I am Setsuna.

images

Hey folks!

Still not reading much (though follow me on Goodreads to see when I do post the occasional review) but I did just finish playing through I am Setsuna, a JRPG recently released for the PS4 and Steam so I wanted to share some thoughts. Is this worth the $40 price tag?

First off, if the phrase “Chrono Trigger meets Final Fantasy X with the materia system from Final Fantasy VII mixed in” doesn’t mean anything to you, I’d say just go spend your $40 on the Final Fantasy X/X-2 remaster released last year. It’s a much better introduction to what JRPGs can be. But for those who do know, let’s take a deeper delve.

Art:
This game takes the vibe of the SNES-era games and gives them a watercolor makeover to beautiful effect. It’s a lovely game. There’s some especially nice snow-work, where your characters create paths as they move through snow and those paths disappear as you move along. That said, everything in this game is in the snow. Everything. Even when we get some color in the form of a sunset after you’ve defeated the final boss, there’s still always snow. So while it’s lovely, it loses some of its effect over time. Some variety would have been nice, is all I’m saying.

Music & Sound:
This game is notable for its piano-only soundtrack. While the piano does fit the somber mood well, after a few hours I was killing for a violin, a cello or some other string work to offset the piano. It just becomes monotonous overtime and I’m not convinced this was the right way to go. It would have been just as easy to keep the mood but go from a soloist up to say, a quartet for some variety. I absolutely love instrumental scores, but now that I’ve finished, I’ve no desire to go figure out how to pull the soundtrack that I got as a preorder incentive off my PS4 to listen to elsewhere. The rest of the sound work is fine, nothing to write home about. You’ll probably want to turn off the voice clips though. Though in Japanese, they get no less tiresome when you hear a character repeating the same phrase for the thousandth time.

Gameplay:
I love me some active turn based battling. I’m actually sad that the FFVII remaster is doing away with it. I like having some time to plan, and by having it active it means you can’t take forever lest the enemies get their shot at you. And at the core, the system works just fine. The additions to the system – momentum and fluxes – are questionable at best. The momentum is definitely helpful (basically get your timing right and you can add bonuses to your moves), but fluxes are so confusing (and so poorly explained) that I still can’t explain it to you and I’ve defeated the game. There’s a very non-helpful explanation in one of the vendor screens, but that’s it. You can safely ignore it and not be hurt by it. The bigger issue lies with the spritenite/techs and it’s twofold. One: there are way, way, way too many of them. Dozens upon dozens. Your eyes can glaze over the list and still keep scrolling. It’s just way too much, even more so when you realize that outside of a few bosses (more in a minute) the battles in the game are just too simple to even need a fraction. You’ll settle on the handful you’ll use per character rather quickly and stop even looking into new one for one simple reason:

The gameplay balance is horribly off. There’s a specific double tech and a triple tech that essentially break the game. You can use the double tech to wipe out mobs in one go, and the triple tech to out cheese the cheesy bosses at the end game. While you can avoid using them during play to not just sail through the dungeons, they become vital at endgame.

Case and point: the dungeon with the final boss is essentially a five-part fight, no saving in between. I was appropriately leveled for the area, but kept wiping at some part within the four sub-bosses. I did a quick search for a strategy guide and saw the rec for the triple tech. I went ahead and got the spritenite needed for it, and I was able to beat the whole final boss fight in one go.

Grinding isn’t even a viable alternative because stats are based on weapons more than anything. Why waste hours and hours and hours grinding for incremental gains when a couple of choice spritenite can save you the frustration of throwing your controller at the wall over cheap difficulty spikes? It’s just not worth it.

The gameplay isn’t awful by any means, but I don’t think Tokyo RPG Factory brought anything new and worthwhile to the table, and it certainly isn’t going to make you want to play through again to try and play with the builds. There’s no reason to.

Oh, and finally, save points are FAR too sparse in the dungeons. You can go an hour between finding one, which is a pain in the ass. The lack of an inn system is an odd omission and the vending system desperately needs a way of selling items in bulk. These aren’t deal breakers, but in the 20 years since these came out, these kind of things have been perfected, so the choices here just seem to be here to be different, and it hurts the game.

