Star Ocean: Second Evolution [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean Second Evolution

When I played Star Ocean: First Departure earlier this year, I came away disappointed. I was looking forward to an epic sci-fi JRPG and instead encountered a brief fantasy tale wrapped in a sci-fi veneer. My eagerness to bask in the series wasn’t washed away however and I promptly began the follow-up Star Ocean: Second Evolution. Another remake for the PSP, this one was of Star Ocean: The Second Story which originally released on the PlayStation in North America in 1999. This version was released ten years later and left me with many of the same grievances, but I wound up enjoying it more.

Much everything remained the same from the previous remake.
Much everything remained the same from the previous remake.

Of the Star Ocean games released to date, this is the only one to serve as a direct sequel to another. Set twenty years after the events of First Departure, this game is primarily the tale of Claude Kenny, the son of one of the original protagonists. I say primarily because players can also choose Rena Lanford as the centerpiece of the game. Both characters embark on a journey of self-discovery and their paths cross very early on at which point they remain together through the end. Having done a single playthrough I can’t comment on the differences caused by picking the other, but since they join up so early on, I can’t imagine there’s much uniqueness.

Pretty quickly after starting, Claude gets separated from his father’s Federation crew and he’s left to fend for himself on a technologically inferior planet. Here he comes across Rena and the two eventually embark on a quest to rid planet Expel of the monsters that have freshly infested it. As their quest unfolds they meet likeminded individuals who join up as comrades. Like the previous game, this is a game meant to be replayed as all party members aren’t obtainable in a single playthrough. Unfortunately, tri-Ace pulled the same stunt of developing a fantasy JRPG in the veneer of a sci-fi setting – translated, the sci-fi aspects bookend fantasy elements comprising the bulk of the experience. I’m fine with either setting, but I would caution any readers planning to dive in – these first two games aren’t entirely sci-fi tales!

Private Actions returned again but I made little use of them.
Private Actions returned again but I made little use of them.

The sci-fi elements on display were more pronounced however, with the final third taking place on another, further advanced planet. Energy Nede as it was called had an interesting backstory and was home to the Ten Wise Men. This group served as the eventual antagonistic force and they are one of the most memorable I’ve seen in a JRPG. They weren’t particularly fleshed out, but each one was unique and the progression in battling them made the conclusion an event. A few in particular were downright dastardly and evoked major tantrums in me. When they were felled, it was a satisfying event and ultimately everything ended on a cheerful note.

Battles and exploration were identical to First Departure, down to the UI. These remakes were developed at the same time and accordingly, it was all very familiar to me. I still relied upon spamming the basic attack and this continued to be a decent strategy. I will say there were more enemies that required me to flank and others that I had to earnestly avoid attacks, so the battles were a little less monotonous than I’d previously experienced. The skill system returned too and I, again, really enjoyed spending the accrued skill points increasing individual character’s stats and skills. It was an addictive facet that that had a noticeable impact on my party’s performance in battle, making it all the more incentivizing.

There were attractions and other diversions that I also didn't invest myself in.
There were attractions and other diversions that I also didn’t invest myself in.

Visually, I found this game very appealing. It was originally made during the era of prerendered backgrounds and they were left intact for this remake. Games aren’t often made with this style of prerendered backgrounds anymore as the horsepower in our consoles and computers no longer calls for it. The buildings and towns were constructed using this graphical style and they look dated, which sounds offensive; I really liked them so I would say they looked… nostalgic. Because this style is still new to me, I was able to give some things a pass, like the poor scaling.

Some backgrounds were portrayed with such depth, that as I navigated Claude he would continue to shrink until I could barely make him out. Frequently, this made locating objects to interact with a bit of a chore. Part of the blame lies with the viewing area of the PSP’s screen. This was a console game originally so naturally it was meant to be played on a larger viewing receptacle. It wasn’t until I plugged my PSP into the TV and blew the image up that the visuals really looked right. The game was entirely playable on the PSP, and I usually prefer my RPGs in this form (apt for bedtime sessions), but the game’s roots begged for it to be played on the TV.

Those prerendered backgrounds were begging to be seen on a TV!
Those prerendered backgrounds were begging to be seen on a TV!

