Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fighting Game Camps: Blazblue: Part 1

Covering Arc System Works’ second fighting game megahit Blazblue is a challenge.  Not because of the way the game plays, that’s easy enough to describe.  The hardest part about explaining Blazblue is the story.  Anyone who says fighting games lack story can officially go to hell, because they have not played the story mode of the Blazblue series (or read my previous posts).

The home console versions of the games have their own extensive story modes with far more text and story than the minimal story presented in the arcade versions, and I consider them one of the main draws of the game.  It’s a visual novel with fighting game gameplay, and I love well told stories with epic shonen fighting.  However, though I do like it, Blazblue has one of the most complicated, convoluted stories I have ever read, and I have played all but one Kingdom Hearts game and Virtue’s Last Reward.

One of the reasons for this is because Blazblue is not unlike Final Fantasy 13 in that a lot clarification on what anyone talks about in the game is in ungodly mounds of text-filled supplemental material outside of the main story, and even with that there are some things the games have flat-out admitted are hard to explain, abstract at best, or not going to be explained until a sequel.  It doesn’t help that it involves time travel, which instantly makes any story at least twice as complicated.

I like it when games save answers for the sequel to make a franchise feel interconnected, like it was all planned in advance, but there is such a thing as taking it too far, much like Kingdom Hearts has been nudging the edge of.

Because of this and the fact that I’m only covering the first two Blazblue games, there are some speculations and assumptions I have to make for this post.  Therefore, every time I make an uncertain statement about Blazblue’s story, I will mark it with an asterisk “*” at the end of the sentence.  Think of the asterisk as shorthand for the phrase “I think," or alternatively, "or some crap like that."
Here are a couple of examples for reference:

Atsushi Inaba is the god of gaming.*
Ubisoft could firebomb a pound full of innocent puppies and still not be any worse than they are now.

I hope that cleared things up.  Other writers fear Blazblue’s plot and offhandedly call the story nonsensical, but not I!  I am going to make coherency out of this!

If anyone wants to clarify or correct any marked point of this post, please let me know in the comments and I’ll correct it.  I only ask you refrain from giving me any corrections pertaining to something revealed in the recently-released third game, Chronophantasma.  If you do, I will delete your comment.  No spoilers please.



Story

Before getting to the main plot, it’s important to know the Blazblue world’s history.

Several years before the events of Blazblue, the world was completely and horribly decimated by a giant monster called The Black Beast.  90% of the world’s population was destroyed and the beast covered the entire world’s surface with seithr, an airborne magical substance that’s deadly and even mutagenic in high concentrations.



In the end, the black beast was defeated thanks to six powerful beings known as the six heroes.


After a mysterious hero named Bloodedge sacrificed himself to keep the beast at bay for a full year, the survivors of the earthdeveloped special weapons that used seithr as an energy source with the help of one of the heroes.  Those weapons came to be known as ars magus.  With the ars magus and the most powerful ones called the Nox Nyctores, humanity defeated the Black Beast and rebuilt society in what is known as the first war of magic.

Because the Seithr concentrated too highly in points of low elevation, much of the world was rendered inhospitable, so 13 towering cities were built to allow living where seithr concentration is low.  A new world government called the Novis Orbis Librarium was also formed to keep order and control the use of arms magus.  The NOL (also called the Library), led by the Imperator Librarius, regulates great sources of power, like ars magus and the grimoires (no, not books) that allow ars magus to be used, to keep them out of the wrong hands.
Though there are 12 others, the first two Blazblue games take place in the 13th Hierarchical city of Kagutsuchi.



10 years later, the colony of Ikaruga (which houses six of the Heirarchical cities) rebelled against the NOL, believing the NOL’s dictatorship to be getting too strong and leading to oppression.  Because both sides used Ars Magus, this conflict is known as the second war of magic, or the Ikaruga Civil War.  The war famously ended when one of the NOL’s top officers, Jin Kisaragi, personally killed the leader of the rebellion named Tenjo.  By putting an end to the war, Jin became known as the Hero of Ikaruga.  After the rebellion, the NOL naturally put an even tighter control on ars magus, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of equivalent to the NRA.

That much is certain and referenced several times in the games, but here is where things start to get murky.

The NOL at some point started performing experiments with “the boundary”, an abstract other dimension that seems to act as the epicenter of the fabric of time, where all the timelines of the world lie.*  I suppose you could say it’s kind of like the gate in Fullmetal Alchemist, an abstract mass of infinite knowledge and power.

The NOL learned how to harness and study the power of the boundary using special devices called cauldrons.  Powered by a great many souls, cauldrons draw power from the boundary and have allowed the NOL and their scientific rival, Sector 7, to make powerful weapons, such as the Nox Nyctores, in something of a supercharging process referred to as “smelting.”

