Monday, May 31, 2010

2010 tactical TBS and SRPG summaries.

TBA [DS ] [1] Dawn of Heroes
An ambitious and promising attempt at an SRPG by an indie developer named Wicked Studios.

Q2 [PC/WII] [1] [2] Grotesque Tactics: Evil Heroes
A 'parody' SRPG. Ignoring the corny plot/characters and garish graphics, it looks like a very generic, low budget indie game. If you're not going to take advantage of the possible difficulty and depth of an SRPG, why not just make it a normal RPG?

Fall [PS3/PC] [1] Magic: The Gathering Tactics
A multiplayer online microtransaction based card game from the company that put card games on the map.  If anything they should have a readily available audience for this tactics title.

Fall [PS3] [1] [2] Agarest Senki 2
More dating sim fanservice mixed with simple, repetitive, and forced grinding combat.

09/21 [PC] [1] [2] Sid Meier's Civilization V
Yes this is a strategic level game with some tactical combat on the side, but Civilization is one of the greatest strategy titles ever.  The developers are working on improving the tactical level combat this time around with inspiration from Panzer Tactics and a hex based grid, so it might actually be good this time instead of the silly unit stacking of previous entries.

09/19 [PSP] [1] [2] Knights in the Nightmare
Set for a NA release, this version of Knights in the Nightmare uses the directional pad instead of the stylus for moving around.  Despite not having touch controls, the conversion works well.

09/16 [DS] [1] Blue Roses
An anime themed SRPG by new developer Apollosoft.  Published by NIS, so maybe they will bring it over to NA.  The amount of fanservice and/or grinding is unknown.

09/15 [iPhone/iPod Touch] [1] Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions
iPhone port of the PSP version of Final Fantasy Tactics.

08/31 [PSP] [1] [2] Valkyria Chronicles 2
Import reviews claim the main campaign is very easy, but there are some interesting post-game fights. The game has more of a dating sim/kids feel to it so don't expect it to be more complex or difficult than the original. Much like scouts in the original VC there are a few overpowered units, although orders are more expensive so they are not as easy to abuse. There's also no mid-battle saving, so you can't save/reload abuse as easily.

07/21 [PC] [1] BBC Battlefield Academy
A WEGO style tactics game that takes place on hexes, with a unique comic book art style.  Formerly announced for consoles but now PC only.

07/15 [PC] [1] Field of Glory - Immortal Fire
A new expansion pack to the Field of Glory historical tactics game.

07/15 [DS ] [1] [2] Fire Emblem: Shin Monshou no Nazo Hikari to Kage no Eiyuu
A remake of the third Fire Emblem game for SNES. It will feature a customizable hero with their own sub-story and chapters alongside the main hero Marth. Features 4 difficulty modes and a casual mode where your units no longer face permadeath.

07/04 [ipad/iphone] [1] The War of Eustrath HD
A Super Robot Wars clone.  It's ipad only at the moment but an iphone version is coming.

06/14 [360/PSP] [1] [2] Star Hammer Tactics
Basic multiplayer space based TBS game, with a short campaign.

06/02 [iphone] [1] [2]  Highborn
A good iPhone title with the high point being the games wry humor.

05/27 [PSP] [1] Daisenryaku Perfect: Senjou no Hasha
A PSP port of a PC title that came out in 2003. They don't use the word perfect lightly - this game has almost everything you could possibly want out of a hardcore military sim, minus a map/campaign editor. Daisenryaku entries tend to have complex, realistic game mechanics and stats with a wide variety of units based on real military hardware. This is as close to a complex wargame on consoles as you're likely to get, since other complex wargame developers stick to PC.

05/27 [DS ] [1] Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Masou Kishin - The Lord of Elemental
What would we do without another SRT release? This might be one of the easier entries in the series because the SNES original is very easy. The dev team has generally made their handheld entries on the easier side while the console entries are harder. Based on import impressions, there are no skill points or EX-Hard mode, so there's no point playing yet another SRW unless you are into the plot/characters.

05/27 [PSP] [1] [2] Blaze Union: Story to Reach the Future
A SRPG sequel to Yggdra Union. STING is generally a quality developer although I had a lot of reservations about Yggdra Union. I'm hoping the battle outcomes are less random (or at least morale penalties are reduced), the combat is sped up, and there's less easter egg hunting for items scattered around the map.

05/21 [PC ] [1] Legio
A multiplayer TBS game that's an expanded take on chess. The board is wider, and there are many unit varieties. It's a budget indie game so the price is decent as well.

04/07 [PC ] [1] [2] Future Wars
An online release by an indie developer. A very simple, basic wargame-lite title that's even simpler than Advance Wars. It's also apparently very easy but if you're a beginner you might want to check it out.

03/18 [DS ] [1] Moe Moe 2-Ji Daisenryaku 2: Yamato Nadesico
SystemSoft attempts to make up for flagging sales by adding fanservice to their military sim series. This is a DS style entry to the series.

03/17 [PC] [1] Dofus Arena
A multiplayer online microtransaction-card based game.  There have been plenty of these games popping up and they all want your cold, hard cash for virtual cards to compete with.

03/15 [PC ] [1] [2] Field of Glory - Rise of Rome and Storm of Arrows
Two expansions to the original Field of Glory released in 2009. A very in depth and realistic ancient times wargame. Developed by Slitherine Strategies, who have created a number of modern PC wargames.

02/25 [iphone/BBerry] [1] [2] [3] Transformers G1: Awakening
A short but apparently well done title for iphone and other mobiles. As you might expect, units can transform in this game.

02/25 [DS ] [1] [2] Gendai Daisenryaku DS Isshoku Sokuhatsu - Gunji Balance Houkai
Looks like a version of Daisenryaku for the DS.

02/08 [iphone] [1] Military Madness: Neo Nectaris 
A port of the 1994 Neo Nectaris.  More unit variety and some challenging missions make this a better entry than the original Nectaris. 

01/20 [360/PS3] [1] [2] Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment
Very easy, short, and basic SRPG. If you're a complete beginner you might enjoy it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Yggdra Union review (GBA)

Yggdra Union is a turn based tactical SRPG that has a non-traditional battle system. It suffers from uncontrollable and punishing luck based combat that can't be minimized through good planning and strategy, unlike the Fire Emblem series. The union system and cards give the game a different feel from other tactical games.

The graphics are good, interface is uncluttered, informative, and responsive, and it feels like a mini-Playstation game at times.. a high compliment for the tiny GBA system. The plot is the usual J-RPG garbage, but it's easy to ignore. Music and sound effects are tinny repetitive GBA fare but the volume knob is there for a reason.

