Preparations

Man has reasonable internet. Man is happy.

Seems like two weeks have once again mysteriously vanished somewhere. Hardly a loss, given that nothing particularly interesting has been going on. I have been making steady progress in The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars but that’s more akin to watching grass grow. Still, since PS4 makes streaming so exceptionally easy, I began to wonder if I, too, should give it a go. A console alone isn’t quite enough, though, so I’ve spent the past few days acquiring various pieces of essential gear.

The most important prerequisite for streaming is, of course, proper upstream. I’m unfortunately stuck in a housing complex that only has support for an ancient 11/1 broadband, woefully inadequate to stream even at potato quality. Even after hearing countless horror stories about the unreliability of mobile internet, I decided to risk it and see if I could replace my broadband with 4G. Much to my surprise, this experiment worked out just fine. With a new router and 4G LTE, transfer speeds even during the worst rush hours seem to hover around 50/30, so not only is it a massive improvement, I once again feel like being part of modern society when it comes to internet.

Although I’m hardly a social motor mouth, the general consensus seems to be that a stream without narration isn’t really a stream at all. Since I had no microphone headphones conveniently lying around, it was time to go shopping again. Audiophiles can probably spend ages contemplating the pros and cons of various headsets whereas my only requirement was “whatever, pick something”. After five minutes of nonchalant googling, I went with Turtle Beach P12. They hardly exude an aura of high quality but since the headphones and the mic seem to work just fine, that’s plenty good enough for me.

After getting the headphones, I smoothly moved on to curse the PS4 only having two USB ports. Since I use one to keep my controller constantly charged and the other is taken by an external hard drive, I was obviously in need of a USB hub. Trust GXT 215 seemed like a nice five-port hub that blends nicely with the design of the console itself. Very cheap but of questionable quality, too. After only a few evenings my controller briefly stopped responding to button presses. So far this has only happened once, so it’s still too early to say if this hub was nothing but a mistake.

Since I’m free of all responsibilities this weekend, I might actually have time to properly test all this out. All experiments will take place on Twitch, and I even found a silly little sidebar widget to show when a broadcast is live. Don’t expect much in the way of entertainment, frequency, or skill in gaming, but surely internet still has room for one proper scrub channel.

As for new game acquisitions these past couple of weeks, the collection has only been joined by Yakuza Kiwami. As it has been barely six months since Yakuza 0 and as Kiwami is “only” a remaster of the very first Yakuza, I think I’ll tackle it later this year. As nice as it is to see many new players discovering this wonderful series that kicked off back in the PS2 era, Sega is now pushing them out with frequency that borderlines on being too excessive.

Well Look Who’s Back Again

Pretty much how I feel, too

As much as I try to move on to more stimulating games, the subconscious just won’t shut up about the importance of finishing what you once start. That annoying bugger is right, too, so I’ve returned to The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars. Not that anything of note would’ve taken place. I used to grind on a stage that rewarded five idols each with 5,460 fans per song whereas I’m now grinding on a stage that gives 13,200 to three. That currently feels like the most efficient way to make progress, even if efficient is hardly a word to describe this purgatory. Since one in-game year lasts about three hours, that time translates to 801,600 fans for three idols and 168,000 for the remaining ten, thanks to quarterly joint shows. Feel free to calculate just how long it will take for all 13 idols to reach their ten million fans required for platinum stardom. As the game already turned into a bit of a chore after 30 hours, maintaining sanity these days requires finding joy in little things, for example:

  • 63 hours: Received Valentine’s chocolate from everyone. No impact on anything but serves as a checkpoint.
  • 65 hours: Producer-san levels up to 15, effectively unlocking the last song. The entire soundtrack is now playable. Yay.
  • 79 hours: Producer-san levels up to 16. Since all songs are now unlocked, this is only good for a fuzzy feeling, if that.
  • 82 hours: An after-show present had a new costume! Since it has been more than 30 hours since the last one, this is technically a major deal even if the costume itself is rubbish stats-wise and will end up in the back of the wardrobe to serve as a moth bait.
  • 86 hours: Omfgrblrbl, another new costume! Even after this one, 14 out of 40 are still locked. If unlocking all of them is based purely on luck, this will be an even bigger headache than turning everyone into platinum stars.
  • 87 hours: All girls’ affection meters maxed out. Pure, innocent, platonic love, all you shameless perverts!
  • 91 hours: Producer-san levels up to 17. Worth a glorious bronze trophy. Meh.
  • 100 hours: All girls have reached at least level 70. Nothing consequential,  just a nice round number.