Sector Seven (whom I’ll get to later) used cauldrons to make Boundary Interface Prime Field Devices, also known as Murakumo units.  The Murakumo units are a series of robots specifically made for exploring the boundary.*  All of them are modeled after the same person and apparently they can age like a person.  They also all use several swords as their weapons and combine them with gravitational and spatial manipulation to really mess up anyone their master doesn’t like.

In the present day, at the time of the first game, Calamity Trigger, the same series of events have been playing over and over.  Time has been rewinding itself and then playing out differently thanks to Takamagahara.

Though who or when it was made is unknown, Takamagahara is an ultra-intelligent AI that exists beyond the fabric of space and observes the different variations of the portion of time they keep in repetition, starting with its creation and always ending with main character Ragna falling to the first game’s villain, supposedly causing the apocalypse.*

Takamagahara is the shadows.


Yes, the stories in Blazblue: Calamity Trigger are actually a series of possibilities that happen over and over again.  Takamagahara keeps turning back time with different results in order to prevent the great catastrophe (the calamity trigger) that happens, which I will explain when I get to the characters.*  It’s kind of like when you keep going back to an earlier save to try something different in a game, and like a game, Takamagahara can’t interact with the world directly.  It can only influence causality, similarly to how people imagine god works, but it doesn't consider itself as such.

Look what you diiiid!
They’re unsuccessful until a wild card is thrown in in the game’s true ending, resulting in a continuum shift (the second game’s title).*  In Continuum Shift, only the true endings tell what really happens, the story is more linear, and Takamagahara cannot predict what will happen because it’s their first time observing it.  Instead, they can only come up with what could happen, which I believe is what the bad endings in Continuum Shift represent.

With that bit of heavy-handed exposition out of the way, let’s move on to the heavy-handed exposition about the characters of Blazblue.

Heroes

The main character of Blazblue is Ragna, also known as Ragna the Bloodedge, also known as the Grim Reaper.  When he was an orphan, the church Ragna. his brother Jin, and their sister Saya grew up in was burned to the ground by Jin, after which Jin cut Ragna’s arm off and kidnapped Saya.

Taking a liking to Ragna, the vampire Rachel gave Ragna the Azure Grimoire, also known as the Blazblue.  It is the most powerful grimoire there is that seems to tap into the power of the boundary, known as the Azure.  The Azure Grimoire became Ragna’s new arm, which you’d think would be great, but because the Azure Grimoire is practically a dense concentration of Seithr, the Black Beast’s evil power lies within it.  He had to be trained to control this power by Jubei, one of the six heroes.*

When his training was completed, Jubei bestowed upon Ragna the jacket and weapon of the great hero Bloodedge, which helped him develop his nickname of Ragna the Bloodedge later.


Ragna despises the NOL.  So much so that he has gone around the world destroying NOL bases and their cauldrons, which has given him the biggest bounty in the world on par with Vash the Stampede.  Thankfully though, only a select few people (and by that I mean playable characters) actually do anything because A: nobody wants to get involved with the NOL and B: the wanted posters aren't very accurate.



You would think that would make Ragna a very badass, gruff archetypical criminal character akin to Soul Badguy, and he is, but Ragna is actually very often the butt of jokes in Blazblue’s comedy (as shown above).  God seems to want him to suffer and he always plays the sarcastic straight man loner around all the weird characters in the game.  Of course, like any game hero, he also helps people when they need it, even if he hates them as a person or it’s not his business, but he does it all with a sarcastic attitude.

He’s also scares of ghosts.


In the first game, Ragna has a vendetta against his brother Jin Kisaragi, who himself obsesses over killing Ragna.  Ragna was on the way to destroy the Cauldron at Kagutsuchi’s NOL branch, so getting to kill Jin was a nice side bonus.*
But believe it or not, Jin is actually one of the heroes of the story.


Growing up, Jin was adopted into the noble Kisaragi family and attended the prestige NOL academy, where he was the student council president and one of the most respected students, eventually rising in the ranks of the NOL and earning the name of the Hero of Ikaruga after he ended the Ikaruga Civil War by killing Tenjo.

It’s kind of hard to see him as a hero though, when he burned down the church he lived in with his sister and brother as well as cut off Ragna’s arm to make him into the bitter criminal he is today.  But did he really?



In Calamity Trigger, when Jin hears that Ragna is in Kagutsuchi, he immediately rushes out to go and find him.  He doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going, doesn’t pack his things for a trip, he just runs out there, prompting the NOL to go out and find him, eventually labeling him as a deserter.  That was stupid.  He couldn’t even leave a sticky note?

