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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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.

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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.

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Enough of E3! Let’s talk about other games #2017

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Zanki Zero (PS4/PSVita)

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Survival-RPG produced by the DanganRonpa team, Zanki Zero has the most interesting concept this year. Zanki is an idiom known in shoot’em up which represents the number of starships remaining before game over. In the same logic, the 8 boys and girls of Spike Chunsoft’s devastated world will have to progress and survive until no one remains. Rather advanced in its management, Zanki Zero will ask the player to quell the stress of the characters and even take care of their natural needs.

Shin Yomawari (PS4/PSVita)

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Remarkable game of 2016 in the fear department, Yomawari obviously sold well enough to warrant a sequel because Nippon Ichi Software plans to release Shin Yomawari in very territory this year. You will this time control two girls on after another, the world will be larger, including indoor environments among new frightening spots.

Tokyo Clanpool (PSVita)

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Compile Heart is on the move on Vita with a brand-new DRPG, the heroine which is… a loli prime minister ! Along with her cabinet, Natsume tackles the exploration of a mysterious black tower that crashed on the Japanese Diet building. Openly political, Tokyo Clanpool features a support rating as central criteria.

Dragon Quest XI (PS4)

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After the moral collapse of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest XI is one of the references JRPG fans must consider. Casino, horse racing, dragon mounting, smith… SquareEnix’s next hit underlines its rich content and classicism to better attract summer players.

The Great Ace Attorney 2 (3DS)

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Cool but significantly incomplete, Great Ace Attorney had sequel” written all over it. That’s now on rails and we’ll again have the pleasure to experience the Victorian and Meiji era with Ryunôsuke, but also from the eyes of his distant cousin Ryutarô.

Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel III (PS4)

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Falcom likes to play with fans’ feelings with its first PS4 exclusive. Trails of Cold Steel III reshuffles the roles and calls back popular characters from older episodes. Unexpectedly, Aurelia becomes headmistress of Thors Academy, Tio makes a noticeable entrance and eccentric Dubally will once more stand on your way along with the threatening secret society she belongs to. Meanwhile, no word on your former comrades from Trails of Cold Steel II… Falcom or the master of suspense.

Nights of Azure 2 (PS4/PSVita/Switch)

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Obsequious to Nintendo’s orders in exchange for a juicy part of profits in the Fire Emblem Warriors project, KoeiTecmo had left Nights of Azure in the dark the time the were preparing the Switch version. Having recently reappeared in the press, Gust’s action-RPG showed its final casting of Ashule’s partners and detailed the swimsuits offered as an apology for the long delay.

Moero Castle Panzers (PS4)

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Compile Heart had a clear purpose when choosing PS4 as the only platform for Moero Castle Panzers. The company intends to offer the usual Moero experience (touching the girls’ body) in the best 3D they can deliver. In terms of battle, we’re now looking to tactical-RPG featuring various jobs depending on the equipped underwear (!).

Review – Atelier Firis, the Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most anticipated games for 2017

Valkyria Azure Revolution (PSVita)

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I’ve been waiting for it a lot more politely” since the horrendous Autumn demo. The Action-RPG focus that has been reconfirmed doesn’t fit with Valkyria’s universe, and the battle system itself is fishy at best. Yet the prologue on PSVita was a little more satisfying, so maybe we can end up with a decent RPG of cool design.

Cyberdimension Neptune (PS4)

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The moment of truth for the Neptunia IP. Compile Heart took more than 1 year to think, work and offer us a game powered by Unreal Engine 4, which is a visual revolution. Still, little is known is this Action-RPG taking place in a MMORPG itself. We don’t know how the developers have calibrated fan-service and innovation, two key-elements to drive the series forward. The producers made very clear promises not to disappoint fans, so they better stick to it and avoid bland compromises this time.

NieR Automata (PS4)

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The demo was exactly what I expect from this game : precise and rich gameplay, Platinum touch in the camera work, an attractive main character, a intriguing world… March can’t come soon enough.

Nights of Azure 2 (PS4)

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Not especially a high priority until a few weeks ago, Gust’s next game suddenly made itself indispensable by its latest video. The least you could say is that there’s quite some “movement” here… Gameplay also looks like to benefit from dramatic improvements as the tag battle system seems quite lively with lots of charming allies. The developer was undoubtely right to postpone it.

Musô Stars (PSVita/PS4)

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How not to be excited when the spiritual successor to the excellent Orochi Warriors 3 Ultimate is almost within reach? For the first time, KoeiTecmo picks characters in all their IPs for a single action game. We’re therefore gonna be able to ease our stress on dozens of ennemies with unexpected dream teams involving Plachta, Oka, Kasumi or Marie-Rose to cite a few.

Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash (PS4)

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Already called Splatoon PEGI18 by some, the sequel to Senran Kagura Estival Versus trades ninja weapons for water guns, in which you have fancy models like snipers. Takaki-san likes it wet (well, wet cute girls at least) and promise to deliver aquatic entertainment with a few surprises here and there.

Gun Gun Pixies (PSVita)

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While the general feeling of Cyberdimension Neptune remains shrouded in mystery, Compile Heart’s new PSVita exclusive is very clear from the start. Part of all the nice projects lately, Kochiwa producer presents a game close to action Netpunia U, with some novelty in the plot. You play as two very tiny alien girls whose mission is to infiltrate a girls’ domitory, which means a lot of private life scenes.

Blue Reflection (PS4)

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Boasting Gust’s most advanced 3D engine to date, Blue Reflection comes at us as a turn-based RPG featuring magical girls fighting dark demons. Like Persona 5, there will be lot of emphasis on spending time with classmates (including a clone of Hifumi, in a somewhat younger self).

Dungeon Travelers 2-2 (PSVita)

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Only game that ever had me shut down a handheld system in a hurry while I was commuting, Dungeon Travelers 2 had to reconfirm its direct sequel. It’s now official and the base scenario should keep providing juicy situations : the main character of the first game, Freid, has lot to the final boss and was turned into a insolent young boy. All the girls of the previous game have turned into demonic women. Let your imagination do the rest.

Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

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Quite nostalgic of the legendary futuristic racing game, the reveal of this ultimate collection at Playstation Experience was pure delight. I can’t wait to compete again on board those distinguished little ships for more speed, violent weapons and cool techno music.

Legend of Heroes Sen no Kiseki III (PS4)

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Falcom will need to be particularly clever if they want to justify Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel III as a PS4 exclusive. Graphics are barely sharper so no one will believe that a Vita version wasn’t possible at this point. Despite Altina’s already confirmed return, believe me that I’ll be extra harsh on this.

Final Fantasy XV (PS4)

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Yes, I’m still waiting for Final Fantasy XV. The game released end of November isn’t FFXV, because it fails to comply with basic rules of FF. No choice but to wait until Hajime Tabata fixes his mess by eventually offering a more compelling experience, with an enhanced narrative and more playable characters.

Dragon Quest XI (PS4)

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While FFXV has seen rampant westernization, Dragon Quest XI is so faithful to its roots that I’d want to hug it. Here’s what I call a JRPG cast with varied styles of characters, and the first trailer clearly shows it will remain true to its genre.

I’m also eager for Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom (PS4), Gran Turismo Sport (PS4), Itadaki Street (PSVita), Tekken 7 (PS4), Gravity Daze 2 (PS4), Happy Manager (PS4), Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4).

Enough of E3! Let’s talk about other games #2016

Atelier Firis (PSVita/PS4)

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After a rather average Atelier Sophie, Gust had to react and strengthen the series. Looks like they’re doing so, by the looks of the enhanced graphics, evolving and more convincing character design and the innovating game system. The adventure is no longer centered around one town and Firis’s base camp will be mobile. Moreover, choices you make on the world map will cause slight changes on the flow of events. NOCO and Yûgen seem to have sharpened their skills on those first characters, NOCO in particular taking a more mature/sexy orientation. Yûgen has this curious character called Ilmeria, who makes me think she can be a Meruru successor in some way. I must admit that the improvements are stunning so far.

Kangokutô Mary Skelter (PSVita)

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A Compile’s Dungeon-RPG that I am eager to play, partly because the devilish art direction is conducted by Kai Nanameda, already behind Trillion, God of Destruction. This DRPG takes a survival approach by its ghostly Nightmares who will hunt you down so fiercly you’ll have to run away. Several jobs have been unveiled, as well as a Genocide mode in which the girls gain immense power when in contact with ennemies’ blood. On the contrary, licking the blood will heal them, but remove the Genocide state. A gameplay balance in which risk-assessment will be key.

Sengoku Otome (PSVita)

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Weird background for this game since taking its origin from a anime itself coming from a pachinko! Sengoku Otome is kind of the Oda Nabuna game we never got : this fighting game which seems to play like Senran Kagura features girls representing general from feudal Japan. The ambitious Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes a shy pink-haired girl while Toyotomi Hideyoshi turns into a blonde loli. As much as I feel sorry for those great men, the paradox looks rather fun.

Root Letter (PS4/PSVita)

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A visual novel of fascinating concept. The player has had a pen friend called Aya, with whom he has exchanged 10 letters. In the very last one that he finds and reads years later, she admits committing murder. From there the game start as an investigation thriller, in which you have to find Aya’s former classmates to uncover the truth.

