Friday, November 18, 2022

Bayonetta 3 Review

Developer: Platinum
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $60

Bayonetta 3 has been one of my most anticipated games since it was announced almost 5 years ago. I've played both of the previous games and all 4 Devil May Cry games in preparation. I've been ready. In short, my expectations were pretty high. I wanted something that would surpass Bayonetta 2 and Devil May Cry 5 in terms of gameplay. I was also hoping that the game could maintain a smooth 60 FPS after 5 years in development for a system that both Platinum and Nintendo have plenty of experience working on. I don't think any of those dreams came true, though.

The big new thing in Bayonetta 3 is the Demon Slave mechanic. Bayonetta has always been able to summon demons for special attacks, but now you can summon them at will and directly control them. While holding ZR (default controls), Bayonetta will do a little dance as you take control of a summoned demon. The demons are very slow, have long drawn out animations, and you can't control Bayonetta while they're out, so you'll be vulnerable to attacks, but they're very powerful and do a lot of damage. This mechanic is actually required to do damage sometimes, so you can't just ignore it if you don't like it. There is an accessory that lets you control Bayonetta while summoning a demon, but then the AI will control the demon and it won't do what you want. You'll also still have to hold down ZR, so you'll need 3 fingers on the shoulder buttons to also use the dodge and stance buttons while fighting as Bayonetta. Demons can also be used for some light puzzle solving a few times throughout the game. It's not quite Zelda, or even DMC, levels of puzzles, though. They don't slow the action down too much.
I'm not a big fan of the Demon Slaves. Sure, it's flashy, but controlling the demons isn't fun. They are slow, clunky, unresponsive, and come along with a number of camera issues, like blocking your view of the action with their huge bodies. This is one mechanic too many. I think it makes combat worse, especially during boss fights, which sometimes require you to do something specific with a demon. It takes the focus away from Bayonetta, who is actually fun to play. I also hate having to use my middle finger to hold the button down. Why isn't this a toggle? The whole thing feels like something they only did because it looks cool. It doesn't ruin the game, but it does make it less fun to play than the previous ones. Keeping it simple would've been better.
The actual combat in Bayonetta 3 might actually be the best in the series. There's so many ways to attack and zip around all over the place. It's very easy to do moves, and I always feel like I have an answer for every enemy. It's just too bad that often the answer is to just summon a demon.
A big part of what makes combat so fun is the wide variety of weapons. Every weapon you get in Bayonetta 3 is some crazy off the wall thing. There's a yoyo, a train, a microphone stand, a magician's top hat and wand, and all kinds of stuff. I don't like all of them, but there's something here for everyone. Sadly, the only returning weapons are the guns. I miss the swords from the other games. I was also kind of sad to see that you can't put different weapons on your hands and feet anymore. The new weapon's flair and creativity almost makeup for that, though.
Another thing I really like about this game is the freedom it gives you to customize your characters whenever you want. You can go into the menu and equip different weapons, accessories, and even learn new moves right in the middle of combat. You don't have to buy moves from Rodin anymore. He mostly sells cosmetics now. Every weapon has a talent tree now, so that's where you go to learn new moves. It's more like a mobile version of Rodin's store than an RPG talent tree. You can also change costumes and equip different demons from the menu.
The other major addition to the game is the new playable character, Viola, who you can play as in a handful of levels. This isn't like DMC5, where you're constantly switching characters. Viola is a young Umbra Witch, like Bayonetta and Jeanne, but with more of a Punk Rock Ninja style and nowhere near the elegance and grace. Her gameplay is a lot more grounded and realistic. She looks kind of clumsy compared to Bayonetta. She reminds me of a Devil May Cry character. Her gameplay even seems to be borrowing from DMC and Ninja Gaiden. Viola exclusively uses a 2-handed katana, she has a grappling hook for swinging around, and she activates Witch Time by blocking at the last second instead of dodging. She has a dodge, but it isn't very useful. Viola also has the demon slave ability, but she only has one demon, Cheshire, a huge Alice in Wonderland inspired cat. Unlike Bayonetta; however, Viola can't take direct control of Cheshire, so she can still attack during summons, but you still have to hold the shoulder button down.
Playing as Viola is a lot of fun. I wouldn't mind a whole game where you only play as her. This isn’t that game, though. She's a secondary character in Bayonetta's game and she plays very differently from her. That’s kind of an issue. Since her Witch Time is on block and not on dodge, her buttons feel like they’re flipped, even though they’re the same as Bayonetta’s. You can put block on ZR with one of the button presets, but then you’re putting your stance button on ZR because they’re both on the same button. The stance button is the same as the lock-on in Bayonetta 1 and 2, except it doesn't lock-on here, it just keeps you facing a certain way so you can do directional inputs. There is no button configuration that doesn’t make switching between Viola and Bayonetta not feel awkward every time. It’s not a game breaking issue, but it’s dumb that it even is an issue because this could have easily been fixed if the game allowed you to fully customize your controls.
One thing that really sticks out about this game is the size of the levels. They’re huge! They’re not just long, they’re also full of areas hidden behind buildings and down branching paths. I really wasn’t expecting so much exploration in a Bayonetta game. Rumors say the game was more Mario 64-like in structure at one point, which makes a lot of sense. There’s always some collectable or bonus area to find, so your exploration is rewarded. Levels aren’t just big for the sake of being big. They even put a waypoint button on L3, so you’re not going to get lost.
They really went all out with the minigames in this one. It’s not just a Space Harrier level. There’s Panzer Dragoon-like on-rails shooting, a 2D shoot ‘em up, Kaiju battles, and Jeanne’s levels, which are based on games like Elevator Action 2 and Rolling Thunder. There’s 4 Jeanne levels, which I feel is too many, but they’re not super hard or complicated, so I didn’t have too much of a problem with them. I just don’t think they needed to do 4 of them. There’s even more of them available after beating the game, along with a sort of Witch Trials survival mode in which you can play as all 3 characters.
If you said this looks like a PS360 era game, you wouldn’t be far off. There’s probably some textures and effects that couldn’t be done on Wii U, but aside from those, this game doesn’t look any better than Bayonetta 1 and 2. The framerate is just as inconsistent as in those games on Nintendo systems, too. The game aims for 60, but it’s usually hovering somewhere around 45-55 and sometimes drops into the 30s. It’s usually fine, but it does get visibly choppy in a few areas.

