Category Archives: PlayStation 4

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.

The Witcher Comeback

Oh, it’s February already? If sheer laziness doesn’t count, I only have two excuses for the silence of the past five weeks. Firstly, there haven’t yet been any new game releases this year that would’ve piqued my interest. Secondly, despite a sizable backlog, I ended up revisiting CD Projekt’s exquisite fantasy epic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, complete with all the DLC and everything. Although I had already experienced all of that before, the adventures of the Witcher Geralt turned out to be just as enchanting and content-rich the second time around. Even the pivotal main and side quests once again took well over a hundred hours and the world map is still littered with tons of minor locations to explore. In both good and bad sense, the game is just plain massive.

In this entry, I mostly focus on how replay value holds up. Probably the most surprising thing was still the vastness of the game world. Even White Orchard, essentially just a tutorial area, felt delightfully large only to pale in comparison to the desolate quagmires of Velen and the hustle and bustle of the free city of Novigrad. There’s just so much to see and do that it might start to feel excessive even before embarking to the rocky shores of Skellige, let alone the duchy of Toussaint introduced in the Blood and Wine DLC.

The game’s story branching was surprising, too, given how often the player is given a choice to affect the outcome of pretty much every main and side quest, sometimes in minor but often in major ways. One might think that the second time would be perfect for trying out alternative ways of resolving things, yet I constantly found myself making the same choices as the first time around, even the same gross misjudgments included. I guess this is at least partially to do with the player’s own moral compass but also the fact that there are often no easy, predictable outcomes available. Besides, even the most tragic of fates have been written with such care that they feel like a natural, necessary part of the story despite there perhaps having been a chance for things to go better.

I was quite happy how well the game has been patched over the years, getting rid of a large number of minor bugs and improving the user interface. Still, some core problems were never addressed. For example, the most challenging Death March difficulty is absolutely thrilling for the first few hours when even the most basic of foes can pose a lethal threat to an inexperienced Witcher. However, after leveling up Geralt even just to character level 7-10, new skills and constantly improving gear start tipping the scales the other way. After a few dozen hours fighting becomes a routine and by the time of the DLC, Geralt has become so overpowered that nothing feels genuinely threatening anymore.

Also, the game’s economy is still as broken as ever. The street value of a magical sword can equal that of a roasted chicken leg, and if slaying a fierce monster is worth a few hundred crowns, that hardly feels like a reward when you already have tens of thousands in the coin pouch. Merchants practically never have anything worthwhile to buy as the game world is bursting out of its seams with useful and valuable loot of all kinds. The DLC introduce a couple of places where Geralt can squander away all the pointless wealth amassed during the main game but even those only serve to emphasize just how meaningless money in the game is.

In hindsight, the best way to truly enjoy this game is to approach it calmly. During both of my playthroughs, I made the mistake of going from village to village, eagerly picking up any and every side quest available. This caused my mission log and the game world to be so full of stuff that going through them turned into arduous, monotonic work. Sure, even the smallest of side quests are genuinely written but the basic theme always remains the same: go somewhere to find or kill something. I’m quite certain the game would entertain a lot better in small doses over the course of several months (or even years) rather than trying to wolf it all down in quick succession.

Despite all this, I have to admit The Witcher 3 earns all of its acclaim. Its fantasy is as stark as it is beautiful, and everything in it has been produced with such dedication and attention to detail that it’s a blast even when replayed.

Around the Park in 79 Days

Since I was already shopping at PlayStation Store, I also ended up buying Firewatch, Campo Santo’s fairly well-received debut adventure from 2016. It stars Henry, a man broken by life’s surprising curve balls. He decides to get away from pretty much everything and takes a job as a reclusive fire lookout in the Yellowstone National Park. The only one to keep him company is chatty Delilah, a lookout on the neighboring watchtower. Although Henry has never met her, they quickly end up forming a long distance (work) relationship through radio. Days go by with small talk, long hikes, and dealing with drunken teenagers, although it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it should. There are shadowy people lurking about, park visitors either go missing or have gone missing ages ago, Henry and Delilah find out they’re being eavesdropped, and some areas have been suspiciously fenced up. Amid all these mysteries, Henry is still expected to take care of his post and ensure that an exceptionally hot and dry summer won’t end up in a catastrophic wildfire.

