Review – Summon Night 6 Lost Borders

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Starting with Summon Night 5 released in 2015 in Europe and the Americas, BandaiNamco’s series debuted only recently in the West on… PSP! Sony’s unwavering first handheld thus was the first home of this series of strategy RPGs, which had previously been on home consoles too. Therefore, it lead the way to Summon Night 6, now coming to PS4 and PSVita.

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PSVita

Summon Night 6’s story opens on Rage’s (yes, that’s his official name) bucolic life. He lives in an closed and barren world called Filuja… of which he’s the only inhabitant! Filuja’s particularity is that stuff continuously rains from the sky, so Rage can make a living with food cans and other resources fallen from nowhere. This monotonous life will end when he finds actual people coming down. Amu, young and quiet girl bearing a large hunting rifle, experiences the same life and events. Before them, a huge white wall, like the surface of a cocoon. With the help of their new partners, they’ll look for a way to find out the truth about the wall, and solve the mysteries of Filuja.

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PSVita

Amu, Rage and the strange “manager” Yst turn out to be the only new characters of Summon Night 6, because their comrades fallen from the skies all belong to previous episodes of the series. The cast is fairly large tough since the entire Summon Night series turns up for this sixth game. For example, you’ll find Alka from Summon Night 5, Rachel from Summon Night 4 or Natsumi from the very first one among the 30 characters or so. That re-use is hardly an issue for us, because westerners will likely discover all those characters for the first time. The choice offered is more than satisfying and like Fire Emblem, the designs and personalities are varied. Note that in Japan, free DLCs added several secondary characters as playable ones.

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PS4

Ragu/Amu will be able to deepen their relationship with other characters via night talk. This has on impact on the end of the story because very character has its own ending provided the friend level with the main character is maxed. This gives Summon Night 6 lots of different endings.

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PSVita

On the other hand, Summon Night 6 has countless references to the scenario of past episodes, which implies a good knowledge of the series in a whole. Otherwise, conversations are pretty hard to follow. From the point of view of Summon Night 6, all the previous characters come from worlds that are parallel to Filuja, which can even welcome the same person twice, but of different look and destiny. Misunderstandings are frequent and will lead to many comical situations in the dialogs between the characters.

Summon Night 6 features kilometers of chat, most of the time disconnected from the story and, frankly, not stellar even with the best tolerance you can have. The biggest issue is that very little talk is actually dubbed : most of the (never-ending) dialogs are text only and it can be tiring fairly quickly. So Summon Night 6 kinda looks like a Summon Night All Stars, not very immersive because to main story gets drowned in a flood of idle gossip.

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The progression is divided into chapters, each one including a battle, very much like Fire Emblem. That’s not the only resemblance with the king of the genre because the battle screen looks exactly the same as the legendary Path of Radiance of the no less great GameCube : characters are represented in 3D on a squared map also involving the height factor. Distance is also a key-element as weapons have various reach (sword, spears, bows, etc.) and magic can be used too. For example, katanas allow you to attack diagonally and prevent the enemy’s counterattack. The game is full of small parameters like this, creating a wide range of possibilities. As in Super Heroine Chronicle for example, the height difference is to be taken into account because it impacts accuracy.

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But the long list of gameplay elements in Summon Night 6 doesn’t end here. In Summon Night, there is Summon and that’s not coincidence. Each character can summon certain creatures to assist him/her. Only way to use elements and cure, those little friends will be increasingly important as difficulty goes up : tough monsters must be attacked with magic and with the right element which supposes analysis and knowledge. Because like weapons, summon stones can be upgraded at the shop for more power.

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In battle, the summoner can ask nearby characters to assist him and improve the effects of the blow : that’s called Summon Assist. Even better yet, two characters can unite their summons to call a massive and powerful beast : this Summon Burst strikes on a wide zone, which makes it the strongest move in Summon Night 6. Be careful not to hit your other characters though, because friendly fire is activated.

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After the victory screen, there are still tactical choices to be made. Every time a character destroys an enemy unit (and even more for the last one), he/she earns some SP that allows him/her to learn new active or passive skills. There are lots of skills like that and they have extremely precise and varied roles/effects. By analyzing those effects, you can easily build your own playstyle. For example, Enishia can gradually replenish MP to adjacent allies (something you definitely want to have if you rely on powerful summons). “Connect” allows characters to assist each other for physical attacks, “item throw” allow you to heal distant characters, “counter” saves turns, etc. The choice is even larger because when characters change class, they can use a different weapon which multiply the potential skills he/she can use. With all this, Summon Night 6 is great for those who like micro management.

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The game system being that rich, Summon Night 6 would have been among the best S-RPGs if only it hadn’t made some stupid blunders. Difficulty setting is one of them : the challenge is badly distributed in the game, more than half of the chapters being super easy. It’s not uncommon to see your best trained characters taking 1HP damage every turn… in hard mode! The last missions are tougher and thus more interesting, but in a whole it’s not very compelling. Besides, there’s no permadeath and you can swap characters from reserve anytime. The only hardcore element is this : a KO character cannot earn experience. A questionable choice because it affects party balance.

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The Felistella/Media Vision-developed game suffers from other aspects. The first thing a player does in a S-RPG is to overview the map to assess the situation. That’s where it gets annoying : the camera “blocks” around 90° when you try to turn it. There’s just no way to see the map from the desired angle! That might be seen as a detail, but it’s really bothering in actual gameplay. Combat interface could be better, moving and choosing various actions not being very intuitive. Moving distance is also too low, creating bottlenecks within the group.

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Summon Night 6 features some mini-games and secondary activities. Fishing is available and fairly complete with various baits to use. Cooking can keep you busy also, provided you can get ingredients (since they’re pretty rare). Side missions will have you form groups of 3 characters thrown into some sort of survival mode in which they face waves of enemies. It’s a convenient way to get experience, except that here you don’t control the party members : the IA fights on its own, the important thing being to choose allies whose element will have the advantage.

