Monday, October 28, 2019

Trials of Mana Review

Trials of Mana is one of those legendary white whale import games like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Monster World IV once were, and Mother 3 still is. I remember first seeing it in an old game magazine as Secret of Mana 2. Being a big fan of Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy Adventure, I was hyped for a sequel, but it never came. It was released on the Super Famicom as Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995, but it was never released outside Japan. That is, until Collection of Mana was released on Switch back in June, shortly after Nintendo's E3 2019 Direct. I went into Trials of Mana hoping for a better game than Secret of Mana, and I think I got that, but it’s definitely not the masterpiece I was hoping for.

Trials of Mana has a very cliche premise, but the way it tells its story is very different from most RPGs of the time. You play as the chosen hero, collect 8 stones, and get a magic sword to save the world from an evil being from another dimension. I’ve heard this all before. What Trials of Mana does differently is that it gives you different sides of the story depending on which characters you choose and the order you pick them in. There's 6 characters to choose from, but you can only have a party of 3. The characters you choose will become the focus of the story, and the rest will have much smaller roles. The overarching story is always the same, but each character has a unique intro sequence you only get to play when you pick them first. You also get to see more of your other 2 character's story when they're in your party. You still get to see the 3 characters you didn't pick throughout the game and take part in some of their major story scenes, but they don't stick around for long, and you never get to know them very well. This is a cool idea that adds a little bit of replay value to the game. I didn't play all the way through the game with different character combinations, but I did check out all their intros, and they're really interesting and worth checking out.

Even though the main story sounds like it could come from any other RPG. I really enjoyed each character's personal story arcs. Everyone feels like they have a good reason for wanting to get the Mana Sword (besides saving the world), and their origin stories often cross over in some way, so it makes sense when they team up, even though they might come from completely different kingdoms, or even be affiliated with each other's enemies. All the playable characters also have strong ties to the major kingdoms in the game, so it feels like you have someone on the inside, or you're someone important everywhere you go.

Like Secret of Mana, Trials of Mana is an action RPG with real-time combat. There have been some pretty big changes to the combat since SoM, though. The first thing you'll notice is that ToM has a battle stance you automatically go into when there are enemies nearby. You pull out your weapon and slowly walk around with your guard up. It’s a lot like how you charge attacks in SoM. You can't swing your weapon at all outside of this battle stance, and you can't run while in the battle stance. This makes avoiding enemies much harder than in SoM. The B button, which is used to run outside of battles, turns into your special move button. As you land hits on enemies, a special meter fills up, and when it reaches a certain point, you can unleash a more powerful attack with B, kind of like in a fighting game. You no longer have to hold the attack button to charge up a special move, like in SoM. ToM also introduces a short melee attack cooldown. You can mash A and whiff without triggering the cooldown, but you will not be able to attack again for a second after landing an attack. It's not super fun to press A and have nothing happen, but it's better than SoM's energy bar, which lets you attack wildly, but doesn't let you do damage until it fills up. Aside from the slow walk you're forced into while in the battle stance, I think the melee combat is a big improvement over SoM and its energy bar charging system.

The magic system in ToM is not nearly as good as the melee, though. It feels like a big downgrade from SoM's, and it slows the pace of the game down quite a bit. Picking spells works like in SoM, you have the same popup ring menus, but in ToM, the world stands still while spell animations play. Neither you or the enemies can do anything at all. You just watch fireballs and lightning fly across the screen. This time freezing also affects item use and all level 2 and 3 special attacks. The game might as well become a turn-based game around a third of the way in because that's what it looks like after you start learning spells. Then enemies start casting spells, and time stops when they cast spells as well, further slowing the pace of the game down. Boss battles basically turn into a race to see who can cast as spell first as soon as you regain control of your characters at this point. I had Angela on my team, and she’s a Mage, so I had to use magic as much as possible with her, and it sucked. Time didn't stand still while you used magic in SoM, and it felt much better.

I also have a big problem with the game's UI. It's not that it's badly designed, it would be fine if it wasn't so laggy and slow. It comes and goes, but there's a ton of input lag sometimes, transitions between screens are really slow, and it sometimes drops inputs for no apparent reason. It feels like browsing PSN on PS3. I dreaded having to equip stuff or having to do any inventory management. There's also no way to tell which character is buffed or what buffs they have active, and there's no world map, so traveling around the world can be a bit confusing during the first part of the game, when you have to use ships and cannons to get around.