Probably the first thing the player notices is the openness of this first person exploration adventure. Henry has been put in charge of a fairly vast area and the game isn’t that much into hand-holding. If the man has to do some routine patrolling or spots something peculiar in the horizon, the route has to be figured out with frequent glances to a map and a compass. Even if merely walking around in the middle of beautiful nature has its charm, Firewatch is first and foremost about the chemistry between Henry and Delilah. They’re both adults, slightly broken personalities who possess a delightfully cynical attitude towards life, complemented by crude humor. Their abundant interaction supports an otherwise tranquil story most well, especially as the player is frequently given a chance to choose how Henry reacts.

In real-time, Henry’s two and a half month summer job takes about four hours to experience. This time consists of plenty of peace of nature, remarkable sunrises and sunsets, magnificent vistas, rappelling down cliffs, discovering abandoned campsites, and getting caught up in odd, increasingly unnerving events. As a slight blemish, gaining access to some areas can feel awkward and implausible, and even the overall story stumbles a little towards the end. This is, however, easy to forgive as the main attraction is still very much the chance encounter of two imperfect souls only via walkie-talkies. Granted, when all is said and done, Firewatch is another release that is game in name only but like so many of these “walking simulators” have shown, this media is perfectly suitable for mere stories, too. Me likey.

Edith, Edith, Who the F*** Is Edith?

That’s pretty much what I was asking myself when going through other players’ lists of the best games of last year. Quite many of them mentioned What Remains of Edith Finch, whose developer Giant Sparrow sounded oddly familiar. After a bit of thinking, I remembered that they were the studio behind the really quite lovely The Unfinished Swan back in 2012. Since What Remains of Edith Finch happened to be on PlayStation Store’s sale this month, I had no choice but to see what sort of potential hit had managed to fly under my usually so finely tuned radar. Now, only a couple of short hours later, I have to admit that despite the experience having been a fleeting one, it was also an extremely beautiful and touching little story.

Despite being just 17, Edith Finch is the last of her kin. As years have gone by, all Finches have either disappeared or died, often in the most peculiar of circumstances. After being away for six years, Edith returns to her childhood home in order to get better acquainted with her roots that some claim to be cursed. Although the doors of the derelict mansion are seamed shut, the house is full of hidden passages through which Edith finds her way around to learn more about the life and fate of her ancestors. Through letters and diaries, she gets drawn into flashbacks that make her experience the last moments of her family through their eyes. As creepy as that might sound, the game most certainly isn’t a horror adventure but a wistful and mystic journey full of captivating fantasy.

As a first-person adventure, What Remains of Edith Finch is pure exploration with all interaction limited to just walking around and activating miscellaneous hotspots with the controller’s shoulder button. The narrated thoughts of both Edith and other Finch family members float nicely around the environment, taking care of not just storytelling but also gently guiding the player along. Although the abandoned mansion is pretty huge, the adventure is remarkably straightforward and much more about soaking everything in than actually playing as such. And that’s about all that can be said to avoid spoilers. All the magic stems from the melancholic but also remarkably eccentric fate of each Finch, often ripping open the fabric of reality.

In a nutshell, What Remains of Edith Finch is an impressive fairy tale for grown-ups, one that can easily make the player even a little misty-eyed. Its short length, deliberate tranquility, and lack of genuine gameplay elements might not be for everyone but for those interested in emotionally powerful stories, it’s a journey most fine and memorable!

The Luck of the Underachiever

No need to feel down; none of this matters!