Story:
So what about the story? It’s….there. It’s watered down Final Fantasy X. Ndir is an Auron clone, but 1/3 as interesting. Setsuna is the Yuna analogue but way more naive and still so ridiculously optimistic and positive that it’s absolutely grating. Endir, a cipher for the player has no real personality at all, and his part in the story isn’t really explained once you get the exposition as to what’s actually going on. Some other stock characters round out the party, but none stand out all that much. Even more baffling, right after you defeat the second-to-last major boss fight you get one more character to join your party. Why? I don’t know. He doesn’t add much of anything to the story, and because of the aforementioned issue with the spritnite, his being over leveled compared to your party is meaningless. I used him for a few trash mobs and on one of my failed boss run attempts, but you could easily never use him in battle at all and still beat the game. He’s just there. I will also say the ending is quite divisive and a lot of players don’t seem to like it. It doesn’t bother me as much for a reason that I can’t give away, but the story leading up to that point is so basically predictable that as you finally get to the final reveal (which is very slowly dragged out over the last major dungeon in the game) you just aren’t surprised. I kept waiting for some interesting twist to the story, and well, don’t get your hopes up. It’s all very trope- filled and lacks any of the nuance or depth of Final Fantasy X. All in all, this is pretty standard stuff, and if you’re looking for the richness that Square Enix can bring to its games, keep looking because you’re not going to find it here.

Verdict:
If it sounds like I’m down on this game, it’s because I kind am. I love this old-school style and was very excited for this game to release. My excitement died quickly though, and we’re just left with a slightly above average game. I don’t think I can recommend it for $40 when the inspiration games can be had for the same price (or cheaper!) on PSN, Steam, or various handhelds. Look there first instead. Otherwise, if you are a JRPG fan, I’d try and pick this up for $30 or less, I just think $40 is a bit overpriced.

 

 

 

JRPG Review: Digimon Story: Cybersleuth

And it’s time for another JRPG review! I’ve been a Pokemon fan for ages, and have owned Nintendo’s latest portable to be able to play the latest game off and on, but inevitably always sell off said handheld because there just weren’t enough other games I wanted to play. So when I got the itch to pick up a new game, I got the next best thing: a Digimon game. For those of you who don’t know, Digimon is Pokemon’s younger and less kid-friendly knock-off franchise that has nonetheless managed to hit its 15th anniversary. Not bad for a knock-off, eh?

Anyway, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was released in 2015 as a PS4 and PS Vita title and released here in the US in February 2016. Is it worth a pick-up? Let’s take a look.

DIGIMON STORY CYBER SLEUTH_20160203165933

Graphics: Funnily enough, the anime-inspired game looks like an anime. Cel-shaded people and Digimon traverse a static CGI-painted world. The “cyber” elements of the game are depicted in very Tron-esque neon blues and it all looks quite nice. That said, there are some graphical glitches to be found. My character often clipped with the larger Digimon models making it seem like the pair had merged into some kind of unholy beast, and my guest would often disappear on elevator rides to where I started to question whether or not they were supposed to – even though logic dictates they shouldn’t. It’s not game breaking, but considering that we’re not pushing any graphical limits here, it’s disappointing to see and you’d hope for more polish. Overall, it does work and it looks nice, just don’t expect to be wowed.

Sound: Unlike the graphics, the sound work leaves something to be desired. Music is there, but outside of loops like the dungeon theme that you hear so many times that you can’t not get them stuck in your head, it’s forgettable. The game is only voiced in Japanese as is presented with English subtitles. This is both good and bad, as battles tend to have intro’s and outros that are probably the same one or two phrases repeated over and over and over again. At least you can’t understand them? Bye the by, the protagonist is unvoiced, probably a cost saving measure but nonetheless annoying as even most Digimon have voices. There’s no character customization beyond gender, would it have been so hard to have two reads done?

While we’re here, I do want to bring up the messy translations Sometimes it’s as little as having another character call your female avatar as “he” instead of “she” but other times I’m wondering if some of the issues are caused by a team who speak English competently, but not natively. For example, there’s a scene where the old detective is saying that a certain investigation is going slow. The implication being that he wants to go slow, so he can do it right. The other character nods sagely and replies, “haste makes waste.” While that idiom technically works, the context they’re using it in doesn’t quite make sense. Furthermore, many of the characters seem to go from smart to navie/stupid in a conversation and back again and again I have to wonder if it isn’t the translation making iffy writing somehow worse. The combination does detract from the story and I found myself smiling and nodding along with the protagonist at parts because the explanations were so convoluted that I just didn’t care and you may tune out too.

