One of Nintendo’s more enduring creations from the past decade are “Miis”–cartoony, user-created avatars that have since appeared in numerous titles across Nintendo platforms. Nintendo has expanded upon these avatars through games like the 3DS StreetP…
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At first, Sundered seems like one of the many attempts by modern developers to recreate and reiterate upon the classic 2D Metroidvania formula. It closely follows in the lineage of its forbearers, but in doing so, it manages to take its best parts and mold them into a surprisingly fresh and involved experience that stands apart from its contemporaries. It’s a tense and atmospheric adventure ripe with exploration and a combat system that’s as fulfilling as it is flashy. Sudden difficulty spikes can bring it down sometimes, but its brilliant combat and progression systems elevate Sundered above its momentary annoyances.
You play as Eshe, a wanderer of a ruined world who discovers an ancient monument that sucks her into a vast, otherworldly cavern. Stuck within this realm, you’re forced to journey forward under the guidance of a malevolent entity known as the Shining Trapezohedron to find a means of escape.
Sundered’s story is bare bones and mostly exists in the periphery, often relying on you to scour the world for special rooms filled with bits of lore. When you do stumble upon such mythology, the Shining Trapezohedron offers you vague, ambivalent accounts of the cavern’s former inhabitants and the war that caused them to perish. Its unreliable narration is unnerving, as you’re never quite sure what to make of the machinations that brought the world to its knees, and whether or not it remains a threat. While you spend time deciphering the cavern’s history, you hear next to nothing about Eshe’s feelings about the predicament; she’s a silent protagonist that rarely reacts to the events at hand. But like her, you are an outsider exploring Sundered’s strange and gruesome world. What you discover is as morbid as it is fascinating, and it imbues your travels with a strong sense of unease.
Due to a rift in reality caused by the conflict between the ancient races that inhabited the cavern, the world is physically unstable; justification for Sundered’s procedurally generated rooms. Aside from a few key areas, you rarely feel acquainted with your surroundings and are left helpless to adjust to its constantly changing labyrinthian pathways. It’s unfortunate that the environments lack diversity in structure, coming across as repetitive in appearance. The game’s hand-drawn characters and animations are a joy to look at, but the environments are inconsistent at best, sometimes captivating you with derelict ancient cities, but other times boring you with dull catacombs. It’s an issue that’s apparent early on, but once you’re busy exploring uncharted territory, it’s more of a minor disappointment that falls by the wayside when you’re focused on exploration and combat.
During your travels, swarms of hostile creatures will occasionally bombard you from all directions. Sundered is particularly punishing during these moments, especially after having made substantial progress into uncharted territory; the blaring alarm cue that preempts each encounter instantly fills you with dread. It can feel overwhelming early on, but you quickly gain new abilities that give you the upper hand. The combat system is smooth and responsive, utilizing a level of complexity akin to Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. Familiar attacks like launchers, air-juggles, and downward strikes can all be linked together to create an assortment of devastating combos. In addition, you acquire a fair number of abilities as you progress, including an air dash, a charge slash, and a double jump. They make you stronger, and make the process of dodging and countering attacks during a chaotic fight all the more exciting. Combat is demanding, but mastering your moves leads to exciting performances that leave you hungry for more.
On the occasion you do perish, you return to a safe room at the beginning of an area where you can spend currency on new skills. The wealth of stats you can enhance is as welcoming as it is extensive. Given the number of times you’re likely to die, the opportunity to upgrade your character and explore different builds, prioritizing offense, defense, or mobility, is rewarding. You’re even given the choice to enhance your abilities further by embracing dark energy from the Shining Trapezohedron, which adds another layer to progression; and your decision to accept or reject the opportunity will determine which of the three endings you ultimately receive.
The constant progression is a godsend considering Sundered’s high level of difficulty. Boss fights in particular offer the most challenge, steadily ramping up with riveting duels against monstrosities that demand new tactics and quick reflexes to overcome. But there are times where Sundered’s difficulty falters. Much of it roots from issues caused by its procedural room generation, which can sometimes work against you. You will occasionally face a boss or a swarm of enemies in an environment that–by chance–has random obstacles that get in your way. Moments like this–though rare–make you feel like your ability to survive isn’t in your hands, but rather by luck of the draw.
