Thursday, December 28, 2017

Shantae: Friends to the End Review

Shantae: Friends to the End is the second story expansion for Shantae: ½ Genie Hero, following Pirate Queen’s Quest. For the first time in the series, you can finally play as Shantae’s friends, Bolo, Sky, and Rottytops. Together! This game is basically a Shantaefied Castlevania III. It’s available for $7.99 as DLC for Shantae: ½GH.

Friends to the End starts off in the middle of the Dynamo reveal scene from ½ Genie Hero. Uncle Mimic uses Risky Boot’s Dynamo blueprints, and builds a machine that turns good into evil. Risky uses it on Shantae, and turns her into Nega Shantae, so Sky, Bolo, and Rotty go into Shantae’s mind to try and save her from being overcome by her evil self. As you play through the game, they go through Shantae’s memories of the events of ½GH, while trying to get along and work together. Apparently, they’re not really friends with each other, just friends with Shantae.

I think the closest thing I can compare this game to is old-school Castlevania. It’s a pretty straight-forward action platformer. This is not just ½GH or PQQ with different characters. All the fetch quests, towns, NPCs, and items are gone. You do get a stage select that you can use at any time to go back to any level you’ve beaten, but the game’s progression is linear, and you’re not forced to go back to previous levels. You’ll more than likely want to, though.

In Friends to the End, you play through most of the same levels from ½GH and Pirate Queen’s Quest. Like in PQQ, the enemies, obstacles, and platforming have been tweaked to fit the new character’s abilities. Each stage also has 3 Dream Squids to collect, like coins in 2D Mario games. If you collect them all, you get a special picture at the end. There are also a few new levels, which take place in the “Nightmare Realm”, Nega Shantae’s mind.

The main new mechanic in Friends to the End is switching between Bolo, Sky, and Rottytops. There are times when there is more than one way to get past an obstacle, but not always. You’ll have to switch to specific characters to get past some obstacles, and even combine abilities to progress sometimes. The switching is not instant, and you can’t switch in the air, so it never gets too demanding or complicated. You’ll never have to use more than 2 characters, or switch more than once, to get past anything.

Bolo is kind of like Simon Belmont. He wields a chain whip with a morning star on its end, just like the Vampire Killer. His unique abilities include breaking blocks with the whip, and swinging from pegs. Your main attack can only whip forwards, and doesn’t grab onto things. The grabbing attack is on a different button, and you can only aim it straight up or upwards diagonally. It’s not exactly Super Castlevania IV, but it’s the same idea. Bolo’s magic ability has him throw morning stars, which bounce around like Super Mario Land fireballs.

Sky reminds me of Maria Renard from Rondo of Blood. Her main attack is throwing seagulls at enemies, like how Maria throws doves. Sky can also use her pet bird, Wrench, as a platform. She can jump on Wrench, and then switch to another character to use their abilities. When you use the platform ability, you throw an egg in the air, and then press the button again to hatch it where you want the platform. Sky can also use Wrench to glide, like Risky Boots glides with her pirate hat. Timing the hatch just right, and using the glide are crucial to making some of the toughest jumps in the game. Sky is the go to character for platforming. Sky’s magic ability is a damaging bird shield, like Shantae’s scimitar item, or the fire wheel in Ninja Gaiden.

Rottytops has an arsenal of zombie themed moves. Rotty can detach her head and throw it, like how Yoshi tosses eggs, and then teleport to wherever the head landed, like with the Puppet Master soul in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. For her main attack, Rotty pulls her leg off and hits enemies with it, like a mallet. Rotty’s magic ability has her eating a brain to fully refill your hearts. Some of this stuff will surely be censored somewhere.

There are no items to buy in Friends to the End, but enemies and jars still drop gems. In Friends to the End, gems act like experience points, and will level each character up to level 4. Every level increases each character’s combat abilities. For example, each level lengthens Bolo’s whip, increases its speed, and its damage. Each character has their own gem count, so they level individually, and you’ll have to play as each one to have them all at max power. You'll also lose gems whenever you get hit, so it’s not like you can stay fully leveled at all times, unless you're just that good.

Friends to the End doesn’t have lives, like old Castlevanias did. Instead, you can keep retrying from the last checkpoint as long as you have hearts left. If you run out of hearts, you’ll have to continue and restart the level. Your hearts are never refilled after dying or continuing; however, you’ll have the same hearts as the last time you saved, when you continue. The only time the game refills your hearts is after beating a boss, and you can only fight bosses once. This means that if you want to refill your hearts, or be at max power before a boss, you’re going to have to go back to an earlier level and grind for hearts and gems. I think I would have rather had lives than this. The grinding took a little too much of my playtime.

