enfrdeitptrues

RPG

  • 7th Dragon III Code: VFD (3DS)

     

    boxart
    Game Info:

    7th Dragon III Code: VFD
    Developed by: Sega
    Published by: Sega
    Release date: July 12, 2016 
    Available on: 3DS
    Genre: JRPG
    Number of Players: Single-Player
    ESRB Rating: T for Teen (Fantasy Violence, Language, Mild Blood, Suggestive Themes)
    Price: $39.99
    (Amazon Affiliate Link)

    Thank you Sega for sending us this game to review.

    7th Dragon is a Japanese exclusive series that has enjoyed success on the original DS, and later with sequels on the PSP. For those of us in the West, we never got to experience these games. This is most likely due to the large amount of translation work required. Now, the rest of the world will be able to experience the last game in the series.

    7th Dragon III Code: VFD takes place 80 years after the first two games. In 2020 and 2021, Tokyo was attacked by two powerful dragons - known as True Dragons - and since those events humanity has strived to rebuild itself. This new age was called the United Era, with dragons thought to be extinct. However, the dragons left behind a deadly miasma on the Earth's surface. This quickly spread and became known as Dragon Sickness. Even though the dragons are gone, humanity still suffers, continuing to try to find a cure. In these difficult times, a game company called Nodens has created a virtual reality simulation of the dragon invasion of 2020. This game would be known as 7th Encount. It quickly attracted many young gamers to Tokyo to take part in such a  transcendental experience. Ominous events loom ahead though, and the past is about to become the future.

    From the start, we're tasked with choosing a main character from one of four classes. The Samurai are skilled swordsman that can choose between swords and dual blades. Swords can be sheathed and unsheathed, allowing the samurai to gain access to different skills. Dual blades focus on quick attacks and multiple strikes. Agents are special ops units that use guns and possess high-level hacking skills, perfect for confusing enemies. God Hands are martial art fighters that excel in one-on-one combat. They inflict God Depth on enemies which allows strong skills to be used in battles. They also have access to healing techniques. The last of the starting classes to choose from is the Duelist. These characters use a special playing card deck to summon monsters and play traps. Traps activate when the Duelist is hit physically or with magic, and can cause damage as well as inflict statuses. Each class can be a male or a female, and there are over 40 different voice actors to choose from to voice your character. This was unexpected, and even though I don't know who they are, it was a nice option to choose between so many voices.

    The story follows the struggles of the Dragon Hunters, and the impending arrival of the 7th True Dragon. Hunters are extremely rare and powerful humans with the power to kill dragons. Julietta, an incredibly intelligent researcher, has strived to gather samples of all the True Dragons in an attempt to complete the Dragon Chronicles. With it, it is said that the dragon sickness can be completed eradicated. This sets up the motives of the player to defeat every dragon and save humanity once again. Through the use of Julietta's time machine, the Hunters will travel to three distinct eras. The first being the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, the next being the futuristic capital of the land of Eden, and finally the ability to return to present-day Tokyo.

    7th Dragon III Code: VFD
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Wonderful storyline; Graphics and animations are fantastic; Music is phenomenal; The battle system is a refreshing take on the turn-based system; You can build a cat café.
    Weak Points: 3D was not used at all; Unnecessary sexualized character dialogue; Battles can become repetitious.
    Moral Warnings: Some of the female artwork for main characters shows a lot of cleavage; An incredible amount of sexual innuendo forced onto the player; Alcohol consumption; There's an excessive amount of cursing (everything but the F word.)

    7th Dragon III has one of the more interesting turn-based battle systems I've seen in a long time. There's a huge focus on combining attacks and skills with each of the team members to increase damage output. Statuses and attacks that rely on other skills from fellow party members are extremely satisfying to pull off one turn kills on the lower dragons. Setting up a defensive approach that suddenly becomes an offensive onslaught due to underlying effects is something I'd never seen implemented in an RPG before. It is also critical that one masters the combo attacks and status effects as True Dragons will not be easy prey, and often will wipe a party out in one turn. 

    There are three types of dragons to deal with. Normal dragons will wander around the dungeon just like you do. When they see you they will run after you to initiate a battle. These guys aren't too difficult to handle, but if you take too long to defeat one and there are other dragons around, they will jump into the current fight you're in. Alway be sure to deal with each dragon as quickly and as efficiently as possible to avoid getting overwhelmed. High Dragons are considerably more powerful, and will require more planning to take down than a normal dragon. Lastly are True Dragons. These are the most powerful creatures in the game. Defeating one will bring the Dragon Chronicles closer to completion.

    In total, there are 256 dragons that need to be slain. This number is ever present, and each location that can be traveled to will have a set number of dragons inhabiting it. Once they're all cleared, the Dragonsbane will lift. Dragonsbane are flowers that contain the deadly miasma. These flowers bloom only where dragons are found. Clearing it is essential in saving humanity. Defeating dragons will reward the player with 'DZ'. This is a type of currency that allows new facilities to be added to the Nodens building. Some of these areas will be needed to progress the story, but some serve as a place to relax, like the cat café. Although, even once every facility is built and NPCs inhabit them, Nodens can still feel slightly empty. A part of me wished that areas could be explored more, as every area is extremely confined and linear. Coupled with the fact that areas of the map are extremely small, meant that exploring was relegated to dungeons. 

    At two certain points in the game more characters can be registered, and Buddy Skills will become available. Every turn that passes in battle, one of three bars will fill underneath the characters not in the main party. These characters are referred to as rear team members. Pressing their icon when they have at least one bar filled will allow them to attack before you and inflict a guaranteed debuff on the enemy. When all three characters have at least two bars filled, sliding the stylus across them will activate Support Skills. These usually gives the main team buffs, a small amount of healing, or the revival of fallen teammates. When at least two bars are filled on all six of the rear team members, Unison can be activated. Sliding the stylus across each member will allow all nine characters to perform one attack each. This can result in huge amounts of damage or inflicting multiple debuffs on an enemy.

    Another useful mechanic in the game is the Exhaust Gauge. Every time you attack and are attacked, the gauge gradually fills. Once filled, Exhaust can be activated which will increase damage output as well as give attacking priority to that character. The gauge will have another use about half way through the game. Using Exhaust will allow a character to perform their ultimate attack. These are powerful skills that can either deal large amounts of damage, or produce a powerful healing spell. There's an abundance of random encounters, so maintaining a filled gauge is never an issue.

    7th Dragon III Code: VFD
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 90%
    Gameplay - 18/20
    Graphics - 8/10
    Sound - 9/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 65%
    Violence - 6/10
    Language - 3.5/10
    Sexual Content - 4.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 8.5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

    Visually, this title is a real eye pleaser. Monsters are beautifully designed. The normal dragons could have been more unique, as the same few dragons are repeated throughout the game, albeit with a palette swap. Although, some of these dragons are vicious and well programmed, which made it slightly forgiveable. The True Dragons and High Dragons are all unique and look beyond ferocious. World environments get the job done and do well to bring the eras of time the characters are in to life. I do wish that 3D could have been used in the cutscenes or at least the intro. Overall, the environments look great and are actually quite stunning. I often found myself amazed at what was on my screen.

    The music is fantastic. Every track fits perfectly with the areas they play in. This should come as no surprise since Yuzo Koshiro is the composer. Often regarded as the most influential composer in the industry, his tracks for the 7th Dragon series are memorable and masterfully arranged. Voice acting is left to small phrases spoken in Japanese which is a slight letdown. With all the talent on board, it seemed strange not to take more advantage of that in the game.

    Morally, this is really pushing the T rating. Nagamimi, the strange rabbit-like alien, curses in nearly every scene he appears in. This could have been toned down as it doesn't add anything to his conversations. As there's a bar on the roof of Nodens, alcohol is mentioned as being consumed. Violence is an obvious warning as this is an RPG. Some cutscenes are quite graphic though. My biggest moral issue is how some of the female characters are designed. Character models in-game all have a chibi appearance. So why are the females revealing unnecessary amounts of cleavage on the menu screens? You'd never even guess the character you're playing is the same one depicted on the menu, as the art styles are so different. 7th Dragon also encourages the main character to go on dates with other characters in the game. These end in very suggestive scenes with no concern for the genders of either character. So male characters can go on a date with other male characters, and vice versa. Unfortunately, all the dates will pretty much end the same way.

    At the end of the day, this is an amazing RPG. There's a surprising amount of character customization, and replaying after you beat the game is encouraged. I spent 40+ hours on my first run through, completely mesmerized by the story. I haven't felt compelled to finish a game in a long time, and 7th Dragon III was worth every second it took to complete. If you are fine with the moral choices this game makes I highly recommend picking it up. We'll never see the Dragon Hunters again after this one.

    -Kyuremu

     

  • Adventure Labyrinth Story (3DS)

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    Game Info:

    Adventure Labyrinth Story
    Developed By: FlyHigh Works, RideOn Japan
    Published By: Circle Entertainment
    Released: September 1, 2016
    Available On: 3DS
    Genre: Dungeon Crawler, RPG
    ESRB Rating: E for Everyone (Mild Fantasy Violence)
    Number of Players: 1
    Price: $5.00

    Thank you Circle Entertainment for sending us a code for the game to review!

    A few years back 3DS owners got to experience a unique twist to the RPG genre through the game Adventure Bar Story. In it, we ran a bar, cooked food, and adventured across the land searching for new ingredients to cook with. Now we're treated to its sequel, Adventure Labyrinth Story, which switches out the usual RPG gameplay for a rogue-like approach.

    The game starts off with a few familiar faces discussing a labyrinth that has recently opened up outside of the town. A legendary weapon is said to be within it, and that pretty much sums up the story. The main character for this one is Lidia, and she has to clear a training dungeon before gaining access to the real labyrinth. This serves as a tutorial, but it shouldn't be taken lightly as one mistake could send you right back to the first floor.

    Every time the labyrinth is entered it will be completely randomized. Item locations, enemies, and the stairs to progress lower will always be different. This isn't a new feature for a rogue-like by any means, but it helps to keep things feeling new. The top-down perspective allows for Lidia to see what's in the current room, but corridors will reduce her vision to a small circle. This only displays what's directly in front and behind her. Monsters will usually find you in these hallways and ambush you. 

    Adventure Labyrinth Story
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Challenging dungeon crawler; Hours of content makes for a decent value; Randomized map layouts.
    Weak Points: Difficulty may be too high for some; No 3D; Managing inventory space is a chore.
    Moral Warnings: RPG-like fantasy violence and magic usage.

    Scattered around are weapons, potions, and various books. Books can be used to identify items that are unknown, reveal the map layout on the bottom screen, and some cast magic on enemies. Defeating the creatures encountered will gain Lidia experience points and she'll eventually level up. This increases her attack and defense as well as her maximum health. Combat consists of facing an enemy and pressing 'A' to attack. A separate screen appears and displays the turn-based action. There's no inputs or actions to choose from, you just attack until either you or the enemy dies. Ranged combat is the way to go though as you'll get a hit on an enemy before they can initiate combat. 

    Lidia can only carry 24 items total, and multiples of an item do not stack. Initially I found this to be a flaw as I quickly ran out of room to hold things. I eventually discovered I could throw excess items at enemies to inflict damage. There are also special potions that can be thrown at enemies that will inflict statuses. There is also an item that lets you "tune" weapons and shields. By combining two of the same pieces of equipment a slightly more powerful version is created. This can also help to alleviate inventory space.

    Once inside the labyrinth there's only two ways to return to town. By using a book called "Book of Escape" or dying. As the penalty for dying is being returned to town with no gold, it's not too big of an issue. The main reason as to why you'll come back is to cook up dishes to eat. Regardless of how you get back to town, you'll always start from the first floor when returning to the labyrinth. You also do not retain any levels gained; instead the items and equipment found are the only ways of starting off a new attempt with better stats. 

    Adventure Labyrinth Story
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 72%
    Gameplay - 14/20
    Graphics - 6/10
    Sound - 6/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 94%
    Violence - 8/10
    Language - 10/10
    Sexual Content - 10/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 8/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

    A small feature that returns from Adventure Bar Story is finding ingredients to cook with in the labyrinth. Cooking up dishes can yield bonuses to Lidia's stats. Hunger also plays a part in the game. It's not enough to just drink health potions. You'll have to eat real food to keep your hunger away. If your hunger meter falls to zero, you'll begin taking damage from movement. Hunger is rarely seen as an actual detriment to progress in RPGs, and it's a welcomed feature here.

    Visually, the labyrinth is a little on the bland side, though enemy designs are well done. Equipping different weapons is actually noticeable and I enjoy that attention to detail in RPGs. There's no 3D which was a shame. The music is serviceable and so are the sound effects. Nothing mind blowing, but it gets the job done all the same.

    If you're ok with a little bit of fantasy violence and magic usage in your dungeon crawler, Adventure Labyrinth Story might be up your alley. It's a fairly vanilla dungeon crawler and most likely won't exceed your expectations of what the genre can produce. Though with that being said, it's still an enjoyable experience that you can sink a dozen hours into.

    -Kyuremu

  • Akiba’s Beat (Vita)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Akiba’s Beat
    Developed by: Acquire
    Published by: XSEED Games
    Release date: May 16, 2017
    Available on: PS4, Vita
    Genre: Action RPG
    Number of Players: Single-player
    ESRB Rating: Teen for Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol
    Price: $29.99
    (Amazon Affiliate Link)

    Thank you XSEED for sending us this game to review!

    What are delusions? Are they merely wishes? Are they mankind’s true joy? What if delusions became reality? Akiba’s Beat explores that possibility as delusions begin to appear and multiply throughout Akihabara. As an added twist, the day Sunday begins repeating and everything has to get set straight. But at what cost?

    The main character, Asahi, is a self proclaimed NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and wears a shirt saying as much. He meets up with a chosen one named Saki who teaches him how to enter into delusionscapes and eradicate them in an attempt to get Akihabara back to normal. Saki has a floating familiar who stays by her side and his name is Pinkun. He likes to call out Asahi for being lazy and often refers to him as a dingus.

    Nullifying delusions involves exploring all of their levels, which are often crawling with enemies. When you make it to the bottom floor, you’ll find a grand phantasm/final boss that needs to be dealt with. Those who unknowingly create the delusions are referred to as delusers and they forget all about their altered reality and return back to normal after the grand phantasm is defeated. Sometimes the people adjust well to entering back to reality, but that’s not always the case. The later instances cause Asahi and some his friends to wonder if they are doing the right thing by destroying people’s delusions.

    Akiba’s Beat
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Good story, localization; likable characters
    Weak Points: Long and plentiful loading screens; repetitive delusionscapes/dungeons; lackluster battles; crashes; slow performance
    Moral Warnings: Violence and bloodshed; cursing (*ss, b*stard, b*tch; d*mn), blaspheming; sexual dialogue; transgender and cross dressing characters; drinking and drunkenness

    There is a lot of soul searching and some good lessons about friendship woven into this adventure. In total there are sixteen chapters and most of them have sub quests that allow you to learn about and help out your companions. Many of the side quests involve finding the right kind of food to satisfy various cravings. Time only progresses when you complete the main story quests though. Each day is broken down into day, twilight, night, and midnight.

    The town map is broken down into several sections and if you walk through all of them without teleporting, you will hate this game in a hurry. There are tons and tons of loading screens and some of them take longer than others. When traveling throughout the town be sure to use the map and warp yourself to the closest save point to your current objective. I like how most of the objectives are marked on the map, but those that take place in Violet Eden or inside of a delusionscape won’t be seen.

    Besides experiencing the character development and good storytelling, the sub quests are a good way to acquire some loot and money for upgrades. Each character can wear various accessories and clothing items that enhance their attributes like attack, defense, and so on. I tended to equip neutral items, but there are elemental ones that are strong against some elements while being weak to others.

    The battle system is music based and chain attacks are referred to as beats. To charge up your powerful attacks you have to do normal ones and after your music meter is charged, you can switch to a more powerful mode that doesn’t have a limit on how many times you can attack before needing a break. I’m not a fan of the battle system and am thankful that you can adjust the difficulty of the battles mid-game. The difficulty levels are easy, normal, hard, and imagine.