Story: Since I brought it up, I’ll just say that the story is servicable. It sets up the world nicely, but ultimately winds up being a fairly standard affair of Bad Company Doing Bad Things and it being up to you to figure out what. There are some touching moments, but really the more enjoyable stories come in the form of the side-quests which evoke everything from a bit of J-Horror to Digimon being addicted to boxing and taking selfies to just wanting to put their CD out for the world to hear. It’s the side-stories that kept me going, and they often have the best humor that isn’t impeded by the translations since the stories are shorter and simpler.

Gameplay: For better or for worse, this game feels like it was designed for the Vita and ported to the PS4, and not the other way around. I say this because the game uses a “case” system to move things along. Most of the side cases and even many of the main story cases can be completed in 20-30 minutes or less, making it perfect bite-size gaming. On the downside, the game feels incredibly linear. You can’t go explore unless the game tells you to explore. You have some freedom in the order you pick up cases (and the side cases are purely optional) and there are a few things you can mess around with on the side, like both “offline” and online battle arenas and the like, but this game is still 90% linear as many cases and tasks are only opened up to you after others are completed. I personally don’t mind, but your mileage my vary. I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that the “investigation” side-quests (obtained by sending the ‘mon on your Digifarm out searching for them) are EXTREMELY repetitive (Go to place X, run around until you find the shiny, return, repeat) and really the only reason to do them are you occasionally get some good rewards out of them.

As far as the battle system goes, this takes your basic Pokemon-esque rock-paper-scissor mechanics and both simplifies it and makes it more complex. On the face of it its simpler, because there are only four main types – data, virus, vaccine and free. where it gets more complex is that each one of those four types is then divided into elemental attributes like fire, water, plant and so on. Ideally, when you send out your Digimon you’re going to be looking at both type and attribute, as they do stack. That 2.0 damage a virus can do to a data Pokemon can become 3.0 if you add the right elements into the mix. But that’s ideally. Realistically, as long as you’re leveling properly and upgrading your Digimon when you’re able, you can often pay less mind to that secondary level of mixing, unless you’re in a boss fight or you just want to speed things up and get the fight done a bit sooner. Additionally, your health and SP points all replenish upon level up and between that and there are plenty of terminals that let you access the Digilab where you can heal up for an inconsequential amount of Yen, so you shouldn’t have to do too much health management, unless again, inside certain tougher boss battles. Overall, Pokemon fans should find this game easy to pick up and it’s definitely accessible for casual fans as well. It’s an easier game overall.

Finally, I do like how the game builds in mechanics for you to increase/decrease random encounters at your discretion and that said mechanic is available practically right away and is the only thing that makes the search quests bearable as the monsters in a given dungeon stay the same even as you level. I also like that how it wears off when you leave floors of a given dungeon so you can’t accidentally keep it turned on in areas where you really should be participating in those random encounters to ensure you stay appropriately leveled. If a game is going to use this kind of mechanic, this ability should come with it.

Verdict: Buy it on Sale. This an unapologetic old-school JRPG and fans of the genre/Pokemon fans should find something to like her. The general lack of polish, however, makes it hard to fully recommend, let alone recommend to newbies unless you’re looking for a relatively easy way to dip your toes in the waters. Western RPG fans who expect deeper story and character customization should steer clear.

Available: Now

Borrow it: Spider’s Bite (Elemental Assassain #1)

6611038

Summary:

They call me the Spider. I’m the most feared assassin in the South — when I’m not busy at the Pork Pit cooking up the best barbecue in Ashland. As a Stone elemental, I can hear everything from the whispers of the gravel beneath my feet to the vibrations of the soaring Appalachian Mountains above me. My Ice magic also comes in handy for making the occasional knife. But I don’t use my powers on the job unless I absolutely have to. Call it professional pride.

