Saturday, November 30, 2019

Pokémon Sword and Shield Review

Pokémon Sun and Moon were the Skyward Sword of Pokémon games. They were the culmination of years of adding more and more tutorials, handholdy intros, and putting more and more focus on wacky stories with terrible characters. The series needed a change. And while Pokémon Sword and Shield are not the Breath of the Wild of Pokémon games, they’re a big step in the right direction.

Pokémon Sword and Shield needed to put the focus back on the journey to becoming the Pokémon Champion, and I think it does a pretty good job at that. There is still a wacky story about the origins of Dynamaxing, the Galar Region, and the legendary wolves, but it’s a secondary story, and it doesn't really rear its ugly head until the very last part of the game. Most of the game is about the Galar Gym Challenge, you and your rival trainers, and the Gym Leaders. There is no Team Rocket or Lillie hogging the spotlight in Sword and Shield, and that’s a good thing in my book.

There is no Elite Four or Pokémon League as we’ve come to know it in the Galar Region. Instead, the eight Gym Leaders, and the current champion, are in constant battle for the number one spot. These Gym Leaders play a much bigger role in the story than those in past games. They’re celebrities in Galar. They show up multiple times during the story, they have fans, rivalries, relationships with your rival trainers, and a lot more personality than pretty much every Gym Leader or member of the Elite Four in past games. They’re more like superstar athletes than the head of some dojo, and it fits perfectly with the themes of the game.

Your rivals are also a big step up from recent rivals, like Hau. Hop, your main rival, is your childhood friend and neighbor, and the little brother of the undefeated Pokémon Champion of the region, Leon. No pressure! Unlike Hau, he actually cares about winning and losing and doesn’t just take Ls with a smile and go back to eating malasadas. Hop changes his strategies and Pokémon to counter you, he grows as a trainer and as a person, and by the end of the game, he’s a different character. How about that? They wrote a story about personal growth and the spirit of competition and it turned out a million times better than anything about saving the world, wacky scientists, or interdimensional Pokémon. More Hops, less Lillies, please.

Gyms are actually huge stadiums in this region, and each gym challenge is like a Soccer game, chanting crowds and all. It’s a lot like in the anime, and exactly what I’d imagine gym battles would really look like in the world of Pokémon. The trainers who embark on journeys to beat the Gym Leaders and collect the eight badges (like you) are treated like up-and-coming athletes. They even have uniforms and sponsors. All of this is clearly inspired by the Soccer scene in the UK, but I don’t watch Soccer. What it really reminds me of is real world Pokémon Esports.

Sword and Shield’s campaign is still that same linear, Dragon Quest on rails type of RPG, and it still has an NPC talking to you every 10 steps you take during the intro, but they’ve definitely dialed back the hand holding a bit from Sun and Moon. The whole game is not like the intro. You get a lot more chances to explore on your own in this game, and the routes don’t all feel like straight shots to the next town. After around the 2 hour mark, you’re free to explore the Wild area and get your Pokémon KOed by an Onyx, and then you can explore one of the big cities after that. You still talk to the professor or a rival trainer after you do anything in the story, but I didn’t feel like I was constantly being funneled down a path, even though I still kind of was.

I really enjoyed the campaign. It could have used some side dungeons, though. Since there is no evil organization in the game, and the story about the origin of Dynamaxing is left for the very last part of the game, there isn’t anything like a Lavender Pokémon Tower or Team Rocket hideout. But I guess if the focus of the story is on the trainers, giant office buildings full of bad guys don’t make a lot of sense. There also aren’t a bunch of legendary Pokémon waiting for you in the post game. There is an epilogue, but it’s maybe 2 hours long, and the only legendary you get out of that is your cover Pokémon. There is nothing like a Mewtwo, Celebi, or the legendary birds, but I wouldn’t say this game lacks endgame content. There is still a Battle Tower, and the Wild Area is full of stuff to do, and you can only get the most out of it after you’ve beaten the game.

