Sunday, August 22, 2021

Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Review

Developers: Square Enix, Tose
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Steam PC, iOS, Android
Price: $11.99
Version Played: PC

The Final Fantasy remake has had more versions than the original Star Wars trilogy. Final Fantasy was first remade in 2000 for the WonderSwan Color in Japan. Since then, it’s been ported to PS1, GBA, PSP, 3DS, iOS, and Android. It received many updates along the way, adding things like an orchestral soundtrack, redrawn sprites, a more traditional MP system, new dungeons, FMV, and even polygon graphics and stereoscopic 3D on 3DS. So of course, for this new Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster, Square Enix got rid of all the new dungeons and made something that looks closer to the NES original than even the first remake on the WonderSwan Color.
Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster doesn’t have any of the new graphical elements added to the FFI remakes after the original WSC version. No polygonal environments, no pseudo 3D overworld, no FMV, and none of the redrawn sprites from the PSP version. Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster uses the same enemy sprites from the WSC remake, but they've been recolored using a limited palette to make them look more like they did on the NES. They also did something similar for the NPC and playable character sprites. They took sprites from FFV and edited them to look more like the NES version’s characters.
The backgrounds and towns still look great, at least. The towns look pretty much the same, and it looks like they did a bit of work to make the backgrounds wider, but the new parts blend in perfectly with the old. They've also added a bunch of new spell effects, which look a lot more impressive than the ones in previous versions.
I like how the old stuff looks, but I really don’t understand the NES nostalgia route they've gone with for the character and enemy sprites. I would have preferred something that built upon the PSP game's graphics. Pixel Remaster's graphics feel like a step backwards.
They sure didn't go the NES nostalgia route with the soundtrack, though. This game has some of the best renditions of these songs I've ever heard. Everything is orchestral and it sounds amazing. I can actually hear fingers sliding across guitar strings in the town theme, the violins in the shop theme are just beautiful, and the famous victory theme could only sound better if you heard it live in concert. It’s an amazing soundtrack. I hope they keep this level of quality up throughout all of the Pixel Remasters. There's also a music player in the game, so you can listen to the soundtrack whenever you want.
Another baffling choice is the reverting of the MP system back to how it was in the NES game. Since Dawn of Souls on GBA, Final Fantasy remakes have had a traditional MP system, just like the one you see in pretty much every other RPG. Pixel Remaster; however, goes back to a system where every tier of spells has its own MP pool and every spell has the same MP cost. For example you might be allowed to use a White Mage’s level 1 spells 5 times, their level 2 spells 4 times, and so on. It's a lot like PP in Pokemon games, except it makes sense in Pokemon. In FF, it’s a very weird system that severely limits how useful your magic classes can be early on in the game and gets more and more annoying as the game goes on. Since your highest level spells always have the least MP, and Ethers restore MP on all spell levels at once, I found myself using lower level spells to save the most powerful spells and using as many spells as possible before using Ethers. You can carry 99 Ethers, but each Ether only restores 1 MP. You can easily go through all your Ethers in a dungeon if you're only using your best spells. That's a lot more thought than I want to put into how I use magic in a game.
There are a lot of random battles, and I hate them, but they didn't annoy me as much as in other games, like the Dragon Quest III remake. Modern battle system UI improvements, like cursor memory, auto battling, and auto retargeting, really help make all the battling as painless as possible. It also really helps that every zone has a detailed map instantly available to you. You don’t have to aimlessly wander around looking for doors or treasure chests. Everything is automatically shown on the map for you, so you can just go straight to where you need to go. I really appreciate that.
This is my first time playing all the way through FFI, so I don't know if the difficulty is supposed to feel like this, but I felt like it was very unbalanced. I thought I might have been missing out on much needed XP before fighting the Earth boss, but then I took it out in 2 turns and wondered if I had actually been fighting too many random battles instead. I destroyed every single boss in under 4 turns until I got to the final dungeon, where I had boss battles that felt normal to me. I was very confused when the last boss actually killed me. I found out afterwards that you could upgrade your classes in the game. So I did, and then killed Chaos without much trouble.
There really isn't much going on with the story, it's just the 4 Warriors of Light saving the world from Chaos. Yes, you are here to kill Chaos. I love seeing how the world of Final Fantasy started, though. Some of the town scenarios are sort of generic, like the town being terrorized by a Vampire, but it's done in a sort of humorous way and I enjoyed that. I loved talking to everyone in town and listening for clues about what to do next. There's nothing marking your destination on the map or anything, so you actually have to pay attention. I like how the game gives you the freedom to explore and get a feel for how the game works on your own. Modern RPGs sometimes feel like they're funneling you down a path and they bombard you with tutorials, so the level of freedom in this game is very refreshing.
Sadly, this game leaves a lot to be desired on the technical side. It’s not like it runs horribly or anything. It just has some weird issues that should have been fixed. It’s been a month since the release of this game and it hasn’t gotten a single update. The biggest issue has to be the ugly screen tearing and lack of an in-game VSync option. I had to force VSync through my graphics card’s control panel. The game also has some very noticeable frame pacing issues, like many games built in Unity do. The game runs at a good framerate, but you can see where the game stutters every few seconds. It’s not as bad as the Dragon Quest remakes on Switch, at least. The game also doesn't automatically hide the mouse cursor, so you have to drag it off-screen every time, and I was never able to get the game to launch in fullscreen, forcing me to press Alt + Enter on the keyboard every time I launched the game. There are options to run the game in fullscreen and windowed fullscreen, and I set it to fullscreen, but it always launches in a window anyway. There’s also the issue of the very small, smooth, thin, and hard to read font used in the game. Thankfully, you can easily mod that. I changed it to the FF6 SNES font, which looks much better and is much easier to read when sitting away from the TV.
Weird NES nostalgia graphics and technical issues aside, I did enjoy the game. I love the amount of freedom the game gives you, I think the environments and backgrounds look great, and the soundtrack is amazing. I also just loved seeing how Final Fantasy began. Even though I’ve played FF1 before, this is my first time beating the game. I feel like they really missed the mark if they were trying to make this the new definitive version, though. I think that’s still probably the PSP version, which sadly is stuck on a dead system whose online store is now shut down for good.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Astalon: Tears of the Earth Review

