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.

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.

Review – Persona 5

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N.B : Pictures for this review were taken from the trailers and by taking photos of my screen (see last paragraph). Sorry for the lesser quality.

You have been betrayed. Here’s how Persona 5 starts : roughly ¾ of the game is a flashback telling how the main character, whose code-name is Joker, falls in the dire situation he’s in immediately when the game starts. The tension hence rises from the very start, foreseeing the mastery in which this fifth tale will be told.

The main character in Persona 5 is originally a quiet young man, but gets himself involved in a criminal assault case and gets the blame pinned on him. Released on bail, he must pursue its studies at Shujin high school without crossing the red line again to clear his record. He lives in resentment until being magically warped at night in the Velvet Room, supernatural place where a fishy character called Igor gives him superpowers. Joker can now jump in the unconscious of the most dangerous villains and force them to confess their crimes. Driven by the hatred of the man who had him wrongly accused, Joker establishes with his classmates Ann and Ryûji the kokoro no kaitôdan, a group of thieves who steal the unconscious to bring justice.

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In Persona 5, the time is limited : the story lasts for 1 year in the game or so, and every dungeon will have to be cleared within 2 or 3 weeks, one day passing each time your enter a dungeon. Your target’s unconscious takes the form of themed dungeons, such as a casino, a museum, a castle… the goal being to steal the treasure hidden at its center in order to make the criminal spill the beans. You’ll therefore have to progress in the dungeon little by little, one day after another, taking advantage of safe rooms which work as checkpoints where you can teleport once you’ve unlocked them. SP (skills points required to use magic or various capacities) are the limiting factor : when you run of it, you can’t attack efficiently nor can you heal yourself. That would be the time you go back to reality and aim for a fresh start another day. There are items to recover SP while in a dungeon, but they’re extremely rare and believe me, you’d prefer saving them for the last battles.

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The level design of those dungeons is quite good, especially the museum where in one sector you need to find your way from painting to painting, or also the casino which makes a clever use of the theme of gambling. Moreover, you’ll come across various puzzles, switches, slots machines… lots of original ways to keep high interest and enjoyable brainstorming in exploring the places. A small word on stealth : the game system will ask you to take ennemies by surprise. If you don’t, the alert level of the dungeon will rise and shadows (name of the monsters in Persona) will become stronger. Persona 5 being no Metal Gear Solid, this aspect is fairly minor as shadows can’t see very far. There are plenty of hiding spots so taking your foes by surprise is never difficult. In my walkthrough, alert level has never been a problem.

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Fights are turn-based in a classic way. The point is to make the best use of your skills and magic to strike the enemy’s weak point, and support magic is also key to victory. There are a dozen of different elements to choose from and when you strike with the right one, it’s stunned and your character can play again immediately : that’s called the one more”. With that system, you can end the fight more quickly and therefore save your precious SP. Better still, when all enemies are stunned, your enter the negotiationphase. One shadow will ask you a series of stupid questions (like my girlfriend is waiting, can I go now?”). If you find the series of answers that pleases it, it will either abandon the fight or join you as a new persona.

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While Joker’s companions have a set persona of their own, himself actually has access to a set of personas. He can welcome the shadows obtained by negotiation, and those can be merged to give birth to even more powerful personas in to keep Joker strong. Personas have their own weaknesses so your characters can be victim of a one more from an opponent. Then you must carefully choose the personas you will equip Joker with, because any KO of him means game over. Joker must have a range of varied personas in order to strike every possible weakness or withstand difficult encounters. You can also strengthen an existing persona, which makes it possible to keep your favorite ones (I did the whole game with Genbu, a shadow showing up in the very first dungeon), or even merging via internet to get personas that you might miss. There are dozens of different personas in the game, and their management is a tactical choice that makes Persona 5 rich in terms of battle strategy. It’s almost like Persona 5 was including a whole Pokemon game in itself.