He didn't even take an airship to Kagutsuchi, and because the lower levels of the earth are uninhabitable, that means he had to walk across the mountains to get there!


Well, there’s a reason Jin isn’t in the most sound of mind in the first two games.  Jin uses the ice-shooting Nox Nyctores Yukianesa, which has slowly corrupted his mind and made him go crazy, but he never realizes it until the end of the second game, when he takes control of Yukianesa so that he controls it instead of it controlling him.*

I would just get a new sword if I were you, Jin.  This one clearly doesn’t have your best interests in mind.

Even without Yukianesa’s influence, Jin is shown to be a very aloof, stern and kind of stuck-up person, quite fitting of his use of ice attacks.  As stated though, that often changes when he sees Ragna or the other hero, Noel Vermillion, who looks exactly like Jin & Ragna’s sister Saya.



Noel is an extremely shy and kindhearted officer in the NOL who was originally discovered amongst the ruins of the city of Ibukido, which was blasted off the face of the earth by the killer satellite Nox Nyctores, Take Mikazuchi.



After that, she was adopted into an aristocratic family and lived life like a normal person.  She attended the NOL academy, got decent grades, made friends, and was eventually assigned as Major Jin Kisaragi’s secretary, even though Jin clearly hates her.

That makes her sound like your average everydude hero who gets involved with some devious plot, but there’s more to it than that.  The second game’s plot revolves around her.

Completely unknown to her until revelations in the second game, Noel is actually the 12th Murakumo unit, Mu-12.  Mu is different from the other Murakumo units in that she was somehow chosen as the “Eye of the Azure”, essentially meaning she is able to fully tap into the Boundary’s power without limits or repercussions, can navigate the boundary’s endess void and can anchor the existence of something from outside the timeline simply by acknowledging it.*  Her dual pistol Nox Nyctores, Bolverk, have kept her emotions in check, keeping her from losing control and reverting to her programming as Nu.*  When she loses Bolverk in the second game, she does just that so that she can be used as a weapon by the main villain, who I’ll get to in the villain section.


By the end of the second game though, Ragna forces her back to normal in a way I don’t even know how to explain.  You’ll have to play it yourself.

Assisting the heroes through the whole ordeal is the very enigmatic vampire Rachel Alucard.

Darkstalkers again, huh.
Rachel is the head of the Alucard family and seems to live in a mansion that exists beyond the boundary, unaffected by Takamagahara’s time looping just like Rachel herself.*  This is because she is an observer.  Observers are special beings tasked by Takamagahara with observing the different possible timelines, basically acting as an extra eye for it so long as she doesn’t interfere, not that Takamagahara could do much to an observer even if she did.*  Additionally, observers are special in that they’re able to cement someone from another timeline into the one they’re in by simply acknowledging their existence of being from another time.*  To get around, Rachel has a teleportation ars magus that hasn't really been expanded upon.

Even though she shouldn’t, Rachel interferes in the timelines a lot in the first game, but gets away with it by being really cryptic and not explicitly stating anything.  She just gives characters a nudge in the right direction.*  Her interference comes to a peak at the end of the game when she prevents the heroes from being obliterated by Take Mikazuchi by using the ultra special shield system Tsukuyomi.  After that, Rachel resigns from her position as an observer, but seems to keep her powers, which she uses to help.


But none of these heroes are cool in the face of one who excretes awesome from every pore of his body.  Though Ragna is designated as the main character, I wouldn’t call him the main hero.  The real hero is the hammer of love and justice!  The one who resents evil and protects the innocent!  The other hero of Ikaruga!  Bang Shishigami!

We might as well name every other character "Not Bang", but then they'd be hard to distinguish.
I was originally going to place Bang under the “other guys” section, since he’s not very plot relevant, but he’s the hero, dammit!
Bang was on the side of Ikaruga during the Ikaruga Civil War and was the apprentice of Tenjo himself.  Naturally, since Jin killed his master, Bang believes him to be a cold-blooded killer and his sworn enemy!  When he’s not out fighting evil and collecting bounties on criminals as a vigilante, Bang spends his time watching over a district of Kagutsuchi called Ronin-Gai, where he and his fellow ninjas all take refuge.



Bang is what would happen if Yukimura Sanada and Kim Kaphwan raised a kid and only let that kid watch shonen anime, sculpting him into the physical manifestation of the essence of shonen itself!
He fights with honor (he never sneak attacks even though he’s a ninja), cares for his friends like family, never kills, refers to himself with “I, Bang Shishigami,” instead of just “I” and shouts!  His every!  Line!  He cares not for his own safety so long as he is able to save someone else, he always helps those in need, and if he had any more fire in his soul, it’d take 10 minutes of a fire hose fully blasting him to put him out!

