Saturday, June 24, 2017

ARMS Review

ARMS is Nintendo’s new fighting game for the Switch. It was developed by EPD, which is the merged EAD and SPD divisions. From what I’ve heard, many of the developers who worked on Arms also worked on Mario Kart 7 and 8. This game is probably the reason why MK8D was released on Switch soon after launch. We’re probably going to have to wait a while for Mario Kart 9.

ARMS is a completely new IP, unrelated to any other Nintendo characters. I’d say ARMS falls somewhere between Punch-Out!! and F-Zero in the Nintendo fantasy spectrum. The characters and stages are more realistic than most Nintendo franchises, but there is a science fiction element to it.

Much like in Street Fighter II, each stage is themed around one of the characters. There are 11 stages and characters in total, including Max Brass and his stage, which will become playable with the first free DLC pack. There’s a stage in front of a Ramen restaurant for Min Min, one on the campus of a Ninja College for Ninjara, and one on a concert stage inside a stadium for Ribbon Girl. All the stages have some kind of high ground, columns, or trampolines to mix things up. You can use columns to take cover and trampolines to juggle your opponents. I like most of the stages, but there is one I have to call out for how annoying it is. Kid Cobra’s stage, Snake Park, has futuristic skateboard disk things that allow you to move really fast around the arena. This sounds cool in concept, but what it actually does is throw all character movement and attack speed balance out the window. It reminds me of when Blizzard got vehicle happy in World of Warcraft during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Forget about all of your character’s gear and spells and get in this stupid tank.

Nintendo has created a very colorful and diverse cast of characters for ARMS. For example, Min Min is a martial artist with Ramen noodle ARMS, Ninjara is a Ninja with chain ARMS, and Twintelle is a singer turned actress who has hair ARMS. Even though the basic gameplay is the same for every character, everyone feels unique. There are no clones or slightly different versions of the same character here. There’s fast and stylish characters, big slow characters, and weird characters that are harder to use. There’s something for pretty much everyone here.

Sadly, not a lot about this world and characters has been explained. I don’t really know why this ARMS tournament is taking place. I don’t even know what ARMS stands for. I just learned that it’s the masks that give the characters their ARMS powers from a developer interview today. That info is not in the game. There are some bios on the ARMS website, and the Grand Prix announcer, Biff, might make a quick mention of the relationship between two characters before a fight, but it goes by so quickly, you might not even have time to read it. I know there has been some story related stuff posted on the Japanese ARMS Twitter, but that doesn’t do us non-Japanese speakers much good. There are no cutscenes explaining any of the character's stories and the game doesn’t have a paper or digital manual to explain anything either. The developers recently said they’re working on story related stuff, but I’m not sure if that will actually make it in the game or just be something they’ll release on the Internet. I think the game could have greatly benefited from opening and ending cutscenes for each fighter in the GP mode, like Street Fighter IV had in Arcade mode.

Nintendo has mostly shown off this game with motion controls, but you can use pretty much any Switch controller configuration. You can’t really play with split JoyCons and buttons at the same time; though, because the game will constantly try to switch between motion and JoyCon grip controls if you move the JoyCons around too much. I tried to play with motion controls a few times, but I can’t do it. It feels way too slow and inaccurate after playing with the Pro Controller. I think the Pro controls are great. My only problem with them is that block is on L3 (Left stick button) and you can’t remap it, because the game has no options menu, just like Mario Kart 8. I wish I could put block on L instead.

ARMS is a fighting game distilled down to the fundamentals. There are no big combos or quarter circle motions here. The gameplay in ARMS is all about pokes, spacing, and timing. So, basically what I’m saying is, ARMS is all about the footsies. ARMS is sort of a cross between a 3D arena fighting game and a boxing game, like Punch-Out!!. You can walk, jump, dash, and air dash, but you're always facing your opponent. It’s a lot like Z-targetting something in a 3D Zelda game. The developers said that early prototypes had Link dual wielding hookshots, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Attacks in ARMS are all punches and throws, but all the different kinds of ARMS make it look more like an anime mecha battle than a boxing match. There are traditional looking boxing gloves, and then there are lasers, missiles, shields, boomerangs, and even some whip-like ARMS. Most ARMS have different properties, such as ice, fire, and electricity. What these extra properties do is not explained in the game, but most are pretty easy to figure out. Ice slows people down, electricity shocks people, and fire burns. I’ve found out what the other properties do, but I had to look it up on a 3rd party ARMS website.

