Ys: Memories of Celceta (Vita) review

Ys: Memories of Celceta is another game following the adventures of Adol Christian, a young man with a passion for exploring the world and seeing as much as he can.  His previous exploits have won him fame and praise, but he continues to push as deep into the unexplored as possible.  Upon visiting the Great Forest, he somehow manages to lose his memories.  Through the help of those he meets on his journey, Adol must reclaim his memories and solve the mystery that caused him to lose them in the first place by doing what he does best: exploring.

This story is what all Ys stories are: simple and predictable.  Anyone who pays the slightest amount of attention will see all the twists coming a mile away and be able to recite the next several story beats with no mistakes.  Of course, there really isn’t anything wrong with this.  I enjoy a simple, laid-back story as much as the next person every so often.  The characters are one-dimensional but fun in their own ways.  This story in particular didn’t really grab me as much as past entries in the series, but it did keep me generally motivated to move forward after a slow build-up.  The predictability was actually a great source of amusement, as I couldn’t help but laugh every time the characters were shocked by something so painfully obvious.  For those who find such stories annoying, Memories of Celceta may be a bit harder to get through.

For those unfamiliar with the Ys series, they are action-RPGs that combine elements of Zelda and Diablo.  Action unfolds at a very rapid pace, with you moving your character around, dodging attacks and retaliating when you have an opening.  You unlock various skills that help to deal damage more quickly or from range as you progress.  Enemies drop money and materials that can be used to buy or upgrade equipment.  This game also features multiple playable characters, which can be switched to with the press of a button.  Everyone plays a bit differently, leaving you to pick the one you like best.  I primarily stuck to Adol, for his speed and familiarity, but each character has something to offer.

I didn’t enjoy the combat in Memories of Celceta as much as I usually do in the Ys games.  There are two reasons I can attribute to this.  First, the game is missing an element found in several of other games: a multiplier to XP and stats that increases if you keep attacking enemies quickly enough.  This was always a motivator for me to chain kills from enemy to enemy, and room to room, as fast as I could, which gave the games a great pace.  In this, I never felt the exciting intensity to push forward as quickly.  The second reason stems from the game’s unfortunate performance problems.  For the most part, it plays quite well and keeps up with the action.  Too much intensity, however, and the action would start to chug and lose that quintessential speed that I feel defines the Ys series.  Overall, even without the performance hit, I felt the game played much more slowly (maybe a side effect of its 3D perspective?).  Both of these disadvantages make Memories of Celceta a game I am unlikely to return to; given a choice, I would much rather play a different, faster Ys game instead.

Even more disappointing is that the music doesn’t feel quite up to snuff either.  Fans of the Ys series know that the games have some truly kick-ass tracks that pump you up and keep you playing (for those who haven’t heard, go check it out now!).  I rarely felt this energy from the tracks in Memories of Celceta.  Sure, there are a few tracks here and there that are quite excellent, but the quality overall just feels less impressive.  Tracks from other games in the series have become some of my favorite game music to date; I would be hard pressed to find more than two or three tracks I would like to listen to more now that I’ve finished the game.

Ys: Memories of Celceta isn’t a bad game.  There’s a lot here for those who enjoy it, dozens of hours of content at least.  It’s a pretty kick-ass Vita game, a platform that has desperately needed more enjoyable original games.  However, I just think Memories of Celecta is a poor Ys game.  Nothing from the story to the gameplay to the music feels as good as it has been in the past.  The core action is still solid for those unawares of these past games, but I had a hard time wanting to continue with it at times.  There is next to no chance I will ever go back and play it again over something like Origin or Oath of Felghana (both of which are on Steam and highly recommended by me).  Don’t let that stop you if you want to jump into the Ys series, though; this is a solid, lengthy game for those looking for something to play on their Vitas.

…For those not looking for a game on their Vita, I really suggest getting Origin.  It’s so much better.

 

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Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3) review

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Final Fantasy XIII-2 drops you in the shoes of Serah, Lightning’s younger sister.  She is having dreams about her sister, who was thought lost in the world-changing events of the previous game, locked in an endless battle with a shadowy man named Caius in some strange realm called Valhalla.  Just when Serah thinks she is truly going crazy, a man she recognizes from her latest dream appears in her village saying he knows how to reach Lightning.  This is Noel, the last surviving human from a terrifying future devoid of life.  He says that the two of them have to fix the timeline or else all life on Gran Pulse and Cocoon will be extinguished forever.  Together, the pair travel through various time gates scattered throughout history to change the future and eventually reunite with Lightning in Valhalla.