    The power of your party’s attacks depends on the computer parts that everyone has equipped. Some computer parts like CPUs and hard drives are universal, but each member has a particular kind of memory/RAM that they need. As you progress in the game more powerful computer and clothing items will become available. Be sure to visit the many shops along the way to have an edge against the enemies awaiting you.

    Akiba’s Beat
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 70%
    Gameplay - 13/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 8/10
    Stability - 2/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 56%
    Violence - 4.5/10
    Language - 1/10
    Sexual Content - 6/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 8.5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 8/10

    There’s not a whole lot of variety of enemies and the similarly styled ones tend to have the same weaknesses of their lesser powerful equivalents. The bosses were all unique though. It’s worth noting that the framerate noticeably tanked during some of the boss battles. The delusionscapes have different themes and many of them have various gates or teleporters that have to be used in the proper order to successfully explore them. I didn’t mind completing the dungeons once, but you have to traverse them multiple times between the main story, sub quests, and bounty hunts. If you like fighting, a “Might Club” becomes available later in the game and you can battle individually or as a group for money.

    With fighting comes violence and most of it is bloodless. There is a cold blooded murder in the game and you’ll see blood splatter and the screen will go red when a certain character is literally backstabbed. Suicide is also touched upon in the story and your party tries to prevent one repeatedly which gets taxing with the looping Sunday.

    One of the hangouts for the group is a queen bar which is run by a (now) female named Akemi. With a bar comes drinking and many characters are seen consuming alcohol and getting tipsy as a result. As for the theme of the bar, Akemi is hardly alone since there are multiple characters who cross dress in this title. While there is no intimacy seen, there are some sexual situations and dialogue regarding unwanted advances.

    There is reference to this world being godless and one of the characters take it upon himself to become a god and grant people’s wishes. I find this concept interesting since I don’t see my savior as a mere genie. Sadly, there are several instances of blasphemy and cussing throughout the game.

    In the end, I enjoyed the concept and character development in Akiba’s beat. The fighting and loading screens are a point of contention and then there are the moral issues to take into consideration. If you don’t mind any of those, this game will keep you busy for over thirty hours. Keep in mind that at least three of them will be loading screens though.

  • Ambition of the Slimes (3DS)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Ambition of the Slimes
    Developed By: Altairworks, Flyhigh Works
    Published By: Circle Entertainment
    Released: August 11, 2016 (3DS)
    Available On: 3DS, Android, iOS, Vita
    Genre: Strategy RPG
    ESRB Rating: E10+ for Everyone 10 and Up (Fantasy Violence and Suggestive Themes)
    Number of Players: 1
    Price: $5.00

    Thank you Circle for sending us a copy of the game to review!

    In most RPGs there are creatures known as slimes. These enemies normally pose little, to no threat, and are only considered good for grinding levels early on. Ambition of the Slimes aims to change all that by putting the player in control of an army of slimes.

    At the start of the game there is a nice and simple  tutorial that teaches some of the basics to this strategy RPG. First off, battles take place on grid-based battlefields. Enemies and slimes can move a certain distance before performing an action, like attacking, or waiting and ending their turn. Secondly, slimes are very weak in battle, and though they can fight back they all have the unique ability to "claim" a human target. This happens when a slime comes into contact with said target. Selecting claim from the battle menu plays out a disturbing cutscene in which the enemy's head tilts back, and the slime attempts to slide down their throat. This is pretty terrifying the first few times it happens, but you'll quickly wish you could just skip it. Slimes may also have other abilities like warping anywhere on the map, while some may have higher success rates of claiming. Battles are won when either no humans remain, or only possessed humans and slimes are on the battlefield. 

    Ambition of the Slimes
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Surprisingly challenging; Cutesy graphics and well implemented 3D; Great twist on the SRPG genre.
    Weak Points: Frustratingly difficult at times; Enemies crowd each other; Grammatical errors.
    Moral Warnings: As with any RPG, there's a moderate level of fantasy violence; Slimes possess humans in a disturbing fashion; Some overly sexualized enemy sprites.

    Before each stage is played you can choose which slimes to bring into battle. Each enemy and slime has an elemental affinity being water, fire, and earth. Water is strong against fire, but weak against earth, much like rock-paper-scissors. If your slime has the same element as a human you want to claim, and the claim is successful, that human will have increased attributes which is imperative to complete most stages. Most humans will have a 100% claim rate, but most maps will have at least one enemy with an incredibly low claim rate. When successfully claimed, these humans can completely turn a battle around for the slimes. 

    The biggest issue with claiming a human is that they are usually surrounded by other humans, and cannot move after being claimed. This results in that human being attacked upwards of four times, should they survive that long. The height of the battlefield will also come into play when maneuvering your characters. Should your character be on higher ground than its target while attacking, more damage will be inflicted to them and you take less damage. Unlike in other SRPGs, attacking an enemy with its back to you won't result in bonus damage.

    Ambition of the Slimes
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 80%
    Gameplay - 15/20
    Graphics - 8/10
    Sound - 7/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 87%
    Violence - 6.5/10
    Language - 10/10
    Sexual Content - 7/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 10/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

    The retro graphics are very reminiscent of other games localized by Flyhigh Works, such as Witch & Hero and its sequel. They are very cute and the spritework for enemies and the slimes are detailed nicely. The battlefield itself can be rotated during battles and the 3D has been implemented very well. The music is nothing spectacular, and for the most part sounds like it's from Witch & Hero. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it instilled a sense of nostalgia in me hearing these simple chiptunes again. 

    As for moral warnings, it would be expected that there is a moderate amount of fantasy violence. That's not really the case for Ambition of the Slimes though, as battles are merely a static screen with sprites crashing into each other. I'm sure most players will be more terrified by the way the slimes possess their targets rather than the way battles unfold. Even after seeing the claiming process for 15 hours it's still disturbing to see them slide down enemy throats. Also worth mentioning are the rather sexually designed females enemies. Some are posed rather peculiarly, while others are more "top-heavy."

    This is an excellent game for fans of the SRPG genre, though one shouldn't expect an exact ripoff of Final Fantasy Tactics. Aside from some grammatical inconsistencies and the high difficulty, there is a deep strategy game here. With patience and endurance, this title is sure to satisfy those that are seeking a challenge from their video games.

    -Kyuremu

     

  • Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey (PS4)

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    Game Info:

    Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey
    Developed by: Gust
    Published by: Koei Tecmo
    Released: November 2, 2016 (March 7, 2017 US)
    Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Windows
    Genre: Adventure and Role Playing Game (RPG)
    ESRB: T for Teen (Fantasy Violence, Partial Nudity, Language, and Use of Alcohol)
    Number of players: 1
    Price: $59.99
    (Amazon Affiliate Link)

    Thank you Koei Tecmo for sending us this game to review!

    Note: This review is based on the PS4 Pro version and might not look, sound, and perform the same on other consoles and PC.

    Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey (Atelier Firis for short) is the second in a new series called " Mysterious" by the developer Gust. As I mentioned in my review of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, the Atelier series of games has had numerous games across several platforms and will continue due in part to the strong hardcore fans of the series. I wouldn't be surprised if another entry in the series will be arriving later this year or early next year. You have to hand it to Gust, the very talented developer of this series, that they just keep refining the game mechanics and bringing enjoyable characters to each game. I also want to commend them for always bringing past characters into each game as cameos so that the player will feel that each game in the series has a wonderful thread between them woven throughout the world.

    As I started up the game I had that same feeling I did with Atelier Sophie, it made me feel that I was entering a world different but very similar to Atelier Sophie. You play as Firis Mistlud and you live in a town called Ertona which is in a very large cave and isolated from the rest of the world. Firis lives with her sister Liane (who will be your main companion), and her mother and father.

    Firis dreams of leaving and seeing the world outside. One day as she is standing by the door that is sealed shut to protect the town she hears a conversation between what sounds like two ladies. One of them says "If anyone is near the door please stand back" and then a huge explosion completely destroys the door. When they walk through the debris and into the cave, they see Firis who is just stunned and shocked. They introduce themselves to Firis as Sophie and Plachta. Firis, still stunned, introduces herself and then they all engage in a long conversation about themselves and the town. Sophie explains to Firis that she is an Alchemist and that she has been traveling the world with her best friend Plachta.

    Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Just like Atelier Sophie this game has extremely adorable characters, creatures, and environment. The art style and sound are very well done for this type of game. Massive world to explore.
    Weak Points: The timer that goes into overtime when you do recipes, gather items, and battle enemies. The game ends if you fail the final exam, no second chance to test unless you load up your last save file.
    Moral Warnings: There is some language in the game. Some girl characters reveal too much of their body. Use of alcohol is in the game like in many fantasy games these days. Not recommended for younger teens or children. Enemies are very cute and disappear when you defeat them.

    Firis doesn't know what an Alchemist is, and Sophie shows her by repairing the door just like it was before. Other people in the town introduce themselves, including Liane, Sophie and Plachta. As the ladies tell Firis more about the outside world and Alchemy, Firis decides she really wants to learn Alchemy and use it to explore the world safely.

    Sophie and Plachta agree to show Firis how Alchemy works and invite her to come into their magical travel tent (which is much bigger then it appears on the outside) to see more. Firis is so excited and asks Sophie if she will be her teacher. Sophie agrees and has Firis try a recipe and she is successful in creating an item. After proving her skills to the town elder, Firis is allowed to leave but only if she has her sister Liane accompany her. Sophie gives Firis the magical travel tent so that she has a place to utilize for her alchemy and rest. In a years time, Firis will test her alchemy skills and take an exam that Sophie informs her about. With that goal in mind, Firis' journey to become a great alchemist begins. Along the way Firis and her sister will meet fellow travelers in need and others who wish to join them.

    This game is much larger and diverse than Atelier Sophie in that it has more than one town and many more areas to explore. Each area and town are different than the others. Firis and her companions can upgrade their equipment much like in Atelier Sophie. You can either buy, or if Firis has discovered the recipe, create armors or weapons. There are so many recipes for Firis to learn on her journey it seems you are finding or learning new ones everywhere you adventure. Firis must have the alchemy level and ingredients necessary to create any recipe that she has discovered. Sometimes you will choose to buy an item because you haven't either obtained the recipe or your alchemy level isn't high enough to create the item.

    The art style is very much like Atelier Sophie with beautiful coloring and character models. The developers seem to have a knack for making each area beautiful to look at and even admire. I enjoyed the way each area had added character and wasn't some copy and paste with slight changes that some developers have used in their games. It's not at Horizon Zero Dawn or Uncharted 4 graphics level, but it's pretty good. The art style is soft and has a warmness to it, rather than hard and dark coloring.

    Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 86%
    Gameplay - 16/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 10/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 78%
    Violence - 8/10
    Language - 7.5/10
    Sexual Content - 6.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 8.5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 8.5/10

    In regards to sound quality it is very pleasant and fun. I enjoyed the music, the ambient sound, voice work, and even the sounds in battles. This game doesn't have a lot of music, just the right amount which I appreciate. I don't like it when a game's music is overwhelming and distracts you from what you're doing in the game world.

    The only real negative I felt was the timer mechanic. Every time you picked up items around an area, battled enemies, or made a recipe item in your cauldron time flew by. The game only gives you so much time to get to the skills necessary to take the final exam that you seem in a rush. I will say that once you pass the final exam (I'm still working on exploring and leveling up) the game will completely open up and you will be able to explore to your heart's desire.

    This game is massive, especially after you pass your final exam, but make sure to save before your test, because if you fail the game ends and you will have to go back to your last save and try again. After you pass you can then go wherever you like and explore the areas you weren't able to because of the timer.

    In regards to morality parents need to be aware of the language, use of alcohol, and partial nudity that is in the game. Some of the girls in the game wear shorter skirts and show a little cleavage, while others are more conservative. Even though this game is rated for teens, I would only consider it for older teens (16 and above) or adults. Parents of younger teens and children should highly steer clear of this game because of the vey revealing clothes that some of the girls are wearing, the use of alcohol in potions, and the language that some of the characters use from time to time. The game isn't gory or violent. When you battle a creature the attacks just show bright light explosions, and no blood. The creatures are very cute looking and don't portray scariness in any way.

    I would say if you enjoyed the other games in the Atelier series or if you enjoy Asian animation type of games you might find this rather enjoyable. You just have to get past the timer that is present and forcing you to learn as quickly as possible and then pass the exam so you can explore more of the massive world.

  • Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (PS4)

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    Game Info:

    Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book
    Developed by: Gust
    Published by: Koei Tecmo
    Released: 16 November 2015 (7 June 2016 US release)
    Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Microsoft Windows
    Genre: Adventure and Role Playing Game (RPG)
    ESRB: T for Teen (Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Mild Language)
    Number of players: 1
    Price: $59.99
    (Amazon Affiliate Link)

    Thank you Koei Tecmo for sending us a review copy for this game.

    Note: This review is based on the PS4 Pro version and might not look, sound, and perform the same on other consoles and PC.

    Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (Atelier Sophie for short) is the first in a new series called " Mysterious" by Gust developer. The Atelier series has had numerous games and will continue into the future. There is a quiet but diehard fan base. Even though I never played the series before, I always had a longing desire to experience this incredible series of games.

    Atelier Sophie invites you to play as a young alchemist named Sophie. She inherits her grandmothers' home, books, alchemy cauldron, and the alchemy gift. Sophie dreams of being a great alchemist like her grandmother. She is intelligent, charming, cute, and a little clumsy. She tries her best but never succeeds until she discovers a book of her grandmothers'. As she picks it up it comes alive and starts talking to her. She is shocked, scared, and of course surprised. Sophie quickly realizes that the book is very friendly and has a female voice. The book introduces itself to Sophie and tells her that she is named "Plachta."

    Plachta has lost nearly all her memory and needs Sophie to help her remember her past by discovering alchemy items and then creating other alchemy items from them. So begins the journey of helping Plachta and also following in her grandmothers' footsteps in becoming a great alchemist. Sophie heads out and comes across friends who are willing to help her on this journey. Her main companions are Monika, Oskar, Julio, and Corneria. There are many other characters that will help Sophie along her journey to becoming a great alchemist.

    Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: The game has adorable characters, enemies, and beautiful environments. The crafting and exploring keep you coming back for more.
    Weak Points: It would be nice if your characters' clothing would change more and more weapons were available for each character. There is only one town to explore and meet NPCs in, I wish there were more towns to visit and shops to buy items and equipment from. 
    Moral Warnings: The game is very clean except for a couple minor swear words, slightly revealing clothing, and monsters that very young children could be scared of. Attacking enemies only shows a light or spark of lights when the characters attacks them.

    Atelier Sophie is basically a resource gathering game at its roots. You adventure to different areas, defeat the monsters in the area, and collect resources that are glowing on the ground. You do this for each area you go to until your inventory is full and then you want to exit the region, travel back to your house and unload the items into a very large storage area in your home. Sophie can activate her cauldron and mix these items to create a certain item, for example a bomb or a healing item.

    The process of going to other areas, fighting a variety of enemies, and collecting items is actually quite fun and addictive. In the beginning you have a town that is broken up into several areas that you explore and meet townsfolk, merchants, and party members. As you talk to the merchants you can buy, sell or even craft a variety of items. As the game goes along more merchants open up new shops so you can buy, sell, or craft new items.

    Atelier Sophie really emphasizes the importance of talking to all townsfolks and merchants. The reason why is that it gives you more story behind the NPCs and also allows more of your story to develop. Many of the merchants and party members will come to Sophie's home to see her alchemy skill and also ask for help. The first time they visit Sophie they usually are shocked to meet Plachta. Of course who wouldn't be shocked to meet a floating talking book?

    Atelier Sophie has a overview map when you leave an area. Initially you just have the town, Sophie's home, and a couple nearby areas to explore, but as time goes by more and more areas open up. The map can be very useful because you can see what type of enemies and resources are in each area as you move the cursor over them. I found this a time saver when I needed to defeat a certain type of enemy or if I needed a certain type of ingredient for an item I was trying to create.

    Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 86%
    Gameplay - 16/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 10/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 86%
    Violence - 8/10
    Language - 8/10
    Sexual Content - 8.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 8.5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 8.5/10

    The combat system is classic turn based. Depending on your character's speed level and the enemy's speed level you determine who goes first. Before you begin each turn you can decide to either have a "Defense" or "Offense" posture. This helped in either taking less damage from the enemy or dealing more damage to the enemy. You also decide if you want a standard attack, defend, run away, use an item, or use a special ability. The items are created by Sophie for herself or for her party members. The special abilities take up magic points and can be used on the enemy or to help a party member.

    Atelier Sophie has some beautiful graphics, sound, music, and cute animations. It's not on the level of Horizon Zero Dawn or Nioh on the PS4 in the departments I mentioned above, but it doesn't need to be. Everything runs smoothly with no hiccups while exploring the world or the town. As you go from the map to the next area there is a very short loading screen and then you're there. I enjoyed the voice work and there is quite a bit. All the main characters have voice work and it is well done. The music brings a smile every time I hear it. The animations are very solid and well done for a game of this type.

    In regards to the story it starts out so ho hum then it slowly gets better and better. I can see why this series of games has been around for a long time. I expect the next decade and beyond to see this series of games just keep getting better.

    The only negatives I see is that you have a small amount of inventory which causes you to keep going back to Sophie's home to unload and then go back out for more resource gathering. I didn't notice any blatant vulgar language or using the Lord's name in vain. Parents won't have to worry about their teens playing a game with blood or gore. On a surprising note the town you're in has a Church and they do talk about God from time to time when you go in there and talk to kids or the priest, or a NPC that you interact with. I also appreciated that Monika, one of your main side characters, tells Sophie she needs to go to Church every week and don't forget. I was happily surprised by this from a game developer.

    In conclusion Atelier Sophie is a very long and enjoyable game. I have heard of people who have well over a hundred hours into it. There is so much to do that this game could be a major time sink if you explore and learn all the alchemy creations. I enjoyed the many hours I played with it. I'm actually looking forward to playing it more over the course of a long period of time. It just keeps calling me back with its cute and adorable characters and the charm of the areas you explore. Lastly, Plachta is just a wonderful character to get to know in a video game, and I will keep doing more in this game to find out how Sophie and Plachta bring back Plachta to what she was before she was turned into a magical flying book with amnesia.

  • B*stard Bonds (PC)

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    Game Info:

    Bastard Bonds
    Developed By: BigFingers
    Published By: BigFingers
    Released: April 29, 2016
    Available On: Microsoft Windows
    Genre: Tactical RPG
    ESRB Rating: Not Rated
    Number of Players: Single player
    MSRP: $19.99

    Thank you BigFingers for sending a copy of this game to review!

    B*stard Bonds is a tactical RPG with turn based combat. You start the game by creating a character that is being sentenced for a crime they may or may not have committed. Regardless, the punishment handed out is exile to a prisoner island. Once on the island a fellow prisoner springs you from your cell and the two of you escape to the countryside.  You move from location to location on the vast map fighting monsters, gaining allies and uncovering the mysteries of the island. Once you've gained enough allies you can create a Stronghold to further advance your party and equip them to explore the entire map. 

    The first word B*stard Bonds uses to describe itself on its Steam store page is "mature." The game certainly earns a Mature rating but I found a lot of its content to be rather immature. A perfect example of this is the title screen. It's a picture of a smirking judge looking down on a man and a woman with chains around their necks. I thought the image was fitting for the premise of the game. Then in the Options menu is a setting that removes everyone's clothes on the title screen. It has no effect on the rest of the game, it's just there to show some skin. It's an option that reeks of immaturity and unfortunately there are similar examples in the actual game. 

    I have to compliment the pixel artist on this game. A lot of indie games that try for this pixelated art style have lazy and blocky graphics, but this game has great looking art. I'm especially impressed by the amount of detail put into the character sprites. The character creator has a good amount of body types for both humans and orcs. There's also a massive amount of clothing options to mix and match for your sprite. The enemies also come in every shape and size; from small rodents to massive demons, all with great detail put into their appearance. The game is skimpy on the animations though, limiting each sprite to a handful of idle animations. All attacks are done with spell effects and characters seemingly hop between tiles on the map; they won't even turn to face enemies while attacking. Despite the plethora of options available in the game many of the NPCs are very hulking and very naked individuals. It get's old by the fifth or sixth time you find a big, bulky guy alone in a cabin in his loin cloth. You could argue this is due to many of the citizens on the island being prisoners but there are many example of NPCs who did manage to find clothes. 

    Bastard Bonds
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Huge cast of characters, deep customization, expansive map full of unique locations, non-linear progression, very little hand holding
    Weak Points: Unintuitive user interface, gameplay can get repetitive, very little handholding
    Moral Warnings: Gratuitous nudity, sexual scenes, homosexuality, occult magic, satanic images, demons and undead

    The art for the world is equally impressive, although the sheer size of the map causes there to be a lot of repeat use of assets. The world map is dotted with over a hundred hand-crafted locations such as castles, temples, forests, caves, towns, swamps and more. Each location not only looks good but is well designed from a tactical point of view. There are corners and choke points flawless integrated into the maps, such that you never really know where monsters could appear. There are numerous books to be read and people to talk to in order to learn about the island. The story of the island is told in a very hands off way that I really enjoyed. The stories of the various allies you meet, on the other hand, are less well done. Nearly everyone you recruit will talk you in your Stronghold, and as you adventure with them, they will gain your trust and eventually you will get a special scene where they share their backstory. There's no way to know how close you are to attaining these scenes, and you have to constantly go back to your Stronghold and check their chat options. The game certainly doesn't hold your hand; there is no correct path to progress through the map. Some locations require you to level up or visit other areas first but that's rare. 

    The combat in B*stard Bonds is standard turn based tactical combat with a bit of a twist. Each action (moving or attacking) can be made as a "risky" action. Risky actions contribute to that character's risk meter. The higher the risk meter, the higher the chance for a risky action to fail, which skips the character's turn and leaves them vulnerable. The reward for a successful risky action is that the character gets an additional action at the end of the current turn. You can keep performing risky actions until either you fill up your risk meter or you fail.  Both player characters and enemies can perform risky actions. This is a really nice system that both speeds up combat and adds more depth. You can chain attacks together with the possibility of failing and leaving yourself open for enemies to chain attacks. I really enjoyed the combat and the overall challenge of the encounters. I enjoyed having to find the right band of four characters in order to defeat certain enemies. Due to the sheer size of the map, I felt like there were a lot of mundane combat encounters that started to feel repetitive as time went on. 

    One of my main complaints is the behavior of your party while exploring a location. You control one character at a time and can move them a certain number of tiles in any direction based on speed. The other three characters follow behind. The AI for the following characters is downright bad. I cannot count the number of times I'd stumble into a group of enemies, only to discover one of my party members is six rooms back because he got stuck. As much as I love the design of so many of the locations, the ones that twist and turn can be a nightmare. Also, you need your entire party together to exit an area, so I've had three characters standing at an exit, and then I'll have to take control of the missing one to find where he went; then the other three start moving back again and get stuck. It can be a mess. 

    Bastard Bonds
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 82%
    Gameplay - 18/20
    Graphics - 9/10
    Sound - 7/10
    Stability - 4/5
    Controls - 3/5

    Morality Score - 21%
    Violence - 4/10
    Language - 1.5/10
    Sexual Content - 1.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 0/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 3.5/10

    There are a lot of RPG elements in B*stard Bonds. Each character has nine stats they can put points into upon leveling up. The three main stats Force, Guile, and Magic (Strength, Dexterity, and Intellect) each has an offense, defense and utility component. No character is locked into any one role, and you can advance your characters any way you want to. In addition to managing each of the characters you recruit along the way you have to manage your Stronghold. The game tells you next-to-nothing about what a Stronghold is, how important it is, and how to manage it. There's just an ever present red text on the top of world map that says, "Your Band has no Stronghold!" Eventually I figured out that there's a system by where you gain manpower from yourself and your allies based on their stats and alignment. Once you have enough manpower you can claim a completed area as a Stronghold. There is only a barebones help screen to guide you in building up your Stronghold. Really the entire user interface of this game leaves much to be desired, but the Stronghold UI is especially bad. Which is unfortunate because Strongholds are where you store items, craft items, buy items, sell items, converse with your party and much more. There is essentially a city-building game inside this tactical RPG. As much I appreciate the overall hands-off approach to progressing through the game, I really wish there was something to ease the player into Strongholds. 

    As I mentioned earlier there is a huge variety in enemies, and many of these are large, barely clothed demons of both sexes. There are all manor of devils and undead enemies as well. The occult and magic are prevalent throughout the entire game; there are pentagrams and ritual sacrifice. There are a lot of overt religious references, there is some satanic imagery and there are good and bad religious characters. As for language it really runs the gambit; there's profanity, crude jokes, and sexual dialogue. Some of the conversations are interesting discussions centered around the brutal reality of the world the island the characters find themselves on. Other conversations consist mostly of boorish humor and feels included in an attempt to make the game more "mature." There are some actual sex scenes however you don't see anything, it just fades to black. Homosexual relationships are possible as well. The game is very violent in nature but due to the lack of animations it doesn't appear as violent as it actually is. 

    Hiding under B*stard Bonds dark and vulgar physique is a very well made tactical RPG. I loved all the effort put into the graphics and into designing the the locations. I loved how the combat worked; it was familiar but also mixed things up just enough. I didn't love the controls and AI though. I loved all the RPG elements, even if they were frustrating to figure out. I loved exploring the island and figuring out it's secrets. I could have done without trying to get to know the characters better, and truthfully I stopped trying after a while. This game has a ton of content; you could easily spend over 100 hours on this game. With all that said I find this game impossible to recommend to another believer based on the "mature" elements found in the game. 

     

  • Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (GC)

     

    Baldur\'s Gate Dark Alliance is available on all the popular consoles, including Gameboy Advance. The Sequel however, is currently only available for PS2 and Xbox. Rated Teen for Blood, Violence, Use of Alcohol

    Story

    It?s late and dark outside as you stumble into Baldur?s Gate. You?re not even there for five minutes when you get mugged and are inches from death before the evening watch saves you from your attackers. As it turns out, there is a new thieves? guild rising in power and they are being aided by some evil force. You want to settle the score with them and wipe them out for the injustice they have done to you and others. There of course is a greater evil you will have to uncover and defeat.

    Who can I be?

    Your choices are limited to a male dwarf warrior, a male human archer, or a female elf sorceress. Drizzt is a male dark elf you can unlock later on in the game; he?s powerful and wields two scimitars.

    Game Play

    This game is very fun and is similar to Dungeon Siege, Diablo or other hack and slash RPG?s. You basically get quests, collect loot and upgrade your weapons and armor. As you fight and gain experience, you will level up allowing you to raise various attributes. Some of the attributes are for strength, armor, wisdom, and charisma. You can also learn and enhance various attacks. There are three acts (worlds) in the game that you will get to explore. The game play is rather short; I beat the game in roughly nine hours. Fortunately there are un-lockables such as Gauntlet Mode and Extreme Mode. Gauntlet mode is available after you beat the game. In the Gauntlet Mode you have 15 minutes to clear a dungeon and survive. Of course you cannot save. If and when you complete Gauntlet Mode, you will unlock Extreme mode (ten times harder and ten times as fun according to the box) and, upon defeating that, the new character Drizzt.

    What kind of quests will I embark on?

    Although there are many enemies, you?ll gain a few allies when you complete quests for them. Some of the quests are retrieving artifacts or other items stolen from them from the new thieves guild. You?ll have to infiltrate the thieves? guild, dethrone a king in a not so friendly way and smuggle booze for a bar drunk (optional).

    What kinds of enemies will I face?

    When you start off in the tavern you?ll be battling some big rats. Other animal based baddies include spiders, wolves, yetis, and lizard men. There are some powerful blobs and flames that will attack you too. The undead will attack you as well while often taking the loss of a few limbs before they finally rest in pieces. Each area has it?s own boss or mini boss; fortunately, there is usually a save spot nearby.

    Graphics

    The graphics in this game are very well done. The characters and people you interact with look very detailed and smooth. The environments are large and leave plenty of room for exploring. The terrain is detailed and easy on the eyes. The water, ice, and flame effects are good too.

    Sound

    The voice acting is great; no annoying or repetitive voices come to mind. If you leave your character alone for too long they tell you they want to get moving. The enemies have their own unique sounds as well. Weapons and explosions sound decent, each special effect has it?s own sound effect. The background music is pretty too.

    Multiplayer

    This is a strong point in the game. A second player can join a single player game at any time or drop players from existing games. Of course this can be used as an exploit to get good equipment etc. When you do play a two-player game you share the same screen, so this leads to the only downside is that one player can hold the other back when it comes to exploring. Both characters have to be in the same visible area to move on.

    Appropriateness

    There is plenty of hacking, slashing, and blood. This is unavoidable. There is alcohol and drunkenness too. Murder and stealing are part of the plot. Magic use is present but not necessary. It?s mainly elemental lightning, acid, fire etc. Some of the characters as usual can use some more clothes, mostly the females. I am still perplexed how the female elf does not get her belly all scratched up in battle when it?s fully exposed. I was surprised not to find any occult symbols in this game since many D & D titles have them; in fact the symbols they did use have Christian roots. Finally, the game?s teaching on death is contrary to the Bible?s Heb 9:27. The undead are summoned, and the main enemy needs to die a second death.

    Conclusion

    This game is very fun and is great for two-player action. It?s an older title and can be found for less than $15, which makes it a great buy even though the single player campaign is short. The un-lockables expand the lifespan of the game a bit. It does have some standard RPG appropriateness issues but it?s pretty clean for a D & D title.

    Final Ratings

    Game Play B+ Graphics A Sound A Controls A Appropriateness D

    Overall 81%

  • Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (Mac)

     

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    Game Info:

    Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear
    Developed by: Beamdog Studios
    Published by: Beamdog Studios
    Released: March 31, 2016
    Available on: Windows, Mac OS X
    Genre: Role-playing
    ESRB rating: T (animated blood, mild language, use of alcohol and tobacco)
    Number of players: 1
    Price: $19.99 (requires Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition to play)

    Thank you, Beamdog Studios, for sending us a copy of the expansion for review!

    The Baldur's Gate games, which were initially released in 1998, received a revamped, "enhanced edition" upgrade in 2013. The new edition was met with high praise, especially from those who remembered the original and were delighted to be able to play it on modern systems. Recently, Beamdog released the first new expansion for the franchise in 15 years. Titled "Siege of Dragonspear," the game plays exactly like the other games, and serves to tell the story between the two games. But is it worth the hype?

    In some ways, yes. The game does have a lot of the feel and experience of the original game. You can import your character from the original, or create a new one solely to play the expansion. The gameplay is the same as well. Roughly based on the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules, you make your character and assign points to flesh out your basic stats (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and so forth). You choose a race and a class, and make other choices based on those. The expansion launches you into the game on the assumption that you've played the base game already, so there's no in-game tutorial at this point to help you. (If you haven't played Baldur's Gate yet, you may want to do that first so you'll know how to play the expansion.)

    The game is presented as an isomorphic, top-down field, where you move your character through tunnels and wilderness, battle fiendish monsters, get experience and treasure, and all the other tropes that you can expect to find in a role-playing game. Then again, this is Dungeons and Dragons we're talking about – this is the franchise that made most of those tropes in the first place. 

    Unfortunately, the player is forced into a railroad plot and not allowed much in the way of variation. The game is supposed to "connect the dots" between the first and second games, but some degree of player choice would have been nice in affecting the outcome. There are several side quests which the player can engage in – some of which are quite amusing – but that's about it. At least you can add some experience and levels to your Baldur's Gate character before importing it into Baldur's Gate II, right?

