Mega Man X4 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X4’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection*

1997 was a big year for Mega Man. Not only was the Blue Bomber turning ten-years old, but he celebrated a decade of gaming by properly transitioning into the 32-bit generation after ports of X3 dipped its toes in the waters, and did so with a multitude of titles. The original series received the underappreciated semi-classic Mega Man 8, and the year also saw the Japanese release of Mega Man Legends, the series’ jump to 3D. Of course, the Mega Man X series was also quick to jump in on the action, delivering its fourth installment in as many years. While Mega Man 8 tried to change up its series’ level structure, and Legends began a whole new side to Mega Man, X4 simply felt like more of the same. Mega Man X4 may not be a bad game per se, but if Mega Man X3 raised concerns that the X sub-series – which was originally created to revitalize the franchise – was quickly running out of steam, than X4 confirmed those very concerns.

“You can finally play as Zero! And it only took four entries!”

If there’s a notable change made to the Mega Man X gameplay with X4, it’s that Zero is finally a playable character! Sure, you could play as him in small doses in X3, but here, you can play through the entire game as Zero. In fact, if you want to see the whole story, you have to play through the game twice, once as Mega Man X (or simply ‘X’), and once as Zero.

The key difference between the two characters is that X retains the classic mega buster, making him long-range and easier to play as, while Zero uses a close-ranged laser sword, and is a little trickier to get used to. Additionally, while X once again gains a new power after defeating a Maverick, Zero instead gains a new move, meaning that he executes them with different button combinations, as opposed to switching into different modes like X.

On paper, that may sound like a pretty big deviation for the series, unfortunately, the level design is more basic and straightforward than the past three X titles. The hidden collectibles are fewer and, quite frankly, not nearly as well hidden (the past three games often required X to revisit completed stages with new powers to find one of his upgrades, there’s one here where you literally just have to walk to the right before you continue down a vertical path. It’s a telling example). There’s just so little newness to the stage concepts, that they end up feeling really forgettable. This is a pitfall that may have been avoided if they at least retained the depth of their predecessors.

“My heart still belongs to Overdrive Ostrich.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t any fun to be had. The core gameplay is still solid, and a couple of stages have their moments (particularly that of Cyber Peacock and Jet Stingray). And again, the ability to play through the game as Zero is a nice bonus. The problem is just how safe the game is. X4 retains enough of the polish in Mega Man’s gameplay to keep things fun, but as a whole the game feels incredibly phoned-in.

On the bright side of things, the visuals have held up decently well. Though the game was derided in its 1997 launch for being a side-scroller on the Playstation (90s video game criticism, ladies and gentlemen!), that simple factoid has made it more visually appealing in the long run than the more ‘ambitious’ 3D games of the time. Sure, the backgrounds lack the timeless charm of the SNES Mega Man X titles, but the character sprites are still detailed and fluid. And being Mega Man, the music can get pretty catchy (even if it’s far from the better soundtracks of the franchise).

Mega Man X4 was also notable for including some fully animated, anime-style cutscenes. This technique was also used in Mega Man 8, and just like that game, X4 is notorious for the quality (or lack thereof) of its voice acting. But whereas Mega Man 8’s voice acting is on the ‘so bad it’s good’ side of things, the voice acting here in X4 might simply constitute ‘bad.’ Still, the animation has that nice, rougher 90s anime look to it, so the cinematic have their appeal.

Of course, there wouldn’t be cinematic without much story, and unfortunately, this is another area where X4 displays early signs of the series’ fall from grace. This marked the beginning of the Mega Man X series’ heavier emphasis on plot. While the 32-bit era was when video games became more story-oriented, the fact that Mega Man X4 features so little new ideas in its gameplay does make you wish Capcom had focused less energy on the story and prioritized making a more original game.

The story here takes place sometime after the events of X3. The Reploids (sentient robots) now live in harmony with humans, after the Mavericks (evil Reploids) had been defeated not only by Maverick Hunters like X and Zero, but by a new army called the ‘Repliforce’ as well. After a flying fortress crashes down on a city and kills many humans and Reploids alike, Repliforce ends up being a prime suspect in the attack, and they themselves become dubbed Mavericks, and rebel against humans for the sake of their own freedom. X and Zero get caught up in it all, of course, and soon the threads of the plot begin to untangle, and it really shouldn’t be any surprise who’s behind it all.

“What am I fighting fooooorrrrr?!”

The plot just kind of drags things down, though it is a nice little touch how the eight Maverick bosses are given little descriptions when their stage is selected and introductions when you reach their boss room. Perhaps the worst aspect of the story, however, is how Zero’s mystique is stripped away. No longer the mysterious leader of the Maverick Hunters whose motivation is ensuring peace between humans and robots, Zero’s driving force is now love. Love for a female Reploid named Iris who, quite frankly, is a rather uninteresting character, more or less filling the quiet, dough-eyed, “cheering from the sidelines with hands clenched together” anime archetype. How cliched can this all get?