The name might evoke thoughts of Breath of the Wild, but the Wild Area is nothing like Zelda. There are no story scenes or quests in the Wild Area, and it is not the Hyrule field of Sword and Shield, even though some people think one of the trees looks like it’s from OOT. You don’t actually have to do anything in the Wild Area during the story except run across it to get to another town, and not all towns are connected by it. The Wild Area is actually an open-ended buffet of Pokémon and item farming. It’s also the only area in the game with a controllable camera. As if they needed to ease players into videogame cameras. I think the closest thing I could compare the Wild Area to is endgame zones in World of Warcraft, like the Timeless Isle in Mists of Pandaria, or maybe Adventure Mode in Diablo III and Patrols in Destiny. The Wild Area is full of all kinds of Pokémon and endlessly repeatable multiplayer and single player PVE content. Different Pokémon will appear in certain areas depending on the weather, and since there are no random encounters, you can see them everywhere you go. There’s a huge Onyx just roaming around, Gyarados and Lapras swimming in the lakes, Butterfrees flying around, and Zigzagoons scurrying around in the tall grass. It’s like a Pokémon wildlife reserve. This is the place to go if you want to catch ‘em all. There’s even a Daycare there.

The Wild Area also introduces raids to the main series. Raids are single or multiplayer PVE encounters pitting 4 trainers and 1 of their their Pokémon against a Dynamaxed or Gigantamaxed Pokémon. Raids are found in Pokémon “Dens” all over the zone. They look like a bunch of pink stones around a rabbit hole. If there’s a Pokémon in them, a big ray of pink light will be shooting out of it, like a piece of loot in Diablo III. Raid battles are kind of like double battles in that you work as a team and some moves, like Surf and Earthquake, can hit your teammates, so they require different strategies from regular trainer battles. You can do raid battles on your own along with 3 CPU controlled trainers, or do them with other players online or through local wireless. The Pokémon you fight against is Dynamaxed for the whole battle, but only 1 trainer can Dynamax for 3 turns during the battle. Once you KO the raid Pokémon, you have one chance to catch it with a Pokéball. These Pokémon are guaranteed to have some perfect IVs and have a good chance to have Hidden Abilities, so they’re usually worth catching. Raid battles don’t award Exp, but regardless of whether you catch the Pokémon or not, you’re rewarded with all sorts of goodies, like Rare Candy, Exp Candy, gold nuggets, TRs (1 use TMs), and berries, so they’re a great way to get stuff to raise Pokémon with.

Sword and Shield have made it easier than ever to take any Pokémon from zero to hero in a short amount of time. Time to break out that shiny Adamant Ghastly I caught in Let’s Go Pikachu and make it a superstar! Not only are you showered with Exp Candy and TRs after raid battles, but all that stuff you could do in the Poké Pelago to level up and EV train is back with Pokéjobs, Hyper Training to max out IVs is still in, ability capsules are back, and new ways to customize Pokémon have been introduced, too. You can now forget and remember moves for free at a Pokémon Center. No more Heart Scales. You can now pass along Egg Moves without breeding a new Pokémon by simply leaving a Pokémon in the Daycare with a Pokémon that has the move, there are new items called “Mints” which can change a Pokémon’s Nature, and there is no longer a limit to the amount of Vitamins you can give to a Pokémon before maxing out their EVs. You can customize a Pokémon in any way you want short of giving it a Hidden Ability and making it Shiny. You’d still need to breed for those. Where’s my Shiny Mint, Game Freak?

There are two big things carried over from the Let’s Go games that really change how the game plays, and thankfully, neither of them is motion control Pokéball throwing. Sword and Shield has no random encounters and you can access your Pokémon Box from anywhere. You can now see Pokémon in the wild, just like in Let’s Go. There are no random encounters at all. Not in caves, water, or in tall grass. Sometimes a Pokémon will hide in the tall grass, and you might accidentally run into them if you’re going too fast, but there are no invisible Pokémon. Having the Pokémon Box available to you nearly anywhere means less trips to the Pokémon Center, of course. You can easily switch out Pokémon to counter a trainer, avoid evolving your Eevee into Umbreon instead of Espeon, switch out KOed Pokémon, or whatever you need to do.

The new Pokémon Camp kind of goes hand in hand with the easily accessible Pokémon Box. You can camp in a lot of places, it’s not just for the outdoors. At a campsite, you can cook curry and play with your Pokémon. It’s not quite Pokémon-Amie, but you can raise an Eevee’s friendship level and give it enough Exp to evolve it into an Espeon from level 1 in just one stay at a campsite by playing with it and cooking some curry. Curry can also revive and fully heal your Pokémon, and even refill their move’s PP, so you don’t even have to go to the Pokémon Center to heal up if you can camp. It’s all about doing less running around and more of what you want to be doing, and I like that.