    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Adds to the base game; entertaining characters and side quests
    Weak Points: Fails to adhere to established lore; confusing battle system; railroad main plot
    Moral Warnings: Blood, gore, murder, undead and magic use are all prominent; one transgender character makes a minor appearance.

    My biggest criticism of the game is that it lacks the feel of a table-top experience. Everything happens in real-time, and while you can pause the game to issue orders to your characters, combat generally acts out more like a quick time event than a player-controlled battle. Especially at the lower difficulty levels – where victory is guaranteed – combat seems like a pointless addition to the game. It's like Diablo-lite, where the computer controls your character for you so you don't have to do all the thinking. Of course, this is a criticism I had of the original game back in 1998, too. Maybe it's because I grew up with the "Gold Box" series of Dungeons and Dragons games, where combat was turn-based – it's what I'm familiar with, and what I expect from a game sporting the D&D label. Your mileage may vary in this regard. And combat is heavily featured in this expansion – while it's possible to talk your way out of some conflicts, a good portion of the dialogue trees will end up in a battle no matter what you choose.

    On top of that, the AI of the characters seems distinctly lacking. There were many times that my party was under fire, and Corwin – who is supposed to be an archer specialized in the longbow – would just stand in one place watching what was going on. Even after ordering her to attack, she'd fire one arrow and continue to watch as the rest of the team got peppered with projectiles. Fortunately, the AI of the computer seems to be just as deficient, with the standard "zerg-rush" approach being the default. It would be easy to lure the enemy into a variety of traps, if only the player-controlled characters were intelligent enough to follow orders. It's possible that this was simply the result of the difficulty level I was playing – "story mode," the easiest setting, so I could explore the plot. In this mode, the characters can't be killed and have received significant buffs in order to blaze through combat. The enemies might show a bit more intelligence at higher difficulties, but somehow I doubt it. 

    The voice-acting tends to be a mixed bag – some of the new characters and voices are delightful, and in other places the acting seems stiff or tired. The music is still phenomenal, though. The graphics are identical to those in the base game (although I would have preferred less dwarf-like sprite for Glint, the gnome cleric/thief).

    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 68%
    Gameplay - 10/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 7/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 56%
    Violence - 3/10
    Language - 6.5/10
    Sexual Content - 6/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 4/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 8.5/10

    For fans of the franchise – or the Forgotten Realms itself – some of the plot elements may leave them scratching their heads. I was the DM for a campaign set along the Sword Coast for many years, so I know the region quite intimately. Early on, while playing this expansion, it is revealed that thousands of refugees have flooded Baldur's Gate, driven from their homes by Caelen Argent's crusade. My first thought was "fled from where?" Double-checking my map confirmed my suspicions – there are no settlements between Waterdeep and Baldur's Gate. Most of the people living in this region are rugged individualists, who would either die defending their land, or stubbornly rebuild elsewhere. While a few may flee to Baldur's Gate for shelter (Or Scornubel to the east, or Waterdeep to the north), it wouldn't be to such an extent where the city's resources and supplies are strained. This is not the only odd element I've run across in the expansion, and I can't help but wonder how much research the writers did in developing the storyline. Forgotten Realms fans will likely be disappointed with the "artistic licenses" this game takes.

    When the game was released, there was a "controversial" element in the game, in the apparent inclusion of a "trans-gender" character. I didn't find the character – a cleric of Tempus named Mizhena – until after I consulted a walkthrough to find where she was located (in the camp of one of the early areas, in case you were wondering). Mizhena looks like any other Flaming Fist mercenary, and doesn't even have her own portrait, so it's easy to overlook her. For some reason, her inclusion set off a lot of people, who proceeded to give the game a "0" score in their own reviews of the game, and prompted Beamdog into editing the game through a patch. In my opinion, the response is overblown. Mizhena has no quests, no relevance to the plot, and isn't even a storekeeper. She feels like the "token minority" that was thrown in so Beamdog could point and say "see? Diversity!" If it wasn't for the fact that the Internet seemed to erupt over Mizhena's inclusion in the game, I likely wouldn't have even mentioned her in this review.

    Aside from the transgender issue, there are several other moral considerations to the game. These are all elements of the original Baldur's Gate, so there's nothing new in this list. Swearing is commonplace throughout, although none of the more egregious vulgarities are used. The undead are commonplace enemies. The entire setting is polytheistic, and some of the characters are the result of a union between gods (or other divine beings) and mortals. Some enemies explode into chunks when killed – it's possible to turn off gore in the options menu, though. What can't be turned off are the rivers and pools of blood in some areas, or an eventual visit to a hellish landscape and battles against demons. The player can choose to be evil, if they'd like, and fill their party with evil characters. Finally, the players can control characters who can cast divine or arcane spells, and magic use is prominent. 

    So, all in all, the Siege of Dragonspear expansion is an interesting mix. What Baldur's Gate does well, Dragonspear does just as well. Where Baldur's Gate falters, the expansion seems to steer into sheer ineptitude. The new characters and side quests are entertaining, but those who were looking for a seamless transition between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II will be sorely disappointed – especially if they are fans of the Forgotten Realms. While it may be an interesting experience, I certainly wouldn't pay $19.99 for it, and I don't think it's even worth picking up on sale. Diehard fans of the Baldur's Gate series are better off using their imaginations to connect the two games. It's a disappointing chapter to an otherwise excellent story.

  • Blue Reflection (PC)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Blue Reflection
    Developed by: Gust
    Published by: Koei Tecmo
    Release date: September 26, 2017
    Available on: PS4, Windows
    Genre: RPG
    Number of players: Single-player
    ESRB Rating: Teen for fantasy violence, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes
    Price: $59.99
    (Humble Store Link)

    Thank you Koei Tecmo for sending us this game to review!

    Blue Reflection takes place in an all-girls high school in Japan. The main character, Hinako Shirai, was an up and coming ballet performer until a knee injury dashed her hopes and dreams. She’s now back in school and quickly befriends an unusual set of sisters named Yuzu and Lime. Many of the students let their emotions run rampant and the sisters calm them down by dealing with the emotional demons inside of them. Yuzu and Lime promise to heal Hinako’s knee in exchange for her help in saving the world.

    As a reflector, Hinako can move freely in the alternate world and misses the mobility in the real one. She makes many new friends and can go on various outings with classmates to build up friendships with them. Once friendships have been made, your classmates can offer support abilities in boss battles. There are twelve chapters in this game and most of them end with an epic battle.

    As if saving the world wasn’t enough stress, Hinako must also deal with various school projects and studying for tests. At the end of a long day of calming rampant emotions in the students, Hinako must decide on how to unwind at the end of the night. She can bathe, stretch, plan her lunch, look at her smart phone, or study. The choices vary and some of them like stretching and studying bring up cutscenes for the next day and will increase attributes for her reflector persona.

    Blue Reflection
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Nice anime style visuals; good voice acting and background music
    Weak Points: Normal difficulty isn’t that challenging; odd characters/quirks; some typos
    Moral Warnings: Lots of bathing, showering, changing room scenes with plenty of skin shown and the important bits covered; language (hell, *ss, d*mn); some of the female characters have same-sex attraction; one girl asks to swap underwear with your character; shrine visits and talk about reincarnation; magic use

    In the alternate world, there are plenty of orbs to collect and enemies to defeat. Some of the missions require you to collect a certain number or orbs or defeat a set number of a certain enemy type. You can leave the dungeon at any time, finished or not. You cannot save inside the alternate world so make sure you allocate enough time to do what you came in there to do. Story events will trigger a battle and you will be taken out of the dungeon automatically. Sometimes I didn’t go to the proper place to trigger the event which resulted in some aimless wandering.

    The alternate dimension also has some crafting pillars where you can create various power-ups with items found in the dungeons and dropped from defeated enemies. Many quests require you to deliver certain goods that you have crafted. Until you have a reference item in your possession, you won’t be able to craft a replica.

    The missions are not very exciting, but they do help in leveling up your character. As you earn growth points you can increase the stats for your party to boost their attack, defense, speed, luck, and magic points. These all come to play in the turn based battle system.
    Each character has unique fighting styles and weapons ranging from a sword, to wands, and a gigantic fighting teddy bear. The girls are so frilly and magical in their reflector mode. There is a lot of eye candy both on and off the battlefield.

    For a game that features all girls, it sure seems like it was written by an all-male team. There are so many bath, shower and changing room scenes that have the girls only wearing their undergarments or less. Thankfully, the important bits are obscured, but enough is shown to stimulate the imagination of many players out there. There are many rainy days that will show off the female character's bras as their white school uniform shirts become damp and transparent.

    Blue Reflection
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 76%
    Gameplay - 12/20
    Graphics - 9/10
    Sound - 8/10
    Stability - 4/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 61%
    Violence - 7/10
    Language - 6.5/10
    Sexual Content - 2/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

    Many of the conversations among the school girls revolve around love and romance. Some of the characters have boyfriends they gush about while others are clearly attracted to the same sex. As a female, I’ve never had my friends come up and hug me in the middle of a shower or ask to swap underwear with me mid-day. Seriously, who wrote this stuff?

    Some of the outing events were funny despite many typical tropes. I think the only character missing was an amnesiac. One of the girls eats too much, another is an extremely gifted musician, a couple of them are overly into (different) sports, and the savant genius provides some good laughs when you take her places. Many Steam achievements can be earned by fully developing your relationships with these girls and unlocking their story sequences. There is also some swimwear DLC available if you’re into that.

    The locations for the outings vary and some of them take place at a shrine which talks about praying to different gods. There is also talk of reincarnation. Along with some typos, there are some instances of cussing.

    Overall, I found this game more odd than enjoyable. Granted, I’m obviously not the target gender or audience, but some of the dialog seriously weirded me out. The gameplay is fun and it took me less than twenty hours to beat the game though I did not max out all of the relationships. I have no desire to go back for a more thorough playthrough. I think I’ve seen enough. If you’re into fan service and strange Japanese fetishes, then you may enjoy Blue Reflection more than I did.

  • Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (PS2)


    Well this is another one of the Famed Breath of Fire games. Where you as a normal person just living out your life then of course you eventually find out you are a ?destroyer of Worlds? or something like that.

    Graphics:

    Pretty decent compared to the other bof's. Though personally I liked bof 4's graphics a lot better than dragon quarter. The cut-scenes are nicely done, though no voice animations I was kinda disappointed with that. Turning into a dragon was just as same as 4.

    Sound:

    I actually enjoyed the sounds and the music a lot. I never really tired of the sounds since most of the time it was different. Sounds that around your area was also well done.

    Story:

    Well actually I don't know how to explain this one much. Apparently everyone lives underground and the government is set on D-ratios. The higher the ratio the higher you are. Well your a very low d at start and then work your way up during the game. But in the beginning your on a mission to make sure this cargo doesn't fall into the wrong hands. But later you find that this cargo is a girl who has wings and is named Nina.

    Game play:

    This was actually very hard. The battle system is very intriguing. It has actual turns and yet it has a a system similar to kingdom hearts. Running around is really simple and you can still use your sword when running around. Though you cant hit people and get cash you can use it on enemy\'s before battles to gain an extra turn.

    Appropriateness:

    Well as usual this has a lot about being the ?chosen? to change the earth forever. Thats really the basic theme to the bof series. Now the game is rated for nudity however I wasn't able to play it enough to actually get to that particular scene or ability or whatever spot in the game. But I will rank this a c- for appropriateness.

    Final Ratings

    Graphics: B Sound: B+ Story: B- Game play: B+ Appropriateness: C-

    Overall 78%

  • Castle Torgeath: Descent into Darkness (PC)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Castle Torgeath: Descent into Darkness
    Developed By: Dungeoneering Studios
    Published By: Black Shell Media
    Released: January 22, 2016
    Available On: Windows
    Genre: First-person RPG dungeon crawler
    ESRB Rating: N/A
    Number of Players: 1
    Price: $7.99

    *Advertising disclosure* Though Black Shell Media was a former advertising partner, this review is not influenced by that relationship.

    Thanks to Black Shell Media for the review key!

    Across the video game world, two gameplay elements have been taken as something of a trend: RPG and survival. The constant stat progression of the former creates a consistent, usually satisfying power creep; likewise, the challenge of carving out a self-sustaining existence from little or nothing can be rewarding. It’s easy enough to add these elements to existing genres – making them work without seeming shoehorned in is a different story. As far as creating a balanced, flowing experience with both RPG and survival styles, Castle Torgeath: Descent into Darkness performs about as well as a game can.

    At the behest of his old friend, the Arch-Mage, the nameless protagonist travels to the ancient ruins of Castle Torgeath in search of an expedition team that has seemingly vanished. A well-timed earthquake traps him inside upon entry, and it is soon obvious that the abandoned castle isn’t as abandoned as advertised. Fighting off monsters, darkness, and hunger, the protagonist presses into the depths, uncovering the rise, fall, and continued threat of the castle.

    As a purely first-person dungeon crawler, the obvious comparison would be toward the Elder Scrolls franchise – in this case, the gameplay most closely resembles Morrowind. You start with a sword and a fireball spell; the spell is a one-off ranged attack, while the sword carries slash, thrust, and overhead attacks - as do the two other melee weapons you'll acquire. Like Morrowind, each weapon has different attack power depending on the type of swing. Also like Morrowind, there’s little reason not to use the best one, though in Castle Torgeath’s case, the slash is superior regardless of damage due to its speed. Ranged weapons come into play later, holding high attack power at the cost of limited and rare ammunition. You can also block with the melee weapons, preventing a decent chunk of damage in a rather small angle in front of you.

    Castle Torgeath: Descent into Darkness
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Interesting, compelling exploration; great atmosphere; continued developer support and updates
    Weak Points: Gameplay gets somewhat repetitive and unbalanced towards the end
    Moral Warnings: Violence; blood and gore; skeletons and demons; pentagrams and human sacrifices; mention of non-specific gods and devils; one or two mild swears; elemental and occult magic (and the consequences of using the latter)

    In addition to your health and magic, you have three other bars to manage: your hunger, which slowly ticks down over time; your torch, which can run out and leave you effectively blind but can be re-fueled with any of the braziers around the castle; and a mist meter, which rises as you explore and represents the chance of a fallen monster transforming into a large, extremely tough version of itself. The pursuit of potions and food is your primary drive to exploring the castle, which is, simply put, gigantic. Nearly every room has some sort of benefit in it, even if it’s just picking up junk – there’s a ghostly vendor that appears infrequently, and he’ll happily take your rusted weapons or pieces of paper to buff your strength, defense, or magic power for a short time. There is a three-hundred item limit, though every item is weighted the same - a hundred tower shields take the same space as a hundred apples. While the hunger meter is nothing more than a time limit until death, and some might see it only as a nuisance, it still creates a sense of reward and a natural, compelling reason to explore your surroundings. For the record, the main character has quite the iron stomach, able to scarf down moldy bread, years-old donuts, and raw steaks lying near bloodstains with no ill effects – though it comes at the price of needing to eat three square meals every hour on pain of death.

    There is a decent variety of enemies to fight, with even similar enemy types having multiple variations. Most will charge you when they see you, but even the puniest rat has some rudimentary AI: they’ll back off if you come in swinging, and the smarter ones, like orcs, will sidestep your advances. Mages and archers make an appearance late in the game, with both having a limited ammo/magic pool to work with. With good reflexes and quick movement, you can bait attacks or slip by them, avoiding all damage in an encounter, though the creatures are accurate enough to counter your tactics. With the scarce supplies offered by the castle, it makes each encounter tense, and you’ll need your focus to hold on to your pool of potions. There are three difficulty modes available: the hard mode makes enemies tougher and hit harder, while rogue mode additionally limits you to the timed autosave – which deletes itself if you die.

