Sunday, July 19, 2009

Valkyria Chronicles review (PS3)

A highly innovative and well designed SRPG

Combat System/Level Design

Valkyria Chronicles features one of the most innovative SRPG combat systems in years. The battlefield remains fixed until a unit is selected, at which point your unit is placed in semi-realtime combat and allowed to move a limited distance and fire at targets or use items. Enemies will not move but they can spot your unit and make intercepting fire. The blend of first person shooter and turn based strategy is highly innovative and well designed. The combat system is slightly similar to Sega's long time SRPG series, Sakura Wars.

Taking actions in the game uses Command Points which are given every turn. The CP system adds strategy since you can take action with the same unit multiple times per turn or give out Orders. It's a good way to stress players to be efficient with each of their actions.

Players can issue battlefield buffs or attacks called Orders which are unfortunately too easy to exploit and break the game with. This is a weak spot in the games strategic depth, since most of it can be circumvented by using overpowered Orders on a Scout class unit. Other imbalanced features include save/reload spamming and level grinding. Like most SRPGs, if you want a challenge you will have to restrain yourself. Some sets of post-game missions like the EX-Hard skirmishes are less prone to being trivialized, but not immune.

The games 5 classes provide a wide variety of strategic depth as they all have their own strengths, weaknesses, weapons, and items. While the Scout, Shocktrooper, and Lancer classes tend to dominate, there's room for Snipers and Engineers in some missions/skirmishes as well. The tanks you're supplied with not only have a full arsenal of weaponry, but also smoke grenades to provide troop cover, adding more potential strategic depth. Each person you can recruit is unique with their own name, stats, skills, and backstory. Each recruit can be further customized by equipping different weapons to alter their combat performance. It's only until the post-game skirmish missions where particular characters and unique weapons start to have a bearing on mission strategy.

Level design is excellent with well designed maps and a variety of mission conditions. There aren't any 'filler' or otherwise boring, uninspired missions. There's always some new or unique strategy to be discovered and utilized as you progress through the game, if you're skilled enough to figure it out. In writing my guide for this game, I ended up with several pages of efficient strategies that can be employed in the game towards victory, including line of sight, CP management, crouching/sandbags, mines/explosives, tanks, and survival.

The scoring system consists of points rewarded for killing certain special enemies on the map (leaders, aces, and tanks), and a rank for turns taken per mission. The speed rank is almost always very lax in terms of getting a top score, so most of the games challenge involves getting both a high score and beating the 'A rank' speed by several turns.

Graphics/Sound/Plot

The graphics are a fantastic mix of watercolors and WW2 design. Many of the sounds in the game are expressed in comic book style words coming out of the weapons or tanks, adding to the graphical storybook appeal. The music is excellent with inspiring and rousing classical military pieces, while the sound effects are strong and believable. The Plot is somewhat cliche and ignorable, thankfully all cutscenes are skippable so you can just get to the battles.

Overall

If you're a fan of turn based strategy, SRPGs, or strategy of any kind, don't miss this game. It has enough challenge and depth for players of all skill levels.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume review (DS)

A well balanced SRPG with innovative variable difficulty

Combat System/Level Design

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is a SRPG with several unique game mechanics that differ from the SRPG norm. It's a quality game that provides good level design, well balanced combat, and a good variety of difficulty levels.

With the Siege system, allies can assist in an attack if they are in attack range. In addition there are bonuses for surrounding the target in certain formations. This is similar to Front Mission 5s link system, except there isn't any friendly fire to worry about. There is some fun strategy involved in setting your units up in certain positions so they can assist with attacking multiple enemy targets.

Attacking an enemy leads to a separate combat scene similar to previous Valkyrie Profile games, where your attacker and any allies in range can gang up on an enemy. Since you carry out these attacks in real time, there is an element of timing involved in making sure all of your allies hits connect in a row, which is made more complex by the fact that some attacks can knock enemies in the air. This is made more complex with the addition of rewards for juggling an enemy in the air, attacking from behind to stun enemies, and charging up a combo meter to pull off special attacks called Soul Crushes.

Each story mission has a 'sin' quota that is built up by overkilling enemies. The player is rewarded with items if they meet or exceed the quota, or punished by being forced to fight highly powerful enemies called Realmstalkers if they fail to meet the quota.

Finally there is the Plume, an ability that makes one of your recruits extremely powerful for one mission, but kills them at the end of it. This ability also alters which of the 3 routes the player will progress on to. The Plume can only be used a few times before it leads to an instant game over.

