Review – Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana

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Following the outstanding success of Tokyo Xanadu, which is largely regarded as a new IP, Falcom gets back to one of its established franchises with Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana. This newest episode has a particular taste since it’s likely to be Falcom’s last Vita game.

Ys VIII Adol

Already active is past Ys games, the red-headed adventurer Adol Christin is again a the center of this action-RPG. He’s travelling on board of the ship Lombardia when the latter gets attacked by a giant sea monster that sinks it without mercy. Adol wakes up in a desert island he recognizes at once : the cursed island of Seiren, well-known for causing shipwrecks. The fearless explorer has nothing more than a rusted blade to defend himself. He will thus seek help and form a small group with Laxia, an aristocratic girl good at fencing, and fisherman Sahad. Joined by the captain of the Lombardia and Adol’s old pal Dogi, they start building a small village to shelter themselves and the remaining refugees.

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In his sleep, Adol will have visions of a priestress called Dana. Despite living in distant eras, Dana feels she’s linked to Adol somehow and will seek to help him by interacting from the past. Thrown into each other’s mind at night, Adol and Dana will complement each other to solve the mysteries of Seiren, a bit as if Falcom had written Your Name before Makoto Shinkai. The player follows both stories in parallel until those two scenarios connect in a beautiful way, and give a new and strong momentum by reaching superior stakes like in any good JRPG. Dana’s part was absolutely remarkable on the emotion side, with relevant narrative steps and perfect emphasis on important scenes.

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Like a virtual Indiana Jones, you’re going to explore the numerous parts of the island one after another. Let’s stress right away that the mini-map is (finally) removable and that you can choose to experience a more old-school progression if you like, finding your way only by the general map. And you’ll need it, because Ys VIII features one of the biggest worlds ever created on PSVita. Dense forests, lots of ancient ruins, muddy field, dark caves, mountain peaks and even underwater parts! The progression constantly renews itself and is an adventure like you’ve never seen.

Ys VIII Ricotta

Despite being a bit linear (the regions of the map unlock very progressively), the game features interesting level design, it being complex terrain where you can get lost easily. Verticality is very impressive, has the game has you cross tortuous mountain paths or a large tower. It also leads to diversions given the hostile environment : the nature of Seiren will make you bite the dust, but the thrill of exploration is totally there. Sure enough, Ys VIII has some Xenoblade vibes in it. Even better, you’ll everything on a yet again splendid soundtrack. Seldom music will have enchanted the player as he runs in the wilderness. Lost in Green or You’ll See the End of the Tales come to mind, but there are many more like that.

Ys VIII discovery

The wonders of Seiren will enchant you too as Falcom borrows Zestiria’s discovery system. The exploration continues even outside the main scenario since you may come back to previously visited locations equipped with new exploration items (for example the feather allows the double jump) or new recruits in the drifting village, and thus uncover new secrets such as underground temples, etc.

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Ys VIII doesn’t forget about leisure either because the fishing mini-game will be available all game long, including dozens of species to fish.

Ys VIII Tina

To progress in the story or in subquests, you’ll need to move the rocks blocking your path here and there. You can achieve this only if the number of inhabitants in the drifting village is high enough. You therefore must search every corner of the island in order to locate the survivors. Every newcomers trigger new quests or offer new services : Alison can sew new clothes, Catherine will be your smith and Tina will establish the barter counter. Indeed, you’re in a desert island and there’s of course no currency! The inventory is managed by exchanging more or less rare natural resources, so as to gather the necessary materials for new weapons and armor.

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As always with Falcom, those secondary characters are fairly varied and deep : numerous sub-events explore the personality of each character out there, important rule in JRPGs. You also find quite some mini-stories that illustrates subquests, which makes them more enjoyable than usual. In particular, direct allies have a quite detailed personal story (a lot more than discreet Adol) and arouse empathy. Ys VIII has this particular humor of JRPGs, in which you hear the most unexpected lines in every situation. Hummel is top in that, given his seriousness in his strange “job” in the middle of the wilderness. After many hits in the field, Falcom is now at the forefront of modern JRPG, keeping that classic spirit when other threw it away for more money.

Ys VIII Laxia battle

Combat has the same action-RPG feeling as Dragon Quest Heroes : a base 3-hit combo plus a special skills to choose between four. The L/R skills are varied and pack a punch, depending on the weapon used by the six playable characters. Dana for example owns two immense chakras that she can throw or make dance in long combos. Hummel can perform numerous types of shooting with its rifle, etc. Good news for those who like their gameplay habits : all buttons can be changed at your liking.

