Review – Tokyo Xanadu

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In the long list of Falcom’s action-RPGs since the 80’s, I find names like Ys, Brandish, and the more discreet Xanadu. Distant successor, Tokyo Xanadu drops the heroic-fantasy of its ancestor to deal with urban legends in more contemporaneous anime style.

Tokyo Xanadu story

Kô is your average high schooler, spending his time between school and part-time jobs. Not very passionate about anything, he lives with the memory of the giant earthquake that shook Tokyo 10 years before. This very day, he and his childhood friend Shiori saw large red mark in the sky. This trauma will soon haunt him again as one day Shiori vanishes in another dimension. From there, a mysterious girl called Asuka appears before him and reveals the existence of a menace from a parallel universe. The disaster 10 years ago was no quake, and Asuka urges Kô to help her prevent it from happening again.

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Tokyo Xanadu has a Persona-like progression system. The game is strictly divided into different phases coming on a regular basis : main story, main dungeon and free time for preparation and distraction. Falcom has put efforts in the narrative and it makes significant progress : every chapter introduces a character and goes in depth about his background and personality, exactly what you’d see in a good anime series. Thanks to this rigorous story-telling, all characters have equal importance and there’s no shallow or underrated character. Every one of them has a clear role, a real importance in the narrative as a whole and all get their time to shine.

Tokyo Xanadu side

All the side narratives have some meaning in them, sometimes very strong and emotional : Rion’s past brought me to tears. On the other hand, Sora’s troubles for example felt a bit flat. But anyway, the title is packed with emotions and should captivate you increasingly more as you progress. Lots of side quests are also touching, many of them referring family as a general theme in a very mature way. The end the main narrative is truly tragic, unless you manage to get the true end. In short, Tokyo Xanadu is simply humane, beautifully.

Tokyo Xanadu leisure a

Leisure parts allow you to wander in an imaginary Tachikawa, deepen your relations with other characters or dive into annex dungeons in order to collect materials. You’ll even go at the butcher’s or the greengrocer’s to buy ingredients, because cooking exist in Tokyo Xanadu just like in Trails of Cold Steel II. Like the latter, each character has his/her favorite meals and you’ll have to choose your cook accordingly. The game also includes several mini-games like fishing or the card game here again from Legend of Heroes. Falcom adds a sort of dexterity game based on Alisa (from Trails of Cold Steel again) disguised as a magical girl.

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Battles look like a standard action-RPG like Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy Type-0. There’s a base combo on square, a charged blow on triangle and a long distance attack on circle. You can bring up to 3 characters in a dungeon, the basic principle being to swap between them in order to strike enemies on their weak element, or to let one recover HP. That’s for theory. Actually, the game is a little too easy : the greeds (that’s how you call monsters in this game) neither are very solid, very fast, nor are there a lot of them, so Tokyo Xanadu doesn’t provide that exhilarating feeling that action-RPGs should. The slowness of enemies is especially to blame : you can chain an entire combo between the moment they announce their attack and when they actually strike! Besides, Sora’s charged attack can OHKO most monsters. Is that because Trails of Cold Steel II was felt too hard? In any case, Falcom considerably diminished the challenge for this one.

Tokyo Xanadu Mitsuki

The 8 characters have their own fighting style and a personal Soul Device (how you call weapons in this game), which guarantees a nice variety of gameplay. Asuka si your classic JRPG swordswoman, nimble and forceful. Kô stands out with his whip sword of good reach. Sora excels in power and speed, while Shio moves more slowly but can cover a larger area. Those two should really have got a nerf because they can crush everything on their path without problem. The most technical character remains Mitsuki : the head of the student council can deploy a shield that can protect her and at the same time damage opponents. She can thus block hostiles but also deal a decisive blow when activated at the right time.

Tokyo Xanadu boss

Like often, boss battles are the most exciting. In difficult mode, dungeons are still piece of cake but bosses become more dangerous. Let’s stress that you can tweak difficulty any time form easy to difficult, another gesture from the developer to non-experts. A Nightmare mode exists but it cannot be modified afterwards. Your risk. Either way, in high difficulty later Elder Greeds are really unpredictable and require skillfulness, which makes extremely enjoyable fights, all the more intense that they weigh heavily in the story.

Tokyo Xanadu Mitsuki menu

Like in Trails of Cold Steel II, you’ll spend a lot of time strengthening your Soul Devices. Tokyo Xanadu borrows the quartz system from Falcom’s other franchise, so it’s definitely convenient for Falcom fans. Those little spheres are to be placed on the grid symbolizing the Soul Device in order to boost HP, strength, defense, etc, and S-Rare quartz grant special effects like absorbing HP or increasing damage when your HP are full (absolutely devastating when used on Sora).

