Review – Fate Extella

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Extremely large media mix IP, Fate has gone into anime, visual novels & mangas. But it of course doesn’t fail to visit the gaming business to meet the demand for more interactivity. So after Fate Extra and Fate Extra CCC on PSP, it’s the turn of Fate Extella on PSVita.

Fate GO, Fate Zero, Fate Extra, Fate Stay Night, Fate Apocrypha, Fate Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya… Not always easy to get facts right in the sprawling Fate universe. The aim of Fate Extella is thus very simple : to offer an action game picking charismatic characters in all those sub-IPs so that fans can play as their favorite characters. Altella and Elizabeth come from the smartphone game Fate Grand Order, No Name Archer is well-known for being Rin Tôsaka’s servant in Ufotable’s anime adaptation of Fate Stay Night, and Nero & Tamamo come from the previous PSP games. In Fate’s lore, some humans called magi or masters can summon the spirits of past heroes, reincarnated into powerful servants. You are to expect the evil Roman emperor Nero as a extrovert Blond girl, Attila as a tsundere girl and, more in line with history, Alexander the Great as an old and bold king. That’s a total of 16 playable characters in Fate Extella, with both handsome men and sexy girls. So no one gets left behind here.

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Fate Extella’s story happens after Fate Extra and Fate Extra CCC : the Holy Grail War is over and your main character is already crowned king of SE.RA.PH, virtual domain set by the Moon Cell, itself a central system measuring and controlling activity on Earth. The main character first appears with his/her servant Nero Claudius, who de facto become regent of SE.RA.PH. Their reign however won’t be peaceful as Tamamo No Mae, another servant from the Holy Grail War, starts invading their territory.

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Altella, another spirit, will barge in this struggle to power not to conquer, but to destroy all. This particular event foretells greater trials for the servants, which go beyond the Holy Grail War. Each of the three has a team involving other heroes, so Fate Extella shares out good and evil a bit like Dissidia does for Final Fantasy. The player is invited to experience the story from the three different points of view, three alternate futures that shall lead to an ideal fate in the lovable true end.

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Likable on its principles, the story of Fate Extella is a little less exciting in the way it’s told : its structure is basically repetitive and vary only in the very last chapter, which is more interesting to follow. But before it, you can’t help thinking you’re doing the same game 3 times with 3 different characters. Note that purely narrative part are quite long (you often spend more time between chapters than playing) with lots of raw text in the middle of dialogs. In doing so, Fate Extella gets back to its roots of visual novel, even at risk of annoying players eager to enter the fray. It remains that those sequences have a strong poetic tone and excellent writing. A good read, but here again they could have made it more concise.

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Besides that, dialogs still a have a strong sense of humor : driven by their unstoppable love for the main character and their own rivalry, Nero and Tamamo will keep making a fool of each other or come up with hilarious strange words. Their behavior is clearly over-the-top and lives up to the craziest JRPGs. Strangely, this wacky talk balanced by very sophisticated language, with complex use of Japanese kanjis and rare vocabulary. Once more, the redundancy of situations can be boring.

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The combat area in Fate Extella is divided in several little sectors. The rules are pretty simple : you have to take a set number of sectors to make the boss appear. Once you’ve defeated him, the level is cleared. To make a sector your own, you first have to sweep dozens of basic (but sometimes threatening) enemies to make “aggressors” come down. Those much tougher entities are the guardians of the sector : you have to destroy three or more to secure the sector.

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But that is easier said than done, because the opposing side isn’t going to stay idle while you march on its soil. Foes counterattack at every occasion, harass your sectors relentlessly and can even invade them from afar by devices called “plants”. Those strange UFOs can indeed send enemy troops from and to any part of map. You therefore have to eliminate them in priority, even it that means going all the way to the other side of the map. Thanks to those powerful means, opponents progress very quickly and your sectors are in a constant state of hemorrhage. Besides, enemy heroes will regularly stand on your way, slowing you down. Fate Extella is an action game with permanent pressure, because you always play on the brink of defeat! The game won’t even hesitate to throw you on map controlled 90% by the enemy, where surrender is a question of minutes! Up to the player to rush towards key-sectors and unleash his fighting spirit. Sensation are guaranteed.

