Metroid: Samus Returns

There was an unofficial Metroid 2: Return of Samus remake last year; a fangame. It was actually pretty incredible. Nintendo sent the guy a DMCA request and, surprisingly, announced their own Metroid 2 remake shortly after: Samus Returns, for the 3DS. Funny how that works; Metroid 2 came out in 1991, and then few people cared about it for like 25 years. Now we have two new versions. It gives us a pretty interesting way to compare and contrast.

Being on the 3DS hasn’t worked in the favor of the official game: the 3D graphics perform sluggishly at times (at least on my old XL), and the controls are brutal on my hands: Samus Returns has to be quite forgiving for anyone aiming with a circle pad, but AM2R felt extremely tight without bothering with the new free-aim stuff (which actually would’ve worked better with the real control stick I used to play it, or, say, in an official title on the Switch). And it’s no shock which of the two games has more profit-seeking junk getting in the way: I don’t want to buy plastic toys, not to mention the actual plug-in amiibo reader, to unlock all the modes and get all the energy tanks. And I won’t. (Besides, the old Castlevania games always had awesome postgame modes where you played as new characters with new moves, but here? Fusion Suit mode is just regular mode, but you take four times the damage. With these controls? Nah.)

I also noticed some slowdown in a few areas. No doubt this is less of a problem on a new 3DS or 2DS. On my old XL, it’s normally fine, except in cutscenes. In some areas deeper into the game, it gets worse. There’s one boss with two big grinders for arms — it’s actually kind of a neat fight, except for a badly communicated weak point and the 3D effects that drag the framerate down to a basically unplayable state. I don’t think the 3D graphics look very good anyway: if they had just done another sprite game with slightly retouched Zero Mission assets — as I assume AM2R did — I think it would’ve looked great and performed better. It’s a sad state of affairs when Nintendo’s releasing titles for their flagship series which barely run on the systems they are, officially, still coming out on. It’s not like I’m trying to play Xenoblade Chronicles here: this is not a New 3DS exclusive. As I already alluded to, it’s not like they can’t do Metroid sidescrollers on the Switch too, you know? Save the 3D for there, and give us some more pixel art.

I actually saved myself some thumb pain by using a homebrew app that sends control stick input from an xbox controller over wifi. This was really cool, and mostly worked well, but sometimes the wifi link would get spotty for a while — it seemed to get laggy whenever I needed it most. And once I got super missiles and found out I had to use the touch screen to switch to them, that made using an xbox controller a little more of a hassle. Still, whenever the going got tough (like with the aforementioned Big Grinder Arms guy) it helped a lot that I could change to a real controller for ten or fifteen minutes.

Samus Returns definitely isn’t afraid to break from convention, which is nice, because Metroid 2 was kind of crude; an almost blank slate to build upon. If you first look at the gameboy version’s map, and AM2R’s, they’re very close to the same size, but with three entirely new areas added in AM2R. These are probably the coolest parts of the game, but for the most part, as one would expect from a fangame, your path through SR-388 stays pretty faithful to the source material. Though I hardly remember much of my original Metroid 2 playthrough, I think AM2R just made some occasional adjustments to the maps to let you use Super Metroid power-ups that weren’t originally there: the general flow and shape of passageways remained unchanged. The map in Samus Returns, though, seems to completely do its own thing. It’s several times bigger. The designers did whatever they wanted.

Some of these changes are nice. Some are problematic, though, like the fast-travel stations. Teleportation points aren’t worth crying about, but it’s better to have an interconnecting map; when you can just warp to earlier areas, it feels like cutting corners. AM2R’s means of getting back to old areas later — by getting shot through cannons into directly vertically or horizontally aligned rooms far away — was much more clever. I feel the same way about the scan pulse: while it sucks when a game hides things in random tiles and you have little chance of finding everything unless you play with a guide open, I think most Metroid games have already been smart enough about showing the connections to unvisited rooms, and marking which ones still hold power-ups you haven’t collected. As long as the game is straightforward enough about which tiles can be blown up, something like a scan pulse should be unnecessary, and I think putting it in there takes some of the responsibility off the level designer to keep puzzles sensible.

Even with this “corner-cutting” designer handicap, though, I had to look up how to get past one type of obstacle: the ones you propel yourself past with power bombs. The idea that you’ll only get launched if you’re using the spider ball to secure yourself just never occurred to me after realizing it did nothing in non-spider form; it’s the kind of thing that they should’ve tutorialized by locking you into a room right after you get the power bomb, making you use it (both horizontally and vertically) to get out. AM2R had some head-scratchers, but everything was communicated clearly. I don’t like looking things up in a Metroid game.

It’s a tough game, even with changes that can make it feel casualized. Power-ups even get sucked in when you’re not holding a charge beam now, which is a little sad. More to the point, though, you can continue from outside of a boss door when you die now. In exchange, though, those bosses tend to be more than you can possibly take without several practice runs, and even then will test your limits, mainly because getting hit by the wrong attack can empty three energy tanks when you have maybe seven total. Blame the framerate and thumb pad if you want, I certainly will, but either way some of those encounters (like Big Grinder Arms guy) took me half a dozen tries. These fights can last several minutes, too.

But to speak some more on departures from the traditional mechanics, let’s get to the obvious one: they gave Samus a melee bash that parries enemies, which is about as out-there as it gets. It’s neat, but you have to play a little too reactively, and I’m not sure that’s the right fit for Metroid. When you’re up close already and need some breathing room, it makes sense to have it, but enemies take far too many hits to die when you’re not killing them with a parry and counter-blast. If you’re not already in a position the enemy will attack from, you have to go out of your way to line one up, making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, so I found myself resenting the addition at times. It may have been smarter to simply avoid those enemies, but I find you’re usually hungry for at least one kind of ammo or health pickup, or you’re still checking out the room and don’t want to leave the threat there, so it’s best to kill everything outside of a speedrun.

It’s admirable that the game doesn’t try to sell itself purely by repackaging the old, though as I say this I actually feel contradicted by the use of the Lower Norfair music used in the lava areas, which wasn’t actually part of the series until the third game. It seems to have been thrown into Metroid 2 retroactively, for a kind of backwards application of nostalgia. Of course this is a nerdy thing to get mad about, but what better time to actually expand the repertoire of Metroid themes than when you’re going back to a time when there was so little to build from? Like Super Metroid itself did, with such incredible results? (I’ll make an exception for Ridley’s fight music, though a new version of his NES lair theme could’ve been cool too.)

