Category Archives: Playstation

Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash Review

Senran Kagura is exactly the kind of series I can appreciate in this day and age, when political correctness has seemingly become an all-encompassing evil that seeks to dictate what creators can and cannot create, and in which people seem to actively want to be offended by anything and everything. Senran Kagura is unashamed, irreverent fan-service cranked up to eleven. Yes, Senran Kagura is juvenile, and about little more than its bosomy ninja cast tearing each others’ clothes off in friendly battles, but it’s so tongue-on-cheek and ridiculous, that you’d really have to have no actual concerns in life to seriously be offended by it. Frankly, if it weren’t for some of the language, I don’t see why this series should warrant the same maturity rating as a game that features gratuitous violence or sex.

But again, in such uptight times, I can appreciate something like Senran Kagura all the more. And quite frankly, the entries I have played – though flawed – are pretty fun. Most games in the series are combinations of beat-em-up titles and 3D fighters, but Peach Beach Splash changes things up by turning it into a team-based, water-gun and bikini-themed shooter. Think of it as Splatoon with a dash of Super Mario Sunshine… with lots of boobies.

To be honest, the gameplay and setup of Peach Beach Splash feels more appropriate for the nature of the series than its usual antics. At the very least, I know I’d like to see a water gun battle between these girls than a swordfight. But I digress.

Peach Beach Splash has a heavier focus on multiplayer than past titles, though single player campaigns are still present. The four usual ninja groups (Hanzo Academy, Homura Crimson Squad, Hebijo Clandestine Girls Academy and Gessen Girls’ Academy) each get their own campaign, along with a special fifth campaign that unlocks once the others are completed.

“Katsuragi is my waifu.”

Each of the four standard campaigns sees you take control of that respective ninja group, and you can select whichever member of that group you want for any of the campaigns’ ten missions. Each individual campaign is shorter than the one found in Estival Versus, and are mostly used as a means to unlock different weapons and characters for multiplayer use, as well as costumes and other customizable features for the girls.

The campaigns bring some fun to the table, combining the series’ usual display of defeating hordes of enemies before taking on a team of opponents comprised of members of one of the other groups. Usually to win, you’ll have to defeat every member, which is done by squirting them with enough water that they fall to the ground. Once in a grounded state, a teammate may revive their fallen comrade, so that’s why you have to take them out of the battle by shooting off either their bikini top or bottom (don’t worry, convenient lighting knows just how to censor things).

Simply holding the square button is all it takes to revive a fallen teammate, and pressing square against an enemy is all it takes to enter the “finisher” screen, in which you manually aim a rubber duck to shoot off the girl’s bikini with enough water.

It’s as fun as it is juvenile and silly, with this gameplay carrying over to the multiplayer modes. Unfortunately, the single player campaigns still suffer from some of the shortcomings of past entries in the series. Namely, there are just way too many cinematics. Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t mind staring at these girls, but I can just as easily stare at them during gameplay. And while much of the characters and dialogue can be funny, you literally get a cinematic both before and after a mission. Sure, you can speed things up and skip dialogue, but these cutscenes are often longer than the missions themselves, and when you have to sit through one cutscene just to go to another one before the next mission, it gets a bit tedious.

It should be said that most of these cutscenes are also, once again, just the character models displaying a limited range of animations in front of static backgrounds. Sure, there are some hand-drawn anime and more animated CG cutscenes here and there, but for the most part, you sit through a large amount of cinematics that look virtually the same.

“Exquisite dialogue.”

That’s not the only limitation either. Just as in Estival Versus, the hand-drawn cinematics expose limitations in the variety of character models. While the official character artwork displays the characters’ having a wide range of body types, the in-game models look almost identical, with just the heads swapped with a copied-and-pasted body. For example, Haruka and Katsuragi (AKA best girl) are a bit more… “amply gifted” than even the other girls in the series, their in-game models look no different than anyone else. You may say that’s a shallow complaint, but in a game that places such a heavy emphasis on the character designs, the characters’ in-game similarities do feel a bit lazy.

Aside from these limited aspects though, Peach Beach Splash is a mostly fun experience. The variety of characters (who each get their own melee attacks) and weapons mean there’s always a different way to play, and special assist cards – which grant different bonuses and abilities –  add all the more variety.

