Review A Great Game Day – Riviera: The Promised Land

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Sting is a relatively long standing game development company, but not necessarily a well known one.  Many of their early games were confined to Japan, and even when Atlus started picking up localizations for some of their games in the sixth generation of consoles, they were very niche games for system that were usually nearing the end of their lifespan.

If anyone knows Sting, it’s probably from one of two things–either the extremely strange and disturbing rouge-like Baroque, or their self dubbed Dept. Heaven series of games.  We first saw the Dept. Heaven games in the West with the Game Boy Advance remake of Riviera: The Promised Land (originally released on the WonderSwan), and the game was released over six months after the Nintendo DS hit store shelves.  Needless to say, both Riveria and the Episode II to Dept. Heaven, Yggdra Union (which released on Game Boy Advance a year later) were mostly ignored by the gaming community.  Despite PSP remakes of Riviera, Yggdra Union, and Knights in the Nightmare (Dept. Heaven Episode IV… no, there’s no episode III), Sting’s Dept. Heaven games are still relatively niche and unknown, and that’s really a shame.  The four games in the series (the last one is Gungnir, since I’m naming them off) are all very unique games, twisting and stretching genre conventions in such ways that you’ll never play anything like them… even within the same series.

So, let’s start at the beginning then, shall we?

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Riviera: The Promised Land tells the story of Ein, a Grim Angel.  To understand what a Grim Angel is, though, requires a look into the game’s backstory.  A thousand years before the beginning of Riviera, the ancient prophesied battle of Ragnarok took place.  As per legend, the battle is supposed to wipe everything out… but the gods of Asgard broke their deal of the ancient pact, and instead of dying on the field of battle, they sacrificed themselves to create the Grim Angels.  These Angels fight the demons of Utgard and eventually defeated them, turning the land of Utgard into the peaceful realm of Riviera.

Fast forward a thousand years, and according to the Seven Magi (entrusted with the knowledge of the gods of Asgard to watch over Riviera) the demons are beginning to resurface, and it’s up to Ein and his partner Ledah to stop them, although it will destroy Riviera in the process.  However, they fail, and Ein is struck with convenient amnesia, to give him the chance to bond with the citizens of Riviera and learn the true, dark secrets of the Seven Magi.

Riviera doesn’t really have a revolutionary story–it’s really just there to give the player a reason to go from point to point, and why exactly they’re fighting in the first place.  All of the plot twists are foreshadowed far in advance, and anyone with a passing knowledge of JRPG plots will know how Riviera will play out.  But this game’s brightest point isn’t the story; instead, it’s in the game’s deep and complex mechanics that Riviera really shines.

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Instead of dungeons, Riviera is separated into different ‘Stages’.  While you explore them a bit like dungeons, you can’t just run around them, and they’re split into separate rooms with their own events to trigger.  However, you can’t just check everything in every room all willy-nilly… you need Trigger Points to perform most actions in a Stage.  Not only that, but not all actions are beneficial to your party, just being a waste of Trigger Points or downright hurt someone (even with permanent stat decreases!).  So, it’s very important to know when and where to use Trigger Points to your benefit.

You may be asking, though, how do you get more Trigger Points?  By doing well in battle!  Battling isn’t much like an average RPG, either.  It is turn based, and theoretically you use attacks and items to win the day, but even these seemingly simple concepts are changed into something far more strategic.

I’m don’t think that I’m the best one to explain the battle in and of itself, so let’s take a bit from Damian Thomas’ RPGFan review of the game from long long ago:

Every now and then, when you enter an area or activate a trigger event, you’ll encounter demons. If you agree or are forced to fight, you are given lots of options. First, you can check out the enemy, including their stats, formation, weaknesses, and receive some handy hints on tackling that particular enemy or group. Next, you choose the three party members that will fight the battle and what formation they will take. Finally, you get to choose four weapons/items to take with you into battle. This can sound limiting, but it’s really not that bad, and it forces the player to implement a strategy, rather than just hack away with whatever they have on.

As the PCs and enemies trade blows, gauges fill up. The enemies have a “Rage” meter and when it fills up, the next enemy to attack will use its Max move, which can be pretty damaging. Fortunately, as they attack, the enemies use up part of the Rage meter, thereby staving off the threat of a Max attack. As you kill off enemies, the Rage meter shortens to a maximum of half its original size, making it easier for the enemies to get Max attacks.

The other gauge is the three-level Overdrive meter. As mentioned before, mastering certain weapons/items unlocks an Overdrive move. When the players give and receive damage, the Overdrive meter fills up. If the meter fills up enough, the character can use an Overdrive move linked to one of the weapons/items you took into battle. These can range from powerful attacks to cooking, but are always very helpful; doubly so because finishing a battle with an Overdrive move, combined with the amount of time it took to complete the battle, helps increase your rank for the battle. Higher rank results in more trigger points and better loot.

