Star Ocean: First Departure [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean First Departure

When it comes to an established franchise, I find it hard to experience it in any other way than completely engrossing myself. Whether it’s soaking up each entry in a role-playing series, or binge-watching a movie franchise, I like to get the whole story from start to finish. So with the recent announcement of the fifth Star Ocean game, subtitled Integrity and Faithlessness, I’ve found myself visiting the series for the first time, and from the beginning. There’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to check the series out over the years, and I’ve owned entries for years without touching them. But, much like the dual announcements of new Guitar Hero and Rock Band releases reinvigorating my desire to play earlier entries in those series’, this one did it to the nth degree.

Battles took place in fully roamable arenas - an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.
Battles took place in fully roamable arenas – an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.

My first consciousness of the Star Ocean series occurred around the release of Tales of Symphonia. That seminal JRPG was one of the few on the GameCube and one of my favorites bar none. I turned to GameFAQs throughout that playthrough and the author of one FAQ in particular suggested Star Ocean: Till the End of Time so heartily, that I still remember that fact to this day. Needless to say I never checked it out (excluding a multiplayer match or two for the inaugural Game-a-Thon). Flash forward and I now own all but the most recent entry: The Last Hope. So, what better place to start than the first game?

Or truly, a remake of the first game as the western release lagged behind its Japanese debut. Star Ocean was originally released on July 19, 1996 for the Super Famicom. It didn’t make it to Western shores until the PlayStation Portable remake; First Departure was released in North America on October 21, 2008. Developed by tri-Ace, the game was the product of the studio’s collective experience making Tales of Phantasia and their love of Star Trek. It’s an action-RPG whose core elements stay true to likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but the battle system is quasi-real-time and the setting has more in common with Phantasy Star. The PSP remake appears to remain very true to the original, and with the exception of a few items, I could imagine this game being a direct port.

There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.
There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.

One of the elements that excited me the most in thinking about this series was the sci-fi setting. The ability for a lengthy RPG to fill out a world with backstory, characters, and places is a hallmark of the genre, and when that ability is buoyed by a sci-fi motif, well, let’s just say I’ve always been more interested in the future than the past. So I was disappointed when the majority of this game revolved around a fantasy setting. This was explained narratively in a way keeping true to its sci-fi background, and perhaps even by the constraints of the hardware or the by the studio’s rookie nature.

Granted, this was all wrapped around the context of a sci-fi storyline and it did have its moments. The main protagonists hail from an undeveloped planet – one that the Federation (exactly what you’d think) has intentionally avoided until the inhabitants have reached their space age. So when the group is exposed to the Federation initially, there’s a lot of interesting story building that takes place. And again at the end, when the answers to the questions that have been posed throughout the game are being revealed; the sci-fi elements really sealed the deal. Plus, there’s time travel and that’s super sci-fi.

Most everything else is standard fare for the genre. I took the group from town to dungeon to town in search of this or that or whatever would progress the story. The combat system is an evolution of the real-time one pioneered in Tales of Phantasia. Instead of taking place on a 2D plane however, I controlled one of the party member’s in a 3D arena. There wasn’t a lot to fights other than mashing the attack button and maybe triggering a special attack every now and then. I was content to button mash and the lack of difficulty allowed me to breeze through the game.

An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.
An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.

I feel it was necessary for me to play this game, although I wouldn’t recommend it to others if they didn’t share my tendencies. It wasn’t a bad game, it just wasn’t that interesting. The settings offered an interesting clash, but this was mostly a fantasy game wrapped around the veneer of a sci-fi game. I found little to dislike about the combat system and could enjoy the monotonous task of mashing a button until a foe was dead, but I can’t praise it either. At roughly fifteen hours it’s the shortest JRPG I’ve played, but lengthy enough to tell a cohesive tale. Here’s hoping for a bright future.

Returning to Guitar Hero II Expert after Six Years

Guitar Hero II

With the announcements of new Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, my vigor towards those titles currently in my collection was reignited. Coincidentally, it wasn’t too long before these announcements that I had procured a copy of Green Day: Rock Band. It had been sitting in my closet for a while and with this redeveloped enthusiasm, my partner and I got the plastic instrument band back together. To be fair, achievements did play a role too.

We jammed through Green Day: Rock Band in a single sitting – complying with the requirements for one of the game’s endurance based achievements. It didn’t make him a fan of theirs and didn’t make me anything more than the casual fan I already was. We conquered, and moved onto Guitar Hero: Van Halen a week or so later. We aimed to do the same with it, but called it quits early on when we realized the achievements wouldn’t pop for the both of us, only the primary player. For us, this was a nightmarish callback to the launch of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

GH3 360 Coverwrap.indd

I purchased that game on a break between college classes and when school was done for the day, we rocked the evening away in a single marathon session. When all was said and done, I had the medium co-op achievement pop, but nothing happened for him. After the fact research yielded our answer: nothing would unlock for the secondary player. What a jip! What were people supposed to do to unlock the four co-op related achievements? Bribe friends, put out an ad on Craigslist? Keeping in mind that the difficulty achievements didn’t stack meant all related songs would have to be played through four times, each on a different difficulty. Needless to say we didn’t start a new co-op career on another difficulty.