It’s frustrating when you’re dealt a bad hand, but the reward of overcoming hardships outweighs the vexation. You’re given the proper tools to succeed, and when you use them tactically, what was once frustrating quickly becomes gratifying. No matter the failure you endure–fair or unfair–Sundered always manages to reward you one small step at a time.
Sundered is an enjoyable journey that iterates upon the Metroidvania style in ways that are both satisfying and substantial. Its progression systems are constantly fulfilling and combat is complex and exhilarating. While rare moments of unfair circumstances hold it back, Sundered remains a compelling and rewarding experience that you’ll be eager to play again, if only to seek out its other endings or to simply to wipe out another swarm of grotesque creatures.
Poor Captain Olimar can’t catch a break. Seemingly on the same planet as before, the protagonist of the Pikmin series has lost his way yet again in Hey Pikmin. As the series’ debut on the 2DS/3DS, it’s significantly different than the GameCube and Wii U iterations, but still uses the core game play of throwing adorable little Pikmin creatures at things to solve problems.
Hey Pikmin is very much a side-scrolling adventure that uses a lot of the basic mechanics of the earlier games to decent effect. Like most 2D platformers, the levels are chock-full of shiny things to grab, but you’ll get most of those by throwing Pikmin at them. Olimar can collect objects himself, but the levels are generally designed to put your little plant helpers.
While the original Pikmin games focused on the diminutive astronaut gathering various types of Pikmin to find the lost parts of his crashed spacecraft, he’s merely after fuel this time around. That fuel, Sparklium, comes in nearly any form–whether it’s the myriad golden acorns spread across levels or strange alien artifacts spread across the world. Everything Olimar and the Pikmin uncover helps him reach his goal of collecting 30,000 units of Sparklium.
For the uninitiated: Pikmin come in different varieties, each with their own strengths. Red Pikmin are tough and invulnerable to fire, Rock Pikmin can destroy heavy obstacles, Yellow Pikmin are immune to electricity and can be thrown extra far, Blue Pikmin can swim, and Winged Pikmin will catch Olimar and float him safely to ground. Unlike in other Pikmin games, however, you only use the Pikmin found within an individual level instead of collecting them in a repository and turning them loose as needed.
Hey Pikmin’s levels are very puzzle-oriented and offer plenty of hidden secrets, such as areas only Olimar can reach, hidden exits, and several high-value treasures. However, Olimar can’t jump like most other platforming heroes; he instead uses a jetpack that you upgrade over time, allowing him to briefly fly. This lets him overcome gaps, but only the Winged Pikmin can follow him during flight.
Hey Pikmin offers no pressure-packed time constraints–and, until the final world, the vast majority of the game is a breeze to conquer.
His only other action is blowing his trusty whistle to call Pikmin. While Olimar is controlled via the D-pad, analog stick, and even the face buttons, all other actions are performed by tapping the touchscreen. This, however, is unwieldy. While tossing Pikmin by tapping the direction you want them to go makes perfect sense, using the jetpack can be frustrating when your tap doesn’t register or you accidentally toss a Pikmin instead (especially if it’s into a hazard). It’s not a huge problem most of the time, but it never feels natural.
A bigger issue is the overall difficulty level of Hey Pikmin. The game is divided into eight different areas, each with around five main levels (counting a boss fight), along with multiple secret and amiibo levels. In direct contrast to the earlier Pikmin entries, however, the game offers no pressure-packed time constraints–and, until the final world, the vast majority of the game is a breeze to conquer. Even the pattern-based bosses are easily vanquished, and normal foes go down with little effort. While some maps contain clever navigation elements, most levels aren’t hard to traverse even for Pikmin neophytes.
Hey Pikmin feels as if it’s directly aimed at a younger audience. That said, even if the game is easy, it’s still absurdly amusing. Each level has a couple of cute interludes of Pikmin antics, and the little buggers are just fun to watch. The impressive graphical quality shines on the 2DS and 3DS and looks very much like its console counterparts. Goofy enemies look fantastic, the levels are detailed and lush, and it’s just a beautiful, colorful game. The final boss, in particular, is a high note.