Fixing the timelines and creating an ideal future is the main crux of the plot in XIII-2.  You use gates to jump from time period to time period, solving paradoxes that warp the timeline, and fight back against Caius’ meddling.  As may be expected from a time-travel story, it can get a little confusing at times.  Unfortunately, most of this confusion comes from poor pacing instead of mind-bending paradoxes.  For much of the game, you are just using each gate you come across with an intent of always moving forward.  Most of the time I felt like I was just doing what the game told me to because that’s what I needed to do to progress. Occasionally, you will be tasked with fixing a paradox that has an apparent effect on the timeline, but the results often don’t feel as big and meaningful as they should seeing as how you’re changing history.  I suppose all the things I was doing were technically working towards this “perfect” future the characters wished to create, but I rarely felt like what I was doing had this meaning.

The story does picks up steam near the very end, with very clear cause-and-effect actions you perform to save the world.  Unfortunately, it also chooses to dump an astounding amount of exposition in this last 5-10 hours, probably more so than the rest of the game combined.  You learn the truth of the various characters, what your actions have really meant the whole time, and what you must do to finally succeed.  It feels like the characters purposefully hold back some of this information just for these final reveals, which was frustrating to no end.  This exposition dump also has the adverse effect of coming right when you think the game is about to end, extending its length by several more hours.  Also, the ending is a pretty massive cliffhanger that had me aching to know what happens next (slightly less annoying since the next game is already out at this point).  As I stated above, it really feels like a pacing problem.  It’s nowhere near as bad as Final Fantasy XIII’s 20+ hour buildup, but the developers still didn’t get the pacing quite right.

While the events of the story relatively intriguing and thought-provoking, it was really the characters that I found myself enjoying the most.  Noel (voiced by Jason Marsden) has an interesting backstory, coming from such a dire future where he lost everyone he knew and cared about, and plays a typical role–that of a protective male–in a different way.  He wants to protect whoever he can but doesn’t run into combat brashly and risk his own life to save others; instead, he values the intelligence of not fighting battles he can’t win and scaring those whom he wishes to protect.  It’s particularly fun seeing him clash with Snow (a character from 13) who embodies those stereotypes perfectly.  The villain Caius (voiced by the excellent Liam O’Brien) looks to end the world simply because he wishes to end the eternal suffering of Yeul, a girl gifted with the vision to see the future who is doomed to be reborn throughout history and die at a young age.  Even a minor character named Alyssa has some fascinating character motivations that I won’t dare spoil here.  The interactions between these characters are what kept me driving forward when the story had me scratching my head and aching to know more.

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While you run around a bunch, solving paradoxes and talking to people, most of the gameplay in XIII-2 consists of the excellent combat system from its predecessor.  If you’ve played the original, know that the combat here is pretty much identical, just a lot peppier (particularly in the Paradigm shifts).  For those who haven’t played it, it is one of the fastest combat systems I’ve seen in a JRPG to date.  Instead of focusing on choosing the correct spells to exploit an enemy’s weakness, combat is much more about choosing the correct Paradigm to deal with whatever is currently happening in the fight.  These Paradigms can be offensive, defensive, or healing/buffing in nature and can be switched between on the fly in battle.  When a hard hit is coming, switching to a defensive Paradigm can help ease the blow.  When the enemy is vulnerable, switching to a hard-hitting Paradigm can help burn through its HP pool even faster.  It’s a system that can be very boring or super intense, depending on the difficulty of the encounter: the more Paradigm switches necessary, the better the fight.  It’s complex and hard to understand at first but really grows on you once you get used to it.  I can easily call it my favorite JRPG battle system of the last generation, due to its intensity and flair.

Personally, I felt that Final Fantasy XIII was quite easy.  Very few fights gave me any trouble and I pretty much breezed through the entire game.  XIII-2 has a much spikier difficulty, which can be more engaging but also more frustrating.  Every so often, I would come across a boss fight that was significantly more demanding than anything before or after it.  Some bosses, however, were laughably easy and felt like they fit into the progression much better.  I never knew what I was going to get with a new boss encounter, which could be exciting but also very hard to prepare for.  The biggest issue with these difficult fights is a mechanic called wound damage, new to XIII-2.  Some hits inflict wound damage which lowers your highest potential max health for the rest of the fight.  Longer fights, of which there are many, would eventually wear my characters down to a point where I had to claw for every second of survival.  There are potions you can use to heal this damage, but I rarely had them on hand when I needed them (although to be fair, I could have bought more from the plethora of vendors).  Without this mechanic, I really feel the harsh spikes of difficulty would have been better mitigated.  Since all your damage is healed between every fight anyway, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to this mechanic other than to add difficulty.

