Summer Gaming Challenge #3 – Kirby’s Return to Dream Land

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Quick Info on Kirby’s Return to Dream Land:
Console  – Wii (re-released digitally on Wii U, unchanged)
Release Year – 2005
Metacritic Score – 77
Time it took to beat – ~7h

Now, this was fun!  Around E3 I got really busy and couldn’t really play many games, and then after that I had the sudden whim of trying to freelance write again, and that combined by getting distracted by Steam Summer Sale titles I’m back to business.  Mostly.  My day job also got rather stressful, so I needed something easier and just… happier to play than most of the games on my list.  So I started up Kirby’s Return to Dream Land!

Like any good Kirby game, it’s bright, colorful, and has a sweet little story that really doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.  You also have to collect little doo-dads that may or not unlock a special true ending if you collect them all (spoiler alert: The doo-dads unlock an Extra Mode which is basically a harder mode of the game).  Also thankfully, these McGuffins aren’t too hard to collect most of as along as you’re observant and explore, which is good considering sometimes it can hard to know what you need to do and when in some of the previous titles.  It’s essentially a Kirby game (and not a weird Kirby game like Rainbow Curse or Mass Attack, a… normal one), and that’s exactly what I came here for.

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Return to Dream Land actually does emphasize multiplayer play, with easy drop-in drop out co-op and the plot’s emphasis on this being about all three of the series’ most popular characters… and Waddle Dee.  I did not get a chance to try any multiplayer, but I imagine it’s the same as any platformer that has the option and makes the games both easier and harder at the same time… easier in that it would be far faster to wipe out mid- and end-bosses, but harder in areas that require speed and precision like auto scrolling areas.

I wish I could elaborate more on the games but… it’s Kirby.  It’s a classic Kirby game with classic levels and it’s generally easy with some harder bits here and there (that are generally optional like the auto scrolling areas).  I really enjoyed the Super Abilities and how it helped spice up the levels… and how the late levels featuring them required a bit of thought and puzzle solving compared to just mashing the 1 button regularly (I was playing on the Wii Remote).  I prefer Planet Robobot to Return to Dream Land but that’s almost an unfair comparison to make… having played both, it’s clear Return to Dream Land laid the foundation for Planet Robobot to use that formula and really change things up with the robo-suit.  I have to say I really enjoyed Return to Dream Land more than I thought I would though… I was worried it might be like too many other Kirby titles and their small, yet irritating issues (McGuffins are too hard to get, game is too long, game requires specific thought to be optional McGuffins to access the final level).  I know 100%ing the game would be less than an easy romp, especially with the Extra Mode ramping up the entire campaign’s difficulty, but that’s not usually something I do for games and it’s great there’s so much extra content for those that want more.

So if you’re looking for a Kirby fix, I’d recommend grabbing this if you have a Wii or Wii U.  The digital Wii U version is quite a bit cheaper than a physical copy, just a heads up on that.

As for other challenge games I’m working on a long one with Dragon Quest VII right now and getting in sessions of Cave Story+, but freelance work ramped up recently and it may be a while before I can beat either.  Until next time!

 

Summer Gaming Challenge 2017 Dropped – Earthbound

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I have beaten my third game for the Summer Gaming Challenge, but I’d like to first talk about the first game I’m dropping for the Challenge, because I do feel it’s worthy to talk about, and what that means for my Challenge.  After all, it’s not always fun just to read positive impressions, right?  …Well, I guess my write ups aren’t always positive, but I feel this will be a worthwhile post.

Anyway, the first game I’ve dropped from my challenge is Earthbound.  I can already hear the tortured screams of the SNES game’s fans from here, so just hear me out first.  In the past I would suffer through games that were considered ‘classics’ even if I didn’t like them, just to give them a chance.  But nowadays, I simply don’t have that time commitment, and I want to use the free time that I have for other games, and other endeavors in general.  So I give these games a fair shake, and if I don’t like them I move on, regardless of how beloved it is.

I don’t know exactly how much time I sunk into Earthbound because I forgot to check the Activity Log before writing this, but I believe it was around 10 hours and I was about halfway through the stuff in Fourside when I called it quits.

Let me just get this out of the way and say… I really do like Earthbound’s unique and wacky setting.  Maybe unique isn’t quite the right word, since Earthbound’s world is much like our own except… weirder, but really the way Earthbound handles its setting is pretty wonderful and fun.  But, then again, I knew I would like it, considering how much I liked Mother 3 when I played through a large chunk of that.