Summon Night 6

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Of a design very much like old Fire Emblem, Summon Night 6 is visually stunning on PSVita : frame-rate and animation never waver, graphically it’s clean and detailed, characters look absolutely wonderful for a portable game. The game is strictly the same on PS4, so this version isn’t very interesting comparatively unless you want to record your gameplay. The sound environment is uneven : sound effects are way to discreet to liven up the atmosphere, but some musics are very cool, like the victory themes or the 3 village melodies.

Benefiting from a rich battle system and a great casting, Summon Night 6 could have been a reference in its genre had the story and challenge been more compelling. Beautiful, but not always passionate, it can still be attractive for fans of the genre for its design and its unit management.

Review – A Rose in the Twilight

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Nippon Ichi Software, or NIS, is not done creating dark and bloody universes. After an outstanding Yomawari, the niche publisher seeks the same success with A Rose in the Twilight. Can this one avoid the drawbacks of the very frustrating Firefly Diary?

You play as Rose, a young girl whose past is unknown, in a 2D puzzle game much like The Firefly Diary. She awakes alone in an abandoned castle and finds herself victim or the Thorn Curse, which in return gives her special powers. Several notes you can pick up on your way tells the history of this curse as the previous cursed person lived it. The story is thoughtfully dark and pessimistic, which prepares the player for the horrific atmosphere.

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Rose can thus do two things : stop time for one object by sucking blood, or make time flow again by granting it. In actual terms, that means stopping a falling rock, make a key fall, etc. Also, she can stop an enemy’s movements and have it move again when useful. She can bear only one «stock» in the rose on her back, so you need to think well about where to release it. In case you’re stuck (which inevitably happens), Rose can simply commit suicide so as to respawn at the last checkpoint. Yes, that’s the kind of atmosphere…

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While wandering in the castle, Rose will meet a Titan. But this one won’t attack and even offers to help the child to get out of the place. That’s where you get to see the true gameplay of Rose and the Castle of Twilight, because Rose and the giant are essential to each other. It will be able to carry Rose to help her go through traps unscathed, or throw (!) her towards higher ground. It can also carry heavy objects in order to take them out of the path, or place them to create it. Unlike Rose who’ll die at the first contact with an enemy or a hazard, the giant is invincible and can go far deep in the level to bring back stuff or push switches. To make it more complicated, Rose and her big pal must be together to exit a zone.

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A Rose in the Twilight features a large array of puzzles, varied and of increasing complexity. There’s nothing obvious and you’ll often have to consider the problem from different angles. In short, think out of the box. The game never feels repetitive because it constantly adds new elements to think about : the watering can make plants grow and stimulates insects, the canon clears the path, barrels can be either a weapon or a hiding place… You’ll also be challenged in filling paintings according to various rules, or placing books in order following some far fetched narrative.

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Fortunately, the gameplay is lot more precise than The Firefly Diary : the unbearable inertia is gone, and the fact that you control both characters independently (you switch simply by pressing R) prevents any frustration. Yet it’s not perfect since the controls have some issues. Square is used for almost everything, which brings confusion. For example, the giant pick up Rose with square, but the same button is used to throw her whereas it is circle to just put her on the ground. In those conditions, the player is likely to throw her when not wanted, and sometimes a bit too far… This problem applies to objects : I’ve already sent a bench in her face by accident! Another small problem lies in the “moving” sequences (while sliding or on moving platforms) because the jump command is not always very comfortable to use. Still, the general gameplay is definitely a huge improvement compared to the previous game.

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This game is sinister. It is even darker than Yomawari. A Rose in the Twilight revolves around themes like death, suffering, exclusion… It’s actually an experience of constant death, Rose being trapped by the curse in the life & death cycle. This focus on dark themes makes NIS’s new game an truly unique but wicked experience, without being negative. The progression also has the suspense and the fear of the unknown which was so terrific in Yomawari. The discreet music lets hear the sound of your steps in a quite eerie manner. The design, as usual with NIS, is astonishing by the contrast between bright red and grey. The interface is one more very well designed, the environments have something hooking into them, the rendering on OLED is perfect (quite superior to the previous games) and the animation is lively.

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As much as it’s dark, A Rose in the Twilight keeps an emotional touch just like Yomawari. There are those flashbacks that tell you the background of the story, some being very sad or disturbing. For that you’ll have to find pools of blood hidden in the stages, sort of long sidequest throughout the game. The ending part was truly remarkable, as it as two possible conclusions, one of which being downright cruel. Consequently, the road to the good ending was absolutely thrilling.

After Yomawari, Nippon Ichi Software is still at its best in A Rose in the Twilight. The design still unique, the atmosphere still great, the emotions still lively… It’s again outstanding art, but also an excellent (although short) puzzle game.

Review – Atelier Firis, the Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

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Yearly series are not seen very well those days. The annual cycle is said to hinder innovation, making experiences generic. Still, many developers like Gust refuse to rethink their calendar. Then, is the Assassin’s Creed-like “pause” necessary ? With Atelier Firis, Nagano’s developer proves that wrong.

Firis is a young girl working at the mine. Nothing illegal, the girl simply has a gift to discover the best ore. Living in Etorna, underground town 100% focused on mining, Firis accomplishes zealous work. Still she comes to feel a growing need for adventure, and soon asks to go outside. Reluctant to see his best employee leaving, the elder throws an insane challenge : she has to become a certified alchemist within one year. But there Sophie suddenly barges in the town and teaches the basics to Firis. The latter now has knowledge to start her long journey. From this point, the player is as amazed as Firis herself at discovering the outside world, for Atelier Firis is now big large open world game.