Star Ocean: Second Evolution was a more enjoyable game than its predecessor. The story was largely forgettable (what even happened in the middle, I couldn’t tell you) but it did have a larger concentration of sci-fi elements. As was the case with First Departure, it was when the narrative placed the characters in a futuristic setting that my attention was grabbed (especially when the Ten Wise Men were in play). But, it still felt like a fantasy JRPG wrapped in a sci-fi shell. The core gameplay mechanics– battling and adventuring – were identical to the previous game; they still remained fun after another twenty hours due to the additional challenge breaking up the monotony. And graphically the game was presented in a way that felt fresh to me, despite the dated stylings. It’s the best Star Ocean I’ve played to date, but much of it was largely forgettable and perhaps not worth seeking out. A better future was found, but here’s hoping for an even brighter one.

Knuckles’ Chaotix [Sega 32X] – Review

Knuckles' Chaotix

Released for the Sega 32X in 1995, Knuckles’ Chaotix is the sole title in the Sonic the Hedgehog series to grace the ill-fated add-on. It’s apt that there was only a single title on the Sega 32X since, much like the series, it went fast. Still, this game contains some stellar audio/visual qualities that seem to utilize the benefits provided by the add-on. Despite not revolving around or even featuring Sonic (outside of a cameo in the credits), the gameplay is that of a Sonic game, with one major difference. A second character remains attached to the player’s character at all times via a magical elastic ring. This was quirky and introduced unique platforming mechanics, but I bypassed it entirely by playing as another character.

The game featured a comprehensive tutorial explaining the unique mechanics.
The game featured a comprehensive tutorial explaining the unique mechanics.

Set against the backdrop of an amusement park the day before its opening, Knuckles’ Chaotix documents the trials that the famous (infamous?) echidna and his roadies were put through in order to see its opening day go off without a hitch. Chaotix, as I’ll refer to the group, cleanse Carnival Island’s five areas of Dr. Robotnik and Metal Sonic’s evil influence and prevent the duo from obtaining some sort of all-important crystal. Like its contemporaries, this is a Sonic game that is light on narrative. Which, considering the low, weird places the series has gone since the late 1990s, that’s a good thing.

As I mentioned, the gameplay veers from the series’ familiar formula in one major way: the addition of Ring Power. That’s the system that chains two characters together. It adds an additional element to the fast-paced platforming and boss fighting that traditionally occurs. Ring Power paved the way for rubber banding the characters to gain momentum and using that same concept to slingshot upwards and scale platforms. Because of this newly implemented mechanic, or perhaps in order to make it seem more necessary, stage design seemed to rely upon verticality to a much greater extent than previous games. The stage structure seemed more mazelike as well. There were times when I got confused on which way I needed to be going after doubling back many times while ascending the stages.

Per usual, special stages were present and felt familiar to past games.
Per usual, special stages were present and felt familiar to past games.

I recently read that the stage design for the Sonic games of this era was built upon the concept that the pathways on higher ground would lead to faster stage completion. These pathways contained more divided platforms and as such, allowed a smaller window of time to react, especially when zooming about at “Blast Processor” speeds. In other words, they required more skill. I’ve never been particularly skillful when it comes to these games, which is great since Knuckles’ Chaotix abandoned this approach. Instead, the stages felt more like those maze puzzles that have an entrance and an exit and task you with drawing a line connecting the two. When completed slowly and methodically, mistakes can be avoided but when you try to speed up, errors are made and backtracking is required. Unfortunately, this is a Sonic game and the concepts of “gotta go fast” and maze navigation don’t mix too well.

There was another option however.

The game had a variety of characters to play as but most played identically to Sonic, except for one...
The game had a variety of characters to play as but most played identically to Sonic, except for one…

The characters that make up Chaotix are a diverse bunch: Knuckles the Echidna, Mighty the Armadillo, Espio the Chameleon, Charmy Bee, and Vector the Crocodile. I take that back. They’re all Sonic clones with a unique move or two and they go just as fast as the “Blue Blur.” Well, except for Charmy Bee. Charmy is a bee and accordingly can fly. There isn’t an energy bar or stamina that needs to be considered either, he can just, fly. This impacted my playthrough in the following way: once this fact dawned on me I always chose Charmy and I would just fly to the exit or fly to the objective and then to the exit. Now this wasn’t a linear path I was on, I still had to navigate the confounding stages and believe me, when you ignore the actual platforms, they’re even more confounding. But, this was also the path of least resistance and I’d have been a fool not to take it.

As a result of Charmy Bee becoming my default character, I barely experienced Ring Power. I wasn’t dismayed by this. I spent about a quarter of my playthrough abiding by the platforming limitations requiring its use, but honestly, nothing comes to mind, outside of switches. All I can remember are stages that went vertical and doubled back way more than they should have and the tutorial which demonstrated a few of the ways Ring Power would be necessary. I can’t think of any times it was mandatory though, besides switches. It’s a novel idea, but one whose applications inside a game such as this seem limited and the implementation here didn’t call for it, making it practically nonexistent in my experience.