Actually, that’s likely to be the crux of my issues with Earthbound… the fact that I played through Mother 3 before I touched this title.  I didn’t actually beat Mother 3, mind you (I’m still waiting patiently for the day Nintendo deems Western audiences worthy of the title), and it’s of course understandable that the third title of the series would have quality of life updates that the second game didn’t have, but Earthbound’s little oddities and tiny frustrations just built up to the point where I wasn’t really enjoying anything in between the short cutscenes the game gave me for taking care of whatever task it gave me.

The biggest problem, for me, is that is could be hard to figure out exactly what to do at many points in the game.  I decided to look up a guide early on, and while some tasks are telegraphed clearly enough, others I know I would have wandered around aimlessly for if I hadn’t have looked it up.  There’s other things  too, like learning how dangerous the enemies in the desert are and how it’s really not even worth fighting them, that saved me a lot of grief I otherwise would have gone through… since the battle escape rate is abysmal, if you don’t dodge the enemies on the screen, you’re more or less locked into a battle until it’s won (or lost).

Also, I suppose I didn’t really find the battles themselves fun.  It’s not that I don’t like turn based battles–I’m playing Dragon Quest VII now and am enjoying it–it’s just that it feels like I can’t do anything for fear of wasting resources or precious PP.  It’s tough figuring out when to use Jeff’s items in particular… considering his whole things is using unique items only he can use and take up precious inventory slots, it’s downright infuriating when said items don’t even work or their effects leave much to be desired.  It makes normal battles a complete slog, and boss battles can become a pain simply from the fact that most of my PP is wasted from healing (or from spells so I can kill enemies faster so I don’t have to heal), and I’m not the biggest fan of that sort of difficulty.  Again, this mainly stems from the fact that you can’t actually run from battles… sure, the option is there and all, but using it is just asking to take damage.  Combined with how hard it is to avoid many enemy types, it’s almost designed to wear you down to make boss battles more difficult than they need to be… because when I do get to said battles with sufficient PP, I can usually wipe them out in just a few turns.

These are the biggest points of contention for me… as a result, I felt like I just was going through the motions, not actually enjoying the game and just playing it because I felt obligated to for the challenge.  So, it’s time to drop it and try something else instead.

With that, I’ll detail the updates to my list.  First, I’ll be replacing Earthbound with Deadly Premonition for the PS3… Deadly Premonition is considered a cult classic, so I definitely want to give it a try and see how it is for myself.  Second, I’ve gotten a Switch and one of the games I own for it (Cave Story+) is definitely considered a classic… since I was having trouble filling out some of the games on my list in the first place with “true” classics, I’ve replaced one of the more iffy games on the list (Trails in the Sky) with it.  Also since it’s not a super long RPG (or an RPG at all) it helps make my list not so… long, to play through.

That wraps up the list updates!  Look out for my thoughts for the third Summer Gaming Challenge title that I’ve beaten soon.

Summer Gaming Challenge 2017 #2 – Digital Devil Saga

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Quick Info on Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga:
Console  – PS2 (re-released digitally on PS3, unchanged)
Release Year – 2005
Metacritic Score – 78

I have trouble finding the words to say about Digital Devil Saga.  It’s not a bad game, not by any means, but now that I’m a few days removed from beating it, I find trouble singing its praises, as well.  It’s a good, but flawed experience… but it’s gotten me quite excited to play Digital Devil Saga 2, which I’ll probably get to after I’m done with the challenge.  But, let’s talk about the first game, and hopefully I won’t be rambling.

Digital Devil Saga takes place in The Junkyard, a place where war is constantly waged in order to reach Nirvana and a better life.  Essentially, it’s very much similar to Purgatory, to put Western religious beliefs to it all.  However, the tide of the war shifts when a mysterious object appears, giving the residents of the Junkyard the ability to transform into demons, and a fiendish hunger to devour their enemies.

The story to the first Digital Devil Saga is a bit back heavy, though it makes sense due to the plot.  The residents of the Junkyard (including our characters) did not care about such things as motives, emotions, or their world before awakening to their demonic powers, but as the game goes on and more things are revealed (“how do we know what the color of the sky is if all we see are clouds and rain?”), the characters come to care more about these inconsistencies and what the Junkyard really is.

What’s interesting, though, is that by the end of the first game, not much is really explained.  This can really irk some people, but this also makes sense in the grand scheme of  the game, and the duology.  The entirety of the game takes place in the Junkyard, and every single person in there has no clue what’s going on and is trying to piece together their emotions and small fragments of memories.  One character does eventually regain his full memories, but it drives him damn near insane and he’s killed shortly after giving some vague foreshadowing.  It’s clear that hard answers will be given in 2, though the teaser at the end of 1 really raises more questions than anything else.