Ys VIII dodge

If we talk battle, we need to underline the guard and dodging systems. Performing a just guard or dodging at the very last moment respectively slow down the enemy’s movements and raise your critical rate to the maximum. Both grant you a few seconds of invincibility : you’re free to beat down the opponent. You need to master that in order to win in higher difficulty modes, but the skillfulness demanded makes for delightful fights. In normal mode, like in Tokyo Xanadu, there is moderate challenge but hard more in Ys VIII is significantly more interesting : damage taken is no joke, potions very limited and status ailments unforgiving. In order to ease the pain, the game allows you to recover HP by resting on the map, this however not being possible in dungeons.

Ys VIII boss

The bestiary of Ys VIII is impressive : ferocious beasts, sea monsters, ancient golems and wild dinosaurs, combat is renewed in every place you go. Rare enough to be mentioned, you almost never see the same type of enemy twice! Further evidence of Falcom’s outstanding effort to make a rich world. Boss fights are awesome as opponents boast complex movesets and strategies. Strong and sturdy, dinosaurs will make you sweat, especially in defense missions. It so happens that fiends will regularly gather around the village and it’s up to you to repel them. Defense missions occur like a survival mode : monsters come in waves and you have to stop them from destroying the fence. Them coming from all directions, all you can do is to hit everything in sight as violently as you can. Exhilarating. You’ll also be able to build defenses, traps, barricades to withstand increasingly heated assaults.

When other choose to ditch classic JRPG, Falcom keeps the magic of the genre. With charming characters, a fantastic battle system, splendid music, multiple quests and an incredibly rich world, Ys VIII is a must-have for those who have been faithful to the genre for 15 or 20 years. Immersive and glorious in many aspects and despite very minor drawbacks, it is an amazing potion of youth.

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Review – Blue Reflection

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What would happen if you gave more power to illustrators than to game’s directors? Blue Reflection gives a glimpse of the answer to that ludicrous interrogation, because the keyman of Gust’s JRPG is no other than Mel Kishida, the brilliant designer of the Arland part of Atelier games. Can the man lead Gust to success once more?

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Hinako is discouraged : her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer gets shattered when she suffers an incurable ankle injury. Wandering like a ghost in her new school, she’s bewildered when she realizes she has the power to enter her classmates’ mind to relieve their anguish. She’s a magical girl : she transforms and wears a frou-frou dress, gaining some magical abilities in the process.

Blue Reflection Yuzu Raimu

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Brought along by her magical girls comrades Yuzu and Raimu, Hinako will pursue this “career” for a reason : her dearest wish will come true when she achieves final victory against the genshu, demonic creatures at war with humanity since ancient times. Her dialy activities will always be to walk around within the school and help anxious pupils. Each time, the three heroines will be sent in the Comon, spiritual world built by the collective unconscious, a bit like the Mementhos in Persona 5. There, the game will simply ask you to defeat 1, 2, 3 or 4 enemies of the same type, or collect fragments here and there in super tiny maps. Sadly, it never gets more elaborated than that.

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PS4

Blue Reflection is a turn-based JRPG, with a timeline on which the order of action of all characters and enemies is displayed in real time, like in Child of Light. Combat has 3 parameters : HP, MP and Ether. While the first two are well-known, Ether is the big particularity of Blue Reflection and does a lot of things. For example, Overdrive allows one of the girls to use several skills during the same turn, dream-like capacity because you can attack and heal in the same time.

Blue Reflection mission

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By clearing secondary quests, you’ll be able to obtain fragments. The magical girls can equip those fragments and affect them to one particular skill in order to maximize their effect : better healing, absorb HP/MP or boosting attack power when Ether reaches a certain level (50, 40 or 30%). Those fragments work like passive abilities in Atelier, and thus allow you to build a general strategy, although less precise.

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But the biggest innovation in Blue Reflection is undoubtly the Active Command. Between turns, you’ll have 1 or 2 seconds to hit one of the direction buttons, each of the 4 having a different effect. By keeping it pushed, you’ll boost defence, speed or heal the girls, but your Ether gauge will be depleted fast! Ether management is thus the cornerstone of the game, and you need to keep some characters in defence so that your Ether never dries up. Given how fast-paced it is, it’s dynamic enough to liven up boss fights.

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Like Persona, Blue Reflection includes many secondary characters who can be invited by Hinako for a chat or a stroll in town. The game laso features a friend level for each girl which greatly depends on the answers you give, so there is a little yuri sim aspect in it. The problem is that unlike Persona, the girls in Hinako’s high school aren’t very charismatic in general, nor do they have a solid background or a strong personality.