He doesn’t even need no fancy Nox Nyctores!  Unlike most of the other characters that wield weapons, Bang does most of his fighting with his bare hands, only using his special nails for a few special attacks and his astral heat (more on those later).

He’s so badass he gets his own theme song!  When Bang successfully hits his opponent with his burning heart move 4 times, he undoes the four seals that keep his power contained, allowing him to use Fu Rin Ka Zan!  It’s kind of like the chakra gates in Naruto.

And kind of like this.
When Bang uses Fu Rin Ka Zan, he glows with an awesome power and gets a huge boost in speed that lets him dash in any direction around the field, all while Japanese rock band Jam Project sings about how awesome Bang is, which is to say, the most awesome character in Blazblue!

“Shishigami ninpo forbidden art!  Fu! Rin! Ka Zan!”

Aaaaand the world pushes him around.

Don't worry.  He pays it back.  In the only way he knows how.



The Six Heroes

In order to really go into detail on the other characters, it’s important to go over the six heroes that originally defeated the Black Beast, as they all play into the plot to varying degrees.

The most prominent of them in the story is the masked warrior Hakumen, a very cold, no-nonsense, motivated samurai-like fighter with a really strange armored outfit.


This is because it’s not his real body, it’s a special body called the Susano’o unit his soul was transferred into by Sector Seven leader Kokonoe after he somehow got his soul stuck in the boundary.
His real body is a Jin Kisaragi from another timeline, who was sent into the past by the boundary at some point and fought the Black Beast as one of the six heroes.
After that, he got caught in the boundary again, but this time was sent into the future of the timeline he was in, where Kokonoe works as his observer and installed a way to control the unit’s ability to teleport across space, forcing Hakumen to do what she wants.*

Eventually Hakumen resists the teleportation, but then Kokonoe just seals him in one of Sector Seven’s labs to keep him under control.  This doesn’t last very long when Rachel busts him out and becomes his new observer instead in the sequel.



Hakumen hates The Black Beast and in the first game is determined to kill Ragna because he believes that he will become it.  You could never tell that Hakumen is supposed to be Jin, because this is a version of Jin Kisaragi that’s much more mature.  He has hints of arrogance, but he fights in the name of what he believes is right.  He really is an entirely different person from Jin, which is an important part of his character.

It's not all that well explained, but apparently in order for him to be anchored to the timeline by an observer, he has to match what the observer objectively observes him as.  In other words, he must convince himself entirely that he is the hero his observer thinks he is and not Jin Kisaragi.*

But Ragna has yet to completely lose control of his Azure Grimoire, thanks to his training by the expert swordsman Jubei.

No.
Yes.
Jubei is a beastkin, a human-animal hybrid created to combat the Black Beast.  Beastkin have increased sensory and physical abilities as well as much longer lifespans than humans, which is why Jubei is still around at the time of the games.

I’d ballpark Jubei to be in his late forties by human standards.  He certainly acts like it.  He’s very laid back, friendly, speaks with a southern accent, and has yet to fight in the games even once (onscreen).  I assume that’s because he’s retired.  He wants a strong future generation, so perhaps he wants that generation to fend for itself.

Jubei was married to another one of the heroes, Nine.


Nine was the one who taught human civilization how to use magic effectively.  Being a witch herself, she was one of the best magic users to ever live.  Nine and Jubei had a kid named Kokonoe, but she will be explained in the Sector Seven section.  What exactly happened to Nine isn’t explained, but it’s strongly hinted one of the villains did something to her.

To cover the alchemy side of things, the heroes had Trinity Glassfield, the kindhearted nerd.

Only seen in flashbacks, like Nine.
Unfortunately, at some point in the past, Trinity got into the boundary and was forced into a body housed by two other spirits, both of which have more control over it than her.  That being is known as Platinum the Trinity.


Trinity Glassfield is only able to take control of Platinum’s body for very brief periods of time and it wears her out.  In the second game, she uses these precious minutes to deliver a rather cryptic message to Bang after Jubei sent the other two personalities to find him.  She said something about that giant nail on Bang's back and that Jin Kisaragi is not the enemy.  That may be clarified in Chronophantasma.

Believe it or not, Rachel’s butler was one of the heroes too.  Valkenhayn R. Hellsing is and always will be Rachel’s devoted servant and would face the fires of hell if it meant making his lady happy.  He’s been a butler for the Alucard family for god knows how many years, so you know he’s a man dedicated to his job.


Like Jubei, Valkenhayn is a beastkin, and can thus live for hundreds of years.  Unlike other beastkin though, he has the unique ability to shift from human form to wolf form, the fangs and claws of which are his only weapon on the field, not that he fights much.

