Monday, January 28, 2019

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin Review

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin was released by Konami in 2006 on the Nintendo DS. It was the 2nd Castlevania game released on the DS, following 2005’s Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. PoR was the first Castlevania with online and multiplayer modes, but these are not playable online anymore, since the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service ended in 2014. The online modes included an online item store and a co-op Boss Rush mode. Portrait of Ruin is also notable for its 2 character tag team gameplay, which had you controlling 2 characters at once, and let you switch between them instantly.

Portrait of Ruin is the sequel to the 1994 Sega Genesis game, Castlevania: Bloodlines. It takes place during WWII in 1944, 27 years after Bloodlines, and 55 years before Julius Belmont's battle with Dracula in 1999. A Vampire and painter named Brauner has used the souls of humans who died in WWII to summon Dracula's Castle, and used his magic paintings to seal Dracula’s throne room and prevent him from being resurrected along with the castle. Brauner's daughters died in WWI, which was started by Elizabeth Bartley in order to use the souls to resurrect Dracula in Bloodlines in 1917, so Brauner hates humans, and he also hates Dracula for failing to kill all humans time and time again. Brauner plans to use the powers he gains from being the castle's master to wipe out humanity himself.

Portrait of Ruin is a Metroidvania, but the castle is a hub world connecting all the levels inside the paintings, like Peach's castle in Super Mario 64, instead of being the whole game world, like in Symphony of the Night. Gameplay in the main castle is very similar to previous games, like SotN. You explore the castle in search of the next painting, use new abilities to get past obstacles and reach new areas, break walls to find turkey, and fight the occasional boss battle. There’s also save points that refill your HP and MP, teleports to quickly travel around the castle, a quest giving NPC, and a shopkeeper.

The levels inside the paintings are much more straightforward, though. They’re mostly about killing everything on your way to the next save point, and then killing the boss at the end. They have a few branching paths that lead to items, skills, and spells, but there aren't a lot of interesting obstacles, places where you have to use your partner skills, or any sort of challenging platforming. These levels are probably bigger than the average SotN or AoS area, but they feel very small and short when they're separated from the rest of the world like this. The level design also feels very tame and unimaginative with so few obstacles which require use of your partner or special abilities.

There is a quest system that will have you revisiting these areas, and that adds a little replay value to these levels, but the quests are not very interesting. The quests are mostly MMO-like fetch quests that require you to collect items or kill a specific enemy. I did maybe 2 quests that were related to the main story, and the rest were completely optional. There's also quests that might become impossible to complete, because they require you to collect unique items that can be consumed or sold. These quests won't necessarily line up with the level you're on, so you could collect and get rid of these items long before getting the quest, and since you can't drop quests, they'll be stuck in your quest log forever. The rewards for some of these quests are pretty good, though. You can get new spells, special weapons, like the Alucard Spear, and special moves with fighting game style inputs, similar to the ones in SotN.

The main new mechanic in Portrait of Ruin is the Partner System. The Partner System has a second AI controlled character following you around and attacking enemies, and allows you to switch between the two of them instantly with the press of a button. You can also tap on the screen to make the second character jump around. It's kind of like Donkey Kong Country meets Julius Mode from Dawn of Sorrow. You'd think they'd have a bunch of abilities designed around having two characters on screen, but there's really only 3, and most are not used very often. One lets you leave your partner somewhere, like on top of a switch, one calls your partner to help you push objects, and one lets you jump off your partner's shoulders, effectively giving you an awkward triple jump when you get the double jump ability. The only one of these you use very often is the partner shoulder jump. This setup also lets you use the second character's subweapon or magic without switching by pressing R, and there's flashy team up magic spells, like the Item Crash moves, called Dual Crush. The Partner System is cool, but it doesn’t feel like it’s used to its full potential.