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Atelier Firis is subtitled “The Mysterious Journey” and this is for a reason. Like I said, it’s a full-fledged open world in which you can wander as you wish, with very limited indications and a really rough world map in hand. Before she can apply for the national alchemy exam, Firis must receive 3 recommendation letters from other certified alchemists. Those ones have their atelier in towns, which are sometimes lost very deep in the game areas. Better still, there are more than 3 of them : depending on their choices when exploring, two different players are likely to do very different walkthroughs! Each time you meet one of those alchemists, they’ll ask you to create more or less complex alchemical objects from the material available in the nature around you.

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When you first come to a new area, the map is blank and you have to discover the local geography as you go. You don’t know where the villages are, where the exits are and you do find sidequests at every corner! Most of the playable characters don’t even join your party automatically : you have to find them by exploring the whole world and meet certain conditions to have them join you. Caves have no map at all and you need to remember the path you’ve taken when going back. It is pure, intended and great exploring that drives the player to search, think and… choose. Should I head towards that big city to the East, go South to explore the forest and find more quests, or turn back a bit to avoid missing things? It’s a permanent dilemma you feel in how you should proceed and how you should organize your time.

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Time. This is the big thing that will shape your experience in Atelier Firis : adventure in limited time is back. You’ve got 360 days to get the letters and show up at the exam center. Hours go by as you walk or every time you perform an action such as collecting resources, destroying a rock, fishing or create stuff in your atelier. Now try to answer the question of the previous paragraph : clock is ticking, the pressure is already there… After 2 years trying to open the series to newcomers, Atelier is back to its fundamentals, to the hardcore item/time management that brings that unique pleasure.

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An additional parameter to take into account is your LP, the moving points. LP diminish as you walk (and dive if you run away from fights). Watching this indicator is important in order to rest when needed, for low a LP figure make you collect less resources. LP at zero means Firis faints and you lose an important amount of time until she recovers. In the same way, if your party loses in combat, most of the collected material is lost. Then you regularly need to improve your gear, which will have you spend entire days in the atelier since those recipes are quite demanding. Stock management changes dramatically in this episode since some ingredients are found only in certain parts of certain areas.

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That makes it even more crucial to think and rationalize every trip because useless moves are a danger in limited time. You must bear in mind (or note down) where you can find the key items because the encyclopedia (fairly well-made for that matters) won’t tell you the specifics. To ease the player’s burden, the devs did implement checkpoints where you can teleport yourself instantly : this way, you can go through the areas quickly when visiting a 2nd time and beyond. The day/night cycle, as well as changing weather, is implemented and will impact the sidequests : some NPCs will only be present between 10 am and 6 pm for example. Similarly, some quests only happen during snowstorms, etc.

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There you’ll ask me : where is the bloody atelier? Pretty much everywhere, in fact. Firis owns a portable atelier that she sets up like a tent next to campfires. In alchemy itself, once again numerous parameters are to be taken into account, which should please brainstorming fans. In the Atelier series, the value and power of an alchemy object is determined by its quality (figure and letter on the top) and the traits on it. There are two types of traits : inner traits and inherited traits. Inner traits becomes better as you choose ingredients with the right color code and the best coefficient for that color (which is called 成分 in Japanese).

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Inherited properties comes from the base items you use, with a maximum of 3. But there’s a snag here in Atelier Firis : you can’t get the three at the beginning. Every alchemical object has some sort of charge level you must gradually improve to get 3 free slots to put traits. That means you have to remake every weapon, every armor, every bomb, every potion countless times to get the best of them. A very questionable choice that slows the player down considerably.

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Luckily enough, catalysts will ease the pain. Catalysts are substances that add positives effects when mixing your ingredients : save a few hours, improve the coefficient of a certain color, make an extra item, and free 1, 3 or 3 slots for traits. When mixing, ingredients take Tetris-like forms and all you have to do is to cover the lines on the grid. You can run out of good catalysts pretty quickly so there’s still a lot of tedious work remaining (good luck to make a good bow, for example).

The recipe system is kinda annoying too. Despite the (partial) return of alchemy books, Firis will still have to seek enlightenment in order to get the know-how. Like in the previous one, they unlock once you’ve completed a set of actions like using an particular object, producing another, beating some type of monster, etc. The issue here is that the learning come be really long in some cases, with few hints to guide you. As a consequence, you can lack necessary items at some point of the adventure. Armors are incredibly difficult to develop, not to mention the reviving Chalice which you virtually can’t get in the first 30 hours!

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On the more positive side, Atelier Firis introduces super-alchemy : complex recipes that take a lot of time and not 4 or 5 ingredients, but a hundred of them! The thing also has a target quality so you have to proceed while calculating an average quality. Collecting the right amount of resources here takes quite some time and organization.

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Once you’ve come to the last city with the 3 letters in your pocket, you can head to the exam center. That was a fairly amazing sequence, very unique and surprisingly detailed. There are three types of tests and a surprise challenge that will remind people of Arland. In short, you must show your knowledge of alchemy, of the world around you and your understanding of quality and power mechanics. That was not easy at all and definitely makes a good innovating that should please old-timers.

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After the degree, the game is cleared but not over. It enters a new phase in which time isn’t limited any more. Gust finally finds the right balance between old and new : no need to choose between limited and unlimited time, let’s have both! Without a time limit, the player can freely focus on doing its best to complete current side stories, dig new quests, fine tune his gear and deepen the bonds with other characters. There are a few challenges that leads to various characters endings, a dozen of them to be precise.

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Here again, Atelier Firis is impressive by the volume it features. There’s as many things left to to after the story as before, maybe actually more. Dozens of hours after dozens of hours, the game looks infinite as new challenges keep popping one after another. Final proof that Gust has perfectly grasped what an open world should provide to the player. The number of quests nears a whopping 400! True, most quests are divided into tiny sub-quests (which inflates the number), but what you should keep in mind is that you’ll be real busy in Atelier Firis for at least 80 hours. Many of those quests feature advanced alchemy challenges and drive the player to explore even more, to the edge of world. Distant and sometimes very well hidden areas have a few bosses of formidable strength, and seriously more impressive than in Atelier Sophie. Of progressive difficulty, the challenge here is way more compelling than in the last game, the fights far more awesome, and even reminded me of the Arland trilogy. One of the bosses is called The One form the Deep Waters, obvious reference to the dragon in Atelier Meruru.