Outside of the platforming levels, Hey Pikmin also has a Pikmin Park. This is where all the Pikmin you rescue during a level go. The park is large, and it’s divided into several zones–each of which has treasure that can be mined with specific types of Pikmin. The more Pikmin, the more quickly they mine treasure in the park. The only interaction here is tapping on a type of Pikmin, then on a location in the park, so it’s a cute-if-superfluous addition to the gameplay.
The aforementioned amiibo levels can only be accessed with certain figures, but they’re disappointingly simplistic. Usually, it’s a tiny level with a straight run to an in-game version of the amiibo you scanned. Amiibos give you a hefty sum of Sparklium, though, and even non-supported figures bestow some treasure, so it’s worth using them. The actual secret levels range from clever puzzles to treasure-dropping minigames where you must gather as much falling treasure as possible while on the clock.
Overall, Hey Pikmin retains a lot of what makes this series great. The terrific character and art design, fun flinging action, and lovable Pikmin and wildlife all work well on the small screen. However, anyone expecting the surprisingly unforgiving nature of the main series will be shocked at how simple this is in comparison. That might not be a terrible black mark on Hey Pikmin, but it’s a little disappointing.
Editor’s note: Pyre was designed and written by former GameSpot editor in chief, Greg Kasavin.Competitors strive to win. Criminals yearn for freedom. These pursuits go hand in hand in Pyre, the latest game from Bastion and Transistor developer Supergia…
Splatoon 2 is easy to love. It’s colorful and quirky and unafraid to be different, and it’s consistently a blast to play. As far as shooters go, its unique movement mechanics stand out and make each match exciting. And while the logistics of its multip…
It had me at “you can blow up corpses.” Rise of the Necromancer provides a fantastic new character class for Diablo III in a dark wizard who loves the dead as much as Alice Cooper. As such, this downloadable content provides a reason for dedicated fans of Blizzard’s hack-and-slasher to revisit the game, and it even offers a little nudge for newbies to finally get with it and play one of the best action RPGs of all time. There’s one important caveat, though–all you get here is the new necromancer class and his undeadly accoutrements.
Still, playing as the necromancer offers an entertaining new way to experience the original Diablo III while also reviving a beloved character from Diablo II. This goth-inspired sorcerer stands out from other Diablo III classes thanks to his grim appearance and incredible battlefield abilities. The necromancer is an absolute powerhouse right from the start of the game, courtesy of a host of skills that let you wreak havoc. Soon after you start your adventure, you’ll have a troop of skeleton warriors trotting by your side, slicing and dicing all comers while you hang back and raise the corpses they left behind as makeshift grenades via your Corpse Explosion skills. Detonating the bodies of fallen foes is endlessly satisfying, because of both the geysers of gore and how you can chain explosions, slaughtering huge numbers of enemies in strings of kabooms.
And the necromancer doesn’t just excel at blowing up corpses. A wide range of skills allow for varied playstyles; you can also let summoned skeletons and spirits do the heavy lifting while you use the Siphon Blood talents to leech enemy health and restore your own. You can wade right into melee combat or take a step back and fire off the ranged Bone Spikes or swing the mystical Grim Scythe. The Necromancer also offers some frills that allow you to sport big skeletal wings, don a custom portrait, have ghoulish pets scampering at your heels, and use over 30 new legendary items.
In short, this is a great character pack. The necromancer comes with a lot of depth and seems well thought-out. The one lingering concern is that the new class might be a little overpowered, but that’s a minor worry, given that most players will be using the goth-and-guts spellcaster for a runthrough of what’s likely a very familiar campaign in a game they know extremely well. Challenge probably isn’t as big a concern as novelty and the sheer fun factor the new character brings. The visual presentation is also extremely well done, offering a perfect balance between cartoon showers of blood and the dark grotesqueries of playing as a guy who revels in death.