The multiplayer modes are what will likely keep you coming back though. Whether it’s the team battles, queen of the hill, a co-op horde mode or capture the bra (yeah…), Peach Beach Splash gives you plenty of multiplayer options. And there always seems to be something new to unlock, whether it be costumes, weapons, or collectible in-game cards; so if you’re into one-hundred percent completion, Peach Beach Splash will keep you busy for a while. And if you simply want to look at the characters, there’s a dressing room mode where you can spend time with them… or so I’ve heard.

Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash certainly isn’t going to change the minds of people who, for some reason, find the concept of animated bosoms to be the most reprehensible thing on Earth, but if you’re a fan of the series, it provides a fun deviation from the usual gameplay. Even if you weren’t a fan of the individual entries in the past, Peach Beach Splash may be the change of pace you’re looking for in the series.

I hope Peach Beach Splash can get some kind of direct sequel down the road. With a bit more polish (and a whole lot less dialogue boxes), this Senran Kagura offshoot may just give Splatoon a run for its money.

 

7.5

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Nioh Review

The way of the Samurai is glorious…

The trials and tribulation of the Souls’ series is a rather novel experience for myself, as I originally dipped my toes into this amalgamation of impeccable construct and design with 2015’s Bloodborne. Its exquisite Gothic, Victorian setting was unquestionably appealing and its faster, visceral combat improved on Dark Souls’ meticulous combat design. Dark Souls III continued to expand on this concept by notably increasing the speed of the series’ combat design, while maintaining the inert core of the beloved franchise. However, Team Ninja’s conspicuous take on the established Souls formula is arguably the best iteration yet. Nioh’s dynamic combat is practically flawless, with its innovative stance and Ki (stamina) recovery system acting as the glorious cherry on top. Its level of difficulty is relatively on par with From Software’s repertoire, but enemies rely on the same defined rules and mechanics as the player, incorporating an additional layer of fairness. In regards to level design, Nioh follows the immaculate steps laid out by Dark Souls developer, From Software; Nioh is beautifully atmospheric and chock full of impeccably designed shortcuts, secrets, and other hidden goodies, imploring that key sense of exploration and back-tracking. Its fictitious take on the late Sengoku Period is exquisitely beguiling; from the charismatic encounters with historian legends such as Oda Nobunaga or Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the exhilarating key moments in history such as the Battle of Sekigahara, Nioh is an intriguing period piece that is surprisingly informative as it is entertaining. As an action RPG, Nioh is an absolute triumph in game design and player accessibility, as its level of flexibility and gratification is beyond dynamic, catering to an abundance of different preferences. Nioh takes the basic foundation of the Souls formula and expands it exponentially, incorporating dynamic systems to create a novel gameplay experience that surpasses anything that came before it. Continue reading

Sonic Mania Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is back!

It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.

Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.

But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.

Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.

During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).

Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.

But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Sonic Mania even includes an anime-style opening a la Sonic CD.”

Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.

Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.

I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.

First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.

“Here’s the final boss from Sonic 2 in the first level of Sonic 1.”

For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.

That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.

The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.

“Sega Saturn FTW!”

But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.

Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”

If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.

“Old levels now feature new gimmicks, like these bouncing gels in the Chemical Plant Zone.”

Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.

Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.

If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.

 