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The only exception to that was Yuri : gifted with off-chart IQ but suffering from a rare syndrome, she was by far the funniest characters and had the most touching story. I barely remember the others (maybe Shio and her bizarre humor) since their personality traits were thin. Voice acting was almost non-existent, which is a big mistake in this type of game. Reading all that leads to boredom and fatigue. Blue Reflection really would have needed that investment so that school life feel more lively and the characters more convincing.

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On the plus side compared to Persona, the allies are with you during the boss fights. You can call them quite often and they show up in a funny little animation, granting immensely useful effect to your party. Those girls can attack, heal, resurrect, boost your stats and refill your Ether gauge! They also react to the evolution of the fight : they run away when they’re afraid that the boss might win, and they come back when you take the upper hand. It’s pretty enjoyable to have a real integration of secondary characters in gameplay.

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Boss fights are the strongest aspect of Blue Reflection because they’re super well directed. At each key moment of the story, gigantic genshu will advance on the school to wipe it out, like Evangelion’s shito. The giant creature actually progress during the fight, and if it reaches our line of defense, it’s game over. As it gets closer, music changes, the facial expression of the characters also.That is extraodinary direction, in particular in the cutscenes that come just after, in which Hinako deals the final blow in pure magical girl style, living up to the best animes in the field. Very cool moments visually speaking but unfortunately the story fails to renew itself and find a new stage.

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Those fights are rather long and complex because bosses have numerous parts that regenerate all the time : you need to manage your offensive to keep to parts in check, because they attack you too! Despite all that, battles are a bit simple, as the game is in a whole. Even difficult mode won’t resist very long to veteran JRPG players who’ll master the use of fragments and Active Command. Blue Reflection is in fact a light experience in terms of gameplay : no game over (except in boss fights), experience comes from completed quests and not from battles, and fighting in the Comon becomes soon tedious.

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Blue Reflection is thus better felt by your eyes than by your hands, the 3D engine having been tailor-made for that. It’s astonishingly beautiful, so much that Blue Reflection feels like being that game passing the baton between PS3 and PS4. Not only for Gust who clearly here went to the next step, but also for the all the developers of similar scale who now have to keep up. The world in it may not be very large, but 3D modeling totally lives up to Mel Kishida’s wonderful designs, and battles are just breathtaking. Lightning, shading, reflects, textures… Blue Reflection sets a new technical record in everything. And that’s not all, because interface, monsters and bosses are classy. The illustrator certainly did a great job in supervising all this.

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The PSVita has been somehow correct and I played via cross-save to the very end. Graphics were perfectly good in handhelds terms, except some really ugly decors here and there. The only issue was frame-rate during fights because there were significant drops when using flashy skills. It doesn’t replace the PS4 version of course since the interest lies in graphics, but it was cool in order to progress a bit on the go. Nothing at stake here however, since KoeiTecmo Europe abandonned the Vita overnight after years of boasting their support to the system. Sad but business is business…

Blue Reflection is a fetish-centric game. This had been suggested during the initial teasing so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The extra care given to the graphics serve a purpose, which is staring at gorgeous bodies and sexy costumes from every angle. Funny enough, choosing the option “streching exercises” leads to a pool event with 100% probability! There are plenty in the same fashion, including showers, dressing room, drenched clothes, etc. The swimsuit (additional costume to wander in the school) was even offered as preorder bonus for every character! Clearly Blue Reflection sells its fan service and does it well.

Frankly, Blue Reflection is average as an RPG. This is what happens when the designer grows more important than the producer : the game is a great visual experience, but isn’t great in its writing or in its gameplay in a whole. You can feel that KoeitTecmo didn’t fully invest in it and that doesn’t help. It’s like a art gallery, some parts are good, some aren’t. Personally I was rather satisfied with it despite the drawbacks, given the art/graphic qualities, and Yuri’s part which was definitely memorable.