But it’s still just a character pack. Despite the title, Rise of the Necromancer doesn’t offer any new quests, campaigns, or storylines. The name is more than a bit misleading, since it leads you to expect that there’s a little more (rotting) meat on this (animated and coming right at you) bone. And for $15, you’re right to expect more. The one slight saving grace when it comes to value is that the DLC arrives at the same time as the free 2.6.0 patch, which adds features to the core game like Challenge Rifts, new zones, and new bounties.
If not for the price, Rise of the Necromancer would be easy to instantly recommend to fans of Diablo III or anyone with even a passing interest in trying out a classic hack-and-slash RPG. Still, this is a fantastic character pack that adds one of the best, most enjoyable classes to the existing game roster.
While Final Fantasy 14’s expansion Heavensward brought a tide of questions about the MMORPG’s longevity, there was far less community concern with Stormblood. In fact, Early Access was so popular that the servers couldn’t handle everyone who had shelled out to catch a glimpse of Ala Mhigo, and some fans were locked out of touching any of the new content until a few days into the release. However, any discontent there hasn’t damaged the expansion’s reputation all that much–servers have never been this full, and the reason is pretty simple: Final Fantasy XIV has never been this good.
There was a long slog between A Realm Reborn and Heavensward that was the bane of every player who joined late in the game. Notably, there was a lot of grumbling about the fact that Heavensward’s new classes were locked behind a wall of Main Story Quests. Thankfully, this restriction does not exist in Stormblood. New players have the option of purchasing a single-use leveling boost with expedited access to new content, as well as scenario boosts which allow players to skip both A Realm Reborn’s and Heavensward’s storyline, enabling you to jump into current content without a care in the world. While those boosts capitalise on convenience in terms of leveling, you miss out on entire swathes of narrative and early-game combat experience. Mastering your class is central to playing effectively at higher levels, and you won’t get that experience without doing the hard yards.
Stormblood is captivating and dramatic from the get-go, with a somber narrative that retains the dramatism that has been a hallmark of the franchise. There are some incredibly harrowing moments in the story, and it is adept at positioning players to ask uncomfortable questions about war. A conflict with the Garleans has been brewing for decades, and it plays out in dramatic fashion in Ala Mhigo; a symbol of resistance and a brutally colonised city-state. A Realm Reborn introduced you to the plight of the Ala Mighans, and their abuse at the hands of the Garleans reaches an exciting boiling point at the very start of Stormblood. The threats in Stormblood are readily apparent and eager for blood, and the series finally introduces villains that don’t exist solely to be hated. The narrative very quickly notes the realities of life under colonialism, and blurs the lines between righteousness and cruelty.
But don’t fret, it’s not all doom and gloom. One of the main attractions of Stormblood is the ability for you to swim and dive in the beautiful blue seas dotting Eorzea, Final Fantasy XIV’s setting. There’s a whole new world under the sea that players have never been able to experience until now, along with a variety of fishing quests and swimsuit glamours for the occasion. Flying mounts will be able to swim underwater, and you have the option of using Striped Rays to travel between certain hubs thanks to some creative side quests. Swimming has been worked seamlessly into the existing landscapes, allowing you to enjoy everything from floating in well-loved haunts like Costa del Sol to discovering a cursed palace at the bottom of the ocean.
The new zones have a distinctly Asian flavour, and are well-integrated with their accompanying main story quests and side quests. As was the case with Heavensward, unlocking the ability to fly in each region is dependent on finding the right aether currents. However, you do get mount speed increases much earlier on, so seeing everything at ground-level isn’t as tedious as it used to be. There have been a host of other improvements to the game, notably in the form of incentivising players to take part in optional content such as Fates, which offer rewards ranging from adorable minions to limited edition furniture and glamours–perfect for when the new housing district opens. Not to be outdone, there’s been a proliferation of bigger, badder beasts to hunt as well as chains of Fates with their own isolated narratives to enjoy.