Basically, do well in battle and understand the system, and you’ll be rewarded with your effort with more Trigger Points and better items, to make both exploring and battling easier.

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However, there’s also the matter of weapons and items, and how differently even those work.  Each weapon and item (aside from Ein’s Diviner) has a limited number of uses, and will break once you use them all up.  However, each weapon also has an Overdrive move that characters proficient in that weapon type can learn by using the weapon (or item) a certain number of times.  Additionally, it’s the only way to ‘level up’ your characters, as mastering a weapon or item is what gives your characters stat ups.  But, it’s an odd situation… if weapons break after enough uses, you have to use them to get better, and you can’t buy new ones, what are you supposed to do?  Thankfully, players can engage in practice battles that will not use up weapon or item, allowing you to grind out weapon experience as needed (don’t worry, it never takes too long).  Of course, practice battles don’t give you any Trigger Points or any decent items to work with, so it’s only really good for grinding weapon experience out so that you can do your best in real battles.

All of this might seem odd or convoluted out of context, but when playing Riviera it clicks really well–you’ll get the hang of it really quickly, and have a blast.  There’s even more there that I haven’t explained, but it all works quite well together and makes for a truly unique RPG system to play with as you progress through the plot.

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There’s also little things I like about Riviera, that really help me remember it fondly.  I like how the character with the highest HP in the game is the person with the stereotypical ‘mage’ look, messing with that typical mage archetype.  I like how, in the Japanese version of the game, during the conversation before the final battle, Ein uses clever advantage of Japanese honorifics, beginning as respectful (-dono) and becoming less and less so as the antagonist shows just how evil he is.  I really like the game’s soundtrack, something that as a portable game, players may never hear:

It’s really a shame that Riviera and Sting’s other Dept. Heaven games aren’t as well known as they should be, but that doesn’t stop anyone from playing them now!  I would recommend the PSP version, of the two available–it’s easier to get (as you can buy it digitally), the graphics are improved, there’s a lot of voice acting, and there’s even an extra chapter you can try to do after beating the game.  There’s a lot going on there.  But, if you can only pick up the Game Boy Advance version for whatever reason, that one is great too.  Make sure to give this great game the good old college try!

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Review A Great Game Day – Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

Oh, the Dragon Quest series, one that has always has a rocky past in the US.  Us lucky Americans got the first four Dragon Quest titles (with ‘Warrior’ slapped on in place of ‘Quest’), but due to crappy sales, we never got the Super Nintendo releases.  No, Enix didn’t find the series worth the trouble of localizing until after Final Fantasy VII came about, more or less making the RPG genre explode into the mainstream in the West.  Riding the wave of popularity, Enix released Dragon Quest VII to eager audiences which… frankly, I don’t know how it did.  That doesn’t matter much, though, because in the upcoming years Square and Enix merged, and the RPG supergiant released each Dragon Quest title as they came.

…Until they stopped, of course.  Somewhere around the time that the DS remakes of VI-IV were being released, Square dropped localization of the titles, stating the lukewarm sales not being the worth of localizing the amount of text the series requires.  Nintendo itself picked up and finished the localization for Dragon Quest IX and VI, but has since then has remained silent on the series, leaving a rather sizable number of Dragon Quest games in Japan and making series fans languish in despair.  By some miracle Dragon Quest Heroes for the PS4 is making it Westward, but it’s also a cross-over Warriors type title and Square probably thinks it can make a pretty penny off its fanbase like Hyrule Warriors did.

Dragon_Quest_V_Hand_of_the_Heavenly_Bride_Game_CoverBut this blog post isn’t about the Dragon Quest series in itself.  Oh, no.  It’s about my favorite RPG of all time.  If you might have noticed from my rambling above, original the US missed out on two titles: Dragon Quests V and VI.  It wasn’t until the DS remakes that fans got an official taste of these lost titles in action… so naturally more fans wanted to pick up Dragon Quest V than the first DS remake.  And naturally, as Square has been wont to do in these modern times, Dragon Quest V had a pretty low print run.

I ended up paying $50 for my (complete) copy of Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, and that was after many hours of researching and finding a deal on a somewhat sketchy looking website.  Square did eventually release a reprint off the title, driving down prices a bit, but if you want it not you’re still going to have to pay 30-40 dollars used, which is pretty high for a DS game.  It’s the most money I’ve spent on a single DS game, but you know what?

It was the best fifty dollars I ever spent.

Those that are fans of the series probably do not laud the various games’ stories as their strong point.  Well… that’s because they really aren’t.  Sure, Dragon Quest III had a rather touching scene near the end, and Dragon Quest VIII did a decent job, but the series’ allure was always its adherence to old RPG tropes, even in the changing times.  Some might say that the series was stagnating, but to the fandom it was a solid rock to grab onto in the constantly shifting currents of the changing RPG genre.  Sure, Final Fantasy might decide that oddly dressed blonde hair youths with daddy issues was the way to go forward with the series:  Dragon Quest just decided it was better off sticking with its silent protagonists and rigid turn-based battles.