The soundtrack is absolutely amazing. It doesn't have a classy Frank Sinatra cover as its main theme, but it's still great. There's punk, disco, metal, opera, some Castlevania-ish classical, and there's some jazzy big band stuff in there, too. It's definitely the best part of the game's presentation.

Don't get me wrong, Bayonetta 3 is a good action game, and I had a good time with it, but I don’t think it’s as good as the first two, or DMC5 for that matter. The melee combat is better than ever, but there’s way too much focus on the demon slave mechanic, which just sucks in every way. I really like playing as Viola, but switching between her and Bayonetta never stops feeling awkward because they are so different and the lack of fully customizable controls. This game just feels like it was designed by a very stubborn person.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Radiant Silvergun Review

Developers: Treasure (Original), Live Wire (Switch)
Platform: NS
Price: $20

Radiant Silvergun is one of those legendary games you always hear about, but not a lot of people have played. It's probably better known for being expensive than it is for being a good game. It was a Saturn exclusive and it only came out in Japan, so that's understandable. It's by Treasure, makers of Sin & Punishment, Gunstar Heroes, and Ikaruga. They were always known for great action games, but this was their first shoot 'em up. It plays very differently from Ikaruga, but I see how one led to the other. While Ikaruga is about simple ideas inspired by traditional shoot 'em up mechanics, Radiant Silvergun is about complexity, breaking genre conventions, and a heavy dose of RPG elements.