Now that a ruthless Air elemental has double-crossed me and killed my handler, I’m out for revenge. And I’ll exterminate anyone who gets in my way — good or bad. I may look hot, but I’m still one of the bad guys. Which is why I’m in trouble, since irresistibly rugged Detective Donovan Caine has agreed to help me. The last thing this coldhearted killer needs when I’m battling a magic more powerful than my own is a sexy distraction… especially when Donovan wants me dead just as much as the enemy.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s funny how having to write a review really makes you look at how you see a book. You can be reading along, going “this is kinda fun,” and then the second you have to verbalize your thoughts on the book you reliaze that you don’t really have much of anything to say.

And Spider’s Bite is one of those books for me.

On the face of it, there’s nothing bad about this book. The world building is solid (if not terribly unique), the plot moves along at a brisk pace and is interesting enough to make you want to keep reading, and there are some nice interactions between Gin and the people she surrounds herself with. So why am I left feeling kind of underwhelmed by it all?

After a lot of thinking, I think it comes down to Gin herself, and for two reasons: one, she talks a huge game about how she’s the best in the South. Does she feel that remarkable? Do anything so remarkable that you buy into her claims? Not really. Oh, there’s a person or two who hint that she doesn’t use her power to her full potential, but that’s about it. She’s a fairly generic Kick-Ass Woman that’s not uncommon to the genre.

The second reason, and the bigger issue for me, is that I don’t feel that there’s any moral complexity or ambiguity to the character. For all that she’s an assassin, Estep goes out of her way to say it’s okay to like her because she’s a Good Guy! She doesn’t kill innocents, kids, for pets, and she occasionally does pro-bono hits on pedophile rapists. She has hobbies, she cooks! See? Good Guy!

I found myself thinking about Alex Verus as I wound up reading the first book. If you haven’t read that series (and if you haven’t, shame on you), it’s about a character who spent his formative years of magical training being taught by bad guys, mostly unwillingly. Ten years after he escaped and did his best to stay out of both parts of magical society, the good guys still ldon’t trust him and the bad guys still treat him as if he’s one of them, and not unreasonably so. Unlike Gin, he’s not prone to violence (he’ll be the first one to say that he sucks at fighting and spends a lot of time running). But if you provoke him enough, if you just don’t leave him any other choices, he will go there. And you will probably end up dead, even if you are only 16 or 17. And he doesn’t feel bad that he did it, he was more pissed that they wouldn’t just leave him alone like he asked them too. He’s a character that’s trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t mind getting messy if his life (or the lives of his friends) depends on it, and characters react accordingly. He does get called out for his body count, he does get the side-eye from those he knows, he does lose friendships or have those friendships severely tested by his actions.

Gin?

Nope. No one has a problem with Gin. Everyone likes Gin! Even the detective who knows that Gin killed his partner (not knowing the why) still decides to get in her pants when she offers, because she’s sexy and charismatic! Now, the plot does unfold over a few days, so it’s not like there’s a ton of time for Gin to get introspective, but it feels when Gin talks about quitting it’s more so because her fallen mentor doesn’t want her to stay in the life, rather than her really ever having any qualms about what she’s doing or have ever realizing what an emotional toll a job like this is taking on her. It ultimately makes her feel a bit robotic to me.

At the end of the day, the book has over 22,000 reviews on GoodReads and holds a respectable 3.88 rating. Combine that with the fact that Estep just released book number 14 and it’s clear there’s a sizable fanbase for this series. While the character doesn’t quite work for me, maybe she’ll work for you.

Overall, I enjoyed the book enough to keep reading and wouldn’t dismiss the notion of giving the second book a look. That said, I have several other urban fantasy series on my plate so it won’t be a priority.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available Now

Game Review: Final Fantasy X Remaster

So over the holidays I received a Playstation 4 for Christmas. So of course, what’s the first game I play? A remaster of a game first released in 2001 that I played back on the Playstation 2, of course! And since it fits into that whole fantasy niche, I thought I’d take a look at it here. This review only covers Final Fantasy X, I’ll do a separate write-up for X-2.