The 2 main playable characters in PoR are Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin. Jonathan Morris is the son of John Morris from Bloodlines and current heir to the Vampire Killer. He also could possibly be the one to hand the Vampire Killer back to the Belmonts in 1999. Jonathan wields the legendary whip, but can't use its full power, because his father died without teaching him how to unlock it. Jonathan resents his father because of this. The truth is that since he is not a Belmont, the Vampire Killer will drain and shorten his life if he uses its full powers. The Lecarde family are also the only ones who can perform the Whip's Memory ritual in order to unlock its full power. Jonathan plays like a mix of Soma Cruz and Julius Belmont. He has almost the same moves as Soma, and can use all kinds of swords, maces, and spears, but can also use whips, and has the Shoryuken-like punch, like Julius Belmont. Jonathan’s subweapons are also more like classic Castlevania subweapons than a bunch of summons and magic spells. Charlotte gets most of the magic.

Charlotte Aulin is a very intelligent and powerful young witch. She is a relative of the Belnades clan, and Jonathan's childhood friend. In PoR, she learns the Sanctuary spell, which can cure Vampirism, and the manual says that she is seen as the final weapon against Dracula, but she definitely can't use Sanctuary on Dracula in this game, I tried. She would be 71 in 1999, so I guess they're hinting at her taking part in that battle. Charlotte can't use any of the weapons and subweapons Jonathan can, and her melee attacks are very weak, but she can use a lot of powerful magic spells. Charlotte has the same basic moves as Jonathan, but since she doesn’t do much melee damage, and magic requires MP, you probably don't want to control her most of the time. She does come in handy against bosses and enemies with elemental weaknesses, though. Charlotte's magic includes all sorts of elemental spells, and spells to transform into a toad to squeeze through small passages, and an owl to fly around and reach new areas.

Portrait of Ruin is a beautiful looking game. The DS's resolution is lower than the PS1’s, so it looks a bit more pixelated than SotN, but it’s still a great looking game. All the character portraits look really good, Charlotte and Jonathan have really nice animations, and the environments are all incredibly detailed and interesting. There's a monster infested European city, an abandoned Witch school in a spooky forest, a haunted circus in a warzone, and an underground pyramid in a desert. I especially like the city paintings. They have underground train tunnels, London inspired streets with a big city in the background, ornate street lamps, and vintage storefronts, and lots of indoor areas, like markets, butcher shops, restaurants, and cafes with tons of little details, like baked goods, butchered meats, and all kinds of fine china. It feels like a lot of effort was put into making each area not only look great, but also feel like something fresh and new for the series. It's just really disappointing to see all the themes reused in the second half of the game. There are 8 painting levels in the game, and the last 4 use recolored graphics from the first 4 paintings.

Portrait of Ruin’s OST is pretty great. There’s so many kinds of music in it. From the intense, fast-paced organ music in “Gallery of Labyrinth”, to the classical-inspired heavy metal of “Bloodlines Bequeathed” from Rondo of Blood. It’s mostly new songs, but it does have a few more remixed classics, like “Theme of Simon Belmont” and “Iron Blue Intention” from Bloodlines. Both Michiru Yamane and Yuzo Koshiro worked on this OST. They worked on separate tracks, but that’s a hell of a team to have on the same game.

I think this game controls really well, it has nice graphics, a great soundtrack, and a great story with interesting characters, but it’s definitely one of the weaker Igavanias. The reused graphics in the last 4 levels and the mediocre level design in the paintings really brought the game down for me. If those 2 things would have been better, this could have been an amazing game.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Castlevania: Bloodlines Review

Castlevania: Bloodlines was released by Konami on the Sega Genesis in 1994. It is also known as Castlevania: The New Generation in Europe, and as Vampire Killer in Japan. It's 1 of only 2 Castlevania games ever released on a Sega system. The other being Symphony of the Night on Saturn. Bloodlines was 1 of 3 Castlevania games being developed simultaneously at the time, along with Castlevania for the Sharp X68000 (AKA Chronicles) and Rondo of Blood for the PCE, and it was the last of the 3 to be released. Bloodlines was originally meant to be a side story, and was referred to as a Castlevania gaiden on the back of the Japanese Rondo of Blood guide, but it was later made a pretty important part of the series thanks to its ties to Jonathan Morris, Richter Belmont, and Alucard.