Radiant Silvergun is unlike any shooter I've ever played. There's no Gradius style upgrade system, you don't get screen clearing bombs, and it's not about shooting everything in sight. In some ways, this game is as complex as learning how to play a fighting game. I actually watched YouTube videos on how to play it.
Unlike in most shooters, you don't pick up items to switch your shots in this game. There are no items at all. You start out with 6 different shot types and a bullet soaking sword attack. In the original arcade release, there were only 3 buttons, so you pressed them in different combinations to do different attacks. They're all mapped to their own buttons in the Switch version, but you can still play with just 3 buttons. Curious about how this control method worked, I busted out my arcade stick, remapped the buttons, and learned to play like that. Now I actually prefer to play that way. It was confusing at first, but it eventually became second nature. It just makes sense when you're playing. I think it's much easier than remembering what each of the 7 buttons do.
Your 3 main buttons are A, B, and C. Those refer to the buttons on the arcade and Saturn versions, and not the buttons on a Switch controller, so that's another thing that confused me when looking for info online. They are B, A, and R on Switch by default. These buttons are used for your vulcan, homing, and spread shots. Pressing 3 different combinations of 2 of those buttons will do the backwards, homing plasma, and homing spread shots, which count as alternate shots of A, B, and C. You can also press all 3 buttons at once to use the Radiant Sword, which is used to soak up pink bullets. You have to dodge all other attacks. All these different types of shots come in handy in different situations and are sometimes required to do damage to certain enemies. The homing spread shot can also be used to find secret cats hidden in the game.
Instead of upgrading your shots with items, you level them up by killing enemies with them, like in an RPG. You actually gain XP from killing enemies and it goes into the shot type you used. The Radiant Sword doesn't level up, but soaking pink bullets with it fills up a meter, which you can then use for a powerful giant sword attack when it's full. That's the closest thing you have to a bomb in this game.
But like I mentioned earlier, this is a shooter that isn't about shooting everything in sight. Every enemy is colored either red, yellow, or blue. Killing an enemy of one color starts a chain, and killing 3 enemies of that color without killing any enemies of the other colors completes it. The more chains of a single color you complete, the higher your score/XP will be, so the fastest way to level up is to only kill enemies of one color. The best color to go after varies, but it seems to be red most of the time. Of course, this is easier said than done. All enemies are going to attack you, it's hard not to kill enemies in your way sometimes, and you lose your chain progress when you die. The only way to get better at this is to play the game over and over again and memorize it. That's a lot to keep track of, huh?
The funny thing is, you don't have to be a chaining master to complete the game. I'm not sure exactly how the game unlocks credits in this version, but it keeps giving you more and more the longer you play. After playing a certain amount of time, you can unlock free play in Arcade mode and 99 lives in Story mode. There's also lots of difficulty levels and a training mode, so you can practice without life limits. You can even pick what level you want to start on in training mode. Eventually, you unlock so many lives that some modes simply stop being challenging, so then the challenge comes from playing the Score Attack mode, trying to get the good ending in Arcade mode, and playing the higher difficulties in Story mode.
The main difference between Arcade and Story modes is that Story mode lets you save your shot level progress from game to game. You also only get 1 credit, but you can unlock up to 99 lives. Story mode feels impossible at first since you start with 4 lives, but it becomes more manageable the more you play. Story mode also has all the cutscenes and dialogue, which are not in the Arcade mode at all. They're all in Japanese with English subs; though, so it can be hard to follow along at times.

What can I say about the graphics? This is a 3D Saturn game. It looks rough even by 1997 standards. The polygon models are very basic, there's no antialiasing, and the textures are so pixelated it almost looks like a 2D game. The framerate looks like it's solid 60fps, at least. There are some filters you can turn on to smooth out the pixelation, but I don't think they look good. There is one option to use alpha channels for transparencies instead of dithering and that looks OK.
The music is much better than the graphics. It has a very orchestral sound to it, and it gets very dramatic and intense at times. It makes me think more of high fantasy swords and sorcery settings than sci-fi. It reminds me of music from an RPG. It's definitely different from what we got in most other shoot 'em ups from the 90s.