He becomes playable in the second game’s expansions, but Valkenhayn isn’t very plot relevant and fighting is kind of against his nature.  He’s a lot like Guilty Gear’s slayer in that even though he can kick ass, he’s too polite and proper to want to.  If he has to fight, it’s likely because it’s for Rachel’s benefit.  In fact, in one of his endings for Continuum Shift Extend, he goes through an incredible, bloody battle in “The Valley of Death” (offscreen) just to use the perfect microwave to make the perfect scones for Rachel.

Rachel sleeps through the entire fight and then says the scones are too stale, to which Valkenhayn doesn’t mind in the least.






The last of the six heroes is Terumi.  I’ll have to get to him in the villains section.


Sector Seven

In addition to the NOL, it’s important to establish Sector Seven.  While the NOL wants the world to run by magic technology, Sector Seven wants science to reign and for Seithr to be eliminated for good, just like the days before the Black Beast came.  Sector Seven is run differently as well, having a council of like-minded scientists as opposed to the ranks led by the Imperator at the NOL.

Like I stated before, Sector Seven has done its own experiments with the boundary and has quite a few accomplishments of their own, having created the Murakumo units and their own atomically-powered ars magus imitations that don’t require seithr.*

Sector Seven is led by professor Kokonoe, the daughter of Jubei and Nine.  Kokonoe seems to hold her mother in esteem, but hates Jubei for leaving them.*


Kokonoe is… Kind of a bitch, I’m not going to lie.  She’s pushy.  She doesn’t care how it gets done, she just wants it done and she has a short fuse.  She’s really not that big of a jerk at heart, and she does genuinely care for some people, but when doing business she means business.  I’m sure we’ve all had a teacher kind of like Kokonoe at some point.  Except our teachers don’t have a stockpile of nuclear missiles.

Until her DLC release for Chronophantasma, Kokonoe has never had to fight.  Personally I think making her playable is a bit of a downgrade because one of the things I liked about her was how she didn’t need to be strong to be effective.  She had her smarts.  Then again…



Her muscle is provided by The Red Devil, Iron Tager, an incredibly huge super cyborg of her own creation that she can pretty much control at will.


Not that she needs to.  Tager may be a strongarm, but he's also a real genius.  While he’s not a mechanical genius on the level of Kokonoe, he knows a lot about science, the boundary and everything about how the world of Blazblue works.  He’s kind of like Beast of the X-Men.
He and Kokonoe work really well together and often discuss the best course of action in a mature way.  Kokonoe occasionally uses Tager to test something against his will, but Tager has explicitly stated that he does what she says because he trusts her with his life.

From what I understand, Chronophantasma adds another fighter from Sector Seven, but I haven’t played it yet.

Keep posted for part 2!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Limbo of the Lost Review

I am no stranger to point and click adventure games.  I played a lot of King’s Quest 5 back in the day, I became a huge fan of The Curse of Monkey Island after getting it from my local library many years later, and in recent years I’ve played the fantastic episodic adventure games from Telltale Games.

Max 4 Prez!

As fun and humorous (intentionally or not) as they are, every adventure game I have ever played has now been put to shame by what is easily the greatest point and click masterpiece ever created: Limbo of the Lost.

Limbo of the Lost is a rare treasure.  It was released back in 2008, but pulled off of shelves due to some sort of copyright claim regarding content within the game.  I imagine we can blame the same copyright Nazis that run Youtube for that unfortunate event.  Because of it, copies of the game are very difficult to find, but should you happen to have the luck and money for it, you will be able to experience one of the best written, best executed, and most original games ever made.


Limbo of the Lost follows Benjamin Briggs, a real person in history, believe it or not.  Briggs was as a famous mariner who disappeared while his boat, the Mary Celeste, was found abandoned.
The game follows Benjamin in his journey through the dark, murky depths of Limbo, essentially a purgatory for lost souls such as himself, all while being guided by you, his “earthly guide.”  It starts out as a simple escape plot through the veritable hell, but as the game goes on, Benjamin finds himself helping many people, solving a murder mystery and learns that he is entangled in a cosmic plot of existential proportions revolving around destiny and fate.  It all comes together in the most unforgettable finale that absolutely has to be seen to be believed.  Anyone who complains about games having crappy endings clearly hasn’t played Limbo of the Lost!


Benjamin makes for an excellent protagonist.  Limbo is filled with grotesque humanoids and hostile monsters, and the entire way you can tell Benjamin copes with the situation by hiding his emotions and using humor as a veil to maintain his sanity, all while retaining his morality.  Throughout the game, Benjamin does only what is necessary to stay alive, like drug a prison guard and put a steel trap on a local in order to distract him long enough to take his equipment.  Benjamin’s ability to act human in the face of such an inhuman world is the fulcrum of Limbo of the Losts’ story dynamic as he goes deeper and deeper into the abyss.
It's not afraid to ask some of the most controversial of questions, like what happens to those meat pies put outside every day?  And why does that giant troll selectively shake your inventory out of your pockets?  There’s a lot to ponder and you come out of the game feeling like your brain has done 100 pull-ups.

