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Another trip to Japan – stuff I picked up edition

I returned from another trip to Japan about a week ago.  This was my third journey there, and I was lucky enough to share it with my significant other.  She was most enthusiastic about visiting as many places as possible each day, so I had a ton of really good experiences I hadn’t before.

What was interesting about this trip versus my second was that I actually did very few of the same things I did the first time.  The only repeats were:

  • Akihabara (which gets less game-y and more creepy as time progresses)
  • Golden Temple (which I could go to every week and not get bored)
  • Kenrokuen and Kanazawa Castle (see Golden Temple)
  • Briefly, Den Den Town in Osaka (much better than Akihabara)

Although I only went to a few stores by comparison, I still made it out with some pretty good game-related loot.  I got the following games (all for SFC/SNES):

  • LaPlace’s Demon (sort-of psych thriller set in early 20th century (link))
  • Metal Max Returns, open-world post-apocalyptic RPG remake. Earliest entry we got was Metal Saga (PS2).
  • Leading Company, a business simulator by Koei that didn’t make it over the Pacific
  • Elnard, 7th Saga in Japanese
  • Mystic Ark, Elnard’s semi-successor
  • Wozz, a bizarre parody JRPG that’s highly regarded

In addition, I picked up a pack of soundtracks I’d been looking for:

  • Wild Arms 2 and 3 (2 and 4 CDs respectively)
  • Suikoden II (both volumes, 4 CDs total)
  • Stella Deus (1 CD, apparently poorly regarded as it was $7)

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Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate – mini-review

I may not have mentioned it here, but I played Monster Hunter Tri on Wii off and on for a little over 100 hours.  I’d been planning on buying a Wii U eventually in any case, since Monolith announced “X” and Xenoblade was among my favorite console games this generation.  When MH3 Ultimate was announced, I knew I was going to buy the console earlier than expected.

MH3 Ultimate is a sort of a reboot / remake of MH Tri.  The early-game has been groomed and reworked so that it is much easier to get going, with many redundant or silly quests removed and some starting equipment provided at the start.  “High-rank” quests, or quests with variants of monsters and more difficult move-sets, have been added to single-player.  Further, there are now two companions that can join you in SP (rather than just one in the original).  Some armor stats have been shuffled around to mix things up for veteran Tri players.

The appeal of Monster Hunter is more about the learning process and player execution than about pure action.  Mistakes can be made, or random elements can cause substantial pain to a hunter, but at no point is the pure reflex of, say, Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden required.  Preparedness is key, and in multiplayer it is essential to cooperate to some degree with your compatriots – while all four hunters could use a hammer, and it might even be appropriate for some battles, it’s much better to have a variety of equipment and to have each hunter focus on something separate, while all keep an eye out for certain situations anyone can handle.

To touch on the depth of the game slightly – the third large monster you fight is called the Quropeco.  It’s a giant bird-thing with flints on its wings that it can use to set fire to you.  It can heal itself and call other monsters using its horn/beak — including a Rathian, which is a major threat to any hunter at that point in the game.  There are several things to keep in mind when fighting a Quropeco:

  1. When it is about to use its horn, its pouch will fill up and it will dance around.  If you hit its pouch or throw a sonic bomb, it will fail and stumble for several seconds.
  2. Its wings are more durable than other parts of its body.  Depending on your weapon, it is most likely best to hit its face or rear.
  3. If you can hit its wings, you can break the Quropeco’s flints.  This yields additional quest rewards.
  4. With sufficient focus, you can also break its beak.
  5. When Quropeco gets tired, it will often fly to a nest at the peak of the area and go to sleep.  With a charging weapon, it’s easy to give it a rude awakening.
  6. If Quropeco calls another monster, you can use a dung bomb to convince it to leave.  If it calls a brown drake, dung bomb and get out.
  7. If it changes up the rhythm with which it knocks its flints together, that means it’s about to hit three times instead of two.
  8. While it’s flying, you can hit it for a bunch of damage or blind it using a flash bomb to bring it back down to the ground.

This might sound intimidating, but there are many patterns between monsters that make things easier, and much of the game early on will be learning small tricks – how to use bombs, how to trap monsters, what moves are most effective when hitting certain body parts, and so on.  Once that is learned, you can at least be a productive member of a team online, and the online community for MH3 Ultimate has been pretty good in my brief experience.