But Dragon Quest V?  Dragon Quest V was different, and that’s what makes it so amazing.  Well, let me clarify–it wasn’t different on the gameplay front.  It was still crawling through dungeons with random encounters, with your four party members and their staple of skills and spells, and so on.  It was, instead, the narrative that really drove Hand of the Heavenly Bride beyond the typical Dragon Quest game and into the stratosphere, easily being one of the best video game experiences I’ve ever had.

I guess you’ll want me to back up my claim, huh?  Sure thing, but I will have to use spoilers.  Granted, many of these twists are already known, but there’s my spoiler warning regardless. Seriously, don’t be scared by the warning, this is only stuff in the ‘prologue’, or the first five or so hours in the game.  Only the most hardcore on spoiler rules need to heed this.

Dragon Quest V starts off with the main character being born.  You think I’m joking?  You literally come in right as a happy mother and father are deciding on a name for their new baby boy.  However, the cheerful celebration is cut short by the mother’s coughing.

Are you alright, my dear?  The father asks.  The screen cuts to black, leaving the question hanging.

The game skips forward a few years, with the main character being somewhere around five to eight years old.  You and your father have been traveling around for as long as you remember, though the reason seems to be unknown.  It doesn’t matter much though–you’re a little kid, ever curious and excited for adventure.  You and your father (named Pankraz) travel about, with you watching how awesome he is and wanting to grow up just like him.  Maybe someday you’ll even be able to take on a slime by yourself!  In time, the little squirt goes on a few mischievous adventures on his own, including a trip to a haunted castle with his childhood friend Bianca and even a romp in the fairy realm.  You even befriend an adorable sabertooth tiger kitten,

Happy childhood adventures <3

Happy childhood adventures <3

Eventually Pankraz takes on a job to protect a prince.   This prince is… well, a spoiled little brat.  That doesn’t matter too much, though–you’re a little kid, and just glad to be adventuring with Pankraz, even if you’re being forced to be the whelp’s minion.  However, due to the bratty prince’s insolence, he sneaks out of the castle and gets kidnapped, forcing the father and son to save him.  This goes well enough… until an ambush happens.

I’ll take care of this mob.  You take Prince Harry and run out of here.  Fast!  You and the prince make a run for it, but their escape is cut off by a powerful magician.  You have no hope of beating this foe, and when he’s about to strike the final blow… Pankraz comes upon the defeated children, and is forced to fight him and his pawns alike.  These minions are no match for him, and the magician, Ladja realizes this… and takes you hostage.

Fight back, and the child dies.  Pankraz takes the beating of the minions he so easily swat aside before, and you, the player, are forced to watch his plentiful amount of health slowly whittle down in battle.  Eventually, the father falls.  Before the final blow is struck, though, he calls out to his son…

Son… Can… you hear me…?  I must… I must tell you…Your mother… She’s… still alive… Keep… Keep looking for… your mo–

Ladja abruptly cuts Pankraz off with a fireball, cruelly sending your father to the afterlife.  It is always so beautiful a thing to see the parent’s love for the child!  He takes you and the young prince away to become slaves for the creation of his evil shrine, while the poor sabertooth kitten wakes up alone.  He walks to the charred floor where Pankraz once once stood, and lets out a sad, lonely howl…

…Ten years pass…

…But the son has not given up hope.  Even with the years of hardship, he and the matured prince bide their time, waiting for the moment that they can escape.  For Harry, that means returning home and honoring his father’s wish to be king; for you, that’s to keep searching for your mother, whom your father claimed was still alive.

Okay, that’s the end of spoiler town.  That’s only in the prologue, by the way, and that’s an emotionally driven five to eight hours or so.  There’s plenty more both heart-wrenching and heart-lifting moments to be found within Hand of the Heavenly Bride, but I’ll leave the rest for you to play.

What really, really drives the narrative home for Dragon Quest V though isn’t the content of the plot itself, but rather how it is presented.  All that I typed above is the type of thing that’s typically relegated to a character’s backstory in RPGs.  Yes, you hear about how your father died to an evil sorcerer, and the hardships the main character face, but in Dragon Quest V you experience this first hand.  You see in battle how amazing your father is; you actually go on adventures first hand, including your budding friendship with Bianca; you watch first hand as Pankraz if slowly beaten down by his enemies.  It makes not for a story, but for an experience, and one that sticks with the player in ways that I cannot convey properly in words, even though I tried above.

Indeed, Dragon Quest V does not have long, drawn out cutscenes full of exposition and explanation.  It relies on implication from both the story and in-game mechanics.  That’s not to say that nothing’s ever explained, but most of the explanation is short and to the point, and if you want more information, you can always hit up the local NPCs for more information.

