I am Hyped for Shin Megami Tensei IV

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Shin Megami Tensei IV will be released tomorrow in the United States, and for the first time in a long while, I am hyped. I can’t remember the last video game I was actually genuinely excited for, but this game has been worming its way into my brain, and I can’t stop thinking about it. For the last week or so I’ve been playing a lot of Pokémon Black, trying to get through it before tomorrow. Having finished it on Friday, I decided to spend a little time last night with Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, just to get a little taste of what I’m in for tomorrow. I’ve played games in this series before, though I’ve mostly stuck to the Persona series. The chirpy, high school setting is immediately more inviting than the harsh, post-apocalyptic world view of the mainline SMT series, and having all of them on portable platforms has made playing an 80-hour RPG a lot more palatable. It’s also spoiling, leaving me wanting portable incarnations of every title in the series. How about a PS Vita remake of Nocturne, Atlus?

What amazes me is how straight Atlus plays it with the series, especially in America. Instead of a different title, they’ve willingly kept the very Japanese-sounding Shin Megami Tensei. Of course, True Goddess Reincarnation just doesn’t sound as catchy or as inviting, but a title like Shin Megami Tensei almost instantly damns your title to somewhat niche status. They tried to establish the Revelations Series moniker for several of their games during the mid-1990s, but it only stuck around for a pair of games before being abandoned. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was released here as it was originally titled, and Nocturne brought the mainline series to the United States for the first time. I really applaud them for sticking with the original title, and I feel like it gives the series a very interesting vibe. From the name alone, you know you’re going to get something different than the norm.

With the third main entry in the series losing the number designation outside of Japan, I was also really surprised to see Shin Megami Tensei IV retain it. More so than that, I wasn’t expecting the US box art to be retain the Japanese kanji logo. They’ve added Shin Megami Tensei in English above it, but that’s it. The rest remains the same. Since Nocturne was the first mainline SMT game the United States received, it has me wondering if remakes of the earlier games are on the horizon. I’d absolutely love to see the earlier games get some notice, even if I am still waiting on Persona 5. I just want to see these games playable in English without having to patch SNES rom files.

I’m just excited at the notion of getting excited for a game again. I’m ready to dig into SMT4’s dungeons and recruit some demons. I’m ready to get my ass kicked several times over as I try and figure out what the hell I’m doing. Most of all, I’m just ready for a big, original JRPG for the 3DS, and Shin Megami Tensei IV sounds like the real deal.

Late to the Party: Pokémon Black and White

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I’m no stranger to the world of Pokémon. I’ve played all of the mainline titles at least a little bit, though I’ve only properly completed a couple of them. It is a love/hate relationship that has formed over years of Nintendo managing to print money, while releasing essentially the same game several times over. Of course, the Pokémon series has changed, albeit very slowly. Like continental drift, it moves at a sloth-like pace, where you can leave and return without seeing much in the way of substantial change. Going from generation one directly to the present, Pokémon is a wildly different beast, even if the core game itself remains familiar. The last game in the series I completed was Diamond and Pearl, released fairly early in the lifespan of the Nintendo DS. While I enjoyed it at the time, I had felt like Pokémon had grown tired. After completion, it was shelved and eventually sold.

I took some time off, but still ended up picking up Pokémon Black on release day. While I put little time into it, I saw that it was finally doing something a little different. After looking at my backlog for much too long, I decided it was time to man up– I was ready to take the Pokémon challenge once more.

With the game data wiped clean, I set out on my new adventure to collect the eight gym badges and challenge the Elite Four. It was a quest I was very familiar with, but I finally felt ready to give it another go. My continued dependence on portable platforms has made it far more enjoyable this time around. After obtaining the first two badges, I started getting that sinking feeling where I realized that this was just another Pokémon game, and parts of it were going to become a tedious grind. I had to push forward, because I knew if I got over that initial hump, everything would be wonderful. When I finally crossed the long bridge into Castelia City, I knew I was right. Maybe Pokémon had some new tricks up its sleeve after all?