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As for secondary activities, Persona 5 here again is insanely rich. Base-ball, fishing, retro gaming, small jobs, fitness and even a series of crosswords (very hard in Japanese, trust me). That of course isn’t the full list, but every of those activities serves one purpose : increasing Joker’s human qualities : dexterousness, kindness, intelligence, charisma, guts. Those statistics will allow you to deepen the bonds with other characters, playable or not. Persona 5 indeed makes you meet numerous NPCs with their own substory. Elegantly represented by tarot cards, those partners will bestow you useful passive skills : pre-emptive gunfire, negotiation assist, cover, healing bad status, allowing a ally to play one more turn… Those cooperations are of critical importance to your adventure : I think the game would have been 3 times harder without Hifumi or Kawakami.

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Persona 5 regularly features school part, where Joker is unlucky enough to be tested by the teacher every single morning! Teachers who are absolutely remarkable characters with their exuberant design and their hilarious behavior. That’s where Persona 5 turns into a gold mine of general knowledge, because you’re asked cranky but yet very interesting questions. Which quantity of gold has been extracted since its discovery? Where in Japan can you see the sun first? Which is the density of stars in the universe? All those are of course trick questions but you’ll amazed at the number of astonishing truths they bring ! Geography, history, biology, technology, etymology… everything’s there and the game will test your memory in written test that deal with the same topics from a different angle. A game within the game, another one.

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Contrary to others JRPG far less polished (or not finished at all), Persona 5 takes geat care in managing its characters and the balance of the narrative. The formation of the party is very progressive, with one new character every 10-15 hours or so. Each of the 8 playable characters has thus ample time to be well introduced with a whole chapter to know their past and goals. You come to know them all, and reject none. The members of the kaitôdan show strong cohesion and draws the player’s sympathy like few RPGs do. All that is of course illustrated by numerous cut-scenes and dialogs that create a strong bond between the character, hence a growing emotion until the beautiful ending.

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NPCs also have a story of their own, with here again the same eagerness to know more and the tension when it unfolds. The only disappointment in terms of characters is Futaba being locked the traditional navigator” role, so not playable. I think this artificial role should be removed because it leads only to the misuse of a excellent character. By the way, her commentary is far less good than Morgana’s.

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But Persona 5’s true genius is its ability to handle humor and suspense at the same level of awesomeness. Atlus has cooked us a real treasure of humor with loads of hilarious exchanges between the characters, surprise effects like in Futaba’s chapter. Let’s also mention the negotiations with the shadows, because Joker’s scathing answers are truly delicious. Dubbing, while far from being extensive, is lively. Voice actors and actresses inspire an original personality to each character : Morgana’s tone is over-the-top, Futaba speaks real fast which gives away her otaku life bent on her computer, and Joker rarely speaks but his lines in combat mark his strength as leader. Atlus did a critically right choice in snatching those original voices.

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But Persona 5 is also the master of suspense thanks to an increasing tension in its main story. The kaitôdan‘s breakings happen as cases of dementia and suspect deaths become a major worry for the country. You come to understand fairly quickly that high-ranked individual are acting behind the scenes are plotting nasty stuff and the heroes will have to deal with increasingly formidable opponents. The game has a strong Death Note taste in itself with Akechi Gôrô, a young and brilliant detective that appears to have strong leads in its investigation against you. The story parts involving this character are almost as good as Takeshi Obata’s manga. Atlus won’t even hesitate to place bad endings, or scenes that are false endings the keep the pressure on the player, whose feelings become mixed between passion and fear of what can happen. Persona 5, it’s also equally tricky and epic fights, boss streaks that will drive either to madness or ecstasy, challenges as unexpected as exhilarating, and of final boss of a magnitude and complexity you’ve not seen since a while. Impossible to fully translate in words what came into my head while experiencing such memorable, such perfectly designed direction and challenge.

