Category Archives: PlayStation Portable

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.

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.

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.

Rhythm Change

– So, how goes it? – …

Lockstep. I’m certain Rhythm Paradise Megamix veterans already know where this is going. For the past few days, the game has already been not-quite-as-fun-as-before but now I’m quite content to toss it back to the backlog. The aforementioned minigame requires you to keep up a swift rhythm while switching to offbeat and back. I can’t even complete its tutorial. As expected, the internet folk consider it “a piece of cake once you get the hang of it” and they’re probably right. Still, for the life of me, I just can’t get my brain around it. I’m now at a point where just the thought of starting the game for one more go feels repulsive. To avoid a storm of the foulest of profanities, it’s probably best to take a break. At least there’s some consolation in knowing that it has been a major hurdle for others as well.

Idol power!

In order to finish at least something in February (and to lie to myself that I still have a perfectly valid sense of rhythm), I dug out the Jolly Olde PSP and played through a much shorter and more forgiving rhythm game. The Idolm@ster Shiny Festa: Groovy Tune is one of the three games that Bandai Namco ruthlessly used to raid the wallets of the most fervent Idolm@ster fans. Most Idolm@ster games are manager simulations that require fluency in Japanese. The Shiny Festa trilogy, however, represents pure rhythm gaming in which the language barrier is hardly an issue.

The Shiny Festa games comprise of 48 songs that have been deviously divided between three different games; Honey Sound, Funky Note, and Groovy Tune. Each of them has 14 unique songs and six that are common to all. The 13 teenage idols of the 765 Production talent agency have been separated as well, with Groovy Tune focusing on Miki Hoshii, Yukiho Hagiwara, Makoto Kikuchi, and Takane Shijou. You, as Producer-san, lead this group of four to a fabulous paradise island for a bit of R&R and competitive singing. The show kicks in with an impressive, full-length, 23-minute anime episode that does a decent job introducing the plot even for us linguistically handicapped players. After an equally hazy, yet intuitively achievable tutorial section it’s time to get to business.

The 20 song selection is a pleasing mix of mostly energetic girly pop seasoned with a couple of more relaxed ballads. Gameplay is deceptively simple. Notes flow in from both sides of the screen towards the hit zone in the middle, where they have to be struck with rhythmical precision using any button on their respective sides. Some notes require simultaneous presses or holding down a button for the duration of the note but all in all, success only requires distinction between left and right.

At first the system feels ridiculously unchallenging. On Debut level, the notes follow a straight line and it’s quite possible to score absolutely flawless performances even on the very first try. The hit window is generous and the notes have been placed exceptionally well. Still, the ostensible easiness is but a fleeting breath and all it takes to ramp up the challenge is to mix up these basically simple variations to breathtaking levels and above, laced with devilishly twisting note paths on top. Everything is still doable on Regular difficulty, but Pro is already rather panicky, and Master well beyond the reach of mere mortals.

Visually, Groovy Tune is most excellent, albeit by cheating a little. At least it looks like the music videos accompanying the songs would have been rendered on better hardware and then just transferred onto PSP as videos. Granted, the pace doesn’t give much time to ogle the cute girls and their massive wardrobe to begin with, but even with an occasional glance here and there, the overall appearance is rather pleasing. As for the music, it’s naturally down to each one’s taste but fans of lightweight jpop should nevertheless find the included selection most satisfying.

Content-wise, the game is pretty much just one third. The 20 songs can be completed in little over an hour, after which there’s the main story mode known as Star of Festa. It’s a five day (in-game) campaign during which you play 15 songs of your choice, aiming to amass 100,000 fan votes by the end of the festival. Every three songs you can also challenge another idol. Should you outperform them, you’re rewarded with their collectible character card. There are 50 cards in total but they, too, have been divided between the three games. In order to get the complete Shiny Festa experience, you pretty much have to own them all. Thankfully I managed to grab them used, as it would have been outrageously expensive otherwise. As fine as the Shiny Festa games look and play, they would’ve been better off as one. On their own, they’re just trifling snacks.