Contrary to what the English opening sequence of Symphony of the Night suggests, Bloodlines does not take place before SotN. The story of Castlevania Bloodlines starts in 1897, exactly 100 years after SotN. That’s the last time Dracula came back and was killed by Quincy Morris, John Morris’ father and wielder of the Vampire Killer at the time. Young John Morris and his childhood friend, Eric Lecarde, watched Quincy kill Dracula from the shadows, and were inspired to become Vampire Hunters themselves. Bloodlines takes place in 1917, around 55 years after Order of Ecclesia and 27 years before Portrait of Ruin. Dracula’s niece and Vampire, Elizabeth Bartley, has been resurrected by a witch named Drolta Tzuentes. They then start World War I by orchestrating the assassination of the Austrian Prince and performing a ritual to resurrect Dracula with the souls of humans who died in WWI. They need the help of other monsters too, so they travel from Castlevania in Romania to 5 other castles around Europe, recruiting monsters. John and Eric then follow them all over Europe, cleaning up after them, and trying to stop yet another resurrection of Dracula. Spoilers, they fail and we fight Dracula at the end anyway. It’s kind of a crazy story, but it’s important in the Castlevania lore, and it retroactively becomes more interesting after playing Portrait of Ruin.

Bloodlines is structured most similarly to Castlevanias like I, Chronicles, and IV. You play each level in order and there is no stage select or exploration. There are 6 levels, and each is split up into several blocks. There's a mid boss around the middle of the level and another boss at the end. There are branching paths in a couple of levels, but you can only take one path depending on which character you're playing as. There are areas which only John can go through by swinging with his whip, and places which only Eric can get to with his high jump. These branching paths lead you to character exclusive areas, but they always lead to the same bosses, and there are no alternate levels, like in Rondo of Blood.

Like Rondo of Blood, Bloodlines has 2 playable characters, John Morris and Eric Lecarde. However, you don’t have to unlock either one here, and even though Eric is easier to play, his game is not an easy mode, like playing as Maria Renard. They both play fairly similarly. Both characters can do the basic Castlevania attacks, but each has their own unique attacks and platforming abilities.

John Morris is the son of Quincy Morris. He was born in Texas, USA, is the current owner of the Vampire Killer whip, and is the father of Jonathan Morris from Portrait of Ruin. John plays a lot like a Belmont. More specifically, he plays like an NES Belmont with a few more moves. John can whip upwards diagonally and downwards while jumping, and he can use his whip to grapple onto stone blocks and swing across chasms, kind of like Simon in SCIV. This whip swing also works as an attack. John’s attack and platforming abilities are a bit limited when compared to Eric’s, but I guess his strength is having more familiar Castlevania gameplay.

Eric Lecarde is John’s childhood friend. The Lecardes are also descendants of the Belmonts, and hold the key to unlocking the Vampire Killer's full power. He was born in Segovia, Spain, he's the wielder of the Alucard Spear (not Alcarde, like the game spells it), and is the father of Stella and Loretta from Portrait of Ruin. Eric’s girlfriend was turned into a Vampire and he's looking for a way to save her, but hasn't told John about this. Eric can attack upwards and upwards diagonally while on the ground, downwards while jumping, and do a spinning spear attack by holding the attack button after a side or up attack and pressing either left or right on the d-pad. He can also do a high jump by pressing the jump button while crouching, which can also be used as an attack. Eric flashes while crouching, like in Super Mario Bros 2, but you don’t have to charge to do the high jump. Eric’s attacks are easier to land and he has much more mobility, thanks to his high jump, so playing as him felt a bit easier than John, especially during boss battles.

Overall, the game feels a lot like an NES Castlevania, but faster. It has a few things in common with Rondo of Blood, like being able to jump on and off stairs and the item crash move, but you don't have any air control besides being able to change directions mid jump.