Like with Castlevania Rondo of Blood, Seiken Densetsu 3, Monster World IV, and so on, sometimes the reputation of these old import-only games takes on a life of its own and they become almost mythical. There's no way they can live up to the hype. Radiant Silvergun is a great game, though. It's not my favorite Treasure game, but it's definitely up there. I love the 3 button controls, the RPG elements are something different, and the boss designs are awesome. The game is definitely not for everyone, though. I think most people will die within a few minutes and give up on it. It really pushed the limits of my reflexes. I don't think I'll ever beat the story on anything higher than normal. The patterns are just too difficult, and there are way too many bullets for me to dodge.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Street Fighter 6 Closed Beta Impressions

Developer: Capcom
Platforms: XBSX, PC, PS5
Version Played: PC

Last Thursday, I spent hours taking apart and putting back together a couple of arcade sticks. I switched out the Hori buttons on my newest stick with Sanwa buttons from an old one. All in preparation for this past weekend, when I got a chance to try out the Street Fighter 6 Beta. It was really more like a network test than anything. The only mode available was the Battle Hub, which is the new 3rd person online lobby system, and the survey I did afterwards was mostly about the network performance. There was a lot to see and do, though. There were 8 characters, 6 stages, training, minigames, the lobbies, and everything that comes along with them. I think the only thing I didn't do was the tournaments, which sound like a weekend event type of thing.

Of course, the most interesting thing to me is how the game actually plays. The first thing I noticed was that it's a bit slower than SF5. I'd say it feels closer to SF4, which seems to be a theme with SF6. I also noticed that there's a lot of hit stop going on. Maybe even more than in SF4. What I mean by hit stop is that the character animations stop for a brief moment when you connect with an attack. Super Smash Bros and Zelda games do this a lot, too. The actual fighting and controls of Street Fighter 6 feel really good. They feel like an evolution of SF5's. Move inputs are very simple, the game feels responsive, and the timing for basic combos is pretty forgiving and easy to understand thanks to the slower pace of the game. One clear example of how the game is easier to control is that characters with Rekka Ken style moves (like Karin and Fei Long in past games) only require a quarter circle input to start the attack and then you just tap on buttons for the following attacks. I guess Luke in SF5 really was a preview of how SF6 would play.
Street Fighter 6's new mechanic is the Drive system. You can use it for parrying, reversals, crumple attacks, and canceling out of animations with a dash. Sound familiar? Pressing MP and MK together activates the parry animation. It's really more like a focus attack than a SF3 parry since you don't have to perfectly time it. You just hold the buttons, start glowing blue, and become invulnerable to most attacks. You then get a faster counter attack after a successful parry. Activating the parry at all costs meter, but you also refill meter on successful parries. You can also dash out of the parry animation and attack. You can do this same Drive Dash after connecting with some attacks. For example, Ken can Drive Dash after connecting with neutral LP, MP, and HP. Like with SF4's FADC, canceling out of an animation with a Drive Dash gives you a chance to continue combos you otherwise would not be able to. A combo is not limited to one Drive Dash, but it costs 3/6 of your Drive meter to Drive Dash, so there is a limit.
Drive Impact looks and works almost exactly like your basic Focus Attack from SF4. You press HP and HK together and go into a nearly invulnerable animation that ends with an attack which will crumple your opponent if it connects. The big difference here is that this costs meter and it can be blocked. It will still knock back if blocked, though. You can also press HP and HK and the direction of your opponent after a successful block to do a Drive Reversal.
I forget if they have a new name for this, but what is commonly referred to as EX moves (Special moves that use meter when you do them with 2 buttons) also use Drive meter as their resource now and cost 2/6 of the meter. In older games, they just used the Super meter, which is only used for Supers in SF6.
I was never a fan of Focus Attacks, and while Drive Impact is an improvement on the idea, I'm still not a fan. There's too many "you can't hit me now" mechanics going on in this game. Maybe if it was just the Drive Parries, it would be fine. Drive Dashing looks cool and allows people to get creative with combos, but most people will never be able to do this stuff in a real match. I feel like the timing is just too strict, and the amount of inputs you have to remember and perfectly execute to do these long combos is too high for everyone besides the people who want to make SF6 the only game they play.