Still, ignoring the overly familiar elements and over-emphasis on a bland storyline, Mega Man X4 isn’t dead on arrival. It may, however, be the X series’ last breath. There’s still enough left in the tank for Mega Man X4 to provide some solid fun for fans of the series – even if it isn’t half the game X3 was, let alone X and X2 – but it’s those same fans who will probably be able to pinpoint all the things X4’s predecessors did better. If you’ve played any of the previous Mega Man X games, you know exactly what to expect out of Mega Man X4. Actually, you might need to expect a little bit less.

 

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PaRappa the Rapper Review

*Review based on PaRappa the Rapper’s release on PS4 as Parappa the Rapper Remastered*

First released on the Sony Playstation in 1997, PaRappa the Rapper is considered the first rhythm game, a genre that would later see success in the 2000s with series like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Although PaRappa the Rapper shows its rough edges as a genre’s starting point – with some frustratingly inconsistent mechanics – its charm and originality still stands out among many of the games it inspired.

PaRappa is a rapping dog trying to impress his crush, a sunflower girl named Sunny Funny. In trying to win Sunny’s affections, PaRappa goes through a series of misadventures like learning Kung Fu, getting his driver’s license, and learning to bake a cake. The catch? All of these endeavors are performed via rap, with PaRappa following the lead of his mentors in every task.

The game is played through six stages (only the first three on easy mode), with players repeating the instructed button presses at the right time with the melody of each stage’s song. Though players are given some leeway to “freestyle” when a star shows up in between button commands.

It’s very basic rhythm game material, but considering PaRappa pioneered the genre, that’s to be expected. There are a few key issues with the gameplay that expose the genre’s infancy in PaRappa the Rapper. Notably, the accuracy of your button presses with the commands seems to fluctuate without warning from one stage to the next. By definition, you’re supposed to press the corresponding button when your icon passes over its displayed command. But in some stages, you seem to lose points unless you press the button just before their cue. The aforementioned baking stage seems especially finicky with the timing of its song. Another downside is that the free styling mechanic seems poorly implemented, as you can get more points for simply spamming the last cued button, and often seem to get punished for getting creative with your button presses when you’re given the freedom to do so.

This lack of polish is relatively forgivable, given the title’s nature as a genre first, but it doesn’t exactly change the fact that it has quite the hurdle when it comes to standing the test of time. Though on the bright side of things, the songs themselves are very fun and catchy. And while the idea of a game about a rapping dog may sound like a desperate attempt to be hip with the kids in the vein of Poochy from the Simpsons, PaRappa the Rapper is genuinely cute and aims more for humor than it tries to be cool, which means the title has actually aged well in terms of personality.

That personality may just be PaRappa the Rapper’s biggest strength. Each song is given a distinct style and sense of humor (hold on, the driving instructor forgot to close the car door during a driving test?!). The game also utilized a unique art direction in which all the character models are paper thin amidst 3D backgrounds. So while the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band may boast a wide range of beloved songs, their stock ‘rock and roll’ character models can’t hold a candle to the charm of PaRappa’s rapping dogs, reggae frogs and onion-headed kung fu masters.

The remastered version of PaRappa the Rapper looks surprisingly sharp. Perhaps the art style made its transition easier, but the game looks incredibly clean and smooth, and looks right at home on the PS4. That is, it looks that way during the stages. The game’s cutscenes barely look touched up from their original PSOne appearance, and can be a little bit of an eyesore.

PaRappa the Rapper is a game that deserves a boatload of credit for how it properly launched the rhythm genre as we know it, and for its winning sense of charm. Unfortunately, its pioneering status is a little bit of a double-edged sword, as it can definitely feel like the first of its kind at times, with an unpolished nature that often leaves the controls feeling imprecise. When a game is all about the timing of button presses, that can be a frustrating detriment. And the fact that there are only six stages (each of which can be beaten in a few short minutes) and a lack of different modes means that there’s not a whole lot of replay value to be had.

Time may not have been overly kind to little PaRappa, but the game’s influence and charm are still strong enough to make it worth a look for fans of the rhythm genre. Here’s hoping PaRappa can make a comeback tour in the not-too-distant future.