Bloodlines brings back subweapons, but there’s only 3 real subweapons in the game. There is an item that gives you the max upgrade for weapon and lets you shoot magic, but it only lasts for a short while. The throwing axe and holy water return, and there’s a new boomerang that looks like a real boomerang, and not a cross, too. You can do item crash moves, and they are more powerful than regular subweapon attacks, but they’re nowhere near as flashy as the ones in Rondo of Blood. On a weird side note, Bloodlines uses rubies as the resource for subweapons instead of hearts, and a winged metallic item that looks like it's straight out of Contra for weapon upgrades. The subweapons feel very limited in terms of both selection and usefulness. I never felt like I needed them for boss fights, and they only came in handy a few times while playing through the levels.

Bloodlines has no battery backup, so you can't save at all, but it does have an icon-based password system similar to other Castlevanias, which you can use to continue your games. The game gives you 3 lives and 2 extra continues by default, but there is a cheat code you can use to set it to 9 lives in the options, and there's another trick you can do to get unlimited continues by simply resetting the system and picking the same character again after running out of continues. The checkpoint system is also very forgiving, and restarts you at the same block, or at the one before the one you died in, even when continuing. This game isn't anywhere near as punishing as some other Castlevanias, which send you all the way back to the beginning of a level.

For a Castlevania, Bloodlines has some pretty unique settings for levels. They’re not all the usual Castlevania stuff. You get a quick tour of Dracula's castle, there’s a clocktower in another level, a few castle halls, and some cathedrals with stained glass windows, but it feels like they really tried to do some new stuff. There’s a shrine to Atlantis in Greece where you have to outrun the water flooding the level, a level in the Leaning Tower of Pisa with all sorts of rotating sections inside and around the tower, a giant overgrown rose garden in front of a palace in France, and weirdest of all, a munitions factory in Germany with oil drums, steel beams, conveyor belts, chain link fences, and skeletons wearing army helmets.

The graphics in Bloodlines have that sort of Mega Man 8 thing going on. They're kind of weird. The designs of a lot of the enemies are very different from what they usually look like. The Mermen look more serpent-like, the wolf boss looks more like a hellhound with its fur burnt off, and the zombies are missing their usual tattered robes, for example. Sometimes the floor has that Mega Man 8, tilted camera perspective where you can see the floor, and sometimes it has a normal perspective. It's very inconsistent. There’s a lot of rotation effects used on the bosses and the levels, but none of them look especially good, because the animations don't have a lot of frames in them. It looks like they wanted to do polygon graphics for some of these effects, but weren’t able to on the Genesis. The colors look very plain and lack variety when compared to the other 16-bit Castlevanias. Backgrounds don’t use a lot of colors and gradients are more like pixelated transitions between two colors than actual gradients. There are also no real transparencies on fog or clouds. Instead, we get a dithering effect that deletes some of the pixels, so you can see what's behind them. It looks fine for a Genesis game, but it’s the worst looking of the 16-bit Castlevanias. At least the framerate is smooth most of the time, unlike in SCIV.

The sound quality of the Genesis leaves a lot to be desired, but the actual soundtrack is pretty awesome. This was the first Castlevania soundtrack Michiru Yamane worked on. It has awesome new renditions of Simon Belmont’s Theme, Bloody Tears, Beginning, and Vampire Killer, and this is where classics, like Sinking Old Sanctuary and Iron Blue Intention, made their debut.

As far as ClassicVanias go, this is a pretty good one. I like playing as both characters, the level designs are creative, and the soundtrack is awesome. The game is challenging, but not as punishing as other ClassicVanias, thanks to how continues work. It's a real shame Konami has never re-released this. This would be great to have on one of the Genesis collections, or even a Castlevania collection. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Chrono Trigger (PC) Review

Chrono Trigger was originally released on the SNES in 1995 by Squaresoft, about a year after Final Fantasy VI. It's an RPG created by a dream team of some of the most popular videogame and manga creators of all time; Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi; Dragon Quest creator, Yuji Horii; and Dragon Quest character designer and creator of the Dragon Ball series, Akira Toriyama. It also features a soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu. The credits read like a SquareEnix hall of fame looking at it today.

Chrono Trigger follows the story of a teenage boy named Crono and his group of friends as they travel through time to prevent the apocalyptic future they see in the year 2300 AD. A Lovecraftian monstrosity known as Lavos has been incubating underground, feeding on the planet's energy since the days of the dinosaurs, and will rise out of the earth and wipe out nearly all life in the year 1999 if it is not stopped. It's a dark, Terminator-like premise, but the game is just as light-hearted as a Dragon Quest game.