It seems that the only place where Samus Returns and AM2R both really stick to the Metroid 2 gameplay is in throwing in dozens of repeat fights against the same metroid minibosses; first the alpha, then the gamma, zeta, and omega life stages. Both remakes added several of their own completely new bosses, and both got pretty creative there, though Samus Returns definitely goes the extra mile in boss complexity — it probably says something about my preferences as a whole that during a few boss fights in the 3DS game, I found myself thinking about how cool it would be if someone added them to AM2R in a patch. But the miniboss repetition doesn’t seem like something that really needed to be preserved, and we could’ve tried fighting just one metroid at each stage of life — maybe then throwing in a gauntlet of each in a row near the end? — and just getting to kill some more metroids scattered around in their iconic larval state elsewhere — especially in Samus Returns, with its deeper interest in change.

Super Metroid is my favorite Metroid; I think the series only had the barest inkling of what it was supposed to be before then, and it’s lost that inkling numerous times since. I still haven’t played Zero Mission, but it’s safe to say that for players with no existing associations or attachments, AM2R was up there with the best of them, doing what the series has always been praised for, and for bonus points it did it on the best possible hardware, which is to say PC. But this isn’t a review of AM2R. Samus Returns fluctuates between bold and formulaic, but in both the old and the new, it’s a mixed bag. On better hardware, I might have called it a very good game.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.
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Link’s Awakening DX

Link’s Awakening was one of the Zeldas I had the fondest memories of, so I decided to stomp all over those memories by picking it up on the eShop, for like, 6 bucks or whatever. I could make up some story about how I bought it because Dark Souls has had me pontificating about what it means for something to be a Zelda game. But what it really came down to was that I needed 5 coins on my Club Nintendo account and I wasn’t planning to pick up a real game within the next month.

I'm a whore.

I’m a whore.

As an aside, the 3DS kind of sucks for playing old Gameboy games. The 2DS looks like it might be a little better, the awful little 3DS D-pad is way down in a place where no human thumb gravitates, and as I dislike feeling pain in my thumbs–or in the rest of my hands, for that matter–I didn’t do more than a couple dungeons a day, tops. I’d give Nintendo’s hardware designer a good slap in the face, but I’d have to numb my tortured hands under some cold water first.

Activity Log lists my playtime as 15.5 hours spanning 4 days.

There’s not really much point in taking a game that has received only minor design changes since the pre-DX version in 1993 and complaining about everything they did wrong, but I think these annoyances are the bulk of the difference between Zelda then and Zelda now. Although I haven’t played it, I’m certain A Link Between Worlds doesn’t make you tap through a few pages of text every time you bump into an obstacle, nor does it likely play irritating power-up music that loops every 3 seconds, nor does it likely make you constantly pause to change the purpose of one of only two functional controller buttons. Newer Zelda is certainly more polished in this regard, but I believe that the soul is the same, with all its flaws.

Early on in this retro experience, I found plenty to amuse me. I rediscovered the crane game, the magic powder, the library, the chain chomp. But it didn’t take long before I started seeing bigger issues than a lack of a context-sensitive control scheme. I realized I was basically just following a series of obtuse hints from owls and telephones, leading me from Dungeon One to Dungeon Two to grab the next key for my keyring. Charge through a rock, bomb a rock, lift a rock, and so on; each rock is a new lock, requiring a different key. The hints were vague, and would skip crucial steps, as if dedicated to wasting my time–no owl or phone tells you to do the dream shrine before investigating the signpost maze. The world looks wide-open, but it’s only open enough to confuse. Everywhere but one place will be a dead end–which is why I exploited the virtual console’s “restore point” feature (save states) to quickly jump back to where I was, any time I accomplished nothing by taking the wrong fork in the road (or even within a dungeon).

If this were Dark Souls, a path would lead to stronger enemies instead of a new type of lock. But then, a good player can’t make Link parry: he isn’t ever much more than his heart count and the 90-degree sword swing which only goes in one direction. I recognize that if Zelda’s designers just threw the endgame dungeon enemies in some field to “encourage” players to turn around, there wouldn’t be the same neat trade between danger and the accomplishment of getting a certain heart piece or whatever early.

As mentioned in the Dark Souls review, I don’t really care if I can beat the dungeons in any order or not. But I don’t like running into dead-ends. That’s the worst part about Zelda games to me, I’m realizing: the dead-ends. It’s not just that I dislike having to find the fire rod to melt the arbitrarily placed block of ice and so on, although it is little more than a hassle to keep a list in my mind, for later, of every place in the world where I ever saw ice. But I especially don’t want to find a fork in the road, with no hint about which way leads to what, and as my reward for choosing a path without consulting google image search, lose my time and receive absolutely nothing.

I do like that the story of Link’s Awakening feels like a departure from everything else in the series, although there really wasn’t much of a legacy to depart from at the time. Link’s Awakening seems kind of sad and grown-up. That was how I thought of it when I was a kid, at least, and I didn’t even remember the bosses, whose aims in opposing Link are only to preserve their own lives: they will cease to exist if you wake up the Wind Fish. What rights does a sentient parasite have? That sort of question interests me. The only other Zelda game that really felt different from the typical spirit of adventure was Majora’s Mask, which was sort of terrifying.

Link’s Awakening seemed a lot bigger back when I was nine years old or eleven or whatever. I remember watching Marin sing in the animal village, her duet with Link, going to the beach, things like that. My imagination was doing most of the work, which isn’t to make light of what the game accomplished on that hardware–Christ, it can’t even play jumping noises and its own soundtrack at the same time. The Ballad of the Wind Fish still seems important and a little profound to me, somehow. It’s clear to me that I do have some lingering fondness for this game. But even so, a part of me thinks I could, one day, in the not-so-distant future, make something better and more ambitious in Construct 2 or GameMaker, by myself. I do not need to be told that I am an asshole for thinking this, or that I should hurry up and put my money where my mouth is.

I hate to say that a game I once raised up high as an example of Zelda Done Right was really Zelda As Usual (And Less Polished), but there you go. I don’t relish calling it a shallow game, but even if they fixed all the obvious stuff, it still wouldn’t “hold up” by any meaningful standard today–and little has changed in the Zelda formula. That’s why I don’t intend to bother with A Link Between Worlds or any of the others I missed. How much would I have freaked out if I played Fez when I was ten years old? Kids today are so spoiled, rabble rabble, etc.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies

Ace Attorney 5, a cheap eShop-exclusive, shows off some of the sharpest presentation in the series to date. The music and narrative highs of Trials and Tribulations might still reign, with Godot and Dahlia and everything else that game put on the table, but in all the other various little details, Dual Destinies takes the cake, even while I wouldn’t call it an especially ambitious title.

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Structuring and mechanics
While it offers nothing quite as ingenious as the recorded, colored, sortable testimonies seen in Umineko No Naku Koro Ni Chiru – Episode 8, and while to some people the return to the simple Visual Novel presentation style might be seen as a step back from the adventure sprites of Edgeworth’s spinoff games, the cases themselves are structured better than they historically have been. I didn’t find myself thinking that my evidence was ambiguous in its relevance to whatever conundrum was currently attacking my health bar, and I rarely felt like my opinions were underrepresented, which is the greatest risk of all in debate-based gameplay (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution).