I’ve now pretty much both cleared and extremely cleared (getting enough points to max out the audience fervor meter rather than just going over the clear line) every show available. Now nothing even pretentiously new is in the horizon, apart from a list of DLC lives promising plenty of new experiences. A real pity, considering all my idols are still hovering around 3-5 million fans each. In practice, this has long since turned into a standoff between two extremely cynical and stubborn parties; a game that makes perfectly clear that without ponying up extra cash, the mindless grind will continue and probably gets worse, and yours truly, who double-bird flips such extortion and apathetically trudges on with the content initially provided. At this point, I’m no longer even mad at Platinum Stars. It’s still a technically wonderful rhythm game but also an excellent example of a game that will guarantee consumers like me will skip any and all future releases by the developer. Sigh… The hoops I jump through just to prove myself something trifling.

Witch Tuning 101

Does just the usual stuff but with surprising grace

All right, enough with the sulking already! Stella Glow, which I started this weekend, has effortlessly returned my temporarily fleeting faith in games. Even if it is preciously little else than just a very conventional strategy-JRPG, it still manages to entertain in a solid fashion. The game takes place in a world whose petty god has decided to punish his apathetic followers by stripping  away the ability to sing. Now that skill is only possessed by a small handful of witches who use songs to wield powerful magic. In a small hamlet of Mithra, childhood friends Alto and Lisette experience this power in the worst possible way, as the Witch of Destruction, Hilda, one day appears in the village with her cohorts, turning it and its inhabitants into crystals. Alto and Lisette escape this gruesome fate only because Lisette – much to even her own surprise – awakens as the Witch of Water while Alto discovers that he is the fabled Conductor; someone with the ability to enter witches’ hearts to tune their feelings and unlock their latent powers. While that is certainly a lovely turn of events, it sadly takes four good witches to rise against one that is evil. Luckily the rulers of the kingdom have at least some idea where Alto and Lisette could find the remaining three witches. As the armed forces of the nation’s capital, Lambert, can spare a whopping three knights to assist them, another team of world saviors is ready to depart.

Okay, that’s not much of a story but at least it’s one that rolls gracefully. Lambert acts as the operational headquarters from which the team embarks to the world map, traveling from point to point to reach the next story mission. The battles are faithful to the genre; very traditional skirmishes fought on isometric maps where units take turns to move and act, trying to take advantage of various types of terrain and high ground. The battle system doesn’t really feature anything new or innovative, but its chibi-style attack animations are cute, and the level of challenge is quite pleasing. Even the characters’ strongest special attacks rarely take out an enemy in one hit, so working as a team and isolating hard-hitting foes from one another is paramount. Stella Glow isn’t particularly difficult but survival definitely requires at least a little bit of constant thought. Each story battle has a recommended character level, but should one lack in faith or skill, the world map has plenty of optional encounters to grind with.

Every now and then, story missions are interrupted with limited free time that Alto can use to socialize with his companions, work part-time jobs, or go on exploration trips. Those last two would apparently reward with money, items, and gear, but so far I’ve always spent excess time chatting up my team members. Not only is this a good way to get to know everyone better, it also provides them with new skills and passive bonuses to be used on the battlefield. Unfortunately free time between missions is limited to just three activities, so establishing a thorough emotional bond with everyone is most likely going to take quite some time.

Aside from the stinginess of spare time, the pacing of the game in general is commendable. The storytelling cutscenes are hardly ever exceedingly lengthy, the usual talking portraits are sometimes replaced by proper anime clips, and battles follow one another on a brisk pace. To put the tempo into perspective, it has taken me only a little over 11 hours to recruit both the Witch of Wind and the Witch of Fire, and my happy entourage is already nine members strong. It already seems like merely gathering a four witch ensemble won’t solve everything but let’s get back to that after locating the Witch of Earth. For now, though, this journey is turning out to be an upbeat one!