Review – Accel World vs Sword Art Online Millenium Twilight

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After the considerable disappointment experienced with Sword Art Online Hollow Realization, I had stopped believing in BandaiNamco’s capacity to make something good with Dengeki’s famous IP. The choice of Sword Art Online Lost Song as base was more reason to skip Accel World vs Sword Art Online. However, Japanese articles ended up showing some attractiveness in it, which proved to be true.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Persona Vabel

Forget your desire for an epic story : this one is again quite badly structured or written. It starts as a masked witch calling herself Persona Vabel gatecrashes Alfheim Online. Nothing big, you might think, but the damsel actually comes from 1000 years in the future and makes eras collide in the process. Vabel doesn’t stop here and kidnaps Yui, whose removal, she thinks, will lead to a brighter future.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online villain

As you’d expect, Kirito and Asuna fly to rescue their daughter. Problem is that the game is a complete mess as it merged with the Accel World universe, whose characters starts coming one after another. Kuroyukihime and her pals will soon cooperate with Kirito’s group : like in Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney, the VS” is just for show. The real snag is that the distortion also invited Accel World’s villains, who will block your path in every possible way.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Yui

But that leads to a very long secquence in which nothing really happens : 30 hours of eventless exploring and fighting on 40 in total. Besides, numerous events feel unclear without a certain knowledge of Accel World’s scenario, and it’s not re-explained as you progress. You do have to wait the very end and the ultimate truth about Vabel’s identity to experience a SAO-like narrative. The ending is pretty much inventive and somewhat moving, but that’s little in the whole adventure.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Kuroyukihime

While the main story is uneven, the side events in Accel World vs Sword Art Online are a lot better than before. First and adding to Persona Vabel’s identity, it leaves quite interesting hints for future developments, particularly in Yûki’s case because her destiny might change considerably in this gaming non-canon part. The second point is that character events are a lot funnier and feel newer because Accel World brings characters with personalities as eccentric as their outfits : Kuroyukihime has a bust size complex, superior beingMetatron keeps looking down and shouting at you, and Ashe Roller’s true self is a memorable laugh. SAO characters participate to the fun no less, with more wacky humor and less of the childishness Hollow Realization kept imposing us.

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Jokes also becomes quite lewder again, fan service aspect which had progressively disappeared and that we have been missing since Hollow Fragment. Renewed fan service and better sides events lead to more enjoyable artworks : nearly all of them are great (kinky or not). The side content of Accel World vs Sword Art Online hence was made a lot spicier for the core fans to throughfully enjoy the game between gameplay phases. This episode contains a few real time cutscenes, but no more anime-style ones. The 3D looking cheap on PS4, this is actually a lesser experience. As we’re talking about side content, let’s stress that there are only 2 sidequests, which weren’t very great because they rehash the same bosses/fields on uninspired writing. You do have the usual hunt/fetch quests : nothing fantastic but it’s always nice to complete them while leveling up, and there’s a nice trophy as reward.

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The publisher doesn’t hesitate to brag about the record number of playable characters in this episode. DLC taken into account, that makes 44 characters available in the game in a whole, that is to say… 44 times more than last year’s game ! Undoubtly an excellent decision… And that’s not meaningless PR talk because each Accel World character has a unique fighting style, while SAO characters still see their actions determined by the weapon they use (plenty of them by the way, including the bow this time). Blood Leopard for example transforms into a crimson beast to tear up enemies, Aqua Current has a variety of water abilities, etc. Those moves are thus extremely varied. Customisation is different too : you have to collect BP & materials to improve their attack stat, and acquire external modules to add various status effects. Accel World characters cannot fly unlike the others but are a lot quicker and agressive on the ground. The complementarity of gameplay of this cross-over is an outstanding success.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Rain

As for your usual SAO characters, you’ll find the same aerial gameplay you had in Lost Song. It’s still far from perfect especially in getting the right height and managing distances, but it does benefit from magic spells to make it more RPG-like. Accel World vs Sword Art Online also adds a certain number of ultimate moves, like, much to her fans’ delight, Shinon’s sniper rifle. Last innovation but not the least, Skill Connect allows the player to chain several abilities, which deals 10% more damage each time you do it (a bit like in Star Ocean series). Slowly but surely, BandaiNamco is delivering deeper combat in SAO games.

Alas, Accel World vs Sword Art Online inherits the terrible animations that were in Lost Song. Characters are stiff and battles end up a bit dull despite the effort put on more dynamic super moves, some of them meant to be impressive. Small consolation within a dated technical showing. On PSVita the frame-rate is so bad that I ended up dropping that version entirely. That’s too bad because character modeling was good on the handheld.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Lux

On PS4, it can be considered okay at best : some characters are prettier than others, one field is significantly more detailed and good-looking, but we’re still talking about a slightly enhanced 2-year old PS3 engine. The most annoying aspect was difficulty balance. The main story is quite easy but postgame gets really hard all of a sudden, not to say unfair since the game forces you to use one or more characters. Let’s say it again : it is unacceptable to impose characters if you the game doesn’t have them level up at the same time as the others. Even though you can tweak that with BP (at considerable expense) or by changing the difficulty settings in last resort (often disheartening).