    Unfortunately, the further you go, the less interesting the combat gets. As stated before, your options are limited to the three (functionally one) melee attacks, the one spell (that comes is different elemental flavors, but is still the same fireball type), and the two similar ranged weapons. Enemies will only drop keys, making their experience the only thing worth pursuing – you gain one stat point on leveling up, which you can place into upping your melee strength, max health and hunger, speed and ranged damage, or mana pool and spell power. Your level is capped at twenty, however, which is easily reachable by the second to last stage; after that, combat offers no benefit, only serving to drain your resources. The final types of enemies also move and attack much faster, making the typical “dodge and weave” defense ineffective. Since resources become rarer and rarer the deeper into Castle Torgeath you go, the risk/reward of exploration breaks down, and you’ll find yourself sprinting to the exit most of the time.

    Castle Torgeath: Descent into Darkness
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 80%
    Gameplay - 14/20
    Graphics - 8/10
    Sound - 8/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 69%
    Violence - 1.5/10
    Language - 8/10
    Sexual Content - 10/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10
    +3 for showing the end result of occultism

    That’s a shame, because the castle itself is worth exploring. You’ll find books and notes littered around the area, detailing both the distant and current history of the castle and the land around it. While the castle itself is not randomized and each aspect is hand-placed, the separate areas are rather nonsensically glued together with unrealistically long and winding hallways, and the many traps around the area don’t usually mesh with the surroundings. The set pieces themselves, however, are detailed and eye-catching. Objects are placed in realistic locations, with strategically placed weapons, skeletons, and bloodstains filling the gaps between the written notes – oftentimes, you’ll turn a corner and stumble onto a scene, letting you piece together what happened before finding the relevant text. While the writing itself isn’t anything spectacular, the attention to detail and the preference for showing rather than telling greatly enhances the experience, making exploring Castle Torgeath the main draw of the game.

    As far as the actual graphical fidelity, there isn’t much to complain about. While certainly not high-end, the visuals are consistently pleasing. The enemies are decently animated, with each type and sub-type obvious at a glance – you’ll know exactly what your foe is capable of even without seeing it before. Important objects are somewhat brighter than the background, making them difficult to overlook. Likewise, the audio is competent throughout. The music tracks, split between exploration and combat, set their intended moods well and manage to survive constant looping without becoming annoying. The sound effects and voice acting are similarly fitting – the latter is present with every bit of spoken dialogue outside of the player character, and is usually pretty respectable. Simply put, the presentation is solid throughout.

    Unfortunately, the game does not hold back as far as morality goes. While the actual player-driven violence is somewhat tame – short-lived clouds of blood on impact, with enemies falling over and eventually disappearing on death – the rest of it is rather intense. You’ll find skeletons and giant blood pools in many locations. A few levels have piles of grotesque severed body parts lying around, and you can pick them up to give to the vendor for a toughness increase. Pentagrams are common, with skeletons and blood from heavily implied human sacrifices perched nearby. You’ll fight skeletons and demons, mostly toward the end of the game. While your magic is limited to pedestrian elemental spells, evidence of summoning and other occult magic is everywhere – though it’s plainly obvious it didn’t do anyone any good. Some text references a pantheon of gods, but never gets specific – though some statues carry what looks to be a Christian cross. Mild swears, such as *ss and b*stard, are present but very infrequent. It’s also worth mentioning, though not necessarily a moral issue, that any arachnophobes should stay far, far away from Castle Torgeath.

    Overall, Castle Torgeath: Descent into Darkness is a competent blend of a few different gameplay mechanics that might get stale but never fall apart completely. While the game's true strength is in the exploration, the combat never detracts too much until perhaps the very end; to its credit, the world was compelling enough to continue searching through even when the actual fighting was nothing but a detriment. At a more than fair $7.99 price point, and with game updates and balancing still coming through the pipeline, stepping into Castle Torgeath may very well be worth your while.

    -Cadogan

  • Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku! (Vita)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku!
    Developed by: Nippon Ichi Software
    Published by: NIS America
    Release date: June 6, 2017
    Available on: PS4, Vita, Windows
    Genre: RPG
    Number of players: Up to four online
    ESRB Rating: E 10+ for Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco
    Price: $29.99
    (Amazon Affiliate Link)

    Thank you NIS America for sending us this game to review!

    This is the first Cladun game I’ve played and given how much attention to detail there is, I can see why this series is so popular. When first launching this 2D RPG, you get to choose between modern and retro sounding music. I went with modern. I like how you can change the background music and customize songs for NPCs at the inn to sing.

    The retro styled graphics are cute and completely customizable. You can edit your character’s appearance and equipment. There are also many jobs and personality traits you can assign to your character and party members. I wish some of the traits for male characters were available for females.

    I couldn’t really find a personality I liked for my main female character/lord. I don’t really consider myself sexy, shy, gluttonous, silent, ditzy, or fashionable. I wound up going with spiteful even though I don’t feel that way. If the male trait of prankster was available, I would have selected that one. Other male traits include narcissist, imbecile, drunkard, and scholar.

    There are plenty of job choices no matter which gender your character is. Each job determines your character’s base stats. The beginning job roles include samurai, swordsman, merchant, onmyoji (magic/divination), magician, vile priest, and saint. Some of the professions have terrain advantages over the others. If you name the characters after real life people, you can assign them relationships in game though it doesn’t impact the gameplay in any way.

    Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku!
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Funny dialogue; lots of character/party customization
    Weak Points: Lots of grinding required to progress in the game; nobody online to play with
    Moral Warnings: Fantasy violence and magic; references to reincarnation; alcohol and tobacco references

    Once your character is created, they’ll wake up in a land called Arcanus Cella. Upon being told that they’ve died, they take the news fairly well. Until their memories return and they come to terms with their death, they’ll have to help other souls settle their affairs so they can reincarnate in peace. Upon talking to a troubled soul, a new dungeon will open up. Each dungeon has several floors that unlock as the previous one is cleared.

    Speedrunning is encouraged as each dungeon level has a time record to beat. There are worldwide rankings on who has cleared each floor the fastest. In order to achieve the fastest times you’ll have to avoid some battles but many of the gates blocking the exit can only be opened by defeating a certain number of foes. There are also colored gates that can only be opened by flipping the similarly colored switches.

    There is a decent amount of variety when it comes to enemies and bosses. Many enemies have an elemental affinity/weakness while others can only be attacked from behind or on the side. Besides enemies there are various traps that have to be avoided so you’ll always have to be on guard. Many of the traps can be bypassed by simply jumping over them, though in the heat of battles, that’s easier said than done.

    The main character/lord learns special attacks/abilities as they level up. The supporting characters/vassals grant additional abilities and take damage for their lord depending on which way they’re facing. Character placement and supporting equipment is configured in the magic circle. Positioning is everything as some places have negative status effects. Some of the charms equipped can negate some of the effects though. Rotating characters is recommended for level balancing.

    Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku!
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 78%
    Gameplay - 14/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 8/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 79%
    Violence - 6/10
    Language - 10/10
    Sexual Content - 6.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 7/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

    Like many RPGs, grinding is necessary to overcome some of the tougher bosses. You can replay levels as often as you like and for every chapter cleared, a tougher EX dungeon becomes available. The EX dungeons are great for earning experience and possibly recruiting renowned samurai lords to your party. There are also quests available in town, which can bring your party some fame, money, and nice loot.

    Multiplayer mode is available though I was unable to find any adventurers online to fight alongside. In theory, you can play with up to four people online. Maybe the PS4 or Steam version has a better online community. The Vita version is ten dollars cheaper and the portability is great.

    I have seen both Teen and E 10+ ratings for this game. There is some violence and a little blood but nothing too disturbing. Elemental magic is also used. References to reincarnation are part of the story. There is some suggestive dialogue if you chose a sexy personality for a female character. Last but not least, there are some drinking references and some characters are seen smoking.

    Overall, I enjoyed Cladun Returns: This Is Sengoku!. It’s a shame that the multiplayer is dead, but there is plenty to do solo to keep me busy for a while. I’m not sure I would pay full price for the Steam or PS4 version, but it’s certainly worth picking up on sale. I think the Vita’s price of $29.99 is fair for the amount of content packed into this title.

  • Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition (PC)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
    Developed by: From Software
    Published by: From Software & Namco Bandai Games
    Released: September 22, 2011
    ESRB Rating: M
    Available On: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
    Genre: Action-RPG, Adventure
    Number of Players: 1
    Price: $43.99 new ($29.99 for PC), $40.00 used

    Prepare to die. Has an interesting ring to it, huh? A game that teaches you the old school way, Dark Souls is not for the weak of heart, and provides a challenge for even the most hardened veterans of gaming. This game is a true testament to how video games were in the days of the NES and the SNES: hard, frustrating and rewarding. However, the title does allude to some less than brilliant themes, but more on that later. 

    The story behind Dark Souls is one that that seems rather simple at first, but is actually completely determined by the player’s understanding of it. Here is the long and short of it: In the beginning there was nothing but darkness, and in this darkness ruled the dragons, who were immortal. Soon fire was born, and humanity seized it and with its power they slaughtered the dragons and began the Age of Fire. Humanity prospered like never before, although this was not to last. After a while a dark circle began to appear upon people. This was named the Darksign. Humans with this ‘sign’ emblazoned upon themselves would be gifted with a form of immortality. They would be able to die, but would be reborn next to a bonfire, their resting places, after they had died. Instead of this immortality being a blessing however, this instead became a curse. When a human dies and is reborn, they become undead, lose their humanity and become crazed.

    Your character, which you get to make yourself by way of character creation, is the chosen undead. The chosen undead has been prophesied as the one who will go forth to ring the two bells of Lordran. For the most part the story is simple: battle your way through many different and varied locations fighting towards the end goal of either saving humanity, or condemning it. Given the context of the story, it is hard to figure out what you’re doing is right or wrong, as the game has 2 endings. Both of these are completely determined by the player’s view of which one is right or wrong.

    The gameplay is what really sets Dark Souls out from the rest of the crowd. While most action-RPGs have the tendency of swinging your sword and rolling haphazardly out of the way of attacks, Dark Souls punishes you for making even the slightest of mistakes. Even the most basic of enemies can kill your character relatively easily, so it’s up to the player to memorize how an enemy attacks and wait patiently to counter attack. When you start the game, you get to choose between 10 different classes. You have the beefy Knight, built to weather strikes, the strong Bandit, designed to send your foes flying and others. The best part about the class system however, is that these class only dictate your starting gear and level. They do not tell you where you need to spend your skill points. That is up to your playstyle. Don't like swinging that sword? Put a few points into intelligence and your warrior can now cast spells. Swords, axes, maces, lances, magic, and even whips are at the characters disposal. The game’s difficulty is super high, and while this might turn off a lot of players, the game system is balanced incredibly well considering the amount of weapons, armour, and spells that line the game’s huge inventory. When you do die, it feels like less of the game’s fault and more your fault for not being able to beat a certain enemy.

    And they told me it wouldn’t hurt me… Liars
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Challenging gameplay focused on learning enemy’s attacks and slowly progressing. Great replayability.
    Weak Points: Has a high learning curve. Not a “casual” game.
    Moral Warnings: There is a lot of spell casting in the game. Also there is a lot of violence and some enemies are made to look demonic.

    Tip on how to stay alive? Look before you leap. The terrain serves as a big part of the game’s difficulty with invisible walkways, lakes with drops into the abyss and even crystal caverns. Enemies are carefully placed through each area so that you will not be safe until you have cleared out an area. Enemies with bows will snipe you from afar while their sword wielding counterparts will rush you head on. This may sound hard, but if you know the landscape, you can run past some enemies to kill the weaker ones. Once you've taken out the small ones you can turn around and defend yourself from the other, larger enemies. If you take the game slowly and strategically, it becomes much easier to succeed. The game difficulty is in how you play. Slow and steady definitely wins this race. 

    All of this is all fine and dandy until you die however, which you will be doing a lot of (the sub-title of ‘Prepare to Die’ isn’t just for show). When you die you lose all your souls (the currency of the game) and have to restart at the last bonfire you rested at. Did I mention that the game doesn’t have a pause function? Yeah, don’t expect any favours from this game. You play by its rules or not at all. At least you can go pick up your gear from where you died.

    The online play in Dark Souls is unique in two ways. The first way is that players can ‘summon’ other people to help them with boss fights. The second way is less satisfactory and is where the online play becomes a double edged sword. When playing the game you are either in human or undead form. In undead form you cannot summon other players or call for help whereas a human can. Being in human form, on the other hand, means you can be invaded. Being invaded means that another player is entering into your world with the intent to kill you to steal your souls. If you are invaded you cannot enter a boss fight until you have killed the invader or he has killed you. If you defeat your invader you gain a set amount of souls based on your invaders level. However, should you die to your invader, you will be turned into an undead and you will, again, lose your souls.  Do not fear though! Every person that can invade your world will be similar to you in levels. The only difference between you and your attacker is that they might have played this game a lot while this might be your first time. Because of the skill difference between hard-core invaders and regular players, many players choose to play this game without connecting to the internet simply because they find it hard to deal with the other online players.

    When you finally do finish Dark Souls, what do you do? Well, you run the entire game again, but this time with enemies having more health and doing more damage thanks to the game’s New Game + feature. And what should happen when you finish New Game +? You get New Game ++ of course! Where the enemies are given even more health and damage. Around New Game 7+ the difficulty no longer increases, but it will take you a while before you get to it. Also, with the release of the Prepare to Die DLC, you can now explore a new area filled with new bosses, enemies and more beautiful scenery than you can shake a stick at.  Although you will never truly be finished with Dark Souls, if you are a person who enjoys replayability in their games, this should suit you down to the bone.

    Yes ladies and gents: This is in-game graphics
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 86%
    Gameplay - 18/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 9/10
    Stability - 4/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 64%
    Violence - 4.5/10
    Language - 10/10
    Sexual Content - 8.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 1.5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 7.5/10

    The graphics of Dark Souls may not be the greatest but they are far from average. Each area is crafted down to each individual bush and has amazing set pieces for each area. Every area that you can see you can travel to, or at least that’s what the game tells you. After a very short loading time (5 seconds on PS3 and almost immediately on a high powered PC) you are thrust into the land of Lordran, the world in which Dark Souls takes place. From this point, until you die or exit the game, there will be no more loading screens. Considering the quality of the enemies and places you visit, this is no small feat. There are a few times when the game will lag from the amount of things that will be on screen but thankfully this doesn’t happen often. For the PC players, you can download mods that will increase the graphical quality of the game, as well as fix the controls.

    The music of Dark Souls is fitting and is orchestral. Everything sounds how you would expect. Tense and dark for normal areas and fast and furious for bosses. The game does suffer from a few glitches, moreso on the PC port but overall is really good, suffering nothing game-breaking. And finally the controls are good although using a controller is much, much easier than using the keyboard and mouse.

    There are a few things that sets Dark Souls back in its morality. The first and most obvious is that there is a lot of violence in Dark souls. There isn’t much gore but there is a little blood. Also the game’s currency is the souls of others which are obtained by killing any enemy in the game and even some friendly units. The game has many references to witches, demons, and undead and are commonplace within the gameplay elements. The game also forces the player to think only for themselves and put everyone else second. However, the game’s overarching theme behind violence is that you are only fighting to defend and protect yourself from enemies, while you adventure through Lordran. Also when you start the game you have the option to play as a class called the deprived. The deprived class starts out with no armour and has only a loincloth covering their dignity. However this only lasts until you decide to put on armour so it only exists to show the player that they are not wearing any armour.

    At the end of the day Dark Souls is a hard but rewarding game that has some issues morally, but is enjoyable if you are willing to look past this. There are witches and undead, demons and spells, but the real meat of the game is in its gameplay. The rewarding play style coupled with the huge scale of the areas, amazing replay value, and optional side quests to keep you going for weeks, maybe even months on end, definitely make this worth a buy gameplay wise.