Just as important as the learning process is the payoff.  The best way I can put it is that playing Monster Hunter online in a well-oiled team is the closest thing to having a great team for a sport or a project at work.  MH3 may well be the best multi-player game I’ve played simply because it encourages and rewards the proper kinds of coordination – breaking off parts of a monster, using a flash bomb or a trap at exactly the right moment, dung-bombing a monster that has another player pinned, and so on are reminiscent of games like Left 4 Dead, but don’t feel quite as contrived.  At the same time, it feels almost like a personal sort of growth takes place as well.  You as a player are consistently improving for at least the first 40+ hours, whether it’s in terms of game mechanics or in terms of game statistics.  Much like Dark Souls, half of the ‘leveling’ is done by the player and subsequent play-throughs are much quicker and done with more confidence.

While I can’t recommend this game for some, as they don’t have the kind of time to sink into this game (the first 5+ hours aren’t especially rewarding), if you do have that time I would recommend giving it a try for sure.  MH3U is also on 3DS, although on that system it only has local multi-player which makes the experience considerably less engaging.

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Review – Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean

Baten Kaitos is one of the few RPGs exclusive to the Gamecube, and it has a sort of middling reputation.  I hear practically nothing about it, aside from the occasional “What under-appreciated RPG would you recommend” thread on this or that forum.  For that matter, I didn’t even know that there were two Baten Kaitos games (Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, as well as Origins) until fairly recently.  Origins was made second and is rarer (generally considered “better” as well).

Throughout this review, I refer to BK: EWatLO as “Baten Kaitos” for simplicity.  I have not yet played Origins.

Baten Kaitos was made by Monolithsoft and Tri-Ace working together.  When you look at each pedigree, you might understand why many find it interesting:

  • Monolithsoft: (largely consists of developers who worked on): Xenogears, Xenosaga, went on to make Xenoblade
  • Tri-Ace: Star Ocean series, Valkyrie Profile, Tales series

So you have Monolithsoft to build an over-arching world with an impressive history as well as the tortured history of the protagonist, and Tri-Ace to make all other standard RPG stuff interesting.

Tri-Ace’s focus was clearly the Magnus system.  You accumulate cards which represent weaponry, spells, items, and so on.  Each character has their own deck (which grows as the game progresses) into which you put the cards you find.  During battle, each character is dealt their initial hand of cards with which to take actions – for example, you might get a hand including a couple of weapons with numbers in sequence.  If one is played after the other, bonus damage is dealt.  As far as mechanics go, Baten Kaitos is perfect at introducing the system to the player.  Initially only two cards can be played in sequence, and each card has only one number to pay attention to.  As the game progresses, you find cards with multiple numbers, your deck size increases, and you have to start paying attention to the element of the cards that you include to avoid inadvertently cancelling out your damage.  Some exotic (and honestly sort of pointless) static effects make keeping track of the numbers harder.

Artistically, Baten Kaitos impresses as well – showing Monolithsoft’s talents.  The world consists of a half-dozen (ish) floating islands, with the denizens of these islands eking out a living in a different way on each.  The overarching back-story tells of an ancient war with an evil god, and how he was sealed away at the cost of “the Ocean”.  It should come as no surprise that by the end of the game you discover the meaning behind the back-story in the course of visiting all the islands.

What is most impressive about the artwork in Baten Kaitos is the design for each of the towns.  Many of them are fairly bland (especially early on), but some of the towns have a unique look to them that no other game has quite captured.  Each is beautifully drawn, often with some kind of movement in the background as well.  The town themes are likewise the best music the game has to offer (in a score that is otherwise somewhat bland and repetitive).

As someone who looks for new and interesting worlds to explore in my games, this is where Baten Kaitos shines the most.  It is unfortunate that many of the towns are much smaller than they should be, and that the game focuses so heavily on combat, leveling mechanics, and collecting random items for side-quests.