Persona 5’s main scenario has also a moral sense in the way it illustrates a generation gap : the one of the post-war economic boom and Japan’s Lost Generation, where greatly enriched adults, blinded by power and money, looks down and the young and refuse to pass the baton. The kaitôdan symbolizes the will of young people to break outdated rules and rebuild a fair society. There’s indeed between the lines a criticism on a disillusioned society, people unwilling to take a stand and hiding in the comfort of bestowing the power to unscrupulous elites. The heart of the problem raised by the story is about the capacity of mankind to fulfill its destiny… or not, and Persona 5 has some brilliant allegories.

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From a technical and artistic point of view, the game is still very good, but uneven. Let’s say it straight, Persona 5 on PS4 doesn’t seem to look any different from a PS3 game, the character modeling for example being mediocre at best. A close sight to the main characters clearly show 3D models far below what we could see in Tales of Berseria one month earlier. The dungeons fare better but aren’t ultimately impressive, despite some cool style, especially in the casino where cards are litterally raining around you. Animations on the other hand feel much richer and more detailed, like critical blows and other funny gestures.

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No objection still on the general design, which is the most groundbreaking in ages of JRPGs : high-end menus make it pleasure just to open them, personas are very cool too, character design almost always finds the right tone… Music is divided between somewhat bland melodies in the real world (the theme in Joker’s room is downright annoying), vigorous themes in dungeons and fantastic battle music. The tracks called Big Boss and Will Power are masterpiece and should be treasured for eternity. In the end, Persona 55 has only one true drawback : it’s hostile to freedom. No PS4share, no screenshot is allowed to come out of your adventure. Atlus denies the fundamental principle of the PS4, and the players’ freedom to share their experience. If the kaitôdan really existed, surely would they visit its totalitarian publisher.

Persona 5 lasted me 134 hours, it is the longest solo game in my carrier. Better still, those are 134 hours without any artificial filler, because many shortcuts prevents the waste of time. 134 hours of fully dense and intense JRPG, with always a whole range of possibilities. Persona 5 is a JRPG like you don’t see every year.

Review – Kan Colle kai

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Representing naval ships by cute girls sure was a bold idea. Yet for 3 years now, the Kan Colle craze has taken Japan without any sign of slowing down. In 3 years, 3 millions of people have played DMM.com’s free to play strategy game. Feeling an opportunity, Kadokawa games lays down plans for a PSVita port. The handheld had a hard time seeing the light of the day (the numerous delays and Kadokawa’s decision to pull it from shelves show the negociations with DMM.com have been tough), but now it’s here, in the palm of your hand.

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In this naval strategy game, you’re a proud admiral of the Japanese Navy entrusted with the defense of the mainland against a mysterious Fleet of the Abyss. At first sight, no difference with your regular PC strategy game, except that here your fleet is exclusively composed with… girls! The game didn’t choose at random, since it borrows the name of famous WWII ships. You won’t be surprised then (or maybe a little) to see the aircraft carrier Akagi become a Kyûdô ace, or submarines turning into young girls in swimsuits! Kan Colle kai also welcomes foreign vessels like America’s Iowa or Germany’s Bismarck, who are featured as hot blonde girls. There are dozens of shipgirls (as the unofficial translation says), so everybody should find his favorites within the characters available. Yet the design is clearly uneven : the initial characters are not so well drawn compared to more recent additions. Nevertheless, the player throws himself in an unstoppable collection frenzy.

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Asia-Pacific in Kan Colle kai is divided into hexes that are areas you have to take back. Each turn on the map, you can either move your fleets or attack, after what it will be the enemy’s turn. Each hexe includes 4 zones and you must conquer the four of them to take control of the entire territory. At the beginning of the game, you only have Tokyo’s naval base. Be careful, because if foes seize it, it’s game over. Up to you to deploy your units efficiently enough to take back the coasts of Japan, enter Singapore, conquer Australia and finally destroy the Abyss HQ. Your job will be no less than winning WWII for Japan!

