Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Xbox 360 look - Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2

Note: Here's another old review.

For the longest time, my idea of an enjoyable Fist of the North Star game; was unarmed fighting in the Fallout series. Yes, FotNS games have historically been so bad that I'd rather play something by Bethesda. When Omega Force took over the franchise, I expected great things. After all, they’re known for Dynasty Warriors, a series that I can’t get enough of. Unfortunately, the first game was very poor. It was slow, cumbersome, had snore-inducing level-design, and characters took far too long to become entertaining to play. After spending a long time with the sequel, I can say that a few of these problems have been fixed. However, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is a “one step forward, several steps back” affair.

Ken’s Rage 2 is divided into two modes of play. In Legend Mode, players follow the story of Kenshiro. As somebody who has seen almost the entirety of the original Fist of The North Star series, I have to applaud the effort put into this mode’s cut-scenes. They’re very well-acted, and most of my favorite scenes from the show turned out well. A handful of villains and storylines were cut, but they’re entirely filler. This is as exhaustive an account of Kenshiro’s saga, as one could imagine.  Occasionally players will take control of other characters such as Rei, Mamiya, Amiba, and even Bat and Ein. Yes, the Legend Mode also covers Fist of the North Star 2.

The most unfortunate aspect of Legend Mode; is that it rarely strays from the formula. In an episode of the anime, you can expect to see Kenshiro defeating dozens of bandits with ease, before facing off with the villain. This happens far too often in the game; with many chapters consisting of defeating X number of foes. This isn’t like Dynasty Warriors, where there are other objectives to complete. This certainly isn’t comparable to Sengoku Basara, with its stylish and rewarding style of fighting. Kenshiro appears, destroys everyone in less than a minute, and then moves onto the next checkpoint.

Kenshiro’s many adversaries have varying abilities and unique characteristics. These aspects aren’t noticeable in the game however. In fact, the boss-battles are actually a step back from the previous Ken’s Rage. Part of this is due to the new dodge-system. Instead of a jump, Kenshiro will evade attacks. The timing window for this move is so large, that it can be easily abused, making boss-fights a joke. The bosses themselves also perform fewer moves, and don’t offer enough unique traits to make them memorable. A number of fights also have QTEs, which are very easy to perform, and do large amounts of damage. Altogether, the only reason to play Legend Mode is to see the story and unlock characters.

 Dream Mode, is where all of the unlocked characters can be used. While some characters – such as those who follow the art of Nanto-Seiken – have intersecting plots, everyone has their own ending path. Battles in this mode, take place in a manner similar to the average Dynasty Warriors game. There is a map with numerous outposts, and the player must capture five of them, to reach the boss and complete the battle. Unlike Dynasty Warriors, the only objective aside from not dying; is to protect a particular character. There’s no real dynamic to the mission, as it consists entirely of getting to an enemy outpost, and performing the task necessary to get the best possible ranking. A couple enemy generals show up to trouble the player, but that’s the extent of how interesting a battle will get.

This style of mission-design; would have been acceptable if it was as deep as titles such as DW: Empires, or even DW: Gundam 3. At least in those games, the enemy moved to capture bases as well, and could create very difficult situations if they gained the advantage. In Ken’s Rage 2, nobody wants to put up a fight. It’s just a matter of doing everything as quickly as possible, for that high rank. Ultimately, the only thing standing in the player’s way; is that they will need to grind out the level-ups. The bosses have a ton of hit-points.

In the previous Ken’s Rage, attaining strength and new moves was done through a meridian chart. This was cut from the sequel, with the intention that players shouldn’t have to learn everything all over again. Instead, players can find scrolls on the battlefield, or after completing chapters. These scrolls give bonuses to the player’s stats, and they can be linked for serious boosts. The one aspect I like about this system; is that excess scrolls can be given to newer characters, to hurry along their development. Otherwise, the scroll-system is a poor replacement. There simply aren’t enough ways, to further customize characters, or even build them up to a level beyond where they were before. Compare this to Warriors Orochi 3, where late-game weapons can have incredible abilities, for obliterating generals on the hardest difficulties. Ken’s Rage 2 offers a few abilities, but they’re tied to scrolls, which makes for a very arbitrary and random system.

Ultimately, the most crushing aspect of Ken’s Rage 2, is that it feels unfinished. The content is there, the story is told well, but this game is lacking elements that make it whole. For one, nothing changes whether the player is just starting, or when they’re forty hours in. Each playable character has a number of techniques and signature moves, but only two or three of them ever see repeated use. The mission structure is so banal, and the enemy variety is so limited, that I have to believe the game was rushed. The new characters are great, but they’re hamstrung due to the poorly-done scroll system. Graphically, the game looks worse than the original. The frame-rate is all over the place, and everyone looks less-detailed. The level-design is also even worse. Sure, I thought the first Ken’s Rage had some lousy ideas, but at least they tried to do something different. It’s like no effort was put into this game, beyond checking all of the “more content” boxes.