Chrono Trigger is also like modern Dragon Quest games in how the individual town (or in CT's case, time period) stories tie into the overarching story. Each Era you travel to has its own problems you have to deal with, characters that will join your party, and for the most part, a totally unique look to the world and its people, but everything always ties back to Lavos. Whether it's the aftermath of the Day of Lavos in the apocalyptic future of 2300 AD, Lavos’ arrival in 65,000,000 BC, or everything surrounding Magus, Frog, and the consequences of their actions in the present, it all ties back to Lavos somehow.

What makes CT’s story so engaging is the fantastic cast of characters. Crono himself doesn't have much of a personality. He's your typical Goku looking silent DQ protagonist, but with orange hair. The characters that join your party are bursting with personality, though. The first one you're introduced to is Crono's childhood friend, Lucca. She's an inventor who loves tinkering and technology. So much so that she becomes great friends with Robo, a robot from 2300 AD, who might retroactively be based on Lucca's work from 1000 AD. My favorite has to be Frog. He's a chivalrous knight from 600 AD with a tragic backstory that resulted in him being turned into a humanoid frog. Frog wields the legendary sword, Masamune, and is loyal to Queen Leene, who is the ancestor of Marle, the princess in 1000 AD who joins Crono without telling him that she's the princess. Everyone's story ties into someone else's somehow. Everyone feels like they have purpose. There's no random tagalongs or joke characters, and everyone is important to the story.

Time travel in Chrono Trigger is more than a storytelling device, it's a big part of the gameplay, too. Each time period is sort of like a town in other RPGs, but it’s not like you never go back after you’re done there. Every time period has at least 2 scenarios to play through and many quests require you to travel back and forth through time to complete them. People have been scattered through time, some zones are only available in certain time periods, and sometimes, things just take time. For example, Robo’s special item questline near the end of the game requires you to leave him in 600 AD and come back to get him in 1000 AD so he has time to reforest a desert area. You can also go to the last dungeon in all time periods after it appears and even go to fight Lavos from multiple time periods. The game gives you a lot more freedom to explore and do quests in the order of your choosing than the usual FF or DQ.

One of the main things that made me fall in love with Chrono Trigger when I first played it on SNES was the lack of random battles. There are no random battles in the zones or on the overworld. I don't know if it was the first JRPG to do this, but it was the first time I saw it. All the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games had random battles back then. You can usually see enemies in the field in CT. There are enemy ambushes, but they're not random. You will always be attacked if you run over certain spots and haven't killed those monsters yet. You also never go into some totally different looking place during battles. All battles take place right where you run into the monsters, they look exactly the same, and there are no flashy transitions or loading screens between battles and exploration.

The battle system in Chrono Trigger was also pretty different from most JRPGs of the time. In CT enemies don't just step forward to attack and then jump back in formation, they run around the field to attack and stop in different places. Their position in relation to other enemies and your party members affects how many of them you can hit with certain magic spells and abilities. For example, some of your abilities might hit everything within a circle, so if you cast them on an enemy with more enemies close to it, you'll hit them too. CT also has team up attacks, or “Techs”, as the game calls them. As characters gain experience battling together, they start learning different techniques that only they can do as a team. For example, Lucca can throw fire on Crono's sword and then he can perform a flaming spinning sword attack, and since Frog has a multi heal spell and Marle has powerful single target heals, they can perform a Tech that heals everyone to max HP at once. Every character also has some kind of magic affinity, and combining 2 or 3 schools of magic (or the same 1) with Techs can result in some devastating attacks. Group composition is much more interesting than just thinking about DPS and heals.