The presentation is what really brings Limbo to life (or rather, death).  Limbo of the Lost harkens back to the early days of adventuring by having animated images of characters over pre-made backgrounds, giving it that Resident Evil feeling of nostalgia and allowing for the detailed Disney-quality animations to play at an incredibly smooth 4 frames per second.  The environments themselves match the animation quality, taking inspiration from the likes of games like Thief, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Painkiller for the look of drudgery and gloom a place like Limbo is meant to invoke.  Because the game paces itself, you’ll spend a lot of the game walking through these environments to really take in the atmosphere.  It’s as if you’re really there!



The aesthetical design is further backed up by LOTL’s voice acting, with only the best, most versatile actors you can think of.
To my shock, only two actors were needed for the stellar acting chops on display, one of whom was none other than Tim Croucher, best known for his role as the co-designer of Limbo of the Lost.  It makes sense that Croucher would know his own game better than anyone, but I doubt anyone expected the vocal range he has.  From grumbling guardians and screeching zombies to little girls and straight-man Briggs himself, Croucher can do it all.  It’s truly something to behold.


But all of that only cements the story as the masterpiece it is.  It’s the puzzles the game revolves around, and the puzzles presented would make Professor Layton take off his hat in respect.
Each one is the perfect balance of challenging and sensible, not making sense at first glance, but when thinking about it on a deeper level, there could have only been one possible solution.

A great example happens early on when Ben is faced with an elevated wooden floor so weathered and broken he can’t walk across it.  The solution is that you have to place a coffin lid over the floor so that you can walk on the coffin and across it.  At first you think that’s one of the stupidest things you’ve ever heard because the lid should add more weight, but then you remember that Dracula slept in a coffin, Dracula could turn into a bat, bats fly, and therefore, a coffin that holds one flies.  This game requires deeper thinking than your average point and click.

Wait a minute... He stepped off it.


In another ingenious bout of forward thinking, Benjamin comes across a cloak that he cannot carry because he does not have something to carry it in.  That seems strange at first, since by that point he has 26 items in his inventory, but it only further establishes Brigg’s character by showing that he is a very sanitary man when it comes to cloaks (not like the severed finger he carries at the time).  Therefore he must put it in a bag first.

The adventure game trappings of Limbo of the Lost are perfect enough on their own, but an extra layer of depth is added by implementing the gameplay of I Spy.  In order to get the items you need to continue, you first need to find them.  The game starts out putting its items in plain sight, but as it goes on it ramps up the difficulty and hides its items in clever places like in darkness and behind the user interface, once again requiring the player to think outside the box.  This game blends game styles in a way I never thought possible, giving it even further diversity and fun.

"I mean, there's a reason the expression 'needle in a haystack' is used for a hopeless task no one in their right minds would undertake unless they had hours to while away in mindless drudgery. An excellent adventure game has no haystacks. A good adventure game probably gives you a magnet. A bad one makes you look at straw for seven hours. This game is nothing but haystacks, and sometimes the needles are made of straw."- A satisfied player



It’s astounding how well Limbo of the Lost outdoes every leader of every genre all at once.  Phoenix Wright, Monkey Island, Where’s Waldo, and the Elder Scrolls games are put to shame by the game’s writing, puzzles, search gameplay and visual design.  It is by far the greatest game of our generation; the ultimate masterpiece of undiluted gaming perfection!

I give Limbo of the Lost a 10 out of 10!


But it gets better…




There’s going to be a sequel!  Mere words cannot describe my anticipation!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Senran Kagura Burst Review

Beat-em-up and hack and slash games are usually a hit or miss affair with gamers.  For some, massacring hundreds of enemies as a one-person army using stylish attacks and being an overall show-off never gets old, while for others, it gets old fast.  As a fan of Sengoku Basara and Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2, I fall into the side that loves them, and alongside all the action-packed greats, Senran Kagura Burst fits right in.



Developed by Tamsoft, the team behind the lesser-quality Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers, Senran Kagura centers around two academies dedicated to training female shinobi.  One, the Hanzo academy, trains their shinobi to fight evil and protect the peace for the government, not unlike the Jedi in the Star Wars prequels.  The other school is the Hebijo academy, which trains their students to take dirtier jobs like assassinations and espionage for the corporations that fund the school.
Though it may seem like a simple story of black and white morality, one of the main themes of this excellently-told tale is how similar Hebijo’s academy is to Hanzo’s on a deeper level, and the student’s development into a friendship and respect for each other.