Yet fighting isn’t the focus in Atelier Firis since there is no boss in the main story. All the bosses previously mentioned are optional and left there as a trial for completionists. Gust therefore chose to lay a base of gameplay centered on management and exploring. But battles of course occur time to time, and the system used is back to very simple actions : attack, skills and objects. The Chain gauge actually borrows Atelier Shallie’s system, as assists are triggered when it reaches a certain percentage. At 130%, you get a first special blow from the last character that has played, and at 150% the character you choose unleashes its ultimate attack. Worryingly, the drawbacks of Atelier Shallie are imported as well, that is to say that the percentage will decrease every time you receive damage, which often leads to missed opportunities and less exciting combat.

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The best is yet again to rely on high statistics and high end gear, and Atelier Firis brings good stuff for alchemy fans here. Let’s remember that the principle in Atelier games is that the player creates himself everything he needs to attack and defend (bombs, potions, weapons & armors, etc.), while optimizing the quality of the equipment to extremes. Like in Atelier Sophie, you can find powerful passive skills on material early enough in the game, like “saving skill” which increase the skill power while reducing its cost. But in Atelier Firis, extra rare properties of bombastic naming are within reach too. For example, 溢れる力 (HP+35), not to mention 生命の力 (HP+50), are collectable in the last areas right at the start. The increased chances to get overpowered traits re-balances the game, as well as the fact that each character can now equip 2 weapons at the same time, and gives the player room for improvement in order to tackle the last opponents.

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Alas, Gust didn’t go as far as revolutionizing the graphics : the game looks barely better than Atelier Sophie, worse in some aspects. We’re still quite not at Atelier Escha&Logy level for example, which was looking fairly good on the PS3. The outside nature is somewhat prettier, journeying being the whole point, but some characters are still poorly made. It’s even worse for NPCs, who look like the same over and over. Animations aren’t as great as before either and for some reason, frame-rate has a real hard time in forests (!?). In pure technical aspects, it’s definitely under average and expectations. We’ll have to wait for Nights of Azure 2 and Blue Reflection to see Gust embracing modern engines. There’s one big red cart to draw : in 1.07, the Japanese version still suffers from critical bugs, like Firis not moving and disappearing quests… Let’s hope that KoeiTecmo Europe has that covered. Music makes a great come-back : the OST is great, lots of field tracks make exploring even more enjoyable with low tempo and then orchestral elan like we’ve always had and loved in the series.

With a massive amount of quests, surprises, bosses, hidden challenges in its brand new open world, Atelier Firis marks the biggest revolution in the series in years. In today’s gaming world overrun by linearity, the freedom and purity of the exploring in Atelier Firis are a real treasure. You can lament the old engine, the drawbacks of combat, the bugs, but Atelier’s golden age is back with Firis and nothing can be more delighting.

Review – Tales of Berseria

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Hard to explain the story of Tales of Berseria without spoiling it like the western trailer did. So let’s skip the details and just say that the heroine Velvet travels seeking vengeance against a man called Artorius, who happens to have been her stepbrother. Velevet and Artorius’s entwined fates take a great importance since she’s so determined to slaughter the man who’d come to be the older brother she’s never had.

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Tales of Berseria main topic is resentment and Velvet is the right incarnation of that. Transformed into a gôma (demon, former word to designate Tales of Zestiria’s hyôma), she manages to keep a human appearance, save her now ghostly black hand. That cursed arm allows her to eat onter gôma and humans, which she will do without faltering if it serves her purposes. Locked in a the highest security jail in the world, she’ll eventually escape thanks to the help of a Seirei (former name of Tales of Zestiria’s Tenzoku) called Shirizu.

It’s a personal thought, but the major problem I see in this latest Tales is that it struggles to go beyond the theme of vengeance : the main story has too few plot twists and doesn’t show moral values as strong as in past episodes. There’s no transcending the basic setting to go towards a more complex truth. The narrative is kinda even and didn’t always keep my interest on 70 hours of play.

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While the main story can disappoint in a whole, it is well structured despite the lack of major events in the first stages of the adventure. Tales of Berseria sets a few interesting secondary themes like child/parent relationship, focused on Eleanor. The young Templar has a major role in the story and will be at the center of the most emotional moments. She is the character representing principles and values, herself driven to cause irreparable harm while being tormented by her past.

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The other interesting aspect of the narrative is that it explains who Tales of Zestiria’s world (it takes place hundreds of years before the latter) was formed. It does it extremely well because it makes you experience the genesis of key-elements of the former in remarkable fashion. In particular, the birth of the Kamui was a powerful scene, maybe the climax of the game. You also come to witness the rise of the dôshi (the hero of the people, Sorey’s role in Tales of Zestiria) who is… Artorius himself! The “bad guy” of Tales of Berseria is actually the savior of the world because he’s nearly eradicated the gôma that threatened humans. Hero or not, Velvet’s hate will never falter against this man who took everything from her, and she doesn’t care if the whole world turns against her. This is the greatness of Tales of Berseria’s narrative : you actually fight against what you were in Tales of Zestiria. Good is evil, and evil is good. This clever point of view of the story is most interesting to experience.