Chrono Trigger also uses the Active Time Battle system introduced in Final Fantasy IV. Everyone calls these command battle RPGs turn-based, but you don't take turns attacking with ATB. There is no constant order in which characters must perform actions. In ATB, your speed stat determines how often you attack. Chrono Trigger takes full advantage of ATB. Combining ATB with RPG mechanics, like elemental weaknesses and status effects, adds an element of timing and reactionary gameplay to CT's battles. Some boss battles are almost like playing a fighting game with commands. Sometimes you want to wait to attack and sometimes you want to wait for the enemy's attack. The game really made me think about strategy every time I faced a new boss. It's not enough to simply have the best equipment.

Chrono Trigger has been ported to many systems since the SNES days. This most recent PC version is a port of the mobile version, which is a port of the DS version. It includes new stuff from the DS version, like the new localization and new dungeons, but not the bestiary or the Pokemon-like online mode. The new content from the DS version includes some new dungeons and a new town with some quests. The Dimensional Vortex dungeon that appears after you beat the game is just reused areas from the main game, so it's not very interesting. Finishing the 3 different versions of the Dimensional Vortex will permanently upgrade some of your characters, like the special character quests. The Lost Sanctum is a new town that exists in 65,000,000 BC and 2300 AD that has a few areas attached to it and some quests that will send you traveling all over the game. The Lost Sanctum is unique, but reuses graphics from old areas. Finishing quests in the Lost Sanctum will reward you with money, gear, and upgrade items.

This version also includes the animated cutscenes, which first appeared in the PS1 version. They look a bit low res, but they're really cool. They actually look like an Akira Toriyama anime, unlike the old Chrono Trigger OVA. You can also unlock galleries with all the anime, music, art, and endings you've unlocked after you beat the game.

This PC version had the potential to be the new definitive version, but sadly, it's pretty far from that. The 2 main issues with this port are the graphics and the frequent crashes. This version is in 16:9, but it only fills the screen when there is existing art to fill the screen with. For example, towns and the overworld use adjacent areas to fill the screen, while areas that were small to begin with, like the inside of houses, are surrounded by even more black emptiness. That's all well and good, but the art is sometimes cropped vertically and always stretched horizontally, like it's on a CRT, so all the characters look wider and all the circles look like ovals, which is very noticeable in a game where you're constantly going through circular portals to travel through time and half of your magic spells are scaling multicolored circles. The overworld graphics are both squished vertically and stretched horizontally. The framerate frequently stutters and skips frames, especially in the stitched together widescreen areas. This version also has big problems with mouse support. The game frequently crashes if you move the mouse during the anime cutscene that plays when you launch the game, the mouse cursor is always visible, even when using a controller, so you have to keep moving it to the right edge of the screen to hide it, and the game randomly crashes when you right click on the mouse during gameplay. This is kind of a big problem to have for a PC game. The game also randomly crashes if you try to play it while extending your desktop to a 2nd monitor.

The actual sprites in Chrono Trigger still look great, though. This is one of the best looking games on SNES. Akira Toriyama's art style looks great in both the characters and the environments. The dome cities, mountains, dinosaurs, machine and robot designs, Garlic Jr looking monsters, the hair. It's all here. I don't think even DQVI depicted Toriyama's style as well as CT. All your party members have exaggerated expressions, cute victory poses, and unique walking animations, which add yet another layer to their personalities and let you know how they're feeling without even reading their dialogue. CT is a beautiful looking game all around.

This game has one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. Yasunori Mitsuda famously worked himself into the hospital while working on this soundtrack, and Nobuo Uematsu stepped in to finish it. Each Era has its own songs, and they all fit perfectly with the look and theme of each one. The music of 65,000,000 BC sounds like jungle conga drum music, Zeal's theme is like some kind of new age meditation music, and the music of 2300 AD is more like a slow pulsing wave of sound with a few scattered piano keys than actual music. Half of your party members also get their own themes. Robo's sounds weirdly familiar.

This is a pretty bad port of an amazing game. Sadly, we don't have a lot of great options for playing this game on modern platforms outside of emulation. The DS version is probably the best version, but it's slowly but surely going up in price. You can't buy Wii VC games anymore, the PlayStation Classics version has super long and annoying load times, even on PS3, and the mobile versions are worse looking versions of this one. If you can overlook the problems with this version; though, this is still one of the best RPGs ever made.