Now I find myself wandering what feels like a sprawling city, and I feel right at home. Pokémon Black has managed to bring me back on board, as I’m rife with feelings of nostalgia for the original 151 monsters. I’ve got wanderlust for this tiny digital world, and I want to see all it has to offer. Sure, the quest might not be all that different, but Pokémon Black looks the way I imagined that world to look when I played my copy of Pokémon Blue on my “Play it Loud”-era GameBoy. These cockfight adventures with these cuddly creatures have never been the most detailed, so my brain always filled in the blanks. Now that there are less blanks to color in, I’m seeing my memories become validated. This is how I chose to remember Pokémon, and I think I made the right choice.

I’m now eagerly anticipating Pokémon X and Y, hoping these will bring more changes to help liven up the series. Pokémon may be a slow, lumbering beast, but it is still a lot of fun to play. With two badges under my belt, I’m ready to see where my adventure is going to take me over the next couple weeks.

Fumbling into the Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta

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Each year I find myself drawn to the challenge of the Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta. The name alone is a mouthful, but the event offers up a new way to play for veterans of the game. I entered this year in hopes of making it to the end, but the jobs issued to me haven’t exactly offered a smooth ride. I’ve defeated Final Fantasy V a single time, where a couple years ago I worked through it on my own volition. Regularly switching jobs and building a team of characters that resembled tiny gods was the end result. Due to the limitations of the Four Job Fiesta, my characters aren’t fit to be called gods– maybe not even demigods by the way things are going.

I started this year’s attempt at the Four Job Fiesta with four white mages. Right out the door I was offered somewhat of a challenge, having hardly any attack capabilities to defend myself with. Every battle was finished with the same strategy: four white mages in the back row, chipping away at the health of the enemy. With any luck, the enemy would run out of MP before I did, and eventually I would emerge victorious. It wasn’t the best way, but I had to make do with what I was issued. After a pair of early boss battles, the trip through the haunted ship graveyard came as somewhat of a relief. The legion of undead enemies made it easy to fight back, as I was relying on heal magic to harm my opponents and push forward.

Upon reaching the second crystal, I was a mix of relieved and disappointed to learn that the second job issued to me was the mystic knight. While this afforded higher attack capability, it was a let down compared to what I could’ve ended up with. My party of two white mages and two mystic knights has been adequate for most situations, but I worry about how my luck will fare as I continue on. I’m nearing the third crystal, and the corresponding job allotted to me is… the bard?

I went ahead and queued up the fourth job from the twitter bot. I needed to know how my final party was going to end up immediately so I could start preparing for whatever was to come. My final job will be the samurai. Some of the weight was lifted off of my shoulders as I breathed a sigh of relief. Having access to a powerful swordsman that can throw money at the enemy is all I can ask for. From a narrative perspective, it at least provides a character that looks like they know what they’re doing. Having a party comprised of a white mage, a mystic knight, a bard, and a samurai makes for a more interesting story than what the game itself offers.

Final Fantasy V stands as one of the most important chapters in the series, one that was unfortunately passed over for American release until its return on the Game Boy Advance in 2006. It’s Hironobu Sakaguchi’s masterpiece in regards to gameplay, offering almost unlimited customization to the player. More people should experience this game, and while I don’t recommend it for a first timer, the Four Job Fiesta always delivers a unique take on an already unique entry in the Final Fantasy saga.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Portables, Relaxation

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As of right now, I’ve clocked about 22 hours into Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Nintendo’s 3DS entry in the Animal Crossing series. I never played City Folk, and I recently had a bad experience with the DS entry, Wild World. It’s not that the game was outwardly bad, it’s just that the Nintendo DS wasn’t really capable of doing Animal Crossing. Wild World ran at a horrible framerate, which was playable, but not ideal. Now, Animal Crossing is by no means an action title, in fact it’s actually quite the opposite. This is a series built around relaxing– it’s about taking your time and enjoying yourself. Most of all, it’s about not overdoing it. Animal Crossing is at its best when you adhere to a dosage of around half an hour or so a day.

I downloaded New Leaf on launch day at midnight, eschewing a physical cartridge for the sake of convenience. Animal Crossing is a game that is best suited to this– truly a title that benefits from having it easily accessible at all times without the need of swapping a cartridge. The argument can be made about digital ownership and the inability to resell, but after spending a large amount of town creating my own narrative from my townspeople, why would I even want to let it go?