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Attacks are conducted by a group of 6 shipgirls or less, each zone having several battles before reaching to boss… if you manage to find it! The big challenge in Kan Colle kai is that most areas will ask you to form your group under precise conditions. For example, no more than 2 destroyers, no heavy carrier, minimum of reckon planes… The instructions are varied, but the immense difficulty lies in the fact that the game won’t always tell you what the conditions are! You have to try different combinations before getting the one that will lead you to the boss. Even by looking up Japanese and English wikis, it’s extremely long and harsh. The walkthroughs aren’t always complete nor do they even agree with each other. An unforgivable progression system that demands strong determination.

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Battles are turn based and the order of action depends on the stats of the units facing each other. If your reckon stat is high enough (if you’re stacked with planes, basically), your units will strike pre-emptively. If not, the enemy will fire in the middle of your turn. The result of battles depend on the level of your fleet : Kan Colle kai has an RPG aspect since each unit gains experience points at the end of the fight. When everyone’s done firing, the game will ask you if you want to keep fighting during the night. In this phase, accuracy is lower but you have a higher chance of dealing critical damage. Be careful, because it’s also true for the opposing units! Note that victory doesn’t require you to destory everything in front of you : the winning side is the one who has lost the least number of HP proportionally to its total HP.

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When attacking, the interface will ask you which formation you want to use. This is a strategic choice on your part that must be guided by your immediate goal. For example, the line formation is the best to deal damage but accuracy can get poor, while Echelon protects you better against submarines. Those basic rules already makes Kan Colle kai fairly complex, but that’s not the end of it.

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As you may have noticed, Kan Colle kai features several types of vessels, represented by cute icons on the strategic map : destroyer, light cruiser, heavy cruiser, battleship, aircraft carrier and submarines to cite thte main ones. There are uniques classes with very special abilities, but they’re very hard to obtain. Akashi, the girl of the supply menu, can for example repair units outside docks. Every class has a strategic role : you’re not leaving your simple destroyers rusting in the base because you’ll need them throughout the game. These are quite important to fight the infamous Abyss submarines, and they’ll be a key-conditions in many areas. Cruisers can damage carriers pretty badly, and submarines have the interesting advantage to be invisible to heavy units. Very expensive to produce, aircraft carriers are the best class in Kantai Collection. Well armored, useful for reckon and capable of lauching devastating pre-emptive air strikes, these girls marked by the small landing strip they hold are the units you’d want to include in your best fleets.

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Once you’ve mastered the strengths and weaknesses of everyone, you’ll need to focus on weaponry so as to have the best equipment for sortie. You can equip anti-air canons of various sizes, but all sizes don’t fit to every class type (lower accuracy is to expect if the canon is too big). War planes are divided into 3 categories : fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers which influence air superiority and air strike. You’ll also need to consider reckon planes which are key to your progression as we’ve seen. Other equipment like sonar and mines can damage submarines, and the precious repair unit can save the day in dire straights. All this comes with some huge hurdle in terms of understanding : partially written in Japanese of before 1945, Kan Colle kai is full of complex military vocabulary which only the most maniac can take on.

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That leaves a big question : how to develop your army? Like in any navy, actually : in shipyards. So you’re going to… build girls! This being a strategy game, you’ll need resources. Each hexe brings steel, gas, bauxite and ammo. Once those waters are under your control, resources will be added at the end of the turn. Bauxite is fairly rare but allows you to build the powerful carriers, so you should take such territories at all costs. You need transport vessels (not personalized, those one) in order to collect resources. Transports being incapable of defending themselves, you’ll have to appoint escort groups to prevent them from being sunk. Gas and ammunition are used every turn for resupplying your fleets, so securing resources is of critical importance. Note that you can also drop by Akashi’s shop if you’re short at some point. But the big thing to do there is purchasing tokens to extend repair or the upper limit of your army.

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Shipbuilding happening like a captcha of Japanese free to play games, the units are obtained at random. True, there are standard recipes which have been found by hardcore players, but getting duplicates is unavoidable. Nothing lost, because you can strengthen one character by consuming another character’s card. After reaching a certain level, shipgirls can even evolve into more efficient classes. Chiyoda and Chitose sisters for example evolve from seaplane to light aircraft carrier. Logical choice, because the Japanese Navy did improve the Chiyoda and the Chitose in 1943! Team of 6, random find, evolution… Yes, you got it : Kan Colle kai takes the exact same formula as Pokemon, with much success and efficiency.