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Your arsenal of combos rely on variations of square and triangle buttons, a bit like Senran Kagura Estival Versus in fact. The good thing is that it ensure a good variety in gameplay while keeping the game very accessible. The same pattern being applied to every character, you can switch between stories without having to learn everything again. However, the three main heroines do have a fighting style of their own : Nero prefers shield/sword combos, Tamamo casts fire/ice/wind spells, while Altella boasts the most impressive combos with her polymorphic rainbow blade. To allow faster progression, each character has 3 trump cards.

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Extella maneuver is a series of blows targeting every foe in the vicinity : it’s useful to take out several aggressors at the same time. Moondrive is a transformation that makes you temporarily invincible and the hôgu, the most powerful capacity and the one that makes the most impressive cut-scenes, blows everything in a sector. Even if you master the use of those abilities, victory is far from certain but you do keep the experience gained after losing. This way, missions become gradually less difficult, so that no one gets stuck. The boss characters, of seriously dumb AI, are still extremely disappointing. On the minus side, changing characters in the story is very limited, since you can switch to the current lieutenant and no one else. A bit of variety would have been welcomed here.

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So we’re definitely happy to have side-stories for every character. «Story» might be a little exaggerated since the actual scenario is thin. Elizabeth’s stands out though, because her story is really fun and draws the best of her yandere personality : she will finally fulfill her evil ambitions and crush her rivals. This mode is a good occasion to fully enjoy the cast, not to mention that secondary characters’ movesets are as good as the main ones.

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Combos and skills are original and varied. Jeanne d’Arc for example fight with a spear with a large flag on the top of it, also drawing on her knight sword from time to time. The holy maiden however heavily relies on her hôgu, considerably more powerful than any other and which, reference to History, costs her one life. Seriously challenging, those side-stories are a clever way to enhance to general value of the game.

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If Marvelous’s technical mastery on PSVita needed further proof, Fate Extella is more evidence that the publisher take handheld fans seriously. Despite numerous elements and lot of movement on screen, the framerate knows no problem on PSVita. In fact, the game pixelates slightly to keep framerate stable at any time. A drawback for greater good, easily forgivable since character modeling is quite above average.

Fate Extella is a fun and intense action game making clever use of the series. With a rich array of characters and lots of storytelling, it adds a lot to the Fate universe and offers fans a thrilling way to experience the passion despite redundancies here and there.

Most anticipated games for 2017

Valkyria Azure Revolution (PSVita)

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

Cyberdimension Neptune (PS4)

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

NieR Automata (PS4)

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

Nights of Azure 2 (PS4)

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

Musô Stars (PSVita/PS4)

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

Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash (PS4)

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

Gun Gun Pixies (PSVita)

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

Blue Reflection (PS4)

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

Dungeon Travelers 2-2 (PSVita)

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

Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

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

Legend of Heroes Sen no Kiseki III (PS4)

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

Final Fantasy XV (PS4)

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

Dragon Quest XI (PS4)

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

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

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 – Kan Colle kai

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Representing naval ships by cute girls sure was a bold idea. Yet for 3 years now, the Kan Colle craze has taken Japan without any sign of slowing down. In 3 years, 3 millions of people have played DMM.com’s free to play strategy game. Feeling an opportunity, Kadokawa games lays down plans for a PSVita port. The handheld had a hard time seeing the light of the day (the numerous delays and Kadokawa’s decision to pull it from shelves show the negociations with DMM.com have been tough), but now it’s here, in the palm of your hand.

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In this naval strategy game, you’re a proud admiral of the Japanese Navy entrusted with the defense of the mainland against a mysterious Fleet of the Abyss. At first sight, no difference with your regular PC strategy game, except that here your fleet is exclusively composed with… girls! The game didn’t choose at random, since it borrows the name of famous WWII ships. You won’t be surprised then (or maybe a little) to see the aircraft carrier Akagi become a Kyûdô ace, or submarines turning into young girls in swimsuits! Kan Colle kai also welcomes foreign vessels like America’s Iowa or Germany’s Bismarck, who are featured as hot blonde girls. There are dozens of shipgirls (as the unofficial translation says), so everybody should find his favorites within the characters available. Yet the design is clearly uneven : the initial characters are not so well drawn compared to more recent additions. Nevertheless, the player throws himself in an unstoppable collection frenzy.