9.5

Persona 5 Review

*This review originally appeared at afterstorygaming.com*

A “bona fide, Monafied” masterpiece

While my thoughts on the Shin-Megami subseries may emit a questionable sense of bias, piercing through any form of clouded judgment was surprisingly trivial as Persona 5 is an absolute delight, regardless of my attachment to the series. As I’ve mentioned profusely, Persona 4 Golden is my favourite video game of all-time, and my biased standpoint stems from the sheer fact that this experience saved my life. With that rather audacious statement declared, expectations for its sequel were undoubtedly and unfairly monumental; Persona 4 was an enlightening experience that impeccably resonated with every beat of my contemporary life at that point in time. Persona 5 is not nearly as masterful as its predecessor, but one must understand that it was never going to be nor does it need to be. Persona 5 is an intricately designed experience that exudes an unparalleled aura of stylistic charm, with its immaculate presentation placed in a profound echelon of its own. While its pivotal narrative lacks the grave and brutal nature of its predecessor, it still manages to weave elements of moral intensity, corruption, unity and friendship, throwing in plenty of twists and turns that construct a sound and compelling narrative that is arguable the best in the series. While dozens of returning elements foster the core structure that we’ve come to expect, welcome new additions are added into the mix to create the most streamlined, accessible, and smooth Persona experience to date. Character development and gameplay are seamlessly entwined with each element inherently affecting the other, the simplistically complex battle-system is a refined work of art that bears an untouched stylistic aesthetic, and the excellent new Mementos system provides a refreshing approach to longevity and level grinding, justifying its questionable existence. While Persona 5’s characters aren’t nearly as endearing as the exquisite cast of Persona 4 and the typical sense of dread and impending doom is questionably absent for most of the journey, Persona 5 is undoubtedly the most polished entry in the series as its intricately designed gameplay systems and captivating narrative points are stellar examples of this genre’s iconic framework and impressive capability. It might not be the life-changing experience that its older brother delivered, but Persona 5 is an excellent standalone experience that is extraordinarily gratifying for all who wish to partake in this exquisite journey – it is a bona fide masterpiece.

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Nier: Automata Review

Patience is a virtue…

Very few games manage to transcend its predictable structure into a peculiarly constructed being that constantly shape-shifts both narratively and gameplay-wise. Those that attempt to embody this bizarrely delicious concept tend to fail, with the story layering multiple convoluted pieces that simply don’t make sense or bleed pretention, and/or its genre hopping implementation is rendered to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Nier: Automata is the beloved exception to the rule. It is a robust experience that executes an impeccable variance of the new game plus system, a well paced and mechanically sound example of the seamless transition between different game genres, and incorporates a gripping narrative that is equally provocative as it is convoluted. While a plethora of technical issues and its underdeveloped open-world hold Nier: Automata back from being the underrated masterpiece that everyone claims it to be, it is still an exuberant experience that has the foundation for a masterpiece, simply lacking the required polish and design to reach such meteoric heights. Nier: Automata is a peculiar experience to critique as it’s constantly changing and evolving, with each new playthrough providing a sliver of reflection; my impressions of trepidation upon viewing the ending of Route A were completely different compared to my unanimous praise of Route C and its subsequent endings. It’s a fluctuating experience to say the least, but one that constantly propels the importance of the ride as opposed to the destination. It’s an arduous journey, not in terms of mechanical difficulty, but in perseverance and tenacity; the hunt for truth is a riveting force of propulsion, one that emitted a rewarding sense of satisfaction, despite my personal qualms with Automata’s certain limitations and design choices.

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Senran Kagura: Estival Versus Review

*Review based on the PS4 version of the game*

I know, I’m supposed to go on and on about what a terrible, vile, evil thing Senran Kagura is. Because is this day and age, where political correctness is taken to practically fascist levels, the concept of animated characters with big boobs is considered more taboo than violence or sex. Yes, the Senran Kagura series is juvenile, but it knows it. This is a franchise all about bosomy ninjas all having friendly competitions with one another, with their clothes conveniently flying off during battle (with equally-convenient flashes of light knowing just where to censor). But it knows it’s all a giant piece of fan-service, and runs with the joke. Simply put, when we have actual issues going on in reality, I can’t find a game whose biggest crime is making one immature boob joke after another to be all that offensive. So sue me.

It also helps that Senran Kagura: Estival Versus actually shows some promise for the series as a worthwhile video game franchise, albeit it does have some glaring issues that hold it back.

Believe it or not, there actually is a story here: Four groups of female ninjas are in a constant rivalry against each other to become Kagura (which, as far as I’ve deduced, is like a ‘super ninja’ in the game’s mythology). These four groups are the Hanzo Academy, Homura Crimson Squad, Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy, and the Gessen Girls’ Academy.

One by one, these groups of series mainstays are teleported to another world which, conveniently for players, is primarily a tropical beach. The girls are brought here by an elderly woman named Sayuri, the grandmother of Asuka, the main girl from Hanzo Academy. The reason for Sayuri bringing the girls to this world is for them to take part in some Millennium Festival, which will make them more powerful for an eventual encounter with some kind of demon…or something.

It turns out this strange beach world also works as a medium between one life and the next, and the girls soon start finding some of their lost loved ones inhabiting this world, as they still have a lingering regret or two which is preventing them from passing on to a proper afterlife.