    ~Ben

     

  • Dead Age (PC)

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    Game Info:

    Dead Age
    Developer: Silent Dreams
    Published by: HeadUp Games
    Release Date: July 14, 2016
    Available on: Windows
    Genre: RPG, Strategy
    Players: 1
    ESRB Rating: unrated
    Price: $15.99
    (Humble Store Link)

    Zombies! Everyone likes to do the zombie; at least the video game industry does. Zombies are one of those things that can make you look at a game and go "ehhh I've probably played millions of games like this already." However, even if zombies are the boring vanilla swirl, the common and cheap white paint of the gaming industry, that doesn't mean you should turn away! Dead Age is one of those games that still has good value despite the common base of the genre. While not a perfect game by any means, it does enough to go beyond the sea of average zombie titles. This is Dead Age.
     
    Dead Age starts you off as a protagonist you get to name and it throws you into the zombie apocalypse. When you begin, you only have access to the student class, yet you can unlock other classes later.  Your sister gets killed and after a brief tutorial you're taken to a safe haven to survive the apocalypse. Your job is to keep the camp safe and gather various supplies. As you build your team of survivors, you can assign them to different jobs to craft new items, keep yourself safe from raiders and hunt for food. As the days go on, survivors may give you quests and new quests will appear at random. When you go to travel to search for various forms of loot, you pick locations in the day or night and you try to survive as many areas as you can. Some areas may give you waves of enemies to face or may reward you with new survivors or special missions. The battles are turned based, similar to classic JRPGs. By leveling up various stats you learn new attacks and gain higher damage. Instead of the usual stats, such as strength and agility, you have to focus on the different weapons or medical and engineering skills. You'll also have to choose between combat stats and stats that help with the specific camp jobs. If your main character dies you'll start over from day one. However for every challenge you succeed in game, you'll earn medals which you can use to upgrade different abilities and unlock the other starting classes.
     

    Dead Age
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: The gameplay is nearly flawless, it has an addicting feel to it yet you can walk away and pick it up and anytime. The challenge is constant without it being unfair.
    Weak Points: The story's potential is wasted, all the story beats seem to be pulled from the wheel of zombie survival tropes. Visuals and music are nothing to write home about.
    Moral Warnings: Despite being an average story, the characters have no moral backbone and you do have some brutality in a world filled with zombies.

    So the big pull of Dead Age is the rather addictive gameplay. The story wasn't anything special at all, yet it was fun to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. The game sports multiple endings too, so keep that in mind when you beat the game the first time. With everything being turn based, the challenge will come from knowing when to continue in any given area on a day and when to give up. Party and time management are key here. The turn based combat is fun and will make people reminisce about the old RPG days in a good way. With those upgrades you can get after dying, they do give a noticeable boost yet the game doesn't seem extremely easy with my upgrades. Understand that these upgrades carry over into other play sessions after you lose. The challenge is always there without bending you over and hitting you on the head.
     
    While the story's blandness doesn't affect the enjoyment of the game, the dry story still isn't something to look over. Everyone is a stereotypical zombie survival character trope. You'll have drunk soldiers, country hunters, as well as wild and crazy women. The characters were so cut and paste I almost expected to meet a hardcore quirky warrior with an odd weapon like a samurai sword. If you're not the kind of gamer who can get enjoyment out of turn based combat with good strategy and time management you will not enjoy this game. Sure you can name your character, but unless you think up your own story as you play, you won't feel connected to it at all.

    Dead Age
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 78%
    Gameplay - 15/20
    Graphics - 7/10
    Sound - 7/10
    Stability - 5/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 80%
    Violence - 6/10
    Language - 9/10
    Sexual Content - 8/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 10/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 7/10

    Other than the challenge and achievements the game doesn't offer much else. The graphics are around early PlayStation quality so nothing is going to really draw your eyes to it as far as art direction. The music is simple loops and has nothing creative about it. The backgrounds in each stage are boring and just thrown together to have a place to battle. Don't expect any location in the game to be the least bit memorable via visuals. If this game didn't blend its gameplay well enough to give that room for imagination as you play, I'd have probably found it a lot more boring than I did even with the challenges within the game.
     
    Despite the characters being predictable survival story tropes, those tropes still have plenty of morality issues. None of the characters have a strong moral backbone and will gladly screw you over for survival first unless you provide for them and keep them happy. You'll get the common curse word here and there in the characters speech as well. While the graphics are low quality, you'll still have blood splatter effects and the sight of rotting flesh on most enemies.
     
    Dead Age is truly a game built for the gamer all about numbers and strategies. While the game's world has a metric ton of wasted potential this doesn't mean you should pass this game over. If you want to see how long you'll last at the end of the world, give Dead Age a try.

  • Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga (PC)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga
    Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
    Developer: Larian Studios
    Released: November 5, 2010
    ESRB Rating: Mature for Blood; Suggestive Themes; Violence
    Available on: Xbox 360; PC (version reviewed)
    Genre: Action Role-Playing Game
    MSRP: $40 (Amazon affiliate link)

    Thank you to Larian Studios for sending us a copy to review!

    Sequel to the cult hit, Divine Divinity – Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga steps away from its isometric predecessor to offer a different kind of game. Now with the focus on third-person action, Larian Studios set out to correct some of the mistakes with Divinity 2\'s original release, Ego Draconis. With an updated engine, retooled gameplay, and inclusion of the Flames of Vengeance expansion, Divinity 2 sets the bar high. Let\'s see if this RPG is worth the gold.

    Divinity 2\'s yarn revolves around the exploits of a Dragon Knight, a new recruit into an order of like-minded folks who have glowing eyes and special combat training. Not only are you a superstar to lowly villagers, but you\'re also targeted early on by the main villain, Damien. Damien, who threatens to kill you at every chance that he gets, fills the archetypical role of the bad guy, both by spouting bits of monologue and looking grumpy.  The story itself takes around 30 hours to finish, depending on how many side-objectives you feel like accomplishing. Divinity 2’s story wrapped up in an abrupt fashion, which felt both disappointing and undercooked; the expansion – Flames of Vengeance – alleviates this to some extent, by continuing where the main game left off. Or, you can play the expansion straight from the menu with a new higher-level character. Either way, the extra few hours are worth it.

    Along your journey in Rivellon, you\'ll accept quests from townsfolks, bandits, ghosts, and even inanimate objects. Quests range from fetching an item such as a journal, to clearing out an enemy camp, or even sneaking a group of pigs back to their rightful owner. The quests found here have several outcomes depending on which path you choose. Should you slay some guards so the pigs can escape, or leave the pigs where they are to the dismay of their owner? The actions you choose may not evolve on the level of say, the Mass Effect series, but they do have a wide amount of effects that you can see relatively quickly.

    Quests are not all cut and dry, however, with many leading you into dungeons packed with enemies. The large number of dungeons, caves, and tombs you visit also have the occasional hidden passage or concealed switch. Finding these may lead to chests full of bounty, or in more than one situation, lock you in with enemies. With so many enemies standing in your way, you\'ll need something to fight them off with.

     

    When considering how to go about combat, you\'ll have a few options to choose from. One way is with melee combat by utilizing axes, hammers, and swords. Dual-wielding, two-handed weapons, and shields are available as well. For the spell caster classes, you can go barehanded or choose to rely on your backup sword when the mana runs dry. There\'s bows for the ranger class, though I found this to be the least thrilling. Every swing of the sword or arrow shot requires a simple click of the mouse. While this is fine for the warriors, it makes being a ranger pretty underwhelming due to the lack of mobility. Being forced to stand in one spot to fire off arrows doesn\'t work as well as I hoped when it comes to this combat system. Assigning items and skills to your number keys without needing to fumble around in the inventory screen for a potion is here as well.

    By completing quests and slaying enemies, you\'ll be rewarded with experience points. After a set amount of points, you\'ll level up. Each level grants you stat points, which go towards increasing the character\'s focus. There are several different stats and passive percentages that alter how a character will perform, so pumping strength for your warrior, or intelligence and spirit for your mage would be the right course of action. Skill points will also be awarded after each level up. These range from passive abilities such as damage increase with certain weapons and mana efficiency when casting spells, to active roles like heals, summons, and fireballs. While I would\'ve liked to see a more diverse array of skills, the ones here, while rather simplistic, get the job done.

    About a third way into the main game\'s story, the option of having your own headquarters is made available. This headquarters, or “Battle Tower” as it\'s called in-game, houses multiple NPCs who make the journey less stressful, and add a bit of depth to what would be a rather standard RPG. A necromancer handles mixing and matching of your pet, a summon who can be called into battle to fight along side you. Limbs you find during the game as loot or from quests alter the pet\'s stats and abilities depending on what parts you choose. An enchanter allows you to customize gear by removing bonuses from weaker pieces and slotting them into your better armor and weapons.

    An alchemist allows for the crafting of potions, and the skill trainer offers skill redistribution for a price. Some of these processes require ingredients. In a smart move by the developers, you\'ll have three runners: NPCs who automatically fetch these items after a set duration. By paying for better weapons and armor from the NPCs mentioned above, the runners will have higher rates of success in finding that special item you require. The whole Battle Tower concept is pretty neat, not only because it makes tedious tasks easier, but because it adds a sense of accomplishment and of influence that a great hero would normally have.

    Highlights:

    Strong Points:Solid dialogue and plenty of written lore; exceptional voice acting; graphic engine runs smooth and offers pleasant environments; subtle humor throughout

    Weak
    Points: Uneven difficulty; crude and dated menus; not very newbie friendly; uses SecuROM

    Moral Warnings:
    Sword and sorcery abound in combat; blood is seen in environments and with melee attacks; occult themes like mind-reading, communication with ghosts, and necromancy are present, as are pentagrams; innuendo in some dialogue

    Not long after the Battle Tower, the ability to transform into a dragon will open up. This is one of the better aspects of Divinity 2 alone. Though it is simplistic to an extent, there\'s plenty of cool factor because, well, you\'re a dragon. While the dragon can be customized to some degree, it\'s largely hands-off, except for the occasional dragon armor piece here or there. The arcade action as the dragon gets tiresome as the game progresses, however.

    As neat as all of this sounds, one huge drawback when playing Divinity 2 was the difficulty level. I played on normal difficulty for a large portion of my experience, but I eventually had to bump down to casual from the sheer frustration that the game can throw at a player. Early on as a warrior, enemies could take me down in only a handful of hits, and with poor weapons, I had to trick the AI by hiding behind obstacles so I can slowly regenerate my health. Only a few hours later, with my character around level 12, the game\'s challenge seemed to nose-dive, offering up weak enemies that were dispatched in one to two hits. It\'s a weird aspect of the game that comes off as bipolar. One moment you\'re chugging all the potions you have just to stay alive and the next you\'re enjoying a cakewalk through a dungeon.

    The fantastical nature of the world crafted by Larian brings with it the content that readers may find inappropriate. Generic bandits, goblins, and skeletons show up throughout the gameplay experience. Along with them are various demons, summoned beasts, dragons, ghosts, and the undead.

    Spells can and will be used by the player, whether for combat or during scripted sequences. The priest class can summon allies to aid in battle, and mages employ different types of explosive spells; enemies, too, can use the same skills and tools in battle. Combat is largely tame, even though violence is shown through the use of bows, bladed weapons, or fire magic. Blood is seen in combat, but nothing over the top.

    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 82%
    Gameplay 16/20
    Graphics 7/10
    Sound 9/10
    Stability 5/5
    Controls/Interface 4/5

    Morality Score - 46%
    Violence 3.5/10
    Language 6/10
    Sexual Content/Nudity 3.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural 0/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical 10/10

    Dark and decrepit environments like crypts, tombs, dungeons and caves make up the majority of where you\'ll be fighting. One dungeon had an experimentation room with bloodied corpses on tables and sharp tools nearby; another had corpses that were hanged. Some rooms are littered with the bodies of dead adventurers or with skeletal remains. A villain is pieced together with various body parts for the main purpose of serving a powerful necromancer. The pentagram symbol is visible for some spells and in books that require interaction to progress through the story. Spell invocation, mind reading, communication with ghosts for quests, and using a blood altar are present, too.

    One quest ends with an adulterous relationship between two characters, and some minor dialogue with townspeople is laden with subtle innuendo. Cleavage is present with many female characters, and some are fairly buxom or wear tight-fitting armor. I haven\'t seen anything in the way of nudity or sexual contact compared to other western RPGs on the market. Swearing is low-key: a few “b-stards” and “d-mns” are sprinkled in the dialogue, but again, nothing out of hand.

    With all that said, the fantasy elements that envelop the story are fairly dark through and through; the majority of these cannot be avoided. Please be aware of that if the themes above are not something you want to experience when purchasing a game of this type.

    Sound is one of the best aspects of Divinity 2. Character dialogue is mostly well-acted with varying degrees of accents, emotion, and a good amount of humor. I\'ve yet to run into a character that wasn\'t voiced. Even your own character\'s actions have narration, which helps to guide you in the right direction. It was quite refreshing to come from the handheld text-based RPGs I recently played to a game where everything is voiced; it sure added a lot more character to an already interesting array of characters. Several of the musical pieces that accompany new locations are crafted nicely and fit the area\'s theme, but they can be hit or miss. I did hear a few lackluster ones that either sounded out of place or were a tad convoluted to the point of muting the music until I reached a new location.

    Divinity 2 is built on the Gamebryo engine, which you may of seen in Oblivion or Fallout 3. Here though, the faces aren\'t smudged or, well, downright ugly. Much of the game is easy on the eyes and ears. Excluding enemies, character models are detailed and are different enough so villages aren\'t filled with clones. The graphics of the game can be quite lush, and offer plenty of open vistas to take in; one can easily find panoramic moments, whether it\'s standing on a waterfall, overlooking a cave filled with lava, or when traveling in forests. The third-person camera may have some issues in tight corridors or in flight, but it\'s largely fine.

    Dungeons are jam-packed with detail and appear like others have visited the location before. Aged, ruined, or forgotten, these environments feel alive despite housing all matters of beast. There\'s plenty of nice touches along the journey in environments you visit, whether it\'s a cave\'s natural blue crystal giving off a faint glow or a jail cell holding shackles, a journal, and skeletal remains.

    One big issue I had with the game\'s graphics was that they were locked at 30 frames per second (FPS). While fine on a console, this made the entire game an eyesore to play, due the choppy nature of rendering and how clunky the combat seemed. I saw that a recent hot fix allowed the game to go higher than 30 FPS. After applying the right settings, it improved the gaming experience greatly by allowing a much more fluid feel, in both combat and exploration. The video I posted with this review has the game configuration at a steady 60 FPS, so if you pick up the PC version, be sure to unlock the game from 30 FPS before starting the story.

    When it comes down to it, Divinity 2 is a well-crafted game that doesn\'t exactly transcend the genre. Plenty of heart went into the game and it\'s easy to see that. From the well-written dialogue to the large amount of quests to the nice dose of humor, there\'s plenty to enjoy. The game was, frankly, grating the first three hours or so I played. As time went on, though, I eventually warmed up to it. The world becomes less confined the longer you play, and it feels more expansive by the time you hit places like Sentinel Island and Orobas Fjords, around the eight to ten hour mark.

    For hardcore RPG fans yearning for some adventure, this game has it in spades. You\'ll easily sink dozens of hours into this game if you choose to work at it. At $40, it\'s a reasonable deal, especially with the improvements to the core game and the included expansion.

    More casual gamers, however, may want to look at other options instead. The slower story progression, difficulty of the game, and lack of hand-holding make this a hard sell to those not used to such staples of the genre.

    -- Jonathan "Keero" Harling

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition (Xbox One)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Dragon Age: Inquisition
    Developed by: BioWare
    Published by: Electronic Arts
    Release Date: November 18, 2014
    Available on: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC
    Genre: Action role-playing
    Number of Players: Single-player, multiplayer
    ESRB Rating: Mature
    Price: $59.99
    (Amazon Affiliate Link)

    Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third entry into BioWare's highly regarded original fantasy role-playing world and it was met with high expectations.  The anticipation speaks to the pedigree of the series, for BioWare has few peers in the genre, much of it was fueled by curiosity as to whether Dragon Age would recover from the disappointment many felt with Dragon Age 2.  In many ways it is a rousing success, but I can't help but feel there was a cost.