One of my favorite power-ups seemed to have inspired New Super Mario Bros.
One of my favorite power-ups seemed to have inspired New Super Mario Bros.

I’m not an expert on the first handful of Sonic the Hedgehog games, or any really (maybe Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (Chao man, Chao!)), but the stage design on display here was confounding. The prospect of taking the series – known for its speed – and putting characters with similar abilities in positions where the focus on speed is removed in exchange for labyrinth navigation is frustrating. Not only that, but they introduced a new mechanic and in the same game introduced a character who completely nullified it, let alone require its use (disregarding switches). There are enjoyable moments in this game, and it’s a worthwhile addition to a Sega 32X collection because of the add-on’s small library, but Knuckles’ Chaotix isn’t worth seeking out otherwise.

And… all the way down here is the link to my collected let’s play where you can witness firsthand my opinion of this game form.

Knuckles’ Chaotix [Sega 32X] – Let’s Play

Knuckles' Chaotix - Japanese Box Art

Knuckles’ Chaotix is a game in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. It’s the only game in said series to grace the Sega 32X. It’s an okay game, but not a great Sonic the Hedgehog game. More on that later this week. In the meantime, you can watch my collected let’s play in the YouTube playlist below. This will probably be the last full-game let’s play of a Sega 32X game I do for a while (following Tempo and Kolibri), although I still have a few more that I’d like to check out. Those will likely be one-off videos. Anyways, enjoy.

You Must Build a Boat [Android] – Review

Well then, if I must.
Well then, if I must.

You Must Build a Boat had me addicted like no other for the better part of a month. The puzzle/role-playing game is the sequel to 10000000, which I knew much of but unfortunately, ignored. In hindsight, that may have been a boon as this game only amplifies the concepts of that game, and may have worn out its welcome if I just played 10000000. Both games are match-three style puzzlers designed around brief gameplay sessions. However, they incorporate RPG mechanics coaxing long-term play and activating acute pleasure centers in my brain.

Notice the division of the screen.
Notice the division of the screen.

When I first started the game, my avatar was on a raft looking vessel with a couple other dudes. Very quickly, they informed my character that his mission was to, yep, build a boat! At this point the game transitioned to what would become a very familiar screen over the next half-dozen hours. The top twenty percent featured my explorer in a dungeon. He would run through dungeons encountering enemies, traps, and treasure chests. The bottom twenty percent consisted of the tiles that I would match by swiping columns up or down and rows left and right. Matched icons would cause my adventurer to react correspondingly. If I matched key tiles, he’d unlock a treasure chest. Likewise, if I matched swords or staves, he’d attack physically or with magic.

Each run of a dungeon would end when my character reached the edge of the screen. I had to react quickly enough to his obstacles as the screen never stopped scrolling, even if he did. When it eventually did, I would arrive back on the ever-expanding boat with a constantly growing staff. Back here, I could spend the coin I’d accumulated and increase the effectiveness of the tiles, recruit monsters for permanent stat boosts, and much more. The tile-matching was very responsive to my touch and fun in itself, but coupled with the sort of gameplay loop found in an RPG and then consolidated into a six hour experience instead of a sixty-hour experience and this wound up being a game I could hardly put down.

Lots of swords here.
Lots of swords here.

Now that I’ve completed it though, I don’t feel like going back. Or rather, I have and don’t want to repeat the cycle from square one. Upon completion it prompts to start at the beginning albeit with a stiffer challenge. I haven’t found that sufficient motivation to begin anew, although I am picking it every now and then; I’m just putting it down much easier. Nonetheless, I spent roughly seven hours with it on my first go-around and I could’ve probably done that all at once. Excluding the grinding I did at the very end. That grew tedious. Other than that fact, this game is well-worth the paltry asking price.

Kolibri [Sega 32X] – Review


As a part of our week of vacation this year, Jenny and I drove to Galveston, TX and spent a few days on the beach. It was wonderful, especially for me as I haven’t been to the ocean in about a decade. On the way, we drove through Houston as I intended on stopping in at a few local game stores. This is a must when I travel some place new, and H-Town didn’t disappoint. One of the games I brought back home was Kolibri for the Sega 32X.

Kolibri flew about in many different environments, but I wasn't a fan of the visual quality; everything seemed a little dark or muddied.
Kolibri flew about in many different environments, but I wasn’t a fan of the visual quality; everything seemed a little dark or muddied.