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…Actually, that’s another neat thing about Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s narrative:  Since there are a few time skips in the game, you can go and talk to NPCs, and see that their lives have actually changed with the times.  In some cases, that’s merely just them talking about more current events, but in other cases you see some drastic changes.  Characters get married, have children and families of their own, all before your eyes.  It really helps to drive those time skips home, because in all the cases these skips happen, you’re legitimately missing out on time in the world, for whatever reason that may be.  The world keeps turning, so they say, and while the main character is still on his quest, other people are living their lives and fulfilling (or failing at) their dreams.  It’s something that’s very easy to forget when the focus is on the main character, but Dragon Quest V manages to bring even that into a wonderful perspective.

I… suppose I should talk about something other than the story.  The game’s subtitle gives hint to another important aspect to the title:  At one point, you’ll have to decide which one of three (only two in the original version) lovely ladies to wed.  Other than the obvious plot purposes, you’re also essentially which of these somewhat different party members you really want.  You can’t have all three, obviously, and while no one potential bride is balanced in such a way that it’s obviously better to choose her (…in a gameplay sense at least…), each bride plays a bit differently, and has effects on a couple other aspects of the gameplay later on.  It’s neat, and it really makes even replays worthwhile just to see how both gameplay and scenes play out differently with the other wives in tow.

Other than that, it’s a relatively normal Dragon Quest game.  Battles are rigidly turn-based, random encounters are abound, and you carry your extra party members about in a wagon, including your monster buddies.

Aw, just look at them maim and murder.

Aw, just look at them maim and murder.

Oh wait, I forgot about them, didn’t I?  As evident by the sabertooth kitten’s introduction in the prologue, the hero can recruit monsters into his ranks to fight alongside him.  This is especially helpful early on, as since you’re setting out alone it’s helpful to have another party member to take and give hits.  This is actually the first Dragon Quest game in the series to do so, and is said to have helped inspire the spin-off Dragon Quest Monsters series… although, don’t quote me on that.  I believe I read that somewhere, but alas I cannot find the source.

Honestly, after a point, the monster recruiting is sort of downplayed, as you’ll eventually get more than enough human characters to fill out your ranks.  But, it’s still a nice touch, even if it wasn’t quite a top tier gameplay mechanic.

Dragon Quest V manages to do something its series peers cannot:  Create an emotional, touching plotline that is more than worth experiencing.  Of course, there’s also that classic Dragon Quest touch, wherein the older, more tried and true RPG tropes are welcome when even the series itself has turned its back on them.

Seriously, if you have a DS and can even tolerate RPGs, you have to pick this game up.  It’s a wonderful experience that still costs less than the average new console release.

Review A Bad Game Day – Robopon: Sun Version

You can already see where this is going.  Robopon?  A ‘version’?  This game is certainly a Pokemon rip-off.  That doesn’t make it inherently bad, though… there are plenty of games ‘inspired’ by Pokemon, heck, even whole franchises that manage to bring interesting and different spins on monster collection formula that Game Freak has capitalized on.  Of course, Robopon is not one of those games.

For starters, Robopon doesn’t merely take inspiration from the Pokemon series of games:  It outright lifts the idea wholesale and replaces “monsters” with “robots”.  The name Robopon is startlingly close to Pokemon, the tagline “Build’em, Collect’em, Trash’em!” is clearly a robot flavored version of “Gotta Catch’em All!”, and the original release came with two versions (Sun and Moon) with a third enhanced version (Star) coming later.  Nevermind the fact that only the Sun Version came out in the West, cutting players off from being able to collect’em all, effectively ruining one of the game’s main aspects.

Truly inspiring robot designs. Well, I guess Game Freak has their off games too.

Why Atlus decided to localize this, instead of their own in-house Pokemon clone, Devil Children, is understandable, but still a shame.  Perhaps they figured the similarity in name would trick some poor, unknowing parents into buying Robopon for their children.  Or maybe it was a more honest intention… after all, “Pokemon with robots” is far more marketable than “children collecting an army of demons to summon”.  Maybe Atlus actually expected children to want this game; that, in their Pokemon deprived minds (hey, they only came out once a year!), anything involving the words ‘collecting sentient objects for battle’ would have them clamoring to the closest Babbage’s or EB Games.

A sentiment I can completely understand, as I was one of those children.

Yes, that’s right, I played Robopon, and many other Pokemon clones, completely of my own free will.  Pokemon Red and Blue may not have been my first video games, but they were my true ‘introduction’ into the world of gaming, the first games that truly clicked with me.  After I had beaten both versions enough times (yes, I was that kid), I started to branch out, look for most monster collecting games to satisfy my unending hunger.  This usually led to some pretty interesting choices, like Dragon Warrior Monsters, the very fun title that helped me move on to ‘true’ RPGs, and a Digimon World title, which I didn’t appreciate at the time but was really quite competent.