I have to admit, I actually found myself a little interested when it came to the stories between some of the characters. Whether they’re learning the importance of friendship with one another (oh, anime), or having an emotional crisis from facing their lost loved ones again, there actually is – much to my surprise – a little bit of character development amidst all the jiggle physics and blatant fan-service.

On the downside of things, however (and this may sound like a strange complaint here), there’s almost too much story. Look, the stuff between the girls can be funny, but the main plot, which already doesn’t have much to it, just drags on and on. In between each gameplay mission, you have to sit through one cinematic after another, with many of these cinematics quickly growing repetitious (if I had a nickel for every story segment where the girls discuss the “real” reason they were brought to the beach, I’d have a decent sum of money saved up).

“Arguably the best dialogue ever written.”

These aren’t extravagant cutscenes either, but ones where character models stand in front of static backgrounds, and recycle a few select animations, while text boxes explain the finer details. In worst case scenarios, you only see the backgrounds, and merely see text on the screen to represent characters. The latter example happens in every situation involving the girls meeting one of their deceased relatives (sans for one of the playable characters, who is the ghostly sister of two other characters). This comes off as a cheap cop-out, as it prevents the artists from actually designing and animating these additional characters.

The worst part of it all is that these cutscenes go on and on and on and on. Even though I got a kick out of many of the characters, I eventually found myself skipping through many of the dialogue boxes. This is a beat-em-up game about bosomy ninja waifus, do we really need so much exposition?

“You can pick up bomb items humorously referred to as “bombshells.”

Thankfully, the core gameplay is actually pretty fun. The game is more or less a combination of a beat-em-up and a 3D fighter, as you fight waves of enemies with outlandish combos, can transform into more powerful “Shinobi” forms, and ultimately face off with one to three of the other characters as a boss fight.

Square is your quicker, weaker attack. Triangle is your slower, stronger attack. The X button jumps, the Circle button dashes and allows you to run up walls.

By performing combos you can build up a meter that, when full, gives you a scroll. Press L1 to use a scroll to go into your Shinobi form. Once transformed, you can use special attacks with the use of additional scrolls (L1 + Square uses one scroll, L1 + Triangle uses two). Additionally, you’ll gain more experience points after a battle depending on your performance. And when you get enough to gain a level for a particular character, that character can hold more scrolls.

It’s simple enough stuff, but fighting through hundreds of ninjas before having grander showdowns with the other characters can be a lot of fun. And it’s made all the better by the differences between characters. Though the controls are the same around the board, each character has their own weapon (Asuka simply uses katanas, but her fellow Hanzo Academy student Katsuragi uses rocket shoes; and Yumi, the leader of Gessen Academy, uses fans for combat, while Haruka uses a pet robot in battle). Each character has their own distinct style of play, which really gives the game some good variety, considering the sheer number of characters there are.

Unfortunately, even the gameplay takes something of a dip for two main reasons.

The first of those reasons is repetition. Though the core gameplay is fun and the characters have variety, the game does very little to add anything new to the experience as it goes on. You simply hack a few hordes of enemies, fight the boss character(s), and then proceed to the next overly long cinematic. The main story mode is actually decently long, so for it to just recycle the same formula throughout its entirety is a bit of a bummer.

The other downside is that the enemy AI is largely inconsistent. Granted, in a game like this you expect the mindless hordes of enemies to be just that, mindless. But sometimes, this occurs during the bosses as well. While the bosses oftentimes put up a decent fight, there were more than a few instances where the boss characters just stood there for me to bombard them with one special attack after another. There was even one instance in which all three boss enemies just kept running into walls, never even changing into their Shinobi forms (which instantly refills all health, I should add). To say this battle was easy is an understatement.

Speaking of easy, the main story mode isn’t all that difficult. Though some opponents put up a good fight, I never actually died once during the entirety of the story mode. I was going to mark the game down further due to the lack of difficulty, but an additional mode, which sees each character play through their own short stories, adds more of a challenge to the experience.

“Pure Shakespeare.”