For its 30th anniversary, Fist of the North Star deserves far better. This series is notable for being a massive influence on videogames (particularly beatemups and fighters). Yet, where are all the good games? The first Ken’s Rage was promising, but not any fun. This game squashes all of that promise, and destroys almost all hope for the franchise. While a number of criticisms can be applied to the Dynasty Warriors franchise; such as their lack of depth. I can’t think of many truly awful games. Ken’s Rage 2 is on a very short and not-at-all prestigious list.

PS1 Look - Zanac X Zanac

Note: This is another old review

One of the boons of owning a Playstation 3 is access to the PSone classics section. Several of the best games ever made – such as Vagrant Story – are readily available at affordable prices. However, I’m always on the lookout for something different. Therefore I made up a JPN account, just so I could access Japan’s PSone library. This requires a few more hoops to be jumped through, but it’s very much worth it. There are a plethora of unique gems such as Vanguard Bandits, The Adventures of Little Ralph, and Harmful Park. GungHo Online Entertainment America is offering a taste of the PS1’s extensive import library, through the recent release of six games. There is one game in particular that stands out. Zanac X Zanac is a title deserving of a place in any 2D shooter fan’s library.

Zanac X Zanac is comprised of two games. One is the original Zanac, which saw release on platforms such as the MSX/MSX2, the Famicom Disk System, and the NES. Zanac Neo, the other game in the set, is a sequel developed exclusively for the Playstation 1. Even for their respective times, neither game is much to look at. Also due to their nature as a 2D shooter, the stories may as well not even exist. The mission is to destroy anything that threatens earth. So get in the prototype ship that explodes from contact with a single bullet or enemy craft, and hope for the best. In a genre as overloaded as the 2D shooter, what does Zanac do that helps it stand apart?

As it turns out, Zanac does things very differently. This game employs a system known as “Auto Level Control” (ALC). Depending on the level of difficulty, the amount of shots the player fires, their sub-weapon, and a handful of other seemingly minor factors, the opposition changes. No two levels are ever really the same, because the enemies adapt to every change of play-style. Lasers are effective against frontal assaults, but the AI will respond by attacking from the sides. Weaker weapons that cover a wider range will be counteracted by enemies that can take more punishment. When the player’s ship is destroyed, the AI will take a step back. This is both good and bad, since while the reprieve is appreciated, it also means missed points. This makes Zanac a fascinating 2D shooter, since unlike most similar titles, memorization isn’t helpful. In Zanac, raw skills, reflexes, and the right amount of recklessness is how players save the Earth, and beat their high-scores.

Zanac Neo is a substantial upgrade in every way. Three playable ships are available, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and sub-weapons. Each ship is also equipped with a charge meter. This meter is filled by grabbing power-ups and destroying enemies. The energy can then be expended in a single shot; or up the ship’s offensive capabilities for a few seconds, via something known as "blast mode". The charged shot is useful for scoring as it builds combos, the blast mode helps with survival since it can eliminate enemy bullets. Zanac Neo also employs a combo system. As long as the player doesn’t allow enemies to fly off-screen the combo will build, awarding more points for each kill.

In keeping with the spirit of the original, the ALC is constantly monitoring every decision. Certain enemy-types become more prevalent, depending on the type and frequency of subweapons that are used. On the harder difficulties, a number of strategies are required to stay alive. Power-ups award precious seconds of invulnerability, the blast mode is great for panic situations. Even though the enemy-type can’t always be accounted for, their movements and attack patterns are roughly the same It's mostly just a matter of destroying everything in sight.

Due to the generous scoring system, skilled-players will be able to accumulate a lot of extra lives. Rather than let them gather cobwebs, one can utilize suicidal tactics to reach mind-boggling high-scores. This method involves crashing into the power-up boxes that appear when the player’s ship respawns. It requires a really high combo counter, and is largely useful at the end of the game. Personally, that style of play is boring to me. Zanac Neo offers more than enough ways to stay challenging. Aside from the three available ships, there is a hidden fourth one that offers a very different style of play. Also there are in-game “achievements”, though figuring out what they are and how to get them will require a guide. There is a cooperative mode as well, though friends with an interest in 2D shooters are almost impossible to come by. The original Zanac is no slouch either.