But then there was Robopon.  I think I saw it in the game store and recognized the cover as a clear monster collecting game, or maybe I read about it in a Pocket Gamer magazine and made a poorly informed decision.  Whatever the case, I got my mother to buy me this game, and the moment I booted it up, I started what came to be one of the most regretful portable gaming experiences of my early days.

Okay, seriously, this is a little too close for comfort.

After getting the all too similar looking title screen, you are introduced to the player character, whom you can name.  A very short introduction makes you, a preteen boy, the president of a Robopon company.  As the President, you do… nothing of import to the company, but eventually you take the Robopon you collect and battle the Elite 8, in order to beat the school bully and become the best Robopon trainer around.

So… the story is rather weak, but what about the graphics?  There’s probably a reason my brain subconsciously tried to type ‘craphics’ in that last sentence.  Robopon appears to take the sprites of Pokemon Gold and Silver (which isn’t actually possible, considering their original release dates), garishly colored them, and shoved them together in such a manner to assault the eyes constantly.  Considering it was a couple years ahead of Pokemon Crystal (the first full color Pokemon title), Robopon really had a chance to stand out with some impressive, colorful graphics, but Hudson Soft really dropped the ball on that one.

But, any self-respecting gamer knows that graphics aren’t everything… and other gamers don’t put much stock in a storyline… so how is Robopon’s gameplay?  Well, technically battles aren’t too bad.  Your team of Robopon fights your opponent’s team of Robopon in one-on-one matches to the death.  Your Robopon can learn a variety of abilities with different attributes, which are effective against some types of Robopon but ineffective against others.  Robopon stand face to face against one another on a blank white screen, and when they attack, a short animation relevant to the attack pops up before dealing damage.  Move names can be a little difficult to decipher, but quite frankly many early games had this problem, so it’s hard to knock Robopon against it.

But while basic gameplay in itself isn’t particularly bad, it does nothing to really stand out, either.  Worse, though, is that’s the title’s game balance is a bit off.  I remember the point I finally gave up on Robopon:  One of the Elite 8 had a certain robot with a skill that would absorb physical damage.  It was still relatively early in the game (I believe), so I didn’t have a competent Robopon that could use any ‘magical’ spells that the enemy was weak against.  The foe would use this move every turn, without fail, so the battle would always lead to a stalemate.  The solution?  I needed to find a new Robopon or greatly level up some of my current robots… both of which taking hours of grinding.  Not being entirely smitten with the game, it’s easy to see why I would put the title down.

There’s just an extra inch or so there, nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Oh, but Robopon doesn’t like to be put down.  If you stop playing Robopon, it has ways to bother you even in the real world, haunting you in the middle of the night.  See, Robopon is actually a bit of a monstrosity of a cart.  Within its extra plastic top contains a few pieces of hardware designed to make the Robopon experience more enjoyable, including an infrared sensor to make trading between friends easy (but without Moon version, what’s the point?).  The title also had an in-game clock, wherein Robopon would have different events happen on different days.  When an event would begin, a separate little device within the cart would beep, alerting you to the new event and that you should play Robopon right this second.

In the typical fashion of the earlier technology days, this alarm was a loud, annoying beep.

Most events started at 12:01 AM.

For weeks after I stopped playing Robopon, that noise would go off at seemingly random intervals, begging me to just turn it on one more time.  Because I really wanted to play it after it woke me up in the middle of the night.  Eventually, my stepfather had to find a screwdriver that would unscrew the tiny battery port and remove the alarm battery.  Why not just turn it off?  Because you can’t turn it off.  Not with a little switch, not in the game, not at all.  It was terrible.

So yeah, Robopon?  A very not fun Pokemon rip-off.  Well, at least to me:  The original game did well enough to get a sequel on the Game Boy Advance (of which both versions got localized), which means… something.  Who knows, maybe they’re even good, but I don’t plan on finding out.

As a super bonus, you can look at this Let’s Play to see Robopon in action.  Also a man dressed in a fairy outfit (?):

 

Review a Great Game Day – The World Ends With You

There’s always something to be said about a game that does something wholly unique.  The developers are trying to step out of the sometimes restricting box that is game design, and make a big splash with giving gamers something… well, different.  The problem, however, is that when developers try something “new and unique”, it tends to be less than perfect.  Perhaps the gameplay didn’t pan out, or the idea itself didn’t mesh well with the setting it was in, or maybe the idea with just a bad one from the get-go.  Regardless of the reason, though, games that are dubbed “unique” and “different” tend to carry the stigma of being… well, not always great as a video game itself, but more an interesting piece to ogle and marvel at. At its best, a piece to remember in the annals of gaming history as the stepping stone to a new genre or way of thinking within the industry; at its worst, a forgotten title that will squander in obscurity.

That being said, there’s little better than a unique, interesting title that manages to hit all of its high notes wonderfully; a game that both oozes originally and is still a solid, enjoyable game.  A package so completely new and refreshing that even the most jaded gamer can appreciate it… and that is precisely what The World Ends With You is.