Told through visual novels and expressive, conversing character models, the story is well-paced, has genuinely charming moments and is even able to come up with fairly logical reasons for the multi-women brawls the game centers around.

For example, the story establishes that the Hebijo academy accepts anyone while Hanzo’s only picks the best, which explains why there are so many lesser Hebijo students for the Hanzo girls to fight.  At first you may think that to be a throwaway explanation, but it’s actually a major plot point that plays into a number of the outcast Hebijo girls.  That kind of tying together of events and characterization is something Senran Kagura does really well.

The Hebijo and Hanzo girls are all excellently developed and established.  Each one is a perfect foil for their rival school counterpart, and since many of the main cast play into archetypes (not stereotypes), there is somebody for everyone to like.  By the time you’re done playing, you’ll wish you could give all of them a big hug, so I suppose the game succeeds in its “moe” appeal, if that’s how you define the term.  Then again, maybe I like them so much because they seem so familiar…


Coincidence?


Hmmm....

Yeah!

Part of the characters’ charm is the perfectly-cast ensemble of experienced Japanese voice actors they got to play them.  I was ready to call XSeed lazy for not giving the game an English dub, but now I think it’s better this way.  When the game tells its story with talking character models and text on a screen, it takes voice acting on par with Blazblue to keep things believable and likable, and Senran Kagura certainly has that.  Veteran voice actors like Yuka Iguchi and Saori Goto, as well as relative newcomers like Hitomi Harada all bring their characters to life and emote better than I could have ever wanted even from a lot of my favorite English voice actresses.

In addition, translating from Japanese means the localized script can be accurate to the Japanese voice script instead of being inaccurate due to being localized for English.  The Japanese dialects and manner of speaking wouldn’t work as well in English either.  Hikage’s Kansai accent and Ikaruga’s polite talking wouldn’t work as well as a character trait if they were speaking English.  Although, if you don’t know the first thing about Japanese, that probably won’t matter.

There is one thing about Senran Kagura’s translation (and, by extension, others like it) that peeves me at times though.  It’s not that I ask for a direct translation, because then we’d get Samurai Shodown levels of awkward.  I only ask for a consistent one.  Japanese words used more than once are translated in different ways.  I know some Japanese words are contextual and can be translated differently, but you have to suspect something’s not right when the opening phrase “mai shinobimasu” is shown by the subtitles as having five completely different translations.  Those instances aside, the localized script is mostly spot-on, with small English text overlaying some of the more prominent Japanese fonts so as to keep the game’s Japanese spirit.


Senran Kagura Burst’s strong story and characters set the framework for a fun, but relatively simple method of gameplay that gives the same satisfaction and challenge of other flashy button mashers, but with a fixed camera angle in the same vein as brawlers like Final Fight.
During the game’s missions, accessed from each school’s hub, players are given a light attack to button mash for combos, a heavy attack button to finish off combos and keep enemies at bay, a transformation button, a jump button, a dash button and a burst button to sacrifice some life to blow the enemy away for some space (see also: Anarchy Reigns).

Most of the time you’ll be mashing those attack buttons, as being offensive is one of the main objectives and the game’s speed is fast and frantic.


It’s not devoid of any skill, of course.  One of the game’s primary tactics is aerial raves.  When you finish off a combo, you’ll launch any enemies hit with the finisher into the air, whereupon you can press the dash button (A) to follow them up Guilty Gear-style and air juggle them a few times.  As you level up, your combos get longer, your attacks get stronger, and you can keep up your aerial raves longer, provided you hit the dash button with the right timing.  This means you have to pay attention to win, and since enemies can’t touch you in the sky, you’ll want to execute aerial raves frequently in the later levels when you’re swarmed by powerful enemies or fighting a strong boss.

The combat mechanic players will have the most fun with is the shinobi arts each character uses.  You start out a mission in a civilian outfit (your character’s school uniforms, by default) and you’re unable to use your most flashier moves.  As you take damage in battle, your clothes get damaged, and when you completely lose them and are stripped down to your swimsuit, you lose a lot of defense.  When you feel you really need a power boost and a refill on your clothes’ meter, you can activate your shinobi transformation.  Once you’re transformed, you can potentially have longer combos (as you level up), your clothing meter is refilled, and you can use hidden ninpo (super secret ninja arts, in the translation).  However, once your shinobi clothes are destroyed, your defense becomes even weaker than it was before, so there is a reason to hold off on doing it.  As a fan of Viewtiful Joe and other tokusatsu franchises, I love the way Senran Kagura integrates superpowered transformations into its mechanics.  The jump from being an impressive one-woman army to walking apocalypse makes them feel all the more energizing.