    BioWare admitted it felt it needed to respond to Bethesda's smashing success The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but I have to wonder why.  And why now?  Skyrim didn't do anything substantially different than Morrowind or Oblivion and when those games were getting press BioWare was getting press at the same time doing its own thing.  They seemed, to me, content to let Bethesda play in the open world sandbox while they focused on admittedly smaller worlds with richer experiences.

    “Emotionally engaging” was the phrase BioWare used often and it wasn't something Bethesda could really respond to.  No matter how much fun Skyrim was, no one was calling it an emotionally engaging experience. It was not the kind of game that made you care at all about the NPCs you interacted with or the greater conflicts that gave context to your actions.  This was BioWare's bread and butter; if they couldn't make you care, they failed.

    For the most part I just didn't care about what was happening to Thedas or the threat the surprisingly one-dimensional baddie posed to the realm.

    Before I dive further into what I felt BioWare sacrificed to compete in a race it never needed to, let me talk about what I did enjoy.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition
    Highlights:

    Strong Points: Beautiful environments, engaging companions, challenging combat
    Weak Points: Incompetent party AI, minor bugs and occasional crashes, flat villain and story
    Moral Warnings: Strong language, violence, nudity, occult references, alternative relationships

    The game is spread across the two neighboring countries of Orlais and Ferelden.  The latter is the setting of Dragon Age: Origins, and is recovering from the ravages of the Fifth Blight.  Orlais is a France-inspired land of decadence and intrigue.  We've never seen it before and those familiar with the lore will know it occupied Ferelden in the not too distant past.

    Rather than go open world and allow you to traverse the two lands unimpeded. BioWare sprinkled large open zones across them.  According to them, the first zone you enter, the Hinterlands, is larger than the whole of the first game and that's believable.  The variety of zones you can explore as the game unfolds is a welcomed change to the reused brown bleakness of Dragon Age 2.  Verdant forests, desert plateaus, rain-drenched bogs, open plains, it's all here to explore and it's quite addictive to do so.  When you first enter a zone, your quest map only shows a sea of black pinned with quest markers.  As you trek, the map opens up and you discover a wealth of time-sucking opportunities.

    I don't use the phrase flippantly.  Much of what you can do in these zones, any zone, is designed to be a time sink.  When adopting the open world style, BioWare found itself with the task of filling that space with things you could do, most of it having little impact on your main quest.

    There's herbs to collect, ore to mine, fetch quests to fill, and Fade rifts to close.

    So many Fade rifts to close.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 92%
    Gameplay - 18/20
    Graphics - 10/10
    Sound - 10/10
    Stability - 3/5
    Controls - 5/5

    Morality Score - 30%
    Violence - 3/10
    Language - 3/10
    Sexual Content - 0/10
    Occult/Supernatural - 1/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 8/10

    For those of you who do not know, the Fade is the realm of dreams and spirits.  Also, according to Chantry doctrine (see: what might happen if the Christian church was established by Joan of Arc) it was host to the Maker's Golden City.  In short, heaven.  A long time ago, however, the city was entered by human mages using blood magic, turning it black.

    The villain of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Corypheus, is one of these mages, freed from imprisonment during the course of Dragon Age 2's DLC Legacy.  According to him, the city was already black when they arrived.  Believing there is no Maker, he now seeks to make himself a living god for humanity and enter into the Fade bodily once more.

    His actions have caused the veil between the world and the Fade to weaken, thus plaguing the lands with many, many Fade rifts that demons are using to enter Thedas.

    Remember in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when Oblivion Gates started opening everywhere in Tamriel?  Yeah, basically the same thing only slightly less annoying to deal with because you don't have to invest nearly as much time in closing them.  So, thematically, they serve a purpose, but their larger purpose is to pad gameplay with busy work.

    Filler aside the environments are varied and beautiful.  Seriously.  They're a real treat and a promising look at what this console generation will deliver.

    Next, we move on to what you'll be spending most of your time doing other than filler quests: combat.  Intended to be more strategic than previous incarnations, Dragon Age: Inquisition finally allows console players a tactical view of the combat area that was only available to PC players.  On the fly, you can pause the combat, take an aerial view, and assign paths and actions to your party.  On casual and normal difficulties, you can forgo this mechanic for a more action-driven experience, in hard mode, it becomes a must, in part because of the sometimes flaky AI.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition

    I didn't spend too much time with the tactical view, but the number of times party members fell because of stupid AI decisions (rarely using a shield to block, never stepping out of the way of sustained breath weapon attacks from dragons...) made me long to master its intricacies.

    Gone are healing spells for mages, which took me a minute to deal with... emotionally.  However, I found that I rarely needed them in combat since my health, and my party's, was often regenerating in combat due to arcane wizardry on the part of my AI-controlled mage.  When emergencies arise, the party can share a pool of up to 12 healing potions and you can equip other potions to each companion manually.  Only healing potions are refilled automatically without a cost in camp, so you must choose wisely who gets any of the other potions, tonics, or grenades.

    As with previous games in the series, abilities are mapped to three face buttons and pressing the right shoulder button gives you access to three additional face button slots, making a total of six abilities at your disposal quickly.  I was playing a warrior and spread my accumulated points across four ability trees and found myself mining for passive abilities once the six slots were filled with go-to actions I didn't want to mess with.

    Were combat kept to a single protagonist, and not a party, I'd have little to grouse about but it's not and it all comes down to AI; it's frustratingly stupid sometimes.  Those 12 healing potions the party shares aren't for me.  Aside from when the environment occasionally conspired against me (it's swell when you're mopping up a hard fight only to have a few bears wander in), I didn't find myself having to use them nearly as often as the rest of the party.  Warrior abilities and magey stuff kept my health high most of the time.  Many was the time, though, when I'd see a party member's health take a dive and find them engaging in activities they'd no business entertaining.

    One might argue that the tactical view alleviates this problem, and they'd be right, but it misses the point as the action-driven playstyle is just as legitimate.

    Lastly there's the companions themselves.  By and large they're all pretty great with unique voices, viewpoints, and depth.  Perhaps the most one-note of the bunch was Varric, a carry-over from Dragon Age 2, but I can admit it may be my own bias.  I never cared much for him in that game and that sentiment didn't change here.  I took no small amount of glee during a particularly heated scene between Cassandra, my paramour, and him and siding with her as much as I could rationalize.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition
    I more or less ignored Vivienne, a loyalist Circle mage from Orlais because, pretty much, she was the last to join my party and I was already invested in Solas and Dorian, the other two mage companions. As the game went on, the colorful Dorian overtook dour Solas as my favored mage. As my time with the two of them progressed, Dorian proved more accessible and his relationship with his father is one I think Christians could learn a few things from.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition is more of a sequel to Dragon Age 2 than Dragon Age 2 is a sequel of Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age: Inquisition picks up a year after the beginning of the Mage-Templar War got kicked off in Dragon Age 2 and is heavily influenced by it. The game dramatically opens up with a peace conference between the two factions literally exploding. As part of the main quest in the game, you're forced to choose one of the two factions to back. Given that I thought mages needed to be watched, backing the Templars was a no-brainer. Like Marvel's X-Men, the game tries to treat being a mage like it's a civil rights issue, but the argument falls apart on close examination.

    Are there good mages who don't want to enthrall a village to their will, or invite demonic possession for quick power? Sure. There are also gun owners who don't want to rob a bank or shoot random strangers.

    One of these groups still has to get a background check.

    It's for these reasons I didn't find the mage angle convincing, though obvious Templar excesses are inexcusable, and why I was tired of mages by the time Vivienne hitched her wagon to the Inquisition's train.

    Since the game centers around mages and Templars so much, of course the Chantry and its teachings and politics takes front stage. In fact, as you progress the Inquisition may even throw its influence behind a new Divine, a heavy decision indeed. What's most noteworthy about all of this is the discussion BioWare tries to elicit about faith.  What could have been interesting came off to me, a man of faith, as very patronizing. It's hard to explain further without delving into real spoilers, but suffice to say the message I got was, "You're free to believe whatever you want, despite the evidence, so long as it make no demands upon those around you."

    The Gospel of Jesus the Chant of Light is not.

    Like all BioWare games, romancing a companion is an option and I've already mentioned who I chose. To BioWare's credit, they eschewed making most everyone bisexual (something I've complained about in the past), keeping it limited to only two: one companion and one adviser. Some characters aren't even interested in a romance, which is a nice change.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition

    BioWare took this game as an opportunity to really lay out their politics on the matters of sexuality and sexual relations.  To anyone familiar with the company and their left-leaning attitudes, it's no surprise.  Same-sex relationships in Thedas are common and barely worth batting an eye about.  In fact, there's even a codex treatise on the topic should you wish further reading.  Additionally, this is the first game from them that I'm aware of that features a transgendered NPC.  She's a member of Iron Bull's (one of your companions) retinue and while it seems the setting does take notice at that, Iron Bull does not because she's a good soldier.

    Which is something BioWare also chooses to plant their flag on: women serve equally side-by-side by men in battle.  While this is a topic of debate today, and only possible given technological and medical advancements made within the past 100 years or so, it's absurd to cast it as feasible so far into the past, even a fantastical past.  It's clearly there to make a political point while ignoring socioeconomic realities of the medieval age it purports to take place in, and the stark biological differences between the sexes.

    This is the worst sort of storytelling and it's all the more noteworthy because BioWare is better at its craft than this.  That said, however, they've embraced one of the key techniques of normalizing otherwise objectionable content in media: don't draw attention to it.  Don't draw attention to it, treat it as innocuous, and it will be absorbed a piece at a time organically.

    This is a lesson Christian media has yet to embrace, preferring to obtusely beat non-believers about the neck and face with a message.

    Finding Cassandra's warm center – BioWare has described her like being a “crusty baguette” - was a real joy. Her embarrassment when you uncover her more 'girly' predilections is delightful.  The height of the dance between the Inquisitor and her (and the only time nudity came up), however, was unceremoniously marred by a glitch that froze the cutscene for a minute or so.  The drama, the poignancy, was gone and I was reminded that I was playing a video game.

    This particular glitch reared its head a numbers of time during my play through, tossing a damp rag on what would have been story highlights.  There's nothing quite like thinking, for a moment, a scene paused for effect when in reality it was taking a smoke break.  Thankfully the bug got squashed with a 300MB patch that came out when I was about three-quarters of the way through my game.

    But it seemed to then introduce total game crashes, an issue I never experienced before the patch.  I suppose I should thank BioWare for the new feature.  After losing several hours worth of progress, I really took stock of what I was doing and realized that I'd gotten caught up in beautiful chores.  Nothing I'd done during that time progressed the plot, mattered to anyone I cared about, or would even open up an interesting bit of side-story.

    I wrapped up my time with Skyrim when I noticed I was approaching 100 hours of playtime and it felt like a good place to deal with Alduin because he'd been so patient about my shenanigans to this point.

    I wrapped up my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition when I realized nothing I did for the majority of the game mattered.  Astute readers may see a contradiction but the thing is I didn't expect to matter in Skyrim.

    I do in a BioWare game.

    And that's what I think BioWare sacrificed in trying to compete with Bethesda.  But I have to admit that my voice may be alone.  Already the game has garnered several Game of the Year awards from various publications.  I think that if this game were The Elder Scrolls VI I'd have to agree.  Bethesda would have done an admirable job at pushing a story and characters that matter, that we might care about, to the fore.  It would have represented a step forward for them.

    While Dragon Age: Inquisition is an improvement from Dragon Age 2, and not quite a step backwards, it feels like an unnecessary sidestep.  It picked up a gauntlet I'm not sure was ever thrown.

    I enjoyed my time with the game. I really did.  I cared about most of my companions, what they thought and felt. The combat, while sometimes frustrating because of deficient AI, is a lot of fun, and seeing Skyhold grow and change as the Inquisition becomes a force to reckon with is a nice reminder of what you mean to a world that really lacks such a reflection for most of what you're doing in the game.

    My time in Thedas is now over.  I don't think I'll be revisiting this incarnation of it anytime soon.  Dragon Age: Origins, my favorite BioWare game, calls to me again.  I might take it up.

    Of course now that Green Ronin Publishing finally got Set 3 of the Dragon Age paper-and-pencil RPG out I could always get a group together for that.  Let it never be said I am not a fanboy for the setting!

     

  • Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (DS)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (NDS)
    Developed By: ArtePiazza
    Published By: Square Enix
    Release Date: September 2008
    Available on: Nintendo DS
    Genre: RPG
    Single Player with limited multiplayer capabilities
    ESRB Rating: E10
    Price: $30
    (Amazon affiliate link) 

    Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen is a remake of the 1992 NES version which was released in the US as Dragon Warrior IV. In 2001, Japan had a PlayStation version but it was never released in the US. The story is pretty much the same but the graphics are improved along with the addition of a new chapter, dungeon, and a boss.

    As the title suggests, this game is split into chapters. The first few chapters have you learning the back stories of random people who will unite with the hero and save the world from domination by monsters. The characters include various walks of life including a castle guard, an overweight merchant, a tomboy princess, and twin sisters who are avenging the death of their father. Each party member offers a different skill set including magic, healing, and sheer strength. One party member can tell fortunes and use tarot cards as a weapon.

    Highlights:

     

    Highlights: Fun game play with good character development  and side stories.

    Weaknesses: Multiplayer is limited to recruiting people to a town via wireless connection. That’s it.

    Moral Warnings: Violence, revenge, magic and tarot card use.

    Once you get to know all of the characters, they will all unite with the hero in chapter five and defeat Psaro the manslayer in his most powerful form. Once Psaro is defeated, the original game is over and you’ll see an ending sequence. If you load your newly saved game, you can defeat another evil boss. The ending is mostly the same but there are some differences.

    The hero is a byproduct of forbidden love. The main protagonist is called Hero, he\'s both half-human and half-Zenithian, an angelic race that lives in a sky castle. In order to get the help of the Zeninthian dragon, you have to gather all of the Zenithian equipment needed to ascend into the skies. Besides this undertaking there’s tons of side quests and dungeons to explore. There are legendary magical staffs and swords to be found and they are definitely worth looking into. There are mini-medals scattered around the world and you can redeem them for nice equipment on an island castle called Mikikin’s Dominion.

    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

     

    Game Score: 86%

    Game Play: 16/20

    Graphics: 9/10

    Sound: 8/10

    Stability: 5/5

    Controls/Interface: 5/5

     

     

    Moral Score:73%

    Violence:  2/10

     

    Language: 10/10

     

    Sexual Content: 10/10

     

    Occult Supernatural: 6/10

    Cultural/Moral/Ethical: 8.5/10

     

     

    You can travel by foot, wagon, ship and eventually, by hot air balloon. The last three methods are available after completing quests. You don’t just get handed a wagon, boat or a hot air balloon. As you travel, time progresses and you’ll see unique monsters and get different NPC dialogues during the night.

    Dragon Quest IV  plays out like many other classic RPGs. The random battles are pretty straight forward, and you can control the actions of your main characters. There are some temporary alliances and these party members have a mind of their own. You can tell your party to flee, defend, attack or use magic. If the enemy you told a person to attack is gone, they will automatically select another monster to attack.  When a battle is won, experience, gold, and sometimes a treasure chest is left behind.  When enough experience points are accumulated, a character levels up. The attributes and spells are automatically adjusted so there is no customization there. The only way you can impact your stats directly is by consuming seeds of magic, life, agility, strength, etc. The items you equip also impact your stats. Be careful, some items are cursed and you can’t remove them without the help of the church.

    The church is where you save your games or record a confession as the game calls it. There is an option to quick save, but you have to load this up to resume your game. It replaces your save file so don’t depend on it as a backup or a duplicate.

    Graphically, this game is very unique. The game appears to be 2D and has a colorful painted look to it. There are 3D elements as you can rotate your view using the L and R triggers. This comes in handy when you’re exploring dungeons. In battle the graphics are in 2D but the enemies animate as they attack you and the magical effects add a little eye candy.