So, I was left to finish Guitar Hero: Van Halen on my own. Unlike the crotches of 80s rock stars, it wasn’t bulging with content so it was a relatively brief affair. I did discover a few of their lesser-known songs though. All this recent Guitar Hero and Rock Band playing had me curious towards the older games in my collection, specifically, ones with achievements that I hadn’t obtained. Perusing TrueAchievements signaled that I may be able to clean up a few achievements in Guitar Hero II – namely completing the game on expert and a co-op achievement or two. This was a possibility because the co-op achievements unlocked for both players.

Green Day Rock Band

So I fired up Guitar Hero II and was greeted with a nearly complete expert playthrough – I was four songs away. Of those, I only had access to three. The first one I attempted was “Misirlou” by Dick Dale. Although you may not recognize it by title or performer, if you hear it, you’d likely be able to place it – surf rock of the 1960s. Surprising myself I passed it with flying colors barely scraping by on my first time. “Wow! I can do this” I exclaimed to nobody but myself. My next attempts – “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies and “Hangar 18” by Megadeth put the difficulty level into perspective.

I didn’t give up though. On my initial attempts with those songs I was able to clear more than 80 percent on each. A few days passed before my next attempts but with those I played the songs over and over and over again, getting better at performing the tricky hammer-ons and pull-offs and learning the crucial moments to activate Star Power. One by one I conquered the songs until I was left with game-ender: “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I sat through the first few minutes of that song no less than a half-dozen times thanks to the tricky solos. Eventually, everything synced and I was able to scrape by. Achievement unlocked.

Project Gotham Racing 4 [Xbox 360] – Review

PGR4

Project Gotham Racing 4 was ostensibly the final game in the series. For the sake of this article, I’m going to pretend Ferrari Edition for the Zune HD doesn’t exist. I have past experience with the series, having sunk a material amount of time into the third entry early on in my Xbox 360 ownership. My memories of that playthrough are gone now, but I’ve always associated quality and differentiation with the series. My recent playthrough of this title backs that claim up further and highlighted a game that has held up, and I presume, will hold up for many years to come.

Developed by Bizarre Creations and published by Microsoft, the series was their answer for an exclusive Xbox racing series before Forza Motorsport. Debuting as a launch title for the original Xbox in 2001, PGR was an extension of Bizarre Creations’ Metropolis Street Racer, released a year prior on the Dreamcast. After Forza’s debut in 2005, the two coexisted for a few years before Bizarre Creations was acquired by Activision. While Turn 10 Studios was chasing realism with the Forza series, Bizarre Creations was always melding the realism of supercars with the sensibilities of a more approachable racing game.

I spent most of my time racing like I do driving, looking out through the interior of my ride.
I spent most of my time racing like I do driving, looking out through the interior of my ride.

In my eyes, one of the most prominent differentiating features of the series are the settings. Rather than rely on established racetracks like most racing games, the developers instead use well-known cities for backdrops. Courses take place throughout city streets and as a result, variations are bountiful. After my dozen or so hours with this title, I had remembered the routes I’d driven throughout the cities, and could piece together the components that different variations shared. When one variation might take a left, another one might go straight, for instance. This practice was an efficient use of the cities, as I was able to race on many variations, with different objectives, and in different weather, making each event feel unique.

The cities themselves were rendered with impressive detail too. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me, but after a season in the Gotham Career mode, my eyes began to take in the scenery as I’d become more familiar with the courses. The skyscrapers and landmarks that lined the courses weren’t two-dimensional, like the set of a classic western. No, you could look down the intersecting roads and alleys and see well into the distance. The many logos and name brand storefronts that lined the more populous areas made me wonder what went into the licensing process.

Speaking of a headache-inducing licensing process, this game features the largest roster of automobiles in the series, including the addition of motorcycles. Altogether, there are more than 130 available in the game with more added through DLC. Unfortunately, after the studios closure at the hands of Activision in 2011, all DLC was removed from the Xbox Live Marketplace, at least, that’s probably why. Another association I make with the series is a reliance on supercars and this release has them in spades. However, it also fills its roster with a more varied lineup of automobiles that highlight notable examples of many “scenes” with the exception of Japanese tuners.

The cities truly were rendered with a fantastic level of detail. I haven't been to Shanghai, but I know for a fact they have KFC there.
The cities truly were rendered with a fantastic level of detail. I haven’t been to Shanghai, but I know for a fact they have KFC there.

Returning to differentiating features, one of the aspects of this title that kept me hooked were the varied race types. Whereas typical races may comprise the majority of other racing games, they’re only a single event here. Other genre staples are present such as passing checkpoints to keep the clock alive, but I had the most fun with cone-based events, where I was tasked with slaloming through arranged cones. These and many other modes kept my quest for the top rank in the Gotham Career mode fresh, even when that effort got long in the tooth. With that complete, a whole other single player mode was available and went mostly untouched by me.