I’m impressed by the amount of love and attention each character got. Rotty, Bolo, and Sky have a bunch of unique animations, new character portraits, and even new voice acting. They all feel just as fleshed out as Shantae and Risky Boots. Their voices don’t sound quite like I thought they would, but they’re alright. They're just not as good as Shantae and Risky Boot’s voices.

Shantae fans have been waiting a long time to play as these characters, and I think we’ve gotten a good first adventure for them with Friends to the End. The game is not very long (took me 5 hours), and there is some grinding, but the platforming is fun, the characters have cool moves, the story is cute, and it’s great to finally see these characters get the spotlight.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Mega Man X2 Review

Barely a year after the release of Mega Man X, Mega Man X2 was released for the Super Famicom in December 1994. It came out on the SNES a month later in January 1995. It really isn’t too different from MMX in terms of gameplay, but it does tell a better story. It’s pretty clear that the main goal of the game was to bring Zero back to life. I think this was when Zero and M. Bison started competing for the title of most revived Capcom character.

Mega Man X2 takes place 6 months after MMX. After Zero blew himself up taking out Vile’s mech at the end of MMX, X became the leader of the Maverick Hunters. X is called Mega Man X multiple times in this game. Apparently, the localizers wanted to push the idea that X was the original Mega Man. With the help of Dr. Cain, the Maverick Hunters track the Mavericks down to a Reploid factory. X and Green Biker Dude chase a Maverick to the factory, but sadly, Green Biker Dude got blown up while popping a wheelie before getting there. Inside the factory, X discovers that the Maverick rebellion continues, even after Sigma’s defeat.

After the factory stage, we find out that 3 Mavericks, called the X-Hunters, have stolen Zero’s body parts, but couldn’t get their hands on the control chip. They also took over the North Pole. No, you don’t have to save Santa in this game. After beating a couple of levels, the X-Hunters start appearing in normally sealed off rooms in the 8 base levels, and they will shuffle around their locations every time you exit a level. If you beat one of these Mavericks, you can get one of Zero’s parts. The story will play out a little differently depending on whether or not you get all the parts before going to the final levels.

The game’s progression is pretty much the same as in MMX. You can just beat the 8 Mavericks and go straight to the final levels, or you can go back to each level and get all the upgrades before going to Sigma’s lair. Along with the 4 suit upgrades, there’s also 4 sub tanks, and each stage also has a heart tank, for a total of 8. Getting all the upgrades will require you to use the suit upgrades and some of the Maverick weapons, so multiple playthroughs are required to get everything.

All of X’s suit upgrades have been changed or upgraded in some way. The new helmet upgrade gives you a secret item scanner, and the new chest upgrade gives you the Giga Crush move. They don’t have a big impact on the gameplay, but the new leg and X-Buster upgrades do. The new X-Buster upgrade gives you a super powered shot, in addition to your regular charged shot, instead of just another tier of the charged shot, like in MMX. It also lets you charge up any Maverick weapon, like in MMX. Since you start with the dash in this game, the leg upgrade gives you an air dash. This gives you some more options in terms of maneuverability, and lets you reach some of the hidden items. You even can combine this with a charged up Speed Burner for a double air dash.

MMX2 has some pretty good boss designs, and I think most levels have pretty cool themes. Flame Stag is my favorite overall. I love everything about him. His Volcanic Zone level looks cool, the music in that level rocks, his design is funny, and his fight is pretty good, if you don’t use the Bubble Splash on him. My favorite level has to be Overdrive Ostrich’s Desert Base. That’s where they let you play with the hover bike, the Ride Chaser, which you can use to jump off a bunch of ramps while shooting enemies. I also really like Wire Sponge’s fight, but he does look like some kind of angry sea pickle. I think Magna Centipede and Crystal Snail are the only really bad fights. Both of their patterns are just so annoying, even when using the weapon they’re weak against.

The graphics in MMX2 look slightly better than in MMX. The backgrounds are a little more detailed. There is more slowdown in this game, though. Pretty much every level has slowdown somewhere. Sometimes it goes away quickly after beating an enemy, but sometimes, like on Bubble Crab’s stage, half of the stage is played in slowmo. There is a big mechanical fish that swims through a large portion of that stage, and it slows everything down to a crawl the whole time it’s on screen. I thought maybe there was bad slowdown on the Crystal Snail fight too, but it turns out that’s his special power. Maybe the mecha fish has that power too.