    The background music is pleasant to listen to, but the speakers on the DS don\'t do it justice, so I would recommend using headphones to fully enjoy it. And while there is no voice-acting, the sound effects for both enemies and magic attacks are very fitting and well-done.

    When it comes to appropriateness there are some issues worth mentioning. There is fighting and violence including cold blooded murder and female sacrifices. Some of the characters in your party are fighting to avenge lost loved ones. Magic use is unavoidable and there are some instances of fortune telling. One character can use tarot cards as a weapon.

    Those issues aside, Dragon’s Quest IV is a great addition to the series. The character development is well thought out and there are some touching moments, especially at the end. I haven’t played the NES version but going from Dragon Quest IX to this, I miss the ability to see the enemies roaming around. The last few bosses are fairly challenging and will require some level grinding to defeat them. All in all I spent over forty hours playing the main storyline and getting some side quest weapons. I didn’t bother with the multiplayer feature; I can care less about populating a town with random people. If you don’t mind the appropriateness issues and lack of decent multiplayer, I recommend checking this game out.

     

  • Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS)

    boxart
    Game Info:

    Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS)
    Developed By: Level-5, Square Enix
    Published By: Square Enix, Nintendo
    Release Date: July 2010
    Available On: Nintendo DS
    ESRB Rating: 10+
    Genre: RPG
    Single/Multiplayer
    Price: $35
    (Amazon affiliate link)

    It’s been a while since I played a true Dragon Quest game.  After playing Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime I wanted to go back and pick up where I left off since Dragon Warrior 3.  Yes, I’m dating myself - I last played Dragon Warrior 1-3 on the NES.  Fortunately, with Dragon Quest IX, the formula is still pretty simple and many familiar enemies and relics await your arrival.  The storyline is unique so you don’t have to play the previous eight games to enjoy this one.  There are two worlds, the celestian world and the mortal world.  The angelic celestians protect the mortals and are assigned to specific towns to watch over.  Without giving away too much of the story, the premise is that both worlds are in danger and you must prove that the mortals are worthy of being allowed to live. 

    The game starts with your mentor, Aquila, showing you the ropes of being a town guardian.  The mortals cannot see celestians but believe in them through answered prayer.  When you help them, they will give thanks thus creating Benevolence.  In turn, you collect this Benevolence and offer it to the World Tree named Yggdrasil.   There’s much more to do in the game besides answering prayers.  Like many RPGs, you have to explore, talk to everyone, and fight lots of enemies for experience and gold.   I like the fact that the enemies are no longer hidden and it makes it easier to avoid or target specific enemies. 

    Later in the game you get to set your vocation.  By default I was a minstrel which is a pretty well rounded character.  You can also be a Mage, Martial Artist, Warrior, Thief, or a Priest.  If you’re unhappy with your selection, you can change it again and keep your skill points, but you’ll be back at level one.  Don’t worry; it doesn’t take long to regain levels again.  To assist you in your battles, you can have up to three friends in your party.  You can design your own characters or go with the token Mage, Priest and Martial Artist.
    Highlights:

    Strong Points:Simple and fun game play, lots of online content, no random battles
    Weak Points:
    Some may find it too easy
    Moral Warnings:
    There’s violence, magic use, nature and goddess worship

    Quests are a big part of this game and usually have good rewards.  There\'s story line quests and side quests that you can accept by talking to the villagers.  You\'re limited to a certain number of open quests; fortunately you can later decline doing them.  More quests are available via wireless download.  In fact, many of the DS features are utilized in this game.  You can use the stylus to move around, but I preferred using the regular controls.  The top screen displays the map and battle animations.  The bottom screen shows your characters moving around and is where you control them in battle.

    The battle system can be as easy or as complex as you want it to be.  You can manage your party by having them be in the front or in the back for less chance of being attacked.   The preset AI attack styles are nice and include modes such as “No Mercy, Fight Wisely, Focus on Healing, and Use no MP (magic points)”.  These presets are great for hunting for gold and experience but when it comes to boss battles, I highly recommend controlling all of the party members manually.

    When you’re in battle you can attack, try to flee, defend, analyze your foes, or use an item, ability, or a coup de grace.  A coupe de grace is an extraordinary attack typically granted after you take a huge hit.  For example, a warrior can get a guaranteed critical hit, a mage gets to use spells without using MP, and priests can summon angels to heal the whole party. Each class has their own unique coup de grace and abilities.
    Score Breakdown:
    Higher is better
    (10/10 is perfect)

    Game Score - 90%
    Game Play: 18/20
    Graphics: 9/10
    Sound: 8/10
    Controls: 5/5
    Stability: 5/5

    Morality Score - 80%
    Violence:  6.5/10
    Language: 10/10
    Sexual Content: 6.5
    Occult/Supernatural: 4/10
    -3 for magic use
    -3 for false religion references
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical: 10/10
    +3 for a good moral lesson

    When a character levels up, points are automatically assigned to attributes like strength, agility, magic, health, and so on.  The skill points, on the other hand, are assigned manually.  Each class has its own shared and unique skill abilities.  The skills are typically weapon specific but there are shield skills and class skills too.  If you max out a skill, it will go with you if you change vocations.

    The world is pretty big and the monsters get harder as you venture onward.  There are many towns and the best way to replenish magic points is to stay at an inn.  The further out the town, the more expensive the stay at the inn is.  Make sure you visit each armor and weapon store to see if they have better weapons and armor than what you’re wearing.  The better the gear, the more expensive it will be.  The best way to upgrade your equipment is through alchemy.  As you explore, make sure you keep an eye out for shimmering objects to collect and alchemize.

    The graphics appear to be 3D and I like how the battle backdrops are unique for each area that you are in.  The enemies bring back memories and there are many familiar faces and even bosses from previous games make an appearance.  There’s lots of variety, but many of the same models are re-used but with a different name and color palette.  When you\'re in battle you\'ll see the enemy\'s attack animations and there\'s plenty of eye candy when it comes to magic use.  The characters in this game are totally customizable by setting your eye color and hair styles.  When you change your clothes and armor, your character will reflect the changes made.  Some of the outfits can be a bit skimpy as you’ll run into belly dancers in some towns.

    Other appropriateness issues include violence and magic used in battles.  Magic use is pretty inevitable if you want to survive.  There are goddesses and nature worship and many references to ghosts and the undead.  Some items and trinkets you can buy boast of satanic power.  To offset the negatives, I can say that the story is uplifting and ultimately is about redemption.  

    The music in this game is pleasant to listen to and I have caught my kids humming along with it.  Some of the music is identical from previous games; for example, the game saving jingle at the church is the same.  There is no voice acting, but the battles sound effects are great.  

    There is a ton of replay ability, even after you beat the main quest.  You can travel to other player’s games and play in their world.  There’s a mode called Tag mode where you can share treasure maps with other players.  These treasure maps often have good loot and tough bosses to fight at the end.  There have been events at major retailers offering exclusive maps to players bringing in their DS’s with the Tag mode enabled.  Dragon Quest IX also has a store that offers exclusive online content if you have a Wi-Fi connection.

    If you’re new to Dragon Quest or a veteran, this game is definitely a worthy purchase.  Some may find it easy but I found the final boss and the Treasure map bosses to be quite challenging.  There’s plenty to do between the main story, alchemizing unique items, and treasure hunting.  I have easily spent forty hours playing this and there’s so much more I can do.  You’ll definitely get your money worth if you don’t mind the magic and false religious concepts.

  • Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (PS2)

    Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is the latest installment in Square Enix's venerable series of Role Playing Games. Dragon Quest is actually one of Japan's most popular game series, but for one reason or another it has not been as successful on Western shores (where until this iteration the series has been known as Dragon Warrior). There is a whole lot here for RPG fans to like as long as they don't mind the content typical of a Teen-rated RPG and some unusual religious overtones. Casual gamers might want to test the waters first because, though the cel-shaded graphics and top-notch production values are modern, the actual game play is, for better or worse, old school to the core.

    Story:

    The story is relatively simple throughout. Cookie-cutter RPG villain no. 302 has stolen a magical staff and has used it to reduce Trodain Castle to ruins and turn the king and the princess into inhuman creatures while he was at it. The mute main character (the player names him at the beginning) was the only person to escape the attack unharmed and it is up to him to journey with the king find a way to reverse the curse. Along the way other characters that have their own reasons for taking the bad guy down will join the party.

    There is a twist or two that change things up a little bit along the way, but the story is always very straight forward. This isn't a game like Final Fantasy or Xenosaga that is full of convoluted political intrigue and complicated interpersonal relationships, but it is charming in its simplicity. The characters are one-dimensional but likable, especially the titular cursed king who, with a voice that is something like Grover's with a British accent, always manages to be amusing; it is too bad he isn't a playable character. Anyway, fans of modern RPGs who are expecting a brilliant story probably won't be satisfied, but at least that means the cut scenes aren't billions of hours long.

    Game Play:

    Dragon Quest VIII plays much like any other traditional Japanese RPG. The heros go from town to town solving the problems of every stranger they meet, fight random battles for gold and experience, and explore caverns and ruins on their way to defeating the big boss. If something sets DQVIII apart, it is scale. The streaming overworld is one of the biggest I have ever experienced in an RPG. There are enough mountains to climb, forests to hike through, and caves to delve into to make the player feel like s/he is exploring real continents and not man-made game environments. Sometimes the size of the world seemed overwhelming to me, but once I realized that there is no real need to visit every place in order it became liberating. The frequency of random battles makes being absorbed into the exploration element somewhat difficult at times, but as the characters learn spells to reduce the encounter rate and obtain faster means of transportation the player will probably find himself or herself purposely going as far off the beaten path as possible to see new sights and find hidden treasures. Dungeons are simply designed and for the most part easy to navigate with the help of a map, and the monotony of walking around and fighting random battles is occasionally broken up by simple puzzles.

    The battles themselves are like any old school RPG; the player gives commands to the party members through a menu system and they and the enemies take turns hitting each other. The system is uncomplicated but deep in the sense that you gain a whole bunch of special attacks, spells, and abilities to use, and every one of them is useful. A character can also spend a turn to 'psych up' to make his or her next attack more powerful. This technique becomes vital in the more difficult battles. Sometimes the fighting can get repetitive, but the higher-than-average level of challenge keeps it from getting outright boring. It takes a long time to level up in this game, so good tactics will get the player through the fights faster than gaining a lot of experience will. Leveling up finally occurs, the player is treated to a refreshingly simple upgrade system. Besides the usual increase in hit points, magic, etc, a couple points are given to allocate among a few different skills which are unique to each character. It isn't as deep as the customization in some other, more modern RPGs, but it gets the job done. When the game suffers, it does so because in being so old school it ignores the conveniences of modern RPGs when there is no reason to. The save system is the biggest flaw. Progress can only be saved by going into a town and confessing to a priest of the 'Almighty Goddess'. There are no save points in dungeons or even in the field, and I can't begin to guess why. Also, managing items in the in-game menus is a pain. Characters can only use items in battle which are placed in their own limited inventories, which is an unnecessary hassle compared to most RPGs where all characters draw their items from a communal pool. Other than that the interface works well and the game is glitch free.

    There is a lot of game play here. Taking my time (but not being overly meticulous), it took me nearly 80 hours to make it to the end credits. If I tried to complete the Pokemon-esque battle arena mini game, find all hidden medals, get the biggest prizes at the casino, create the best weapons and items using the alchemy pot, and complete every optional dungeon, then that number might get closer to 100.

    Sound:

    For the American release, DQVIII was given an entirely new orchestral soundtrack, and it is great. The majestic score adds an epic flavor to the experience. After 80 hours some of the songs, especially the out-of-place battle theme, get repetitive; however, sweet new melodies are added often enough to make this only a minor annoyance. Also new to the American version is voice acting. Nearly every character has a British accent of some sort. A lot of respect has to be given to whoever localized this game because I doubt most Japanese people know the difference between Irish and *****ney accents and the dialects become an integral part of the game's character. The writing takes advantage of characters' voices too, so if someone has trouble pronouncing the letter 'R' you can bet that he will be given lines with a lot of them. With all this fun added to the game by the localization team it is no wonder that it took so many months to bring the game to North America.

    Graphics:

    The graphics are cel-shaded, so the game looks like a hand-drawn anime cartoon. Often graphics done in this style seem lifeless and flat but the experienced developers at Level 5 have put done a good job of creating the illusion of life in the environments with subtle visual effects and absolutely incredible detail. My breath was taken away by some of the massive cathedrals and monuments in the game world. I just wish the faces on the characters had some real animation and depth. There is some pop up too, which is a shame because in a game with environments this open it would have been great to be able to see forever. The characters and monsters were all designer by Akira Toriyama, whom you may know as the creator of Dragon Ball, so that is the style one can expect. The player characters are all distinctive, but the models for the people in the towns are recycled much too often. The monster designs are fun and cutesy; some were so cute that I felt bad killing them at times.

    Appropriateness

    The ESRB rated Dragon Quest VIII TEEN for Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Simulated Gambling, Mild Language, and Suggestive Themes.

    Violence:

    RPG Violence (This is where you enter a command and watch it happen Ex. Final Fantasy) (-3 pts) The violence here is pretty tame even by RPG standards. There is no blood or gore; the cute monsters simply disappear when they die. The player never kills a human being in battle.

    Language:

    No Foul Language (-0 pts) Sexual references are made throughout the game. (-3.5 pts) I don't remember any bad words myself, but the ESRB label says that there is 'Mild Language' (whatever that means) so there might be something in there that I missed. Jessica, the female playable character, has an upgradeable skill called 'Sex Appeal' which grants her skills such as blowing kisses or fondling herself to distract enemies. This type of thing is the main reason why I am hesitant to recommend this game to Children.

    Sexual Content:

    Characters clothing is sexy or accentuates their sexuality (Ex. tight clothing or low cleavage) (-1.5 pts) If Jessica had half of an inch more cleavage, then this game would be rated M. Some other female characters also wear skimpy outfits. These characters are probably not realistic enough to incite overwhelming lust, but if you play this game expect to be looking at cartoon cleavage throughout.

    Occult/Supernatural:

    Game takes place in an environment with minor occult references. (-3 pts) Fairy tale type magic is used in game by player. (-1.5 pts) Nearly every character in DQVIII reveres the Goddess, and this religion is a major part of the environment and plays a minor to medium role in the story. The Goddess herself doesn't actually appear, but the presence of the church that worships her is very strong. Besides the gender of the deity, this institution resembles the Roman Catholic Church complete with priests, nuns, cathedrals and even knights templar. In order to save the game you must confess to a priest of the Goddess. Some enemies, especially the final boss, are demonic in appearance but I do not think the word 'demon' is ever used. They aren't frightening because like all monsters in this game they are cartoonish and somewhat comical looking. It should be noted that the main villain's MO is to possess people. Also, one boss can only be beaten by praying to a magical staff. These things and the Goddess religion aren't necessarily 'occult' in the technical sense, but they are likely to bother many Christian gamers. Magic is used in this game much like in any other fantasy RPG. Spells may produce fireballs, cure poison, kill enemies, or resurrect dead allies.

    Cultural/Moral/Ethical:

    There are no issues in this category to speak of.

    Conclusion:

    A lot of this game's content may offend or embarrass many people. If the issues outlined above don't seem like a big deal, then Dragon Quest VIII is a great RPG for hardcore fans of the genre to spend hours on. The slow pace and archaic game mechanics might frustrate casual fans, but for those who take the time to get lost in this giant world will find the rewards worth while. Also, the game comes with a playable demo of Final Fantasy XII, which I will not review here. It isn't worth buying this game just for the demo, but it is a nice bonus for fans of Square Enix's other big RPG franchise.

    Gameplay: 17/20
    Controls/Interface: 4/5
    Sound: 9/10
    Graphics: 9/10
    Stability: 5/5
    Total: 44

    Violence: 7/10
    Language: 6.5/10
    Sexual Content: 8.5/10
    Occult/Supernatural: 5.5/10
    Cultural/Moral/Ethical: 10/10
    Total: 37.5

    Final Score: 81.5

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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