Developer: LABS Works
Publisher: Dangen Entertainment
Platforms: NS, PC, PS4, XBO
Price: $20
Version Played: Switch

Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a very interesting Metroidvania. It might look like the spiritual successor to an old Falcom game, like Legacy of the Wizard or Knightmare, but it's something more like Symphony of the Night but with a lot of NES game influence. It has a lot of Mega Man style platforming, Zelda-like key hunting, and a sort of Metroid-like way of not telling you things sometimes. It’s a great combination of elements that makes for a pretty fresh take on the Metroidvania.

The biggest thing that sets Astalon apart from the average Metroidvania is that you play as a party of characters. You start with a Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. Each character has unique abilities, so you constantly have to switch between them to progress. For example, only the Rogue can wall jump, so she's the only one who can reach higher platforms. You can't switch characters with the press of a button until the latter half of the game, though. You have to go to a bonfire (save room) to switch. A lot of Astalon’s gameplay revolves around simply opening paths for the rest of your characters to be able to access new areas. I thought that maybe the game would lose something when I got the ability to switch characters on the fly, but it ended up feeling more like the developers were free to do even more interesting and challenging things with the level design then.
Astalon is also more about finding keys and hitting switches to open paths than it is about gaining new abilities to reach new areas. Each character only gets a couple of new abilities throughout the game. Most items you get are either keys or map markers. Astalon feels very old-school in that way. It reminds me a lot of older Zelda games, where simply finding keys, maps, and compasses was a huge part of the game.
The other major aspect that sets Astalon apart is how the game handles death. When you die in Astalon, you go all the way back to the tower's entrance. When you save at a bonfire, you're only saving your character's progress and not your location. Bonfires also don't refill your HP, and there are very few health drops in the game, so you will die a lot. But dying isn't completely a bad thing because when you die, you get to buy upgrades. Not double jumps or weapons, though. It's more like HP upgrades, map markers, or magic that attracts money to you like a magnet. You can also buy 3 cutscenes that reveal a lot about the story. That’s kind of a weird way to do that, but the story is good.
Going all the way back to the beginning of the game isn't as bad as it might sound. Unlike in a Castlevania, where it's all about getting to the next save point, Astalon is all about opening shortcuts, portals, and elevator stops, so you don't have to go through the whole tower to get back to where you died. And just in case anyone is wondering, you don’t lose your money or equipment when you die, so you don’t have to do a corpse run. It’s not that kind of game.
I wouldn’t call Astalon a story-driven game, but I found the world it builds a lot more interesting than most indie Metroidvanias I've played. Astalon takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where demon-infested towers pop out of the ground, like tears from the earth. The idea is that the planet is trying to rid itself of the evil inside. These towers are ruled by giant demons called Gorgons, who are literally giant demon statues. These Gorgons are worshipped by cultists and gain strength from human sacrifices. If they gain enough power, they can leave their towers and attack the few human villages still left in this world. Our 3 heroes are going to this tower because the Gorgons have poisoned their village’s water supply. It’s a grim and tragic world full of potential for more games down the line.
I think Astalon does a pretty good job in mimicking the look of an NES game. Some of the sprites are probably closer to SNES quality in detail, especially in the backgrounds, but the color palette is spot on. Although, the way nearly everything in each area is the same color isn't very exciting to look at sometimes. The designs and animations of the playable characters definitely remind me of NES games like Mega Man and Castlevania. Or maybe something in between, like Kid Dracula, is a better comparison. It’s kind of weird that the story is so dark and the game's art style is so goofy and cute, but it works.
Performance on the Switch isn't too hot. The game aims for 60fps, but it usually hovers somewhere in the 50s and often drops into the 40s. It often gets noticeably choppy, even in rooms with no enemies around. The game also seemed to get buggier the further I got into it. My characters sometimes kept doing the ladder climbing animation instead of getting off, sometimes I'd clip halfway through platforms, my game clock reset at some point, and there seems to be a bug that skips screens, like the original version of Link's Awakening, if you go from one screen to another while jumping and attacking. There's also a block throwing mechanic later in the game and I never figured out if the blocks were supposed to stick to walls or not. That mechanic seems buggy whichever way it's supposed to work!
I really liked the soundtrack in this game. There's a lot of very Mega Man and Castlevania-like fast-paced hard rock songs in there I really liked. There’s also a few moody and haunting tunes I thought were really good, like “Dark Serenity” and “Threads of Fate”. It’s quite varied, but it all fits the 80s NES style of the game perfectly. One of the creators, Matt Kap, composed the whole thing and even did a non-chiptune version, which is even better than what's in the game. You can find both versions on Spotify.

