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Sea of Stars
This review contains spoilers
A beautiful and perfunctory RPG experience. Perhaps the most disappointing experience you will have this year.
Sea of Stars has no good reason to be an rpg other than back of the napkin ideas the devs must have had since childhood. Equipment are all small incremental flat stat increases, with only certain accessories even broaching the idea of customizability. One of them (the abacus, which lets you see enemy HP) is so vital though that there is little point in thinking about it. Characters are flat and largely unexciting, dialogue is uninventive and exists in the same space as settlements in this game. They need to exist, and in large quantities, to check the right rpg boxes, but they're superficial pitstops with little to admire besides the art. Eastward and Chained Echoes do so much more in a similar genre space with their settlements that I cannot give Sea of Stars a pass.
Combat itself is serviceable, but SoS gives neither the tension of difficulty or resource management, nor the thrill of customization and experimentation (your characters will still only have about 3 skills to use apiece by the end of the game). If this was a simple action rpg it might have received lower scores, but it would be a healthier game simply from the surgical removal of unnecessary fat.
Boss encounters are actually structured cleverly enough but even on Hard they never hit hard enough to seriously endanger your party, healing is plentiful, and even a stray KO is only a temporary inconvenience since your party member will self-revive with half health after only a couple of turns.
Dungeons and puzzles, such as they are, are busywork lovingly crafted to trigger the bespoke animations that are the actual heart of the game. More often it felt like I was plodding through Mario Maker autorunner levels, or a Sony game's climbing section.
The story is atrocious. Anything attached to the writing is nails on a chalkboard. It is in desperate search of conflict of any kind, but refuses to develop its MCs and their buoyant tagalong sidekick as anything other than the most bland genre versions of themselves. So you get a situation, with no conflict and no pushback, where the game has to pull conflict directly from its rear in deeply unsatisfying ways, falling into jrpg tropes disseminated, dissembled, and parodied decades ago and doing them in the most bland ways you can imagine. The character assassination required to do this is YiiKian in nature but even YiiK had the foresight to engender some kind of conflict to move the story forward, instead of just-so macguffin scenarios and jiu jitsu ass pulls.
The journey becomes predictable in its unpredictableness, a stale bowl of refried bean jrpg pastiche.
So, now the positives (with caveats).
Sea of Stars is the prettiest game released this year. I don't think it's particularly close. If you want to play a spectacle game, avoid FF16 and play this. It is arguably the best looking 2d rpg I have played.
But there are two exceptions to SoS immaculate graphics. First, the portraits are amateur, ill-fitting and immersion breaking. The problem is not necessarily the artistic skill at work, but the game's entire lack of identity. Chrono Cross has a divisive art style for its portraits, as an example, but it all coheres much better than SoS. Second, animated cutscenes play at random intervals of the story. They remind me of the CGI cutscenes inserted into SNES classics by Square when they ported the games to the PSX. Unnecessary and distracting. The pixels can more than speak for themselves and with how underwhelming the rest of the game is, they have to.
Separate Ways completes the RE4 remake by serving as a reservoir to catch most (albeit not all) of the memorable setpieces from the original 2005 game that didn't quite find their way into the main game.
In this regard it's a monumental step up over the previous version of Separate Ways even if it technically has to siphon away some of the base game's goodness to do so. The encounters here are solid and the pacing is fast. It does still occasionally dip into its precuror's tendency to rehash areas from the base game without doing quite enough new with them to justify it. That's not to say that it's without entirely new ideas as there's a couple of quite clever uses of old areas and some completely new ones (though a notable lack of battleships).
Little has changed about combat between Leon and Ada, the most notable addition being the use of Ada's grappling hook which lets her zip instantly to a stunned enemy to deliver a melee attack. It's a nice feature that helps alleviate those frustrating moments when an enemy is just a bit too far to get in for a melee strike, while still warranting cautious play and not ziplining yourself into the center of a pack of enemies. Aside from this one wrinkle all the positives and negatives of the original game's combat are still present. The game continues to impress with its frenzied and mobile combat, tight ammo economy and hardy enemies. At the same time the occasional awkward sluggishness of movement and super armor on late-game enemies remain sore spots.
The storytelling is of the same quality as the base game, which is to say that it utterly fails to exude the same charm its namesake so effortlessly channeled. Only Luis' charismatic performance is a reprieve from the otherwise dull scene direction in the remake. The rest of the remake's script can't help but give the impression that it's in a hurry to get itself over with.
Overall a practically mandatory addition to the game that's well worth the low price of entry. If you liked what the game had to offer already then this is more of it in a very well-made package.