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DLCs are symptomatic of this. The road leading to Alice is tough and getting her to join you is even harder. You can always see the good side of things and reckon you’ve finally got challenging trials ahead, but I’m not so sure about struggling to desperation to obtain a charcater you’ve bought with real money.

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Nevertheless, this season pass has its merits, especially for Persona Vabel playable at once, Heathcliff included and an array of very nice outfits.

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Last improvement of Accel World vs Sword Art Online, the progression system is better. The fields might feel identical to the ones in Lost Song, they are far larger in height ! Maximum altitude has been doubled, there are new underground locations/floating islands, the landscape has been made chaotic, etc, so that it feels actually new. You can go higher and farer, and the game has been made far less linear, giving a few hints instead of marking everything on the minimap. You’ll come across a few clever puzzles, true searching phases, which gives the satisfaction of overcoming the trials by your own wits and skill.

While short from being the necessary evolution to make Sword Art Online games as great as the movie for example, Accel World vs Sword Art Online does fix a number of mistakes made those past 2 years. The cross-over aspect has definitely be well conducted, ensuring a variety of gameplay and an enjoyable universe. Still not immersive enough in graphics, animation or direction, it’s however this time a nice buy for SAO fans.

Review – Death Mark

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The market of fear is flourishing on PSVita. Death Mark has indeed actually released between Yomawari Night Alone, its sequel Yomawari Midnight Shadows and the visual novel Iwai Hime Matsuri. All those titles aim at delivering a terrifying experience to the player. And at this game, Death Mark might be the best.

Death Mark prologue

As you can fathom from the title, Death Mark revolves around the “mark”. Those who come to bear that eerie symbol soon die in some atrocious way. The story opens when the main character, who has the mark on its arm, wanders in the city with nothing more than a business card saying just “Kujô manor”.

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There he hears only bad news : the mark will kill him soon, and is erasing his memory to prevent all resistance. But dying without putting up a fight is not an option : the desperate struggle against the mark and the dark forces behind it begins.

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The protagonist will have to seek rumors about urban legends here and there to find something connected with the mark. As in a good old point’n click game, Death Mark’s environments are composed of still screens on wich you use Vita’s stick to look into certain parts and retrieve key items. Exploration mechanics aren’t especially revolutionary : find a key to open a door, drive off creatures with chemicals, combine objects, etc. So far, Experience deliver the usual stuff, in a plainly linear adventure by the way.

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But where Death Mark is a little more original is in sudden secquences called Live or Die : like the naming says, your character is threatened of immediate death and you need to choose the best fitted action or line among the three displayed. The right choices are to be deduced from little hints given in the narrative or in the chapter files. Searching, logic and awereness will be necessary to get through it like a pro. There is also a limit which is no less than the protagonist’s Soul points. Any wrong answer costs a great deal of soul, or even leads to immediate death. Although those secquences have a strong psychological effect, their actual value in terms of gameplay is limited since you can restart without limitation in case of game over.

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You are not alone. Other bearers of the mark, the shirushibito (shirushi = mark, hito = person) will knock at Kujô’s door every chapter. You’ll have to choose carefully with whom you’ll be be doing your night trips, because you can take only one at a time. And it’s quite important given that some of them will be necessary to progress at some points, to cross a particular path of defeat a particular boss. Rather modest title, Death Mark includes very few animations so you’ll have to do with the character design. Art is pretty far for manga standarts but it fits this particular atmsophere, and the sidekicks are varied enough to please everyone.

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Each chapter ends with an epic encounter against the ghost that haunts the perimeter. It involves several turns in which you have to resist the monster’s offensive and then try to annihilate it when it’s close enough. You have on you all the items gathered during the chapter and the challenge will be to find out which ones to use or to combine. But that doesn’t stop here because simply destroying the ghost will only get you the bad end of the chapter. To secure the good end, bring everyone back home alive and witness the true ending of the game, you must save the soul of the ghost by another logic. Thus there are two levels of challenge in Death Mark, because you need to analyse more deeply all the clues to experience the ultimate satisfaction of seeing your favorite mates come back alive.

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But the greatest aspect of Death Mark is its astonishingly perfect atmosphere. Even more than Yomawari Night Alone, Death Mark creates a terrifying atmosphere that lasts from the first second to the last second of the game. You almost have to prepare yourself psychologically before opening every door. Such is Experience’s mastery in arousing suspense and handling the fear of the unknown. The constant but yet uncertain menace of the ghost puts you on edge during all the exploration, and the sound environment doubles that effect. The silence is widely used of course, but the game also features striking orchestral compositions in critical moments. Finally, Death Mark is full of creepy sounds that will make you jolt of sweat : a military song coming from nowhere, howls in the forest, the ticktock of the clock, the very same that periodically tells you that you have only a few hours, or seconds, to live… Death Mark has almost no voice acting unfortunately, but the ghosts’ icy muttering will drive you to anguish.