When I played the recent Secret of Mana remake, I was disappointed to see that it was still missing a lot of content in the second half of the game. Thankfully, there are no 1 room dungeons in ToM. ToM's dungeons are pretty good, and they're not just caves and fortresses. Sometimes you fight your way through a forest, ghost ship, or mountainside to find the next Mana Spirit. There's lots of beautiful environments in the game, so why only use them to connect places together? I was a bit disappointed with the amount of puzzles, though. There's a few dungeons with switch puzzles, but most of the time, you just have to kill everything in the room to open a door. None of the weapon specific obstacles, like cutting stalagmites with axes or using whips like grappling hooks, carried over from SoM. I did like how you use the Mana Spirits to open new paths, though. These felt more like story scenes than puzzle solving, but I still thought it was a cool way to bring the Mana Spirits back into the game after you rescue them.

There aren’t a lot of SNES games that look better than Trials of Mana. This was a pretty late SNES game, and it shows. It blows Secret of Mana out of the water. All the sprites have more texture to them, the main characters have a lot of cool animations and expressions, and there's more lighting and shading in the environments. The bosses are all huge and very detailed, but none of their attacks are very flashy. None of my character’s spell animations looked especially amazing, either. The version of the game in Collection of Mana also gets rid of the framerate issues in the original, which is nice because it made the music slow down, too.

The music in this game is also pretty great. There's a lot of trumpet-heavy Squaresoft style music in castles, whimsical upbeat music in towns, and a few songs reminiscent of Secret of Mana’s OST. I enjoyed some of the less traditional sounding stuff the most, though. There's one sad song, "Innocent Sea", that sounds like it has a mandolin in it, or at least as close as a SNES MIDI can get to one, "Swivel" sounds like Peruvian pan flute music, and I even heard some Salsa and Reggae in there, which I didn’t expect to hear in a Squaresoft game.

Trials of Mana is a great looking game with a good soundtrack and characters you can really root for, but the way time stands still while unimpressive spell animations play really drags the game down. It could have been one of the best Squaresoft games on the SNES if it wasn't for that. Still, I think it’s overall a better game than Secret of Mana. I know the upcoming remake fixes the spell freeze, so I'm still looking forward to playing that next year.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

In 2014, almost 2 years before the whole mess with Hideo Kojima, longtime Castlevania series producer, Koji Igarashi, left Konami. He wanted to continue making Castlevania games, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do so there with the company shifting its focus to gyms and pachinko machines. Shortly after leaving, he announced a Kickstarter campaign for a new game in the style of the Castlevania games he worked on, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. The Kickstarter was a huge success, but the game had a long development cycle and was delayed multiple times. The game finally came out in June of this year, but not without its share of problems. The Switch version of the game is still a miserable little pile of something, and it's definitely not secrets. That’s why I had not reviewed this game until now, even though I was a backer. I chose the Switch version and didn’t want to force myself through that mess of a game and ruin the experience, so I didn’t play it. But it’s on Game Pass for PC now, so I’m reviewing that version.

Like Castlevania, Bloodstained takes a pre-existing idea and runs wild with it. Instead of Dracula, werewolves, and the Grim Reaper, Bloodstained is all about demons and the Liber Logaeth. In the real world, the Liber Logaeth is a 16th century book of magic written in Enochian, the language of angels. In Bloodstained, it's full of spells to summon demons. The main villain of the game, Gebel, plans to use the book to summon the demon, Bael, who gets zero backstory in the game, but is one of the kings of hell in real world 17th century writings. You play as Miriam, who along with Gebel, is one of the last 2 surviving Shardbinders, people who were given the power to absorb demonic Shards by alchemists 10 years before RotN.

I think the story of Ritual of the Night is pretty bad. It's very predictable, a lot of the demon and Liber Logaeth lore is not explained very well, the dialogue is corny, and the whole thing feels more like setup and backstory than a game that's actually telling a complete story. I think the world they're building has potential as a game series, though. A world full of alchemists, demons, and demon hunters could be interesting. Bael is not much of a character compared to Dracula, but I guess you could go in many different directions with a series about people trying to summon Bael, like with people resurrecting Dracula. None of the characters have origin stories as cool as being the son of Dracula, or the latest in a long line of Vampire hunters, but Miriam, Zangetsu, and Gebel all have pretty cool designs, and I would like to see them again.