The games combat is too highly based on luck. If your unit gets KOed with a critical hit (pretty much a guaranteed loss since your unit leader is instantly killed), which happens often enough, expect to see a huge hit to their morale. Even normal battles swing between victory and defeat simply based on random factors, basically whether you kill or lose one more or less unit in an assault often determines victory. I could tolerate this if your units regenerated some morale based on either winning fights or at the end of a battle, but it's really just irritating and often destroys your chances at collecting items or finishing a map in short order. Enemies being able to randomly crit-kill your unit leader and chop off 1/2 of their morale or battles simply being determined by luck is simply unfair given the penalties involved and time needed to complete each fight. I wouldn't even attempt the game without a guide that shows the numerous items and secrets hiding around each map, especially considering the restart trial and error it would otherwise involve.

Combine this with the user unfriendly 'can't skip pre-battle dialogue' and being unable to save during battle preparations, and the game will easily try ones patience as far as time invested vs. skill and luck and trying to achieve battle goals such as grabbing as many items as possible or trying to shore up underleveled characters like Yggdra. Each battle is slow and drags on, with no option to speed it up.

The battle system has a lot of potential and perhaps a sequel will see the light of day on the DS.. although there is no guarantee it will reach the US. I'm afraid I can't really recommend this game to anyone looking for a skill-based challenge, although there are few games in the genre that manage to meet that criteria anyway. It feels like the developers desperately wanted to make Fire Emblem with a twist, but ended up with something that's even more frustrating.

Rondo of Swords review (DS)

"An entertaining tactics game with a big twist"

Rondo of Swords is a tactics game from Success, a company who has been cranking out quite a number of titles in the genre, now being translated by Atlus for NA gamers. It is a game that is more appreciated and enjoyed by 'hardcore' gamers that don't mind investing some amount of time into it. The less interested you are in the meat and potatoes of tactics games, the less you will enjoy this game.

Graphics/Sound/Story

The graphics are a mixed bag, but they are generally serviceable. Being unable to turn the battle animations off is a big negative, plus the fact that you are forced to watch your own players or enemy players passing through their allies for support bonuses, even if they are not hitting any enemies en route to their destination. This leads to a lot of unnecessary button mashing to get through what should be fairly quick turns.

The less said about the sound, the better. It is mind numbingly repetitive, and the sound effects are nothing special. At least the voice acting is decent.

The story and characters are clearly a not so subtle tribute to Fire Emblem, and honestly I skipped through every bit of dialogue even the first time I played through the game. Thankfully the dialogue can be skipped through very quickly by holding down a few buttons. I do like the branching paths in the game, as it adds replay value and more stages to play through.

Gameplay

Two of the most innovative and commented on gameplay elements are the Route Maneuver System and the Momentum Counter system. I enjoyed the RMS as a change of pace, although I felt that there is still a lot of potential to be had in terms of clever and inspired level design. A decent number levels are generic and uninspired filler, especially early in the game. The game still manages to mix in a good variety of enjoyable tactical situations and mission objectives, even if they are not that complex. I particularly enjoyed utilizing the character skill that prevents enemies from passing through them.

The MC system is simply a form of 'aggro', and it usually works in the players favor. Your caster units that are likely to die in one hit can usually keep a low MC while still tossing off spells and being ignored by enemies.

There are other elements of the gameplay that some players will find to be distastefully difficult or imbalanced. Your units (besides archers) cannot move and then perform an action, such as spells, items, or activatible skills, severely limiting their usefulness. The skill system in general is largely imbalanced – the only skills worth investing heavily in are passive boosts or abilities. Likewise, the slow movement of most caster characters combined with their inability to move and cast in the same turn means they are better off unused.

Like other preparation heavy games (Front Mission, Fire Emblem), half of the battle is managing your army well. Either that, or spend hours grinding the same couple of enemies until you vastly outlevel your computer opponents. As you and I know, most players choose the latter (while whining about it instead of playing more efficiently or giving up, of course).

Most of the reward system is hidden from the player, much like Fire Emblem scoring systems. There are different end of stage ranks given to the player, which offer more XP and items for better performance, but the factors behind it are completely hidden. While I never approve of this kind of system, there is at least something to distinguish a poor players 'Narrow Victory' from a good players 'Complete' or 'Overwhelming' Victory, as vague and unrecorded as those terms may be.

Difficulty

ROS is really not that difficult, even if you choose never to retreat or powerlevel. The most contentious 'difficulties' in this game are the esoteric elements where the game deliberately (or just by sloppy design) withholds information from the player, forcing you to experiment or calculate your tactics on your own. For example, players can't check the attack range of enemy spells and bow attacks. There is no way to tell besides manual counting if an enemy can hit you.

If you have been relying on a games UI to do some of the 'heavy lifting' involving calculating movement ranges and distances, you will probably consider the lack of such niceties in this game to be annoying. Despite the UI not being crammed with features to make life easier for the player, at least it is responsive and snappy, which is more than I can say about most non IS games.

If you are a serious tactics game fan and/or grognard you will be used to the process of analyzing a game system/AI and calculating the optimal way to play through it with the most rewards, least casualties, and highest efficiency. Some players even handicap themselves to heighten the challenge, usually in a manner that avoids long repetitive grinding and powerleveling of stats and numbers. Once again, casual players will balk at having to spend more than 2 minutes in the preparations screen between stages, let alone formulate a long term plan that spans the entirety of the game.

Drone Tactics review (DS)

"a fun, simple tactics game with a decent range of difficulty settings"

Drone Tactics combat system is similar to the Super Robot Wars series, set in an Advance Wars style universe of talking mecha bugs and a mostly child cast. Unlike the recent Rondo of Swords, it's easy and accessible enough for just about anyone to play, with 3 difficulty settings and a simple gameplay system. On the other end of the scale, the optional levels past the main campaign can be quite challenging. Anyone who enjoys tactics games should definitely pick this up.

The game has a nice clean design and a fairly snappy interface. Like other Success games, it tends to fall on its face with lack of UI niceties and features that gamers have come to expect in a modern game. There's no options menu to turn battle animations off (expect to press a lot of 'skip cutscene' buttons), or turn on a black grid over the map, or turn on auto end-turn when your units are finished moving, or make the game remember what last attack you chose per mech.
Deploying units takes too long, as there are too many unnecessary screens to go through to get all 8 of your units out. Fortunately these annoyances are not game stopping.

The difficulty of the game is flexible since players can grind levels, money, and free equipment in the badlands stages. There are no rewards for completing a mission well, and the only penalty for losing units is that they only get half XP at the end of the stage. Interestingly, units do not gain XP during missions, only in between them. This makes it less worrisome when it comes to one unit outleveling another one.

The level design is a mixed bag. Most of the campaign is decent, although nothing will really tax a good players strategy. Some of the main chapters have been sloppily designed, leaving my army running around to the edges of the map trying to finish off a couple hard to reach units in the corner that don't want to start moving. This artificially extended a couple chapters for no good reason.

Drone Tactics is one of those unusual games where the optional levels go beyond the campaign in terms of enemy levels and challenge. Once you finish the campaign, you have the option of playing through a large number of well designed and more difficult Badlands stages. The difficulty really ramps up at Badlands 31+ - all the maps are large size and frequently require certain party, equipment, and card setups to survive (assuming you didn't outlevel them).