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Inevitably full of corpses, Death Mark shows atrocious deaths and misshapen ghosts who only show their true self in the last turn of the last encounter. Fear quickly turns to trauma to the point you might hesitate when turning off the lights at night (I did). Last but not least, Death Mark is game that plays with your emotions at all times, making you unsure of the outcome even in the last seconds of the good end. Well told, the Experience-developed game benefits from an intriguing story that unfolds progressively alongside the side narratives (in which chapter 3 is truly excellent), maintaining a great deal of suspense until the very end. Its only drawback is being short (10 to 15 hours long), but here again Death Mark compensates by a friendly price : 4000 ¥, that is to say 30-40% cheaper than your average PSVita game in Japan.

Gifted with an unforgettable atmosphere, Death Mark gathers all the qualities to be a champion of fear on Vita. Absolutely striking how a modest Point’n Click reaches such a high level of mastery in direction, storytelling, sound that easily competes with AAA survival-horror titles. My most intense experience of the year, and one the greatest games ever on the system.

Review – Cyberdimension Neptunia 4 Goddess Online

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I had been exactly 1 year, 2 months and 2 weeks since Superdimension Neptune vs Sega Hard Girls when Cyberdimension Neptunia 4 Goddess Online hits Japanese shelves last February. Compile Heart had declared in April 2016 that this time they would take their time and not disappoint. 1 year later, what’s left of that promise? Not much I’m afraid…

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For that 2nd PS4 exclusive, Compile takes a similar approach to Hyperdimension Neptune U, which means a action-RPG spin-off that tells a small parallel story to the main episodes. In this one, Neptune, Blanc, Vert and Noire are testing a VR MMO, the famous Four Goddess Online played by Vert in the main series. For that, Cyberdimension Neptunia has little story focus, despite the hacking part which slightly bolstered the interest. In the end, the narrative had little surprise and very flat story-telling.

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The city is where you’ll chat with all the characters. That’s the place where all the funny things happen via chatting here and there. You’ll make acquaintance with Kiria & Kuronekohime, two lovers intending to clear the game before Neptune’s party. The reference made to Reki Kawahara’s universes is pretty clear and there are some cool Easter Eggs to Sword Art Online, plus some clever jokes like confession part in the cathedral or Uzume’s strange pet. But in terms of overall side content, it was light and somewhat boring. Some anecdotes were very strange, not to say embarrassing like Vert’s tea lectures. I’m still wonder how we came from console wars to tea… That felt horribly out of place, sign that no interesting renewal has been found for the series.

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Characters were notably under-used : Kiria & Kuronekohime vanish at mid-game and personally I’d have wanted further story development for Mein who has been the most sympathetic new girl. It is quite striking to notice that Cyberdimension Neptunia is the first episode that does not introduce a new playable character. The 4 little sisters quickly join your party, followed by Purple Heart, Black Heart, Green Heart and White Heart who are separate characters in this title. That makes a somewhat underwhelming total of 12 playable characters when recent episodes did much better on that.

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But as far as I’m concerned, the most disheartening side is that there are few illustrations, most of them not that fantastic. It’s pretty, but bland. Tsunako’s talent is misused and you could sense that in the interview just before release. Cyberdimension Neptunia is at the end of a political process aimed at watering down the experience by removing fan-service as much as possible to make it some classic kawaii JRPG. But in doing this, the series is just becoming shallower and fades in comparison to Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash for example. Here again, that goes against what had been said in the April 2016 interview : it’s clear that there is nothing to expect anymore.

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Funny to notice that after April 2016, official speech focuses on only one thing : Unreal Engine 4. Compile had promised a revolution thanks to the powerful engine. In a way, it’s a success : Cyberdimension Neptunia is definitely seamless compared to past episodes, to the point you really feel the series has made a step forward. Movements so quick that you have to re-learn how to play. It’s a real pleasure to witness the Neptunia universe running at 60 fps. Special effects and lightning effects have also improved a lot, and some character (not all) models seems sharper than before. However, environments still looks pretty barren, and maps are somewhat tiny. Level design is bad and exploration is absent. Once again, we’re far from what Megadimension Neptunia VII had offered in that department.