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Asia-Pacific in Kan Colle kai is divided into hexes that are areas you have to take back. Each turn on the map, you can either move your fleets or attack, after what it will be the enemy’s turn. Each hexe includes 4 zones and you must conquer the four of them to take control of the entire territory. At the beginning of the game, you only have Tokyo’s naval base. Be careful, because if foes seize it, it’s game over. Up to you to deploy your units efficiently enough to take back the coasts of Japan, enter Singapore, conquer Australia and finally destroy the Abyss HQ. Your job will be no less than winning WWII for Japan!

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Attacks are conducted by a group of 6 shipgirls or less, each zone having several battles before reaching to boss… if you manage to find it! The big challenge in Kan Colle kai is that most areas will ask you to form your group under precise conditions. For example, no more than 2 destroyers, no heavy carrier, minimum of reckon planes… The instructions are varied, but the immense difficulty lies in the fact that the game won’t always tell you what the conditions are! You have to try different combinations before getting the one that will lead you to the boss. Even by looking up Japanese and English wikis, it’s extremely long and harsh. The walkthroughs aren’t always complete nor do they even agree with each other. An unforgivable progression system that demands strong determination.

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Battles are turn based and the order of action depends on the stats of the units facing each other. If your reckon stat is high enough (if you’re stacked with planes, basically), your units will strike pre-emptively. If not, the enemy will fire in the middle of your turn. The result of battles depend on the level of your fleet : Kan Colle kai has an RPG aspect since each unit gains experience points at the end of the fight. When everyone’s done firing, the game will ask you if you want to keep fighting during the night. In this phase, accuracy is lower but you have a higher chance of dealing critical damage. Be careful, because it’s also true for the opposing units! Note that victory doesn’t require you to destory everything in front of you : the winning side is the one who has lost the least number of HP proportionally to its total HP.

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When attacking, the interface will ask you which formation you want to use. This is a strategic choice on your part that must be guided by your immediate goal. For example, the line formation is the best to deal damage but accuracy can get poor, while Echelon protects you better against submarines. Those basic rules already makes Kan Colle kai fairly complex, but that’s not the end of it.

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As you may have noticed, Kan Colle kai features several types of vessels, represented by cute icons on the strategic map : destroyer, light cruiser, heavy cruiser, battleship, aircraft carrier and submarines to cite thte main ones. There are uniques classes with very special abilities, but they’re very hard to obtain. Akashi, the girl of the supply menu, can for example repair units outside docks. Every class has a strategic role : you’re not leaving your simple destroyers rusting in the base because you’ll need them throughout the game. These are quite important to fight the infamous Abyss submarines, and they’ll be a key-conditions in many areas. Cruisers can damage carriers pretty badly, and submarines have the interesting advantage to be invisible to heavy units. Very expensive to produce, aircraft carriers are the best class in Kantai Collection. Well armored, useful for reckon and capable of lauching devastating pre-emptive air strikes, these girls marked by the small landing strip they hold are the units you’d want to include in your best fleets.

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Once you’ve mastered the strengths and weaknesses of everyone, you’ll need to focus on weaponry so as to have the best equipment for sortie. You can equip anti-air canons of various sizes, but all sizes don’t fit to every class type (lower accuracy is to expect if the canon is too big). War planes are divided into 3 categories : fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers which influence air superiority and air strike. You’ll also need to consider reckon planes which are key to your progression as we’ve seen. Other equipment like sonar and mines can damage submarines, and the precious repair unit can save the day in dire straights. All this comes with some huge hurdle in terms of understanding : partially written in Japanese of before 1945, Kan Colle kai is full of complex military vocabulary which only the most maniac can take on.

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That leaves a big question : how to develop your army? Like in any navy, actually : in shipyards. So you’re going to… build girls! This being a strategy game, you’ll need resources. Each hexe brings steel, gas, bauxite and ammo. Once those waters are under your control, resources will be added at the end of the turn. Bauxite is fairly rare but allows you to build the powerful carriers, so you should take such territories at all costs. You need transport vessels (not personalized, those one) in order to collect resources. Transports being incapable of defending themselves, you’ll have to appoint escort groups to prevent them from being sunk. Gas and ammunition are used every turn for resupplying your fleets, so securing resources is of critical importance. Note that you can also drop by Akashi’s shop if you’re short at some point. But the big thing to do there is purchasing tokens to extend repair or the upper limit of your army.