Gaming year 2018 continues under fair winds as the eternity topic of this blog, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, is now thoroughly done! Against ridiculously small odds, one random gold present was finally kind enough to contain the very last costume I was still missing. About two seconds later, the game disc left the console for never to return. Although I had already considered the game beaten after raising all idols to S rank, I now have its elusive platinum trophy as well. This utterly insane challenge ended up taking over 303 hours. While such a number would make the game easily the longest I have ever played, the truth isn’t quite so straightforward.

Somewhere around 200 hours, I realized that the game doesn’t actually care about its player at all. For each live, the amount and content of eventual gifts has been drawn even before the first note, so it makes no difference whether the song is played at all. As pathetic as that is, it turned out to be a blessing of sorts. Mindless repetition was no longer an issue as it was possible to just mute the TV, start the live, and go do something else entirely. Granted, it was still necessary to skip all post-live cutscenes and start a new round every few minutes but that was thankfully all the attention the game required. Ironically enough, this kind of non-playing is even a little faster way to make progress as it does away with cutscenes related to successful performances.

All the goodwill I might have had for this otherwise really quite proficient rhythm game during its first 20-30 hours went down the drain as months went by. In the end, Project iM@S and Bandai Namco only succeeded to display incredible nihilism by imagining that a game that is noticeably light in content would somehow feel more full-bodied by pitting the player against a sadistic random number generator for hundreds of hours. The game doesn’t have even a trifle of respect for its players’ time, and it would be even more ruthless towards their wallets, should anyone be foolish enough to drop hundreds of euros for additional overpriced songs, costumes, and potentially grind-lessening gifts. It’s almost insulting how little the company thinks of its customers but I suppose even a grossly cynical approach like this is somehow worth it to them.

For those willing to treat Platinum Stars as nothing more than a simple little snack for an evening or two, it’s not half bad. For completionists, however, the journey is mind-numbingly long, boring, and unrewarding. Just last December, Bandai Namco released The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage, which looks pretty much the same for its rhythm part, at least. Still, if its career mode has been ruined in a similar fashion, it’s one to pass. I’ll be damned to go through this kind of madness ever again.

Punful Days with a Side Order of Cats

Spirry just being her (?) lovable curt self

Good quality games can pop up from anywhere around the world. Yesterday, this claim was proved by the Singaporean indie studio The Gentlebros, whose consciously tongue-in-cheek cat action RPG Cat Quest managed to glue me to the telly for all of its eight hours’ worth. Its nameless feline hero is in trouble from the very beginning. A wicked white cat, Drakoth, kidnaps his sister and starts terrorizing the hapless, peasant-filled kingdom of Felingrad with ancient dragons. As luck would have it, our poor hero turns out to be a descendant of the mythical dragon slayers. Granted, he’s also very much the silent type but that’s not really an issue as he’s soon joined by a jovial and chatty cat spirit Spirry. Together, these two end up pouncing all over Felingrad, foiling Drakoth’s dastardly plans while bumping into pretty much every imaginable, most awkward cat pun in known existence.

After a delightfully compact intro, almost the entirety of Felingrad is immediately open for exploration. The whole game world is literally a map that has been filled with amusingly named areas, villages, dungeons, and a bunch of cutesy monsters. The latter are beaten in fluent real-time combat that is based on skillfully simplified controls. One button is reserved for attacking and another for nimby rolling away from harm’s way. The four shoulder buttons of the controller, in turn, can be customized to fling spells sold and enhanced by Felingrad’s mage kittens. Although magic is powerful, it requires mana that can only be restored in melee combat, so all brawls require at least a modicum of tactical thinking. As for items or shops, there are none. Village inns are just free save spots and practically all weapons and gear are acquired from cat chests within dungeons.