The game’s arcade mode featured heaps of one-off events where success was graded on a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum basis. These played up the driving with style aspect the series is known for more than the Gotham Career mode did. This aspect being the ability to earn Kudos points for performing stunts on bikes, drafting and drifting, and in general driving balls to the wall. In other words, there’s a lot to keep someone occupied here. And as best as I can tell, the multiplayer component is still available, at least as of a 2013 TrueAchievements forum thread. So the popular Cat and Mouse game type would be available via that method, although finding players may prove difficult, even on boosting forums.

Apparently, John Cena has a side career as an enthusiast motorcycle racer and no, you still can't see him.
Apparently, John Cena has a side career as an enthusiast motorcycle racer and no, you still can’t see him.

I started playing Project Gotham Racing 4 as a change of pace while I sunk seventy odd hours into Lost Odyssey (I still haven’t written a write-up of that!?). It was able to hold my interest enough to branch off into a full-fledged playthrough afterwards, and was enjoyable enough that I’m considering diving into another racing game sooner rather than later. I can walk away from my time with PGR4 impressed with the efforts exerted from Bizarre Creations. It’s still a sharp-looking game today with fantastic backdrops and beautiful interior and exterior car models. Gameplay was fast and crisp, especially from the first-person perspective and I encountered visual hiccups maybe once. Most importantly though the game itself was a joy and there was no shortage of things for me to do.

Crossy Road [Android] – Review

Crossy Road

This is a review of Crossy Road. It’s timely only if you’re reading this month’s ago, or if you’ve never heard of Crossy Road. Unfortunately, if it’s the latter, you’ve missed the zeitgeist. That doesn’t mean you’ve missed out on the fun though. Crossy Road is an evolution of Frogger with elements of modern mobile game design tacked on for revenue streams. It’s a game built around understandable mechanics, unobtrusive monetization features, and an attractive art style. It doesn’t fill you up, but it’s easy to keep coming back to.

As I mentioned, the core gameplay of Crossy Road is heavily inspired by Frogger. It’s basically that game with one important twist – it’s endless. Instead of crossing a few lanes of traffic and navigating floating logs to reach the shore on the opposite end of the screen, your character is on a never-ending journey. Both obstacles are present and accounted for here and seem to be randomized, keeping gameplay fresh. Tapping the screen moves the character one row forward and this is how the score is calculated. The high score competitions can get heated, recalling the days of Flappy Bird.

This is a free-to-play game, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with advertisements. The primary source of revenue for the developers would appear to stem from the many character skins. These can be unlocked by spending accrued coins on an in-game prize machine (think the gumball machines at your local grocery store). The coins are earned slowly, but extras can be earned by watching advertisements. Or, this coin collecting process can be subverted altogether by purchasing the character skins. Each character has features that make them unique, but not substantially different. For me, they were just something to work towards, while I strove to improve my score.

Crossy Road - Zombie
Each character has a few traits that make them unique. In the case of the zombie, it’s now dusk and I imagine it moans for brains.

Crossy Road is a free game, available on Apple and Android devices and it’s well worth the download. I thought it was a stellar pick up and play game for those moments when you need a distraction. If you have friends playing it too, the competition aspect will help to deepen the experience.  But, it was a distraction sort of game, and something I couldn’t spend a long stretch of time with after the first few sessions. It is, however, something I’ve spent much time with in the dozens of sessions I’ve played it. Well worth a look.

Lost Odyssey and My Seeker of the Deep Woes

Lost Odyssey - Nooo!

So, after roughly 75 hours, I’m finished playing Lost Odyssey. That game had me engrossed like few other RPGs before it. I could’ve beaten the game around the 50 hour mark, but thanks in no small part to achievements, I found myself compelled to eke everything I could out of the game. I literally did everything that could be done in the main game save one thing – obtain all items from the treasure chests strewn about the world. This was an achievement, and the only reason I didn’t pop this one was because I fucked myself over roughly halfway in. Most items that are missed later appear in an auction house, and unfortunately I lost the first auction I entered and didn’t realize the consequences of that until much later. Likely, I missed other items too, so I probably wouldn’t have gotten this one anyways.

That’s not the point of this article, although it does provide additional details on my experience with the game. The main point of this article is how I fucked myself over in another way! After beating the final boss and enduring fifteen minutes of ludicrous cutscenes, I was prompted to save the clear data. Actually, I may have been prompted to save beforehand and I’d like to get my facts straight, but no enough to research it, I just wanted to let you know. Anyways, I saved right over my primary save not thinking twice about it. A day later, I decided it was time to do the very last thing on my Lost Odyssey agenda – play through the Seeker of the Deep DLC. But I saved clear data over my primary save. CLEAR DATA!

For those uninitiated with RPGs, and more specifically Japanese RPGs, clear data is generally an unplayable file only certifying that you completed the game. And really, what is the fucking use in that!? Lost Odyssey uses it for new game + purposes, so at least it’s put to use for something. It does me no good however. Reading online, the recommended levels to complete the DLC hover around the 90s, maybe the mid 80s. With party levels in the 70s, it would take me hours of grinding with the other saves to reach a comfortable party level, while loading my primary save starts the game at the very beginning, with a few perks. So, instead of spending a few more hours with Lost Odyssey, I’m finished with it.

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