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Cutscenes and the general direction support the narrative in a quite efficient way, but here again it’s towards the end that you’ll be really blown away. Some real time cutscenes are among the greatest in the series, like the duel between Rokurô and Shigure, or the final confrontation. The extreme precision with which battles are drawn is something you rarely find in JRPGs, at least not at this level of quality. Tales of Berseria also has I think more convincing villains than the previous game. The tokutô taimashi, the elite templars at the head of the seiryô (totalitarian Church founded by Artorius) are formidable opponents and have close ties with some of your characters. Those characters have a sort of powerful aura in them, a charisma not especially coming from their “wickedness” but more more in their strong beliefs and the honor they put in them.

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Your party won’t disappoint either, because as always BandaiNamco’s character design team makes an amazing work to describe and give an unforgettable personality to the heroes. It kinda came as a surprise, but the most fascinating characters has actually been Aizen : the lieutenant of the valorous pirates you’re journeying with is victim of a curse that makes him the most unlucky person in the world. Every time he casts his coin representing the goddess on one side and the reaper on the other side, he gets the reaper side! The famous skits of the series are of course back and they’re full of hilarious joke often related to his bad luck. Besides, the way he corresponds with Edna through letters is extremely fun too, but also touching when you know what fate awaits the brother and sister.

The battle system is a variant of the one seen in Tales of Zestiria : we’re still in real time and the action is still based on dodging. L1 is used to enter defensive state and trigger sidestepping and such, so as to replace yourself when attacking. By default, the character moves freely on the battle zone, so he can escape danger more easily. This time, X, Δ, O and all have one unique combo or magic. For example, Velvet performs a kick combo of fire element on O while while X makes her draws her hidden blade. Eleanor has a more hybrid attack style, composed with efficient spear combos and high-end magic. Note that you can modify all those combos anytime by inserting the skills you prefers to any of the buttons. You’re not even forced to stay on the same buttons : you can mix them to create further combo combinations.

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The general architecture of battle too is close to Zestiria’s. There’s something called Soul gauge divided between small blue spots that sets the number of hits you can chain. Above this number, the gauge turns red and you may get countered. You therefore have to keep a minimum «stock» of blows at all times. The maximum level of Soul can go up and down, which might be trouble for the player. You can get Soul points in the following cases : by stunning an enemy, destroying an enemy or picking a small blue square on the battle area (in this later case, they pop if an ally is KO or when you dodge). Precise and reactive players who will manage to keep a high level of Soul at all times and fully enjoy the fight. But if you have less good reflexes, the system is highly punitive.

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I’ve put some thinking into this all long my 72 hours of play, and I keep thinking that the system is not ideal, even more so if you compare to Zestiria or Xillia1&2. It’s certainly exhilarating when you have the upper hand in battle because chaining combos and Breaksoul feels dynamic and awesome, but at the same time it’s really unfair to the player if he makes mistakes because he finds himself lacking Soul. In such case, getting back in the fight is difficult and you often have to wait because you can perform long enough combos. The other downside is the boss battles : while you always have some chance to get back Soul against countless small enemies, it’s however quite rare against a solo boss, who by the way is resistant to stun. As a consequence, the boss fights, which are the pinnacle of any JRPG, here in Tales of Berseria actually are the less exciting ones. BGs are back and are still used to unleash the powerful Mystic Artes, but you need to perform Breaksoul to earn them. So no Soul → no Breaksoul → no Mystic Artes. Worse, you lose BGs when you are KO… a sad vicious circle that makes boss fights almost a chore.

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By pushing R2 longer, you can perform the Breaksoul I’ve been talking about. This is a special ability unique to each character and that adds some strategy to this Tales of. For example, Rokurô can launch a powerful counter after a successful guard on an enemy’s physical attack. Magilou is a nightmare for magical creatures because she can cancel and absorb magic from casting enemies, herself launching a magical counterattack too. Eleanor launches the enemy upwards to follow with an aerial combo. Breaksoul being able to break enemy guard, it is key to victory because opponents are highly liable to defend. Breaksoul also makes you recover HP and BG, but costs a Soul point. The tactical intend of this system is very clear and the swift character changing makes it quite relevant. Note that there sometimes is a second Breaksoul (like Eleanor’s), which heals you even more and allows for longer combos, then ultimately to the amazing 2nd Mystic Artes.

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Velvet will call the demon in her arm to steal a enemy skill. Similarly to Final Fantasy’s Blue Magic, the attack that Velvet will launch depends on the type of enemy encountered. The boss in the video gives a sort of cross-shaped blue flame whereas by «stealing» Ents, Velvet will scratch the ground violently, causing a mini-earthquake. Those powerful skills have cost : Velvet’s HP will gradually diminish when her black hand is deployed.

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The equipment menu is also much like in Tales of Zestiria, but the whole system has totally changed. Now the characters can learn passive skills from the pieces of equipment, provided they keep those on them long enough. Pretty much what you had in Final Fantasy IX for example. Upgrading equipment is a major part of Tales of Berseria’s gameplay : you can dismantle old gear to get raw materials and reinforce new weapons and armor. Each time you upgrade, the piece of equipment receive bonus stats, additional passive skills and greater Soul & BG upper limit.

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In terms of side content, Tales of Berseria has quite a lot in store. First thing, you can send your ship explore far waters. It can come back with new recipes, ingredients or even the much desired swimsuits for your characters. Those may not be extremely pretty compared to the DLC outfits, but at least they’re free. You can also earn “treasures” which are easter eggs to former Tales of games. That said, it’s less compelling than Tales of Zestiria’s “discoveries”.

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Tales of Berseria has a couple of poor mini-games, except for one : it’s a card game very much like the Japanese game koi-koi, made with cards representing former Tales of characters. You draw a card each turn, and you try to regroup them by game or by role. A quite interesting mini-game that reminds us of Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Xillia 2. Another optional event, “dangerous” battles (when you encounter two enemy symbols at once) sometimes lead to even more dangerous fight featuring rare monsters. The game also contains hidden islands interesting in one particular aspect : that’s the only place where you will be able to use your PS4 share. BandaiNamco unfortunately keeps that retarded mentality of denying player the ability of sharing their experience of the main story.