Each character starts off with their 3 signature ARMS and you can unlock the rest of the ARMS for them by playing a target breaking minigame. You get coins to buy time playing the minigame by playing every other mode in the game. Unlocking all of the ARMS for every character takes a lot of time, though. I’ve been playing for a whole week now and I just finished unlocking all of them for Min Min. You get loot boxes for every character while playing the target breaking minigame, but most of them will be for the character you’re playing as. This unlocking system is fine, but I think amiibo support would have made a lot of sense here. It would be cool if I could scan a few amiibos to get random loot boxes each day. The game does not support amiibos at all right now, which I find kind of crazy. Nearly every Nintendo game released after Super Smash Bros 3DS/Wii U has had some kind of amiibo support.

ARMS has a bunch of modes to play online, in local multiplayer, and against the CPU. There’s Grand Prix, Versus, Party Match, Ranked Match, Friends, and Local. I have not played Local, but I know Friends allows you to make custom private online lobbies.

Grand Prix is basically the arcade mode. In it you play 10 matches against the AI, including minigames, and fight a boss at the end. If you play on difficulty level 4 or higher, you fight an 11th match against an even harder boss. It reminds me a lot of Street Fighter II in its structure. This mode is pretty barebones and could have used some story cutscenes to flesh out the world of ARMS. Right now, it’s just a bunch of matches with some text from the announcer in between them.

In Versus you can play all the different types of matches, minigames, tutorials, and have a training match. There’s 1 on 1, team, and free for all fights, and target breaking, volleyball, and basketball minigames. 1-on100 is a single player survival mode/time trial, and ARMS Test is a mode in which you play an endless stream of matches with a random selection of ARMS. You can play against the CPU or with up to 4 players in split-screen in all the fight modes and minigames, except for Hoops, which is always 1 on 1.

There are a few tutorials to get you started under “Training” in Versus. These are separate from the usual training match against AI with infinite time and health. You can set up a training match by changing the rules in “Fight”. The tutorials have you fighting against AI with specific behaviours, like one that constantly tries to throw you and one that won’t stop jumping. These are just here to teach you the basics. They’re better than nothing, but could have been better. The only explanation for these tutorials is a few sentences from the announcer before the fight. The only one that walks you through the match is the first one.

Party Match puts you in an online lobby with up to 8 players and matches you up for random types of matches. You can be put in 1v1, 2v2, 4 way and 3 way free for all matches, V-Ball, Hoops, and Skillshot games. Sometimes the final boss, Hedlock, will show up and you can fight him with 2 or 3 people. Hedlock is a head with 6 ARMS who takes over the body of one of the ARMS characters. He kind of looks like a Terminator skull with 6 ARMS. I’ve probably spent most of my time playing Party Match, but I don’t like the 3 and 4 player fights at all. The 3 and 4 way matches always end up with someone getting ganged up on and the game changes your target whenever you do a certain amount of damage to someone or someone does a lot of damage to you. It’s very annoying to have your target changed while you’re trying to fight someone and then having to manually change it back. This also happens in the 2v2 matches. The 2v2 matches are the worst type of match in the game. You’re tethered to your teammate by a giant rubber band, so you can’t dodge anything in one direction, and if your teammate get’s thrown, you go flying too. Another annoying thing about Party Match is that you get bonuses when you lose and penalties when you win. If you go on a losing streak, you might get to start the next match with a full Rush meter, and if you go on a winning streak, you’ll start getting your health reduced by 25% until you’re starting matches with ¼ of your max health.

Ranked mode is all 1 on 1 matches against people around your skill level. You actually have to unlock the ability to play this mode by beating the GP on level 4 difficulty, so no noobs allowed. When you win a fight, you gain experience and level up when you fill an XP bar. The bar doesn’t have any text on it, so I don’t know how many points you need to level up. I know you gain XP when you win and get XP taken away when you lose. This mode is kind of stressful for me. This is the mode in which the game stops being fun and starts becoming homework. I made it to rank 8 and I think I’ll stop there.

