Monday, March 26, 2018

Mega Man X3 Review

Mega Man X3 was originally released on the Super Famicom in December of 1995, barely a year after Mega Man X2. Much of the work on this game was actually outsourced to the company who made the Game Boy Mega Man games and Mega Man: The Wily Wars for Genesis, Minakuchi Engineering. This was the last MMX game to be released on the SNES. Both the Saturn and the PlayStation were out by this time, and got their own version of MMX3 in Europe and Japan. That version eventually made it to North America in the Mega Man X Collection for GC and PS2. I played the SNES version for this review, which is available on the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console.

Mega Man X3 takes place some time after X defeated Sigma for the second time in MMX2. A Reploid scientist named Dr. Doppler has been using his Neuro Computer on Reploids to suppress the Maverick virus. Those Reploids have now founded a Reploid utopia called Dopple Town, with Dr. Doppler as their leader. But soon enough the Reploids start going Maverick again and attack the Maverick Hunter’s base. X and Zero fight them off, and then set off to clean up Dopple Town. Most of the game actually takes place in Dopple Town.

Mega Man X3 plays pretty much the same as the previous 2 games. Aside from the new Maverick weapons, the biggest change to X’s arsenal comes from the new armor upgrades. Like in the previous games, you’ll find blue Light (as in Dr. Light) capsules hidden in some levels, and in them you can get new armor pieces which will give you new abilities. For example, the new leg armor gives you an air dash and a new upwards boost that’s kind of like a double jump, and the new helmet will show you a map with all the hidden items at the beginning of a level. There's no way to pull this map up after that, though. This is still not a Metroidvania. Even though it feels like it wants to be sometimes.

MMX3 builds upon the armor upgrade system with a new Chip enhancement system. You can enhance your upgraded armor with these Chips and add a new ability on top of the ones the armor gives you. For example, the leg Chip gives you a second air dash, and the head Chip will fill your health and E tanks when standing still. There are 4 Chips total, but you can only get 3 of them. The game won't let you get the 4th, and it doesn't tell you which one you’re getting before you step into the capsule either, so you have to know what you’re doing to get the ones you want. Getting any of these Chips will also prevent you from getting the Hyper Chip, which gives you gold armor and all the Chip enhancements.

As if all the capsules, heart tanks, and E Tanks, weren't enough, MMX3 also made the keys to use robot rides into separate items. These are also hidden in the levels and require specific abilities to get to. MMX3 has 4 robot rides, and you need to use some of them to find collectables. So now we need robot rides, armor upgrades, and Maverick weapons to get everything in the game.

Just like in MMX and MMX2, each level has a few hidden items that require specific abilities to get to. You’ll have to replay each level a few times to get everything. This would be fine if the levels were as good as in the first 2 games, but sadly, they're not even close. The levels in MMX 1 and 2 had a certain flow to them. They made you feel like you were on a path of destruction. The levels in MMX3 make you constantly stop to fight enemies with shields or with too much HP, there's hazards waiting to fall right on your head when you're wall jumping, and there's quite a few times when you must blindly jump down into or across a hole when you can't see where you're going to land. The level design really drags this game down.

This one should have been the coolest new feature in the game, but it ended up being kind of a dud. For first time in the series, you could finally play as Zero. You can go into the menu and switch to Zero, but there’s a bunch of limitations attached to this. Zero can’t use any upgrades, robot rides, or Maverick weapons, so even at the end of the game, when X has Gundam armor, can dash twice in midair, and can shoot 5 fireballs at once, Zero is still the same as he was in the intro level. Zero can't fight bosses either. If you're playing as Zero, you will automatically switch to X if you try to go into a boss room. Zero also only gets 1 life. That’s not 1 life per continue, that's one life for the whole game, Fire Emblem style. If you fall down a hole or take too much damage, that's it, no more Zero for the rest of the game.

The graphics in MMX3 use the same style as the first 2 games, and it does reuse some sprites, but I think it has the best graphics of the 3. There’s some really nice looking backgrounds here. I’d say some even look as good as backgrounds in games like Street Fighter II and Final Fight 2. The framerate is also much better than in the first 2 games. There are very few times when it drops at all. A big improvement over X2, which had tons of slowdown everywhere.