Out of all the changes, though, the most jarring is the way that classes were altered in the lead-up to Stormblood. There has been a huge overhaul of jobs, which sees cross-class skills being done away with in favour of skills specific to roles. This, in turn, means you don’t need to invest in a number of off-classes to acquire these skills. It has taken some time for people to become familiar with the changes, and this can lead to a number of unfortunate early encounters because as a returning player, it can be difficult to get abreast of everything new. Trials are already known for being mechanically demanding at the recommended level, and the fact that they make up a decent chunk of Main Story Quest content leads to some overly frustrating queues and wipes if the party isn’t completely acclimatised. However, bosses and their respective lore colour their encounters even more strongly in Stormblood than previous expansions, and the introduction of an unconventional duty that requires puzzle-solving instead of combat injects great variety into the proceedings.
In terms of how the classes fare now, the new Samurai and Red Mage feel like they have yet to be balanced. Red Mages are the cream of the crop when it comes to damage, and their high-mobility style of combat allows for an exhilarating mix of melee and ranged skills. Samurai is an incredibly strong class, and their abilities involve balancing and converting between multiple resources to sustain consistent DPS and to stick doggedly to a target. Notable skill additions to glam up the other roles include Rescue for healers, a Leap of Faith-type skill that lets you save a stubborn party member when they’re in over their head; Shirk for tanks, allowing you to divert your aggro to someone else; Peloton for ranged DPS, letting you breeze through low-level duties that much faster, and Mana Shift for casters, allowing you to give 20% of your precious MP to a struggling party member.
Stormblood is a hefty expansion, and while getting from Level 60 to 70 isn’t a complete slog, the entire campaign from start to finish will likely take about 50 hours if you’re filling in the storyline with side quests and exploring the beautiful landscapes. You’ll probably want to get more than one class to Level 70 as you wait for the first raids to drop, and there’ll be ample time to do so. If the final fight of Stormblood’s story was anything to go by, expectations for the new Savage difficulties on the horizon are also high. There are some annoying post-launch issues regarding instanced areas, as well as a new policy of kicking players in high-population worlds at peak times. However, Stormblood has already gone above and beyond the experience delivered in Heavensward, and there’s no doubt that Final Fantasy XIV now has the content and longevity it needs to keep players engaged.
Hospitals are emotionally complicated places, especially if you have to stay longer than a trip to the emergency room. It might be nosy, but when you’re surrounded by other patients, bored in curtained-off rooms, it’s natural to wonder about your neighbors–and worry about them, too. It’s not always easy to tell who’s on the mend or the decline, but you feel connected to them through the shared environment, often filling in the gaps of their story with your imagination to pass the time.
It’s this feeling, this sense of a web of individual stories connected by pristine white hallways and the persistent smell of hand sanitizer, that Rakuen chooses as its stage. You take on the role of an ill boy confined to a hospital and kept company by his mother. Unlike nearly every other character introduced, their names and backgrounds are withheld. In their minds, their story isn’t the most interesting one in the building. Not compared to the man down the hall who can’t remember where he is, or the little girl with the sullen face and a big jar of marbles at her bedside.
The tales of every other patient, not to mention the hospital itself, are woven into a fabled, storybook world, the titular Rakuen. Forged in the minds of the mother and her son during bedtime stories, the bright, pastel-hued setting is populated with a variety of creatures. The most important one, a slumbering forest spirit who can grant the boy a wish, compels you to search for the missing verses of a rousing melody. The boy and his mother explore Rakuen in search of this song and solve problems for a cast of characters that are based on other patients in the hospital. There’s no combat to speak of–just a map opened up, bit by bit, through straightforward puzzle-solving and story progression.
The real world and magical realm interact with each other in a way that makes it difficult to discern how much of it is really intended as metaphor, and Rakuen doesn’t exactly strain to define that boundary. The question of whether or not this magic is real, whether or not the boy and his mother are stepping into another world, whether or not the problems resolved for the catlike creatures on the other side actually bear out in real life is left more or less unanswered.
Video games have a lot of good examples of dads taking the spotlight, but moms are still a little harder to come by in the medium. Even if that weren’t the case, the mother in Rakuen would still undoubtedly stand out. She’s so much more than an accessory to her son’s story–and so much more than a passive companion to the player. Some of the game’s most exceptional moments are her moments, and they take what might have been a trite, predictable set of story twists and render them impactful and important again. Without her presence, Rakuen wouldn’t be half the story it is.