The hidden ninpo that come with the costume change are super special attacks that wipe out several enemies at once.  Each of the 12 playable characters have three that are unique to them and each has their own elaborate opening animation that are a joy to watch the first time you use them in a mission, but you’ll skip as you keep using them for practicality instead of for show.  My favorite is Hibari’s strongest one, in which she turns into a giant and steps on the enemies with a look of wonder on her face.  Imagine how surreal it would be to see a giant girl in a gym uniform stepping on people.  Kojira’s got nothing on her.

The transformations, mission starting animations, mission ending animations, clothing damage shots, hidden ninpo, and character dialogue scenes are where the game shows off its best stereoscopic 3D effects on par with Ocarina of Time 3D, which helps to make for a nice spectacle.


Outside of them, the 3D is barely noticeable and in the case of the primary gameplay and menus, not even present, presumably because of the framerate issues many developers have utilizing the 3D (just look at Dead or Alive Dimensions).  I would chalk this off as a negative point, but holding off the 3D works in the game’s favor by making the effect stand out when it turns on for the most impressive displays, and not utilizing the 3D effect at all times should extend your 3DS’ battery life.


And you’ll be wanting a lot of that battery life, because Senran Kagura lasts quite a while.  The game’s two main stories are about 5 hours long each to play through, give or take, but the Hanzo story alone was worth the 30 dollar price thanks to the aforementioned writing, voice acting, and fun gameplay.
The Hebijo story is an entirely different retelling that feels more like a spinoff than a sequel or side story.  It fills in some gaps by further establishing characters that don’t get much in the Hanzo story, but its reasons for fighting can sometimes be contrived and its climax isn’t anywhere near as memorable as Hanzo’s.  It’s still has all the entertainment value of the Hanzo story with six different characters to play with and fun character moments, I just wish the plots tied into each other better.

But there’s more to do than just fight and experience the story.  Each playable character has customizable appearances to mess around with.  You can change their civilian clothes, the swimsuits under them, the shinobi outfit they transform into, and you can add all kinds of different accessories for their faces and hair.
Most of these clothes are stock outfits any anime fan should recognize: flashy idol singer skirts and headsets, winter uniforms, fox ears, school swimsuits, glasses and the like.  They covered all the bases of what people consider makes anime characters visually cute.  Personally I like to put another eyepatch over Yagyuu’s uncovered eye to make her the blind warrior, and you can do the same for her Hebijo school counterpart Mirai.  I’m weird.

If anyone knows who the original artist for this is, please let me know so I can credit them.
Each girl has their own variation for each outfit too.  For example, at one point you unlock giant adorable full-body cartoon animal mascot suits, in which Katsuragi’s is a fox, Hibari’s is a bunny (with her eyes, even), Asuka’s is a cat, Ikaruga’s is a tiger, and Yagyuu’s is a bear.  More ninjas need to wear full-body, bright pink bunny suits!

As fun as dressing up your warriors is, there aren’t quite as many outfits as I’ve seen in other games with the same feature, but the galleries of both schools alleviate that a bit.  They have the usual gallery bonus features: artwork, character stats, titles (achievements), and a music player for the game’s serviceable soundtrack, which has the nice bonus of comments from the game’s composers for each track, describing their thought processes behind them.
"The precision of the biwa is an odd fit for Katsuragi's rough nature, but I think it works well in this instance."- Mutsumi Ishimura, the track's composer

Once you’ve beaten the game, there are also the two aforementioned unlockable characters to fight as something as a post-game final exam, and several other optional missions will keep you occupied.  Even if the missions don’t exactly have the most varied of objectives, the setting and enemy variety keeps things from feeling like you’re playing the same stage over and over.

For fans of Japanese action games of this type, Senran Kagura is well worth the $30, assuming you have a separate SD card lying around for these download-only titles (for North America, anyway).  It’s very well put-together to the point that there’s very little to complain about other than the always-present potential for more.

Like Dead Rising or Portal, Senran Kagura Burst is a solid game on its own, but there’s more that can be done for future games in the franchise; a street pass feature, more customization for the unlockable characters and even more characters in general, for instance.  But also like Dead Rising and Portal, the first game will always be worth playing even if a sequel objectively surpasses it, and it’s looking like Senran Kagura 2 might do just that, even giving a bonus to players of the first game by unlocking Ikaruga's brother Murasame if you have a Burst save file.  At the very least, this first outing in the Senran Kagura franchise will keep you busy until Sengoku Basara 4 comes out.

I give Senran Kagura Burst a 7 out of 10.


Oh yeah, and there are boobs, I guess.