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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review Journal #2- Does Luigi Dream of Electric Sheep? And other stuff.

It is ALWAYS Reyn Time.

Somewhere out there, through a Chrono Cross-esque dimensional portal, there probably lies a strange dimension wherein a green-clothed plumber traverses the back of a fallen god wielding an enormous lightsaber. Of course, this could also just be the result of me having recently completed Xenoblade Chronicles and moving onto future projects... and I sort of forgot where I was going with that tangent, so I suppose I should just move on to the second Review Journal?

I'd been meaning to put together a follow-up to last week's piece as soon as I beat Xenoblade, but unfortunately my laptop decided to make a desperate bid for freedom... right off the edge of my bed, resulting in a damaged screen. Fortunately, that seems to be the only significant damage (it still works fine when hooked up to an external monitor), so hopefully I will be able to have that fixed in time for the coming school year. In the meantime, I'm able to use the family desktop in case I really need to use a computer (since a lot of my day-to-day functions are accessible through my phone... oh, the wonders of technology!).

First off, I'd like to conclude my thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles. And I must say, I'm really glad that I finally got around to playing this game. While it may not quite live up to the hype generated by its long-delayed localization (as few games do), it ranks among not only the best Wii exclusive games, but one of the best role-playing games, Japanese or otherwise, to be released in the previous console generation. I've already gone over several of Xenoblade's exceptional qualities in the last review journal- sublime art direction, fantastic music, unique premise, and engaging, likable characters (whose battle quotes can get a little repetitive, but your mileage may vary here)- but having now finished the game I'd like to give my two cents on the story and gameplay. The concept of the Bionis and the Mechonis- two enormous primordial titans whose battle left them both inert, while civilization flourished on their bodies- was already an incredibly imaginative hook that set the bar for Xenoblade's storytelling. While I won't go into too many specifics here (although an analysis of the game's ending may be in order after I have given it more thought), suffice it to say that the original premise gets completely turned on its head after an alarming sequence of plot twists. While the fundamentals of the story may be well-worn JRPG fare, the amount of imagination present in this world and the sheer charisma of the cast invest the player in the story gradually, making the sheer insanity of Xenoblade's final hours seem like a natural progression of the story rather than an out-of-left-field  shift. There are some awkwardly phrased lines of dialogue, and a few typos in the written text, but those are really the only minor flaws I was able to find in my 60-hour journey through Xenoblade's engrossing tale. 

The gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles has been compared to Final Fantasy XII on more than one occasion. Like with XII, the game presents a semi-open environment and real-time combat seemingly inspired by that of MMORPGs. Xenoblade wears its MMO influence on its sleeve, with aggro and positioning playing a key role in combat. Each playable character will auto-attack enemies while also having access to eight Arts set by the player, which operate on a cooldown and have various damage-dealing, buffing, and healing effects. These Arts can be upgraded with points earned in battle to reduce cooldown times and improve damage output or the duration of buffs and debuffs. Unlike Final Fantasy XII, however, there is no way to issue direct commands to party members or to pause combat to get your bearings, which can make encounters against large groups of enemies quite deadly. This is rarely an issue, however, unless you happen to be underleveled. Xenoblade's difficulty is almost entirely based on the party's level- as you explore the game's various regions, you may encounter a level 80 Tyrannosaurus that would just love to make a snack out of your level 30 band of warriors, but even normal enemies and bosses can seem virtually unbeatable if you aren't at the recommended level to face them. The catch is, by undertaking some of the game's innumerable sidequests for cash and EXP rewards, it is very easy to overlevel and find that these formally insurmountable obstacles have become total pushovers. One level up can turn a party-wiping AOE attack into a minor annoyance, and while this somewhat strict barrier of entry would be a serious fault in any other game, Xenoblade offers enough opportunities to deviate from the critical path and earn additional experience that it is very rarely a problem.    

Changing gears, many of my friends will know that one of my favorite games on the Game Boy Advance was Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. In fact, Superstar Saga was the subject of my very first game review, written back when I was a wee high schooler (and looking back on it, it's a rather cringe inducing review, which just goes to show that I've made some miniscule progress as a writer or something...). The timing-based combat, creative puzzles, ridiculous humor, and clever mix of platforming and RPG mechanics made Superstar Saga an endearing game that I played through repeatedly... and then I never played either of the two Nintendo DS sequels.

*hangs head in shame*

It wasn't for lack of interest- although I have heard rather mixed things about Partners in Time- but, like with Pokemon, I decided it was high time to revisit this series, and I recently acquired a copy of the latest entry, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team for the 3DS. And while I haven't really put enough time into the game to give an in-depth impression, I believe it's safe to say that the gameplay mechanics I loved in Superstar Saga are intact and refined in Dream Team. What I really want to talk about, though, is the game's visual design. While the prior games were rendered entirely in 2D, Dream Team opts for a three-dimensional overworld map filled with incredibly well-animated two-dimensional sprites. This is quite possibly some of the best spritework I've ever seen in a Nintendo game, and it's a very suitable look for this particular series. Developer AlphaDream reportedly spent three years developing Dream Team, and the amount of polish in the new visual style is evidence of this.
Seriously, screenshots don't do this game justice.

It's going to be a rather busy couple of weeks to round out this summer, and then I'll be on my way back to school, but Dream Team should keep me occupied until I'm able to start my next project. In addition to having preordered Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth and Kingdom Hearts II.5 HD ReMix (probably the last games from this year I'll be buying aside from Smash Bros.), I also have Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the Digital Devil Saga duology, the remaining two Operation Rainfall games, The World Ends With You, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, and Vagrant Story backlogged and ready to be played. So, consider that a preview of the kind of content you can expect here on The Deck of Many Things! There are a lot of really great games on the horizon and I'm quite excited.

Next time... something a little different, I promise. Fare thee well, dear reader!

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