The music might the best in the series up to this point, too. It was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita. She was the composer on Castlevania for the NES, Parodius for the MSX, and Pocky & Rocky 2, among others. She was a newcomer to the MMX series, but she had also worked on Mega Man: The Wily Wars, so she was not completely new to Mega Man. The music sounds similar to the music in the previous games, but it has its own hard rock sound with more distorted guitars and less of the electric keyboard and air guitar sounds of the first 2 games.

Mega Man X3 is not a bad game, but it's a disappointment after the first 2 games. The combination of bad level design and the huge amount of collectables can make it frustrating to play, and the playable Zero was a bust. It has good graphics and music, but I feel like it's mostly being carried by the great core mechanics of the first 2 games. If this wasn't a Mega Man game, it would have been forgotten along with many other average SNES action games.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Bayonetta 2 Review

Bayonetta 2 is the sequel to Platinum Games’ 2009 “Non-stop Climax Action” game, Bayonetta. Bayonetta 2 was originally in development for the PS3 and 360, but the publisher, Sega, cancelled it before it was completed. Nintendo later revived the project with their funding, and it was finally released in 2014 for the Wii U. It is now on the Nintendo Switch with amiibo support and a few graphical improvements.

Bayonetta 2 is set shortly after the first game, and is a sequel, but it also sets up the events of the first game. It starts off with Bayonetta on a quest to save her Umbran sister, Jeanne, from Hell, but turns into a pseudo prequel, explaining a bunch of stuff about Balder, the Witch Hunts, and Aesir by the end. It’s interesting stuff, if you’re a fan of the world of Bayonetta, but the storytelling is just as bad as in the first game. It always feels like they’re trying really hard to make the story more confusing and mysterious than it actually is. It’s not like anyone is playing for the story, though. We’re here for the Non-stop Climax Action!

Where Bayonetta 2 really shines is in the combat. The original Bayonetta set a new bar for over the top stylish action, with smoother combat flow and crazier moves than anything in the Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden games. Bayonetta 2 doesn’t revolutionize the genre, but it does improve on the original by refining and streamlining the combat. Bayonetta 2 makes it easier to keep your combos going, gives you more options for launching opponents into the air, and makes it easier to stay in the air. Everything feels incredibly smooth, and I always feel like I have a move that does what I need to do, or gets me where I want to go in the middle of a fight. They also finally put the lock-on button on the left trigger, which makes it much easier on my hands.

The main Story mode has you going through the city of Noatum on your way to the mountain of Fimbulventr, where the gates of Hell are. These are the real gates of Hell, and not Rodin’s bar. Why Rodin doesn’t just let you use the portal he uses when he goes to turn an LP into a weapon, I don’t know. Rodin is even waiting for you in Hell when you get there. As you make your way through the levels, you’ll fight hordes of Angels and Demons, which drop Halos when you kill them, which you can use to buy new moves, accessories, costumes, recovery items, and alternate versions of the weapons, which you can put on your feet.

You might not think of exploration when you think of Bayonetta, but doing so is encouraged and rewarded. Every level is full of collectables, treasure chests, and battles which you might miss if you're not exploring. You can also find portals to the fire realm of Muspelheim, where you can take on combat challenges in an arena. Some of these are timed battles, and others have specific rules, like kill everyone without dropping your combo, or kill everyone without touching the ground. After finishing a challenge, you’ll be rewarded with an item, like a Witch Heart, which will increase your max health.

The other gameplay mode in the game is Tag Climax mode, which lets you play co-op in monster filled arenas, like the ones in the story mode, and against standalone bosses. You can play with someone locally on another system (2 copies required), online, or with the CPU. This mode is pretty fun, and you can unlock some stuff while playing it. There doesn't seem to be a lot of people playing it online, though.

I think the biggest change to the game from the Wii U version is the addition of amiibo support. You can scan up to 32 amiibos per day, and they give you halos, items, and costumes. I only have 29 amiibos, but even with that, I was able to buy all the moves, a weapon alt, and an accessory right after unlocking Rodin’s store. I also unlocked a bunch of costumes in the process. All the Nintendo costumes from the Wii U versions are unlockable by just scanning an amiibo. There's a Link costume, Samus costume, Daisy and Peach costumes, and a Fox costume, which will turn jets into Arwings in one stage. You can also unlock all this stuff through regular play, but amiibos cut out a lot of the grind. Buying all the moves right away does make the game easier, but I think the game is much more fun when you have all the moves. If you have amiibos, I say use them.