Mega Man X2 came out around the time when developers were using polygons in SNES games, with the help of special chips. Following this trend, Capcom put their own special chip in MMX2, the Cx4 chip. It allowed them to scale and rotate untextured polygons in the game. It didn't look good. It just didn't fit in with the game's 2D sprites, and didn't look very impressive when compared to games like Star Fox. They used it in the intro for a Mega Man X head, on the “X” in the logo on the start screen, on a lame sword mini boss, and in the final battle, which is a rotating, untextured, disembodied Sigma head. A big disappointment after MMX’s final battle.

The soundtrack doesn’t sound as rock influenced as MMX’s, but it has a similar sound. There are still some pretty rocking tracks, like Flame Stag’s stage theme. It really reminds me of other Capcom SNES game soundtracks. The main composer, Yuki Iwai, who also worked on MMX, worked on Final Fight II and the SNES version of Street Fighter II Turbo too, so that explains why this game has that unmistakable 16-bit Capcom sound.

Mega Man X2 is a very good game, but maybe it came too soon after the first. It just doesn’t do a whole lot that’s new and exciting. It’s just more of the same. More MMX is alright with me, though. At least it brought Zero back to life, so it served a good purpose.

Monday, December 18, 2017

NieR: Automata Review

With the amount of attention 2B has gotten, you’d think NieR: Automata is some kind of hentai game. It is, in fact, not a hentai game. It’s not even as risque as Bayonetta. 2B is a prim and proper lady compared to her. NieR: Automata is an action adventure RPG developed by Platinum Games and published by SquareEnix. It does deal with some mature subjects, but boobs and butts are not among them.

NieR: Automata takes place in a world where long ago, aliens attacked Earth, and humans fled to the Moon. Earth was trashed by the alien’s machines, and humans sent androids to fight them on Earth. The war between the androids and machines has been waging ever since. You play as 2B and 9S, who are android members of YorHa, which is basically the android army. Their base of operations is on a space station orbiting Earth, called the Bunker. There are also more androids living on Earth who are fighting the machines, but are not part of YorHa. They are the resistance.

The game is split up into 3 acts. In the first act, you play as 2B with 9S following you around. The second act is a retelling of the first act from 9S’ point of view. It’s a lot like the first, since 2B and 9S work as a team, and are together most of the time, but there are new scenes that expand on the machines’ motives, and all of your non-story progress carries over, so it goes by quicker. The third act is the epilogue, and also lets you play as A2, that other android on the cover. I enjoyed every act, but I don’t think playing through most of the first act again as 9S was really necessary. It would have been perfectly fine if I just played from 9S’ perspective sometimes. 9S’ playthrough just isn’t different enough to warrant a nearly full playthrough of the first act. I bet a lot of people just stopped playing it there, because it just seems like a new game +. If the game wasn’t rolling the credits every chance it got, it wouldn’t seem so much like a new game +. There are 26 “endings” in the game, but they’re not really endings, it’s just a credits roll. The story is not actually over. The game is nearly 60 hours long.

This is open world game, but it’s not exactly Breath of the Wild or Grand Theft Auto. It reminds me more of Ocarina of Time. You have a big area connecting everything in the middle, and new areas open up around it as the game progresses. You’re not opening the way to new areas with items or skills here, though. The environment will change and open up as the story progresses. For example, at one point, some buildings are destroyed, opening the way to a new area through the exposed sewer tunnels.

I really like the world of NieR: Automata, but the actual storytelling is just OK. It takes a long time for it to really get going. I spent a lot of the game wondering what the purpose of me being here was, besides killing machines. Or was the point to make me ponder my own existence? I wonder. I spent most of the game running errands for YorHa and the resistance, just waiting for the machines to do something for me to react to. A lot of the game is really just MMORPG style fetch and delivery quests.

What I really loved about this world was the disturbing things the machines did, and the way the androids reacted towards them. Androids are just robots that look like humans, yet they treated the machines like inferior things that could not feel or think for themselves. When machines started doing things, like caring for babies, and talking about love and family, the androids denied that they could actually feel and think for themselves, and chalked it up to them imitating humans. The game is full of this kind of stuff.

The combat in NieR: Automata is sort of like Bayonetta on easy mode. You have your quick and strong attacks, guns, and your dodge and jump moves, but there are no complex combos, or strict timing required to do different attacks, like in Bayonetta. You just kind of mash buttons. You can even hold the attack buttons down to do automatic combos. I’m fine with the combat not being as deep as in other Platinum games, because this is an RPG, and the main focus is the story.