Sadly, the online component in Sword and Shield is worse than it’s ever been. Having to use friend codes to trade with friends was never great, but the system they’ve implemented in Sword and Shield is probably worse. Sword and Shield uses a 4 digit “Link Code” to create a meeting room to trade or battle with friends. The problem is that there’s thousands of people doing this, so it’s very likely that someone else is trying to use the same 4 numbers at the same time as you. I’ve gotten 2 or 3 random strangers in a room before I got the person I was actually trying to meet up with on more than a few occasions. Random online battling and surprise trades are still in, but the GTS is totally gone, so you can’t just leave a Pokémon up for trade and check back on it later. You can connect online in the Wild Area and see other trainers running around, but they don’t do much besides adding a bunch of lag to your game. The multiplayer feels more like it’s designed for Japanese players who gather in cafes than people who play online all over the world. All this stuff can also be done locally, just like in past games, and I’m guessing it works much better when it doesn’t involve the Internet.

The UI has gotten a really nice redesign with cleaner and more readable graphics and a few customizable elements, like being able to skip the nickname question and being able to automatically send Pokémon to a box, but this is obviously just another iteration of the same UI that’s been in these games for years. You still can’t automatically sort Pokémon alphabetically or by Pokédex number in your boxes, the search function doesn’t do anything but highlight the Pokémon you search for, and you still need to have Pokémon in your party to use items on them. And most puzzling of all, this game has no touchscreen support. Seriously!? I appreciate the improvements, but this UI still needs a lot of work.

The graphics also look like they were made with the same tech as the 3DS and Let’s Go games. This is the best looking Pokémon game so far by default, but it pales in comparison to games from Nintendo’s other teams. This game could probably be done on Wii U. The game still has that same great Pokémon art style, though. Even though everything is low poly and the textures are low res, it still looks like Pokémon. The framerate is better than it’s ever been, too. The game is 30fps, with some drops here and there, but it runs much better than the Let’s Go games, and it’s far from the slideshow that the 3DS games were in battles.

The best part of the presentation is definitely the music. It kind of stands out because of how good it is. I love the new version of the Pokémon Center theme, the Turffield theme with the organs, and the Wild Area theme with the bagpipes most of all. The sound effects and Pokémon cries still sound the same, though, which is disappointing. There’s also still no voice acting for anyone except the 2 most popular and important characters, Eevee and Pikachu.

Pokémon Sword and Shield is not the huge shakeup I was hoping it would be, but it’s a great game and I’ve been hopelessly addicted to it for the past 2 weeks. I love the story and characters, the music is awesome, raids are a ton of fun, and I love how battles don’t run at 5fps. I just want the series to move forward at a faster pace. I don’t understand why they feel they need to ease players into something like a controllable 3D camera when Super Mario 64 came out in the same year as the first Pokémon. That was 23 years ago. Every gamer knows how to control a game camera. It’s kind of sad that even the most old-school of old-school RPGs, Dragon Quest, has left the Pokémon series in the dust.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Luigi's Mansion 3 Review

When the GameCube launched in 2001, one of its launch games was Luigi’s Mansion. It was part tech demo, part Survival Horror parody, and totally unlike the traditional Mario platformer many Nintendo fans wanted at launch. It was fun, though, and it gave Luigi a personality. He wasn’t much more than Green Mario before. It’s thanks to that game that Luigi plays how he does in Smash, he got the personality that made him a meme superstar with his Mario Kart 8 death stare, and we eventually got Luigi’s Mansion 2 (Dark Moon) on The Year of Luigi. Now, Luigi is back and better than ever. Luigi’s Mansion 3 feels like a game from a developer that has learned from its past mistakes and put some real effort into making Luigi’s Mansion one of Nintendo’s big series.