The worst instance of this difficulty spiking, however, comes at the very end of the game.  After the lengthy exposition dump I mentioned above, you are dumped into the end-game dungeon.  This dungeon features the hardest encounters in the game, severely harder than any random encounters that come before it, and a LOT of them.  Characters who aren’t prepared with enough levels or gear will get flattened over and over again.  To make things even worse, this dungeon features some touchy platforming and an insanely confusing layout that had me practically pulling my hair out in clumps.  This part of the game really soured my feelings on the game and had me wanting to turn off the system more than once.  Most of this annoyance probably stemmed from my desire to see the end of the game already, after that exposition detour, but I still felt frustrated in a way that I hadn’t since the Moon in the DS version of Final Fantasy IV.

Presentation-wise, XIII-2 is one of the best looking PS3 games I’ve played.  It’s one of the few games on the system that actually displays in full 1080p, and it shows in the fidelity of the character models and particle effects.  I really adore the artstyle as well, particularly in the designs of the characters (although Serah’s new outfit is ridiculously short…).  Some may take issue with the very Kingdom Hearts look of some of the new characters, especially with Noel.  The one issue I had with the visuals is that I felt not enough was done to distinguish the different time-period versions of areas, outside of one breathtaking snowy area.  Musically, XIII-2 is kinda all over the place but in a way that I can appreciate.  Some of it sounds very traditional, but there are several tracks featuring electronic, pop, and even metal styles.  Unlike Metal Gear Rising, a game that I felt used metal to good effect, I think metal doesn’t fit very well in XIII-2.  It’s hilarious every time I hear it, but I appreciated the other tracks in the game on a more appropriate level.

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I can understand why people don’t like Final Fantasy XIII-2 and its predecessor.  Both games are plagued with confusing, layered narratives that take a long time to make sense.  For those willing to give it a shot, there is interesting material to discover.  Should it be better spread across the length of the game?  Absolutely.  This doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth seeing.  It may not be the most original or memorable story, but the voice actors did a fantastic job making me care about the character even when the story was twisting my brain in knots.  I also can’t say enough good things about the combat system.  It may seem very sedentary and boring at times, but the intense fights where I was  forced to switch Paradigms very quickly were always fun and engaging.  Even the difficulty spikes can be fun to overcome, if you have the patience to do so (unlike me).

For those who enjoyed the original 13, this game is a no-brainer: you will enjoy this game, at least on a gameplay level.  For those who hated 13, don’t even bother.  You won’t have a good time.  For everyone else?  I urge you to give this a shot; even if you don’t like the clunky story, the action-packed combat is too good to pass up.

Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan (3DS) review

Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan tells a very simple story: you take control of a new group of explorers tasked with reaching the mythical Yggdrassil tree that towers in the distance.  You meet a variety of characters to aid you in your quest, both in town at the various shops and guilds and out in the unexplored lands, who are often just a little too undeveloped to be interesting.  Your missions come from the Count of Tharsis, the town where your journey begins, and slowly bring you through four distinct overworld areas called lands to reach the endgame. It’s adequate fuel to spur your adventurers onward, but it doesn’t really ever evolve into anything that interesting.  Annoyingly, the story comes very infrequently for most of the game.  The last land and its dungeons are where most of the “big” revelations come about, but the beats are fairly predictable to anyone who is even partially paying attention.  One character’s “twist” reveal was so laughably obvious that I even knew exactly when it was going to happen.  The dialogue and the descriptions of the various things you encounter (which feels very much like a DM for a game of Dungeons and Dragons) are actually fairly well-written, but the whole game still falls subject to tropes that fans of JRPGs will instantly recognize.  Overall, it’s pretty bland.

However, I did end up enjoying my journeys through the lands of Etrian Odyssey, thanks to a bit of imagination.  This game inspired me to do a bit of roleplaying (which isn’t something I find myself doing often), using my imagination to make up what my party was thinking, saying, or doing at any given moment in the dungeon.  While your charcters never actually speak in the game itself, I came to become attached to my five party members by the end of the game.  When I needed to replace one of them to better suit my party’s composition for the final boss, it took me several minutes to actually boot her out and bring in a fresh member.  I never would have imagined that I would feel so attached to characters that the game did nothing to built; it all came from how I imagined her in my head.  Some people may argue that a game shouldn’t force the player to do this on their own, instead giving character to the members itself, but I believe that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much if they had.  It forced me out of my wheelhouse and gave me a unique experience because of it.