Groundhog Century

So nice, if only it would end :'(

If my gaming is in a slump due to everyday drudge once more replacing glorious vacation days, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars does its damnedest to keep it that way. As surmised, I’ve now given it around 58 hours but pretty much nothing of any interest has happened. Going through horribly monotonic motions increases the idols’ experience and number of fans, but progress is so laughably slow that the game has regressed into nothing more than a weary battle of attrition. Should a new gig show up, you can rest assured that it’s something that won’t be even remotely beatable until 10-20 hours later. Perfect performances mean jack shit as if your characters aren’t on a high enough level, the required score limit is just plain impossible to reach. End of discussion. So, I’ve entertained myself playing through the same challenge over and over again for a couple of hundred of times, grinding slow and steady. Such wow. Much joy. Surely a few paid helper items from the store would do the trick, eh? F**k you, Project iM@S.

In a rueful fashion, the game follows a virtual year cycle advancing on a weekly basis. Skipping every possible cutscene, it’s possible to truncate one in-game year into a three hour real-time marathon covering 48 ordinary shows and four specials involving the entire cast of idols. If this cycle was realistic, these 13-21-year-old heroines would be at the peak of their careers around the ripe age of 90, and even that might take an incarnation or two. Thankfully, they’re effectively ageless. Still, at this point minor observations like that are crucial to endure the whole ordeal. You could, for example, set a daily goal of going through one in-game year (even if a quarter is already starting to feel repulsive). On Valentine’s Day, the chosen leader gives out complimentary chocolate, so that’s another potential goal to spend 39 hours or so. The pitiful selection of songs can also be raised to Legend status, which requires them to be completed 200 times each. The biggest reward of doing so is most likely that you’re never ever going to choose them again. Still, repeatedly playing the same song over and over again means that you quickly figure out that exact note when your current crew hits maximum audience zeal. Since missed notes carry no penalty, that’s when the song can be left to play itself while the player can just as well go to the fridge, take a piss, have a smoke, or spend a serious moment contemplating why they’re voluntarily submitting to this level of self-inflicted torture. Oh, and those 20 songs featured in the game? One is still locked. It’ll probably become available after 60-70 hours or something. Jesus.

All this is especially maddening as Platinum Stars is a proper rhythm game, even if awfully lightweight in content. If it would’ve rolled its ending credits after 15-20 hours and shown all that it genuinely has by 30-50 hours, it would’ve left the stage as a celebrated winner. Now it has turned into that person. You know, the one you meet by chance and who’s awfully jovial and remarkably pleasant for a while until you realize that they’re nothing more than an absolute asshole and you’re inadvertently stuck with them for life with the only way of escape probably involving a sharp ax and a manslaughter charge. I’ll continue my rhythmical journey, although it has already turned into a macabre social study of what it actually takes to finish a game that has obviously been designed around nothing else than skimming its players off hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Bloody cynical.

Moving on would be a trigger pull away…

Ditching a game once started is always la petite mort of sorts but should that (once again) happen, at least intensive care would be close by. Mind-numbing repetition could easily be replaced either by the backlog or the five new JRPGs joining the fray; Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Nights of Azure, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls (dual releases be forever damned), but especially Stella Glow. That one might actually feature that strategic role-playing bliss I was expecting from Utawarerumono, which kind of failed to deliver.

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire

Something along those lines. Whatever.

Sometimes running away from unpleasant things only gets you further into the gutter. Or at least that’s how I felt after switching from repetitious producing to Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni. It’s a game where big-breasted teenage girls are infected by a mysterious virus that turns some into powerful valkyries and others into weapons wielded by them and…

Oh, hell no…. No… I just can’t.

I refuse to spend even a single minute outlining a background story that would make even the shittiest of camp seem like an Oscar worthy script. Valkyrie Drive is nothing more than an incredibly rapid third person beat ’em up starring anime girls with gargantuan tits the size of their heads. Anything after that is pretty much downhill all the way.

If you’ve ever witnessed popular games in Japanese arcades, they often seem to be about lean mechas darting all over 3D battle arenas with breathtaking speed, unleashing devastating special attacks upon each other. Valkyrie Drive is something like that, only with buxom girls. One button is used for a light attack, another for a heavy one, third launches the enemy into air, and carefully timed bursts of the fourth is good for either scooting from one target to another, or juggling a hapless airborne adversary for so long that they can be pummeled with a 999 hit combo. The action is relentless and should the player lose focus, they soon find themselves on the opposing end of equally ruthless punishment.