Mirror's Edge: Catalyst feels like it never gets talked about except for through lamentations of it being open world instead of level based like the original Mirror's Edge was, or people complaining about how it has a couple movement abilities locked behind a skill tree, or people talking about how EA doesnt make original games anymore. And I get that position on paper, since Mirror's Edge: Catalyst came out right in the middle of the ps4 generation when open worlds were everywhere in AAA and every game seemed to have an obligatory skill tree regardless of whether it added anything of value. I can't blame people seeing a sequel to a really tight, linear, level based game going open world and throwing up their hands about Trends and Bandwagons.
But here's the thing. This game is barely an open world in the Ubisoft sense or the GTA sense. Rather, I think it has a lot more in common with the Metroidvania genre.
Mirror's Edge is about parkour, or free running, in a dystopian future. Everything about the gameplay and theming is centered on these two ideas. What this means for its "open world" design is that you have several decently sized but not huge sections of city, largely rooftops, interiors of buildings, some infrastructural installations, and a construction site, that is all there to facilitate free, expressive movement, often while escaping from The Cops. No matter what route you take, you are always pushed to engage with the detailed and active parkour mechanics. This isn't like the other big Parkour game, Assassin's Creed, where you just hold a button and occasionally another button while moving and your guy does it all automatically (not a knock tho, I love AC). Its stick-shift platforming and it's a ton of fun. The mechanics have been slightly refined from the original game and provide more ways to enter a state of rapid, flowing movement, or recover it if you fuck up. Every route you take becomes a chain of vaults, slides, jumps, wall-runs, impact rolls, and swings off pipes and flagpoles. New to this game is a shift move that works both as a dodge and a way to build, rebuild, or maintain momentum, that I found myself using in a way that almost simulated the rhythmic, controlled breathing of distance running. Tying it all together is the absolutely unparalleled design of full-body presence in its first person viewpoint, where it not only shows your body when you look down but actually makes it feel like you're inhabiting and moving in it, with the weight and momentum and grace of an athlete in motion, instead of just a floating camera with arms like so many other first person games. There are honestly very few AAA games that care about detailed, flavorful movement mechanics to this degree.
The combat is vastly improved from the first game, where clunky fighting or shooting segments often brought the game's beautiful momentum to a screeching halt. In this one, you can no longer use guns, thank god, so its all punching(light attacks) and kicking(heavy attacks). The new shift-dodge means you can more easily avoid damage, and also get behind them to do extra damage or kick them off ledges. But the key to combat is traversal attacks, which is when you attack while doing parkour. Light ones do less damage but preserve your momentum, so they're good for getting enemies out of your way while escaping, or for setting them up for a knockout from a stronger heavy traversal attack. These attacks are snappy and well-animated, and the combat is actually quite satisfying once you get the hang of incorporating parkour into it. There are several enemy types that all require slightly different tactics, so it keeps things from getting stale. The combat is also very frequently optional; you can often simply bowl them over and get the heck out of there instead.
The game does contain a skill tree, but it is honestly quite unobtrusive. It has 3 parts: movement, combat, and gear, and 80% of the movement tree is unlocked already at the start of the game, with the majority of the rest of the actual parkour mechanics easily unlocked in an hour or two of play. The rest of it is all combat skills, damage or defense upgrades, and new gadgets. The gadgets you actually just get from story progression, and they give you new movement abilities that open up new paths and new areas as the story progresses. Its not quite as free-form in its exploration as traditional Metroidvanias, and there's no sequence breaking due to the mission-based story, but it still has that feeling of the world gradually unfolding as your abilities grow. The map contains some of the typical open-world collectables and busywork missions, which are usually time trials, timed deliveries, or small combat challenges followed by escapes. They're fun enough to do, but can be safely ignored without consequence if you aren't interested or just want a more tightly paced game. The story missions themselves, and the character-given major sidequests, are all very solid and bring you to a variety of more linear, contained levels scattered around the city. This stuff is classic Mirror's Edge, and where the game shines brightest. I especially liked the Art Museum level and the under-construction skyscraper you have to sabotage for the mafia.
Like the original game, Mirror's Edge Catalyst is a real looker. It paints its world in splashes of vivid color against stark, sterile white and polished glass. The use of color is a bit more restrained here compared to the first game, but its still very effective. Sometimes you slam open a door from the blindingly white rooftops and are blasted with the most incredible shade of green you've ever seen in a game as you sprint through an office corridor to the closest exit. Huge video billboards or displays cover buildings, with constantly shifting advertisements or news reports lighting up the night. It feels lightly futuristic and dystopian in a way that balances mundane believablility with stylized hyper-reality really well. There are some really lovingly crafted service corridors, corporate office buildings, and infrastructural facilities; mundane places transformed and made stranger by the context of how you move through them and why, which is something I always love to see in games (see also: INFRA, for the ultimate perfection of this aesthetic in games). The sound design is quite immersive, and makes you feel the speed and physical exertion involved in everything you do. The music on the other hand is only OK, as it serves the atmosphere and action well, but isn't especially memorable. They commissioned a pretty solid CHVRCHES song but bafflingly, don't even use it at all other than in a jukebox in the hideout. It doesn't even play over the credits! Why even commission it then!!