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Finally each character has his/her own sidequest in which you’ll have to revisit every town and every dungeon. Rokurô continues his quest for power by chasing powerful beasts, Magilou will organize comic performances, Laphicet tries to make a legendary elixir, Aizen is looking for present for Edna… More amazing still, Millia and Jude from Tales of Xillia will infiltrate Velvet’s world in a rather surprising form!

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Exploration is a little disappointment in Tales of Berseria. Level design is nothing special, and dungeons are significantly less interesting than Tales of Zestiria’s. Only one had you solve a real puzzle to advance, the only one that made exploration a little exciting. Graphically too, there’s no revolution in sight : still developing on PS3 at the same time, BandaiNamco keeps a worn out 3D engine. Characters still get beautiful models, animations and moves are precise and lively, but the environment around you looks mediocre at best. Dungeons in particular are seriously bland, and are direct copies of what we’ve seen in Tales of Zestiria. Only advantage of this new Tales of, teleport bottles can get you into town in a flash.

To conclude, still a fascinating Tales of to experience despite the somewhat flattish main story. Scenario structure, direction, cutscenes, characters and sidequests enrich the game experience more than enough to spend long hours of play. I still consider it a little less good than Tales of Zestiria because the battle system is not perfect and exploring not as interesting.

Sony, the total supremacy

 

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It’s over. Nintendo bought as much time as it could. The entire gaming world had hold its breath for months, but now everybody has shown his hand. The situation is clear, there is no doubt on the current status of the gaming market : Sony has achieved crushing dominance over its rivals. Nintendo Switch is weak, its line-up even more so and its so-called partners are doing nothing but lip-service. How did we get to that, and where are we going?

To find some answers, let’s first have a look to Famitsu’s top 100 chart, published in a recent issue. How can Switch seem so feeble when top ten rankings show Nintendo owning Japan? It’s very trivial : developers and publishers, unlike journalists don’t simply look at top ten. So let’s borrow their point of view and observe the top 50 (49 actually because of the title line) of combined SKUs. As usual, the sources are GAF, Vgchartz’s digital sales thread and Dengeki’s weekly rankings.

The first thing to notice besides the (deserved) domination of the superb Pokemon Sun&Moon, is that Sony now has a majority of games here : 29 PSV/PS3/PS4 games against 20 on 3DS/WiiU. If you look in detail, you’ll also notice that 9 out of 20 games on Nintendo systems are from Nintendo itself, whereas there’s only one first party game (Uncharted 4) in the Playstation best-sellers. Third parties have therefore a lot more business opportunities on PSVita or PS4 (knowing that PS3 is almost phased out). Another parameter of growing importance : the digital purchase rate is quite higher on Playstation platforms, around 10% (22% for The Division!). Digital reduces variable costs and improves the margin. Publishers love that.

Japanese publishers came to be wary of the 3DS/WiiU audience, hungry for kiddy games which is rarely what 3rd party developers want to do. A major part of the 3DS/WiiU best-sellers is aimed at children (but also at adults in the case of Pokemon) so Japanese 3rd parties naturally prefer addressing and older and more core audience, and that audience plays on Playstation. Best proof of that is Level-5 : hugely successful on 3DS with Yôkai Watch, the company didn’t go as far as announcing Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom for Nintendo Switch. As a side-note, observe that both Dragon Quest Heroes II and Dragon Quest Builders sold more than Dragon Quest Monster Joker 3 : Nintendo consoles are no longer the home of SquareEnix’s famous series.

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So what happened on 1/13? Everyone was hoping/expecting Nintendo to turn the tides with a flurry of powerful exclusives. That failed to happen, and it’s the direct consequence of what we’ve seen above. Big games are still pretty far away : Xenoblade 2 (splendid character design this time around) gets a vague 2017 and Fire Emblem Warriors looks like development has barely started (EDIT : it’s confirmed for fall, so things are looking up slightly). The launch line-up is downright ridiculous : besides Zelda Breath of the Wild and 1 2 Switch, some party game looking like the despicable Wii Sports, all games are ports from PS4. Nintendo has lost the initiative, they’re completely out of the race.

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The third party part of the conference is ice cold. Atlus quickly mentions a new Shin Megami Tensei project for Switch, but also confirms a 3DS one, just in case… As a consequence, the exciting Project ReFantasy must be for PS4. Many wondered what Nippon Ichi Software (whose clients have been Playstation players for years of not decades) could do on Switch, and the publisher answered by saying they were providing «serious» support. It so happens that the only thing NIS has in store for Switch is a Disgaea 5 port, that is to say their biggest commercial failure. Switch is not getting NIS’s brand new games The Witch and the 100 Knights 2 (PS4) or Exile Election(‘PS4/PSVita). Far from being serious in its support, NIS actually seriously makes a fool of Nintendo.

SquareEnix has more in the works. Dragon Quest XI for Switch is briefly talked about, and Dragon Quest Heroes I&II are confirmed as launch games. Then comes Octopath Traveler, a 2D JRPG very much like Grand Kingdom and made by the developer of Bravely Default (which confirms the latter as deceased). However, nowhere in the Famitsu article it is mentioned to be exclusive. A PS4 or PSVita port could come quickly. No other JRPG is scheduled for Switch, and that won’t come as a surprise if you look at the chart. In the top 50, major 3DS JRPGs (Shin Megami Tensei IV Final, Etrian Odyssey) are flattened by numerous competitors on Playstation platforms, including the disappointing Star Ocean 5 and the discreet World of Final Fantasy. The big names of JRPGs sell better on Playstation and 2016 showed that again : Persona 5 beats the series’ record and Tales of Berseria is more or less flat compared to Tales of Zestiria.