So what does Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon have to do with Ritual of the Night? Not much. The story of Curse of the Moon doesn't fit before or after Ritual of the Night, and it can’t be canon in the same timeline as RotN. CotM isn't much more than an introduction to the world of Bloodstained.

If Bloodstained CotM was the best of Classicvania, then RotN is a collection of the best ideas from Iga’s Castlevanias. The skills, structure of the game, NPCs, weapons, enemies, and controls all feel like they’re transplanted directly from Castlevania. Miriam plays like a mix of Soma Cruz, Shanoa, and Alucard. She moves a bit faster, but the floaty jumps, backstep, slide, and weapon attacks all feel very familiar. She has that same delay between backsteps Soma had, so you can't back dash faster than you can run, her magic is very similar to Shanoa's, and her weapon attacks are a lot like Alucard's, with diagonal slashes and special moves with fighting game inputs. I instantly felt right at home controlling Miriam.

Just like in Castlevania, you have to make your way through a huge gothic castle, which seemingly appeared out of thin air. This isn't Dracula's Castlevania, though. This is Gebel's Hellhold. Not quite as catchy, but okay. Good thing they went with Bloodstained as the name for the series. The castle is full of familiar gothic settings, like cathedrals, castle halls, alchemy labs, a clocktower, libraries, and also more natural settings surrounding it, like a garden, a Japanese mountain (I thought we were in Europe), and underwater caverns below the castle.

Traversal through the castle and its surrounding areas is classic Metroidvania. You fight your way through long halls and platform jump through vertical areas, fight lots of monsters, use your skills to get past obstacles, and try to make it to the next save room without dying before fighting a boss. There are some Zelda-like block pushing and switch puzzles, but they're never very hard to figure out. Most obstacles blocking your way require you to use a specific Skill, and it's always pretty easy to figure out that these are places you should come back to when you get the right Skill. A lot of the game is just about exploring and finding keys to open locked doors, though. It’s not all about special skills. Overall, I thought it was pretty good map. The layout makes it feel like a real place, like Castlevania, there's lots of breakable walls and secrets to find, the enemy placement keeps the action going, teleports and save rooms are well placed, and the different areas all look different and never get boring to look at.

The Shard system is basically Souls, Glyphs, Relics, and all that stuff from Castlevania combined. Shards give you subweapons, magic, Skills, buffs, and familiars. Every enemy drops a Shard with some kind of power, and you can collect multiples of a Shard to power them up. You can equip 5 of them at once, enhance them, and even save multiple loadouts. There's shards for shurikens, throwing daggers, fireballs, buffs for all the weapon types, movement and attack speed buffs, summons, and all kinds of stuff.

Even though I liked the variety and amount of customization the Shard system offers, I also felt like it kept me from feeling super powerful. Shards can only be equipped in one specific slot, so you have to pick and choose what to equip. Most of your traversal Skill Shards don't have to be equipped, but there's a few that do, so you can't even have all those skills available at all times. The Skills you can always have on are pretty standard Castlevania abilities, and there's only 3 of them, not including the loadout shortcuts, which are technically Shard Skills, too. There's a double jump, underwater walking, and a final one I won't spoil here. That's it. You get stuff like the slide, enemy nameplates, and Street Fighter-like weapon moves as baseline moves. Three Skills might sound low, but you're still getting about the same amount of stuff you'd get from Relics in games like Dawn of Sorrow and SotN in some way. Still, I would have liked a few more Skills in a game this big.

As I mentioned earlier, Shards also give you familiars. If you're not familiar with the term, it comes from the belief that Witches would have demons disguised as animals, like cats, working for them. They're little combat pets. There's a fairy, a ghost knight armor, a giant sword, a book with a face on it, and even one of those annoying floating eyeballs that act like Castlevania Medusa heads. The fairy heals you with special potions and points out breakable walls, the book buffs your stats, and the ghost knight specializes in attacking. They're not mandatory, but they're cool, and I like having them around. They also have some secret animations that play when you sit in certain places with them.

