Review – Tales of Berseria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My games of the year 2016 (GOTY 2016)

Best Action game

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God Eater 2 Rage Burst (PSVita/PS4)

Without a natural leader like Bloodborne last year, hard to choose between the three great ones today. But God Eater 2 Rage Burst somewhat stands out, because of its memorables momenta and heated battles. Full of adorable characters and playable in coop, it goes well beyond the hunting genre to become a great saga.

Runner-up : Fate Extella (PSVita) & The Division (PS4)

Best Shooter

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Battlefield 1 (PS4)

In Spring, I would have bet anything on Overwatch for this title. But that was underestimating DICE’s efforts to make Battlefield not only innovating by its theme, World War I, but also a thrilling sniper experience thanks to the best TDM maps since I know the series. The remarkable atmosphere and the gorgeous graphics are just the cherry on the cake.

Runner-up : Overwatch (PS4)

Best Strategy game

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Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

Kan Colle kai is the new Advance Wars. The addictive management of units and the desperate defense of positions brought me tears of joy when the final trophy popped. Gifted with rich and unique design and having a game system as enjoyable as Pokemon plus outstanding challenge, Kadokawa’s game is one to remember.

Runner-up : Pokemon Sun&Moon (3DS)

Best RPG

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Persona 5 (PS4)

Persona 5 being my first «true» Persona game (after Persona 4 Dancing All Night last year), I hadn’t how massive this series was. And here it is, the hype is 170% deserved, because Persona 5 is an RPG like you seldom see. Great narrative & characters, fantastic combat, dream-like design, deep game system, overflowing content… the new King of JRPG is here!

Runner-up : Tokyo Xanadu (PSVita)

Best puzzle game

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Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight (PSVita)

After a superb Yomawari, Nippon Ichi Software is at it again with Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight. Not adventure this time but pure a 2D platformer featuring lots of puzzles for hours of intense brainstorming, with far better controls than The Firefly Diary.

Runner-up : Ace Attorney 6 (3DS)

Best Sountrack

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Hatsune Miku Project DIVA Future Tone (PS4)

The tracklist in Hatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone speaks for itself : in the 228 tracks, you’ll surely find dozens of your liking. Every J-pop style is widely represented, with a lot of novelties compared to portable Project Diva games (Hôkai Utahime, Gothic and Loneliness). Yet this PS4 game also features classics like Remocon or Envy Cat Walk.

Runner-up : Hatsune Miku Project Diva X (PSVita/PS4)

Best graphics

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The Division (PS4)

Open world of impressive scale, The Division is visually the most striking game I’ve seen this year. Ubisoft re-created New York with great realism and the post apocalyptic touch makes it an immersive experience.

Runner-up : Battlefield 1 (PS4) & Hatsune Mike Project Diva X (PSVita)

Best innovation

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Overwatch (PS4)

When Blizzard does something, it rarely fails. Overwatch is a competitive FPS like you’ve never seen before. Close to an RPG by its characters and skill mechanics, it allows for a great variety of gameplay blowing everything else in the genre. You’ve got an innovative set of roles like defenders (D.Va) or support characters of which the recently added grandma Ana is a stunning example.

Runner-up : Mary Skelter Nightmares (PSVita)

Best narrative

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Persona 5 (PS4)

Persona 5 is the master of suspense and intrigue. The passion in those personal destinies, the will of the characters, the bond uniting them, all this conjugated with the onimous plot set by wicked elites is a delicious cocktail that you keep pouring during dozens of hours.

Runner-up : Tokyo Xanadu (PSVita)

Best atmosphere

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Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight (PSVita)

Nippon Ichi Software is at its best when creating dark and crooked universes. Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight is no expection and delivers gloomy art that chills the bone : blood, death and despair are the key elements here. The developments, the very logic of the game and the touching conclusion make it emotionally beautiful.

Runner-up : Battlefield 1 (PS4)

Best design

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Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

While Persona 5 sure blows things out in terms of design, I might stick to Kan Colle kai for this one. Really unique concept with risqué fan service included, Kantai Collection does a great job drawing friends and foes, and decorating your HQ is a lot of fun too.

Runner up : Persona 5 (PS4), Mary Skelter Nightmares (PSVita) & Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS)

Best game you might never play

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Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

I’m actually pretty sure you won’t play Kan Colle kai, unfortunately. Kadokawa has already announced that the game would be pulled back from shelves, further evidence that relations with the IP owner DMM.com aren’t exactly easy. You still have a few weeks to order an import version and a fat kanji dictionary with it.