FFX-X-2_HD_Remaster_PS4_EU_Cover

Graphics:

Graphics are a mixed bag, but not for the reason you might think. On the one hand, the game really has been given a face lift, and considering the age of the game, it looks quite nice. You’ll never mistake it for current gen, but it’s nice. The cut-scenes were re-rendered and in some parts look absolutely amazing. But the same cut-scenes can also be jarring, especially when you have ten seconds of the new render book-ended by the in-game engine graphics. I found it to be distracting not only for the huge difference in graphic quality, but because why bother having clips that are that short? Did those five seconds really need to be redone?

That said, this is a nitpick. The game looked great in 2001 and looks even better now. Considering its age and that this isn’t a remake, it looks fantastic.

Gameplay:

This game is Linear, and that isn’t a mistype. For as much grief as XIII was given about being linear, FFX was even more so – at least XIII eventually opened up. Before the 80% mark of this game, there are exactly two things you can do that are not the main story line. One: you can play blitzball. Blitzball is a mini-game that is necessary to get Wakka his overdrives (think special abilities) and his ultimate weapon. It was so despised by the fanbase that in FFX-2, it is 100% optional. Thankfully, unless you’re going to do endgame tough-than-the-final-boss monster fighting, you can completely and safely ignore the game beyond the one game you are compelled to play. Two: you can dodge lightening. If you successfully dodge 200 times, in a row, without saving you can get a component Lulu’s ultimate weapon. If you value your sanity, you save this for endgame anyway so you can get some No Encounter gear. But that is it. There is absolutely nothing else to do til towards the very end of the game that isn’t in the main story. And even then, the sidequests that are present once the game opens up either serve to a) get your characters their ultimate weapons or b) fight super tough monsters because you can. Again, there is nothing story-driven, though you do get a few small snippets of scenes if you complete certain tasks. If you predominantly play JRPG this isn’t entirely new (and really, none of the games in this series save the MMOs have been all that open) but if you mostly play western RPGs it might bother, so take that into consideration.

Difficulty wise, it’s just right. Remember to level all your party members (at least til end game when you really whittle your party down to Tidus, Auron and Yuna quite easily, especially if you get the latter two’s ultimate weapons and theirs are the easiest), try not to Flee that often during normal game progression and be prepared to grind once a while before tough bosses and you’ll be just fine. Of course, end game content (Monster Arena, Dark Aeons and the Omega Ruins) are an exception and those are a bitch, but those are also 100% optional and by the time you’re ready to take those on, you’ll find that you’ve basically broken the end game and the final few bosses should go down without a fight.

Finally, FFX is know for the Sphere Grid system. In this re-release it comes in “normal” and “expert.” Normal is what shipped with the U.S. version and expert shipped everywhere else. I’d say that if you’ve never played before, you might want to stick with normal. You can screw yourself up by not sending characters down their respective paths if you don’t know what you’re doing as each character  was set up to naturally serve a certain role. That said, playing with the expert grid is fun and you can give yourself a few advantages if you do know what you’re doing. It’s your call, just be prepared to grind if you find that you’ve screwed yourself up so you can get back on track.

The Story:

I’ve always loved the story of FFX and I think it holds up well. It’s a tale of faith, shattered faith, hope and sacrifice. The love story is subtle, but it is touching. I’ll be honest, even though I knew what was coming, and even though some of the scenes that surrounded it were 100% cheesy, I was emotionally invested in it enough to cry when all was said and done. It just worked.

That being said, I really do wish that the game could have been more open. Throughout the course of the story the characters learn things that more or less destroy everything they knew about their religion. And in order to stop it all, they have to commit acts that at the start of the game they’d considered blasphemous and would have refused to even entertain. By this point in the story though, it pretty much gets dealt with a scratch of the head and a character basically saying “Welp, I never thought I’d do this, but let’s do it.” I’d love to have had a chance to explore it further in side-quests because you really could get deep if you’d wanted to. On the other hand, I’m okay with it. Tidus isn’t religious and as he reminds us, this is his story so such explorations would have been odd. Still, I’d love to see a Final Fantasy game go there one day.

Value:

Two games. 80+ hours each. $40 (or less!). I don’t have to tell you that it’s a steal, do I?

Verdict:

FFX was one of the most lauded games of the PS2 era and it holds up remarkably well. If you’ve never played it before, it’s well worth picking it up and giving it a chance. If you have, it holds up well and is well worth a replay, especially if you haven’t played it since it’s PS2 debut. Buy It.