When Bloodstained was first hinted at on Twitter, their account asked, sword or whip? Well, RotN is definitely a sword game. There are whips in RotN, but they're very different from whips in Castlevania, or Miriam's whip in Curse of the Moon. RotN's whips only swing downwards diagonally, and not directly forwards, like a Castlevania whip. It's like they went out of their way to make this one weapon different from Castlevania. It's a strange choice considering that the rest of the weapons all work very similarly to their Castlevania counterparts. Those other weapon types are; katanas, daggers, shoes (for kicking), rapiers, rifles, spears, great swords, maces, and the regular swords. I mostly stuck to the regular swords because they work a lot like swords in SotN and they seemed to be among the most common weapons in the game. I didn't find many powerful rifles, rapiers, or spears. It seemed like the game was pushing me to craft those if I wanted them.

Order of Ecclesia and Dawn of Sorrow had a little bit of crafting, but nothing quite as in-depth as the crafting in RotN. They've gone full-on MMO here. There's a little underground hideout in the ruined village near the beginning of the game, and in that hideout, Miriam's friend, Johannes, hangs out in a little lab. You can talk to Johannes and make all types of weapons, accessories, armor, and potions, cook, and upgrade your Shards. Technically, upgrading Shards isn't crafting, but it works the same way. You get the materials and ingredients from enemy drops and treasure chests around the world and then make new things in town. I didn't go out of my way to upgrade a lot of Shards or craft anything besides some food and potions for healing, but there's hundreds of items you can make. You just need a Wiki to find out where to get all the mats. Once you've made an item, another NPC will add it to their inventory in a store across the hall, so you can just buy it instead of farming the mats to make it again. Speaking of farming, there's an actual farmer in the village who will take seeds you bring him and grow stuff, like rice and potatoes, for you to cook with. There's also 3 more NPCs in the village with quests you can do for gear and crafting materials. These are all very MMO-like killing and item fetching quests and don't have much of a story to them, but you can probably get them done during normal play without even knowing.

Bloodstained RotN's graphics have come a long way since the 2nd Beta I played. It actually looks alright now. The Beta looked like it used the same glossy shader on pretty much everything, and it just looked wrong, but all that has been fixed. All the materials are more realistically shaded now, there's lots of cool fog and particle effects, and the lighting really gives each zone a unique look and helps important things, like candles and zone entrances, stick out. I still feel like the realistic environment graphics clash with the anime style characters, though. The characters are all brightly colored, celshaded, and have black toon outlines. It's a completely different style from the one used on the environments. And while the game looks good during regular gameplay, it looks horrible when the camera comes in close during cutscenes and when you get to see the characters up close during dialogue. All the characters aside from Miriam are very low poly and don't have enough polygons around their mouths to be trying to lip sync. It looks pretty rough. The animation in the cutscenes also looks very stiff and floaty.

The music is by far the best thing about the presentation. It features a long list of composers; including Michiru Yamane, who is famous for her work on many Castlevania soundtracks, and Ippo Yamada, who has worked on a bunch of Mega Man soundtracks. RotN's soundtrack sounds like a sequel to Symphony of the Night's soundtrack. It's full of epic, classically inspired, orchestral songs, hard rock, chiptune songs for the 8-bit area, and some completely different sounding themes with traditional Japanese instruments for the Ninja mountain area. Yamane’s songs sometimes sound like they’re directly referencing songs from SotN with their notes without sounding like remixes, and the chiptune songs are clearly referencing NES Castlevania’s soundtrack. It’s fantastic.

The voice acting is not as nice, though. If they were going for SotN levels of comedy, they failed, and if they were aiming for something that could be taken seriously, they also failed. The dialogue is corny, the delivery is often awkward, and besides Robert Belgrade, who voiced the not Alucard guy, and David Hayter, who is just doing Solid Snake for Zangetsu, none of the voices sound very good. Miriam's sounds especially bad because you have to hear her fake accent the most.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels like a game trying to reclaim its belongings after dying and doing a corpse run. This really is just Castlevania with a different name. That's not a bad thing; though, I love Castlevania! RotN delivers in terms of gameplay. It's a fun Metroidvania, but it's not trying very hard to do anything new. It's a collection of all the best ideas from Iga's Castlevanias. That's fine for a first game, I guess, but I'd like to see more creativity in the future, especially with the abilities. The story and characters leave a lot to be desired, but I think this could become a really interesting world in future games. And I do hope there will be more Bloodstained games. Just don't ask me to back it on Kickstarter.