Having New Leaf on my 3DS at all times also keeps me actively playing it. When you have it right there on the home screen, ready to go, it’s hard to ignore it and at least check in. It’s easy to take a few minutes to pick some fruit or catch a few fish, or just wander around and see what the neighbors are up to. This makes for an absolute gem of a game, even if it’s really not that much of a game at all.

Animal Crossing has been one of my favorites for a long time, but like Pokemon, it doesn’t change that much between releases. Having skipped City Folk, jumping into New Leaf felt just right. I feel like I had spent enough time away that I was ready to spiral back into addiction. The result is that I’m liking this game as much as I liked it on GameCube, and that this is the best Animal Crossing has ever been. Aside from owing a lot of money to a raccoon, I’m having an absolute blast with it.

I’ve said before that my gaming habits are drifting more towards portable platforms. My 3DS and PS Vita get the most use out of any of my consoles. It’s a matter of convenience, mixed with the intimacy of laying on the couch and falling into these little worlds. I’m feeling more immersion from these systems, which are concentrating on delivering gaming experiences instead of trying to create cinematic masterpieces that ape the conventions of film. They are a place where games get to be games, and they have become my new favorite escape.

February: Wrap Up

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At the beginning of the month I made it a goal to only actively play games that were available to me on handheld gaming platforms. With tomorrow being the start of March, I can say that I managed to get through the month without playing a single title on any of my consoles. I made a slight exception for the Wii U demo of Monster Hunter 3G Ultimate, since it is a cross-platform title with the 3DS. I wanted to try out both demos and see how they felt. They each featured the same content, but other than that, the only use my game consoles got has been for video streaming. As it turns out, it’s not so difficult for me to cut out the majority of my console gaming. My 3DS has seen a lot of love this month, as I’ve been developing a new love for the Zelda series after a long cooling off period. The last time I put any real work into a Zelda title was replaying Link’s Awakening at some point last year, and loving every minute of it. Earlier this month, I tore through my 3DS Ambassador copy of Legend of Zelda in a single sitting, something I hadn’t really done since I was a teenager. It was an eye-opening experience as I remembered how much I used to love that game. Upon finishing it, I decided to get through a couple other games in the series, and I set my sights on playing Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. I never played it during the GBA era, but now that I had access to it, I figured I should probably give it a chance.

I’ve been mulling it over since finishing the game, but I think I liked it. It was way too easy at certain points, but I managed to find a lot of love in the way it presented itself. I loved the Capcom interpretations of classic Zelda enemies like the octoroks and moblins. The cartoon art style worked out in its favor, and the only bad thing I can say about the game’s presentation is in regards to its music. The Game Boy Advance sounded like shit. There’s no use denying it, it had an awful sound chip, and horrible little speakers. Most GBA games had pretty bland sounding music, since the music data took up considerable space on the cartridge. Minish Cap suffers the most when you’re hearing grainy renditions of tunes from older titles. Having finished it, I really liked it. It was a game I’m glad I played, and that’s about all I really know how to say about it.

After that, I determined it was time to return to a quest I had abandoned over a year ago: it was time to return to Ocarina of Time. I had gotten myself stuck in the Water Temple, something that happens to everyone at least once. I grabbed a walkthrough and worked my way back through it to determine where I had missed a key. I took care of that, and was on my way. At this moment I’m ready to tackle Ganon’s castle and finish the game. I’ve been critical of Ocarina of Time for many years, but after going back to it, I’m having to ease up on some of these complaints I’ve had. The game isn’t perfect, but it succeeds more often than it fails. The 3DS remake of the game is mostly the same as it was in 1998, but the cleaner presentation does a lot to help it hold up. I haven’t decided which Zelda title I’m going to tackle next, but as of tomorrow I can go back to console games, so that widens my options considerably. While an HD remake of Wind Waker is coming later this year, I’m really considering a journey through it. It’s either going to be that, or the GameCube version of Twilight Princess.