The Reaper’s Game is what brings the plot together, but the characters are easily the more interesting part of TWEWY until the end.

The World Ends With You stars Neku, a somewhat socially inept teenager that is in a game for his life and very existence.  See, he and the other participants have died, but if they survive the Reaper’s Game, they are revived and allowed to continue their lives.  Surviving this game isn’t all that easy, though; since the Noise (the typical mob enemies of the game) exists in two different “zones” at the same time, so the only way to fight back is to make a pact with another participant in order to fight the Noise in both zones at once.  This is all wrapped around a plot involving the Reapers themselves and their motives, and the players that fight in order to live on.

This short synopsis might make it seem like the game’s story is obtuse and hard to grasp, but it’s really presented in a easy to digest manner.  The World Ends With You focuses on the characters first, and the overarching plot of the Reaper’s Game second.  The main character might be a bit cliched–Neku is an asocial moody teenager, Shiki has confidence and image issues, Beat and Rhyme have a typical example of a broken home–but they are still relatable and interesting enough to keep from getting stale.  A lot of this comes from the plot device of the Reaper’s Game entrance fee.  This involuntary fee is whatever the player holds most dear, and the revelations and mysteries surrounding what the characters have lost to play this game is really quite intriguing.  As you learn about the players’ past and what was taken from them, it’s all the more painful when you realize that only one player can win the Reaper’s Game.

The overall plot involving the Reaper’s Game itself is pretty interesting as well, but it takes a bit of a back seat until late- and post-game.  Even so, the reason for the Reaper’s Game and the politics behind it all is arguably the most interesting part of the game.  In addition, while all of the pertinent details of the game involving Neku and the others are revealed by the end of the tale, you can learn more by obtaining Secret Reports.  These Secret Reports are obtained by replaying through the various days and achieving certain tasks within each day.  These reports offer a lot of information on the Reaper’s Game and the reasons behind it, and offers a way for a curious player to learn more, while not bogging down those that only wanted the main plot.

Riding giant stuffed cats into battle; yep, this is Japanese all right.

It’s clear to see that The World Ends With You’s story holds up well, but how about the gameplay?  TWEWY is an RPG, but its battle system is wholly unique from other games of the genre.  As stated in the story, you’ll have to deal with Noise to survive the game, and the Noise exists in two zones at the same time.  Therefore, Neku has to team up with another player in order for them to effectively fight the Noise.  So, during battles, you control both Neku and you partner at the same time.  Neku is on the bottom screen, and you use the stylus and (generally) tapping the various pins you have equipped to attack.  Your partner, however, stays stationary, and you use the D-pad (or buttons, if you’re left handed) to attack the enemies.  Also, how your partner attacks depends on the partner themselves, so as the game progresses you’ll have to learn how to handle your new partners and use them effectively in battle so you won’t fail.  Partners share a health bar as well, so if either character gets hit too often, it’s game over for both characters (and for you).

As such, it becomes a battle of making Neku dodge attacks on the lower screen, and having your partner counter Noise on the upper screen before they get to attack.  This is enforced by the “sync puck”; basically whoever has the puck is the one that can attack, and after an attack they pass it off to the other player.  It sounds very hectic, and at first it is; thankfully the game makes your first partner very easy to control, so you have time to learn how to multitask and deal with the Noise before it launches its full force at you.  Eventually, the partners you control will be that much more complicated, and the enemies harder to manage and counter.  The World Ends With You manages to provide a good challenge throughout, so gamers aren’t likely to be bored when they get to a boss battle.

Pins, bro. You got them.

Another big part of the game involves the various pins you collect throughout the game.  These pins are what you equip to Neku for his various attacks, as well as the items used for the Pin Slammer mini-game.  Of course, different pins have different attacks, and they also level up and evolve when you use them.  How they level up depends on the pin itself:  Some level up from battle, others from Pin Slammer, and some even level up by other means.  While sometimes it’s difficult to tell how exactly to level the pins up, it keeps them viable throughout most of the game, where the “best pin” depends more on your favored play style than on a specific pin.  Granted, there still are ultimate pins, but getting them is by no means required to finish the title.

Even in the visuals department, The World Ends With You is a winner.  Graphically, TWEWY was stylish before Personas 3 and 4 made it cool to do so, and with good reason.  The setting of TWEWY is Shibuya, Tokyo, one of the biggest shopping/fashion centers in Japan.  As such, this game’s stylish nature is a bit of a love letter to the area it’s representing, giving the game the unique energy that the real-world Shibuya gives off.  In fact, TWEWY takes this one step further with its equipment system; you don’t really buy armor as much as you buy new outfits, but every outfit needs a certain amount of courage to wear.  It makes sense, considering that Shibuya is where fashion statements are made… and some statements are louder and harder to pull off than others.  It’s really a small thing (much like how many games restrict equipment by levels), but just the little details help bring make the title that much more refined and polished.