Kolibri is one of the Sega 32X’s few exclusives, and pragmatically, one of the few notable titles available for the add-on. It was developed by Novotrade International and published by Sega in 1995. Novotrade was the studio responsible for the Ecco the Dolphin games and I believe this game shares many of the same traits. However, I can’t extrapolate further as my exposure to that series has been limited thus far. Regardless, the studio had an apparent appreciation for ecology and that would appear to shine through in these creations of theirs.

Controlling the eponymous hummingbird, players are tasked with, drumroll…, saving the world! The manual has a rich backstory on the creation of Earth from a light crystal and the negative effects of a dark crystal crashing into the planet. The latter has had a corrupting effect on the nature and wildlife and Kolibri has been mystically chosen and infused with the ability to counteract the effects of the dark crystal and ultimately, destroy it. What this boils down to is a nontraditional shoot ‘em up.

The majority of the game’s stages take place in labyrinthine caves and ruins. Controlling Kolibri, I buzzed around looking for the exit and items that would assist in that endeavor, and did my best to destroy the infected insects trying to do the same to me. These stages were generally linear in nature, but featured so many paths that it didn’t seem that way in the moment. The final one was quite elaborate too, taking a good fifteen or twenty minutes to solve. Until the last third of the game, they lacked checkpoints which meant dying threw me back to the beginning, which usually wasn’t an issue due to their brevity.

Everything was after Kolibri, even chameleons and frogs.
Everything was after Kolibri, even chameleons and frogs.

The other types of stages that Novotrade incorporated were a more familiar sort: horizontally scrolling stages. Stages of this variety were infrequent (about every third stage) and easy to get through with the right weapon. Success, no matter what stage I was playing, was dictated by my weapon of choice. Like any good shmup, Kolibri featured a variety of upgradeable weapons. It took me a few stages before I began playing around with the assortment. Eventually I experienced each weapon fully upgraded and wound up with two or three stalwarts.

Due to my narrow-mindedness of the genre, I didn’t really think of Kolibri in terms of a shoot ‘em up for a while. Once I did, I began to perform better due to a newfound aggressiveness. The enemies often attacked as soon as they were on screen, and would usually respawn if “their location” went off screen and I returned. This aspect, and the stage design of the labyrinth stages, required a good bit of trial and error and memorization; particularly when I would start a level with low health, die, and then quickly restart a half-dozen times. It did grow frustrating (evidenced by segments of my let’s play) but the game didn’t prove to be too challenging and was relatively short.

Those who've made it to the end will surely recognize this puzzle. I'm proud to have figured it out without assistance!
Those who’ve made it to the end will surely recognize this puzzle. I’m proud to have figured it out without assistance!

Regarding the two notable Sega 32X exclusives I’ve played: Tempo and Kolibri, I’m more partial to the former. Like Tempo, Kolibri didn’t wow me from the start but it did grow on me. It curried favor with me mostly due to the uniqueness of its stage design and narrative. The manual is also spectacular, featuring a how-to on building a hummingbird feeder, references for extended learning, a flip note animation and much more. That being said the gameplay didn’t blow my socks off or have me begging for more. I thought Kolibri was awkward to control at times and the frequent restarting became disheartening. Nonetheless, it’s still an enjoyable game worth seeking out for owners of the Sega 32X.

As I did with my Tempo review, here’s one final shameless plug for my let’s play:

Kolibri [Sega 32X] – Let’s Play


Alright, here’s another let’s play of a Sega 32X game, this time Kolibri. Developed by Novotrade International (Ecco the Dolpin) and published by Sega in 1995, it’s regarded as one of the more sought-after titles for the lackluster add-on. I enjoyed it, although not as much as Tempo. Tomorrow or later this week I’ll post my review of it and begin working on a new let’s play, hopefully for Knuckles’ Chaotix.

Mega Man [NES] – Review

Mega Man

When I beat Super Mario Bros. for the first time last year, I felt I had marked an item off of a video game bucket list. It was a momentous achievement not just because it’s such an influential and important game to the medium, but because it was challenging as well. It took many, many failed attempts, progressing slightly farther each time before I was able to conquer Bowser and when I did, I felt like I accomplished something! For the same reasons, I’ve recently come to the Mega Man series.

For someone who fancies himself a collector and a knowledgebase of video games, it’s been hard for me to reconcile the fact that I’ve only played one Mega Man game; not even a core title in the series either but a spinoff: Mega Man Network Transmission. With compilations of both the classic and X series, I decided it was finally time to rectify this omission. With little deliberation, I shelved the Mega Man X Collection and decided to begin where the franchise did: with Mega Man. Granted, playing the Xbox version of Anniversary Collection on the Xbox 360.