Beyond the Zelda marathons, I’ve put a few hours into Fire Emblem: Awakening, which is great. In addition, I’ve been trying to go back to finishing Pushmo so I can pick up its sequel. Portable gaming still works out very well for me, it’s just a shame that the Western gaming market seems ashamed by it, or at least doesn’t know how to approach it since they can’t use all of their extensive middleware options to develop titles. Animal Crossing comes out in June, and Pokemon X&Y will be released this fall, two titles I’m very excited to spend a lot of time with. I should be set on games for the rest of the year. Console gaming is a whole different argument that I don’t have the energy to jump into today.

February: A Month for Portables

As my life becomes more and more complicated, and I have less time available to devote to dedicated gaming hardware, I’ve decided to run a little experiment over the course of the month: Can my gaming habits be satisfied by only playing games on portable consoles? For me, this includes 3DS, PS Vita, and if it comes to it, iOS games. After looking at the release lists for the next month or so, the titles I’m actually very excited about are almost entirely 3DS bound. I just picked up Fire Emblem: Awakening today, and near the end of the month I have Etrian Odyssey IV to look forward to. In the meantime I’ve been tinkering with the earlier Etrian Odyssey games, along with trying to go back and finish Kid Icarus Uprising. I also picked up Ikachan on the 3DS eshop over the weekend. While I do very much want to play Ni no Kuni, I also just don’t have the time to dedicate to sitting in front of a TV for a lengthy JRPG right now. Being able to play Persona 4 Golden on a portable was the only reason I was able to finish it, let alone put nearly 80 hours into it, so a move like this isn’t as scary to me as it may seem. Western third parties mostly ignore portable platforms, while Japanese developers tend to thrive on them. The DS has many amazing (albeit very niche-focused) titles coming out over the course of the spring.

Dedicating a month to portable games is likely going to be easier than I may make it out to be, since the way I play games, I rarely get to the biggest and newest titles until months after they come out, mostly out of not wanting to pay $60 for a game. I bought and played through DmC: Devil May Cry, but the only reason I bought it when I did is because I was able to get it for less than $40 on PC. I do worry about games becoming more expensive, but when games like Dead Space 3 are being released with a lot of convenience oriented micro-transaction content, it leaves me with little desire to pay that much for a game at launch, much less at all.

I’m currently sitting on a stack of Etrian Odyssey games, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Kid Icarus Uprising, and a handful of other crazy time-sink games that I’ll have no problems dedicating countless hours to. My love of video games has always been more Japan-centric, even if I didn’t know it, and with these type of games being released, that doesn’t look likely to change.

Even beyond February, I’m realizing that a lot of the games I’m even excited for this year are 3DS games. Monster Hunter 3G is released in March, while Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers comes out in April. I have Pokemon to look forward to in the fall, and I’m assuming that Animal Crossing: New Leaf will be released sometime this summer.

If this somehow becomes a problem over the course of the next few weeks, I can at least be thankful that February is a short month.

I Want to Talk About Sleeping Dogs

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The last game I finished in 2012 was the Square-Enix published, Sleeping Dogs. It had a long, troubled development cycle, as it started as an original title, then became a third installment in the True Crime series. Remember those? I never played them, but they always seemed interesting to me — a Grand Theft Auto-style game told from the perspective of an undercover cop. The game was cancelled by Activision-Blizzard and never came out. Square-Enix bought the publishing rights six months later, and it was retitled as Sleeping Dogs. Due to the development cycle this game went through, it was assumed that Sleeping Dogs wasn’t going to be a very good game. When games go through these sort of bumpy trails, it’s not at all uncommon for it to be a disjointed, broken mess. Duke Nukem Forever was almost old enough to vote by the time it was finally released, and who knows if The Last Guardian or Final Fantasy Versus XIII will ever be shipped to retail. With this in mind, Sleeping Dogs had no right to be good.

The truth is, this game is excellent.