Honestly, I spent most of my time with the Beta in the training room, but I did also do a bunch of online matches. Some were fine and some were very laggy. Sometimes I felt like my moves didn't come out and sometimes it felt like my moves came out way too late and whiffed. It felt like the timing varied depending on the lag and it felt different from playing in the training room. This is why I'm not a fan of online fighting games no matter what kind of "netcode" they use.
There sure seems to be a lot of focus on the online aspect of the game, too. So much so that the game has a straight up 3rd person Phantasy Star Online style lobby, the Battle Hub. This is the first thing you see when you start the game. It's basically something between an arcade and a casino. There's other people running around with their goofball avatars, a shop where you can buy clothes for your goofball avatar, and a bunch of arcade machines all over. Most of the cabinets are Japanese style head to head cabinets with 1 screen and 1 set of controls on each side. You can go up to one of these, sit down, and go into training mode or spectate a match on another machine while you wait for a challenger. Other people can then go to the opposite side and challenge you. If there is already a match going on, people can either spectate or queue up to fight the winner. You can also just queue up for Casual and Ranked battles from the menu, so I think the cabinets will end up being more for when you want to fight specific people.

There are also minigame machines around the back of the room. These work just like the other machines, allowing you to go into the training room while waiting, except you play minigames against challengers. One of the minigames available gave you a list of objectives to do during a match with no life bars. For example, get 2 knockdowns, do 3 throws, 2 Drive Parries, and 2 anti-airs. The first person to complete all the objectives wins. I didn't really like that one. The other minigame was more like a reverse life bar tug of war. You fight to push a life bar towards your opponent's direction and whoever pushes the life bar all the way across first gets the KO. A bull will also regularly run out from one side of the screen and hit people for huge amounts of damage. This minigame took place on a stage not available in the regular VS modes, a streetside market with monkeys running around. I thought this one was a lot better than the other one.

There was also a section of the Battle Hub that had a classic Capcom arcade game on a bunch of cabinets. These seemed to be on a daily rotation. I saw Final Fight, Magic Sword, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the super hard version they put in SF30AC. I'm guessing these will all be games from Capcom Arcade Stadium 1 and 2. I actually played all the way through Final Fight here. All the games are on free play, but the emulator only has the bare minimum in terms of features. You can change the button mapping, and that's about it for the options. You can't even turn off the scanline filter or make a save state. It's cool that these games are even there, though.
Why are these old arcade games here? Well, you can just play them for fun on free play, but there is also some kind of leaderboard rankings system you can compete in if you play with 1 credit. You can also play them to complete in-game challenges. Just like SF5, SF6 has a bunch of weekly challenges you can do to earn the game's currency. I saw challenges that require you to do online battles, play the minigames, and play the classic arcade games. You can then use the currency you've earned to buy clothing items for your avatar. They sure have put in a lot of work into this stuff. I just wonder if the people who stick with this game for the long haul will care about it. All this avatar stuff seems like it's aimed at the people who play free to play service games, like Fortnite, but as far as I know, SF6 is not a free to play game.
I really liked what I saw in the training room. There's options for just about anything you might want to practice. I used it to set up my own little makeshift VS CPU mode. There's a setting on there to just fight CPU controlled opponents with regular life bars and rounds. You can even set their difficulty. You can change stages and characters right from the training menu, too. I could have even done local 2 player VS there. There's toggles for displays for frame timing, cancel timing, inputs, and all kinds of stuff. I think the only thing missing is a hit box display option, like the one in Capcom Fighting Collection. This is the most useful training room I've ever seen.
I'm just going to guess that parts of the graphics are simply not done in this version because all the background NPCs looked very rough, with ugly models and basic textures. This was especially noticeable in the Final Fight themed stage where you can see Roxy and Andore in the background looking hideous. We know what those characters should look like and that ain't it. The backgrounds themselves look great, though. This game makes SF5 look ancient. All the backgrounds have amazing lighting and are incredibly detailed. I have to wonder if you'll be able to walk around them in the story mode because it looks like they've modeled a lot more than what they needed to. I have major issues with how some of the returning characters look, though. Why are all the guys so wide? Why are Guile's arms and shoulders so big? He looks like Popeye. And who is that woman cosplaying as Chun-Li?
I have to put my dislike for Drive Impact and the way some of the characters look aside and admit that I think this game is a lot of fun to play. SF6 is now on my wishlist. I'm confused about what they plan to do with all that Battle Hub stuff, though. Will there be a free to play version of SF6? I doubt it. Who is all this stuff for anyway? Is the person buying SF6 to play through arcade mode with all the characters going to care about avatar clothes? Are the people training for Evo going to care about them? I can't wait to see what the reaction to all this is when the full game comes out.