But NieR: Automata is more than just a Non-stop Climax Action game. This is also a 2D shoot 'em up, a side scrolling action platformer, and a twin stick shooter. The game switches between all of these modes often. The shoot 'em up sections have you flying on a YorHa flight unit, which looks like something straight out of Macross, and they play like a lost Treasure game from the Dreamcast days. The twin stick shooter sections are the game’s hacking minigame, which is 9S’ specialty, so you’ll be playing a lot of those in Acts 2 and 3. I’m not a big fan of twin stick shooters, like Geometry Wars, but it beats most game’s hacking minigames, and they usually aren't too annoyingly difficult.

I appreciate the amount of options and workarounds the game gives you to customize your game. You can change the difficulty on the fly, customize the buttons, and change a lot of things about how the camera behaves. There’s also the Plug-in Chips, which are a way to customize your gameplay. You can equip chips that regen your HP while not taking damage, chips that increase your damage, your run speed, HP, give you new moves, like a counter, and a bunch of other things. There’s even a chip that slows down time after successfully dodging an attack, like Bayonetta’s Witch Time. There’s also chips to customize your HUD. It’s a pretty cool system, but may be a little confusing, since the UI for it kind of looks like the HDD defragging UI in Windows.

There’s a few confusing and annoying things about the UI, like the Plug-in Chip interface and the map. The entire UI actually has an in-game explanation. It’s the android’s operating system. That’s why it looks like a computer. The map is supposed to be satellite data from the Bunker. That's why it only maps the surface. There’s actually a guy in the game that gives you excuses for these things. The developers must have known that reviewers would have issues with some of this stuff. Having in-game explanations is neat and all, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as a player. The map is especially hard to deal with, because since it’s only mapping the surface, it’s completely useless for anything underground, or simply in-doors.

This game is no technical marvel. It doesn't look like it had a big budget. There are a lot of reused models and textures all over the game, making some areas look a little bland. The game definitely has style, though. The environments are cool looking, even if the textures aren't great. I love the whole theme of nature reclaiming the ruined city and machines living in nature. I also loved the color palette used in the environments. The game uses very muted colors, which remind me of the Ico games. The design of the machines can be both cute and scary, and the 3 playable androids have very distinct and cosplayable designs.

The music in this game is outstanding. I’m not surprised it won best music at the Game Awards. It has a very mellow, haunting soundtrack, with both electronic and acoustic themes. All the music also has a retro video game version, which will play when you go into 9S’ hacking minigame. The English voice acting is also spot on. 2B sounds like a very restrained woman, 9S like a naive teenager, and A2 like a jaded veteran who has seen through the world’s lies. The Japanese voices sound good, but it’s really hard to read subtitles while playing an action game.

I thought I might like this game, since I’m a big fan of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising, but I was apprehensive, because all the attention focused on 2B’s ass. But this game isn’t perverted at all! It’s a serious action RPG with a unique style. If you like the sound of a Platinum action game with a big open world, a thought provoking story, and RPG elements, then you’ll probably love this game.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - The Champion's Ballad Review

The Champion's Ballad is the final piece of DLC in the Breath of the Wild Expansion Pass. This is the big one. This is the one with the new story content and dungeon. It’s not necessarily post-game content, but you are required to have completed the original 4 dungeons before starting the Champion’s Ballad quest.

The Champion’s Ballad’s story takes place after you’ve finished the 4 original dungeons, but before you’ve killed Ganon. As soon as you start your game, Zelda will contact you telepathically, and give you the new quest. Zelda is still trying to contain Calamity Ganon, and this DLC does not have anything to do with the story that was hinted at in the 120 shrines ending.

The Champion’s Ballad quest starts at the Shrine of Resurrection on the Great Plateau, where you first start the game. After inserting the Sheikah Slate in the stone where you first found it, a disembodied monk voice will talk to you and start “The Divine Beast Tamer’s Trail”. The trials start with you getting a special weapon, the One-Hit Obliterator. This weapon looks kind of like a 4 pronged tuning fork with shide hanging off it. This weapon will kill anything in one hit, but will also make it so you die in one hit. You must use this weapon to finish 4 new shrine quests and shrines on the Great Plateau. You cannot heal, use any other melee weapon, or unequip this weapon during these trials. You can use all your runes, shields, armor, and bows, though. You also can’t leave the Great Plateau during the trails, or you’ll have to start it over. You won’t have to start the whole trial over if you die during the trials, though. It’s not that hardcore.

