May 30, 2012
Distilling MS Saga: A New Dawn to its most basic pieces is pretty easy, even after playing the game for only twenty or so minutes. Before I do that though, let me give some background information. MS Saga is a role-playing game for the PlayStation 2 based off of the Gundam franchise. It was released in North America on February 21, 2006 and was developed and published by Bandai. As it’s based off of the long-running anime series, mobile suits are abound, however it tells an original story. Now, onto a succinct distillation.
For starters, the gameplay is very traditional, and by that I mean basic. According to Wikipedia, the game was designed to be accessible to an audience unfamiliar with Gundam. I’d also add that it was designed to be accessible to those unfamiliar with RPGs because the combat seems ripped from a fifteen year old game, which isn’t bad. Bandai didn’t need to set the world on fire with a video game based off of a preexisting property. Instead they built a simple RPG around that property, and that works for me. I’m not an avid fan of Gundam and I like that MS Saga is easy to get into. Sometimes, I just want a simple RPG to play, one that I can casually play while listening to a podcast, all the while still going through the motions of character development and advancement.
Because I barely played MS Saga, I can’t comment on the worth of the characters or their surrounding world. Still, it took me by surprise when I realized that the protagonist was a male when he looked like a female. Androgyny aside, I imagine that like the gameplay, MS Saga is filled with characters and scenarios I’ve seen before. With the exception of piloting giant human-like mecha that is.
Mobile Suit Gundam is one of the most influential anime series out there, but in the video game realm, the Gundam franchise has been anything but influential. The franchise has been incredibly prevalent, appearing on many systems with many releases, and from what I can remember, games were generally received lukewarmly and that sums up my feelings regarding MS Saga: A New Dawn.
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a role-playing game released in late 2004 for the GameCube. It was co-developed by Monolith Soft (known for the Xenosaga series and the recently released Xenoblade Chronicles) and tri-Crescendo (Eternal Sonata) and published by Namco. The game is a story of revenge for Kalas, the primary protagonist but it also focuses on his (and his compatriots) quest to save the world. I didn’t find the story or characters interesting, but what’s exceptional about the game is its card-based battle system, which could’ve been its biggest liability.
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean takes place in a fantastical world, a world where landmasses float in the sky, oceans are a thing of legend, and the human inhabitants have wings. The young adult Kalas is on a mission of revenge as he searches for the murderer of his brother and grandfather. He believes the person responsible is a soldier in the imperialistic Alfard Empire. The game begins as he awakens, confused but not suffering from amnesia, in a remote village. Soon after this point, he meets Xelha, a kind but mysterious girl who believes the Empire is on the verge of unleashing a great evil. Although Kalas believes he has no need for her, they join together as their goals run a similar course.
At the point I finished (about a dozen hours in), I had met a third party member: a rural fisherman named Gibari. He was beefed up and helpful in the rural town I found him in, but he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Beyond those three, I can’t comment on anyone else as I didn’t sink enough time into the game to meet anyone else. After joining up with Xelha, I visited another town or two and trekked through a few enemy-riddled areas, but the main focus was the routine run-ins with the Empire, which helped narrow the protagonists’ motives.
I don’t really have an opinion on the general story because I only played it for a dozen or so hours, but in that time span I already knew that I didn’t like Kalas. He was off-putting from the get go with his lack of respect for others and rudeness. Of course, naïve characters are the norm for role-playing games of this ilk; I’m sure that over the course of the estimated sixty hours of gameplay, he would mature and grow as a person. A lot of my opinion of him (and others) was based on the poor voice acting and that didn’t help in forming my opinion. It’s not necessarily that characters over or under act, instead my grievance lies with the quality of the audio – it sounds like I’m listening to people in a sound booth, as if whatever audio mixing that would remove this aura wasn’t done.
On the back of the game’s box is a quote from Nintendo Power: “It’s possibly the most beautiful GCN title ever made,” which I’d have to agree with. The game’s locales are like paintings that you walk around in, or like the PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasy games; they feature a fixed camera perspective with no player control of it. The pre-rendered backgrounds of the towns are intricately detailed and will often have animated bits and pieces, but because I wasn’t able to control the camera, navigating these areas was sometimes less than great; for instance when Kalas would walk into the background and shrink to signify distance from the camera. This isn’t a problem with Baten Kaitos, it’s just a style that I don’t prefer.
What makes Baten Kaitos unique compared to other RPGs is its reliance on Magnus (playing cards) for items, attacks, equipment, and just about anything else. Each character had a deck of cards that they used in battles. As they leveled up, the amount of cards they could put into it, as well as their hand size in battles grew.
Battles revolved around each character’s deck of Magnus. A good deck would contain a mixture of offensive, defensive, and healing cards that were suited to take advantage of enemies’ elemental weaknesses. In battles, characters would have a hand of cards and I’d try my best to link them together to create optimal attacks and defensive maneuvers. I found that if I didn’t suit my deck to each area and continually keep it fresh, I wouldn’t advance.