While I occasionally still felt like the little prodding hints in Phoenix’s own mind were stealing my thunder before I got to present a piece of evidence for myself, I didn’t find it especially patronizing or babying, which is another common hazard in an interactive mystery. While I could be middling out because I’ve grown more accustomed to the behaviors of Ace Attorney’s writers while my mind also isn’t as quick on the draw as it was when I was 17, I’d sooner believe that they were just more careful this time around–whether it was an extra pass of QA, or something else, it seems to have worked.

Overall the game felt easier, partly because you can save anywhere and health bars aren’t a big deal, but that’s overwhelmingly a positive change: getting rid of artificial difficulty only. Applying a bit of Knox’s Decalogue and some good faith, I was even able to predict the culprit of the final case just slightly before the game started dropping the less subtle hints and asking me to identify that person. That felt good, especially given how absurd it was–it felt like the way a victory over a mystery novel is supposed to go. Sometimes guessing the culprit was pretty easy, but the whodunnit was clearly meant to be a lot more obvious than the specifics of the howdunnit, and I found myself impressed and thrown for a loop by the twists and absurd conceits of the cases, even when I immediately knew who to blame.

There’s a new attorney working under Wright, named Athena, and she comes with her own special power: the mood matrix, allowing you to try to empathize with how angry, distressed, happy, or surprised a person should be at a given moment and to identify contradictions, and I think this meshes pretty well with the existing mechanics, given how loose the Ace Attorney world has always been with real courtroom procedure anyway. In addition to this power and Apollo’s returning ability to identify a person’s tells when they lie, Phoenix himself is back in business, and it would be both difficult and embarrassing to overstate just how excited I was when I saw my first Psyche Lock (Psyche Locks!!). They might have been made too easy, though–in earlier games, you might start breaking one and end up not even having the evidence to finish it off.

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The new argument-forming segments at the conclusion of each trial are somewhat reminiscent of the flashier Dangan Ronpa games that have since appeared in our post-Ace Attorney world, and I like them as a relatively risk-free way of allowing the player to state things for themselves.

While there are more cases than ever before (6 including the DLC), investigations have been streamlined a bit. You only closely examine one or two rooms in a given case now, rather than everywhere, but with the shift to 3D, you get to turn the crime scenes around and see more of them. There’s less filler text about random objects in the scenery, but worry not; they don’t forget to work in a stepladder, and a higher concentration has been moved into regular dialogue–like Athena commenting on the signage outside of the Cosmos Space Center–so I’ve got nothing to complain about. If that’s not comforting enough, you can always present random evidence. I’d say you get a unique remark out of 90% of the people you show your attorney’s badge to, no matter which of the three lawyers is your acting protagonist.

I’ve always wanted the ability to keep my own notes in-game, so when I saw a “Notes” section in the court record during the first investigation segment, I was pleased, but in clicking it I realized that it was just an automatic To-Do List with some pointlessly sparse case background info, and not something I could write in or otherwise keep up to date with every theory and loose end I had in court. It might reduce guesswork slightly in presenting random pieces of evidence to every character (not that I would stop doing it, because there’s always an easily missable joke every now and again) in order to advance through those segments as quickly as possible, but I thought it was hastily implemented and generally useless.

Presentation, plot, etc.
Ace Attorney has transitioned from sprites into 3D about as wonderfully as Pokemon did, although Pokemon didn’t have nearly as much to lose. As a big fan of pixel art, I’m a little sad to see it go, but the change means that the new game animates better than ever, as Klavier’s beautiful air-guitaring in Ace Attorney 4 was way above what the games could be realistically expected to look like with any regularity. If this helps secure a budget for more games in the series, I’m all for it–the fantastic visual quirks of characters haven’t gone anywhere, and even the DLC case doesn’t let up.

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Some of the bigger moments get anime cutscenes, and I found these irritating, mainly because of the awkward voice acting, which is thankfully limited to “Objection!” elsewhere. If cutscenes were absolutely necessary, I would’ve much preferred something like what Fire Emblem Awakening did with its pre-rendered cel shaded stuff, or even something with the in-engine models, given how much I like what they’ve done with them already. And wouldn’t that be cheaper, anyway? The cutscenes didn’t detract from my enjoyment for more than 30 seconds at a time, but I’m hoping Ace Attorney 6 will drop them.

Text speed is deliberately timed, and its speed varies depending on the mood and action of the scene, but it felt torturously slow at times, and I say this as an already slow reader. You can manually skip to the end of a line, which is good when the game is punching out “10:30 AM – Courtroom No. 4” or whatever for the millionth time, but it can otherwise cut an animation short. There are also a large number of typos, so if wasn’t already obvious from the digital-only release that the English localization was on a tight budget, the lack of an additional proofreading pass makes it abundantly clear. The font was also a bit big for my tastes, and the backlog occasionally glitched up (fixed with a save & quit), but these are nitpicks.

As always, there were little oddities here and there in the story–the in media res opening was a bizarre choice, given how long it took to be resolved, and it meant that at the start of the game, relevant details from chronologically earlier cases were inexplicably ignored. I had trouble swallowing a twist at the end of the DLC case, although I certainly enjoyed it otherwise. There was also an element in the third case that I thought Apollo should’ve been able to warn Athena about, although I’m sure there are all sorts of bigger issues I never even considered, and if there’s a list of Ace Attorney plot holes somewhere, these probably barely make the cut.

The legal system is insane in its tolerance with contempt of court, perjury, and bias in favor of prosecution, as usual, and I find these things hilarious and welcome. The defense and prosecution end up both overtly against the game’s big villain in court, and while I wouldn’t ever shed a tear for an Ace Attorney villain, it was pretty ludicrous of a legal system claiming to be impartial. More importantly, I’m a bit surprised that there was no mention of the jury system that was attempted at the end of Ace Attorney 4. Maybe with all the fake evidence and trumped up charges going around, and faith in the system at an all-time low, it became unfeasible to convince participation in anything like a jury, but that’s just a wild guess.

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They did great work putting the ridiculous cases together. The prosecution tends to keep a pretty strong case against the defendant going right up until the end, which means there’s not going to be a point where you can effectively clear your client’s name but still see them go to jail by losing to a penalty (when the real culprit hasn’t been identified). In fact, as far as I remember, this is the first Ace Attorney where you might get a client acquitted before the end of a chapter, and I thought that was cool.

The music is cool as always. It’s not on the level of the Jazz Soul album or anything, but there’s some rad stuff in there. A few stand out for me when skimming through the soundtrack on youtube: as always, the new Court Begins (and this dark fanfare), the new Pursuit, and one of the Reminiscence tracks (Tragic Memories). A few good old themes also return with a few good old characters. But I still think the best stuff I’ve heard out of the series is some stuff from the GBA era: AA3’s buzzy, bass-heavy Court Begins as well as this track, something of an obscurity, but one which always stood out for me.