But the most embarrassing moment is when Toshihiro Nagoshi comes on stage. The director of Yakuza games faces the public, speaks a couple of gentle words on Switch and, probably too busy counting the hefty profits made from Yakuza 6 in Asia, goes back without any confirmation he’s working on Switch at all. Suda 51, columnist extraordinaire at Dengeki, doesn’t really ease the worries : Let it Die’s creator shows a random artwork of No More Heroes while speaking some strange monologue. All this sets the eerie impression that nothing is ready, that maybe nothing is really decided for Switch. Capcom, Nintendo’s most faithful ally, is a no-show. What happens to Monster Hunter 5 and Great Ace Attorney 2? Will Switch even get them? KoeiTecmo, besides working closely with Nintendo on Fire Emblem Warriors, has Nobunaga’s Ambition Power up kit and Romance of the 3 Kingdoms Power up kit (it weakest software) for Switch. Games like Ni-Ô, Dynasty Warriors 9, Blue Reflection, Musô Stars and Nights of Azure 2 stay as Playstation exclusives. Skittish Japanese publishers are actually avoiding Nintendo as much as possible, and it’s a complete disaster for Switch : as it is now, it wouldn’t even take one customer from Vita.

The West is the biggest question mark and a huge stake for Switch. Bethesda confirms Skyrim Switch, but the game is far from ready despite being out for PS4 and XboxOne. Comes Electronic Arts, whose representative looked like at a burial : FIFA Switch is announced, but we won’t see anything of it. Despite its continuous praise for Switch, Ubisoft is not at the event Still, it has some oldies to port on Switch : Rayman Legends (remember, that WiiU exclusive), Just Dance and Steep. Pathetic is the word, Nintendo’s new system is going to be smashed into pieces on Western markets.

Nintendo mentions more than 80 titles in development for Switch, BandaiNamco promised a Tales of at some point… Sure. Crysis 3, Ghost Recon Online and Alien Colonial Marines were to be released on WiiU too. Such titles had seen their development stopped the second their publishers realized the audience didn’t fit. At least this time, Ubisoft doesn’t go as far as announcing Ghost Recon Wildlands for Switch : history shows that it would have little success on that platform, provided it could run on it. You also have to consider the issue of a new console that is coming right in the middle of a generation, which had never happened before. How should developers react? They’re already working on install bases of dozens of millions systems where the business is flourishing. Why would they make extra effort, let alone exclusives for an underpowered system that has zero install base? From a third party point of view, it’s just money thrown by the window.

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Switch’s other problem is itself. The open world (although we’re not sure of that yet) in Super Mario Odyssey is ugly and full of aliasing. It looks terrible compared to Watchdogs, a nearly three-year old PS4 game, and it so happens that precise tech specs have not been made public. Surely are they as bad as the leak published by Digital Foundry. We can now be certain that the most ambitious PS4 games cannot be be ported on Switch : forget Battlefield, Read Dead Redemption or Mass Effect Andromeda. The share button exists, but the official site already tells us that some games will block the feature. Anyone who’s tried to save a screenshot in Pokemon Sun&Moon knows how much you can trust Nintendo on that subject. The manufacturer also indicates that game «generally» won’t be region-locked. I translate that by « some games will be region-locked and you won’t be able to play them on your EU system ». So in fact region free doesn’t really exist and all this looks like a mere PR stunt. The most striking point is the total lack of trophies : why would today’s gamers even want to play their games without a centralized achievement system?

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But Nintendo might actually be targeting another audience with Switch. The conference, for most part, was focusing on Switch’s biggest innovation : playing without screen. Switch players will be invited to face each other in party games in which the screen is accessory. Table tennis, Rock/Paper/Scissors game, boxing… Switch aims at local communities rather than at solo players. In the same way, Splatoon players will be able to gather anytime, anywhere to face each other in multiplayer. In other words, Nintendo is asking casual gamers to open their wallets again to avoid facing Sony directly. Future will tell if this audience embraces the concept and if it’s large enough to make a difference. Nintendo still believes in the miraculous game/idea that sells loads of system, but nothing proves that can still happen. Rare exceptions aside, whole librairies of games sell systems, and nothing else.

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What about Microsoft then? The American recently made the brilliant decision to cancel its most hyped exclusive. From that, it’s clear that Redmond’s firm lost its will to fight : they timidly recommend Sea of Thieves and Halo Wars 2 in replacement. At best Microsoft can cling to the second place and do business in Sony’s shadow.

Miracles exist, but Nintendo Switch will need a really big one to avoid critical failure after that poor reveal conference. Sony has now more than 50 exclusives and welcomes all the commercially huge multiplatform games that Switch won’t have. Sony succeeded in taking market shares while building a win-win situation with 3rd parties, something that Nintendo is unable to do. The Kyoto-based company hence ends up totally isolated and powerless to compete. The concept of an hybrid system is really attractive, Xenoblade 2 looks awesome but Switch won’t achieve much without a strong library of games. And as a matter of fact, Nintendo has no real ally at the moment. As it is, it can just satisfy Nintendo loyalists and casual gamers not yet addicted to Super Mario Run. What is at stake for the Big N now is whether it can keep its “big” for long or if it become a regular publisher, light years behind a leader even more hegemonic than in the PS2 era.

Review – Fate Extella

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Extremely large media mix IP, Fate has gone into anime, visual novels & mangas. But it of course doesn’t fail to visit the gaming business to meet the demand for more interactivity. So after Fate Extra and Fate Extra CCC on PSP, it’s the turn of Fate Extella on PSVita.