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Man this guy was a dick.

Gameplay is pretty similar to most Shin Megami Tensei titles.  It’s turn-based and features the One More Turn system that rewards you for hitting weaknesses and scoring critical hits.  Encounters are random, as well.  What’s different about Digital Devil Saga are Mantras.  Mantras allow you to build your party members as you wish, as anyone can equip any Mantra, and mastering the Mantra using Atma Points will give them new skills and passive abilities.

The Mantra system is kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time.  Since you can teach anyone anything (provided they’re far enough along on that particular line), you can build your party how you wish.  However, everyone other than the main character has preset stat ups and weaknesses, making it so that you really shouldn’t stray too much from the normal builds for the characters.  But, oftentimes important skills are locked behind Mantra lines that you normally wouldn’t persue with specific characters, so you’ll have to waste Karma (money), Atma Points, and time teaching characters skills that will find no use in their skillset, to eventually learn skills that will help.

I’ll use Heat as an example here, as he’s the most extreme of the party members when it comes  to this.  Heat’s basically the character that punches things and they fall… all of his stats go into Strength and Vitality.  Heat casting a magic spell beyond the first dungeon or two means you’re playing the game wrong.  So naturally, you’re going to want him to learn the physical Mantras, to learn physical moves that take advantage of his strength and large HP pool.  You’d also preferably teach someone else the fire Mantras, so you never have to make him cast Agi and exploit that weakness again.  You want him punching stuff, after all.

But, here’s the problem.  As, well, the fire demon and the story’s foil to the main character, Heat has a crippling weakness to Ice moves.  Coupled with his low Magic (which determines both magic attack AND defense), two Bufudyne attacks could easily wipe him out from near max HP, and that would give the enemy more attacks to whittle down everyone else’s health.  Thankfully, there is a skill you can equip that can resist Ice, cancelling out his weakness.  But, you know where you get that Resist Ice skill?  The very final Mantra in the ice line of spells.  So instead of teaching Heat those physical skills that are so good for him, you have to waste a ton of time and money to have him learn up to MABUFUDYNE, a skill that he will never, ever use when I dumped all of Serph’s (main character and resident ice demon) stat points into Magic.  The time it takes to accumulate the AP for the final elemental Mantras is pretty excessive too, making the whole task tedious… if you can even afford it.  Considering that four of the five characters is weak to some elemental, unless you want to have to cast a Void spell in every battle against a weakness, you’ll have to do it for all four of them.  Oh, and Cielo is weak to EVERY SINGLE STATUS EFFECT in the game, making him nigh useless in every battle after you get him, since equipping all the Null status skills would leave him no room to actually have any skills.

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Look at this!  It’s ridiculous!  And you can’t check skills in the next part of the line until you master the Mantra before it.

This problem, coupled with later bosses needing some high-end skills to not be massive pains, makes the game a bit imbalanced.  I got through about half the game pretty easily, but suddenly hit a wall a few dungeons before the end where I had to stop constantly and just grind… not for levels, but for Mantras and skills to just survive.  Oh, and Heat never got to learn Ice Resist, nor did Serph learn Fire Resist.  Those really should be a little earlier in the line…

But, it’s a pretty decent game… its difficulty was uneven and even sometimes felt a little bit forced (oh you don’t have Dekaja? Well good luck!), but it’s necessary to get through to understand 2, and it’s really not that bad to get through.  I do recommend looking up a Mantra guide for building characters… and do make sure to pick one that helps you through the WHOLE game, the guide I picked stopped about 2/3rds through saying “Oh, you know how to build your characters now!” when… obviously I didn’t, because how would I know I suddenly needed Null Panic on everyone for a boss battle.  Or multiple elements mastered.  Or Dekaja… I’m not bitter about the guide I used at all, no siree!

Summer Gaming Challenge 2017 #1 – Super Mario Galaxy 2

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Quick Info on Super Mario Galaxy 2:
Console  – Wii (re-released digitally on Wii U, unchanged)
Release Year – 2010
Metacritic Score – 97
Time it took to beat – 10h32m

How fitting that the first game with this year’s Summer Gaming Challenge is actually the sequel to the first game I beat last year.  I hadn’t planned on it being that way, but considering that right before the challenge begun I went through two RPGs (one being the long as heck Persona 5), I needed a bit of a break from the RPGs and settled on Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Ever since beating the first game last year, I’ve been excited to delve into Galaxy 2 and see what it had to offer.  I found that the gaming community tended to be split on which one they liked more, despite both being lauded as incredible games, so of course I was expecting more great gameplay from 1 returning to 2.  I mean, they even both got the same Metacritic score!