Closing statements
This may have been my favorite experience so far on the 3DS, or at least approximately on the level of Etrian Odyssey IV, but far less of a time investment. I shouldn’t be too surprised. I was barking out the laughs and getting drawn into the characters, their animations and stories, just like I always have with this series–if not more than usual. Although I felt at a few points that the developers might’ve done better by distancing themselves more from the formula, the Ace Attorney Investigations games did exactly that, and from the one of those that I was able to play, those changes had very little effect on what made the series beautiful anyway. So they can do whatever they want.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Bravely Default

Bravely Default is an unfulfilling 30 hour game stretched out to 90+ hours. I’ll never play it again, because with the conceit of the later chapters, it already feels like I’ve played the game five times over now–more than I’ve played shorter games that I think are masterpieces. Shockingly, what we got was a director’s cut that came out in Japan over a year after Bravely Default’s original release, subtitled “For The Sequel” over there and “Where The Fairy Flies” here, and I say this is a shock because so many faults have gone unaddressed. Originally, it seems, this game had a less interesting battle system and UI problems, but any other changes seem to be appreciated-but-shallow conveniences that didn’t address any of the systemic issues. Claimed “revisions to the final chapters” must only refer to a few self-satisfied humor scenes and battle variations, which have done little to reduce my incredulity that those chapters passed any kind of approval process at all. I’ve seen free patches do more to fix a game than this re-release has.

Story
The heroes are essentially on a quest to awaken four crystals, and the evil bad forces of doom attempt to stop them. It’s obvious from Chapter 1 or so that there’s a twist coming, because the villains wouldn’t have bothered constantly dropping several vague-but-unsubtle remarks about how morality isn’t so black-and-white if they really just wanted to destroy the environment and invent computers or whatever. At the risk of spoiling a thing or two, as a group, they’re not evil: just criminally disorganized and stubborn as a contrivance, to the point that a man is willing to fight his own daughter to the death rather than bothering to explain to her that awakening all the crystals will break the seal on Exdeath (or whoever it is), which would have advanced the plot of the game by 6 chapters.

I just recently criticized this same problem in SMT4, but it’s even worse here in Bravely Default, because it’s a much more chatty and cutscene-heavy game, and things are dragged out far longer. If you read D.’s journal in Chapter 1 and didn’t quickly (A) identify its owner(s) and (B) surmise that there’s some time-travel or parallel-universe stuff happening, I feel bad for you, son. But there are holes: that Braev doesn’t have anything to say to Ringabel, for example, until late in the game, doesn’t make sense unless he’s just extremely inattentive, which is a bit hard to swallow.

The early chapters are dull because the characters are cliches and the story doesn’t leave the beaten track of “go to the elemental temples, solve a town’s problem, run through a bland maze-like area, and beat up a few jerks who represent the various jobs.” Mid-game, Chapter 5 or so, it gets slightly more interesting, because you earn a bit more tactical breadth with more passive abilities to equip and a few dozen jobs to switch between–plus I can never refuse a Groundhog Day time-loop plotline out-of-hand. But then you do the same thing in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 with getting to do any fun Bill Murray exploitation, and you have to wonder who signed off on such a stupid, cheap, lazy idea. Groundhog Day didn’t cut-and-paste its scenes. Time travel or parallel worlds could have worked: even SMT4 did something like that, and it worked by not actually being a cheap excuse to recycle content. The dungeons weren’t designed to creatively encourage revisits in the way that EO4’s were, either–they just added a few chests you couldn’t open until later in the game.

I had been excited to play the Steins;Gate writer’s take on a Final Fantasy classic, although I’m now learning slash remembering that the Final Fantasy games were pretty dull before the sixth. I suspect that while some of the journals I liked were written by Naotaka Hayashi, they were lazily left in their text form and shoehorned-in, and that he wasn’t involved in the cutscenes, because the journals sometimes contradict or fill holes that the longer, cruder cutscenes leave behind. For example, the “Vampire Gallery” notes, which accompany DeRusso’s castle cutscenes, might be quickly dismissed as just a few of the many random synopsis entries that aren’t worth reading, but turn out to answer a few extra questions and add a bit of mood and flavor to the proceedings.

Features, mechanics, and balance
While I found the occasional fight pretty challenging on Normal difficulty, there are a few broken features that I sometimes exploited and sometimes opted out of, at least some of which came new to this director’s cut. The first, which I exploited, is Abilink, which ties a character to somebody on your 3DS friends list, allowing you to use any skill they’ve learned from a class you’ve unlocked. Another, which I did not use, was friend summoning, which is fine if you want to overkill an early-game boss by about a million HP, and not so much if you dislike the “Gameshark experience”. Both of these cooperative features could’ve been locked to people within some level range of your own. For example, if I hadn’t been allowed to Abilink with someone who had a total of more than 50 job levels more than me on a character, my newbie character would not have been able to link with someone who had earned 336 job levels across 24 jobs. And this way, if you were playing in loose parallel with a friend, and you chose to prioritize a different set of jobs, you’d be able to help each other out only as long as your friend doesn’t grind for 8 hours while you sleep. As for summoning, it would be plenty generous to keep you from summoning a friend whose level was 20 above your own.

The third is Bravely Second, where you can save up combat interruptions by putting your 3DS to sleep for a while. I couldn’t resist using it a couple times, because it allows players to basically become Dio Brando, but after beating an early boss before it had a chance to act, I decided I’d taken it far enough. It’s for casual gamers: people who don’t power through the game will be much more likely to have the ability charged for their play session. But having not had the enthusiasm to play the game constantly until I finished it, I practically fell into the casual category myself, and usually had the ability charged when I played. According to an interview, it’s to encourage more players actually finish the game, but you know what else might’ve accomplished that? An original story that moved at a refreshing pace. Were I the designer, I’d never have included such an ability, but since it’s fun in a way, I’d have given the Time Mage a similar-feeling one to make up for it–like a passive, activated in uncommon, dire circumstances.

Fourth among these cheap features is the combined auto-battle and fast-forward options, which are certainly useful, but pretty much exactly the same as holding down a fast-forward key in an emulator–something I never doubted was a soft form of cheating when I used it in Mother 3 or old Pokemon ROMs to grind up a few levels in a minute’s time. If they didn’t want a boring grind, that’s admirable, but it would’ve been far more sensible to just design something that didn’t revolve around experience levels as a measure of power–in many games, you’re only as strong as your items, or your skills. Considering that Bravely Default actually does restrict jobs, magic spells, and summons by location (forcing you to advance past bosses before acquiring them), it would’ve been comparatively trivial to base the party’s entire power curve around these acquisitions, making the game grind-proof, its balance locked and fine-turned by the developers for a more tactical experience. SMT4, for example, had experience levels, but available demons and their skills were a much bigger influence on the overall power of your party, and you had to advance past bosses to access new demons.