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The more you progress in the game, the more aggressive the Army of the Abyss will be in its attempts to take back the lost grounds. And here, believe me, it’s not some pleasure trip. Hexes will turn turn yellow, ten orange and then to the maximum alert level, red. If no fleet is present to defend it, you lose all the 4 zones in it, plus the the one that comes just before! The conquest of one single hexe can take hours, days in some cases, so this Is absolutely huge in terms of presssure. In the late stages of the campaign, the Abyss forces launch attacks everywhere and everytime. You can’t take a break, even though you still have the hardest territories to take on. It will therefore be critical to station solid fleets at key points of the map and anticipate the enemy’s moves. Fortunately, several secondary missions will have allowed you to raise the number of available fleets to 8. Strategy in Kan Colle kai grows increasingly complex and demanding, but is proportionnally rewarding given the challenge. In short, exactly like a good Advance Wars.

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There are 3 levels of damage in Kadokawa’s game : light, medium and critical. If your flagship suffers critical damage, the current mission cannot continue and you’ll be forced to return to base. Heavily armored vessels are strongly recommended for this task. To increase the pressure, death in Kan Colle kai is definitive. A sunk character will not return (unless you rebuild her). And contrary to recent Fire Emblem games, here you can’t deactivate permadeath. A shipgirl with critical damage can die at any moment, making fights very tense like an old-school Fire Emblem : you pray for that the boss miss his shot, you triumph when your heavily damaged group wins tactical victory.

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Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really go beyond the original 2D, only little animation being added. Kantai Collection bring with itself an original and popular design which the reason for the wide merchandising. Even the Fleet of the Abyss, in featuring both grotesque figures and sexy “princesses”, makes very attractive artwork.

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The sound environment in the other hand is very good : with very loud firing sound, light military march and symphonies with grandeur, it’s varied and relevant. Themes like MI Sakusen and Hatsurei! Daiichigô Sakusen are definite masterpiece and make battles that you won’t forget. You also get the possibility to re-arrange the interior of your HQ with new furniture and such.

Japanese strategy games have become rare, especially those like Kan Colle kai which feature both addictive game and enjoyable challenge. Its interest and success lies in both its fine gameplay and weird design, which only got richer over the years. An impressive concept which takes the best from other Japanese strategy to build a unique and fascinating experience.

Review – Sword Art Online Hollow Realization

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After selling more than a million copies of the previous games worldwide, BandaiNamco is fully aware that Sword Art Online is now a big asset of its JRPG line-up. By deciding to re-create Aincrad in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization, the publisher bets on nostalgia for this episode.

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Invited by Seven to beta test a new virtual reality game, Kirito and his friends come to Sword Art Origin. This software being developed on Aincrad as base (where Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment took place), the infamous «death game» surfaces again in the form of a mysterious message saying «I’m back to Aincrad». This, and the arrival of a NPC of complex AI named Premiere will mark the start of troubles because the development of Sword Art Origin will soon go awry.

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PS4

The dev team defends this new yet old setting because they said they wanted players to experience an Aincrad from the start (in Hollow Fragment, you start at floor 76). The game system is roughly the same as in the first game on PSVita and PS4 : you prepare your gear and interact with your buddies in the town before teleporting yourself in the various worlds of Sword Art Origin. The only difference is that you can now bring 3 allies and not just one. But the fact that Seven is part of the plot suggest that Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is actually closer to Sword Art Online Lost Song than you might think.