Then, there’s the music.  You’ve probably heard some of TWEWY’s tunes before; most of the tracks are techno-y, J-pop-y, sometimes rap-py conglomerations that are upbeat and interesting.  It’s not really for everyone, but given the setting, the music is a perfect final touch for this game.  The tracks are very catchy, and sound exactly what would be blasting out the various Shibuya fashion storefronts day and night.  This might sound worse than it is, considering the… somewhat unusual choices youths make in terms of popular music, but there’s no worries here:  The World Ends With You’s tracks are all solid, more like a hand picked “best of” album than a mountain of the popular songs of the week.

It’s almost criminal that The World Ends With You is not more popular.  The title did achieve some mild success when released on the DS in 2008, and has gained a cult following, but the RPG has since, for the most part, been forgotten.  There was an iOS port released in 2012 that brought the title back in the spotlight for a bit (mainly because of the secret ending that hints at a sequel), and Neku making a cameo in Kingdom Hearts III, but TWEWY is mainly ignored when discussions of RPGs or DS games are brought up.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, that such a unique RPG is left in the dust when it should be a beacon for gamers that are tired of the ‘typical’ RPG; while The World Ends With You may still use a few genre tropes, it is such a wholly different experience that every gamer should try out.

Review a Bad Game Day – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (GBA)

[Review a Bad Game Day is an event hosted by 1 More Castle, where bloggers and writers from all over the internet gather to rail on a bad game of their choice.  This is the second time 1 More Castle has run this event, and I decided to participate!  Make sure to check out the site for a bunch of terrible games people reviewed, too!]

Boy, did I make a lot of mistakes in my childhood when it came to game choices.  Back in the day, I had a Game Boy Advance, and was just SO excited about it.  Forget that PS1 and N64 I had lying around–according to me, all the quality games were on the handheld.  That said, even I could not stomach some of the portable’s offerings:  Games like Pinobee and Klonoa: Dream Champ Tournament made me upset, and my utter hatred of Lufia: Ruins of Lore was so intense I was wary of the entire series for years.  But this game is probably the single most terrible game I’ve ever (unwittingly) played.  This game was so bad that my brain hid away the mere memory of this game away from my fragile psyche, only to be brought back recently to haunt me.

And that game is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Wonderful, you're still a completely useless hobbit

A little background information about this thankfully forgotten game before I get into it… Back when the Lord of the Rings movies were being made and were of course hugely popular, EA created The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a tie-in game to the movie.  The game was a big success, and even got people to thinking that not every movie tie-in game had to be terrible.  Obviously, EA created another LOTR game in time for the third movie, everyone was happy, and peace was restored to Middle-Earth.

However, there’s a glaring flaw: What about the first movie?  Obviously it was too late for a movie tie-in… so a couple other companies decided to jump on the opportunity to make a Fellowship of the Ring game.  There were console versions of this game as well, but the Game Boy Advance version was very different, and developed by Pocket Studios, also known for their efforts in the GBA Incredible Hulk game and Army Men: Operation Green.  Yeah, these aren’t AAA developers here.  Oh, and the game in question was based off Tolkien’s original work as opposed to the movie license, so that’s a thing.

Oh hey it's Bilb--OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOUR FACE!?

Okay, so the game itself… is a terrible, terrible mess.  Anyone that’s played the game for more than ten minutes will all tell you the same thing:  Fellowship of the Ring plays INCREDIBLY slowly.  It’s a turn based RPG, which is by nature a little slow, but this game takes it to a whole new level.  Watching an enemy sluggishly walk over, lazily smack your ally, and then move back to their position is painful to watch just for a battle.  This makes you want to avoid battles at all costs, since you can in fact see the enemies on the field… but due to GBA design magic, they’re pretty darn hard to avoid.

This alone would be enough to scare away a lesser gamer, but not I… well, at least not the younger, more foolhardy me.  I actually managed to get very far in this title, though I never was able to beat it.  Why didn’t I just finish the job, you may ask?  Well, the game was terribly glitchy.  Some glitches worked to your advantage–being a ‘I need a strategy guide for everything’ kid, the official guide itself told me of an incredibly easy trick to get infinite money given that you had a cart with the ‘right glitch’, like I did.  But with the good glitches come the bad ones, too.  Near the end, in what I believe was the final dungeon, I ran across a terrible glitch that wouldn’t let me exit the room.  The solution, according to the guide (as a sidenote, I commend the unfortunate Prima writer that had to write a guide for the game)?  Well, you’re just screwed.  Sorry, you got a bad game, you’re stuck there forever and every time you loaded it up it’d be the same.

Exit, enter, and the gold coin re-appears. Repeat until you break the game's concept of money.  It'll make it less painful, I swear.