Astalon is one of the best indie Metroidvanias I've played in a while. I love the party system, I was very intrigued by its lore, and I think the platforming-heavy, key finding, and switch pushing style of level design makes the game feel different from most games in the genre. I can't wait to see what's next for this series. It'll probably be a long time before we get a sequel, since their next big game will be Castle in the Darkness 2, but I know they already announced a small Game Boy style prequel called Astalon: The Crystal Sword, and I'm really looking forward to that.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin Review

Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: Capcom
Platforms: NS, PC
Price: $60
Version Played: PC

I loved the first Monster Hunter Stories, but maybe it was a bit too ambitious for the 3DS. I don’t think it reached its full potential on that platform. Monster Hunter Stories 2; however, feels like it accomplishes everything the first game set out to do and more. It has more monsters, an improved battle system, online co-op, and much more content than the first game. MHS2 is bigger and better than MHS1 in every way.

The main plot in MHS2 is still very generic. It's like a Monster Hunter story meets a shonen anime. It takes place 4 years after the first game, but your old character is nowhere to be seen. Instead of a dark mist turning monsters into superpowered Apex monsters, we have a pink light coming out of the ground making them more aggressive. Your character is the grandchild of the legendary monster rider who was briefly mentioned in the first game, Red. And of course, you get to raise a mythical monster who might have enough power to destroy the world, the super cute baby Rathalos, Ratha. It sure is a Monster Hunter story. There’s still a lot of good storytelling in the game, though. Like the first game, MHS2 is very Dragon Quest-like in how it ties the main plot to what's going on in the towns you visit through the quests you do there.
I think a big part of why I liked the story so much better than the first game’s is the voice acting. There’s full English voice acting this time. No Monster Hunter language and none of that one sound per text bubble stuff either. It really helps get the personalities of the characters across. It also makes it much easier to follow along than reading in English while people make sounds in the Monster Hunter language.
The way the game pairs you up with a new NPC in each town also helps you feel more connected to the story. It makes everything feel more personal when you’re helping your friends. Also, your character is still mute and Navirou needs someone to talk to. You can’t control these NPCs, but they are a huge help. They fight, heal, buff, and even team up with you for devastating Kinship attacks. You’ll meet both new friends and characters from the first game along the way. I love having these characters with me, but it sucks that you can't control them because they don't always do the smartest things in battle.
I think the biggest improvement is in the battle system, though. MHS2 still uses that rock-paper-scissors style system from the first game, but the monsters aren’t doing complicated attack patterns anymore. Well, most of them aren’t. They get crazy in the post-game. In MHS2, monsters stick to one attack type depending on their state or stance. For example, a monster might do strong attacks in their regular state, do speed attacks while enraged, and do technical attacks while flying. There really isn’t a way to know what kind of attack a monster will do in each state until it actually attacks, but I like this much better than the flowchart-like mess monsters did in the first game. This makes battles more about reacting rather than guesswork or memorization.
You can also switch weapons in the middle of a fight now. This adds a new layer of depth to battles. Every monster part has a different weapon weakness, so you're constantly switching between the 3 weapon types to maximize your damage. You can't do this in regular MH, but it makes you think about what weapon does the most damage to each part, which is totally a MH thing.
Another nice feature they’ve added is the Quick Finish option, which allows you to win battles you out-level in 1 turn. If you out-level a monster that you’ve already fought, and is not a boss or quest target, you can just hold down ZL and ZR and automatically win. You still get XP and loot too. I didn’t get too many chances to use this during the story, but I did use it to farm some monsters in the post-game.