I’ve never been a huge fan of open world games. I play them from time to time, and have had a lot of fond memories playing the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve never properly finished any of them. I always felt weighed down by the mission structure and the poor combat systems. They were always full of good ideas, but those ideas were lost among hours of useless filler. A Grand Theft Auto game can take around 40 hours to finish the story content, and even then you still have many hours of other content you can play through. Somewhere in there would lie a decent, 10-15 hour story, but the constant introduction of new mechanics or gameplay types just dragged progression to a crawl. I distinctly recall the awful pacing presented in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where there’s a touching, cinematic funeral scene, and the vibe is immediately broken up by a tutorial mission teaching you how to ride a bicycle. Sleeping Dogs offered me exactly what I wanted: a consistent, 10-15 hour story, with maybe up to two dozen hours of ancillary content that I can do later.

Immediately you’re thrown into the world in the midst of a drug deal gone wrong. You’ve gotta run from the cops, but end up quickly cut off and arrested. In an interrogation room, it is revealed that the player character is an undercover cop named Wei Shen, who has been assigned to infiltrate a band of the Triads called the Sun On Yee. With his assignment in tow, Shen meets up with an old friend in the holding cell, and begins his journey. I wasn’t sure if the game could hold up as it progressed, but as it stood, I found this to be a very strong opening scene to set the stage. Unlike a GTA game, there’s no artificial hindrance forcing you to finish a specific block of the city’s story content before moving onto the next. The world is open to you from the start, and you’re free to roam about as you see fit.

One thing I always try and do when I play a game like this is to not be a horrible human being. I’m careful about killing pedestrians, I try not to actively steal cars, opting to use the vehicles provided to me along with using taxis where applicable. I just don’t want to cause an absolute ruckus, because as I’ve said before, I don’t have the mean streak to just start murdering everyone in sight. Sure, it’s fun to go on rampages from time to time, but as I’m progressing through the story, I try to keep the insanity in check. Playing the role of an undercover cop, I found this to be much easier than usual. I was able to keep count, and during my 12 hours of playtime from the start to the plot’s conclusion, I only killed three pedestrians, accidentally at that. I only stole four vehicles, and spent a lot of time alternating between the motorcycle provided to me or the classic sports car given to use in street races. Any other time, I’d use whatever the mission had to offer.

There’s no large disconnect between Wei Shen’s personality and the one applied by the player character. His loyalty to his job and his devotion to the Sun On Yee is tested and referred to frequently. Wei Shen has problems and has a history. Unlike a character like Niko Bellic who perpetually talks about getting out of the life he’s in, and then proceeds to kill hundreds of people, Wei Shen has demons to deal with, and it helps to present him as a more realistic, interesting character. His loyalty to the Sun On Yee is tested fairly early. It is assumed he is a cop, so he has to gun down some of the enemy triad to prove otherwise. Clearly Wei isn’t happy about this, but does what needs to be done to uphold his cover.

If you just play through the story, it was nearly five hours before you acquire a gun. Sleeping Dogs focuses heavily on unarmed combat, using a system similar to Rocksteady’s Batman titles. The system is well put together, and I was worried that focusing so much on unarmed combat would make the shooting segments suffer. Thankfully, when I finally had a gun, the shooting was more than competent, playing like a cover based, third-person shooter. I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to push my way through more of Grand Theft Auto’s lackluster shooting mechanics. Even then, the shooting segments were limited, and were mostly reserved for large, setpiece moments. Firearms aren’t as easy to come by in Hong Kong, so having that as a story point helped the immersion.

Sleeping Dogs set out to provide a specific vibe, and absolutely nailed it. Between the lack of guns, driving on the left side of the road, and having multiple stations that were entirely in Cantonese, it was easy to get immersed. It’s a big reason why I feel like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City stands above the other games in that series. The overall 1980s vibe really helped seal the deal, something that the more modern entries never did for me. I often took the long way home while driving around Hong Kong, doing my best to uphold traffic laws, and cruising around town, listening to Cantonese club music. I fell into this world, and when it ended, I wasn’t quite ready to leave.  It is a game that does what it sets out to do: it tells a concise story, and then gets out of the way, something I hope that Rockstar will learn with the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V.

This is a game that was overlooked by many, but it is completely worth your time to check it out, especially if it goes on sale for cheap. I can’t recommend it enough.