Fate GO, Fate Zero, Fate Extra, Fate Stay Night, Fate Apocrypha, Fate Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya… Not always easy to get facts right in the sprawling Fate universe. The aim of Fate Extella is thus very simple : to offer an action game picking charismatic characters in all those sub-IPs so that fans can play as their favorite characters. Altella and Elizabeth come from the smartphone game Fate Grand Order, No Name Archer is well-known for being Rin Tôsaka’s servant in Ufotable’s anime adaptation of Fate Stay Night, and Nero & Tamamo come from the previous PSP games. In Fate’s lore, some humans called magi or masters can summon the spirits of past heroes, reincarnated into powerful servants. You are to expect the evil Roman emperor Nero as a extrovert Blond girl, Attila as a tsundere girl and, more in line with history, Alexander the Great as an old and bold king. That’s a total of 16 playable characters in Fate Extella, with both handsome men and sexy girls. So no one gets left behind here.

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Fate Extella’s story happens after Fate Extra and Fate Extra CCC : the Holy Grail War is over and your main character is already crowned king of SE.RA.PH, virtual domain set by the Moon Cell, itself a central system measuring and controlling activity on Earth. The main character first appears with his/her servant Nero Claudius, who de facto become regent of SE.RA.PH. Their reign however won’t be peaceful as Tamamo No Mae, another servant from the Holy Grail War, starts invading their territory.

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Altella, another spirit, will barge in this struggle to power not to conquer, but to destroy all. This particular event foretells greater trials for the servants, which go beyond the Holy Grail War. Each of the three has a team involving other heroes, so Fate Extella shares out good and evil a bit like Dissidia does for Final Fantasy. The player is invited to experience the story from the three different points of view, three alternate futures that shall lead to an ideal fate in the lovable true end.

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Likable on its principles, the story of Fate Extella is a little less exciting in the way it’s told : its structure is basically repetitive and vary only in the very last chapter, which is more interesting to follow. But before it, you can’t help thinking you’re doing the same game 3 times with 3 different characters. Note that purely narrative part are quite long (you often spend more time between chapters than playing) with lots of raw text in the middle of dialogs. In doing so, Fate Extella gets back to its roots of visual novel, even at risk of annoying players eager to enter the fray. It remains that those sequences have a strong poetic tone and excellent writing. A good read, but here again they could have made it more concise.

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Besides that, dialogs still a have a strong sense of humor : driven by their unstoppable love for the main character and their own rivalry, Nero and Tamamo will keep making a fool of each other or come up with hilarious strange words. Their behavior is clearly over-the-top and lives up to the craziest JRPGs. Strangely, this wacky talk balanced by very sophisticated language, with complex use of Japanese kanjis and rare vocabulary. Once more, the redundancy of situations can be boring.

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The combat area in Fate Extella is divided in several little sectors. The rules are pretty simple : you have to take a set number of sectors to make the boss appear. Once you’ve defeated him, the level is cleared. To make a sector your own, you first have to sweep dozens of basic (but sometimes threatening) enemies to make “aggressors” come down. Those much tougher entities are the guardians of the sector : you have to destroy three or more to secure the sector.

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But that is easier said than done, because the opposing side isn’t going to stay idle while you march on its soil. Foes counterattack at every occasion, harass your sectors relentlessly and can even invade them from afar by devices called “plants”. Those strange UFOs can indeed send enemy troops from and to any part of map. You therefore have to eliminate them in priority, even it that means going all the way to the other side of the map. Thanks to those powerful means, opponents progress very quickly and your sectors are in a constant state of hemorrhage. Besides, enemy heroes will regularly stand on your way, slowing you down. Fate Extella is an action game with permanent pressure, because you always play on the brink of defeat! The game won’t even hesitate to throw you on map controlled 90% by the enemy, where surrender is a question of minutes! Up to the player to rush towards key-sectors and unleash his fighting spirit. Sensation are guaranteed.

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Your arsenal of combos rely on variations of square and triangle buttons, a bit like Senran Kagura Estival Versus in fact. The good thing is that it ensure a good variety in gameplay while keeping the game very accessible. The same pattern being applied to every character, you can switch between stories without having to learn everything again. However, the three main heroines do have a fighting style of their own : Nero prefers shield/sword combos, Tamamo casts fire/ice/wind spells, while Altella boasts the most impressive combos with her polymorphic rainbow blade. To allow faster progression, each character has 3 trump cards.

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Extella maneuver is a series of blows targeting every foe in the vicinity : it’s useful to take out several aggressors at the same time. Moondrive is a transformation that makes you temporarily invincible and the hôgu, the most powerful capacity and the one that makes the most impressive cut-scenes, blows everything in a sector. Even if you master the use of those abilities, victory is far from certain but you do keep the experience gained after losing. This way, missions become gradually less difficult, so that no one gets stuck. The boss characters, of seriously dumb AI, are still extremely disappointing. On the minus side, changing characters in the story is very limited, since you can switch to the current lieutenant and no one else. A bit of variety would have been welcomed here.

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So we’re definitely happy to have side-stories for every character. «Story» might be a little exaggerated since the actual scenario is thin. Elizabeth’s stands out though, because her story is really fun and draws the best of her yandere personality : she will finally fulfill her evil ambitions and crush her rivals. This mode is a good occasion to fully enjoy the cast, not to mention that secondary characters’ movesets are as good as the main ones.

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Combos and skills are original and varied. Jeanne d’Arc for example fight with a spear with a large flag on the top of it, also drawing on her knight sword from time to time. The holy maiden however heavily relies on her hôgu, considerably more powerful than any other and which, reference to History, costs her one life. Seriously challenging, those side-stories are a clever way to enhance to general value of the game.

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If Marvelous’s technical mastery on PSVita needed further proof, Fate Extella is more evidence that the publisher take handheld fans seriously. Despite numerous elements and lot of movement on screen, the framerate knows no problem on PSVita. In fact, the game pixelates slightly to keep framerate stable at any time. A drawback for greater good, easily forgivable since character modeling is quite above average.

Fate Extella is a fun and intense action game making clever use of the series. With a rich array of characters and lots of storytelling, it adds a lot to the Fate universe and offers fans a thrilling way to experience the passion despite redundancies here and there.