This game had plenty of tricky platforming sections.
This game had plenty of tricky platforming sections.

It didn’t take long to dawn on me once I’d started, but this game and this series helped define the action-platformer. In a basic sense, Mega Man plays like Super Mario Bros. with guns. It retains the precision platforming of that game while featuring more frantic action, especially with the bosses. The stages are relatively brief affairs but each one hosts unique platforming challenges. Even with their brevity, it would always take multiple continues before I could reliably reach the boss; if I didn’t decide to halt that stage for the moment and move onto another after losing my stock of lives.

Another influential aspect of this game is the open-ended nature in completing it. Before Mega Man has the opportunity to settle his score with Dr. Wily, he first has to beat six of the mad scientist’s robot masters. Their stages could be selected in any order and what’s more, once beaten, Mega Man obtained their weapon. I could freely switch between the weapons Mega Man had acquired and was rewarded for doing so as each robot master was weak to another’s weapon. After obtaining a new weapon, I’d try a stage and make it to the boss to see if it was weak to the weapon just acquired and do so until I found my match.

The ability to select the stage order was something of a novelty when Mega Man released.
The ability to select the stage order was something of a novelty when Mega Man released.

Once the robot masters had been defeated and the path to Dr. Wily became available, the challenge really began. I went through a decent amount of continues before reaching the Yellow Devil. This iconic Mega Man boss was highlighted to me with his annoying inclusion in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U where he transfers chunks of his body horizontally from one side of the screen to the other rebuilding itself, a difficult attack to evade. Now I know where that originated. That exact same tactic is present here and was one of the hardest video game obstacles I’ve had to overcome in recent memory, maybe since beating Super Mario Bros. last year! It took me so much time and effort (multiple sessions across a couple of days even) that I naively thought this was the final boss. Because of course it wouldn’t be DR. WILY! Come on John, think about it!

So once I’d finally conquered the Yellow Devil (which literally made me exclaim WOOHOO!), I was crestfallen to realize there was more to do… much more. Dr. Wily’s stage was four sections long – each ending with a boss fight, or set of boss fights. Each of the robot masters that Mega Man had beaten previously had to be beaten again. Thankfully, the game allows unlimited continues and mercifully, when used in Dr. Wily’s stage, they restarted me in the current section and not at the very beginning of the stage – pre-Yellow Devil. With that ability, I was actually able to make it deep into the final section of Dr. Wily’s stage when that nightmare scenario we all have while playing video games happened – I lost power. ARGH!!!

Elec Man's weapon was the most powerful in the end.
Elec Man’s weapon was the most powerful at the end of the game.

With that, I was done with Mega Man. Not just for that night but for a long time. At least, that’s how I felt for the next fifteen minutes until I had a chance to cool down. This was something I still had on my video game bucket list, something I still felt I needed to do in order to broaden my gaming knowledge. A few days later I returned and with little resistance was right back where I was pre-power outage. Most thrilling of all was the rematch with the Yellow Devil. What had once taken me an eternity to overcome I could now topple in a few attempts!

With the robot masters bested again and these sections completed, there was one thing left to do: put Dr. Wily in his place. Like the Yellow Devil, this was another tough matchup. Dr. Wily had two forms, each with an eternity of a health bar. After a few attempts I knew what I had to do: I had to cheese him.

In the original Mega Man, there’s an exploit that allows Elec Man’s weapon to damage an enemy multiple times with one shot. This weapon’s projectile is long and branching like lightning. As soon as it made contact with Dr. Wily, I pressed the back button on my Xbox 360 controller – pausing the game. Upon unpausing the game, it damaged him again as if this was the first time the projectile made contact. This exploit wasn’t removed from the Anniversary Collection and I milked it across a half-dozen attempts before the mad scientist finally bowed to Mega Man.

It look me too long to get Yellow Devil's pattern down. Once I did though, I was golden.
It look me too long to get Yellow Devil’s pattern down. Once I did though, I was golden.

Although I wound up cheesing the final boss, I have no regrets. I overcame so many obstacles while testing my reflexes, dexterity, and memorization that I still feel accomplished. Besides, literally every FAQ and forum commenter I came across suggested the same thing. I’m not sure anyone’s beaten Mega Man without utilizing that exploit! Nonetheless, I can cross beating Mega Man off my bucket list and can feel a little more confident in my gaming prowess and knowledge. Foremost of which is the fact that Mega Man is a precisely tuned action-platformer that’s tough but rewarding. Now, onto Mega Man 2!

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