Black Rose Valkyrie (PS4)

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Compile Heart is going into something a bit different for this game, because one of the girls of Black Rose Valkyrie is a traitor. So while fighting against a fierce virus and monsters called Chimeras, the main character will also have to regularly question his allies, very much like in Lost Dimension. Reminding Galapagos’s works in a lot of ways, it also features costume break as it was in Omega Quintet.

Idolmaster Platinum Stars (PS4)

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Stunning by its sharp anime style, Idolmaster Platinum Stars will be my first step in that famous IP. Sure had to go into it one day. The player once more takes the role of a star manager and will have to lead his girls to the top of the entertainment business. You really start from scratch this time, because you pick the girls at the very beginning of their career.

Tokiden 2 (PS4/PS3/PSVita)

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Not much to say more about Tokiden 2 since I wrote a lot about the demo last time. It’s just matter to check how large the world really is and the improvements made to combat.

Caligula (PSVita)

Caligula

An RPG to have on your radar for its original base story : the students in Caligula are trapped in a fictitious ideal world created by a vocaloid called μ. Although the digital singer actually protects them from the wicked real world, those young men and women decide to stop living a lie ad will seek to destroy μ. Centered on the subject of digital worlds, Caligula benefits from genuine vocaloid songs.

Review – Atelier Sophie, the Alchemist of the Mysterious Book

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After the numerous complaints voiced against Atelier Shallie and the monstruous flop of the 3DS port of Atelier Rorona (11’000 units sold, 7 times less than Atelier Shallie which was already widely seen as a failure), Gust’s series had people worried. It turned out to be fine, since the developer was calmly preparing Atelier Sophie.

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PS4

I’m done saving the world”, such is Atelier Sophie’s motto. The game wants to put some distance with the Dusk trilogy and go back to a more innocent narrative like in the Arland trilogy. Indeed, you don’t feel any great ambitions when starting Atelier Sophie, which has next to no story focus for most part. Sophie is a young alchemist, and a bit awkward one, who’s gonna progress with the help of a mysterious book gifted with a consciousness. Sophie’s goal, so the player’s too, will be to recover the book’s memories by writing alchemy recipes in it. You progress from a recipe to another, while completing requests from other characters to whom you’ll get increasingly closer.

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PSVita

The side characters will all have their own storyline, in average more developed than in Atelier Shallie (which was very poor in that department) but of disparate importance : Monica has a feeble background, like Oskar and Leon (who is a girl, despite her name). On the contrary, Harol, Cornelia, Fritz and Julio benefit from a consistent narrative, including some really fun or even moving sequences. Harol’s was particularly remarkable : young watchmaker too fond of revolvers to get to his work seriously, he progressively becomes obsessed with his past and the necessity to surpass his father. So better than the previous one in that field, even though the game sometimes gives to impression no to show or tell enough : Cornelia’s story for example, should have continued and lead to discover new lands.

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PS4

Last but not least of your characters, your book Plachta (pronounce “Plafta”) will take human form via the Doll Make system. Plachta’s soul is transferred in a life-size doll, that can be modified anytime. It simply consists of adding alchemy components to the doll’s limbs, the rarest ones giving higher boost in stats. When those stats reach a certain threshold, Platcha’s costume will change and she’ll be able to access a new class (wizard, valkyrie, etc.). But this option bears relatively low importance as the gain in stats represent only a small margin compared to the one provided by your equipement. It remains that Platcha’s arrival in your party radically changes the story’s direction because, ironically, you will go and save the world eventually.

Atelier Sophie idea

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The alchemy workshop is more than ever the place to be, because not only will the game ask you to synthesize alchemy objects, but also to come up with the recipes! Indeed and contrary to previous episodes, there are no alchemy books in stores. Time to time, Shopie will have a genius stroke and note down a recipe. The player will have to trigger that by achieving some varied objectives, like inspecting the furniture, talking to a particular NPC, slay a particular beast or, far more complicated, creating an object with a given trait.

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PS4

Let’s put the head in the cauldron. There are several ones available, each represented by a checkerboard with some colored stars in it. Ingredients, which are represented by Tetris-like forms, are to be inserted in a way that the color stars can multiply and grow. The more and the bigger the stars are, better the bonus multiplier will become for the dominant color. With a multiplier important enough, the quality of the object rises and it can gain better traits. It is quite complicated in theory, but easier to learn empirically. Note that there are various sizes of cauldrons, and that some double your multiplier, sometimes asking you to synthesize in limited time! In short, a clever system but a bit less precise than Atelier Shallie’s.

