Review – Death Mark

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

Death Mark prologue

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

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

Death Mark phonebox

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

Death Mark phone live or die

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

Death Mark doc

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

Death Mark bride

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

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

Death Mark tree

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

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

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

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Zanki Zero (PS4/PSVita)

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

Shin Yomawari (PS4/PSVita)

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

Tokyo Clanpool (PSVita)

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

Dragon Quest XI (PS4)

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

The Great Ace Attorney 2 (3DS)

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

Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel III (PS4)

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

Nights of Azure 2 (PS4/PSVita/Switch)

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

Moero Castle Panzers (PS4)

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

A look back at some E3 2017 videos

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Transference (PSVR)

Only game to have drawn my attention during conferences, Transference is a intriguing UGO from Ubisoft. The publisher takes neurological experiences conducted in the late 90’s as base. It was about transferring human emotions into a digital space. By reflecting that in virtual reality, the French company lets us expect a mystical and deeply frightening experience.

Gran Turismo Sport (PS4)

With its Jurassic Park-like music, Gran Turismo Sport comes to reminds us that racing simulation is not just about teraflops. It’s also about impressive racing tracks, joyful atmosphere, great music and lavish show. As many aspects that Sony’s exclusive won’t lack when facing Forza 7.

Code Vein (PS4/XB1/PC)

Not very different from the trailer of last month, Code Vein’s trailer (strangely shown during Microsoft conference, BandaiNamco will have a lot of explaining to do at home) still’s worth a glimpse. It’s kind of a God Eater of darker design and world, with slower but more powerful gameplay. But more than that, the giant leap in graphics and animation is especially exciting.

13 Sentinels Aegis Rim (PS4/PSVita)

Announced two years ago, we still don’t know what 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim is for sure. Atlus brings it to E3 without even giving detail on its platforms or its genre… We therefore have to kill time watching this beautiful trailer until the publisher finally reveals everything. The music has a striking sense of grandeur, and the devastated and soulless Earth is intriguing.

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.

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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.

A Marvelous con

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Switch is getting traction. Ignored until now, Nintendo’s new system arouse interest among indies and japanese publishers. Gust’s key AA game Nights of Azure 2 will be getting a Switch version at the same time as PS4 and PSVita version. It’s fine : it’s only normal that japanese companies would seek to reach a new audience to offset Vita’s unavoidable decline. It is not ok, however, to take opportunistic behavior and turn your back on your fans, like Marvelous is doing.

The Japanese corporation is proud to announce that Fate Extella is coming to Switch this summer, with all the previous DLC included. The game came out for PSVita and PS4 just 3 months ago. Day-one buyers on Sony systems find this outrageous : why would they still be charged large sums (it’s 2€ per costume) while Switchers, who have yet to prove that they’ll support Marvelous’s business, will receive the whole stuff for free? Sony fans are on edge, they’ve recently made Senran Kagura Estival Versus a significant success with some 320K sold worldwide, only to be treated like dirt. Even after that unfair treatment of customers has been made public, Marvelous keeps prompting Playstation players to open their wallets for their overpriced DLC. Anybody would choke at such shameless commercial practices. Marvelous points out that both Vita and PS4 had exclusives costumes, but the Switch version actually has a better costume and it comes on disc whereas the Playstation-exclusive costumes were preorder items, so every Switcher will get it. The great mocking continues.

At this point, you might wonder whether Marvelous has just gotten hostile to Playstation. But notice one thing : US and European have been including the DLC in the Steam late ports until Nitro+ Blasters. But recently with Senran Kagura Estival Versus, they’ve started charging you for additional content just like PS players. This has been reconfirmed with Valkyrie Drive today, while Switch owners still receive the largesse. Let me rephrase it for you. If you play on a Playstation system or on PC, you are SECOND-RATE costumers to them. Glorious PC players, if by any chance Fate Extella ends up coming to Steam without the DLC, I expect you to RIOT until those vultures give you the equal treatment you deserve. At some point, we must express our anger to be played second fiddle despite our long commitment to share our love for their content. I don’t say that you should boycott Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash because it’s a fine game and producer Takaki has been fair to its audience since Estival Versus. But don’t buy the DLC or buy less of it, that should hit their profitability hard (DLC gives by far the highest margin). I didn’t buy the Super Sonico DLC and I wouldn’t have bought the whole DOAX3 DLC if I had known the publisher would back-stab me like this.

In doing unfair practices and denying equal treatment for all their customers, Marvelous reopens the era of rotten game business and illegitimate favoritism. Such wrongdoers must be hit with the mightiest strength, otherwise another console war will break out, undermining the gaming community again.

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.

Mary Skelter Nightmares floor

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.