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PSVita

Indeed, as in Lost Song, death in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is not definitive : you can easily revive a fallen ally whereas in Hollow Fragment, any KO meant an immediate game over. While players in Sword Art Origin are safe, NPCs don’t come back the same. NPCs are a key element in this episode : there are dozens of them in the village and you can invite any of them in your party. BandaiNamco makes the risky bet that you’ll like them as much as the heroines. But in the end, an NPC is nothing more than a series of 0 and 1, and can’t have the charisma of a main character. Sword Art Online Hollow Realization clearly fails at delivering intensity in its narrative, which by the way accounts for a tiny part of the total length of the game. Nothing like the mature atmosphere and the suspense of the recent anime series.

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The story actually doesn’t unfold before 30 or 40 hours. There at last you get a few (precious few) cut-scenes, but for most part you won’t have anything else to follow than character side events. Let’s say it straight, those events have a very light tone : slice of life only, the dark atmosphere of the Hollow Area doesn’t exist here. True, it’s fun at times but it never goes beyond the friendship and worries of your average teenagers. Another disappointment is the further use of live 2D for dialog. That means next to no cut-scenes in the scenario and rather boring scenes describing battles that aren’t shown. It feels cheap for a game that sells hundreds of thousands and comes from such a great anime. Even tinier series like Atelier have dropped that for years.

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The (numerous) illustrations look a bit commonplace compared to what was offered in Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment. The latter was rated CERO C in Japan (CERO B for Hollow Realization) and had more risqué and more interesting artwork. It’s better investing in the excellent manga adaptations Sword Art Online Progressive and Sword Art Online Girls’ Ops at this point.

Let’s go into the field of Sword Art Origin. It’s not an open-world as we know it nowdays because each of the six themed worlds (forest, desert, citadel, etc.) are unlocked progressively, and themselves divided into smaller linear areas. Sword Art Online Hollow Realization never escapes its linearity and doesn’t give much freedom to the player. Objectives are all marked (giving very inaccurate information at times) and there’s no secondary quest that would invite you to explore further or go back in former places. The only entertainment lies in Event Fragments, random hunt quests in which you face tougher monsters. Those represent excellent leverage because you often get high-rank equipment.

The battle system is a mix of the first two episodes : it’s basically an action-RPG since you attack directly with square (Hollow Fragment was relying on auto-attack) but the action aspect is less rich than in Lost Song. On the tactical side, you get back the skill palettes from Hollow Fragment. L1 and R1 allow you to give orders to allies, including the now famous switch that switches positions between Kirito and a friend, then triggering a powerful attack. Even better, you can order all your teammates to fire at will for maximum damage. Linking attacks effectively sometimes leads to a skill chain, which launches a light spell of dramatic effect. Accuracy is a problem, because the lock isn’t effective and you’re likely to hit the void. Premiere is the only character that can «die» but here again the game is a bit lenient since you have 60 seconds to revive her. Far, very far from Hollow Fragment where any mistake had you start from scratch, giving real heat to battles.

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PSVita

The palette at the bottom of the screen contains the passive skills regarding the status of your character. There’s quite some room to cram everything you need to strengthen your hero. It’s possible to dramatically increase your attack, your defense, your HP, your resistance to bad statuses… Becoming such a superman necessitates that you analyse the skill tree, so large that you can only fill a fraction during the main story, and choose wisely the most effective items for your playstyle. So and despite a poorer gameplay than the past episodes in general, there is depth in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization.

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PS4

You quickly understand that in the fight against the main bosses, rather interesting because more complex than before. Each of them has body parts that you’ll have to break in order to deal critical damage. You side with a large number of NPCs, which gives a real impression of raid as it is depicted in the anime. The boss fights get increasingly harder and you’ll have to be ready with the right abilities if you want to succeed. The final boss is absolutely ferocious and show a more unforgiving side of the gameplay, which goes in the right way because it arouses passion. Too bad nothing of this is felt during random battles or mid-bosses that are quite tiresome.