I usually give any game a fair chance to sell itself but in this case, the lackluster story is a lost cause from the get-go. After just half an hour, I’ve skipped every cutscene, if only to save myself from second-hand embarrassment, and after a couple of hours I’m getting quite worried that I’m now in a quagmire of two weak-ish games badly overestimating their prowess. All that comes from the Land of the Rising Sun certainly isn’t good by default. I will keep pushing on under the gallant banner of Seeing Things Through, but it’s times like these that even an all-out average game from start to finish would feel welcome.

Whole Lotta Nothing

This is going to take ages…

I no longer wonder in the slightest why The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars rolled its credits when it did. After them, the game nonchalantly steps on the brakes and progress of any kind becomes a massive chore. While my original trio is now A rank, most of the others have barely half a million fans each, so I’d wager absolutely nothing of any interest will happen during the next few dozen hours. New lives have score limits that require an insane amount of grinding, leveling up characters is mind-numbingly slow, and new costumes are already but a fleeting dream. The random gifts now comprise mostly of duplicates. Money earned from the lives can be given to a local tailor who’ll combine two identical pieces of gear into one that has slightly better stats. Still, a lousy garment remains a lousy garment even if there were a dozen of them. I have now regressed into playing the same quintet live over and over again in drowsy stupor, often without even bothering to change the song. Granted, the end credits also unlock the songs’ hardest Master mode, should the player already be tired of achieving full note chains on Pro. The hardest mode isn’t impossible at all, but resorts to so many notes to hit with the d-pad that the songs soon feel more like work than play.

…and then we sell ’em additional songs for ¥1800 a pop!

But why has making progress been made so incredibly slow and the number of songs so limited? Why, micro-transactions, of course! Or, in this case, macro-transactions. Should the player happen to have an extra three hundred dollars or so (!) in their pocket, they could go to the PSN Store and invest it on 18 new songs and a bunch of new costumes and accessories. Any loose cash left after that could be spent on item packs aimed to make grinding a wee bit more efficient, priced at around 8-80 dollars each. Such shameless exploitation wouldn’t be quite as annoying if the base game wasn’t deliberately crippled to support it. With the chosen approach, Platinum Stars is still a decent rhythm game but one that leaves a shitty aftertaste. Sure, game industry ain’t charity but greediness has its limits.

Even if I’m still inclined to see everything through without spending a single yen, this blog will most likely start to move onto greener pastures; this project is one that will probably take several months, if not years.

Enlightenment

Failure is no longer an option!

Less surprisingly good evening from The Idolm@aster: Platinum Stars news. I’m actually starting to feel a little sorry for its idol girls, as they definitely haven’t deserved a gaijin producer. Every now and then they ask something from the player, giving three options to choose from in five seconds. For those of us not understanding the language, the only option is to pick something and then determine from the body language if the response was even remotely proper. Usually it isn’t. To make things even more awkward, the girls should occasionally be touched somewhere around their bodies. Shoulders or top of the head seem like safe choices to avoid any sekuhara allegations. Oh well, no biggie; their affection meters will slowly rise with successful gigs, and it’s also possible to just take someone away to spend a relaxing day in town.

I’m hardly a credible manager also because it wasn’t until today that I figured out why the score limits of some live performances were rather tough to reach. The problem originates from 40 costumes and 48 head, neck, wrist, and ankle accessories. Those are random rewards from occasional gift boxes or successful performances, and they also have a rank from F to S. I spent quite some time believing that a higher grade apparel is always better. For accessories, this is mostly true but some gigs require a certain type of costume. Using one easily yields almost twice as many points as usual, making it much more easier to perform well. Some of the accessories also provide a bonus that makes all three performers join the high-scoring burst mode rather than just the leader of the trio.