Despite the aforementioned limited animation in the cinematics, I did greatly enjoy the graphics of the game. The character models remind me of those of the Guilty Gear games, where they look like traditionally animated anime characters brought into 3D. And the game even features a few hand-drawn cinematics and images sprinkled throughout (though the few hand-drawn segments may expose more limitations in the main game. For example, Katsuragi and Haruka are a little more, should I say, “gifted” even compared to the other girls in the game. But the gameplay models for every character are pretty interchangeable in terms of body type, with only the, umm, “flatter” characters looking any different in-game). The  music also adds to the aesthetic pleasures, with a soundtrack that’s appropriately fun and bubbly.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (along with the core gameplay) is the sheer abundance of unlockables in the game. It seems like no matter what you do, you’re always unlocking an additional mission or a customizable option for the girls (you can change their outfits for their different forms and cinematics, and even pose them for pictures). You may find yourself replaying parts of the story mode or the character missions just to see what you can unlock next.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in this day and age in which people actively seek to be offended by things. But behind all the bikinis and bosoms is a pretty fun- albeit flawed – title. The game itself may not share the beauty of its cast – with excessive cinematics, a repetitious structure and often-stupid AI muddling things a bit – but it does show that there may be a little something more to this series than fan-service alone. With a bit more time dedicated to refining the game, Senran Kagura could turn out to be a winning video game series.

 

6.5

Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy Review

These days, first-person shooters and other, more “mature” genres are the most prominent games. But back in the 1990s, it was all about cartoony platformers. Mario was the long-standing gaming icon, and Sonic the Hedgehog had risen to prominence in the early years of the decade. Sonic’s popularity lead to countless imitators, with many an “animal with attitude” failing to replicate what made the hedgehog Mario’s one-time rival. There was, however, one such would-be mascot who actually succeeded in being the third-party in this platforming mascot equation: Crash Bandicoot.

Crash Bandicoot was created by Naughty Dog, the developer who is now most famous for creating the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. Crash’s first three outings on the Sony Playstation proved to be so popular, that the anthropomorphized marsupial became the face of Sony’s initial gaming platform.

Crash’s popularity can mostly be attributed to the quality of his games, though it probably helped things a bit that the orange bandicoot had a tone of his own. While Mario was whimsical and Sonic was “cool,” Crash Bandicoot was downright silly. Taking as much inspiration from Loony Tunes as from the likes of Sonic and Mario, Naughty Dog created a worthy addition to the platforming family with an identity of its own. But one who sadly fell out of prominence after Naughty Dog surrendered the character to other developers after the PSOne era. From the PS2 era (which saw Sony’s former mascot become a multi-platform franchise) and the subsequent console generation, the once-mighty Crash Bandicoot fell from grace, with developers never quite knowing how to recreate the series’ magic. After an off-putting quasi-reboot which saw a complete overhaul in art direction (something that never serves as a good sign for long-standing series), Crash laid dormant for nine years.

Thanks to developer Vicarious Visions, Crash Bandicoot is back with his first (and most famous) three adventures being rebuilt from the ground up for the Playstation 4. Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy faithfully re-creates the beloved original trilogy of platformers for a new generation. Though this faithfulness means there’s a little bit of a “warts and all” quality about the N. Sane Trilogy, it also proves to be something of a labor of love and a beautiful re-introduction to the series.

Though Crash Bandicoot was one of the early 3D platformers, it plays a lot more like a 2D one than something like Super Mario 64 (released in 1996, the same year as the first Crash Bandicoot title). The camera is usually fixed behind Crash, with the bandicoot traveling forward through stages that felt like those of a 2D platformer, but with a 3D perspective.

Crash Bandicoot can jump on enemies, but also comes with a spin attack. He collects Wumpa Fruits which, like Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings, grant an extra life for every one-hundred gained. In the game’s own unique twist on the genre, the stages are also littered with boxes. Once every box in a level is destroyed, Crash is rewarded with a magical gem, which are needed if the player wishes to obtain one-hundred percent completion, with special colored gems found in certain stages which create new paths in certain levels.

Crash seemed to have learned a thing or two from Donkey Kong Country, as the boxes are reminiscent of DK’s barrels, and come in different varieties: Some contain a single fruit, others contain multiples, Crash can bounce on some, while others contain TNT, and will explode within a few seconds after jumped on (or instantly if Crash spins them). The sequels also added Nitro boxes, which will explode instantaneously upon contact, and can only properly be destroyed by hitting a switch at the level’s end. Finally, there are boxes adorned with a tiki mask named Aku Aku. Grabbing one and two masks will give Crash that many more hits, while obtaining a third mask will grant temporary invincibility.