It’s a game in a game, so the characters get fixed jobs inspired by classical RPG, that are different to what you’ve been accustomed to : Noire is Black Knight and fights now with a spear, Rom and Ram become respectively Samurai and Ninja, and therefore fight head to head against monsters. All characters can equip 4 skills or magic spells, which you choose via the rear buttons, just like in Dragon Quest Heroes for example. Those are pretty much welcome to complete the one and only combo available per character, first sign of shallow gameplay. Locking proved very unstable and unable to give a clear sight in battle. Dodging is totally ineffective, but there’s a reason for that : Cyberdimension Neptunia’s gameplay is based on guard & counter. Hitting after a successful guard trigger a counterattack, something that quickly becomes natural all game long.

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The problem is that it produces a static and lackluster battle system. There player may be bored quickly by such lack of variety, another problem being the low challenge. You have a whole second to launch your counterattack, enemies are weak, brainless and your own characters gain experience and levels at breakneck pace. There aren’t many enemies on the map either, so you don’t have the same enjoyment as the PSVita action games.

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Bosses are considerably rehashed within the game, and show poor battle patterns. Game over doesn’t even exist. So in the gameplay department alone, Cyberdimension Neptunia seems a major failure to me, only the final being tough enough to bring some fever.

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The lack of care in the development is obvious when you look at the general picture. As unbelievable as it may sound, the live 2D, which was born with the series, is out : 2D models are sadly fixed and lip sync is nowhere to be seen either. The use of Unreal Engine 4 didn’t go very far. Cut-scenes are rare (2 or 3 tops) and fail to impress too. Photo mode doesn’t stop the action, so a lot less good than the one in MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs Zombie Army. The multiplayer has been simply dreadful since only the room host could benefit from correct frame-rate. It took Compile and Tamsoft about 30 days to address this problem among other bugs. Far too late : a game that can be platted within 30-40 hours doesn’t last you one month…

1 year for this?”. That’s what I wondered while watching the end credits of Cyberdimension Neptunia. Despite the unquestionable graphical improvements, we find ourselves with an episode delivering very little in every other aspect instead of tackling long-lasting drawbacks. A game of a series that has lost its true self, with insufficient volume, and that ultimately come to remind us that graphics alone don’t make a great game.

Review – Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash

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Those who follow Kenichirô Takaki on twitter know that Marvelous’s star producer is a big fan of western FPS. Despite being busy on its own projects, he still saves some time to play Call of Duty, Battlefield and the likes. From there, merging that interest with the Senran Kagura series was only a question of time, and here we are with Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash.

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The beginning is worryingly similar to Senran Kagura Estival Versus : the girls from the four shinobi schools suddenly get warped on some island paradise, where they are asked to compete against each other. Yes, that’s the second time in a row that the scenario writer comes up with some old tournament coming from nowhere… The teachers Kiria and Suzune are in charge of the commentary (in a hilarious way) of that strange competition in which the heroines will face each other using… water guns! To be frank, the five storylines felt anecdotal and the story in whole is once again quite meaningless. Nothing like the first episodes of the series, but with such a wierd main topic, building a serious narrative seems contradictory. It’s very clear (and logic) that the devs whould keep a light-hearted tone while trying an unnatural genre.

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The story still has some merits as it announces major changes in the timeline : central characters seem about to leave their respective groups, with very interesting perspectives, and others like Ayame officially join as main characters. Certain side stories are still lot of fun, like the now famous Ryôbi/Ryôna duo who never run out of ideas in their SM relationship. The way the story is told is still modest (simple dialog and plain text) despite being once more nicely illustrated. The narrative is slim and maybe the producer was aware of that, because Senran Kagura 7 is cleverly teased at the end and we can now expect the story focus to be back.

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The solo mode is composed with several storylines corresponding to each faction. Those mini-stories are themselves divided into short missions where you have to beat larges group of robots, other characters or an entire opposing team. The player has 4 life bars so as to withstand entire matches in which water is coming from all directions. Yet the normal mode is piece of cake and you’ll prefer hard or ultra-hard to enjoy it more : IA becomes a lot more aggressive, asking you to be fast and precise. Ally IA is a lot less satisfying as it’s totally erratic. They can sometimes clear the mission on their own, but in other stages you’ll have revive them constantly.

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While standard missions can feel tedious, this episode introduces bosses at lot more interesting and innovate than ever in the series. Those objectives are hard and make an intense and rewarding end for each storyline. You’ll have to fight giant robots, some in limited time, but there’s also a cool Easter Egg to the anime as you’ll be facing a giant Ryôna bathing. Last but not least, the final boss is absolutely glorious : fun, with crazy music and behavior, it makes the best use of the wacky side of the game.