The philosophy behind Zanac x Zanac is simple, design a game that grows with the player and continually challenges them. While these games don’t offer the depth and complexity of some other 2D shooters, they are also much more approachable in their design. Players of all skill levels can pick up the basics and start having fun. After awhile, they can start learning the more complex aspects, such as scoring. There are a large variety of sub-weapons and enemy variations that will attempt to counter them. The emphasis on reflexes and split-second decisions are also a welcome change from memorizing safe-points in complicated bullet-spreads. All in all I highly recommend checking this collection out.

Xbox 360 look - Anarchy Reigns

Note: This is a review I did ages ago. I'm only posting it here for archival purposes.

In what used to be just a Mad World, Chaos and disorder have taken control of the future. Mutants, robots, and Cyborgs battle over ruined cities, pollution is a constant, and every few minutes a horrific disaster shakes the populace to its very core. This is just another day where Anarchy Reigns. Your role in this nightmare; is to be as ruthless as possible. Honor, respect, and restraint, are just three of the many words that can’t be associated with this brawler by Platinum Games.

As Bayonetta is to Devil May Cry and Vanquish is to Gears of War, Anarchy Reigns compares favorably to Spawn: In the Demon’s Hand. Beat-em-ups are a rare genre these days, especially in 3D, and arena-based competitive brawlers are practically unheard of. Still, despite its rarity the concept is very simplistic. A group of unique and powerful characters are tasked to kill each other by any means necessary. These means can include fists, guns, thrown objects, and the winner is usually the most opportunistic. The reason why almost nobody makes these games is probably because balancing is next to impossible, and theoretically balance is the basis of a competitive game. Hence the title Anarchy Reigns, the idea is that everything or nothing can go the player’s way.

In the campaign mode, you take control of Leo and Jack. They engage in mutant massacre and pick fights with anyone tied to the mysterious Maximilian. Mostly the plot in this game is easily digestible, as it provides motivation for the characters, cool cut-scenes, and moments where the camera zooms in on the attractive female characters. It certainly helps that the voice-acting is well-done, with Robert Pine delivering an exceptional performance as Max himself. When all is said and done however, expect to forget everything that happens over the course of the story.

During the campaign there will be various missions. Those that are story-based usually involve one-on-one fights, while the free ones either involve killing a bunch of freaks, or completing some unique goal. These missions tie together to create some sort of overlong tutorial. Aside from learning the basics, you will also become familiarized with the cast, and gain a basic understanding of their abilities. Furthermore, a training mode is available to practice moves and battle scenarios. The finer details; such as combos and the mechanics surrounding various aspects such as stun are left for the player to figure out. On the bright side, given that Anarchy Reigns has been out for around six months in Japan, everything a player needs to know about the game can be easily found.

Rather than bore you with explanations of all the moves and how they work, I’ll skip ahead to the important part: how to win. Anarchy Reigns isn’t the deepest game, but the results of the average online match can make it seem like there is a large skill deferential between players. The people, who win at this game, are those you despise the most when playing online. They’re the kill-stealers, the item-abusers, the ones who always hang with the group, and they employ all of the cheap tactics. In most other games they might get exposed for what they are, but here they can revel in their worst attributes because that is what decides matches.

First off you need a character; for the most part Anarchy Reigns is “balanced” in that everyone is broken. There are 100% damage combos, dive-kicks, and all sorts of other nasty moves to make almost everyone a force. Douglas, Bayonetta, or the three Rin sisters are the safest bets. Each character has their own killer weapon (KW) that expends energy to perform brutal attacks; these five have among the best. Douglas for example, his strategy is landing a mid-air light KW. It does close to 50% damage. Let other players do the heavy lifting, and then swoop in with the KW for the kill. It’s always best to target whoever is low on life. Extended battles just wear you down, and next thing you know you’re the target. This applies to anyone you decide to play as.

There are a large variety of competitive modes to partake in. With team-deathmatch, the objective is to simply never separate, since whoever does so will get crushed. Battle Royale is a prime example of the vulture-mentality, as most kills will be stolen from other players. Cage matches are one-on-one; hopefully you know your infinites. Capture the Flag and death-ball both offer their own spin, though the MVPs tend to be those who don’t fight at all. Survival modes are also available which allow players to beat on the computer instead of each other, with the added benefit of some exclusive battles that can’t be found in the campaign mode. Also as you complete matches you’ll rank up, which can lead to the acquisition of new characters and abilities. These abilities are only available in player matches, which are something to be thankful for, because they’re about as bad as the gems from Street Fighter x Tekken. Auto-guard, immunity to grabs, or one of any other ridiculous abilities can be equipped.