Rakuen–the place–is sweet and idyllic, full of clever details and locations that are cozy and comforting, and it matches the hopeful tone of the story well. But unavoidable shades of sadness and fear are present, too, and a stripe of a haunting, uneasy, not-quite-horror-but-damn-close aesthetic runs through the game to drive that aspect home. It strikes a good balance, offering well-timed reminders that no one can hide from reality between the pages of a book forever.
As appealing as meandering through a fantastical pastel landscape can be, an inordinate amount of backtracking and the lack of a sprint button combine to make it a bit tiresome.
The beauty of the artwork only makes the limited resolution options in the game all the more disappointing. Your can either play Rakuen fullscreen with the artwork stretched and looking rough, or you can opt for a very small window at the game’s native resolution. Given that Rakuen was made in RPG Maker, this is an issue that isn’t surprising given the outdated nature of the engine, but that doesn’t make it any less unsatisfying.
As appealing as meandering through a fantastical pastel landscape can be, an inordinate amount of backtracking and the lack of a sprint button combine to make it a bit tiresome. Much of the world is gated behind the gradual acquisition of new tools and abilities, so the tedious movement will likely stifle your curiosity and dissuade you from poring over every part of the environment.
Unfortunately, there are also occasions when the rules for interacting with the world become lax without warning, creating undue confusion in the process. You might get stuck early on if you fail to realize that you can walk through a barrier made of caution tape. It doesn’t break, and you don’t need to duck or otherwise interact with it–you just walk through it somehow. Moments like this aren’t uncommon, and while far from game-breaking, they blur conceptions of rules and logic that normally go hand in hand with puzzle solving.
For the first hour, nuisances like the one described above rise to the top, even so far as to overpower Rakuen’s striking aesthetic. But shortly thereafter, when music becomes central to the story, your grievances begin to fade and you settle back into the world’s charms. Rakuen’s soundtrack (particularly the vocal tracks, many of which developer Laura Shigihara performs herself) will catch you off guard. Individual tracks act as stirring, truly endearing rewards for completing sections of the story. And when the game’s theme music swells, and you finally to piece together the song you’ve been working towards all along, waking up the forest spirit feels like a genuine resolution.
There’s no denying that Rakuen has some incredibly strong components. At the same time, it’s hard to shake its more basic shortcomings, be it the technical limits of its engine or the plodding exploration. Its most brilliant and glowing scenes stand out and stick with you, but Rakuen remains just a dose or two short of healthy.
The Final Fantasy series has always been about reinvention, and the twelfth incarnation embodies this to such an extreme, that you might catch yourself wondering if this is a really a game from the long-running RPG franchise at all. Not only is it deserving of the name, but it’s an RPG through and through, where monster hunting and exploration of spacious locales effectively feed into its stat-based progression within an ensemble cast of colorful personalities. Like its predecessors, Final Fantasy 12 puts its own spin on how chocobos, summons, and characters named Cid play into its epic journey. With its long awaited remaster ready for release, Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age puts its best foot forward with a wealth of improvements and changes, delivering a fresh experience even if you’ve memorized the path from The Phon Coast to The Tomb of Raithwall.
For those who thoroughly enjoyed the PS2 version of Final Fantasy 12, The Zodiac Age is not only a remaster, but also a remix. Keen eyes will notice subtle tweaks to enemy locations and even changes to the selection of merchant goods. Some of these modifications are in service to the character-enhancing License Board, which itself has been overhauled from the original game in order to give each party member more distinctive jobs and abilities. Along with the inclusion of a Japanese voice track and improved loading times, the option to toggle between the original and reorchestrated versions of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s exquisite soundtrack is a welcome feature. Lastly, the improved high definition visuals brings out a fetching painterly look to the characters’ faces. As a PlayStation 4 exclusive, The Zodiac Age stands out as a feature-rich rerelease on a platform with a bountiful selection of lesser remasters.