Other than the two features – mechanics and atmosphere – I cannot really recommend Baten Kaitos.  The voice acting is so-so, with a few good characters (mostly Gibari) rounding out the somewhat bland performances put on by the rest.  All voices, without exception, sound like they were recorded inside a deep well, which I have heard blamed on the compression of the voice work.  Outside of combat, the mechanics are often confusing and pointless – with your Magnus changing over time (e.g green bananas turn into yellow bananas, then into rotten bananas and finally into a generic and useless “rotten fruit”).  Many recovery items are food that gradually rots over the course of game-play, and even some weapons change and become less useful as time goes on.  Much of the battle system requires the player to depend upon random chance – since every deck should have defensive and recovery items, there’s a nonzero chance your hand will be full of items that are largely useless –  simply because that character isn’t being targeted.  Finally, although atmosphere is good, the story suffers from its adherence to JRPG traditions – sudden “reveals” that involve flashbacks, each of which “changes everything” but is not nearly important enough for you to have figured it out much ahead of time.

There is one exception to the “reveals” being generally not that interesting – there is one that depends upon a certain aspect of the story that seems silly and odd at first.  This one twist about 2/3 through the game is interesting and unusual – but certainly not worth playing the game if it sounds otherwise uninteresting.

It may be sub-par in more ways than it’s interesting, but Baten Kaitos is another JRPG that a fan of the genre probably shouldn’t miss.  Those who don’t follow JRPGs religiously or have fallen behind should hold off on this one, though – many games in the genre are more engaging than Baten Kaitos.

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Great Greed: Or, I play bad RPGs so you don’t have to

Many, many years ago I was an avid reader of Nintendo Power.  I had already developed a taste for RPGs, although they were a bit less numerous back then.  A bunch of them were bad – and often, even Nintendo Power was willing to admit that.

Regardless, I would read each article about an RPG with fascination.  When it was a game I knew, I would enjoy flipping through the various artwork and reading about the tricky parts.  Otherwise, I’d quietly file it away in a hidden corner of my mind, to play later.

I’m finally working my way through the last few of those games I filed away – you can see in the last dozen or so posts that I reviewed Paladin’s Quest and 7th Saga, and a year or so back I played through a good chunk of Arcana.  All of these games I tracked down, purchased, and (with the exception of 7th Saga, which is too tedious) played on real hardware.  The only one left is Lagoon.

From this experience, I’ve learned a few things:

  1.  I actually played most of the good RPGs of the time when I was a kid.  Paladin’s Quest is the only one of the set I’d play again.
  2. Somehow, I still manage to enjoy even the bad RPGs.  The vast majority of RPGs at least have some optimization axis or story, and either one gets me.
  3. Even bad RPGs are still pretty expensive by comparison (all of these were around $20ish).

This leads me to my latest game: Great Greed, a game released on the Game Boy in 1992.  As soon as I heard the name, I remembered reading about it in Nintendo Power and thinking that the description sounded really cool, and the artwork was kind of neat.  The context in which I heard the long-forgotten name was incredibly bizarre: a NeoGAF post about how the game asks you to pick your marriage partner at the end.  It turns out that the game allows you to marry another guy, an 11-year-old, and even the king or queen.

Now that my nostalgia was back in action, I decided to order the game and play through it on my Super Game Boy.  And, sadly… it’s the worst of the lot thus far.

It’s not like the game doesn’t sound entertaining.  By the one-hour mark, I was doing a break-in on an abandoned record factory to get an old washed-up singer’s debut album.  Some professor specializing in genealogy named the album as his price to investigate the family tree of the Crab family, so that princess Cup Cake and I could prove that the mysterious politician “Crabby” was actually a fraud working for the evil Bio-Haz.

If I heard that description, I would think “wow, that game sounds incredibly wacky.”  And in a way, it is.  The next section had me infiltrating Oasis Castle so that I could reclaim it for the Kimchi Tribe, who would in turn give me Golden Pepper to defeat the dragon guarding a prison where Dr. Bromide was being held.  I needed to talk to Dr. Bromide because… actually, the game didn’t tell me why.  Or, more accurately, Cup Cake didn’t tell me why.

You see, even at its very wackiest, Great Greed suffers from a complete lack of explanation.  Maybe it’s intentional parody of the RPGs of its time, which seems accurate enough.  It would be in good company there, since Earthbound happens to be a perfectly good game in its own right.  But where Great Greed fails is in the execution.  While Earthbound builds an interesting, fast-paced battle system and has interesting dialogue, Great Greed has neither.  Its battle system is quick, but it only has one party member.  Assistants (like Cup Cake, Lolly Pop, Candy, and so on) have a special effect that triggers at random, but it’s never enough to make things interesting.  When the grind is factored in, one realizes that the game likely takes about twice as long as it could if it threw balance to the wind and let the player enjoy the silly parody.