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Shipbuilding happening like a captcha of Japanese free to play games, the units are obtained at random. True, there are standard recipes which have been found by hardcore players, but getting duplicates is unavoidable. Nothing lost, because you can strengthen one character by consuming another character’s card. After reaching a certain level, shipgirls can even evolve into more efficient classes. Chiyoda and Chitose sisters for example evolve from seaplane to light aircraft carrier. Logical choice, because the Japanese Navy did improve the Chiyoda and the Chitose in 1943! Team of 6, random find, evolution… Yes, you got it : Kan Colle kai takes the exact same formula as Pokemon, with much success and efficiency.

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The more you progress in the game, the more aggressive the Army of the Abyss will be in its attempts to take back the lost grounds. And here, believe me, it’s not some pleasure trip. Hexes will turn turn yellow, ten orange and then to the maximum alert level, red. If no fleet is present to defend it, you lose all the 4 zones in it, plus the the one that comes just before! The conquest of one single hexe can take hours, days in some cases, so this Is absolutely huge in terms of presssure. In the late stages of the campaign, the Abyss forces launch attacks everywhere and everytime. You can’t take a break, even though you still have the hardest territories to take on. It will therefore be critical to station solid fleets at key points of the map and anticipate the enemy’s moves. Fortunately, several secondary missions will have allowed you to raise the number of available fleets to 8. Strategy in Kan Colle kai grows increasingly complex and demanding, but is proportionnally rewarding given the challenge. In short, exactly like a good Advance Wars.

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There are 3 levels of damage in Kadokawa’s game : light, medium and critical. If your flagship suffers critical damage, the current mission cannot continue and you’ll be forced to return to base. Heavily armored vessels are strongly recommended for this task. To increase the pressure, death in Kan Colle kai is definitive. A sunk character will not return (unless you rebuild her). And contrary to recent Fire Emblem games, here you can’t deactivate permadeath. A shipgirl with critical damage can die at any moment, making fights very tense like an old-school Fire Emblem : you pray for that the boss miss his shot, you triumph when your heavily damaged group wins tactical victory.

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Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really go beyond the original 2D, only little animation being added. Kantai Collection bring with itself an original and popular design which the reason for the wide merchandising. Even the Fleet of the Abyss, in featuring both grotesque figures and sexy “princesses”, makes very attractive artwork.

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The sound environment in the other hand is very good : with very loud firing sound, light military march and symphonies with grandeur, it’s varied and relevant. Themes like MI Sakusen and Hatsurei! Daiichigô Sakusen are definite masterpiece and make battles that you won’t forget. You also get the possibility to re-arrange the interior of your HQ with new furniture and such.

Japanese strategy games have become rare, especially those like Kan Colle kai which feature both addictive game and enjoyable challenge. Its interest and success lies in both its fine gameplay and weird design, which only got richer over the years. An impressive concept which takes the best from other Japanese strategy to build a unique and fascinating experience.

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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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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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 – Superdimension Neptune vs Sega Hard Girls

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Bad weather for the Neptunia series. The sales hit a low in Japan when Superdimension Neptune vs Sega Hard Girls was released in November 2015. The game was unlucky to follow the rather disappointing MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs Zombies. But did it really have the qualities to turn the tide?

Superdimension Neptune vs Sega Hard Girls is a spin-off of the Hyperdimension Neptunia series focused on IF (who came 2nd in the latest poll) and characters personifying the Sega consoles, that is to say Neptune, Nepgear, Uzume and Plutia. That means you won’t won’t see Noire, Blanc, Vert or any other characters of the main series. However, this crossover welcomes lovely guests : the Sega Hard Girls, characters representing Sega consoles in another IP. Megadrive, Game Gear, Saturn and Dreamcast (who you might have seen in Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax) take the form of cute girls called as such.

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The world of this game is thus not the gaming world in general but the Sega’s situation throughout the years. As a big Easter egg, an entire level reproduced Sega-Sammy’s theme park Joypolis, situated in Tokyo bay. The story starts in a barren world, current state of Sega who has lost the console wars, where IF comes across an amnesiac girl, Segami. From the Great Library which they use as headquarters, IF and Segami will cooperate in order to fix History and build a better future. You’ll therefore have to go back in time, like going back to Megadrive era (symbolized by Antiquity) or Game Gear’s (shaped as the industrial revolution). But that’s about it, since time travel doesn’t impact the story very much, far from being a new Chrono Trigger for example.