Over the course of a match, events can occur such as carpet-bombing, a massive plane-crash, and even a kraken invasion. Along with the occasional interference from various thugs, this can make for many random situations. Randomness is not my idea of fun. It’s especially annoying when I’m in the middle of trying to kill or not get killed and a cut-scene happens. The pacing gets broken up far too often and that’s unbelievable for an online game. This is also apparent in death-ball, where everyone stops what they’re doing when somebody scores. The most fun I ever had with that mode; was when the ball glitched and disappeared from the map, forcing everyone to kill each other until time ran out.

The worst aspect of Anarchy Reigns is that it will cause anger, rage like you’ve never felt capable of. Even if you approach this game in the proper manner, no measure of success is guaranteed. I have had matches where I was completely shut down. There was one in particular where I only died three times but only got one kill. Every time I got close to finishing someone off, a cut-scene happened, I was shot from behind by a mini-gun, I was struck dizzy by a flying sign-post, or I had to get out of the area or risk getting nuked by a bomb. I’ve been dominated in online games before, but at least I had an idea as to how it all went wrong and even then I still managed some kills. When Anarchy Reigns is at its worst, I’m stuck wandering in circles waiting for opportunities.

Furthermore, while this game makes impressive use of its scale, it suffers from a multitude of technical issues. Frame-rate is a chief problem throughout, because it drops into the teens regularly. Sure there aren’t any frame-perfect maneuvers to perform, but being unable to tell what is going on when the action gets hot enough is just awful. Also the net-code is just plain bad, which leads to teleporting around and getting sucked into grabs from far away.

Still, when everything comes together Anarchy Reigns is pretty good. The controls are very solid, the hits are crunchy and satisfying, and the soundtrack is absolutely excellent. It all depends on how you’re willing to approach it. If you’re willing to accept that bad things will happen, and that they’re not always your fault, you’ll be able to enjoy everything that this game does well. If the randomness doesn’t sound appealing, there’s always the campaign, survival modes, and even bot-matches to participate in. For its price, Anarchy Reigns has quite a lot to offer, even if it lives up to its name just a little too well.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Post-CEOtaku 2018 thoughts

As someone who writes about videogames, I’ve often struggled with the question: “Are videogames art?” Some out there would argue that videogames are just that, games. They’re the artistic equivalent of, say, basketball or backgammon. Though I don’t share that opinion, I’m also of the belief that a videogame’s artistic quality isn’t found in its graphics, sound, or cut-scenes. To me, the art has always been found in actually playing the game. This is a medium that thrives on interactivity.  How did I come to this conclusion? It’s pretty simple really. All I had to do was visit a fighting game tournament.

While I’ve certainly watched plenty of tournament streams, they just don’t compare to being at the venue. For one thing, there’s always this…energy. There are hundreds upon hundreds of players, all participating in matches. Each and every single one of them has their own story, and it is that story that brought them to the venue. It doesn’t matter if it’s the top 8, pools, or just casuals; everyone is giving their all. All the matches that they play are filled with countless close-calls, amazing finishes, incredible comebacks, and devastating losses. It’s overwhelming when you think about it. So much can happen in a single fight, let alone several thousand.

Witnessing all of this firsthand was an incredible experience. I could add up all of the words I’ve ever written about videogames, and they still wouldn’t compare to just a single night at an event. This, as far as I’m concerned, is what’s real. It is adrenaline and emotion, all wrapped tidily inside every moment, and it is beautiful. There will always be videogames that take place in another place or another time, but what really matters is the here and now. It will always be about the moment, the culmination of the player’s experiences, their practice, and their sacrifice. It’s that moment that drives them to go beyond their limits.

I guess at this point all I can really hope for is that I never lose sight of that moment. Though I lost my competitive edge well over a decade ago, there are still times where I find the right game, the one that pushes me to strive beyond my perceived limits. It is in this zone, where the difference between victory and defeat is measured in pixels, that I discover what’s real. It’s how I create art.

To everyone out there who has never attended a fighting game tournament, for me to say “You’re missing out” would be the understatement of a lifetime. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of the genre, you’re still going to meet tons of impassioned people, all with their own stories to tell.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

KORG Gadget review

A few days ago my review for KORG Gadget was posted.

During the review process, I composed a few songs. If you're at all curious, you can check them out on my Soundcloud.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Celebrating R-Type's 30th Anniversary

The arcade classic R-Type turned 30 this year.
You know what that means? Yeppers. I've got more reviews.

R-Type II

If all goes well, I'll eventually cover R-Type Leo, Super R-Type, R-Type III, and R-Type Delta.