Even if it were an untouched port, Final Fantasy 12 would stand out for its distinct handling of familiar elements. For instance, there’s a thriving society centered around hunting, a gig economy where skilled fighters of many races vanquish the game world’s most hostile creatures. Being recognized and awarded for taking down bounties effectively weaves a part of FF12’s story with any player motivation to complete the bestiary. Equally notable is the emphasis on thievery, which is also narratively tied to the resourceful nature of Vaan, one of the playable characters. You won’t go far if you relied solely on money from defeated monsters and treasure chests. Riches instead come from the sales of loot you acquire from the creatures you take down. Much like Final Fantasy 9’s Zidane, Vaan’s stealing skills helps players develop an appreciation for the series’ long line of talented but sometimes overlooked thieves.
Further driving the distinctiveness of Final Fantasy 12 is its setting of Ivalice, an established universe with its origins outside of the core series. And like other games based in Ivalice, specifically Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics, 12’s plot often feels like a middle chapter of a grander tale yet to be told. It’s so rich in backstory that keeping track of names and places during the initial hours can feel overwhelming, though the further you play, the easier it is to get a handle of the intricacies of the lore. What you really need to know at the start is two small kingdoms, Dalmasca and Nabradia, are caught in the crossfire of two larger warring empires, Rozarria and Archadia. Of the countless individuals affected by this period of upheaval, six characters–all of whom come from vastly different backgrounds– form your party, uniting for a common cause to de-escalate this continent-wide conflict.
Perpetuating this middle episode vibe are the playable characters themselves, who have been appropriately compared to the cast of Star Wars: A New Hope. As examples, Ashe is the captured princess and Basch is the former general in hiding. Balthier is the self-serving pirate with a price on his head and his partner, Fran, has been described as Sexy Chewbacca. Their intertwined backstories and resulting encounters allow for chemistry and conflict as the often engaging narrative unfolds.
Reinforcing Final Fantasy 12’s timelessness, The Zodiac Age brings in an enhanced Gambit battle system, which itself felt ahead of its time upon its first release. By stringing together a prioritized series of if/then commands for each character, battles unfold with a semi-automated flow where you can vanquish beasts without pressing a button for minutes on end. The immensely user friendly interface fittingly looks and feels like a Fisher-Price styled introduction to programming, where each player-chosen behavior is simply assigned a specific target, whether it be an ally, themselves, or a single enemy.
One would think that the hands-free aspects of The Gambit System would deprive you of agency and engagement but it in fact creates the opposite result. Since you’re still responsible for every character’s actions, the thrill of seeing your handiwork unfold and emerging victorious never gets old. It allows for experimentation and risk-taking but The Gambit System truly shines when you stick to sensible and tried-and-true RPG battle tactics. Remember all those times you died in battle because you ignored a status ailment and thought you could get one last attack in instead? This system removes all manner of impulsiveness and for many, offers a glimpse of the RPG combatant one aspires to be, free of impetuous behaviors.
You don’t get your hands on this system in earnest until three hours in, which is one hour too many. Yet this onboarding period is notably improved over the original game thanks to the option to double or even quadruple the speed of play. This is just one of the many new features that makes The Zodiac Age ever more engrossing. In a game that features respawning enemies, every hostile area becomes more inviting. You’re motivated by growing your party’s stats at an accelerated pace even after you’ve explored every corner and opened every treasure chest in a given region.
While its enhancements do not translate into a brand new game for existing fans, The Zodiac Age is nonetheless invigorating. For an experience that can last over a hundred hours, the subtle tweaks therein go a long way in showcasing Final Fantasy 12’s grand trek in a new light. Its epic, lore-abundant story and its time-tested Gambit System should also appeal to those who missed out on the mainline series’ trip to Ivalice the first time around. And thanks in part to the new audio and speed options, The Zodiac Age is an ideal definitive edition: one that improves the game over its original version across the board.
Virtual reality is in a bit of a tough spot. While the medium has enjoyed a lot of mainstream visibility of late, few VR games have actually found broad success. The Mage’s Tale is meant to be Oculus’ new tentpole–a robust virtual-reality adventure that will sell us all on the magic of the technology and the ever-elusive sense of “presence.” Unfortunately, The Mage’s Tale is a fractured adventure packed with minor technical oddities, poor voice work, and shallow dungeon crawling.
