a few beers, and a pal, and you can even enjoy a split screen co-op mode.

Dynasty Warriors 7 is awfully bloaty, though. Merely going through the four story campaigns is a bit of an ordeal due to repetition. They’re not particularly memorable stories, either, as the cinematics are mostly just officers bragging, and should someone occasionally die, there are so many lineages, loyalties, and relationships in play that it’s pretty much impossible to follow what is going on, let alone care about any of it. The conquest mode is a veritable timesink as well. Merely conquering all the hexes takes several evenings and if you decide to unlock all the skills of all the 62 playable characters (!) while also collecting pretty much everything from weapons to sworn loyalties, the amount of effort required is staggering. It was a grind hell like none other and although the game doesn’t seem to track time played, by the time I got the platinum trophy, I had completed 700 battles and vanquished 220344 foes (x . x)

These are fun maybe once every console generation but I’d now welcome a half a decade break with open arms. Except Musou Stars is right around the corner. Darn.