Once my first idol reached 200,000 fans and was thus eligible for B rank, things heated up considerably. At that point, the game unlocks quintet lives that make leveling up everyone slightly more efficient. It’s also when an extreme live is unlocked. It’s a performance where all 13 idols first perform a joint medley before the chosen leader does a solo performance. Success is rewarded with tears of joy to be wiped, high fives to hand out, or just random chatter before the end credits roll. After that, it’s back to business as usual. Even after ranking everyone up to B and thus witnessing the end credits 13 times straight, I refuse to consider this game played through. A couple of songs are still locked and damned if I won’t raise at least one idol to the coveted S rank. I’m probably going to regret that as even if today’s progress might sound efficient, the true grind probably starts here. Even A rank requires a million fans and by hearsay, S rank takes ten million. After almost 30 hours, I only have one idol at A, and even she has been part of my default setup pretty much throughout the game. Yay.

Earworm

At least it looks and plays nice…

After four consecutive JRPGs I suppose it’s due time to change the genre. That’s not to say I would leave Japan, though, as the next game in line turned out to be Bandai Namco’s idolful (yup, that shall be a word) The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars. As per tradition in the series, the player once again becomes Producer-san, tasked with turning thirteen young girls into music entertainment superstars. Many of the Idolm@ster games are hardcore management sims that are hardly suitable for us without fluency in Japanese. Thankfully Platinum Stars handles management with simple mini-games that don’t take anything away from the game being a proper Hatsune Miku -esque rhythm experience.

Apparently Producer-san isn’t a very trustworthy person. At first, the player is only given custody of three idols and half a dozen songs. More of each are slowly unlocked by leveling up managerial skills. Depending on the viewpoint, Platinum Stars is either a heaven or hell for grinders. Not only do the player and the girls have a character level, each of the latter also has an idol level, affection meter, number of fans, and three different attributes related to the number of points earned by playing through songs. If that wasn’t enough, the songs themselves have a level as well, so there certainly is plenty of meters in play.

The most obvious way to make progress is to play through live shows. Three idols go on a stage together and complete either a single song or three in a row. Notes make their way towards the hit zone at the bottom of the screen, and comprise of the usual selection of those that have to be hit, those that have to be held down, and those that require a synchronized press on the d-pad. In addition, each song has a segment that requires stroking the DualShock touch pad, and a single note towards the end that has to be nailed by clicking the pad. That invokes an euphoric Extreme Burst mode, which is just a fancy way of saying that all subsequent notes reward a lot more points as long as they aren’t missed. The gig is a success if a predetermined score is met. If not, even with a perfect performance, it’s back to the earlier challenges to level up.

The level of challenge is most moderate. Even the game itself is ashamed to suggest its easiest difficulty mode by default, and normal mode is usually good for just one go per song to unlock its Pro mode. Even on that, perfect note chains quickly become a second nature. The reason for this, though, is devious. The game only features 20 songs about two minutes in length. All of them are familiar to anyone who has ever played an Idolm@ster game on PSP or Vita. Even those who haven’t will soon get more than used to them. Raising all idols from their scrubby F level to bona fide S-class platinum stars will take a small eternity. For example, it took me just shy of 18 hours just to unlock every character for playing. Some of the songs are still behind lock and key, and no one is even near the fabled S-class. According to the internet, unlocking absolutely everything would be a gargantuan effort of around 200-300 hours. This, coupled with the fact that there’s only about of 40 minutes of music, is so tragicomic that I’m actually inclined to see just how far I can go before my brain self-destructs. A penchant for girly pop is a must, given that you can easily play through each song dozens of times in a row without making any notable progress. I’m not entirely sure if Bandai Namco wanted to hug Idolm@ster fans or give them a corporative middle finger but whoever either designs or completes games like these… Phew… Mankind never ceases to amaze me.

Redemption

That… Didn’t go well.

And thus comes Final Fantasy Type-0 HD to its end. The large-scale conflict eventually reached a proper conclusion, even if the game still managed to introduce a totally surprising finale that, sadly, wasn’t entirely bereft of awkward cliches. In the end, it managed to answer as many questions as it left others ambiguous. No can do; the workings of this universe have been given way more attention than coming up with a coherent story. The action-packed missions don’t jive very well with the slightly aimless free time parts, and even if there are cinematics, many of them are often too short or just plain irrelevant. I suppose I could follow my (hurried) 25-hour playthrough with another go in order to get a better overall picture, but hunting down little morsels of information to reconstruct in one’s own head isn’t really that alluring.