The cards system itself is pretty good. There are healing cards, teleport cards, buff cards, cards that let you drop obstacles to blockade an enemy, damage up cards, and cards you can use when counterattacking. The minigames attached to the cards got old really quick once I started using them a lot. When you have the potential to use 16 cards per chapter, plus minigames to fend off enemies using their own cards, it loses its appeal faster than a boring Wario Ware knockoff.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Facts about Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon's combat systems.

I've been seeing a lot of wrong statements regarding Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon's added combat systems with the recent announcement of the new FE 3 DS remake. First, a game is a test of skill with game mechanics that exist independent of plot and characters. There are two ways to analyze a game that has plot/characters. You can rate it objectively as in game mechanics (how balanced or strategic it is), or you can rate it subjectively as in plot/characters. Just calling the whole system 'bad' because of a subjective opinion about not wanting to kill off your units isn't a valid argument. Both aspects of the game system should be considered when forming an opinion. Now whether you like the systems or not, it is a fact that they add strategic depth and difficulty compared to most other FE entries.

The reclassing system adds strategic depth in the form of figuring out optimal classes for each character and setting up your party with classes that compliment each other. The only balance issue are the two units Sedgar and Wolf who have unusually high growth rates that make them overpowered if reclassed, but that is a problem with those two units growth rates, not the class change system.

The optional chapter requirements adds strategic depth compared to most Fire Emblems. In this system you need to keep a maximum army size of 15 units to access the optional gaiden chapters. The system adds strategy in the form of choosing which characters you want to live and allowing you to use some units as cannon fodder or choose whether to recruit them or not. Most Fire Emblem games make no distinction whether you lose units or not, except for Fire Emblem 6 and 7, where you are graded on a Survival rank. All Fire Emblem games are easier if you keep the best characters alive, it's no different with SD, you're just more encouraged to kill off the worse or inferior ones, which makes it a strategic choice about what units to keep. Thus claims like "the system rewards failure" or "it's less strategic than most other FEs" are objectively false. There is a bit of give and take in strategic depth in FE6 or 7's support convos, though.

The game handing out replacement units is just a way of preventing very poorly skilled players from being unable to progress in the easier difficulty modes - you will still be in trouble if you start losing the best units in hard mode, just like any other Fire Emblem. And just try playing Hard 5 with all recruits - not so reward/reward when your generic replacements can't do more than 1 HP of damage to an enemy, is it? It's not a reward so much as it's a way to keep poorly skilled players on normal mode from getting stuck, and it shouldn't concern experienced players about 'reducing strategy' on a difficulty mode that isn't meant to be strategically difficult in the first place. Play on H5 and stop complaining about the lower difficulty modes if you think they're too easy - that's the reason multiple difficulty modes exist in the first place.

As for the games difficulty, it is one of the most difficult FEs on Hard 5. The only FEs more difficult are FE5 SSS rank, FE6 HHM S rank, and FE9 Mania mode. The map design is average for a FE game and provides for a decent amount of strategy. FEDS is a mostly balanced and strategic SRPG. Yes there are some cheap things you can do to reduce the difficulty, but like most FE titles it's not a legitimate challenge anyway since you have limitless turns to grind. The only way you encounter complete 'resource scarcity' in a Fire Emblem game is if you are playing for an end of game ranking that limits the number of turns you can spend. Otherwise you can boss/arena abuse all day long. This is not unique to FE DS.

So if you happen to see these things returning in this new FE3 remake, remember that they are not unstrategic or poorly designed. You might hate them because you don't like killing your units off or you think a characters identity should be tied to their class, but remember to separate game design fact from plot/character opinion.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike review (DS)

Advance Wars DS is quite simply a fantastic sequel and an amazing game in its own right. It adds an incredible amount of new features, modes, content, COs and units, structures, scoring, and depth. Unfortunately, the game stumbles in difficulty factor, and will disappoint any player looking for a serious Wars challenge.

Expanding on the classic AW formula are new gameplay systems that are integrated very well into the game. You now select up to two COs per team, and can swap between them at the end of your turn. The Tag CO power allows both COs to execute their super CO powers one after the other for absolutely devastating attacks. This opens the door for a number of new strategies which are integrated well into the vs CPU modes.

Also new are DS battles, where you fight two battles at once, one on the top and one on the bottom screen. The CPU has control of the allied units on top by default, but thankfully on a few DS-style maps you can set an option to force manual control of the top. While a bit gimmicky, you do get some strategy involved with the capability to send units from down below to the top screen. Unfortunately I haven't seen a very good use of this ‘transfer' feature yet, since you are usually just given a bunch of units down below at the start of the mission that are obviously meant to be shifted to the top screen.

Another new feature are Force Ranks, which are slight bonuses that your CO can turn on for the duration of a mission. As your COs win missions, they're rewarded with experience points that increase their CO Rank, giving them access to more (and better) Force Ranks. Unfortunately, this opens up a can of worms in terms of level standardization. In AW and AW2 missions, there was nothing you could do to gain an ‘upper hand' over another player by spending time elsewhere building up your COs powers. But with the introduction of Force Ranks, it's possible to spend hours beefing up your COs in the War Room, for example, then moving onto Campaign and having slight to moderate advantages over someone who has just started playing. In some cases, these Force Ranks can significantly unbalance gameplay. This is especially true of the two most powerful Force Ranks, which allow you to negate movement penalties over forests and plains.

The new allied and Black Hole COs are fun and well designed, although two of the new Black Hole COs seem like carbon copies of two of the previous ones. The new units are cool, adding in diversity and new gameplay strategies, and there are a bunch of them, not just the sorry ‘neo-tank' offering of AW2.

Campaign:

The normal campaign maps are a fun mix of classic AW predeployed-style maps and war room style unit deployment. You get to fight a number of allied COs through the campaign, which is a refreshing change from the whiny-goth punting of AW2. You're also allowed a huge range of CO choices per map, which allows for multiple effective strategies to be dreamt up and executed. Often you'll come across a fancy new Black Hole technology to destroy or seize, and funky new BH ‘amoebas', which only move one space per turn, but instantly kill anything they move onto. The difficulty is somewhat higher than AW and AW2 campaign, although not quite as nasty as AW2's final levels in terms of getting a perfect score. There's none of the AW2-style lousy map design where you're given rows and rows of powerful units and ordered to go make a mess, or enormous blank war room style maps with no personality to them. I didn't find one map that wasn't fun, engaging, unique, thoughtful, and just all around kick ass.