With the sin quota and plume systems, tri-ace has managed to add a 'built in' difficulty setting into the game. Players with lower skill can use the plume while meeting sin quotas for item rewards, while highly skilled players can avoid using the plume and deliberately avoid sin quotas and sin reward items in order to fight powerful Realmstalkers. This system is innovative and well implemented and provides an interesting alternative to selectable difficulty modes. If you enjoy challenging SRPGs there is definitely one to be found here.

The level design is fairly well done, although there are a few too many flat bridge-like maps. Much of the strategy in the game comes with positioning for sieges and using powerful skills at the right time to quickly kill enemies. There aren't many 'filler' battles and most of the missions involve fighting a unique boss enemy, or a boss and multiple Realmstalkers if you like a challenge.

In a welcome move, there is no quicksaving or level grinding available.

The game is light on the management side, with very little to worry about in terms of equipment, skills, and items.

Graphics/Sound/Plot

Graphics are well done, especially the Soul Crush animations. Sound is fairly generic but thankfully it can be turned off. The plot is somewhat overdone and dramatic, but the theme of working for an evil god, sacrificing allies with the plume, and brutally overkilling enemies is refreshing compared to the usual JRPG 'save the world' plot.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor review (DS)

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a SRPG with a hybrid combat system. Each unit on the map consists of up to 3 individual combatants. When combat is initiated between two units, the game switches to a 3v3 turn based fight where attack skills are used. Various skills can also be used outside of combat to heal/revive, buff, or debuff. This hybrid system is fairly well balanced and adds complexity to an otherwise bland SRPG.

Skills can be acquired from enemies by assigning your unit to kill the enemy holding the skill. This system adds another layer of strategy to the game, since killing that enemy with a non-assigned unit means you can't acquire it.

Finally, there is a rewards system that takes place at the end of every 3v3 fight. More efficient slaying of enemies is rewarded with extra funds and the ability to give demons new skills. It's a fair system that is well integrated into the game and provides an alternative to level/skill grinding.

The games battle animations and movement cannot be sped up or skipped. For SRPG veterans spoiled on Intelligent Systems fast paced and responsive combat progression and user interface, this game is a drag in comparison. Although I purchased the game, I much preferred playing it on an emulator that can significantly speed things up.

Almost every non-boss battle is just a smattering of generic enemies that can be defeated by rushing forward and attacking anything that moves. There are no spread out start positions that make the player consider where to place their units, and no need for specialized teams for difficult groups of enemies. Most of the boss fights do require some strategy and planning to clear, however.

It is possible to level grind and save/reload abuse quicksaves, although it's not necessary to complete the game.


Micromanagement

The micromanagement between battles consists of equipping skills, swapping party members, purchasing demons at the auction, and fusing demons together to create new ones.

Each of the four PC humans are flanked by two demons that can be bought, created and customized through the games auction and fusion systems. The game allows for a wide variety of party setups depending on the players intended strategy.

The Fusion process involves merging two demons together, inheriting a portion of their stats and a selection of skills. Since demons cannot change their skills at will like humans, Fusion becomes an important system for keeping the most powerful abilities passed on from demon to demon as the game progresses. Most of the micromanagement in the game comes from studying fusion charts and creating strong demons with powerful skills through Fusion that tower over the generic, auction bought ones.

The auction is mostly a gimmick, as all you have to do is lowball the price by about 25-30% and you will immediately win the 'bid' as your CPU competitors give up. After the first day or two inside the game, the auction is only useful for purchasing demons that will be used only in Fusion to create stronger demons.

The Auction, Party, and Fusion menus are not integrated as efficiently as they could be for the task of researching and fusing demons. If you want to use the auction or check your party stats, you must back out of the Fusion menu entirely, which becomes tiring after a while.


Graphics/Sound/Plot

The plot features a time based system where the players choices over 7 'days' worth of time are critical for accessing different routes on day 7. If the player makes selfish, oblivious, or cowardly conversation choices or lets some optional characters die, they will be presented with only one ending route, which happens to be the easiest. In order to access all of the routes the player more or less needs to use a guide, since some of the 'right' choices to access that route can be far from obvious.

It's refreshing how the various routes the player is allowed to choose are morally ambiguous and tied to various competing factions in the game, instead of the usual one way trip to kill the 'evil final boss' to make everything all rainbows and sunshine again.

The games graphics are functional, standard DS fare. Some of the demon art design is interesting, but otherwise the graphics are unremarkable. The music consists of some surprisingly catchy heavy metal and rock, with lots of guitar thrashing. This choice in music works well with the apocalyptic 'survive or die' plot.


Overall

Despite the games drawbacks, there is fun to be had, especially some of the final battles that pit you against steep opposition.