Runner-up : none

Most disappointing

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Sword Art Online Hollow Realization (PSVita/PS4)

You’d need to be really incompetent or seriously cynical to keep this unwanted «title». Mr. Futami Producer of Sword Art Online games, must be this kind of guy. Incapable of keeping the progresses made in Sword Art Online Lost Song, he’s badly rehashed Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment with Sword Art Online Hollow Realization : romoved playable characters, boring linearity, thin storyline, outdated engine… everything indicates he wanted to maximize profits by minimizing efforts. This logic seems actually be going on with Sword Art Online vs Accel World, the first screens of which are horrendous. This time, my money will go the more capable and ambitious developers.

Runner-up : Summon Night 6

mini Platinum-trophy Game of the Year

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Persona 5 (PS4)

mini gold trophy Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

mini Silver_Trophy Rose and the Old Castle of Twillight (PSVita)

mini-bronze_trophy Tokyo Xanadu (PSVita)

Review – Persona 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfinalized Fantasy XV

 

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We’ve come used to day one patches. Developers fix the problems in their games after release, benefit of the internet age. Although it leaves the door open to some lack of polish, it’s clearly a progress compared to the time you were stuck with a freezing disc. But when Hajime Tabate patches Final Fantasy XV, it’s a whole different story.

Final Fantasy XV started strong in Japan with more than 700’000 copies sold first week (digital taken into account), and 5 millions shipped worldwide. The always tired-looking producer could have boasted about those figures, if he hadn’t said a little too much. In the short term, he wants to re-balance the gameplay in the 13th chapter, said to be something horrendous according to GAF. The mid term objective is to enrich the narrative with new cutscenes, in order to explain the destiny of some characters better. Last but not least, in the long term, key-characters of the narrative will become playable, and character creation is thought about. Yes, you read that right : SquareEnix is going to re-develop Final Fantasy XV in 2017. The game wasn’t finished at all when it hit shelves on November 28th 2016.

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All this is disastrous of course. Lots of outraged players consider having been mocked. They’re right on this : they could live only part of the experience planned by the developers. They might start it again when the changes are in place, but nothing will replace the delight of experiencing a game for the first time. Some said they would stop playing at once, others congratulated themselves for cancelling their preorder, and some simply said they would “wait”. The latter, and that’s my case, are the big winners in this whole FFXV mess : next year, they’ll have the full Final Fantasy XV experience for half price, whereas day one buyers paid full price for half the content. In other words, they paid 60€ to be beta testers. No wonder many are screaming in anger today. It’s a huge blow dealt to SquareEnix’s brand image, and to Japanese gaming in general. A true national shame. After that, people will still be surprised that the Japanese gaming market digs year after year. How can it be otherwise when it creates its own deflation? Indeed, because of apparatchiks like Mr. Tabata (or Mr. Futami for Sword Art Online) who rush unfinished games on the market, the best thing to do is always to “wait”.

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But all this is also, at the same time, absolutely wonderful. To be the true heir of the series, Final Fantasy XV lacked more playable characters, and gender equality. You’ve never heard of a main Final Fantasy that would have only one playable character. You’ve never heard of a main Final Fantasy where women would have a walk-on part. Can you imagine even one second Final Fantasy IX without Dagga or Final Fantasy X without Yuna? The setting of Final Fantasy XV is obviously freakin’ dumb as it is now, an abnormality usurping its name. The very good news is that now, we know that this was not the objective : Final Fantasy XV wasn’t doomed to be simply bromance stuff, SquareEnix just wanted to get the money earlier. I’d rather imagine that the key-characters include Cidney, Iris and Aranea. The developers were saying last October that they would “tackle the question of [playing as a female character]”. Character creation might also allow us to revive Stella or make Luna something else than a fleeting narrative object. That still leaves the problem of Gladio, Ignis and Prompto, only playable via paid DLC… … … hum, actually not a problem. How cares about those three? The deal is now fair and square, Final Fantasy will be Final Fantasy again, even though we’ll have to wait the “long term”. This pain in my chest, I feel it vanishing.

This day is the worst day, and yet the best day for Final Fantasy in recent memory. Tabata and SquareEnix have been deceiving people to get the bucks earlier. They discredited themselves in front of the world, public thunderstruck that they could sell them a game that wouldn’t be complete before months. Still, while the publisher didn’t lose its marketing tricks, it also hasn’t lost sight of what is a JRPG, and what makes a Final Fantasy. The looming clouds in the series’ horizon have cleared.

Review – Sword Art Online Hollow Realization

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

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

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PS4

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

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PSVita

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

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

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

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

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

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PSVita

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

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PS4

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

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PS4

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

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PSVita

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

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PSVita

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

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PS4

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

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

Review – Pokemon Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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