Unfortunately, the Hard Campaign, which in previous AWs has been an uber-challenging set of the original campaign levels, is fairly easy. I had no problem destroying most HC levels on my first try, with a perfect score. You are usually given more units, and the enemy slightly more as well, with not much change in actual difficulty. One of the biggest problems with the Hard Campaign is that you're allowed to use any CO pair and set of force ranks you like. This leads to abuse of the best COs against the enemy AI – Hachi, Javier, and Kanbei. Grit, Colin, and Sami are also extremely effective when paired with Hachi, Javier, or Kanbei. Not to mention the force ranks which make your units quite simply superior to enemy forces that just don't use force ranks at all. The speed score requirements are extremely lenient, and you'll only get penalized if you take a ridiculous amount of time to finish a mission. Note that there are a few levels that are at least somewhat difficult.. but nothing is going to twist your brain into a pretzel and give you turn-based nightmares for weeks.

Overall the CO selection/force rank imbalance combined with a pitiful increase in difficulty makes the Hard Campaign a walk in the park for any players worth their salt. Although this won't stop any serious fan from getting the game, it's a major bummer for anyone expecting a heavy workout of the likes of the original AW Advance Campaign or even some AW2 Hard Campaign levels. I honestly can't say I'd be that enthused about going through the Hard Campaign again with one hand tied behind my back (choosing not to use Hachi, Javier, or Kanbei, and choosing not to use force ranks at all).

One thing that struck me as strange is that you aren't shown your campaign average score. But you are shown each individual level and individual score in the end credits, so you can make a quick tally of what you got right there. The game still makes no distinction between an imperfect S-rank and a perfect, 300 point S-rank.

Since I'm playing an import, it's hard to get an idea of what's going on in the game in terms of storyline during the campaign. But from what I can see, the storyline looks to be fun and flagrant, while adding a touch of maturity and serious issues not seen before in the playground of the AW universe.

War Room mode is back, with the same old maps remixed with new COs, along with new one-screen maps and new DS-style maps. You can also choose handicaps for a higher EXP bonus, offering more flexibility and challenge. The sheer number of maps means this mode is worth many, many hours of time investment alone. Some of the new War Room maps are quite difficult, as well as the old staples like Terra Maw. One thing to note is most of the old maps still have only one CO as an enemy, making your dual-CO team more capable of victory.

Survival:

The new gameplay mode, Survival Mode, challenges players to complete a course of small levels in succession, with a common limitation following throughout the course. The limitations are funds, turns, and time. Survival mode is a blast to play. The levels are tricky, well designed and implemented, and offer up a unique and fun gameplay experience outside the normal mission maps we're accustomed to. Some of them are also quite hard! You get ranked for each mission, as well as an overall rank, and your best funds/turns/time score per level is also recorded.

The last new mode, Battle mode, offers a real time experience, controlling one unit at a time and blasting away enemies coming at you from all sides. I really tried to like this mode, but it's very droll, lonesome, and just isn't all that fun. Kicking up the difficulty to hard or death modes makes the enemy AI so aggressive you'll have to maneuver like crazy just to stay alive. The only really worthwhile unit on hard mode, the tank, still only has a lame pea shooter that takes a high number of bullets to drop an enemy tank. It's less of a shooter and more of a chore. Some players might find it a fun diversion, but I really don't care for it. But that doesn't matter, since the actual turn-based part of the game is just so damn good.

Graphics, Sound, Miscellaneous:

The graphics in the game are good, with a nice mix of artwork, good character designs, and cool looking Black Hole buildings/weapons. I would like to be able to turn off the isometric map perspective, as it's very hard to see the back of the map in some instances. I admit to being spoiled by playing AW and AW2 on a GBA emulator. One other problem I have is that you can't turn off the CO power and CO switching animations.. these tend to drag on after you've seen them a million times, especially considering that the CPU switches COs at the end of each of its turns just for fun.

The music is better than before, with some nice war themed music and fun character themes. While I still keep the music and animations off, the tunes in the game are very well done. My favorite would have to be Candle's theme.

The AI is smarter than before, which is a welcome addition. While it still falls easily for bait and doesn't take into account your CO powers, it uses more complex strategies when composing its unit formations. It still suffers from having to be able to adapt to any situation or map, and is thus quite predictable and easy to learn and fool. That's ok, though, as the maps are very well designed and force the player to use their noggin if they want a high score.

One of my sore points with the original AW and AW2 was the lack of multiple saves. Thankfully AW DS adds in 3 save slots for Campaign alone, with additional save slots for War Room, Survival, Combat, and three map editor saves.

The map editor is largely unchanged, and still doesn't have enemy AI scripting features, which really cripples the kinds of vs CPU maps you can create.

There's a new Stat Tracking mode that counts a number of different statistics about your game playing accomplishments. This ranges from number of allied units created/enemy units destroyed and times campaign has been completed, to number of missile silos launched and number of units sent DS style to the top of the screen. With 300 medals to pick up and an overall ‘ranking' based on how many medals you have, this could be an incredibly in depth game for those who wish to complete it fully.

Conclusion:

AW DS is a new classic S-RPG that kicks just about everything else in the genre to the curb. I commend the IS team for doing an incredible job on AW DS – they have truly one-upped themselves in almost all areas of the Advance Wars world. The game is just kick ass overall, polished to a shine, with an enormous amount of depth and challenge. The game unfortunately takes a wobbly turn in terms of score/level standardization, but this will only bother players like myself who want to compare (ok, brag about) high scores. The low difficulty of the Hard Campaign really takes the game down a few notches for me, but then again most players will likely be relieved rather than disappointed. As much as I hate to say it, any player hardcore enough to want a good challenge out of a Wars game is likely a fan enough to buy and play the game anyway.

I am hoping that the IS team takes the fantastic innovations to the Wars series and makes a DS sequel with a higher level of challenge and gameplay balance between CO selection and force ranks. There's a lot of new challenges to be derived from the new gameplay elements, it's just up to IS to design the maps to put them to use.

Advance Wars review (GBA)

Advance Wars is a strategy tactics game by Intelligent Systems. It is the first tactics game in years to combine World War II warfare with a simple and easy to learn gameplay system. It has opened a new kind of style and story line for the tactical war genre.

Gameplay

The gameplay operates on a ‘right tool for the job’ system, where each unit is strong versus some units, and weak versus other units. The anti-air is good against air units, but is weak against stronger ground units like the tank and mid tank. The bomber is good against ground units, but cannot even retaliate against a fighter jet. There is no unit customization, item use, classes, or any special unit types at all. This eliminates organization and unit micro management in favor of straight out combat. The player can also collect money from cities and build units from various factories, air ports, and sea ports. Depending on whether you can build units, the challenge of the level varies considerably.

The main feature of the game, Campaign Mode, faces the player with a series of levels following a story line progression. The campaign maps are analogous to puzzles, with a single solution that the player must figure out in order to complete the level with the highest score. After completing Campaign Mode, players are allowed to access the real challenge of the game, Advance Campaign. In Advance Campaign, the players score is determined only by how fast they completed the level. By compressing time, the player is forced to use their units with maximum efficiency and tactical ability.

The scoring system in Campaign provides a great amount of flexibility, accommodating to players of all skill levels. The developers have carefully designed and tested each campaign level to reward the best possible effort with a perfect score, while allowing less skilled players to pass through the game at their own level of ability.