The narrative is fine. It's not like poorly executed, but its nothing new either. Kinda feels like a middling TV show from that time period. It provides a solid enough framework for a bunch of cool levels, so I guess it did its job. It is at least, better than the absolutely atrocious storytelling from the original game with its e-surance cutscenes and barely sketched characters. The characters here feel like people with a history in this world, and the presentation is solid, it just lacks a certain extra spark. Even so, it's well-paced and doesn't overstay its welcome by any means.
Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is a seriously underrated game. It doesn't quite hit the transcendent highs the original does, but it also comes nowhere near that game's very low low points either. It is simply a good time, and it really deserved better than the low sales and critical dismissal it seems to have gotten when it came out. If you like deep first person movement I highly recommend it.
I had some fun playing Ishin, which takes us to scenes and locales that haven't been used in other RGG games. The 4 different styles are great mechanics that remind me of yakuza 0. That said not all are created equally, as the sword style deals way more damage but it's less flexible in usage. My favorite stance was definitely wild dancer as the evasive dodging looked and felt great. The story tries to be compelling, but Ryoma is even denser than Kiryu and seems to get away with a lot of things. The ending also leaves a bit of a bad taste as the game tries to backpedal on Japanese history.
I really liked playing through the SaGa games, as I had never had the chance to back in the day. They start off pretty rough, but by slowly figuring out the mechanics and systems of the game it becomes a wonderful challenge to overcome. There's definitely some limitations with them being gameboy games originally, still that didn't stop for making three solid games with some neat ideas. Each game has a myriads of places to visit and a somewhat decent story that follows along with it. Only downsides are the encounter rates which are hard to manage, the number of enemies on screen and somewhat clunky visual design here and there. While the third game is definitely the weakest one of the three, it is still a good game.
This review contains spoilers
This game rules, ok? It's everything I ever wanted in a video game
There's a guy that runs around yelling about beans and punching everything
There's another guy in like a gold bondage outfit or something with a sword and at one point he flies out of nowhere to beat up the pretty glowing angel final boss
The beans guy and the gold bondage guy argue. At one point the bondage guy slams his sword into the ground and yells at the bean guy to jump off it or something
The bean guy is like YOURE NOT THE BOSS OF ME but he yells it while he's listening to the bondage guy
So cool and defiant
All the characters in this are better than all the characters in the main XC3. I think Rex is like the dad and grandpa of everyone or just about everyone. I need a family tree to tell for sure but I think he's related to the rest of the playable characters except the silver haired lady with the Xenoblade
Another reason this game gets five stars is as follows
Xenoblade 1 has one of the best songs in video game history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNbw8Re-yIs
I'm listening to it as I write this review. It's so good.
So in this game when you fight the aforementioned glowing pretty angel guy, you get a two part extended remix of that song, which also totally kicks ass
Some nice person combined both tracks for us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvjF2ULNnf8
It's so good
And the final reason I give this five stars is they acknowledge Xenoblade Chronicles X in it. I don't know we get Baten Kaitos on Switch but not Xenosaga or XCX but it's ok, we got the awesome Zanza remix, so we are eating good with this.
You might even say we are full of beans.
I was at an anime convention with a mini Sega CD in the console rooms and one of the ROMs on it was this, which I've always been curious about. Some teenagers behind me were like "oh that console's for sonic, look at the logo, segaaaa" and I then felt mortified because I had Not Loaded Up Sonic
Anyway, I had no idea how to play this because the TV had sun glare and barely any audio
When it comes to Square Enix, you never know if you're going to get something like the Portopia Serial Murder Case demo...or something absolutely wonderful like Paranormasight. This was geninuely an absolute delight to play through!
Although there are moments of characters recollecting information you already know just like every other VN, the pacing is generally very good with the snappy 10-12 run time. The characters are compelling (Tsutsumi, Harue and Richter were my biggest faves <3) and geninuely make it hard to choose who's path you wanna go down first. There's a lot of really quirky gimmicks with the 360 environment rotation and some meta elements, however they do take a bit of a backseat after the more horror focused first chapter. It is a bit disappointing but I think the rest of the game is strong enough to make up for it
Honestly, my only issue is that the true ending may be a bit disappointing or feel rushed, but I mean, at this point, I kinda expect that from Visual Novels hghdahsdjas
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