Now that I’ve beaten Galaxy 2, I can say without the shadow of a doubt… that I liked the original way more.

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I did enjoy the stages where you ran fast as Yoshi… until they started throwing lame wall scenarios at you

Don’t get me wrong, Galaxy 2 is great.  The addition of Yoshi made it so there’s a greater variety of level types to help keep levels from getting stale.  Also, since it doesn’t have to waste time/levels introducing the basic mechanics (like planet hopping and star bits and whatnot), it felt like Galaxy 2 was able to get into more original level designs quicker.  It’s largely the same as Galaxy 1, but with a few new mechanics and a slew of whole new levels… which makes sense as the game originally started as an expansion/level pack.

But on the whole, Galaxy 2 started to frustrate me.  While the Yoshi stages were fun at first, they quickly became tedious affairs, with the controlling of Yoshi during boss battles specifically  sticking out like a sore thumb to me.  Also, the motion control gimmick levels are back, and they aren’t that much better in 2… Rolling balls and gliding birds with the always finicky Wiimote aren’t my idea of a fun time.  Oh, and the spring powerup.  Why, why did that have to make a comeback?  Does anyone like the spring powerup?

A lot of the things I was able to forgive in Galaxy 1 I find harder to forgive in 2, simply because it’s a sequel and it should improve upon the original.  Its less ambitious origins asides, it feels like Galaxy 2 just wears on my patience, especially considering the upped star cost to get to the final level (requiring me to do a bunch of comet stars, which aren’t always fun) and generally annoying levels (again, the spring one).  I just wish, deep down that 2 would have fixed some of the (admittedly small) issues from 1, but the fact that they didn’t feel like they did is just… disappointing.

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I will say I like the return of the world map, though.  Being able to jump in a stage quickly is pretty important to me, and Galaxy 1 made that a bit… difficult at times.  Also I feel as though Comet Stars are handled a lot better in 2 than 1, but I’m really struggling to remember how precisely those worked in 1.  I don’t think 1 let me queue up like seven of those suckers in a row, though!  And while these improvements are important to me, I just wish the gameplay related issues might have been looked at a bit more.

To wrap it up, I like Galaxy 2, it’s a pretty good Mario game.  I just like Galaxy 1 more, despite them being largely the same.  I’d easily recommend both to someone looking for Wii games to play… and since both got re-released on the Wii U digitally, I’d recommend it even more.

Summer Gaming Challenge, 2017 edition

It’s that time of the year again… the time where I try and play 10 ‘classic’ games over the summer!  I won’t go over the rules again, I posted them here and am too lazy to retype the thing.  My start date will be somewhere around June 1st, but I may start a little earlier or later depending on how efficiently I can clear out the current backlog skeletons in the closet.

My ten games for this year are:

Cave Story+ (Switch)
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (3DS)
Monkey Island 2 Special Edition (Steam)
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga (PS2 via PS2 Classics)
Suikoden II (PS1 via PS1 Classics)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
Kirby’s Return to Dreamland (Wii)
Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past (3DS)
Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut (PS3)
Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)

I’m also doing something a little different this year.  If I flat out end up hating a game, or if console availability is kind of bad for me for whichever reason, I have a few backup games just in case.  This is mainly because a lot of my list originally were PS3 titles, which is an issue because it’s in a busy living room and working through four or five RPGs down there probably wouldn’t work.

The tentative backups are:

The Last of Us Remastered (PS4)
Breath of Fire IV (PS1 via PS1 Classics)

As per every year before, once I finish a game I will write a piece on it, so look forward to more posts!  I wonder which game I’ll finish first…

Summer Gaming Challenge #5 – Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

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Quick Info on Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia:
Console  – Nintendo DS
Release Year – 2008
Metacritic Score – 85
Time it took to beat – 10h41m

Wow, I beat half of my Summer Gaming Challenge this year.  That’s a new one.  I usually only get three games in before something else inevitably distracts me from the challenge.  Then again, since I’m not a hardcore game reviewer anymore, I do have more free time to chisel away at the backlog.  And while I had originally planned to end the challenge when I started back classes (which was Monday), I’m over half way through Metal Gear Solid, so I might as well finish that too while I’m at it. So I suppose I’ll extend the challenge to Labor Day.