The amount of care put into each level to provide a challenging experience is amazing. Unlike most strategy tactics games, the levels have been designed intelligently and have all been tested to award the highest score for the best possible effort. I was continually impressed with the ways that the developers demanded more out of the player with every new map. Some of the levels reach the point of masterpieces, with three to four tactical situations at once and a challenge level sure to face up to even the greatest players. Other levels are merely clever and well thought out designs. Certainly the best level design in any strategy tactics World War II game.

The AI is dumb as a rock, it has very little intelligence. I’m not sure why the developers did this, other than to make the CPU act instantly rather than wait a few seconds thinking. Many of the early campaign levels are designed around the CO’s incompetence and obvious mistakes, and the final official excuse is that you, as an “advisor”, are able to focus on tactics while the CO battles (apparently, everybody else is just an army without a general). The developers expect the player to become intimately familiar with the many weaknesses of the AI, especially in order to finish some of the most difficult Advance Campaign levels. Even though the AI is used well in the game, it still needs major improvement.

The design maps feature is a welcome addition, and it extends the depth of the game to an amazing degree. I believe it could have been more robust, though. The system was not designed with player vs. CPU battles in mind, so the limitations there are the most severe. I would have liked to see variable map sizes, unit AI settings, reversing unit directions, options to hide the interface, and being able to check unit movement and attack range. For human multi player battles, though, the editor should be fine.

There is also a whole other multi player side to the game. The experience playing multi player games against humans is very different, although many of the same tactical abilities learned in campaign will help in multi player. The number of maps available to play in versus mode is staggering, and sure to keep players busy for as long as they want to play. The pre deployed maps are fun for a quick match, while some of the largest special and four player maps will last hours per game.

Related to versus mode is the War Room, a set of individual maps where the player and CPU face off. Both sides start off from scratch with no units, although the CPU almost always has the upper hand. All of the levels have tactical solutions that must be executed quickly, and there is a score tally as well. This is just another long lasting addition to the game.

One of the largest shortcomings of the game is its inability to hold more than one in-battle campaign save at a time, or the ability to load a save in-battle, without having to exit the map. This is a feature that would have made the game much less tedious for players attempting to get high scores. The SRAM is the standard 64k size, which is unfortunately as big as a GBA cart can hold. Hopefully this technological roadblock can be overcome in future games.

Presentation, Style, Storyline

Strategy tactics games require a reason to get the player into a good number of military style battles. In order to accomplish this, the story line is often molded into a complex and heavy handed war narrative, with a gigantic cast filled with brooding characters, loyalty, villains, grand legends, and evil hordes of monsters to destroy. After Fire Emblem, games like the Ogre series and Final Fantasy Tactics follow this weary trend.

In contrast, the story of Advance Wars is relatively simple. You are an advisor to the Orange Star army, and are acting in self defense against the traitor Olaf. The story leads to a plot by (spoiler!). The stark simplicity of the plot helps cut down on the war angst, but the excuses for getting into military battles are still the same: an evil force or nation. The character driving the plot (spoiler!).

The characters are young, energetic, spirited, and competitive. They view war as a proving ground to test their adolescent skills. Andy has two giant wrenches to repair his (apparently) simple military equipment. Sami is wearing a small t-shirt, cargo pants, and a utility belt, as opposed to full scale commando gear. Her sniper rifle is the most graphic depiction of war machinery in the game. The characters are meant to represent simple parodies different countries, most obviously with Kanbei of “Yellow” Comet, a self-mockery of Japan’s imperial zealotry. All of the characters can be reduced to caricatures of some sort. The disturbing side effects of this kind of war plot are watching children partake in war as if it were a play time activity after crackers and juice.

The graphics are clean and uncluttered, and suit the light hearted mood of the game very well. The units have a white shine to them, like new toys. Infantry fly off the screen when killed, none of your units mind if you use them as cannon fodder. The COs gloat and pout when attacking one another. The military equipment is drawn in a cute cartoon-like style. The terrain looks like a kid’s playground, as opposed to the detailed and realistic look of the Fire Emblem series. The music and the sound effects are unremarkable. I found the music to be bland at best, and mostly awful and grating on my nerves. Thankfully there is an option to turn both the music and graphic animations off.

Intelligent Systems has fired the first shot in a new type of intelligent and challenging strategy tactics game. They have once again raised the bar for fun, complexity, and challenging map design in a tactics game. It is a classic, and Intelligent Systems is by no means finished creating excellent tactics games, along with their flagship Metroid, Fire Emblem, and Mario RPG series. For a relatively cheap $30 or less, the game offers the best value packed into a Game Boy Advance game available.

Overall Score: 9.4/10

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Fire Emblem announced for DS.

It's a remake for Fire Emblem Monshou no Nazo, or Fire Emblem 3. Trailer here. This is a direct sequel to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon in plot terms.



I was made aware of this by a post on NeoGAF.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Elven Legacy expansion thoughts, guide almost finished.

I've nearly finished writing a guide for Elven Legacy and its expansion packs. I wrote a review of Elven Legacy earlier this month. It's not the most complex SRPG but it's the best fantasy SRPG I've played since Fire Emblem DS, and there's been a vacancy of strategic fantasy SRPGs lately on consoles. I also like the fact that the game is a legitimate challenge so if someone has gotten gold medals without cheating you know they've earned it. Elven Legacy was released just last year so this is not an old game by any means. There is a demo of Elven Legacy you can download here.

I do plan on playing the predecessor to Elven Legacy called Fantasy Wars. This is a slightly older SRPG but the game engine and mechanics are more or less identical to Elven Legacy. Both games have a fairly robust map editor although it's disappointing that you can't create new units in the editor. If you're a PC wargamer and want a slight change of pace from yet another WW2 slugfest, or if you like the Fire Emblem series and want a good fantasy SRPG to play, these games are definitely worth a look. There are a total 78 missions between the original and all expansion packs.

If you're interested in picking up Elven Legacy and all 3 expansion packs, follow this link to Direct2Drive.

Here are some thoughts about the Elven Legacy expansions:

The Ranger pack is a human-army campaign without a lot of strategy to figure out. Unlike Elven Legacy, you get flooded with thousands of gold, tons of recruits, and piles of artifacts. I have to wonder why they made Hard mode so easy in comparison when it's pretty obvious anyone trying Hard mode is looking for a challenge. There are no bonus missions and your hero ranger Cornelius is ridiculously powerful in his later levels. The game does drop its AOE obsession, though. The plot and characters in this expansion aren't as weighty or important to the fictional world so I didn't feel a lot of reason to keep playing this one.