Fifth is the ability to disable random encounters, like a Repel that lasts forever and works anywhere. It’s useful to turn enemies off when returning to a map for the fifth time that was tedious the first time you went through it. Especially once you are max level and money buys nothing. Usually I played through most areas with the random encounters turned up briefly to see all the enemies in the area, and then completely off while actually passing through the dungeons, and that generally worked fine. But it was a band-aid fix to bigger problems. They didn’t think it through. Now there’s no reason not to put a save on the final floor of the bonus dungeon, because if you die against the boss, you just have to walk all the way back up with random encounters turned off. There’s also no reason to not just start each battle at full health and MP like a Yasumi Matsuno game, since the system encourages you go all the way from the inn to the dungeon boss with random battles off anyway.

Apart from these poorly-implemented ideas, the game does a few things well, particularly in the middle of the game as mentioned before, when working out new job combinations is at its most rewarding. All the jobs have something neat to offer, and I tried a few silly things, like using white magic selectively to get my MP to a multiple of 10, earning a boost with the passive skill Zero, and then locking it at that number with the Free Lunch skill. But whatever I tried, it was ultimately far more effective to use boss-cheesing strategies found online, like using dragoon jumps repeatedly with agility-boosting items, so that no enemies could hit me. This was disappointing, but by the time I got to the Chapter 8 boss gauntlet, I was plenty bored enough to exploit it.

BP makes for an interesting system, although I think the best part about it is giving boss AI an excuse not to just spam their strongest attack every turn (and come to think of it, any Diablo-style generator/spender combo could be seen as a variation on the same concept). Since BP debt isn’t carried between battles, any battle you’re guaranteed to win within four turns can essentially be won immediately, by going into a meaningless debt. Trivializing any component of the game isn’t really ideal, so I’m not sure if it was ultimately a great idea, but overall, I’d say it was an idea worth trying.

The rest: music, dungeons, mini-games
While the game has some nice music, it’s overextended by the padded-out game, and I don’t even feel like finding any favorites to link to. Worse, the music interruptions that I mentioned driving me crazy in my EO4 review are also present here, and you get an irritating music-box theme whenever you check your menu from the overworld (but not while in town or in a dungeon, oddly). This needless song also plays whenever you read your journal or pop into Norende, the town-building mini-game. I tend to mute the volume whenever I have to spend more than a second in one of these places. Again: This is the updated version?

Norende is too simple to work as a long-term casual gameplay draw, and the time balance just can’t work for everybody–I had several shops maxed out before finishing Chapter 2 of the actual story. Certain special skills earned in Norende were made obsolete before I could even use them–why use Damage +10% when I already have unlocked +50%? If they’d really committed to it and made a town-building mode where you could name a bunch of shops and decide what goes where, it could’ve turned out really cool–even better, it could’ve been like rebuilding Luin in Tales of Symphonia. Instead, it’s a Facebook game, but it’s bad at that too, because the content dries up after a few days. To put it another way, it could’ve been a mode where you spend money to unlock the best items, or a mode that earns you money, but it’s neither: it’s a temporary diversion, necessary to get you stuff you might’ve started with. Your town delivers you some items every few hours or so, but it’s not that useful; the cool purchases aren’t affordable into much later in the game, so they might as well have been distributed across shops in later chapters.

The dungeons are boring and far too old-fashioned. The worst thing you can do in level design, I think, is to just make a literal maze instead of a lived-in space. I refuse to believe that anyone would quarter their troops in one of these buildings without knocking down dozens of pointless walls that only serve to lengthen trips to the bathroom by twenty minutes. Honestly, the overly-simple level design reminds me of Breath of Fire 2, and that’s one of my favorite JRPGs, but it has the excuse of coming out in 1992, and its tilesets also varied a lot more, anyway.

I found myself wishing I was playing Lufia 2 instead, even though that forgotten 1996 JRPG ought to feel more dated than a high-profile 2014 release. That was a game where you could shoot arrows and hookshots and things outside of combat, like a twist on A Link to the Past, where you’d enter turn-based combat after getting the jump on enemies, instead of having boring, invisible random battles. These are hallmarks of a more modern JRPG, like Tales of Symphonia. It also had really clever, difficult dungeon puzzles that I could barely wrap my child brain around. Why would anybody rather play an old Final Fantasy game?

Final thoughts
A summary of the little things I appreciated:

  • Any minor convenience that reduces the tedium of the traditional JRPG
  • A user interface that I rarely consciously thought about (something they apparently focused on in the re-release)
  • Variety of classes, some more useful than others, but not overtly unbalanced
  • Learning new skills and cross-pollinating, Final Fantasy Tactics-style
  • Naming special moves and having my characters say “Fuc’ you” to bypass censorship
  • The longer-form pieces of writing that were occasionally added to the journal
  • The painted background environments, though fewer of the environments were comprised of them than I would’ve liked
  • The BP brave/default system, which was bold, though not flawless
  • Voice acting (JP) was generally likeable
  • Writing was occasionally quite bleak and twisted in a way I appreciate and generally associate with Japanese indie writers; probably Naotaka Hayashi at work. Two children killing each other over the burnt corpse of a fairy, for instance
  • The big twist of the story is pretty fun, even if everything leading up to it isn’t quite sound in execution
  • A move the final boss used, blowing up the home planet of some random guy on my 3DS friends list
  • That cheesy-ass effect during the final boss where the 3DS camera captures my own face and shows it appearing through the opened rift into the “celestial realm”

The stuff I did not like at all:

  • Developers having a rare opportunity to go back to their flawed game to fix it up, and leaving so many things shoddy and broken
  • Nice music getting overextended and interrupted
  • Boring, old-fashioned flat maze dungeons
  • Reliance on cliched story and characters, as if it weren’t lazy to knowingly “celebrate” these cliches
  • Thoughtlessly-implemented features, things done arbitrarily without any strong design goal
  • Constant journal updates about nothing, which break up the gameplay
  • Frequent and bloated cutscenes, also halting gameplay; no sense of “less is more”
  • Repetition in later chapters
  • Asset reuse, crossing the line from “unfortunate-but-understandable cost-cutting” into “insulting” by the time the player reaches Dimension’s Hasp
  • Contrived bullshit storytelling

These are not balanced lists. Bravely Default is unmistakably a weak game. Its best features are the ones that make it over faster, and it’s a great reminder to not trust a Director’s Cut when a game couldn’t be done right the first time around. Don’t buy it unless you believe Final Fantasy V was the best game you ever played. If you do think that, consider replaying it, because it probably wasn’t all that great either.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.