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You can change the Master Quartz of any Soul Device in order to modify its natural element and its specialization (physical or magical). This is especially important since enemies and their characteristics are announced before starting a dungeon : you need to gather a team that can strike every weakness. Kô, as he’s locked in the team for most part, will have access to any element. Also, you’ll be able to improve the grid itself so as to unlock passive skills : resist KO, support an ally or chaining X-Strikes.

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Technically, the developer delivers quite a good work with Tokyo Xanadu. The 3D engine is very similar to Legend of Heroes on the same system, but we you look at it well, it has been improved because the modeling appears sharper. More than that, animation is impressive as it runs perfectly without any frame-rate drop, something difficult to achieve on a handheld. Falcom doesn’t forget to make it spectacular, with lavish X-Strikes and a diverse, immersive and stirring. Dungeons, however, did look very average.

Climax of Falcom’s efforts to make story-telling a great part of the experience, Tokyo Xanadu is a fine JRPG in all aspects. The flawless balance in its scenario and characters bring variety in entertainment, key part of a great JRPG. Its only mistake, in the end, is to fail to provide sufficient challenge. Big mistake or not? Everyone will have his opinion on that.

Review – Mary Skelter Nightmares

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How to renew Dungeon-RPG? In a genre fairly common on handheld due to its low profitability threshold, we might come to think we’ve seen everything. But here comes Compile Heart, determined to bring some changes in a now classic gameplay frame with Mary Skelter Nightmares.

Mary Skelter Nightmares takes place in a town that has slumped 666 meter underground. The cause of this disaster is an eerie tower that has sprouted from nowhere, unleashing countless fiends called Märchen (pronounce merhen) that capture inhabitants and torture them in the dark building. Jack and Alice are two of those prisoners waiting for their turn in anguish, until a young girl member of the local resistance, the Reimei, helps them evade what some already call Jail. After generations struggling to get rid of the Märchen, humans finally got their trump card : the Keshiki Shôjo, girls of unbelievable strength capable of slaughtering Märchen. With Alice, the group is large enough for the resistance to carry out its long-lasting plan : reach the surface through Jail.

Mary Skelter Nightmares story

Although fragmented (because told between extremely long dungeons), Mary Skelter Nightmares’s narrative felt more interesting than your average Compile Heart plot. Given that the IP gave birth to two novelizations, you’d expect no less. It manages to create a suspense in which every character around you seems suspect. Dialogs also were more interesting than usual since it has a somewhat dark atmosphere full of suspicion that fits the horrible story. You can’t help being disappointed by the ending though, very unsurprising for a scenario that definitively had potential to impress. More than that, the lack of proper epilogue is a huge letdown since the player would expect to learn what happens to the main characters after the end.

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Mary Skelter Nightmares being a “girl game” like they say in Japan, the girls are lot more interesting characters than Jack, himself being being a perfect example of weak-minded hero always walked all over by the chicks. A purposeful gap rife in this kind of game and base of most of the fun dialogs. Girls have some eccentric personality that make all the fun : Kaguya is too lazy to ever do anything, Oyayubihime has acute size-complex and Gretel views everything scientifically but has zero common sense.

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Like in Makai Shin Trillion, each girl has a friend level that goes up when you offer presents. The system however isn’t as nice as in Makai Shin Trillion in which all presents had bizarre and fun designs/descriptions, whereas here they’re just a small written line. Interface is not as good also. As the cleverest of you might have noticed, every of the main characters represents a fairy tale : Alice for Alice in Wonderland, Shirayukihime is the literal translation of Snow White, etc. Quite a lot of anecdotes will be about that.

Mary Skelter Nightmares Raiponce

But as this is Compile Heart and not Disney, the player has its right to steamy events. At high friend level, the game will provide special illustrations of the heroines, and some aren’t exactly soft. Given Compile’s poor offer recently in that matter, it’s rather satisfying despite the feeble quantity (quite less artworks than usual for the publisher).

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But all this is nothing compared the extra-lewd (but not mandatory) mini-game invented by Compile Heart for its newest RPG. It consists in wiping Märchen‘s blood off the heroine’s body by means of Vita’s touchscreen. I’ll spare you the erotic specifics, but it’s clear that Compile’s hardline is back after years of tasteless compromise. Idea Factory International has re-confirmed its intention to leave it is exactly as it is.

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Jail is a living being : your actions will impact its needs. Killing monsters feeds it and walk without picking up a fight allows it to sleep. At a certain satisfaction level, the prison will paradoxically grant you a random bonus like a heal, a buff or an increase in probability to meet the wandering merchant, key-person for your equipment and your relationships because he has the exclusivity of 90% of items in the game! Another point is that the dungeons are insanely large : surface is roughly twice or thrice Moero Chronicle for example. Fortunately, the developers had the wonderful idea of setting teleporters at each floor, which makes the progression quite comfy in the end. Progression that will also put your brain to test by various puzzles (blocks to be moved following more or less complex rules, slippery-floor mazes…) and many traps.