I think this is a fun game, but it’s lacking in a few key areas. It makes me think of pre-videogames Nintendo toys and weird Japanese arcade games that never come to the US. The gameplay is fun, exciting, and easy to pick up. I think it has a great art style and cool looking characters that I want to know more about. The biggest flaw I see is that the game is missing the thing that ties everything together. Right now, ARMS is basically just the gameplay. This world is begging to be fleshed out. The game is severely lacking in the presentation department. It needs a story, cutscenes, and voice acting for the announcer. There are new characters, stages, and modes coming as free DLC in the future, but I don’t know if that includes an improved story. I hope it does, because I really want to know more about the world of ARMS.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Castlevania Review

Castlevania is a sidescrolling action platformer developed by Konami. It was originally released on the Famicom in 1986 and later on the NES in 1987. I played the 3DS Virtual Console version for this review. You can also get the game on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console, GBA, and it is one of the 30 games in the NES Classic Edition.

Castlevania was the first game I ever rented. It was this game that made me take notice of Konami. After playing Castlevania, I checked out Contra, Life Force, Blades of Steel, Double Dribble, and Castlevania II. The silver NES became a sort of seal of quality for me. And then I bought Bayou Billy and stopped thinking that.

When I think about Castlevania these days, I don’t think about the classic monster movie theme in the original trilogy, but that’s what stuck out to me as a kid. The title screens in the first 3 games have film sprockets around the edges and the games are full of classic horror movie monsters, such as Frankenstein’s monster, phantom knight armors, and the Mermen, which looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I had not watched the movies those monsters came from at the time, but I was big into Scooby Doo, so I pretty much knew who they all were. The horror movie theme went away after Castlevania III, but the monsters became part of the Castlevania bestiary.

Castlevania is pretty light on story. There is no story text or dialogue in the actual game. The only story is found in the manual and it’s not much. It sounds like the developers had some kind of plan for the series already, though. In the manual, we learn that Castlevania is the name of Dracula’s castle. It also says that “The Count has waited 100 years for a rematch”. Castlevania takes place 100 years after the events in Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge for the Game Boy. The protagonist of that game, Christopher Belmont, is the one who killed Dracula 100 years earlier.

This is a pretty early NES game and sometimes it’s hard to tell what it is they were trying to make, but I think they did a great job creating environments that told a story and fit together in a way that made sense. You start off in the courtyard and make your way into the main hall, which might look familiar, since it has been remade for nearly every Castlevania game. The entrance is on a smaller, lower section of the castle, so you then go up the castle, cross over a bridge, and go into a tower where you can drop down into the catacombs below. These catacombs lead you into the dungeons in the lower part of the main castle. You can then make your way up to Dracula's throne room from there. The castle looks overgrown and in ruins. There are broken statues and cracked walls everywhere. It looks like a war was fought there. A war against a long line of vampire hunters.

The game has 18 stages split up into 6 blocks of 3 and you fight a boss at the end of each block. The bosses are all straight out of old movies and books. There’s a giant bat, Medusa, The Grim Reaper, and of course Dracula. They start off with simple and easy to avoid patterns, but they get a lot more difficult in the second half of the game. I thought the last 2 bosses, The Grim reaper and Dracula, were very difficult. They are not so cheap you can only beat them if you get lucky, though. There are actual strategies you can follow for them. Some of the best strategies revolve around using the sub-weapons.

The Castlevania series is well known for its awesome music and the first game has some great tunes in it. The classic “Vampire Killer” made its debut in this game. Some other great tunes in here include “Wicked Child” and “Stalker”. Not a lot of these songs made it into the other games in the same way “Vampire Killer” did, but the style of the music definitely carried on and you can still hear the influence this game’s soundtrack had in the later games.

The gameplay of Castlevania is the definition of methodical. It’s all about knowing how Simon is going to react before you even press the button. It’s about memorizing the game by playing, dying, and doing better the next time. Your whip attacks aren’t like the instant attacks in other games. Simon actually has to pull back the whip and then attack, so your timing has to be just right. Unlike modern Castlevanias, you can’t control Simon after he jumps, so you need to be sure your spacing is right. And if you get hit by an enemy, you’ll be knocked back, so you really don’t want to get hit right after jumping over a pit.

Your main weapon in the game is the holy whip passed down within the Belmont family, Vampire Killer. You start off with a normal looking whip, which you can upgrade it into a morning star, and then upgrade it again into a morning star with a longer chain. You can get whip upgrades by whipping candles.