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PS4

As much as Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is faithful to Hollow Fragment’s system, this status quo is in fact a step back if you consider the elements in Lost Song that have vanished without reason. In particular, how can you not be revolted by the fact that the twenty or so playable characters of the previous game are no longer playable at all? You are forced to play as Kirito : BandaiNamco has de facto divided the number of playable characters by 20… Worse, the bow doesn’t exist anymore! Shinon, sniper in the Phantom Bullet part of the anime and Archer in Mother Rosario is now stuck with a damn spear… So not only does Sword Art Online Hollow Realization limit the gameplay, but it also fails to follow the context.

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PSVita

On the positive side, let’s stress that the hero’s look can be modified anytime. The character creation menu is rich and effective, allowing to give birth to your ideal protagonist in no time. That said, it stays as Kirito in the narrative, which is extremely confusing in case you choose a female character. Moreover, a man’s voice in the narrative is mandatory, so you have to deactivate it if you’re playing a girl. The multiplayer mode, which has you travel into Sword Art Origin with other players in order to defeat named monsters, is a good, profitable and entertaining way of enjoying your own avatar.

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PSVita

On PSVita, Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is even less convincing. Graphically speaking, texture quality drops seriously and character modeling is really poor in some cases. It clearly lacks polish if you compare with Sword Art Online Lost Song, released last year. We’re surprised to witness bland environments, while Hollow Area had complex architecture and breathtaking sceneries. Disarray at experienced the framerate hiccups, being progressively fixed thanks to 5 updates. On boss fights, the drop is astonishing… A funny way to thank Vita players, whose enthusiasm two years ago made the once Vita exclusive Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment a global success.

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PS4

The result is of course a bit better on PS4. Textures are a lot sharper, especially in the town, but dungeons don’t feel really more impressive. Lightning effects and attack effects, on the other hand, look great. Character modeling show some progress but not enough : Premiere’s 3D model is still hideous, and graphical bugs are often spotted. No problem in motion though, 60 fps is guaranteed on the home console. Music is maybe the only department where Sword Art Online Hollow Realization performs well : symphonies are great and live up to the series, and field themes make the walk enjoyable. Welcome to SAO is so remarkable that you could stay in the menu for hours.

Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is the story of a publisher that makes AAA revenues while keeping making a AA game. Under-investment hurts this newest episode even more than last year, making it impossible to reach the greatness of the anime. The unacceptable loss of the new features brought by Lost Song leaves me crestfallen and the feeble technical side doesn’t help. A less-than-average Sword Art Online game that I can hardly recommend at full price.

Review – Pokemon Go

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Pokemon Go. Two words that flew like a hurricane on the gaming industry in summer 2016. A game that made mobile gaming upside down. Today, commentators have gone silent, but the game initiated by the Pokemon Company is still the king of micro-transactions. The truth is that people have talked about it a lot, far too early, without taking the time to analyze the game mechanics.

pokemon-go-koffingAs you surely know, Pokemon Go is a augmented reality game for smartphones in which you can catch pokemons as you walk. Creatures pop every 100 or 200 meters and all you need to do is throwing a poke-ball. Those poke-balls, like potions and stuff, are provided by pokestops, places spread over cities and located on monuments or street art.

Urbanization is the first problem of Pokemon Go. While pokestops are rife in city centers (so much that you regularly have to bin some), they’re almost non-existent in the rural world. In Paris, no problem to play as much as you want. But in the territories far behind the French Riviera, you have zero supplies. Niantic delivers here a rare (and a bit revolting) example of a game in which all players are not equal.

pokemon-go-eveeIn terms of breeding, you’re gonna need a lot of patience and good legs. In Pokemon Go, pokemons don’t have levels : to make them evolve, you have to collect candies specific to each species. Every time you catch a pokemon, you get 3 candies for it (and one more if you free it). But you need 25, 50 or 125 to reach final evolution. That can last for weeks, while it’s done in a couple of hours in the 3DS game. Magikarp even needs an astonishing 400 candies to evolve into Gyarados! This is downright crazy and ridiculous, I’m not expecting mine before February 2017…