The tale opens with the kidnapping of your master at the hands of an evil sorcerer, and you, the lowly apprentice, must embark on a rescue mission. It’s every bit as hackneyed as it sounds. Making the opening even less appealing, the mage’s familiar–an obnoxious magical creature that’s along for the ride–immediately berates you for your incompetence. Unfortunately, he’s your teacher, carrying you down the path of learning the skills and spells you’ll need to exact vengeance.
That’s the core appeal here, too: crafting spells and using them within a virtual space. That portion, at least, works well. The Oculus Touch controllers temporarily create the sensation that you’re in control of magic, momentarily fulfilling dream of being whisked away to star in your own mythical adventure. Thanks to solid motion controls in VR, actions are intuitive: you grab potions and knock away obstacles with your hands, you look around as you would in the real world, and there’s even a nifty menu system based on the positions of your hands that sells the illusion that you’re a real wizarding student.
As you explore dungeons, you find various items to boost or augment your spells (one mod causes your fireballs to bounce around the room) to add some variety. It’s meant to create the sense that you’re learning magic and genuinely exploring and crafting new ideas or techniques on your own instead of simply following the rote, by-the-book rules you’ve learned up to that point. Some mods, like one that lets you guide spells remotely, change some functionality. But even then, their application doesn’t meaningfully alter gameplay. A fireball is a fireball, essentially. It doesn’t help that many are cosmetic too, adding little more than confetti and flair to your casting. By the end of an 11-hour run, the rudimentary spell variety more than takes its toll.
Even worse, movement during combat is a drag. Dodging is one-note–you’ll be bouncing between two or three positions as you evade incoming spells and arrows from fantastical goblins and the like–and each time you do, you suddenly appear in a new spot. Immediately. This avoids the common VR problem with motion sickness–due to artificial locomotion via a joystick–but only for a time. Whenever combat really gets going (which, in this case, could be two or three enemies in the room all attacking at once), you’re like a walking glitch, stuttering through the world. It trades the immediate discomfort of gradual movement for the more disorientating and equally unsettling feeling of constantly appearing in and out of existence in different places.
The actual dungeons don’t fare much better. There are ten different environments, yet they never feel distinct despite unique layouts and enemy types. Puzzles are remarkably similar, for example. Often you’ll enter a room, and you’ll need to kill some enemies and find a switch. Flip the switch, and the door opens. That’s not all of it, certainly; one puzzle tasks you to align symbols around the room to match those found on a wall that revealed with a magical MacGuffin, but that’s also not too far removed from Skyrim’s “rotate these columns to match the door, then pull the lever”–just in virtual reality. That novelty works a few times, but it wears painfully thin by the end.
If there’s one element of The Mage’s Tale that shines, it’s (occasionally) the dialogue. But even that comes with qualifications. You’ll bump into some silly situations that play with the absurdity of the world from time to time. Talking walls are a staple, and they usually have weird problems. One wall seemed perplexed by the very existence of humans, and was annoyed by my zipping about (walls don’t tend to move much, after all). Another was drowning due to a flood, and tried to drink enough water to save himself, but ultimately needed my magic to drain the water. They (alongside your master’s familiar) form the bulk of the characters you’ll meet.
The walls are delightful and cute, serving as a solid underpinning for the game’s absurdist humor. The familiar, however, isn’t–and, unfortunately, he’s far more omnipresent. He follows you and complains about absolutely everything. And not just in the normal plucky sidekick way–his vitriol is crafted to get under your skin and goes well beyond excessive. He ruins almost every puzzle by explaining it and then calling you an idiot for not understanding. It is the worst kind of artificial humor: a dry cynicism that masquerades as cleverness and wit.
Neither a groundbreaking VR experience nor a strong dungeon crawler, The Mage’s Tale ultimately squanders its potential. It offers a couple of high points–some jokes do hit their marks from time to time–but there are so many problems, and there’s so little of substance to drive the experience forward, that The Mage’s Tale feels more like a shallow experiment than a reason to get excited about VR.
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