Luigi's Mansion 3 doesn't begin on a dark and stormy night. It begins on a beautiful sunny day. The Mario gang has been invited to stay at the Last Resort by its owner, Helen Gravely. Apparently, nobody thinks any of this is suspicious, so they go along with it. But on the first night there, after everyone has gone to sleep, the beautiful luxury hotel is revealed for what it truly is, a haunted luxury hotel. The lights go out, fog rolls in, Mario, Peach, and the Toads go missing, and Helen Gravely reveals that she is actually a ghost working for Luigi's arch nemesis, King Boo. King Boo traps Mario, Peach and the Toads inside paintings, but Luigi and his dog, Polterpup, manage to get away. Luigi then runs into his old friend, Professor E. Gadd, gets his Poltergust vacuum back, and sets off on another ghost busting quest to rescue his brother and the gang.

The hotel's elevator has no buttons, though! How is Luigi supposed to get around the hotel without elevator buttons? There’s only a few stairs connecting the bottom floors. That's probably a fire hazard. It turns out that Helen Gravely’s ghost minions (the bosses) have the buttons, so Luigi must capture them to get them back. These buttons are sort of like stars in Mario 64, except there aren’t 120 of them. Once you get an elevator button, you’re able to go to the next floor. Unlike in LM2, the game isn’t split up into Missions or entirety separate mansions. Each floor is completely self-contained, but you never have to go to a menu screen to do another objective or to move to another floor. You're free to go wherever your buttons and abilities can take you at any time. This isn't a total throwback to LM1, though. There aren't many reasons to go back to previous floors besides catching all the Boos, which only spawn after you complete a floor, or maybe getting gems you missed.

The Last Resort is 17 floors of puzzles and ghost hunting adventures, and it’s much more than hotel rooms. In fact, there’s more activities and entertainment here than there are places to sleep. There’s a mall, concert hall, museum, gym, dance club, a pirate cove themed bar, and a pyramid in the middle of a desert, complete with Indiana Jones style traps and mummies. The environments are much more varied than in either of the previous games, and I like that, even if sometimes they seem out of place. I felt like the game didn’t take advantage of the Mario IP as well as it could have, though. Luigi’s Mansion is kind of its own thing, but it’s still in the Mario universe. They could have filled the pyramid with Super Mario Land references, put Yoshi in the dinosaur museum, and made the generic King Kong in the movie set Donkey Kong instead, for example.

The varied environments also keep the puzzles fresh throughout the whole game. Luigi only has so many things he can do with his abilities, but the different themes keep changing the logic of the puzzles. For example, in the pyramid themed floor, you’re constantly vacuuming tons of sand. You vacuum everything up in this game. That’s not new or unique. But not every floor is covered in sand like that. Simply adding sand that Luigi can move around changes everything because that gives him control over the elevation of the ground. Just when I thought the game had done everything it could do with Luigi’s abilities, it kept surprising me with clever new types of puzzles.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 really is all about the puzzles. Even though the series is a parody of games like Resident Evil, the puzzles are also a lot like Zelda puzzles. There’s a lot of switch pulling, finding hidden doors, and moving things around in the environment. Even the bosses are more puzzly than the average Mario boss. You’re usually showered with health replenishing hearts during a battle, so it’s almost hard to die on them for most of the game. Most boss battles are more about figuring out how to damage the boss than they are about avoiding attacks and doing as much damage as possible.

Luigi’s moves don’t lend themselves to fast-paced action very well anyway. This game is at its best when the action is slow and you have to use your brain. There are definitely times when the game crosses that line, though. Near the end of the game, you often have to do puzzles with strict timing requirements, and the bosses become a little too demanding for what Luigi can do with his limited skills and slow movement speed. I feel like the game became more frustrating than challenging at that point, and some of that stuff could have use a nerf, but I was able to get through it eventually.

I guess it’s been a while since Luigi was in a new platformer, so he may be out of platforming shape. Luigi has a new jump move in LM3, but he’s actually just using the Poltergust to do a tiny rocket jump. This is the move you rarely use, but the game won't let you forget about. Luigi also gets a plunger with a rope tied to it, which he can use to pull, tow, or throw stuff around. The biggest new ability, which is actually from the LM 3DS remake, is Gooigi, a green jello-like Luigi. You can summon Gooigi and move him around independently from Luigi to solve puzzles or fight enemies, but this also leaves Luigi vulnerable. There’s also a co-op mode in which player 2 plays as Gooigi. He only has 25 hearts, but he can infinitely respawn without penalties to make up for that. Gooigi can help you press down switches, pull objects around, and reach places Luigi can’t by going through gates and drains, like a green T-1000. The Gooigi puzzles are some of the best in the game. Gooigi for Smash!