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Your final goal is to slay the History Eater, which eats small eras by falsifying it. This final boss can be faced almost right away, but it’s a lot too strong at the beginning of the game (because for example its HP regenerate very fast). So you do have to clear a number of story or sidequests, since every quest cleared weakens the boss (or to be more accurate, the boss cannot reinforce itself by eating the uncleared quest). The big problem here is that Superdimension Neptunia vs Sega Hard Girls quickly becomes a game where you do nothing but pointless sidequests. You know the sidequests in Neptunia? Find that item, beat that enemy, etc. The vast majority of the game is about rummaging around dungeons to find that enemy or that object. Those dungeons are still of very basic architecture and doesn’t change much from the Rebirth games available on the same system. I don’t find the efforts made in Megadimension Neptunia VII to achieve a more complex level design, that despite vertical zones.

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Very much like MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs Zombies, the story part is pretty short and the narrative feels kinda flat. The game only tells the phoney war between Neptune’s side and the Sega Hard Girls, with not that much parody, not many illustrations either, and features rather dull characters event compared to what we had on the past. We can expect far better form Compile Heart in that department. It still has a good sense of humor, thanks to Neptune who is more hilarious than ever : turned into a motorbike in this episode, the main protagonist of the series keeps joking about her being a bike all the time! Technically speaking, the 3D engine in use since ReBirth1 feels a bit old after the astonishingly beautiful MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs Zombies, but it’s still above average graphics for a handheld. I’d want to stress the good soundtrack, which has great boss themes like Going Down.

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The developer Felistella overhauls the system in use since Hyperdimension ReBirth1 : combo building is no more and a action gauge appears. Every move you make (walking, attacking, using an item, etc.) consumes the above mentioned gauge. You can thus manage your turn by doing various things, before filling the gauge, which would delay the character’s next turn. Paradoxically, you might want to go this far to use the overcharge : it’s a final combo that you can lauch by keeping the attack button pressed, sending the gauge in the red. This way, you can deal a powerful blow just before the end of your turn, after doing other actions. An interesting change on the strategic side : should the character replay fast? How should I place her to fulfill her role?

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For the first time, Superdimension Neptunia vs Sega Hard Girls introduces a job system. Not modifying the look of the characters nor their equipment, this system is actually closer to the «titles» in Tales of. In any case, the girls can now become Witch, Adventurer, Paladin, Scholar, Berserker, etc. which changes their stats and allows them to acquire new skills. Another interesting point is that the game will ask you to choose a formation, which can grant great advantages in both offense and defense. Those formations, which you can unlock by collecting base-ball balls (!) hidden in dungeons, have impressive effects like defense & magic defense+100, attack+100 or the privilege to go beyond the 9999 damage cap. Big problem though : your MPs don’t recover when you’re back to base. MPs regenerate very slowly in battle and your must hold back using magic or goddess form. Annoying.

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Superdimension Neptunia vs Sega Hard Girls isn’t linear. You quickly have access to many eras and many dungeons. You’ll realize pretty fast that some places are a lot more dangerous than others, and it’s up to you to find the logical order of the missions. The bosses in particular are extremely strong. So powerful that for some, you’ll be forced to come back a dozen of hours later ! The freedom in gameplay is real and it’s a nice innovation compared to the past episodes. The various characters being very progressively added to your team, the game takes the generous initiative to give you «copies» of the characters (officially, reverse engineering done by Histoire, Manager of the Great Library of Time) so that you can train them earlier.

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Despite that care, the leveling is still too slow in this game, for a very stupid reason : Felistella decided to implement a level cap on jobs. Worse, to remove this level cap, you must clear… more sidequests! That’s where it becomes really tiresome, because extending skill slots and getting more jobs also asks you to find rares items or foes. Some are seriously difficult to obtain, so you can be blocked at level 20 for hours. The end of the game is downright tiring because of that, although the easy mode (accessible at mid-game) and Megadrive’s damage boost softens the challenge.

The year of Neptunia ends like it began : by an lukewarm title unable to inherit the core ideas of the franchise. Superdimension Neptunia vs Sega Hard Girls is the final symbol of a lost year for the series, trapped into an identity crisis and unable to solve its contradictions of gameplay. Despite good humor and renewed battles, this episode is still poor in its narratives and situation to be one to remember. To the lack of ideas and guts, adds a unbalanced progression system. Cyberdimension Neptunia Online will have to fix all those issues next if the Nep team wants fans to stay.