In order to keep the player suitably leveled up for the main story, all villages have notice boards providing plenty of miscellaneous side quests. Some of them end up teaching the hero essential special skills such as the ability to walk on water or even fly. Most of them, though, are merely simple variations of themes such as “fetch something”, “go somewhere”, “kill all”, or usually all three rolled into one. While this sort of lazy and haphazard quest design would poison pretty much any game, Cat Quest sports a full house of cuteness and (good) bad humor but, most importantly, exemplary pacing. Since all the quests and dungeons are extraordinarily short, those eight hours are perfectly adequate to complete all 62 side quests, triumph over all 52 dungeons, and even level up the hero all the way up to 99. Even if the entire adventure ends up repeating itself from the very beginning to the very end, the pace itself is so delightfully brisk that the repetition never has time to turn into an actual issue. Since all quests and dungeons are even polite enough to hint what their recommended character level is, there’s not even need for pointless grinding.

Whereas so many games, indies in particular, expect their players to come around and then stay around for extended, often unreasonably long periods of time, Cat Quest is lovably honest. It is fully aware of its capability to provide goofy entertainment for no more than a day or so, but it also does its darnedest to ensure that day will be as entertaining as possible. That’s exactly how mine turned out, so mission accomplished and two thumbs up!

That aforementioned mini-gem also kicked off this year’s shopping coverage as Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park actually managed to find its new home during the very last days of 2017. Not only is it my first (and most likely last) physical PC release, it’s most certainly one of the finest commemorations to all those wonderful Lucasfilm graphic adventures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. You know, those games that were loved by so many of us modern day geezers who were too broke and flippant as teenagers back then. Even if the likes of Good Old Games have since then given us a chance to atone digitally, those big boxes of the past remain just as awesome as they once were.

Flogging an (Un)dead Horse

Even Clementine knows how the story will go

My gaming year seems to continue in a gloomy fashion, even if Japanese spirits have already been replaced by American undead. Telltale’s five-episode The Walking Dead: A New Frontier culminated in last May but I once again waited for a retail release to enjoy this third season in one fell swoop. Although the series’ long-standing heroine Clementine is still very much around, the spotlight now falls primarily on former baseball player Javier Garcia and his makeshift family. Not only do they have daily trouble with the undead, they also have to deal with the titular New Frontier; a notorious group of settlers operating from Richmond. As expected, in a collapsed society humans can be an even bigger threat than zombies, so both Clementine and Javier’s posse soon end up fighting not just for their survival but their humanity as well.

Rewinding time for about five years, Telltale had just published their first The Walking Dead which handily ended up rejuvenating almost the entire genre of graphic adventures. Although the game didn’t feature much in the way of actual gameplay, this was easily forgiven. The chilling story that delivered a constant barrage of tough moral dilemmas altering its flow took the gaming world by storm, myself included. It was a wild success story that surprised players and maybe even the studio itself. Since then, however, things have backfired. The studio churns out its episodic adventures with such a hectic pace that it’s hard to get excited about them. The likes of The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands still worked because of their original source material but as for The Walking Dead, even its second season started to repeat itself and A New Frontier only manages to do the same in an even more pronounced fashion.

This latest story is less than seven hours in length, which is actually a good thing as everything is already overly familiar. The zombies are nothing more than a tired source of mandatory drama, nonchalantly dealt with in various gory ways via simple QTE button presses. All humans, in turn, are almost predictable in their capriciousness with all interactions irrevocably leading to increasingly more dire situations. The weight of having to make painful decisions and deal with the consequences worked once, in the first game. By the second one, that charm was already thinning out and now everything is just plain awkward; no matter the choices, things are guaranteed to only get worse. The game hasn’t got a single plot twist or action sequence that wouldn’t feel recycled in some way and thus even the saddest of fates no longer manages to raise any eyebrows.

If anything, it’s at least nice to see how Telltale’s notoriously stuttering game engine finally runs smoothly on PS4. Sadly Javier’s satchel in particular is prone to many weird graphical glitches that easily ruin cutscenes for long periods of time. The retail copy is a bit disappointing, too, as only the first episode is on disc while the remaining four have to be individually downloaded from the PSN store.