I did have some trouble getting used to the controls, and the lack of aim inversion options didn't help, but I managed. I've been playing with inverted Y axis since Star Fox, it's hard to adjust. Luigi’s aiming works kind of like in 1st and 3rd person shooters, but Luigi isn’t always facing forward, and the aiming doesn’t adjust depending on which direction Luigi is facing. If Luigi is facing towards the camera, left on the right stick still turns towards Luigi’s left, which is now your right. This method of aiming makes sense, and it would be a real mess if it constantly switched which way is which, but it's confusing, and it doesn’t help that I’m always thinking with inverted aim in mind. There is an option to make aiming work more like in a dual stick shooter, but that forces you to use motion controls to aim up and down, and I am not a fan of motion controls.

The graphics are some of the best I’ve seen on Switch. It does run at 30fps, and there a few dips here and there, but the lighting and amount of detail in the environments and characters is pretty amazing. Luigi’s clothes look even more realistic than Mario’s in Odyssey, his flashlight makes pretty much everything in the environment cast a shadow, and he can vacuum and and throw around pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down. The game also has a very abstract cartoon-like style that I really like. Everything is crooked or slanted in some way, like in The Nightmare Before Christmas or the old Beetlejuice cartoon.

The music is pretty ambient and low-key, but it does have some really good stuff in it. There’s a few remixes of the main LM theme, a Super Mario Bros overworld theme remix when you arrive at the hotel, and lots of slow, jazzy, ambient tunes. The sound effects are very well done, too. You can actually hear Gooigi’s jello-like body wobble as he walks around. And this might sound weird when talking about a Mario universe game, but the voice acting is really good. Mario and Peach both have a lot more lines than in regular Mario games, and it’s kind of mind blowing to hear. Peach actually says stuff like “Yahoo” and “Here we go”, like she’s been hanging around Mario so much that she’s talking like him now. And of course, Luigi has a bunch of new lines, too. You actually get 3 directions on the d-pad dedicated to making Luigi call out for Mario.

I did try out the multiplayer, but I didn’t play a lot of it. It just isn’t really what i want from Luigi’s Mansion. If you played the multiplayer in LM2, it’s basically that. You run around a floor with other Luigis and catch ghosts until time runs out.

I really enjoyed this game. It’s just so fun and full of charm and personality. It has clever puzzles and bosses, the graphics are amazing, and the music and sound effects are incredibly well done. The controls took some getting used to, and it got a little frustrating during the last part, but the good far outweighs the bad here. This is definitely worth picking up, even if Halloween has already come and gone.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation Review

When I beat Dragon Quest XI, I was confused but intrigued. I had never played Dragon Quest III, so a lot of the references went right over my head, but I knew DQXI was constantly referencing it. I just didn’t know how much. Since then, I've wanted to play DQIII, but haven't had a good way to do so until now. An English port of the Super Famicom remake has been available on mobile for a while, but it had never been released on consoles in English until this Switch version, even though ports of the SFC remake have been released on Wii, PS4, and 3DS in Japan. I usually stay away from old-school RPGs, but I made an exception for this game, and I don't think I'll be picking up the Dragon Quest I and II remakes after this.

The main story in Dragon Quest III is very simple; you play as a teenager who is summoned by the king on their 16th Birthday. He wants you to kill the Archfiend Baramos. You're not a legendary hero or anything, you're just the son or daughter of the last guy who failed to kill the Archfiend. So, of course, you recruit a party of random mercenaries who have zero bearing on the story and set off on your adventure. The game’s story does get pretty good as you progress through the game, though. Like in other Dragon Quest games, each town has some self-contained scenario that ties into the overarching story on a more personal level. These always seem to be my favorite part of these games. There's tragic stories, funny stories, and of course, morals. I also enjoyed them because some are obviously the inspiration for some of the scenarios you see in DQXI. I often found myself thinking, “I saw this in DQXI but with an extra twist”. Now I want to play DQXI again.