Basic gameplay is voluntarily close to your average western shooter : you aim, fire and jump with the same buttons. No problem for players used to FPS or for anyone for that matter, it’s thoroughly intuitive to play. Like in any competitive shooter, Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash gives you the choice between a lot of weapons of various fire(water?)power, reach or firing rate. Again, it’s like any FPS out there so everybody can enjoy the game in its own playstyle, at close, mid or long range. The double jump being quite vigorous, you can achieve impressive aerials with the sniper rifle.

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The gameplay is based on aim assist, which can seem childish at first, but is justified by the very fast pace of the matches, where opponents’ moves are a lot more unpredictable than in Battlefield or Call of Duty. The jet pack for example allows you to go through the map at astonishing speed. Very clearly, players would spend their time missing with just manual aim. The focus is non stop action from the first second to the last, and it works pretty well : camping is useless, everybody has to move to get some points.

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But aim assist is no auto-aim and you’ll need to be careful to fire from a correct angle, otherwise you’ll just be throwing water into the air. Water storage is limited, so you have to refill liquid like you’d change ammo, making you vulnerable. You’ll therefore look for the scarce cover points to do so, or do it while jumping which accelerate the refill. In short and despite the new type of game, Senran Kagura keeps its dynamic gameplay.

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Adding to weapons, the game will ask you to prepare a deck of cards. This TGC is in fact a transformed version of the smartphone game Senran Kagura New Wave, the rules of which being adapted to Marvelous’s TPS. After each mission, you’ll receive a booster pack including several cards with a chance to get super rare ones. Exactly like how you’d by a booster pack in reality, in fact. There are several types with various effects : protecting/healing yourself, attacking opponents, boost your stats or hinder enemies’ actions. The diversity of those effects adds a little strategy in matches like you’d find in Call of Duty.

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The cards can be reused after a short cooling time. You can therefore use your entire deck several times in one match. And for the first time, you’ll be happy to get duplicates since all extra cards will be transformed in experience points and allow you to boost your characters’ HP and the weapons’ power. With a total of 821 different cards, the collection is vast and can keep you busy for some time. The only drawback of this system is that sometimes the cards are more efficient than shooting, which is contradictory to the central idea of the game.

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Senran Kagura being what it is, the competition will deliver its deal of risqué scenes. The kune kune finish replaces the puru puru finish in Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash : it’s about sprinkling water at maximum pressure on a KO girl to take off one part of her bikini. The game doesn’t falter on the fan-service it wants to deliver, and also the kinky angles of the defeat poses. Costume break is still on the menu, and now you have a selection of costumes that can get wet to see through them.

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Among the good surprises, you can now who you want to see as shop clerk in the in-game costume & accessory shop. The amount of fan-service clearly doesn’t disappoint, even though it’s less varied than in the previous game, and graphics & animation benefit from the PS4 exclusivity (richer animation and far more effects on the screen).

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The Georama allows you to make very fun, cute, but also very hot scenes thanks to the numerous poses and accessories. But the changing room mode is where we come to miss PSVita as the touching loses all the fun despite the fresh sprinkling.

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Like any shooter, Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash include online multiplayer. There are two main parts : cooperation and competition. The survival mode can unite up to six players who’ll have to protect bases against 50 enemy waves. It gets real hard at wave 30, so you’d better build solid teamplay to repel increasingly resistant foes. That’s when you can take advantage of the nure power-up : when allies splash you, you can benefit from an aura that allows you to fire (water?) at will without the need of refilling.

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In competitive ranked matches, the multiplayer get a lot less fun. Battles are 5 vs 5 players and include domination, team deathmatch and now capture the flag. The problem is that everyone has lvl 10 characters and weapons, so you don’t stand a chance unless you’ve grinded quite some time in solo play. Maps are rather tiny and movement very fast, so it gets very confusing most of the time, making it difficult to achieve anything. Weapon and card balance is still wobbly, so it’s not as accessible as the producer promised. Matchmaking isn’t very effective, taking long minutes to find players. Finally, lag is still bothering on 1.07, thing that didn’t happen in Estival Versus. So the competitive side isn’t living up to today’s FPS standards.

Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash was a risky project giving its unexpected genre, but Kenichirô Takaki manages to establish a wonderful compromise between TPS and the Senran Kagura spirit. Despite the poor story, the successful conciliation of lavish fan service, fast-paced gameplay, high-end visuals and traditional TPS features guarantees a lot of fun for series fans. A shame that the multiplayers remains a half-full glass, but solo play has everything you need for enjoyment.