The graphics look pretty much the same as they did on Wii U, but the framerate is much better. It still runs at 720p, and the framerate is still not locked at 60, but it is much better than in the Wii U version. I think the design of new characters, like Loki and Aesir, are kind of lame in comparison to the designs of the older characters, but the Noatum and Inferno designs are just as good as the environment designs in the first game. Loki looks like a white haired version of Riley from Boondocks, if you ask me.

Bayonetta 2’s soundtrack is full of great tunes, including new ones and returning ones from the first game, but they're all overshadowed by the 2 main themes. Sometimes it feels like every other song is “Tomorrow is Mine” or “Moon River”. Tomorrow is Mine has a few versions, and plays during a lot of the battles. It's the “Bayonetta is about to kick some ass” song. Moon River is a cover of the Andy Williams song, which like “Fly Me to the Moon” from Bayonetta 1, was also covered by Frank Sinatra, and is played all over the game.

Bayonetta 2 doesn't have the impact that the first game had, but it is still a great game. I think it's a better game than the first one, but it is more of the same. It feels very polished, it runs better than ever, and amiibo support cuts out a lot of the grind to get all the moves and costumes, if you choose to use them. My only real complaint is that the game feels shorter than the first. I wish it had a few more stages and bosses, because the stages get really short towards the end of the game, and fighting some of the bosses so many times had me thinking, “This guy again?”.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Secret of Mana Review

Secret of Mana is a remake of SquareSoft’s 1993 SNES action RPG by the same name. It's the second game in the Mana series, following the Game Boy game, Final Fantasy Adventure. The series is not part of any main Final Fantasy game universe, but it does share some things with FF, like Moogles and Chocobos. This remake features new 3D graphics, remixed music, and voice acting. It's available for $40 on PC and PS4, and for $30 on Vita.

The story follows a boy named Randi, who pulls the legendary Sword of Mana out a rock one day, like Excalibur. He was just looking for something to cut some tall grass with, but pulling the sword out unleashed a bunch of monsters onto the world. Now, he must restore the sword’s power by synchronizing it to the 8 Mana seeds, and use it to save the world from evil. Along the way, he meets a girl named Primm and a little Sprite named Poppoi, who join him on his quest. The story is simple and cliche, but it has its moments.

The story is the same as on SNES, but there have been some additions to flesh out the 3 main characters. All-new fully voice acted skits now play at Inns after major story events. After choosing to sleep at an Inn, the heroes will gather around the table and talk about recent events or whatever’s on their mind. Sometimes these skits are funny, sometimes they're serious, and sometimes supporting characters, like Watts the blacksmith and the Elementals, show up for some funny scenes. Inns are where you heal and save, so these skits might play at inconvenient times, but they're very well done and let you to get to know the heroes, so I never skipped them.

The most notable update is the new 3D graphics. The whole game has been recreated in polygonal 3D with “hand-painted” textures. I think the 3D models look pretty good. They are low poly, but they look like 3D versions of the original sprites. The textures do a good job of maintaining the anime look, but they’re displayed in a low resolution, and don't have any kind of effects for specular highlights, reflections, or any kind of bump mapping. The lighting is also very basic, and only a few things cast real-time shadows. The game looks like the low budget Vita game that it is. I don't think it's ugly, but there is definitely a lot of room for improvement.

I don't like the new music a whole lot. I think they took too many liberties with it. Sometimes they add in weird sounds or new parts to it, and none of it actually sounds good. Which is a shame, because the stuff that sounds like the original music sounds pretty good. Thankfully, there is an option to play with high-quality versions of the original SNES music. It still sounds like MIDI music, but it sounds a lot better than it did on the SNES, and much better than the new stuff.

The game also features full voice acting for all dialogue in the game, in both English and Japanese. The English voice acting is pretty bad, so I played with the Japanese VO, which sounds like something out of a 90s PS1 import, but somehow fits the game better. I can at least brush up on my Japanese while playing. You can also turn the VO volume all the way off, if you don't like either one.