Despite all this naysay, A New Frontier is a passable Telltale production. It’s unsurprising, yet still reasonably entertaining one-night stand, especially if picked up from a bargain bin. Unfortunately it also teases a fourth season that will most likely meet the same fate; this series simply doesn’t seem to have any ideas or content left.

Chibi Scares

That’s not what I meant wanting to cut ties with you!

Scary merry New Year to all fellow gamers! Scary mostly because I lack all sense of sensible timing and decided to kick off 2018 with a release that would have felt more at home during Halloween. Then again, those who are not into horror have nothing to fear; Yomawari: Midnight Shadows draws much less from cheap jump scares as it does from gloomy melancholy and Japan’s exceptionally bountiful spirit mythology. The game revolves around childhood friends Haru and Yui, who enjoy a cheery late-summer fireworks show before heading back home through a dark and foreboding forest. Sadly, malicious spirits soon appear to separate the girls from each other. What’s worse, such apparitions even patrol the streets and alleyways of their suddenly desolated home town. Both girls wish nothing more than to be reunited, so they have no recourse but to brave the night and head out to the streets in search of one another while desperately trying to figure out what has happened.

Since it’s not very realistic to expect elementary school kids to have a fighting chance against forces of darkness, Yomawari is all about survival horror. Some spirits can be vanquished, halted, or at least made visible with the beam of a flashlight, and it might even be possible to harm some by pelting them with rocks. Still, hands down the best way to survive is to run away as fast as a rapidly depleting stamina meter allows. Billboards, discarded cardboard boxes, and bushes act as good impromptu hiding places when something wicked just won’t give up a chase. Ten yen coins picked up from here and there, on the other hand, are just perfect for activating Jizo statues that serve both as save points and handy warp portals to the various parts of the girls’ little home town (and eventually even the neighboring town).

Alternating regularly between Haru and Yui, the really quite loose and vague story has very little else going for it. Coupled with moments of aimless wandering around in free roam style, the adventure leads the girls’ to haunted mansions, sewers, derelict train yards, and many other spooky places that aren’t ever pleasant to explore in nighttime. Every now and then they come across slightly bigger menaces, although these confrontations, too, are mostly about madly scampering away from lethal attacks.

The biggest issue about Yomawari is that it seems to love folklore more than it does storytelling. Haru, Yui, and their eventual fates are merely grace notes to a huge bunch of imaginative spirits. Sadly, learning the nature and how to either avoid or banish each of them is – at least from a western perspective – a matter of trial and error leading to dozens and dozens of deaths on the way. Not that game over itself would be much of a threat. Death simply means returning to the last activated save point, even with all collected items still in tow. The biggest hurdles in making progress are the excessive cheapness of some spirits and the sheer boredom of having to trek back to the point of last demise. Having only a couple of seconds to react to many threats, or even dying without knowing what just happened are fairly frequent occurrences. Both Haru and Yui are annoyingly slow when walking and not much faster when sprinting, especially as panic depletes their otherwise ample stamina meter within seconds. All of this contributes to the game being more about sheer frustration than actual suspense or fear.

The production values aren’t much better. The isometric chibi graphics can be beautiful and detailed at times but the sounds are overly sparse. There’s no spoken dialogue or even music (apart from the ending credits), so the roughly seven-hour-long journey is only about footsteps, heart bumps, chirping cicadas, and various moans and growls of nearby spirits. Even with a comprehensive guide, it takes almost as much time to locate everything the two towns have to offer, as they both feature plenty of small, inconsequential junk serving no other purpose than to be collected. At least it’s nice to be able to still grab everything during the post game but a chore is still a chore.

Sure, Yomawari can be amusingly weird in that unique, deeply Japanese way, and its rich assortment of spirits is at least moderately enchanting. As it stands, however, it’s mostly just a mundane slaughterhouse of cute chibi characters, which isn’t really that entertaining, especially as so many others have already done something similar in the past. Still, it’s at least an initial benchmark for 2018, so thanks, I guess, and with that I’m off to find the next contestant!