The Siege pack ramps the difficulty back up for the first couple missions. It's probably the most difficult campaign, although it does get easier as the campaign goes on. In Siege you play two campaigns in one with two separate heroes with their own armies to manage. The bonus missions return but they are much easier than the originals, which is a disappointment. I have to make note that there are a lot of typos, badly translated text, and even some untranslated or missing bits of text, and a bug that makes one of the bonus missions more difficult than intended. Despite those technical issues this is a great expansion for strategy seekers.

The Magic pack mixes the combat up with a campaign revolving around hero summoners. Instead of an army that levels up through the campaign, your hero will be creating a disposable summon army on the fly each mission. This opens up some different strategies to explore and might be refreshing for players getting weary of the previous campaigns. The difficulty is somewhere between Siege and the original Elven Legacy. Bonus missions are back and they are harder than Siege, but easier than the original Elven Legacy. It's a good final expansion that attempts to do something new with the Elven Legacy engine and pulls it off pretty well.

Finally there are 7 skirmish maps that are independent of any campaign. These are all well designed and strategic missions with varying objectives and more gold medals to try for. If you've played through Elven Legacy and all 3 expansions, rest assured there are 7 more missions to finish before you can consider the whole thing done.

Screenshots:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Battle Dex beta preview. Online PvP TBS.

Battle Dex is a microtransaction based online multiplayer PvP TBS game currently in beta. Battle Dex follows the well trodden wargame-lite TBS format, much like Advance Wars and Military Madness. What makes Battle Dex most different from other TBS games are its battle altering Cards. These cards can be played during a match and have effects like creating superior units, buff/debuff/healing, direct damage attacks, terrain blocking, and teleportation. Each card has a funds cost, with the more powerful cards costing more to use. There's a wide variety of cards that add an impressive amount of variety and depth to the standard TBS formula. Much like Magic the Gathering, the metagame will be built around assembling a deck that works with your playstyle and strategy. Of course, you'll have to purchase a few decks to be able to play competitively, which is the basic business model of a free to play microtransaction game.



One of the nice things about using the wargame-lite Advance Wars style combat as a base for a game is that most of it is already pre-balanced and ensures you have a solid base to work with. Along with the cards, there are a number of changes Battle Dex makes to the formula to improve the game as a PvP experience. First, both players input their commands then all orders are executed at the same time. This makes it so you don't spend as much time waiting around for your opponent to 'take their turn'. Next, the combat results are less deterministic than most strategy wargames, with a wider variation in damage values. This makes the combat more unpredictable and you'll have to take advantage of luck whenever possible when facing an even less predictable human opponent. Finally, the game can be won by victory points which are accumulated by capturing and holding buildings. This avoids long stalemate battles. All animations can be skipped so you can immediately get to issuing orders for the next turn, which should lead to some very fast paced battles.

One feature I liked is the ability to queue up movements ahead of time, so you can order an infantry to auto-run towards a factory without giving it an order to move each turn. Infantry automatically capture locations and don't need to be ordered. The less orders that need to be input, the faster the turn based combat will be. The UI is decent but missing a lot of features you'd expect from an SRPG. There's no menu to list all of your units, no button to jump between units, and there's not enough keyboard shortcuts like a buy button, an end turn button, or hotkeys for the cards. The game is in beta and since it's an online game I'm sure improvements, refinements, balance tweaks, and new cards/units will be constantly ongoing.

The downside of being a collectible card game means that some rare, powerful cards will be out of reach from most players unless they are willing to spend quite a lot of real money or get lucky. The fact that these are 'virtual cards' means they can be changed or removed at whim, unlike physical cards like Magic the Gathering. It doesn't look like players are able to trade or sell their cards although the developers may add that feature later. Whether or not that's worth the price of entry to you is your choice, but it does seem like the developers have a good grasp of game balance and allowing a wide variety of valid PvP strategies, so you may feel comfortable placing your time and money into the game. There are already tournaments going on for cash prizes and I would assume tournaments will continue throughout the life of the game.

The game features player ranking as well as medals awarded for accomplishments in battle. The matchmaking looks fairly robust with different game modes and a wide variety of maps to play on. If you're at all interested in turn based PvP you should definitely give this game a try. It looks balanced and competitive with lots of attention paid to enhancing the game as a PvP experience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Most Difficult Tactics Game Challenges

This is a list of SRPG and TBS games with a high level of strategic depth, variety, and difficulty. This is not a comprehensive list but it's a good start. If all you've ever played is Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and Idea Factory titles, the challenges on this list will be a good reminder of how skilled (or not) you are at the "strategy" portion of the SRPG (or turn based tactical level strategy) genre. All of the games listed cannot be trivialized by stat grinding, excessive save/loading, preorder bonuses, etc. That's right - none of these challenges can be overcome by grinding.

All of the games listed are developer provided challenges, not player defined challenges. That means the challenge is hard coded into the game by the developer and not something imagined up by a player to make up for a developer that didn't balance their game or add an effective scoring system.




Fire Emblem Thracia 776 (SNES): SSS Rank.
One of the last games released on the SNES in 1999, this Fire Emblem release was aimed squarely at hardcore strategy fans. Just clearing the game with its varied challenges is difficult, but there are also rankings based on speed. The highest ranking of SSS requires you to complete the entire game in 179 turns or less, an insane number considering the length of the game. Only by studying the game inside out, formulating a comprehensive plan, and relying on some luck will a player ever hope to accomplish this brain twisting challenge. There are more than a few large maps where you are expected to complete the chapter in 1-2 turns at most. Add on to that a wide variety of mission conditions and stats like unit fatigue that ups the strategic depth and variety. It takes a small novels worth of text just to describe how to do this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3yIek8rNGU&feature=PlayList&p=D1775AF8C2291864&playnext_from=PL&index=0&playnext=1



Game Boy Wars Advance 1+2 (GBA): Highest score on every mission.
This is the Japanese release of Advance Wars 1&2 on a single cartridge. Advance Wars features the Advance Campaign, a mode far beyond the normal campaign difficulty. There are rankings for each level based on how fast you completed each mission. Most of these rankings require precise strategies where every action must be optimal or you'll fail. In quite a few missions you must scramble to capture an enemy HQ while using most of your army as disposable cannon fodder to distract or slow down your opponent. You must understand the game, every unit, and the AI rules inside out. There's also Advance Wars 2 on the same cart that has a Hard Campaign that is not as difficult to get perfect scores on, but still above average. Both games also feature a War Room with single scenarios requiring further grey matter engagement to get the highest scores.

http://www.awrevival.netfirms.com/ac/m11/m11.htm



Panzer Tactics DS (DS): 3 star rating and all objectives on every mission.
This is a historical hex based wargame for the DS. This SRPG follows in the footsteps of classic SSI series like Panzer General and Steel Batillion, and the top Japanese wargame sim Daisenryaku by Systemsoft. While I don't have a lot of experience with PC wargames, I hope this sort of makes up for it. The rules are complex, there are dozens of units belonging to different nations, and there is a speed based scoring system and secondary objectives to be completed. Since this is an SRPG you'll also be challenged to keep your army and generals alive and gaining levels while still achieving the best score and objectives. Levels are varied and strategic requiring you to study each mission carefully for a chance at success.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBobfb50aYA