Mary Skelter Nightmare

But the main innovation in Compile’s latest game is fear and panic. Every dungeon is guarded by a Nightmare, large and hideous creature that can take you by surprise at any moment. The Nightmare is invincible : all you can do is drive it back for a short time, after what it will keep hunting you down in the corridors. You must then run away as fast as possible to lose it, without thinking where you’re actually going. Actually, you can’t, because the mini-map is deactivated automatically at this very moment, increasing the risk to run into a dead end! The Nightmare is vulnerable only after you’ve destroyed one of Jail’s hearts, generally hidden deep into the dungeons. You therefore have to progress during hours in anguish before the final confrontation with the Nightmare.

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In terms of gameplay, Mary Skelter Nightmares chooses a job system with various specialties like the Paladin focused on defense, the Blue Mage capable of casting any enemy magic, or the Blood Chemist who regulates the flow of blood in battle. Each job modifies the appearance of the characters with plenty of cool outfits, and we appreciate Nanameda Kei’s design once more in the nicely 2D animated models. The Blood Chemist is the only original job of this game, for it’s at the center of the blood system. Every Märchen beaten spills a certain amount of blood on your team. Once a character receives a certain amount, she’ll switch to Genocide mode, which multiply her power and almost nullifies the MP cost.

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But depending on how tainted the blood is, the character is at risk to activate the Blood Skelter Mode, far less desirable state since the ally become uncontrollable while still powerful enough to wipe out her own team in a flash. That’s where Jack comes in : the hero is placed in a supportive role, just like Ion in Moero Chronicle, and will use his own blood to avoid or cure the Blood Skelter Mode. There is a constant risk-management in this because Jack is liable faint depending on which actions you take.

Mary Skelter Nightmares Alice

Despite introducing all this new gameplay stuff, Compile’s title fails to use it the best way. For example, many jobs grant skills that can target all enemies on the screen and usually allow you to end the fight within 2 or 3 turns. In the end, you’ll end up doing just that while healing yourself time to time. Jobs felt rather unbalanced, with few of them giving a real advantage. No strategy is really needed, as the item dealer can cover you fairly easily, so it’s nowhere as interesting as Moero Chronicle or Dungeon Travelers 2-2 in terms of pure gameplay. Battles remain shallow from back to front, most bosses not being that hard either.

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The only interesting boss fights were the ones taking place on several floors, as you actually need to activate traps to weaken the Nightmare while escaping its assaults and random battles. The flavor of those sequences (only two in the game though) lies in the fact that you can’t open the menu, thus can’t heal yourself between battles, forcing you to get the perfect timing.

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It’s obvious that Compile Heart designed Mary Skelter Nightmares to be more accessible than your average D-RPG : you can save anytime, go back to the base anytime without any limitation, characters are fully healed when leveling up and battles aren’t so frequent. Characters keep all skills from previous jobs, and they can change every ten levels, so it makes a party a little bit overpowered at some point. It can be played relatively easily but not with the same enjoyment as more challenging D-RPGs.

Loaded with nice and innovative stuff, Mary Skelter Nightmares paradoxically gives up on hardcore gameplay to let the player enjoy the new stuff without getting demotivated. The introduction of fear and panic elements, a better storyline, splendid design as well as hardcore ecchi stuff make it quite entertaining despite lengthy dungeons. Good but not perfect, Mary Skelter Nightmares is nevertheless Compile’s best offering this year.

Review – Caligula

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Furyu isn’t giving up. Despite the flop of Lost Dimension, the small publisher signs again on PSVita with a new original RPG with tactical elements. The decent success of Caligula in Japan (50K copies shipped) and the reception of Lost Dimension in the West (freshly released on PC) urges Atlus to bring it to us under the name of The Caligula Effect.

Caligula’s beginning is pretty sudden : the main character finds himself in an unknown school, in the middle of a ceremony where he doesn’t recognize anybody. Startled, he tries to flee but comes across a student with a grotesque face. He quickly understands that he’s not in the real world any more, and will meet a strange group of students calling themselves the kitakubu. Those young men and girls a little cleverer than the rest, aware that this world they are in is pure illusion, are seeking a way to go back to reality. Kitaku litteraly means “going back home” : great pun since kitakubu generally describes students who don’t belong to any school club, thus going back home directly after class.

Caligula Kotono

Those boys and girls have a special power called Catharsis Effect, metamorphosis that will alter their look almost as much as their enemies. The Catharsis Effect is a symbol of Caligula’s general design, purposely dark because based on layers of grey, all that so as to match with the main themes which are death and illusion. This trance gives them the strength to accomplish their goal : kill μ (pronounce “Mew”), the creator of this false world called Moebius.