pokemon-go-after-updateFortunately, some updates have been implemented to speed up the process and make the game more enjoyable. First, you can now choose a buddy with which you’re gonna walk around, by which it will pick up candies every 2,3 or 5 kilometers. True, at this pace it’s not gonna fill the world with Gyarados, but that’s certainly a progress. But the dramatic improvement lies in the increase of the appear rate the creatures. Before this month, the appear rate was average at best. Worse, ¾ of the pokemons you came across were Pidgeys, Rattatas, Weedles, etc. It was a bit like walking a long, never-ending road 2… You’d see a Ponyta every 3 weeks, and you were more likely to find a 500€ banknote on the pavement than a Vulpix. Yes, the first months have been harsh. But now it’s a lot easier to find species that were uncommon before. That said, good luck to get a Kabutops or an Omastar, fossil pokemons being still extinct or so. In the same way, it’s still very difficult to power up a rare pokemon, like Scyther or Aerodactyl, since you need quite some extra candies.

pokemon-go-arene-dodrioOf course, Pokemon is all about battle and Pokemon Go has lot in store in that department, and actually enough to make the most enthusiastic players stay. Big or medium-sized cities have all one or more gyms located on famous spots, exactly like pokestops. You go can walk there, conquer the gym and become a champion. If you really get into it, you can become one of the masters of your location! Players are divided into 3 teams : Red, Blue and Yellow. When you take a gym, it takes the color of your team and teammates can lend a hand later by fighting into it. This increases the number of points of the gym, and so does its defense and level. The more the level, the harder it will be for the competition to take it back, as more trainers of the current team can register a pokemon. Attacking a gym of a different color will decrease those points, until the number reaches 0, which makes the gym neutral again. Niantic’s current policy is favorable to attackers : the number of points added when reinforcing an allied gym is low, and it thus take 15 to 30 minutes (in the cold winter) to level it up. Pretty hard to make room for yourself. On the contrary, you can make a opposing gym fall in a few minutes.

pokemon-go-aquali-attaquesBattles are all 1 vs 1 and feature the strenghs and weaknesses known from the original game. But here, each pokemon has 2 attacks instead of 4 : a weak attack (done by tapping quickly and relentlessly your phone screen) and a strong one (done by a longer pressure on the screen). You need to fill a gauge by using the weak attack in order to use the strong attack. The huge issue about attacks here is that you can’t choose them : the super Nidoking that took you 6 weeks to evolve can end up with dumb moves and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just frustrating…

The very important point is about battle stats. Those are represented by Combat Points (CP) : the more CP a pokemon has, the more efficient it will be in battle. You can increase the overall number of CPs of a pokemon by using candies and Stardust (obtained by doing various actions in game) by its growth potential highly depends on IVs (figure that represents the potential of growth of one pokemon within its species). Therefore and like other pokemon games, Pokemon Go drives you towards performing better and better. The quest to power is felt the same. It’s absolutely delightful when you reach the goal but before you do, you’ll need to catch a base pokemon with good IVs. It can take a very long time before you’re actually able to fight with your favorite pokemon, unless you just hatch eggs.

pokemon-go-eggsThis is where Pokemon Go gets sly. Pokemons you get from eggs all have excellent IVs, bring you large quantities of candies and Stardust. But here’s the catch, except for the base incubator, the game will charge you to hatch eggs. You probably see what I mean : Pokemon is a pay-to-win game, players who invest real money get stronger faster. Moreover, taking a gym will earns you pokecoins to be used in-app, so the strong become even stronger, poor and weak players are crushed. There is no balancing to help newcomers against increasingly dominating day one trainers. Around the French capital, gym battles are fought in the 1500-2500CP range. Impossible for beginners to enter the fray, the masters of Pokemon GO are now a very closed elite. The sharp drop of popularity of the app, considered not so long ago as an economic and social revolution, is likely because of that.

Graphically very fine and addictive in both breeding and fighting, Pokemon Go is an enjoyable spin-off provided you overcome some unfair mechanics. It’s not a game you can play “casually”, but a real marathon that takes logic and endurance. Not as polished or compelling as the games published by Nintendo, but a cool and original Pokemon experience.