That’s not to say Type-0 wouldn’t have its fair share of memorable moments. The soundtrack by Takeharu Ishimoto, in particular, is perhaps the grandest and most impressive in the history of the entire franchise. Orchestral scores backed up by a big mixed choir blare with incredible intensity, evoking genuine affection. Of course, there are also more tranquil tunes. Especially when the one linked above starts to play with your team in the middle of the battlefield following their orders while other units relay their final moments over the radio is still something that brings a lump in my throat. Heart-wrenchingly beautiful!

Thanks to a bittersweet epilogue, I even slightly miss my own crew, even if forming an actual emotional bond with any of them would have required a lot more interaction and character development. As they stand, the cadets are more or less just a group of fighters from among whom you probably choose to prefer the ones suiting your playstyle. Sure, the game is an action-JRPG, but it kind of feels like too much emphasis is on action.

Despite everything, Type-0 doesn’t shy away from blood, violence, and the madness of war, and therefore manages to leave a stark impression. Such elements are hardly essential but were they used in a “proper” Final Fantasy (read: games VII-IX), it might be one heck of a ride. Type-0 is certainly worth playing through but while it has many good particulars, it fails to make everything work in unison.

Upping the Ante

You WON’T climb away, filthy Militesi cockroach!

Whoa! When the big wheel of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD ultimately turns, it does so in a most impressive manner! If anyone doubts the influence of mere 14 teenage cadets in a full-scale war between superpowers, they would be correct. When push comes to shove, it amounts to very little. Once the conflict escalates, fair play get flushed down the toilet, and all participants resort to their extreme measures, the going gets epic. Sure, the Rubrum cadets are still in the midst of things but as the number of casualties grows to hundreds of thousands and the radio mostly relays the final moments of desperate units, it’s enough to make one’s hair stand on end. It truly is an unconventional Final Fantasy but in a touching and convincing way.

Sadly, Type-0 is also increasingly inclined to point out that it would like to be played through several times. Not only does it limit the time required to experience optional events, it rolls out more and more bosses that can probably be bested but hardly on the first playthrough. When such encounters do happen, the story will still continue after everyone in the player’s party has been wiped out but that’s hardly a source for drama. Even several side quests are so challenging that there’s very little point in trying to do them on the first run. There’s nothing wrong with replay value as such, but in this case the idea is definitely something that the game loves to shove down the player’s throat.

The other major fault with Type-0 is its lack of actual storytelling. The game shares, at least thematically, a whole lot with Final Fantasy XIII but it’s essentially more of a stage for a massive conflict than a bona fide story. Many of the terms used classify under “surely you know.” The academy library holds an encyclopedia called Rubicus, which eventually grows to cover more than several centuries of the history of this universe, but it sure could’ve used a glossary as well. The game is a little too confident that its player knows Final Fantasy lore like the back of his hand, and that proper storytelling can be replaced with just loads of text in a book. Just getting to know the 14 main characters is a matter of checking out the Rubicus for their backgrounds and motivations, as the game hardly bothers to flesh them out.

Fighting is still inscrutably ADHD. While brawling, the player can also choose to accept special orders. They are bite-sized, time-limited challenges such as besting the next couple of enemies with magic, avoiding all damage for 30 seconds, going for those sweet spots of damage, etc. Success will be rewarded with an item, failure with the death of the played character. Naturally all these orders would have to be opened, reviewed, and either accepted or declined while everything else is constantly going on, so at least us old fogies have a far better chance of preserving our sanity by ignoring them altogether. Gaming goddesses be praised that this HD remake also includes an easy difficulty mode, making it possible to push on without reactions measured in nanoseconds or being able to multitask eight different things at once.

That’s everything this summer. Really.

I’m quite pleased at how well I’ve managed to prune my backlog lately, and even more so because only one newcomer has managed to sneak in at the same time. Deemo: The Last Recital is presumably a PlayStation Vita rhythm game that relies on touch screen controls only. I probably would’ve skipped it altogether but couldn’t resist a physical copy. Even if touch screen controls don’t sound very promising and it probably won’t challenge the dominance of Hatsune Miku, it should have rhythm and that’s all I require to give it a go!

Random Rambling of a Gaming Otaku