Underneath the 3D graphics and remixed music, the game is pretty much the same as it was on SNES. There have only been a few quality of life improvements, like being able to increase the max item limit from 4 to 12 in the options, a new “Action Grid” that's not a grid anymore, and being able to set item and magic shortcuts to the L and R buttons. You still travel from town to town, talk to NPCs, and fight through dungeons to find the Mana seeds. The combat is the same, the weapons and magic are the same, and your party members still get stuck on everything.

The dungeons are usually pretty easy and straightforward. You don't even have to fight many enemies. You can just run past most of them. There are some puzzles, but the most you'll ever be asked to do is find switches to push, or use one of your weapons or magic to get past an obstacle. For example, you can use your axe to break stalagmites in cave areas, and use magic to activate crystal orbs, which act like switches. The first few dungeons are pretty simple, and they get more complex as you progress through the game. Sadly, just when the dungeons are getting really good, the quality of them drops off a cliff in the later half of the game.

Secret of Mana was originally supposed to come out on the SNES CD addon, AKA the Nintendo PlayStation. When the system was cancelled, SquareSoft moved the game from CD to cartridge, and cut a bunch of content to fit it in a cart. Some dungeons in the later half of the game are only 2 or 3 rooms, they reuse a bunch of bosses, and don't have anywhere near the build up to them that the earlier ones do. It sucks that it's still like that, but they obviously were not given the budget to fix this in the remake.

At a glance, SoM looks like some kind of 2D Zelda clone, but it's actually much slower paced, and has more RPG elements. The combat in SoM uses a charging system that lets you perform more powerful attacks depending on how long you hold down the attack button. After a normal attack, your action meter drops to 0% and starts to quickly fill back up to 100%. A 100% attack does normal damage, and anything below does a lot less damage. It's not percentage based. Even if you hit the button at 80%, you just do less damage, not 80% of your normal damage, so it doesn't pay to mash buttons. You can hold the attack button down after a normal attack to charge up and perform special attacks. Depending on how many times you’ve upgraded your weapon, you'll be able to charge up multiple meters for even stronger attacks. There's a lot of behind the scenes dice rolling, so your gear and levels affect your hit rate and damage. It's a far cry from the skill-based combat of a Zelda game.

Secret of Mana also has 8 different schools of magic, represented by the 8 elementals that will join you along your quest. Randi can't use magic, but Primm and Poppoi each get their own set of spells. Primm mostly gets healing and stat boosting spells, while Poppoi mostly gets attack spells. Each elemental gains experience when you use their magic, so you can level them up for even stronger spells. You mostly rescue elementals at the end of a dungeon, so you'll be getting new ones even late into the game. Since every elemental starts at level 0, leveling a late game Elemental to the max of level 8 can be an hour plus grind.

The game has been patched now, but it was very buggy when I played through it. I lost about 4 hours worth of progress because of crashes. I came across bugs that prevented my party from attacking, got my characters stuck in weird poses, and one bug trapped me in a dialogue loop. I almost quit playing the game after the 3rd or so time it crashed on me in the middle of a dungeon. Hopefully the patch fixed these problems.

New graphics, music, and VO aside, this game just isn't as great as I remember it being. It's a slightly above average SNES ARPG. It has lovable characters and decent dungeons, but the story doesn't hold a candle to some of Square’s other SNES games, like FF6 and Chrono Trigger, the combat isn't very satisfying, and the missing content is a real bummer. If you're okay with that and the Vita quality graphics, you might find something entertaining in the world of Mana.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Iconoclasts Review

Iconoclast - a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. A destroyer of images used in religious worship. A critic, skeptic, heretic, rebel, renegade, an infidel. That’s the definition of iconoclast. It should give you a pretty good idea of where the story of this game is headed. Iconoclasts is a side scrolling action adventure game from developer, Joakim Sandberg. Maybe you’ve heard of Noitu Love or Legend of Princess. It's that guy. Iconoclasts is available on PS4, Vita, Mac, Linux, and PC for $19.99.

Iconoclasts is set in a world ruled by an organization known as One Concern. One Concern tells people where they can live, chooses everyone's jobs, and decides who can have babies. They're led by a woman known as “Mother”, who is the only person that can talk directly to “Him”. “He” is their God, who lives on the Moon. High ranking members of One Concern have Ivory blood, which gives them superpowers. Ivory rules everything in this world. It's basically a metaphor for petroleum. It's extracted from the earth, it powers everything, and the extraction of it is causing the planet to literally break apart.