Shin Megami Tensei IV

SMT4 is the first I’ve played outside of the Persona 3 Portable spin-off. It’s funny to me that as kids we used to mock religious panic about Pokemon being a gateway to Satan, but now people like me come pretty close to bringing that fear to life by comparing SMT games to Pokemon when trying to get others to take a look. Forget Charizard, I want to take on the armies of YHVH and fight in the name of Chaos. Oddly, I haven’t heard a peep out of the southern baptist nutjobs. Ah, well. Hail Our Glorious Prince, The Morning Star.

Combat and difficulty
The game has a difficulty curve that starts punishing and only gets easier, and the early parts of the game were slow and grindy. Even past 10 hours I was worried I wouldn’t find much to like, and it was only at about 16 or 17 that I got comfortable. The game is also strict with resources early on, and not unlike Fire Emblem’s balance-breaking DLC, there are purchases in SMT4 that shower the player in money, experience, and skill points. I shuddered to think that they deliberately only provided a trickle in the base game to entice players to the DLC, but the later parts of the game strike a better balance.

I did eventually buy the DLC during a sale, and didn’t especially love or regret the decision, considering that the grinding sucked, but the game was most engaging when I was planning out how to kill a DLC postgame boss so I could take its abilities for my own. I wouldn’t recommend it at full price, though.

Players who have taken the leap often tend to romanticize the difficulty of these games, but the main story’s challenges aren’t really much of a hurdle. During most of the game you can heal easily and for free, and you can always save wherever you want, both features that were absent in P3P, the so-called “casualized” spin-off game I played. You couldn’t do these things in Etrian Odyssey IV, either, which still stands to me as the better example of a hardcore 3DS experience. SMT4 luckily doesn’t structure its challenge around MP/item conservatism the way many games do, both shooters and JRPGs alike. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really fill the hole with anything else, like Yasumi Matsuno-style cleverness, either.

Even for the challenge DLC and postgame fiend fights, once the player understands how things work, it’s all about going in with the right set of monsters prepared. Usually the player tries to target elemental weaknesses, abusing “press turns” to keep opponents from getting a chance to act, and casting a few generic buffs and debuffs every turn. Battles are simple, but go wrong often enough when enemies get the first shot and hit the player’s own weaknesses, interrupting your own turns. This is mostly a question of luck, which is also the case with random enemy reinforcements, a much more crude take on Etrian Odyssey’s clever FOE interrupts. All this randomness is the wrong way to boost the game’s difficulty.

There’s less variety in builds than EO4 had, and all players seem to end up doing the same thing with their demons in postgame. That’s unfortunate, but selecting a demon’s skills and fusing them is still much more interesting than combat itself, especially with the extremely unbalanced skills that reward players for beating the jerks who use them, like skills that triple damage dealt or simply give the player more turns.

I saw my party get wiped out a good number of times, but not frequently, which I think is a satisfying place to be at on the spectrum of challenge, but it would have been better if the game was harder, yet less random and tedious, more fair. The worst offenders are the postgame fiends, who only have a 1 in 256 chance of appearing, artificially padding the challenge by making nerds like me reload their saves for days. Some of them took quite a bit of preparation and luck, but I beat most of them in a few minutes, after taking hours to find them. I wish I could say what sick impulse drove me to even bother.

Let’s try to list just how much of the game is frustratingly RNG-based:

  • Number of hits on the better spells (refrigerate, plasma discharge).
  • Fusion accidents and summoning of Famed demons.
  • Appearance of the postgame Fiend bosses.
  • Possibility of reinforcements in random encounters.
  • Enemy attack choices, which can make the difference between the enemy losing its turn or making the player lose theirs, or being invulnerable while the player acts.
  • Answers to multiple choice questions when negotiating with demons.
  • Sales in shops.
  • Value of relics gathered from a relic point.

I’m beginning to think that calling SMT a challenging game is like calling a slot machine a challenging game. Your odds are low, but is that really a challenge?

User interface, user experience
There were a number of UI/UX hangups. It takes too long to use quick-travel teleporters, which would be a great joke if it wasn’t true. I don’t know who thought all the repeated dialogue was a good idea, but the chatter is especially bothersome in shops and bars, as characters repeat themselves every time you enter and exit the submenus, and on each individual item purchase. Getting verbally notified of quest progress whenever I pick up loot used in a quest I already finished, as if I’d want to do it again, is also bad. Audio was English only, and the acting wasn’t always perfect, but I definitely liked Mido and a few others.

Game Overs also take too long, even though the idea of meeting Charon and bribing him to not do his job properly is extremely cool (I always reloaded my saves anyway, since money was tight). There’s some redundancy in menu options, no conversation log or “scroll back” option in conversation, and a few places are only navigated by confusingly-nested text options with little visual or spatial aid. Mikado is the first part of the game, which is an unusual place to under-budget, but it’s no accident that the game really started to appeal to me around the time I found my first gun, and shortly afterwards, the next quest-hub in Ueno.

The Cathedral of Shadows interface is actually extremely helpful. The contrast between it and most other UI elements makes me think they spent all their time and money on it. Its sorting options actually do away with the need for a lot of table-checking on FAQs and wikis, and that’s great. I’d like it more if you could add multiple filters of the same type, like searching for two moves to put on a demon at the same time, but I’m being a little too demanding, since I wish all the world’s data could be as helpfully collected and neatly sortable as the fucking tsundere database. As far as in-game tools go, it’s far more than I expected to find in a handheld title. It reminded me of the Diablo Auction House.

Story and feeling
SMT4 is more ambitious and loaded with content than EO4, and doesn’t try to hide behind “retro aesthetic” to do things cheaply or to avoid breaking new ground, although it does seem to struggle with its budget in a few places. The story is much longer than EO4’s, but still not as overwritten as your typical Final Fantasy, Tales game, or typical anime to come from the usual narrow set of influences. SMT4 lacks the charm that the EO4 characters have, but it has its own strengths, and it’s funny sometimes. It raises a lot of questions and doesn’t always answer them overtly, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to piece together elements of the world lore that aren’t supposed to be secrets. But building theories from little pieces of villager chatter is usually better than cutscenes that go on for too long.

Much of the tone of humor and attitude can be inferred from a few conversations with demons. You catch these satanic Pokemon by talking to them in combat and picking random dialogue choices that often end with the demon trying to contrive some reason to punch you or leave based on what you said, as if they were all elementary school bullies with an inflated sense of their own cleverness. It’s a lot more amusing than throwing a pokeball–I wish I had to convince a Koffing that I wasn’t going to shove it in the PC and never use it again–but it’s also less skill-testing, and it does get old, especially when you realize that the outcomes of your choices are random and not per-demon. Considering how P3P just spun a bunch of cards around and had you pick one, I’d say this is a step up, but that game also had the player forming social links that were necessary to fuse the worthiest personas, so this feels more shallow overall. When I found Chi You in SMT4, I gave him a couple worthless items and he immediately joined my party. I felt sad about it, because in P3P, earning the right to build that same character required several in-game months of staying out late in a bar with an old monk on the weekends, and it was both absurd and fascinating. I missed that.