But anyway, let’s talk about the final Igavania title, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia.  A shame that it was the last one, being released at a time when they found an artist worthy of replacing the legendary Ayami Kojima’s work and the game itself really putting its best foot forward in the gameplay department where the previous DS titles were a little lacking.

What?  I find Dawn of Sorrow lacking compared to Aria.  And I’m saying that on the game’s anniversary on top of that.  Fight me.

However, I can see why Ecclesia was the final one–the formula, while great, was really starting to become stale, and although Ecclesia takes steps to help freshen it up a bit, it ultimately wasn’t enough.  Thankfully all gamers needed was a break from the tried and true formula, if Bloodstained’s Kickstarter success is anything to go by.  Much like the Mega Man series, it was just too much all at once.

But let’s get to talking about the game itself, shall we?  Order of Ecclesia takes place somewhere in the Castlevania timeline where the Belmont clan disappeared for a while, presumably because people are jerks that scared the Belmonts away.  Before the Morris family came about to take up the mantle of vampire hunter in their relatives’ absence, however, is when Order of Ecclesia takes place.

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Spoiler Alert, there’s Dracula in a Castlevania game. Shocker.

Anyone with any kind of video game storytelling knowledge should already know pretty much everything that happens in the game after the first cutscene, but let’s talk about it anyway.  This robust Order has only three members, and the game begins with a bit of bickering between the two ‘not leader’ members of the group.  The main character (Shanoa) was chosen to house the Dominus glyphs, a very powerful magic that is said to help defeat Dracula.  However, her comrade in arms Albus was originally promised said power, and is just a bit miffed that things aren’t going as planned.  He interrupts the ritual and steals the power of Dominus away, and in the process Shanoa loses both her memories and emotions.

The first half of the game involves chasing Albus around, trying to retrieve Dominus and figure out why he’s doing a bunch of weird stuff (like kidnapping villagers).  Of course, the second half of the game revolves around the real reasons for Albus doing what he did (after he’s dead of course, can’t have happy times here), and stopping the revived Dracula because–surprise surprise–the power of Dominus is actually meant to be used to revive Dracula, not defeat him!

Regardless of all that, though, the story was still alright, and the ending was actually pretty touching (in a Crisis Core sort of way–you know exactly what’s about to happen, but it’s sad anyway).  It doesn’t really dwell on any weird or boing points (“oh no I’m the reincarnation of Dracula, the angst” “damn I think I’m kinda useless as a mage, woe” (dramatic reinterpretations may or may not be accurate)), and while it isn’t even a good motivating point to see the game through to the end, the fact that it doesn’t’ really get in the way while succinctly explaining the state of the Castlevania world is accomplishment enough in an age of bloated narratives and endless exposition.

But what really, really shines is the gameplay.  See, Order of Ecclesia doesn’t pull any punches.  It’s a difficult game.  One thing that can usually be said about the Igavanias is that they can really be too easy.  If you get stuck on a boss or something, the answer was usually quite simple–grind a couple levels and come back to kick butt.  Ecclesia doesn’t do that, and the only other portable one I can think that also didn’t do that was Circle of the Moon, although that was mainly because the shop system was borked and you couldn’t buy healing items to help grinding anyway.

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Cats are important.

Instead, Ecclesia forces you to become better and use your arsenal to your advantage. With the Glyphs, Shanoa can have a huge range of weapons and spells at her disposal, making it very easy to switch strategies on the fly.  So Order of Ecclesia relies a lot less on the highest level equipment and more on taking advantage of enemies’ weaknesses and maneuvering around the map.

This is doubly so during boss battles, as they hit hard and fast, but ultimately have patterns to learn to dodge attacks and know when to strike.  While you can level up and mitigate the damage a little bit, the fact is bosses are such heavy hitters than you can’t just level up or get good enough equipment to tank through the battle.  You have to learn enemy patterns and the best attacks to hit them with, or grind money (which is relatively scarce) to buy a large stock of somewhat expensive healing items.

So, it’s definitely not a cakewalk.  I do like the balance that the healing items bring to the table, though.  I was better at learning some bosses’ patterns than others, and having  the option of just saying ‘screw it’ and bring nine bowls of ramen to the battle while only dodging half the attacks is an option I liked having.  Even though it always seemed I’d use a pricey healing item then kills the boss in the next hit…

But yeah, a very good, very satisfying Castlevania title.  I love how it’s balanced (even if it’s not perfectly balanced), and the 10 hours I put into it were a lot of fun.  Will I complete it and play Albus mode?  Probably not, considering it’s pretty damn hard, but it’s my favorite of the DS Castlevania titles.  I do need to replay Aria of Sorrow sometime though…