Who knew candles were full of so many goodies. You can whip candles and find bags of money, which give you points that will get you a 1up when your score reaches a certain amount. You can get rosaries that kill everything on the screen and potions that make you invincible for a few seconds. There’s also five sub-weapons. The sub-weapons are special items you can use by spending your hearts. There’s a cross boomerang, bottles of holy water, throwing daggers, throwing axes, and a pocket watch that freezes minor enemies for a few seconds. In Castlevania, hearts don’t give you health, they work more like MP or mana in other games and allow you to use your sub-weapons. Hearts also drop from candles. There’s also the double (II) and triple (III) shot upgrades for your sub-weapons. These upgrades allow you to use your sub-weapons (except the pocket watch) 2 or 3 times in rapid succession. Usually, you have to wait until the sub-weapons is gone from the screen to use it again.

There are secrets hidden within the walls of Castlevania. You can whip blocks and walls and find hearts, double and triple shot upgrades, and health refilling pork chops. I know it looks like chicken, but the manual says they’re pork chops, and who am I to argue? It seems like some later Castlevanias forgot about this aspect of the game, which is a shame, because it makes you want to whip every block to see what you can find. Finding secrets like that was part of what made exploring in Castlevania games so much fun.

There is a timer in Castlevania, but you can pretty much ignore it if you want. You get 300, 400, or 500 seconds for each block of 3 stages and you can get extra time added to your starting time depending on how many enemies you kill in the previous block. If you run out of time, you will lose a life, but you probably won’t, unless you put the game down and forget to pause. I don’t know why they bothered with the time or the score. They don't really fit the game. I guess they were just things developers put in games, because they were in a lot of other games back then.

Castlevania isn’t just a relic of a time before there was Metroid if my Vania. This game is a real classic and still a lot of fun to play. I think every fan of the series should play it. Even if you only like the Metroidvanias, it's fun to see how it all began. I thought it was very interesting looking back at this game and seeing how it influenced the later games and even games from other developers.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Bayonetta Review

Bayonetta is a stylish hard action game or as the Japanese commercials called it, a Non-stop Climax Action game. It was developed by Platinum Games and Published by Sega on the PS3 and Xbox 360 back in 2009/2010, on Wii U in 2014, and in 2017 on Steam for PC. I first played the game when it came out on X360, but this is a review of the Wii U version.

Bayonetta is a bit much. That’s kind of the theme of the game. Everything about it is over the top. From the story, to the enemy designs, to Bayonetta herself. Everything about the game has that extra layer of detail that makes you wonder if they went overboard with it, and they did! Some might even say it’s gaudy, but that’s what gives the game its unique flavor.

Bayonetta not only dresses in a skintight, backless, leather outfit with a cleavage window, it’s actually made of her hair, which is magical, and she can summon giant demons through it. Bayonetta doesn’t just shoot guns, she also uses them for melee attacks, and has 2 more she uses as heels in her shoes, which she can also shoot and use in her kicks. Bayonetta doesn’t just walk, she sashays like a runway model. When she pulls a lever, she hangs off it like a stripper. When she fights Jeanne in a cutscene, it looks like she’s doing the tango. Everything about her has something ridiculous, sexy, or fourth wall breaking.

Bayonetta is an Umbra Witch who was sealed inside a casket at the bottom of a lake for 480 years. The game never says 480, but at the time of the game, it has been 500 years since she was sealed away and 20 years since she woke up. Bayonetta has amnesia and can’t remember anything about the Umbra Witches, but she knows she is a Witch and remembers how to fight like one. At some point after waking up, she hooked up with Rodin, who gave her the name, Bayonetta. Now she works as a nun and helps a Joe Pesci caricature called Enzo with funerals. Or something like that. It seems more like they use dead people as bait for angels.

The story of the game has Bayonetta looking for Father Balder, who is the last Lumen Sage, CEO of Ithavoll Group, is working with the angels, and looks like Walter Mercado X David Bowie. Basically, Balder has the Right Eye and Bayonetta has the Left Eye of Jubileus. The angels want to get Bayonetta so they can combine the eyes and resurrect Jubileus, who is basically Shiva. I think the story is alright, but nothing amazing. I don’t think it’s very well told in the game. It comes off like they try to make the story sound more mysterious than it actually is. I think the animated movie, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate, does a much better job of telling the story.