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But before reaching μ, you’ll need to defeat the fearsome gakushi who approve this world and help keeping it running by composing music. Μ is a female AI singer who lures students by singing. Every villain, every dungeon has its own music. And not some random music because Caligula is actually making a allegory of Hatsune Miku : every track is made of Vocaloid music. For this, Furyu has made a deal with famous Vocaloid artists like CosMo@暴走P and 蝶々P who had work on Project Diva F. Distorted Happiness by CosMo@暴走P has actually accents close to its Sadistic Music Factory in Project Diva F. That gives to Atlus’s game a powerful soundtrack that makes fights dynamic, notably Sin and Cosmo Dancer. Even more impressively, the lyrics actually fit the personality of the boss. The only black mark on Caligula’s musical record is that it chooses the slowest rhythm at the beginning, which doesn’t help getting into the game.

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But Caligula’s greatest quality is its remarkably well written story. It deals with extremely serious topics (illness, loneliness, professional future…), but the point is the thinking behind it, because Caligula calls out to the player through the debates between the heroes and the gakushi. Those conversations ask relevant questions : do virtual worlds and social networks cut us from reality too much? Is reality necessarily better that fiction? Caligula does an impressive job raising those social issues and it’s fascinating from back to front. Despite the weak graphics, the general direction is clever enough (very good camera work for example) to deliver a great narrative. The somewhat disturbing design here again gives a strong effect to the events, and makes the game unique. You will remember it all your life.

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Like any Persona-like, all our friends have their own story divided in various chapters throughout the game. Those might be side stories, they’re as well told if not better than the main scenario for they include huge surprises and a certain suspense. Like in the rest of the narrative, the clever writing goes along with an equally clever use of humor : the jokes that the characters are throwing at each other are excellent. Beside the main characters, the game allows you to recruit any NPC in your party, feature already used by the developer Aquria for Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment for example. But given those NPCs are duplicates of your own partners in terms of abilities, that option quickly turns out to be meaningless.

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Progression system is where Furyu’s system gets far less impressive. Dungeons come one after another is a very linear way, without any side-quest or activity to unwind. That lack of overall content wouldn’t be bothering if Caligula had interesting dungeons or a good game structure, which is unfortunately not the case. Caligula is in fact a corridor-game plagued with uninspired level design and very unclear maps. Those maps are often nothing more that a long chain of battles before reaching the boss. It’s pretty easy to get lost in those areas, and to lose patience because of the great number of enemies in the tiny corridors. The very last stage is symptomatic of this : it features nearly identical sectors with no clear landmark, driving you crazy in no time. I mean, I’m OK with mazes and searching in JRPGs, but progression here was more tiring than motivating. Tech performance makes things worse because of excessively long loadings, outdated modeling, painful frame-rate and unacceptable freezes for an 1.05 version…

Caligula battle Kotono

With such tiresome progression, Caligula had better provide enjoyable fighting. It indeed really succeeds in that department, Furyu giving us here an ATB/turn-based system capable of chaining attacks like you’ve never seen. First important thing : it shows you the future. When choosing your next move, you have an indication of what type of behavior the enemy will take, allowing you to adapt your strategy. Depending on the type of offensive coming, you’ll have to choose from different counters to get the upper hand. Once you’ve started a counterattack, you can build complex combos by throwing opponents in the air (and then use moves with aerial bonuses) or onto the ground (and launch moves effective against downed enemies). On the other hand, the timing to chain powerful moves is tricky and you’ll have to adjust the start of your turn on the ATB line to get your attack bonus. Fortunately, the time stops at this moment so that you can think and decide carefully. By the way, you can stop the action manually anytime if you want to take classy screenshots.

Caligula battle Suzuna

Last but not least, all enemies have a “risk” level that makes them increasingly dangerous. But it’s first and foremost an important gameplay leverage because your attacks benefit from the risk level of the opponent in front of you : Mifue for example will only be able to use her moves if the enemy is of risk 2,3 or more. Similarly, some overdrive attacks can be used only when the enemy has reached risk level 5, the highest. Building the perfect is thoroughly enjoyable and you never get enough of it, all the more true that the game grants you some little appraisal (Cool, Stylish, etc.) like Devil May Cry in its time. As much as the battle system is brilliant, the challenge isn’t always satisfying as bosses lack aggressiveness. Actually, only groups of enemies are tricky to defeat.

Caligula is as fascinating as it is wobbly in its structure and technics. That’s the kind of game you will inevitably remember for its writing/artistic qualities and innovating features features, despite having raged on the irritating dungeons. A rather good Persona-like all things considered, and a definite step forward for Furyu, who said they are working on that base for a future title.

Review – Summon Night 6 Lost Borders

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

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PSVita

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

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PSVita

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PSVita

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

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

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PSVita

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

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PSVita

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

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

Summon Night 6

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

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

Review – Atelier Firis, the Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Tales of Berseria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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