Your party members don't play a part in the story because they are either recruited from a premade list or created by you. There's a bar in the starting town in which you can create a party member of any class. All non-Hero party members can also switch classes at level 20 and keep the old class' spells, so you can have a mage switch to warrior and have a tanky mage if you want. I like the level of customization this system allows for, but I like party members with a story even more. Dragon Quest VI had both a class system and story characters, and I liked that much better.

I wish I had played Dragon Quest III back in the day, but I didn’t start playing RPGs until Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. I have no nostalgia for NES RPGs, and at its core, that’s what this game is. It has a modern DQ UI and SNES era graphics, but it plays like an NES game. When you talk to the king, he simply tells you to take care of the Archfiend. There's no big cutscene explaining things, and he doesn’t tell you where to go or what to do. You have to figure everything out by talking to villagers and exploring the world.

The game starts off fairly linearly, but quickly opens up when you get a ship and are free to sail all over the world. I've played the DS remakes, so the sudden shift to a non-linear open world adventure wasn't a big surprise, but I still found the lack of direction a bit frustrating. I don't think anyone even told me I had to collect orbs like Dragon Balls. I actually got one orb before running into the altar of the Bird God and putting 2 and 2 together. Even though you are free to go anywhere at this point, that doesn't mean you should because monsters don't scale to your level. That first orb I got was from Orochi, a dragon in a cave that was probably one of the last places I should have gone to. There's also no way to tell what level the monsters will be in an area since this game has random encounters. Lots and lots of random encounters.

It seems like there's a random battle every five steps you take in any direction anywhere outside of towns. This is to be expected from old RPGs, but it gets really annoying when you’re aimlessly sailing around the world in search of the next town with an orb to advance the story and you’re spending most of your travel time fighting monsters. I rarely had to grind for equipment money because I always had tons of gold from fighting. Thankfully, there is a Zoom spell, so you don’t have to travel everywhere by foot or ship after you discover a town, but it doesn't let you Zoom everywhere, just the main towns. There is a Holy Water item that’s supposed to keep some monsters away, but it doesn’t work like Repel from Pokemon games, you still have to fight at least every ten steps.

Another thing that makes this game more work than it needed to be is the way that NPCs talk. The localization uses heavy accents with non-English words mixed in, combined with Yoda-like backwards speech patterns, and lots of thous, thys, thees, and eths at the end of words for no good reason other than to make them soundeth like Old English. Nobody talks like this in real life. It makes gathering information about what to do a real chore. It’s really hard to separate flavor text from hints when people talk like French Yoda from the 5th century.

There are a lot of very bad and puzzling things about the graphics in this version of the game. It uses the SNES game as a base, but for whatever reason, they felt like they had to mess around with the original sprites, and the results are never good. The backgrounds are the only thing that looks okay because they didn’t mess with them. All the character sprites look like they have one of those gross emulator smoothing filters on, but they still look pixelated around the edges as if they were scaled up from a lower resolution after the filter was applied. All the battle backgrounds have been cut down to a small window around the monsters and also have an ugly smoothing filter on them. The monster art looks like it has been replaced with key Dragon Quest art, like what you’d see in a manual or guide. That Akira Toriyama art looks great, but it's not animated like the sprites in the SFC version. I don't understand the logic behind that at all. Why even touch them if you're going to remove the animations? Who could possibly see this as an improvement? The scrolling in this version also looks very choppy, like it’s skipping a ton of frames.

The music is technically in a higher quality than the SFC version's, but it sounds like its missing instruments. It sounds very weak and flat compared to the original soundtrack. I feel like I always diss the music in these games, but I don't hate DQ music. I actually like the songs. It's just that they all sound the same. I've heard every single one of these songs in other games, and in better quality in games that were released before this. There are fully orchestrated versions of these songs out there, so why are those not in this version?

I was really curious about DQIII after playing DQXI, so I just had to play this, but I can’t recommend it to anyone looking for a fun RPG on Switch. Buy DQXI for that. Then if you're really curious about DQIII, maybe get this. It's better than the mobile port, at least. It’s not just that it has terrible graphics and lame music, it's just too old-school and not that fun to play. There’s too much aimless wandering around, too many random battles, and the localization is incredibly annoying to read. What Dragon Quest III really needs is another remake, not more ports of this. I feel like this could be a great game if it played more like DQXI and less like an NES game.