Super Robot Taisen Z (PS2): All skill points on EX-Hard mode.
The most difficult of the Super Robot Taisen series. In this games EX-Hard mode, not only do your opponents get a huge stat boost, but the game forbids you from upgrading your pilots and mechs and from buying any new gear. This is more difficult than other Super Robot series EX-Hard modes where you're allowed to upgrade your pilots and carry pilot points from a previous playthrough. On top of that there are skill points to be achieved that require a high level of specific strategy for each mission. They're called skill points, you need skill to get them (especially on EX-Hard). It's even more complicated when you look at the sheer size of the roster - you'll be getting familiar with armies worth of mechs and pilots. The game features units placed into groups of 3 that can take on different formations and fight other enemy groups of 3, significantly increasing the strategic difficulty for each combat encounter. I should also mention the Super Robot Taisen Z Special Disc missions, which can all be played on EX-Hard as well.

http://www.youtube.com/user/FlamingGnats#p/c/075739A3E97B2B0C/157/fH2NTfqp3OE



Elven Legacy and Ranger, Siege, Magic expansions (PC): All Gold medals on Hard difficulty.
A solid SRPG that features 3 difficulty modes and medals awarded for performance, usually turns taken. Getting a gold medal on all Hard difficulty missions requires efficient general strategy and mission specific strategies. This may not be the most difficult PC SRPG out there, but at least there's a PC game on the list. There's lots to figure out for each mission on top of knowing all the standard SRPG fundamentals like unit management, XP distribution, efficient positioning, class strengths and weaknesses, etc. Even on Easy mode the game is quite a challenge for the average or unskilled gamer, as evidenced by almost every review on the internet complaining about the difficulty on easy with bronze medals. If the reviewers even bothered to mention hard mode and gold medals, they deemed it impossible or incomprehensible. Want to prove them wrong? Pick up this game and rub those brain cells together.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jr2EX_0nsa4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-K8vqOsnak4



Knights in the Nightmare (PSP): SSS rank on most missions on Nightmare mode.
Not strictly an SRPG, it's more of a mix between SRPG, shoot em up, and RTS. Either way, though, the game rules are certainly complex, as evidenced by the long tutorial and high learning curve due to the large amount of unusual mechanics. It's unlike any other SRPG out there. There's also a ranking system that goes up to SSS and a Nightmare difficulty, just so you can prove how amazing you are at simultaneously commanding units, switching phases, dodging bullets, selecting weapons, and reading tiny sized roulette wheels. I chose the PSP version because it's even more complex and difficult with multiple wisp states and weapons spread to the 4 corners of the screen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy3IpQjCCCQ



R-Type Command (PSP): High scores on every mission.
This SRPG features an open ended scoring system that rewards optimal strategies. Getting a very high score requires lots of planning and strategy, which you can then compare with your friends scores and check whose is larger. This is the basis of video games, folks! The campaign is above average in difficulty even with low scores. Its sequel, R-Type Tactics II, is even more difficult, with the same scoring system, but likely won't be ported to NA due to poor R-Type Command sales (shame on you).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqGF5BC0n9w
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe2AYc9KWg8



Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken(GBA): Hector Hard mode S rank.
Believe it or not the Japanese version is more difficult than the US version, which is why I am listing the Japanese version here. Fire Emblem is a classic SRPG series known for its permadeath, lack of save/reloads, and frenzied fanbase (just mention the words tier list and watch their heads explode). Getting an S rank on Hector Hard mode requires a difficult balance between 5 separate scoring factors, turns taken, units lost, exp gained, attack/kill ratio, and funds. In true strategy style, those factors work against eachother forcing you to make difficult choices like whether to enter optional chapters, and finding the optimal balance between rushing through a chapter or slowing down for more XP and loot.



Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (DS): Kill all realmstalkers in every mission.
A difficult challenge awaits in this DS SRPG. If you choose to ignore the overkill/sin quota in a mission, the developers throw 2-3 boss-level realmstalker enemies at your party on top of whatever else is on the map. This is made even more difficult by the fact that you won't have overkill bonus loot to rely on. There's plenty of strategic challenge to be had figuring out how to take out the powerful realmstalkers and live through it while being undergeared and underpowered. Of course, most people who played this game couldn't even conceive that killing the realmstalkers was possible, due to lacking that all important video gaming factor called skill. Well now that you know it's possible, go on and try it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tberdwl450

Fire Emblem: Heroes of Light and Shadow: Lunatic Reverse, A ranks
While this newest Fire Emblem DS entry suffers from some difficulty-reducing features like the WiFi shop, Everybody's Situation, and a rank system that only goes up to A, it still deserves mention here as Lunatic Reverse difficulty packs quite a punch even if you do absolutely everything you can (short of cheating, of course) to make it easier.





Daisenryaku Perfect(PC/PSP)
A realistic hex based wargame SRPG/TBS much like the classic SSI games and others that followed it such as Steel Panthers World at War and WinSP WW2. It's nearly unrivalled in strategic depth, with its large rulebook, dozens of playable nations, and hundreds of unit types. The missions are lengthy and difficult and there's also a scoring system. As the title implies, Systemsoft has been working on the Daisenryaku series since 1987 and they have had a good 22 years experience behind their claim that this is a perfectly balanced title with tons of strategic content to create and master. These sorts of games have real strategic depth because you're required to learn every facet of the games depth in order to master it - it's not like FFT or Disgaea where you can just slap together whatever party you want and run all over your opposition.

http://www.ss-alpha.co.jp/products/dsperfect3.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87ebgo38v6s



Panzer Corps: Decisive victory on the hardest difficulty mode (where possible) + weather, supply, and fog enabled.

Gungnir: Masou no Gunshin to Eiyuu Sensou nightmare mode w/ 3 star rank.

Battle Academy. Highest difficulty mode, Enhanced AI. Earn all achievements on a single run of a mission, for every mission.

Daisenryaku Perfect: Senjou no Hasha

X-COM: Enemy Unknown Impossible/Ironman

Field of Glory

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Elven Legacy review: A solid, legitimately challenging SRPG

Elven Legacy is a solid, strategic, challenging hex based SRPG that doesn't stray too far from the fundamentals of the genre. It's developed by 1c company, the largest Russian developer/publisher, and it's a PC game, which might explain the games complete lack of popularity here in NA. It's the sequel to Fantasy Wars, which is more or less identical in SRPG mechanics. It bears the most resemblance to the open source SRPG game The Battle for Wesnoth. It contains 18 campaign missions and 7 single player missions independent from the campaign.

Combat is very well balanced with the usual assortment of foot soldiers, archers, horsemen, flying units, stealth units, and siege engines. Units can earn XP and level up, gain access to special abilities, and equip items with various effects. There are a wide variety of abilities that include buffs, debuffs, armor/anti-armor, terrain bonuses, etc. The player must make a strategic choice of one ability out of three every time a unit levels up.