So basically, after all those hours of gruelingly slow battles with character imbalances (look, I know the hobbits are weak, but come on guys), dealing with a subpar and glitchy experience, I finally called it quits on The Fellowship of the Ring.  Oh, and I didn’t remember a lick about the story, but the Wikipedia page mentioned something about Frodo selling Bag End, so obviously they got a few things wrong in that department, too.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the Game Boy Advance… a game few probably even knew about.  For the few that do know about this godforsaken title, though, know that you weren’t the only one that suffered:  I did, as well.  There are some pretty terrible games out there, but it’s the ones that hint at being decent that really are the worst.  So, for that, this game gets this badge to wear as a symbol of shame:

The teal ribbon of poop!

SPECIAL BONUS ROUND!  Also, watch this unfortunate Let’s Player play this title for a bit:

Review – Pokemon Black Version 2

[Note: This is a sample review I wrote for Game Podunk, so if you think the formatting’s different from usual (or like my old review style!), now you know.]

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: October 7, 2012 (US)
ESRB: E
Pokemon Black Version 2 reviewed

For being the first Pokemon game to be a direct sequel, Pokemon Black 2 has a lot going for it. Black and White ended up being a breath of fresh air for the series, with some interface upgrades and removing earlier Pokemon from being caught until after the main story is beat. However, it did all that while still having that familiar Pokemon feel, with its mostly unchanged graphics and age old formula of ‘collect eight badges, traverse Victory Road, defeat the Champion, The End’.

So, how does Black 2 stand up to its predecessor? Will it rise to the top of the bunch, or fail and fall to the bottom of the mountain of Pokemon games?

Black 2’s story begins like any other: You’re an aspiring young trainer, about to set off on a journey away from home with your Pokemon to topple the Pokemon League and become the Champion… and maybe even save the world along the way. You’re quickly introduced to your spikey haired rival, who might have had a little too much sugar and holds a fire-y hate for Black/White’s Team Plasma. As Bianca, now Professor Juniper’s assistant, and Cheren, the first Gym Leader, show up you’ll learn a bit about what happened in the two year period between Black/White and its successor, but it’s nothing much that will deter those that haven’t played the first from playing the second.

In fact, it may be for that reason that the story of Black 2 seems a little disconnected from the original. There are plenty of cameos to be had, and without playing the first you might be confused about the ‘heroes’ and legendary Dragon Pokemon, but for the most part there isn’t anything story wise that may confuse those that haven’t finished Black/White’s story. It’s a little disappointing, since Black/White’s was honestly a huge step up for the series.

However, while Black 2 fails in the story, it succeeds in other aspects. Black 2 re-introduces earlier Pokemon into the wild, so you can catch your Growlithes and Marills on top of Unova’s offerings. While Black/White’s approach of ‘Unova Pokemon only’ was a great idea, it would be hard to pull off again, and seeing familiar Pokemon in the wild was welcome. The addition of Trainer animations is also nice, and more little upgrades make the Pokemon experience slightly more hassle-free (“Your Repel wore off! Would you like to use another?”)

Perhaps where Black 2 shines best is in all the extra stuff you can do. Musicals from the previous entry are back, as well as PokeStar Studios, essentially a scripted Pokemon battle which you do (and can alter) to create movies. It’s really a lot of fun and a nice distraction from the story. In addition, there is the Battle Subway (basically the Battle Tower) and the Pokemon World Tournament for your non-story battling needs. After you beat the main story, you can even download extra PWT matches, including bouts with previous generation Champions and Gym Leaders to keep things interesting. Finally, there’s Join Avenue, a place where you can have people you meet and NPCs build shops from anything like raffles to Pokemon training to item shops. The sheer amount of extras to play through, in addition to the usual ‘catch ’em all’ mentality will keep most fans busy until the next Pokemon entry.

Let me take a moment to admire the music in Black 2. There are tracks new and old in this sequel, and they all sound great. Black/White had a pretty good soundtrack in my opinion, and Black 2 does just as well… and maybe even sets the standard a little higher. There are some tracks that are directly from Black/White (namely town themes), some remixed tracks, and even some new songs added in, and they all sound great. Make sure to play this one with the headphones on, especially if you’re going off to battle Team Plasma!

So, what’s the verdict? Well, Black 2 is a Pokemon game, for better or for worse. There’s not much in the way of moving forward in the series aside small upgrades, and does nothing in shaking up the tried and true Pokemon formula. To the hordes of Pokemon fans, however, this entry is still a great continuation to a great series, and while there might be a few missteps, it’s hard to disagree. Here’s to another entry one of Nintendo’s most popular series!

Pros
+ Takes all of the improvements of Black/White and adds even more
+ New Trainer animations minimal, but good looking
+ Music is fantastic
+ All of the additional content adds some value and fun

Cons
– Doesn’t do well as a continuation of Black/White’s story
– Lack of new visuals and assets make a retread of Unova boring at points

Pokemon Black Version 2 might not be the end-all Pokemon entry, but it’s still a solid game that most fans will enjoy.