There are certainly a few grand moments. Getting out of Naraku was a powerful experience, a lot like leaving Midgar in FF7 (ironically, though, SMT4’s world map ends up being the most irritating thing to navigate in the whole game, probably even more than the Domains). Sliding into Blasted Tokyo also reminded me of stumbling into some big paradigm shift like Chrono Trigger’s Antiquity period–I felt like I was playing something great, although I had few doubts as to which was the better game. Maybe every JRPG will have to live under that shadow forever.

I hate to criticise issues that could only be resolved by throwing money at them, but a lot of area designs were too simple; more of the “standard flat maze” designs as seen in the entirety of Persona 3’s Tartarus. These one-texture Domains are definitely a budget shortcut, especially given the contrast with some of the more varied locations of the game. Jumping down from heights and across stones in a pond in some park in Shinjuku. Crawling under a fence a stone’s throw away from Shibuya’s 109 building. These are the things you remember when you look back, and the things that make Etrian Odyssey look bad. The last two terminals of the game also seem to have reserved space for entirely new quest hubs that there was no development time or money for. That’s just my instinct, but it’s very unfortunate if it’s true.

I have no serious complaints about the music, but only a few tracks jump out at me. They made the right choice in writing several pieces for the Cathedral of Shadows where the player is bound to spend a lot of time, and one of those is definitely among my favorite tracks. Mikado’s theme has definitely absorbed the mood of that kingdom for me, but the crown goes to the world map, without a doubt.

Like P3P, it certainly distinguishes itself from different from other RPGs. A lot of games make quests seem urgent but still let you put them on hold for 20 hours while you do sidequests, but SMT4 usually takes a wider look at things: the story and the quests are consonant; suspension of disbelief isn’t generally required on a gameplay level. There’s also something to be said for the ludic value of the way your hero’s clothes and weapons and beliefs change as you’re exposed to the side of the world that’s so alien to your own.

The main character usually seems barely more important than his travelling companions, which is refreshing, but only really makes sense if players assume on their own that the reason we don’t see allies summoning their own demons is because our UI and gameplay camera are showing us an abstraction of everything that’s really happening.

Things get more dissonant than that, though. It’s obvious for a large part of the game that you may not be on the heroic side of the conflict, but your enemies are always quick to add “I love killing people” when they’ve been getting a little too close to rebuking you for your tactless approach to conflict resolution. Some are pretty talkative though, and it’s hard to accept the logic of a “skip automatically back to town” moment while escorting a prisoner that would probably be willing to explain the plot of the game if you had only asked.

The game’s moral choices are poorly handled. Your choices are tracked on a single axis which represents Law versus Chaos. This is generally meant to refer to authoritarian control versus anarchy (whichever way you define it), but also goodwill versus spite, politeness versus passion. It’s like the Mass Effect nonsense system which never knew whether Renegade meant Evil or Badass or Pragmatic and just lumped it all together, but SMT4 makes it worse by only tracking one number as a positive or negative, which means bad deeds cancel out good ones; specific flags never come back to bite you. It also obfuscates this information so only the obsessive players will get a non-bad ending. These are problems that many western RPGs solved a long time ago, which I feel means the developers need to leave their filter bubble and play some.

I never got all my questions answered–I don’t really know how the land above Tokyo was physically configured, or what the state of the rest of the world was, or how time was passing. There were a number of questions I didn’t have answered about Mastema, Lilith and Gabriel (and a few other things I’ve probably forgotten about) until speedrunning the other routes and taking a look at the DLC. It was hinted once or twice that the surface mirrored the underground, and I noticed a few little things like Cebouia/Shibuya, but I probably barely scratched the surface of the lore there.

If you are psycho enough to get all the route stickers on your save file, which even I didn’t bother doing, I’d recommend the Nihilist ending first, since you can then make dialogue choices in your first playthrough without worrying which route you’ll end up in. You also won’t miss any route-locked New Game Plus quests (which should have all just been available the first time around, honestly). But it’s still a pain in the ass no matter what order you do them. If the game is a slot machine, the casino robs you of time more than money.

Conclusions
SMT4 is often a fun and creative game, but it wasn’t nearly the JRPG masterpiece I was searching for on the 3DS: it beats Bravely Default and Fire Emblem: Awakening, but like Pokemon X/Y and even Etrian Odyssey IV, it’s another mixed bag. Despite the reservations I had with it, EO4 still holds the crown. It and Pokemon both have less shallow combat. SMT4 has a better questing experience, and a more enjoyable storyline, though if you just want a story, grab Ace Attorney 5.

While travel and moral decision-making elements give the SMT games a sense of epic scale that Persona trades for visual novel elements and deeper characterization, I think this trade will continue to leave SMT at a disadvantage as long as the budget is constrained and the ethical systems fail to grow.

This is a game that’s a little slow to take off, but can be rewarding. It’s different, more worldly than the average JRPG, even reminiscent of Mass Effect as you wander around the quest hubs like Shibuya and Ueno, but it doesn’t quite go far enough, mechanically, in its influences. Unless there’s a meaningful shake-up in future design goals, I’d far rather play Persona 4 or 5 than a Shin Megami Tensei 5.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

The 3DS Fire Emblem is an okay game, generally boring and unfulfilling, but with a couple of great features. The story is typical stuff, although the use of time travel and the unique conceit of its “in media res” opening deserve some praise. The character interactions are where the magic happens, although the translator pushes the wackiness a bit too much sometimes and though I couldn’t make my own comparison, my instincts say that these scenes are more rewritten than translated. The soundtrack never grabbed me either, although I may have been spoiled by Etrian Odyssey IV.

More importantly, the turn-based squad combat felt shallow. This was my first Fire Emblem game, and a number of clunky design choices and mechanics gave me the hunch that I was interacting with legacy systems that nobody had the guts to change. This is Fire Emblem 13, after all. While it may or may not have borrowed a thing or two from Yatsumi Matsuno games along the way, it still could use a deeper rehaul. The near-meaningless character levels are probably an easy fix, but the flat maps are another thing entirely. It’s closer in style to Advance Wars than Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, but when it lacks the fog of war, base capturing, and unit-building mechanics offered by Advance Wars, the only strategy here seems to be to grind until you have the most damaging skills and then to throw your units directly at theirs (Advance Wars’ terrain advantages are present, but more trivial in value). Admittedly, I played on Normal difficulty, and that comes with some strategic babying, but I’m confident in my assessment that it’s basically a grind-off on any difficulty.

There are some deeper rules, most notably the “Pair Up” tag-team mechanic, which is apparently new to Awakening, but after Tactics Ogre, with its Rampart Auras, arrow trajectories, cliffs and chokepoints, MP regen and a dozen magic types, there’s no comparison. There was also the fact that you actually had to account for and respond to character death on the field, instead of just resetting as soon as it happened. I had pages of complaints about Tactics Ogre, but there’s less to complain about in Fire Emblem because there’s so much less there to begin with.