The core gameplay of Crash Bandicoot is a lot of fun. Most of the levels are well designed, and trying to obtain every gem adds a level of complexity to the equation. On the downside of things, the perspective can often be misleading, with the fixed camera leading to some tricky platforming. This is especially true in the first game of the trilogy (simply titled Crash Bandicoot), which can, at times, feel a bit trollish with the tricks it plays with perspective. Still, the core mechanics are so fun that they mostly overshadow the sometimes cumbersome perspectives.

Though the second and third titles of the series, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped still suffer from some of these troublesome camera issues, they remain two of the few 3D titles on the original Playstation that hold up pretty well in terms of gameplay. The original Crash Bandicoot, however, wasn’t quite so lucky. Despite the fun mechanics, some of the later levels feel almost unfairly difficult, which were made all the worse by a convoluted saving system (in the PSOne version, you could only save after acquiring a gem or completing a bonus stage).

Thankfully, part of that problem has been rectified here, as the N. Sane Trilogy features a streamlined saving feature throughout all three games. For the first Crash Bandicoot, this is something of a godsend with how difficult it could get at times. Those difficult levels still remain – sometimes with unfair traps that require trial-and-error – but at least now you don’t have to worry about replaying them if you missed out on a chance to save before getting a game over.

Cortex Strikes Back and Warped remain two of the best of the early 3D platformers, however, with even the original PSOne versions being enjoyable today.  Crash 2 introduced a sliding move, a crouch that (like Mario) could result in a high jump, as well as overall better level design; and Warped added a wider variety of gameplay styles (jet ski levels, airplane levels, motorcycle levels, etc.) as well as Time Trials, which would award players with saphire, gold or platinum relics if you could finish a stage fast enough.

However, all three games are better than ever as part of the N. Sane Trilogy. The original Crash – though still flawed – is a much better game with the additional features (such as the aforementioned saving), while the sequels are a case of two great games being made all the better.

The obvious changes are the visuals and music. Though the level design is the same, everything has been rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t simply the old Crash Bandicoot games in HD, but games that don’t look like remakes at all. If you didn’t have the knowledge of Crash’s past, you might be forgiven for thinking these are original PS4 games. And the cartoony aesthetics – whether it be the Australian inspired setting of the first game, the arctic or sewer-themed stages of the second, or the various time periods Crash visits in his time-traveling third outing – stand out all the more on current hardware. Video games look better than ever these days, yet most developers feel the need to make games look more “gritty” or “realistic” because of the technological power at play. But Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy serves as a good example of why such colorful and vibrant games should be explored more often on HD hardware.

Though Crash Bandicoot’s musical scores may not be among the most iconic in video game history, the tunes are infectiously catchy and – taking another cue from DK – can be incredibly atmospheric. Every track has been faithfully recreated, and these already great soundtracks sound better than ever.

Not every change in the N. Sane Trilogy is cosmetic, however, as there have been a few tweaks made to the games themselves. Most notably, Warped’s Time Trials have been inserted into the two earlier games, giving them even more challenge and replay value. Additionally, Crash’s sister Coco Bandicoot, who was originally only playable in select levels of Warped (and even then only in levels that saw her riding a vehicle or tiger) can be played in any platforming level of all three games. She plays identically to Crash, and playing as her is optional, so she doesn’t exactly change the game, but she keeps things faithful for purists while also making up for her somewhat disappointing playability in Warped’s original release.

Crash Bandicoot has had a long, shaky history, but I feel like the N. Sane Trilogy serves as something of a refreshing reboot for the series. The perspectives can still get tricky at times, and the first game can still feel cheap, but the N. Sane Trilogy resurrects the series in a gorgeous recreation of the beloved Naughty Dog games. Hopefully this leads to publisher Activision green-lighting a brand new Crash Bandicoot 4 (ignoring the post-Naughty Dog games and using these remakes as a blueprint would be the best course for the series’ future).

When most people think of Naughty Dog, they probably think of Uncharted, The Last of Us, or even Jak and Daxter. But for me, Crash Bandicoot has always been the synonymous name with the developer, and Vicarious Visions has done a wonderful job at turning these nostalgic favorites into worthwhile contemporary titles.

The bandicoot is back, and I hope he’s here to stay.

 

9.0