Technically, though, the game is actually a little bit impressive.  It allows saving anywhere (like the Final Fantasy Legend games), but more importantly it actually has an auto-save function.  In 1992!  It saved me about 25 minutes when I forgot to save just before a boss battle.

Story-wise, it’s incredibly obvious what the story is about – the main character is an environmental researcher of some kind, summoned to an alternate world where everything is named after food, and the evil Bio-Haz is trying to pollute the normally prosperous land.   Some of the towns do have bizarre themes, but they always tie back to the quest.  For example, one town has a set of laws you can spend money to re-randomize (i.e. Don’t Talk to Soldiers, Don’t Enter the Armory).  I didn’t actually get thrown in jail, but I assume it wouldn’t have done much.  Once you reach the prison, you find out all the prisoners were gathered to do forced labor mining pollution-causing rocks.

If it were not quite so grindy, Great Greed would be a fun little game and I would finish it for certain.  Perhaps for an RPG on the Game Boy – where most of the competition was the various inaccurately-localized Final Fantasy games, it wasn’t bad at all.

Since it is, though, the most interesting part of the game is the section from the aforementioned forum post – which I am unlikely to reach.  Sometimes, even I have to admit defeat so that I can play something more enjoyable.

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Quick Review – Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time

Since the very beginning, Growlanser’s had a sort of cursed existence in the US.  The first game, on PSX, never came over (nor did its PSP remake).  The second and third games came over courtesy of Working Designs, but Sony of America only allowed it if they were sold as a pack and (as I recall) budget priced.  Atlus localized Growlanser: Heritage of War (I like to call it GrowHOW), but by that point the series had pretty much no fanbase on the continent.

Quick history on the series – the Growlanser games are Careersoft’s continued effort at strategy RPGs now that their Langrisser games have been concluded.  They’re pausable, real-time strategy games focused on a small number of playable characters (usually up to 4), with a sort of ATB system reminiscent of Grandia (e.g. you can delay opponents’ turns by attacking them).  The hallmarks of the series are its varied missions, politically focused stories, and interesting / unusual / creepy character designs by Satoshi Urushihara, most famous for his work on Record of Lodoss War and in *cough* hentai.

Luckily for us few fans of the series, Atlus was willing to publish the PSP remake of Growlanser 4 (with additional characters, ending paths, etc) as Wayfarer of Time.  Though some aspects leave something to be desired – specifically, voices were cut from the US release – textually it’s a very impressive effort, since the game includes such a large variety of response patterns and branching paths.  Despite the large volume of text, all of it reads very naturally.

Wayfarer of Time is considered by the series’ hardcore fans (not me – I’m a fair weather fan and don’t like to import much) to be the best in the series, and it’s easy to see why.  The politics behind the primary conflict in the game – between the militaristic republic of Dulkheim and the stable kingdom of Valkania – is shown in detail, and offset by lesser conflicts, some of which are more traditional JRPG fare (Angels vs. Humans).  Character relationships are built up and change as the war progresses, and tough decisions eventually need to be made.

One of the interesting features of the game is the large number of side-quests, many of which are hidden.  For example, there are characters whose life or death depends upon you doing certain things prior to story events.  In my own play-through, I missed at least a couple of these.  The difference story-wise is often minor, but that’s pretty understandable from a writing point of view.  There are also three distinct routes, although one is only available on a second play-through and another is determined based on a (fairly) arbitrary matter of character recruitment.

Play-wise, the difficulty curve seems a bit on the steep end for the middle of the game (~10-20 hr point of 28ish overall for me).  Each mission in the game has a “Mission Complete” (ideal) outcome, as well as Mission Clear (OK) and Mission Passed (barely won), and many are pretty much un-Complete-able unless you know what you’re getting into ahead of time.  This isn’t a huge deal, though, as only a few endings require certain battles to be Mission Completes.

Overall, the game’s my favorite entry in the series thus far (having played 2, 3, 4, and 5 now) and one of the best RPGs available on PSP.  Hopefully we get to see the rest of the Growlanser games in English as well.

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