Catching Monsties still works the same as it did in MHS1, you find eggs in monster dens and hatch the eggs at the stables in town. The dens are all made from the same pieces put together in different ways, so they do feel a bit repetitive, but they’re mostly small and easy to go in and out of, so I never got bored of them. I think they’re actually better than the first game’s because they’re a bit more complex and have more places where you can use your Monstie’s traversal abilities (AKA HMs) to get treasure chests. They’ve also added a new permanent type of den called Everdens. They really aren’t too different from regular dens except for the fact that they don’t despawn from the map after you leave them and they have Bottle Caps inside. Bottle Caps are the currency used to buy hairstyles, costumes, and a bunch of other items from a special Feyline in towns.
Everything about the stables has gotten some kind of upgrade. You can hatch all your eggs at the same time, you get more expedition slots, and the Rite of Channeling is a lot more flexible. In MHS1, you had to line up genes to transfer them. For example, if a monster had a gene in the top right corner of its gene grid, it could only be passed to another monster in that same slot. MHS2's Rite of Channeling lets you transfer genes to any slot, upgrade genes by channeling duplicates, and it has items that will unlock gene slots. It's a huge upgrade from MHS1.
I think the whole process of building the perfect Monstie takes too long, though. Some genes have to be unlocked through leveling, so you have to level up a Monstie just to channel one of its genes, and then it's gone forever. That's a lot of work compared to Pokemon S&S, where I can get a Pokemon to level 100, give it perfect IVs and EVs, and put all the moves I want on it within minutes using items you get from just playing the game. There are no XP items in MHS2. You just have to put the Monsties in your party and let them soak XP or send them on expeditions to level up. This is the main reason I fell off this game so hard after spending some time with the post-game. This is way too time consuming.
This game has a ton of post-game content too. Like in regular Monster Hunter games, you unlock High Rank after finishing the story and you’re encouraged to keep playing for gear and the challenge of fighting tougher monsters. There’s also High Rank quests on the quest board, HR online co-op quest dens, HR dens all over the world, and a new area full of nothing but High Rank monsters called the Elder Lair. Guess what you’ll find at the end of it. You’re also free to choose any of your buddies from the story to tag along with you. There’s a ton of stuff to do after you’re done with the story. Do you really want to do this stuff, though? It’s not like you’ll be able to put these Monsties in MonstéHun Home and carry them over to Monster Hunter Stories 3. I guess if you really love the grindy loop of Monster Hunter in turn-based RPG form, you’ll enjoy this, but I tapped out after about 10 hours of it. There’s also the whole online PVP aspect of the game, which I barely touched.
Monster Hunter Stories 2 is no technical marvel, but I think it has a really nice art style. The hand painted textures on the environments go great with the cel shaded characters. Both the hunting areas and towns are a lot bigger and much more detailed than in the first game too. I especially love the design of Rutoh Village, a Wyverian village surrounded by forests, which looks like something out of LotR. The draw distance of the grass is probably the biggest eyesore. You can literally see it pop in about 20ft in front of your character. The Switch version’s framerate is also not so great. It ranges from around 20 to 40fps depending on where you are. Framerate is not a huge issue in an RPG like this, but it would have been nice if it was locked at 30. The game runs really well on PC, though. I was able to get 60fps at 1080p at max settings with no issues.
I think MHS2’s soundtrack is pretty good too. There’s lots of great songs in it, it’s all orchestral, and of course, the audio quality is a huge improvement over the 3DS game. I don’t like it as much as the first game’s soundtrack, though. I kept listening for something as good as “Very Suspicious” (Manelger's Laboratory), but I never heard anything quite that awesome. Navirou’s annoyingness aside, I thought the voice acting was pretty good. I already had a voice in my head for every character from the first game and I never thought anyone’s voice was weird or off in any way except for Navirou. He really sounded like Chopper from One Piece in the first game, but sounds totally different in this game. He sounds pretty much the same in Japanese, but I wasn’t going to play in Japanese.
I think this game is great. I had a lot of fun with it. It fixes nearly every problem with the first game and it has a ton of content with even more DLC on the way. You really can’t go wrong with this game if you’re into Monster Hunter or monster raising RPGs in general. Even with the framerate all over the place on Switch, I think it’s worth playing on either platform.