In these trials, you’ll go around the Great Plateau and kill camps of enemies to unearth new shrines. These 4 camps are all over the Plateau, and you'll have to put your BotW skills to use to clear them. The One-Hit Obliterator has a short cooldown after 2 uses, so it’s not like you can run in, smack everyone around, and be done with it. You’ll have to use the environment and your runes to your advantage. There’s even a shrine up in the snowy mountains, so you’ll also have to use your cold resist gear or consumables. The 4 shrines in the Great Plateau will put both your puzzle solving and combat skills to the test. They will have you using your runes to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles, and you’ll even fight some Guardians. Each of these shrines will reward you with a Spirit Orb, so you can get 1 more heart container. You’ll be leaving the One-Hit Obliterator in the Shrine of Resurrection when you clear these trials, so the one hit stuff ends then.

These trials on the Great Plateau might seem harsh and unfair, but they’re there to help you relearn how to play the game. Some people might not have played this game in 8 months or so. They really took me back to when I first played BotW, and could die at any moment. I enjoyed the refresher. You’ll definitely be needing these skills for the rest of the trials in this DLC Pack.

Before you open the new dungeon, you’ll have to go through the trails the rest of the Champions went through 100 years ago. These trials will have you traveling to the 4 major areas surrounding the Divine Beasts, and reliving the trials that Revali, Daruk, Urbosa, and Mipha went through to take control of the Divine Beasts, and the battles against the Ganon blights in which they died in.

Once you’re done with the trial on the Great Plateau, 4 quest trackers will appear near the Divine Beasts, and Sheikah pedestals will be waiting for you at these spots. Each column on these pedestals has a piece of a map showing you where you need to go to find the trails that will open the shrines. There is no way to track these spots, and the map looks like an overhead picture, and not like the map on your Sheikah Slate, so even figuring out where these places are on the map is a puzzle onto itself. Once you get to these spots, you’ll be doing a number of different types of quests to open the shrines. Some will require you to solve a riddle, one will have you gliding through markers, like in a Pilotwings game, there’s a sand seal race, and you’ll even fight some world bosses.

The new shrines run the gamut of shrine puzzles and obstacle types. You’ll be doing everything from making ice block stairs, and moving metal blocks around, to shooting bombs out of cannons, and connecting electrical currents. I didn’t notice any new types of puzzles, but the shrines do include more types of puzzles in a single shrine. These shrines do not reward you with Spirit Orbs, so you can’t get any more heart containers.

After you’ve completed the 3 trials and shrines, you’ll relive the battles against the Ganon blights which the Champion’s died in. The twist here is that you’ll be doing these fights with preset armor, weapons, and consumables, like food and arrows. You can still use your runes. These fights might be a bit harder without all your gear, but I think the hardest part was remembering the trick to killing them. After you beat these bosses, you’ll see a new memory similar to the ones in the main game. They are fully voice acted and reveal new details about Zelda’s relationship to the champions. I thought they were very well done, and liked learning more about the Champions.

Once you’ve completed the 4 Champion's trials, you’ll open the new dungeon. This new dungeon is labeled as a Divine Beast, and works like the rest of the Divine Beasts. I’m not sure what kind of beast it is, but the dungeon map looks like a motor, so maybe it’s the Master Cycle’s motor. This dungeon has 4 wings and a new boss. It’s not the biggest, or the most difficult dungeon in the game, but it is really good.

After completing the final dungeon, you’ll be rewarded with the Master Cycle, which I guess is another version of Link’s Mario Kart 8 bike, which is also called the Master Cycle. I wonder which branch of the timeline Mario Kart 8 fits in. The Master Cycle is a rune, and not like a normal horse. You can summon it anywhere you can summon a horse, without the need for the new saddle. You still can’t summon it in the Gerudo Desert, or on Death Mountain, just like with horses. This bike does run out of fuel. You can throw pretty much anything in it to fuel it, though. I’ve been throwing apples in the tank, because Epona likes apples, and this bike has a horse head. It’s a cool reward, but what am I supposed to do with it now? I’m done with the game. I’ve already done all the shrines, quests, and collected 900 Korok seeds. Hmm. I have an idea.

Along with the new main quest, you’ll also get a bunch of new side quests which will reward you with new items, like a saddle that lets you summon your horse anywhere, and Zelda character clothing, like Wind Waker Link’s blue lobster shirt, and Ravio’s hood from A Link Between Worlds. These side quests start by leading you to a journal, which will then update your quest log with hints for where to find all this stuff. All of these side quests are treasure chest hunts, which have you travel around Hyrule. I don’t think hunting for chests is very fun, but at least the items are cool.

This was a great way to finish off the Expansion Pass, and a great send off for BotW. The Expansion Pass is definitely worth the $19.99, for those who have finished the game. Those still trying to beat the original 4 dungeons should probably hold off on it until they get that done.