 

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Undertale (PS4) Review

It’s hard to think of a better game with more humble origins than Undertale. The brainchild of Toby Fox was a passion project in the medium if ever there were one, with Toby Fox almost singlehandedly creating the entire game; from its premise to graphics to gameplay, to its sublime soundtrack, with only some of the artwork being provided by others. Taking inspiration from Nintendo RPGs EarthBound, Mario & Luigi, and Super Mario RPG, Undertale not only did a fantastic job at living up to its inspirations, but also in creating an identity very much its own. By providing an engaging battle system, a unique sense of humor and charm, and a narrative that could only work in the video game medium, Undertale subverted many RPG traditions and became a video game masterpiece.

In Undertale, players take control of a human child, who has fallen into the dreaded Mt. Ebot, whose underground has served as the world of monsters ever since they were banished there by humans long ago. A magic barrier prevents the monsters from leaving the underground, and only the power of human souls can break it. Because of this, many monsters want the human dead, as their king is but one soul short of destroying the barrier. But these monsters are far from mindless killing machines, in fact, most would rather tell you a joke or show off their hat than do you harm.

In their quest to leave the underground, players will confront many monsters. During such encounters, the player can go the usual RPG route and slay the monsters, gaining experience points and leveling up along the way, or they can find non-violent ways to end the encounter. By selecting the “Act” command during battles, the player can interact with monsters in a myriad of ways, with each individual monster having their own distinct personality that the player must figure out in order to find the best solution to the encounter. If you can figure out the right action (whether it be dancing, flirting, or even giving a monster personal space), you can then simply spare the monster, which won’t net you any experience points, but will still provide gold.

Interactivity is added to these turn-based battles when the player is on the defensive. Every enemy has their own unique attacks, with the defensive segments modeled after bullet hell games. During a monster’s attack, the player takes control of their soul (represented by a heart), which the player must then navigate to avoid oncoming projectiles. White enemy attacks are the standard, and are simply to be avoided. Blue attacks won’t harm you so long as you hold still, while orange attacks will require you to move through them to avoid damage. Meanwhile, the occasional green attack will actually heal the player’s health, leaving you to attempt to grab them amid the bombardment of other bullets.

The battle system is an utter delight. The ability to fight or act is already a terrific innovation, but by combining it with the only interactive turn-based battle system that rivals Mario’s finest RPGs, Undertale’s battle system becomes an all-time great for the genre.

That isn’t where Undertale’s innovation ends, however. Arguably its most notable element is how detailed its narrative is, and how it brings out the best in the video game medium.

There are many games that give players different moral options with tackling different scenarios, but none that really showcase the consequences of their actions in any meaningful way. Usually, choosing good or evil in a video game simply dictates whether your character is surrounded by a heavenly aura, or if they have burning red eyes while wearing edgy, black clothing. But every choice the player makes in Undertale leaves a lasting impact one way or another.

The benefits of gaining experience points and leveling up are obvious, as you’ll gain more health and strength the more you advance. But when you kill a monster in Undertale, you may come across another who grieves for their fallen friend, or wonders why they don’t hear from their old buddy anymore. This of course means that going the route of a pacifist may be more challenging – as your stats remain as they are at the start of the game, outside of armor – but doing the right thing becomes its own reward.

I will refrain from going into greater detail, as Undertale’s narrative is one that’s full of surprises. But the way in which it tells its story – with every moral action having its consequence – is entirely original, and may now serve as the benchmark for how to tell a deep, meaningful story in a way only a video game can.

Even with the emotional weight, Undertale is also an incredibly funny game. As stated, each monster has their own unique personality, with the boss monsters easily becoming one of the most charming cast of characters in a video game. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the sheer absurdity of many of the characters is sure to leave a goofy grin beaming across your face.

Visually speaking, the game may not exactly look ‘pretty’ – being reminiscent of a later NES title – but it does look timeless. The fact that Toby Fox could capture as much personality in the game visually as he did with his writing is an impressive feat unto itself. Undertale’s greatest aesthetic pleasure, however, has to be its soundtrack.

Undertale’s score – composed, of course, by Toby Fox – is one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. It marries the infectiousness of retro video game music with an impeccable sense of personality. The overworld tunes are often hauntingly beautiful, while the battle themes are catchy, and each boss is given a track that’s nothing short of unforgettable. Undertale’s soundtrack is perhaps rivaled solely by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the best of this decade. And as far as I’m concerned, it joins the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 and Super Mario RPG as one of my favorite gaming soundtracks of all time.

Some may nitpick at the fact that Undertale is a pretty short game, especially for an RPG. But that seems like a moot point when one considers that Undertale is one of the few games that feels like a fully-realized artistic vision by its creator. Everything that is present in Undertale is nothing short of delightful. It’s unique, charming, funny, touching, and a whole lot of fun.

When Toby Fox created Undertale, he molded his game after some all-time greats in the RPG genre. Little did he know that his “little” game would end up sitting right alongside them.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Continue reading “Persona 5 Review”

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.

 

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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.

 

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