Unit production and economy don't play a very large role in this game. There's no constant source of gold to continue recruiting units with, instead you're expected to keep your units alive and level them up through the campaign. There's room for a variety of party setups, although generally you'll want to stick to a balanced party that can handle any situation.

There are 3 difficulty settings (Easy, Normal, Hard), a scoring system based on turns taken (Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals), and no optional grinding. Adding to the hardcore anti-grinding stance, if the player fails to meet the Bronze medal requirement, the game ends. Gold and powerful items are scattered across the mission maps waiting to be picked up. The maps are designed so that it's impossible to kill every enemy or grab every reward if you're trying for a Gold medal, so it's often a strategic choice of what to do with the limited time available.

Difficulty modes are more than a matter of bumping up enemy stats. There are more enemies in the harder modes and they tend to be of a higher tier and level. Like most SRPGs, playing poorly will result in the game becoming impossible at the harder difficulties, since the players party isn't able to keep up with the increasingly stronger enemies. Most damage outcomes vary by only -1 to +1, so save/reloading a lot will not have much effect if your strategy is poor.

The story missions are fairly fast paced and have scripted events and lots to do. There are bonus missions that are unlocked for earning a gold medal in certain story missions. The bonus missions set you up with a one-mission-only army and are among the longest and most difficult in the game. Finally there are some well done single player missions that offer a variety of scenarios and challenges, all but one of which have gold medals to attain.

Getting a gold medal on all Hard difficulty missions requires efficient general strategy and mission specific strategies, and there's no way to mitigate the difficulty at all. If you're looking to test your SRPG skills this game certainly won't disappoint you. Even on Easy difficulty the game is quite a challenge for the average or unskilled gamer, as evidenced by the many reviews complaining about the challenge level. If your only experience with SRPGs has been easy, simple games like FFT or games by NIS or Idea Factory, this game will be a good kick in the pants to remind you of how skilled (or not) you are at SRPGs.

Not every mission has engaging and clever strategies to figure out, though. The story missions sometimes rely too heavily on the use of magic AOEs that cover a wide radius and deal a huge amount of damage. On some early missions mowing down enemies in a straight line then dropping a bunch of AOEs is the only strategy that needs to be employed. Later on though you'll need to save your limited AOEs for pivotal points during the mission. The last couple bonus missions and campaign missions are particularly challenging.

The AI plays a stationary strategy, knowing that if you want the gold medal you will have to approach it without much aggression required on its part. It's smart enough to hang back until it spots an opportunity to gang up on an exposed unit. However, it's usually all too eager to leave a good defensive spot like a city or castle to start attacking your forces.

If you are a fan of SRPGs you'll enjoy the solid mechanics, party management, and strategic depth/challenge in each mission. Put on your thinking cap and go buy this game and its expansions - easiest to purchase it online, since I doubt you'll find it in retail.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Record of Agarest War review (PS3)

Agarest War is developed by Compile Heart, which is a subsidiary of Idea Factory. Idea Factory specializes in low budget fanservice games. Agarest War has a taste for the perverse, with PG rated cutscenes and assembling a dating sim style harem of heroines to produce successive generations of angst ridden protagonists. Idea Factory does nothing to improve its reputation with this latest game.

The entire game is prolonged with hundreds of forced filler battles, which feels very much like forced grinding. The random encounter dots line the world map seemingly endlessly, impeding your progress with 2-4 random encounters in between each short story progression. If they got rid of most of the forced encounters/grinding, the games length would be cut significantly. Agarest War goes out of its way to be tedious and brain numbing.

All battles are laid out on a small flat grid with little maneuverability, reducing the strategic depth. With the extend system, each character has spots surrounding them that another character can stand in and link their attacks up to perform special arts. It's cumbersome to use because the game doesn't display extend spots unless the cursor is on top of the character. It's meaningless and highly repetitive busywork. Often the best strategy is to move as little as possible to conserve action points and wait for the enemy to approach you.

The real grind sets in when you realize you have to realign your party to get everyone into extend system position almost every single turn, which is about as fun as doing a thousand sheets of basic arithmetic. You know what you have to do to rearrange everyone, but it's  just tedious and pointless. All this while the game throws hundreds of repetitive filler trash fights at you for hours and hours on end. The main challenge will be to stop yourself from falling asleep while plowing through another group of the same enemies.

Instead of clever boss strategies to figure out per boss, the developers give bosses one-shot AOE abilities that you can only pray they are dumb enough to either not use or attack in a spot where only one person gets hit. With that said, every boss dies the same way - spread out, hope nobody gets owned by cheap one shots, then pile on the high hit count attacks to 'break' the enemy and finish with special attacks. Random encounters always carry the risk of squishy casters being one shot if the AI randomly targets them.

You can capture monsters, but it adds little strategic depth to the game, since the main hero+3 heroines are always a better choice. Capturing monsters is mainly used for crafting, not deploying them in battle. The crafting system is as plain as you'll find in any modern RPG, there's nothing special about it. The crafting/monster system eventually devolves into a grind filled mess to coincide with the post-game content which is more of the same.

The scoring system is mainly used for end of battle stat bonuses and is useless for determining skill. There are the usual slate of collect-em-up non-achievements, and the trophies/achievements are the usual grind/time wasting RPG fare. Amusingly there are online leaderboards for who can waste the most time grinding out the games skill-less collect-em-all achievements.

The alignment system, dating sim system, endings and quests all have obscured requirements that make figuring any of it out a huge pain without a comprehensive guide. Some of the choices that raise or lower your heroines opinion of you make no sense at all. There are multiple routes and making choices early in the game can unintentionally cause undesired changes later, with no explanation or indication why.

The UI is slow and clunky. It's missing unit lists, you can't check abilities from the status window, You can't check a characters extend squares outside of battle, etc. There's no way to skip cutscenes, only fast forward them. There's unnecessary lag at almost every point in battle, such as the badly disguised 2-3 sec load times after 'attack phase' shows on the screen. Some battle areas add a depth of field effect that lags the entire fight and UI terribly. Even the party formation menu gets choppy and laggy.

The free exploration sections are easily the worst part of the game. It looks like something out of an original Playstation game, with horribly muddy and blocky textures and terrain, the main character blipping in and out of existence between screen changes, terrible collision detection, random encounters, and bad framerate drag. Even worse, the game reuses the same areas later on.

The music is a mix of unbearable midi rock and cheesy classical tunes, the sprites and special effects are ugly and pixelated, sound effects are low budget, etc.

The plot is about as generic and exploitative as you'd expect out of a game where you run around breeding generations of women and assembling a virtual fanservice harem. There's nothing redeeming about the convoluted/cliched plot and characters, and blatant fanservice. This game and the Aksys marketing team (boob mousepad, perv pillow) are not ashamed about pandering. It's a low budget porn game by any measure, the only thing missing is the porn.