Gameplay in Etrian Odyssey IV is very much a throwback to CRPGs of yore, particularly the early Wizardry and Ultima games, but with traditional JRPG combat.  You start in Tharsis where you can rest and save at the Saehrimnir Inn, trade monster parts for new weapons and armor at the Berund Atelier, accept side quests from the Dancing Peacock, and manage and recruit new members at the Explorers’ Guild.  When you’re ready to depart, you set out on an overworld map in an airship.  Once you find a dungeon you want to explore, the game become first-person and grid-based, a clear homage to early dungeon-crawlers.  Exploring and mapping out (which I’ll get to in a minute) these dungeons, while fighting off random encounters every so often, is your main goal.  Story dungeons progress the game forward, but there are plenty of side dungeons with tantalizing loot and extra EXP for your characters if you’re interested.

For those of you who haven’t played an Etrian Odyssey game before, it features a map on the lower screen at all times.  Unlike other RPGs, however, it expects you to make these maps yourself with the various tools provided to you: wall and floor painting tools, various icons for marking important points, and even a system that lets you program automatic paths for travel.  I LOVED mapping the dungeons in this game.  Some may not find it to their taste (and they can use the auto-mapping feature to do it for them), but it was absolutely my favorite part of the game.  I became obsessed with mapping every tile, with finding every shortcut (a necessity to reach bosses quickly with your party healthy).  In fact, I would often find myself underleveled for a new dungeon because I would so frequently run from encounter, wanting to draw the next hallway instead of fighting another battle.  There’s just something satisfying about finishing a floor’s map and knowing exactly where everything is because you’ve been there yourself to find out.

Combat in Etrian Odyssey IV is very standard JRPG fare: you and your enemies trade blows until one or the other is defeated.  Where it gets interesting is in the various classes and how they can sync together.  Landsknechts, an offensive class, have abilities called Links that allow other party members to follow up his or her attacks for extra damage.  Nightseekers, a class focused on status effects, have an attack that hits eight times in one round.  By pairing the two classes, you can unleash a long stream of stacked damage on a boss that can absolutely devastate its health pool.  This is just one example of how the classes can work together in combat.  The skill trees for each character are diverse and allow for many options in crafting a team that works well in combat together.  It gets even crazier when you can subclass your members and open up a whole other tree for them to utilize.  It’s easily the most synergistic combat system I’ve seen in a JRPG and encourages experimentation in a way that’s fun and rewarding.

Note that this is a pretty difficult game.  I’ve read that it isn’t even as hard as past games in the series, a fact that frightens me a bit.  Expect to be beat down rapidly even by random encounters if you don’t exercise caution and test out the capabilities of a new monster before charging into battle.  Boss fights are long affairs, requiring strategy in order to overcome the various abilities and exploit the weaknesses of the creature, but are truly rewarding when conquered.  The difficulty spikes every so often–I had more trouble with the second dungeon’s boss than any other enemy in the game, even the final boss–but an encounter is always able to be overcome with enough strategy and planning.  Interestingly, gear and levels don’t make that big of a difference; they definitely help ease an encounter’s difficulty but not nearly as much as a well-planned party and battle plan do.  You’re really expected to think tactically in Etrian Odyssey IV, something I originally balked at but came to enjoy and love by the end of the game.

I did have a few issues with the game.  The random encounter rate is strangely variable, sometimes only requiring a few steps for a fight to trigger while other times not triggering for a whole floor.  On average, however, I felt it was a bit too high.  This is likely my personal preference kicking in, but I really grew tired of the various random encounters by the end of the game.  I enjoyed the boss fights much more than enemies that became rather trivial once you knew how to overcome their challenges.  Sometimes, getting to the next boss was a slog of these fights, which soured my opinion of the game slightly.  I also found myself annoyed with a few of the dungeon layouts, particularly the third main dungeon.  This one features irritating scales that block your progress unless you have an Ice Spike to melt them, respawning every time you enter the dungeon.  Even worse is that this dungeon featured larger scales that, when destroyed, would freeze over the water found within and open new paths.  After a few days, these would respawn, forcing you back to the (usually) out-of-the-way scale to refreeze the water.  Combine this with a floorplan featuring various entrances and stairs to different parts of each floor and it was unbearably confusing at times.  Most of the dungeons avoid this confusion, but a few here and there had me scratching my head or practically throwing my 3DS in annoyance.

I was rather surprised by how much I enjoyed my time with Etrian Odyssey IV.  While the combat was a bit harder and more frequent than I prefer in my JRPGs, it was also impressive in its design and unbelievably rewarding.  I stood from my chair and whooped in joy every time I beat a boss, something I never do with games today.  Mapping ended up being my favorite activity, giving me intense desires to go back and play those old CRPGs I missed out on due to my age.  The story wasn’t very interesting, but the way I was inspired to do some roleplaying of my own was fascinating.   I don’t think the Etrian Odyssey games are for everyone, but I think everyone should at least give it a shot; within the steep difficulty curve lies a gratifying experience unlike any other RPG I’ve played before.