The story takes place in the fictional city of Vigrid. This city looks like it was inspired by Barcelona Spain. The architecture and ornaments look like they were inspired by the art of Antoni Gaudi, who was an architect who used the style of Catalan Modernism and designed “La Sagrada Familia”, a huge church in Barcelona. I think it’s very fitting that this style is used for the city of Vigrid, since it meshes perfectly with the rest of the game. Everything about Catalan Modernism is full of details layered upon details, just like everything in Bayonetta.

The design of Bayonetta’s enemies, the angels, also follows this same kind of style. The angels aren’t cute little cherubs, like Pit from Kid Icarus. The angels here are humanoid doves with golden knight armor that looks like it was made from an 18th century train, upside down statue heads with wings, and other grotesque takes on classic angelic imagery.

Bayonetta plays similarly to games like Devil May Cry and the 3D Ninja Gaiden games. Its combat is focused on doing big combos. The main thing that sets Bayonetta apart is the Witch Time mechanic. Witch Time is a time slowing effect that is triggered when you dodge an enemy attack at the last second. When Witch Time is activated, everything slows down, except for Bayonetta, allowing her to attack enemies without worrying about taking damage. Another thing that’s unique to Bayonetta’s combat are the torture attacks. When you fill up your magic meter, you can press the punch and kick buttons together to perform a torture attack on an enemy. When you do one of these attacks, Bayonetta will put an enemy into a witch torture device and deal a lot of damage. These devices actually are based on real devices that were used to torture witches. Bayonetta also has a Wicked Weave finishing move for all the bosses. During these Wicked Weave moves, Bayonetta will summon a demon through her hair, forming a giant hair monster that deals the finishing blow to a boss. It’s kind of like a hair demon fatality.

I think Bayonetta’s controls work well for the most part, but there’s one thing that bugs me about them, the target button is on R and dodge is on ZR and you can’t remap the buttons. There are some moves which have easier inputs when you are locked onto an enemy and you can’t use R + B to dodge while in the air, both of which are pretty helpful. I found myself playing with my index finger on R and my middle finger on ZR. It’s not exactly a Monster Hunter claw, but it’s not the most comfortable way to hold a controller. In Bayonetta 2, they moved the lock-on button to ZL and even though the Wii U version came in the same box, it was not changed to match the updated controls.

Another thing I don’t like is the stages that have Bayonetta riding a vehicle or something. There’s a stage in which you fight a boss while on a surfboard, one where you ride a motorcycle down a highway, and one where you ride on a rocket through the night sky. I’m pretty sure these are references to Shinobi, Hang-On, and Space Harrier, since the game is full of Sega and Capcom game references. The motorcycle stage isn’t too bad, it’s just too long and controls like a bad 90s arcade game. Same thing with the rocket stage, except the rocket gameplay is not very good at all and there aren’t enough checkpoints in it. I didn’t like the surfing boss, because the camera angles were bad and the game gave me GamePad prompts for the Wicked Weave when I was using the Pro Controller.

The game also has QTEs. There aren’t that many, but they caught me off guard, even though I had played the game before. QTEs were all the rage at the time the game was made. Maybe they were a Shenmue reference.

New to the Wii U version is the touch screen controls. Playing with the touch controls is similar to playing on Easy and Very Easy difficulty in that you do auto combos. You can just tap on enemies and Bayonetta will do all kinds of stuff . Using touch controls is not the same as playing on easy, though. The game’s difficulty won’t change just because you’re using them. This control method might be alright on Very Easy and Easy, but I don’t think I could make it through Normal with them. You just don’t have enough control over your moves, which you really need in the later half of the game.

Also exclusive to the Wii U version are the Nintendo costumes. There are Link, Samus, Peach, and Daisy costumes. Each costume comes with special sound effects and even some graphical changes to the game. The Link costume turns Bayonetta’s sword into the Master Sword and changes all the halos into rupees, the Peach and Daisy costumes turn Halos into Mario coins and change some Wicked Weave attacks into Bowser attacks, and the Samus costume gets an arm cannon with sounds from Metroid instead of a gun. I feel like Samus got the least amount of love here, as usual.

Bayonetta is a modern day classic. I think people will look back at it in the future as one of the best games its generation. It’s not that it’s very innovative or anything, it’s an evolution of some of Kamiya’s earlier games, like Devil May Cry and Okami. It’s more about the influence that the game has had. Bayonetta set the tone for what Platinum was about as a company. It’s unabashedly over the top in every aspect, it’s proud of its gaming roots, and relishes in being a video game. It’s far from perfect, but absolutely worth playing.