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PS4

Alchemical creation is a bit more accessible than in the past, because powerful properties allowing considerable rise of stats are rife in Sophie’s world. Finding ingredients to have them attached isn’t hard at all. Up to you to combine them via intermediary objects like the gold string (formidable catalyst since it’s used to create itself, I call that the Gold String Loop) to give birth to even better traits like 全能の力 which raise all stats by 25 points! Once your weapons, armor and accessories possess such traits, your team is well-prepared for battle. As for interface, the touch pad of the PS4 allows you to quickly switch between menus and the encyclopedia (which has a very clear recap of all items, properties and their composition), so it’s extremely user-friendly.

Atelier Sophie field

PSVita

But all those ingredients, you’ll have to go outside and pick them. The wild nature of Atelier Sophie consist of numerous areas to explore, full of plants, ore and the likes. Atelier Sophie is the first episode to have a day/night cycle : monsters, items, present characters, weather are going to change periodically. Times goes by, but isn’t limited. This newest Atelier takes the same principle as its predecessor : the player can take its time to clear the game and the various challenges. But the various places are quite tiny and level design extremely poor. Thus no occasion to be impressed : you battle, you pick the goods, you come back to town. Nothing more.

Now we’re talking about it, battles. These have been rather simplified, and even made more or less automatic. Each start of turn has choose a stance for each character : attack or defense. Regardless of that choice, all characters can use regular action such as attack, skills, object, run away or defend. The stance only governs bonus actions : a character I defense can cover an ally, while characters in attack stance can perform powerful link attacks. The more characters you have in the same stance, better the effect will be. This also depending on your chain gauge : higher the figure, more daring the actions become. When the gauge hits 300% and all the four characters are in attack stance, it triggers the ultimate attack of one of them. It’s roughly Final Fantasy XIII’s role system, ultra-simplified version and in which the player actually doesn’t decide much. I really miss Atelier Escha&Logy’s battle system…

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PS4

Pretty much nerfed in the main story, the difficulty will rise at breakneck pace at the very end and after. You can still tweak the difficulty level anytime, from easy to despair (added by a later update), to have it match your playstyle. Veterans won’t break a sweat in hard or even despair during most of the story though, but optional bosses are another story : they are excessively powerful and can play 4 times in a row! While a can crush most of the bosses in despair with just the attack command (see above, it’s taken in despair but being only the 2nd dragon, it’s not much a of challenge), the two last enemies wipe my party out in 1.5 turn even in easy mode… in short, it’s fucking broken. That said, another growth menu that appear after the characters have reached maximum level allows you to add even more statistic points, vastly advantageous capabilities, upgrade your attack skills. But the progression curb being rather slow, you must play a lot after the main story to keep up. A disappointing postgame so, far form the replay value of the previous episodes.

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PS4

As for aesthetics, we can’t help but notice the economic troubles of the series : the technical downgrade is brutal. Graphics are less detailed than Atelier Shallie’s, which runs on the PREVIOUS generation! The town and the dungeons are a pity… Even design issues are to be reported : monsters look blatantly the same and there are few (almost none in fact) unique and charismatic opponents, those who make great JRPG fights. Here again, even the disappointing Atelier Shallie had them. In battle, the game remains a lot prettier than the rest, so it’s not like it’s a complete disaster either. The music also seems a bit on the wane : outside Fritz’s theme, a ballad that fits perfectly with the medieval setting, and senka no ichigeki, which continues the great lineage of boss battle themes. Whatever, you ears will be able to feast with a music DLC, packed with dozens of Gust’s past tracks, which was free in Japan. You can thus instantly create yourself dream-like playlists.

Atelier Sophie Cornelia

PSVita

Yes, you could object that the project is for the first time multi-platform from the start : the PSVita version is available alongside the home console version, no need to purchase the “Plus” version anymore. Unfortunately, the technical efforts are insufficient for both. With a modeling close the the one of the PS4 version, the portable Atelier Sophie is impressive at first sight, the rendering of the characters is excellent. On the other hand, framerate suffers horribly… The Vita has a hard time displaying the battle animations, which is true have their lot of special effects, especially in joint assaults. True, it’s less serious than the abysmally terrible portable version of Nights of Azure, but it’s not the technical prowess of the “Plus” version either. Unless you absolutely need it to play on the go, it’s preferable to play it at home with a seamless experience.

Changing the approach alone is not enough, and Atelier Sophie is proof of that. The game system is still solid and allows you to achieve great things, but in a terrible technical environment. Ideas and humor certainly are there, but not in full force. We can sense the pleasure of battle, but only from time to time. A serviceable episode, but Gust needs to re-enhance the experience by investing time and money. For Atelier Sophie, the developer probably had neither of them.