The RNG is another annoyance. What shocked me was that there was some interview revealing that even the developers would soft-reset when they got a bad level-up. So why is it even there? I’m positive it’s another legacy/nostalgia nonsense thing. I played on the mode where my killed characters were only out for the current fight, to minimize pointless resetting, but without any associated cost or timed revival period, it felt like an underthought implementation of non-permadeath. It still could’ve done more to discourage high-risk strategy.

Weapon durability and destruction is a cool feature, and presents an interesting contrast with games like Crimson Shroud where weapons are everything, but since you can’t repair items when reforging them, improving their stats is a complete waste of money (unless players have the infinite money DLC, but I’ll complain about that a few paragraphs down). I think if you could repair all gear, it would just force an optimal but tedious strategy where the same improved items are used in perpetuity, but either way it just isn’t affordable within the existing non-DLC currency balance, so it was probably a waste of time to implement the forge at all.

There is one feature I’ve yet to mention, however, and it makes up for a lot of the game’s shortcomings. Listen closely: you can marry your characters to each other and create children, who will, at some point in the future, time-travel backwards and join your current-day army as adults. These aren’t generic combat units, either: they’re story characters, usually associated with their mothers, who only see minor changes based on who you picked as their father, such as a palette swap. Since your main character can marry a time-traveller, there’s some potential creepiness, because you could reload an earlier save and become the wife of the girl who was previously your daughter. But this freedom is cool as hell, ridiculous, amazing, and highly ambitious, because the support conversations get multiplied based on whether characters are siblings or potential love interests in the current playthrough (though from my understanding, the parent-child conversations are often a “fill in the blanks with your dad’s name” kind of deal). Even if I had several more paragraphs’ worth of complaints to make about the tactical layer, this one mechanic would still undoubtedly affirm Awakening’s position as an “okay game” instead of a bad one.

Another thing I do like is that you can’t really mess up your characters (apart from maybe choosing the wrong parents). You can only make it take a little longer than you’d like to max them out. Unlike Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, there’s no job-based limitation on permanent stat growth, and you can reset their class levels for a small cost repeatedly until they hit their stat caps, which are pre-defined.

The DLC, however, is a sour point. Shocked and pleasantly surprised as I was at first to see a wealth of DLC available in a Nintendo game, I still didn’t buy any of it, as I took a closer look and saw that it was an unashamed cash grab. I couldn’t do it. It’s absurd–there’s like $50 worth of the stuff, and it all seems to fall into the following categories:

  • Cheats (or close enough). Stages you can repeat for free money and experience, breaking what little sense of balance the single player has.
  • Advanced challenges, meaning, “grind more” challenges, basically requiring the purchase of the cheat levels.
  • Fan-service bonus levels where the female characters show off their swimsuits. Anyone paying Nintendo for wank material is living in an incredibly strange bubble.
  • Nostalgia traps where you can add Marth, Ike, Roy, etc. to your party! But that this is my first Fire Emblem, so I’d be paying six bucks just to see a Smash Bros. character. Ha ha. How much did Crimson Shroud cost, again? Oh, right: five bucks during the last sale.

I encountered some glitches as well, with the Japanese audio getting switched back to English whenever I loaded a save (I can’t live in a world where Chrom’s daughter isn’t voiced by Kobayashi Yuu! Is that so wrong??) and certain sound effects wouldn’t play after I loaded a pre-battle save. I’d get dead silence when I struck an enemy, which irritated me far more than I would’ve guessed, and this would persist until I loaded a world-map save with English audio active and re-saved. I feel like the developers could’ve and should’ve patched these issues in a world where they managed to figure out DLC on a Nintendo system, but then again, there was money in that. At least both problems were only temporary.

For someone who likes a tactical JRPG, shallow or not, and isn’t afraid of a long grind–I think I’m just describing Disgaea fans–the breeding mechanics and character interactions can probably carry this whole game for you. I’m happy to hear that the success of the game meant that it wasn’t the final entry in a canned franchise, but I also think that tradition and a relatively ancient intellectual property–FE1 came out in 1990–is worth little in the grand scheme of things. If the eventual “Fire Emblem 14” remains insular with its nostalgia traps and vestigial parts, I won’t buy it.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Crimson Shroud

For an $8 eshop title, Crimson Shroud over-delivers. Ostensibly, it’s a short game, but my playtime would suggest the opposite, but since I would frequently leave the clock ticking while I honestly wrote the wiki myself, that time was stretched out, to the point of being untethered to any number carrying meaning.

That said, the content is also stretched from within. I’m going to throw out a wild guess and suggest that a normal player might spend 30 hours, including a round of New Game+ in pursuit of the true ending, mostly due to the slow, calculating pace of battles and the need to grind. If there is such a thing as a correct ratio between battles and story in a great game–and there’s not, because that would imply that battles cannot be their own reward, and that the story must justify them–this game’s ratio is highly skewed. Nonetheless, outside of battle, gameplay is less than sparse. It makes up for it with some of the best-written prose I’ve ever seen in a game–which isn’t to say that it has the best premise or characters or anything–but it’s still obvious where ambition was tempered in this budget title that was originally sold as one quarter of a compilation package.

When played as a follow-up to Etrian Odyssey IV’s postgame, it’s clear that the combat is lacking in complexity, but that’s a high bar for this little game, and there’s nothing at the core of Crimson Shroud’s mechanics that would keep it from outperforming EO4 on even footing in an expanded game. In some ways it is better: it does the Yasumi Matsuno thing where HP is restored at the end of battle while MP climbs up from the bottom, and I’ll always prefer that to the industry standard, which tends to only judge players by how conservative they can be. I also received a constant supply of items and was forced to use them, which is incredibly rare.

The tabletop-themed visual design is really clever, especially in the dice rolls, where you can in some cases directly manipulate the RNG, which is pure wish-fulfillment. That’s my own video, and like I said, I wrote the goddamn wiki, so not a lot of people seem to know about this. But forcing a d20 to come up on 18 by drawing some secret, arcane symbol on the touch screen is pure magic, as is being on the frontier of discovering such symbols.

If this had been a full feature title, I’d ask for a more substantive form of progression than the existing one, where you grind for several copies of the same item and then combine them. It is a weak point. Solely equipment-based progression may have been a design shortcut more than anything else, but it is interesting, and can definitely work.

I’d be thrilled to see a return to this intellectual property, where the existing game is used as a proof of concept, and there’s more happening outside of battle than a simple dungeon map and a few pages of text when you move to another room. The Radical Dreamers-style visual novel-esque prose would have to stay–it’s far more interesting than text only appearing in NPC dialogue windows–but in a version with expanded breadth, maybe you could exert greater control on your character and dial back on the text repetition when places are revisited, like western-style interactive fiction does.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.