You play as Robin, a young woman who recently lost her father, and is following in his footsteps as a mechanic. There are cars in this world, but I never saw Robin working on one, so I don't think she's that kind of mechanic. In this world, only the One Concern are allowed to be mechanics, because mechanics fix things that work with Ivory, and commoners are not allowed to handle Ivory. Robin is a rebel who illegally fixes things for the commoners. She's not going to let the man tell her what she can and can't fix!

The story is kind of a mishmash of different videogames and anime, but it's entertaining, and it has some cool characters. Even though she's a silent protagonist, Robin is very emotive and has a bunch of cute animations that always let you know how she's feeling. All of the characters that join Robin along the way have interesting backstories, and are likeable in their own way. I especially liked Robin’s friend Mina, who's a brash Isi pirate. She lives on ship in the sea, but it's an ancient spaceship underwater, which is more like Atlantis than the Merry-go. The Isi are a sort of Mexican inspired people who revere their dead ancestors, and seem to have Dia de los Muertos style traditions.

My biggest issues with the game are its dialogue and storytelling. Robin and Mina are lovable characters, and the story gives context to the gameplay, but the way the story is told is a little heavy-handed and predictable. If you’ve played games like Half-Life 2 or Xenogears, you’re going to start seeing where this game’s story is going right away. The name, Iconoclasts, is a pretty big hint, too. I also thought some of the acts of violence seemed out of place, like they were there for shock value. The dialogue is full of flowery language, and characters often ramble on and on during story sequences. This, combined with the sometimes awkward translation, made it hard for me to to pay attention whenever some of the main villains were talking.

I think the gameplay is where this game truly shines. Robin’s basic actions include jumping, shooting her guns, and swinging her giant wrench. Robin can use her wrench to hit enemies, turn nuts to open doors and flip switches, and even glide on zip lines. You only get 3 different guns in the game, but you can use them in many different ways, so they're more than just 3 attacks. Robin can combine her 3 basic actions (along with upgrades) in different ways to do everything in the game. For example, after getting the electric wrench upgrade, you can charge up your wrench to add an electric charge to your grenade launcher and shoot electric grenades, which can power switches out of your reach. I love how much mileage the game gets out of these few abilities.

Combat in Iconoclasts feels really good. There's something about the hit stun and flash that happens when you hit enemies that feels very satisfying. It's kind of like the little pause that happens when you attack in some Zelda games. It makes attacks feel like they have weight behind them and have a lot of impact.

The environments always make sense within the story, and they're all full of creative puzzles, challenging enemies, and light platforming. This game is more about the puzzles and exploration, but it mixes platforming in with some of the puzzles in cool ways. A lot of times, you'll be rewarded with a treasure chest after completing a platforming challenge. These chests all contain crafting materials. Robin can use these to craft many different types of “tweaks” which upgrade her abilities in different ways. She can equip up to 3 of them at a time, and they do things like let her hold her breath longer underwater, increase the attack power of her wrench, and make the electric charge of her wrench last longer. I crafted and equipped a few tweaks early on in the game, and then pretty much ignored them for the rest of the game. I never felt like I really needed any of the tweaks I found. This made finding chests much less exciting.

The graphics in Iconoclast are among the best I’ve ever seen in a 2D game. The art style is cute and colorful, and reminds me a bit of Cave Story. The style is simple and cartoon-like, but the environments are full of details. Nearly all space on the screen is filled with something, even the spaces behind walls most of the time. You can see landmarks in the background, leaves falling in forested areas, and weird details that will only make sense once you know the story of the world, like the weird cube shaped rocks and bushes.

The music in Iconoclasts is also very good. I especially like how varied it is. The title screen music sounds like some kind of synth-pop Devo track. The cheerful videogamey music around Robin's house at the beginning of the game sounds like something out of Wonder Boy. There's even a few tracks that sound like they're referencing Castlevania and Metroid music. My favorite track is the desert theme, which sounds like upbeat South American pan flute music.

I had a really good time with this game. It was one of those games I kept thinking about when I wasn't playing it. The storytelling isn't great, but the characters are cool, everything makes sense within the story, and the graphics and music are really nice. This is definitely one of the better indie Metroidvanias I’ve played.