The Magnus weren’t just used in battles though; they were used in place of items too. Special Magnus could capture the essence of an item, say water, and I could then use that Magnus to solve a puzzle, such as putting out a fire. I had to be careful with Magnus however, as the cards would age and their properties would change. For instance, if I had a Magnus with green bananas on it, as time passed, the bananas would ripen and the card’s effect would change. This aspect of the Magnus kept me on my toes and was in some instances, annoying.
Card-battling games have a reputation for being obtuse, complicated, and slow-paced. Of course, they’re also known for requiring strategy, skill, and a little luck. What’s great about Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is that it takes the best things about card-battling games: strategy in deck building, skillful combinations of cards, and a little luck of the draw, while reducing the negatives by speeding up the battle system and easing players into the extensive number of Magnus. It may not have captured my attention for too long, but damned if I didn’t absolutely enjoy its battle system.
April 17, 2012
Mass Effect 3, what a game! BioWare and Electronic Arts have closed out the trilogy amid much controversy. The increased amount of related downloadable content and the botched ending have irked many people. Still, the proof is in the pudding and Mass Effect 3 retains the high pedigree associated with the previous two games.
As was the case with Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 plays more fluidly than its predecessor. Commander Shepherd has a newfound agility that allows him to weave around a battlefield much better than he’s ever been able to. Still there are some annoyances that make Shepherd’s movement feel very rigid. Turning while running was a process I had to become accustomed to and getting into cover was oftentimes finicky. For instance, when I’d run into a wall at an angle, Shepherd wouldn’t get into cover; to get into cover, I’d have to hit it head on. These are a few minor annoyances but overall, Shepherd’s agility is net gain in my book. As far as other elements of the gameplay getting improved, any enhancements were either very subtle or not worth mentioning. The game plays better than ever.
I’ve played as a soldier in each of the Mass Effect games and compared to the other classes, it’s a relatively boring one. Thankfully, the big addition to the series – multiplayer – allowed me to play as the other classes and experience their specialties easily. It’s a much lower barrier of entry then just creating a new character for the single player.
In the multiplayer, teams of four battle through about ten waves of enemies. Most of the time, survival is the only focus although every few waves, teams are tasked with uploading important data, guarding an important terminal, or taking out specific enemies in a timely fashion. I thought the multiplayer was okay, but feeling like I had to do it dragged down my feelings of it.
Mass Effect 3 integrates the multiplayer into the single player and represents the conflicts as actual battles that the good guys are fighting. Each multiplayer arena resides in a galaxy and each galaxy has a readiness rating. Each galaxy begins at 50% and for me, it was necessary to get the average up to about 70% to get the “perfect” ending. And since I was getting it that high, I figured I might as well get the overall number up to 100% to get the achievement for doing so. This was additional time to me because it forced me to halt my single player game and focus on the multiplayer for about ten hours, instead of enjoying it after “the main attraction” concluded.
“The main attraction” in my book is the story and with this I was fulfilled. It was inevitable that the trilogy would end with this, the third game, but as the first few hours of Mass Effect 3 make clear, there was still much work ahead of Shepherd. Constructing a force large enough to deal with the Reapers required Shepherd to put to rest events that have affected the galaxy for hundreds of years. Dealing with the genophage and the Quarian/Geth problem are two of the subplots that stick out largest in my mind.
Still, I can think of other, very memorable moments that may not have had a major impact on the universe as a whole, but affected me greatly. Whether it was losing close allies or making gut decisions on the fly, Mass Effect 3 had some memorable moments. Plus, seeing people I spared in the previous games reappear and discovering how past decisions reverberated was neat too. All the while, these decisions played into Shepherd’s war assets. In combination with the aforementioned readiness levels obtained through multiplayer, the war assets dictated what endings would be available. It’s weird to have every decision I’ve ever made to be distilled into a quick number, but it’s great for comparison to other players!
When everything is said and done, Shepherd once and for all deals with the Reapers. There’s been so much fuss over the ending that forming an opinion is a tough task when there’s so many others floating around on the internet. I had multiple options available to deal with the Reapers, and they were pretty diverse. While I got the “perfect” ending, everything didn’t turn out perfectly. I believe a lot of anger has been directed at the vague resolution of what key characters do after the events of the game, and that’s fair. I also think it’s fair that if players have spent over one hundred hours in this universe, they have enough to go on to form their opinions of what everyone did. Still, recent revelations over the “true ending” downloadable content give me a sourer outlook of the ending.
Overall, I’m pleased as punch with Mass Effect 3. It’s the best playing game in the series and thanks to the multiplayer I have a better understanding of every character class. Leveling up characters in it is pretty fun to boot, as long as I’m not “forced” to do it; most importantly though, I’m pleased with the conclusion of the trilogy. The bevy of events throughout the game was entertaining and I know that if I slightly changed my decisions, they could’ve ended up entirely different. Ultimately though, Commander Shepherd did what he set out to do from day one: deal with the Reapers.
March 21, 2012
From Ashes is the first major piece of downloadable content for Mass Effect 3. It was included in the collector’s editions of the game and is available on each platform’s respective digital store. In it, Commander Shepherd receives word that Cerberus, the pro-human ne’er-do-wells, has unearthed Prothean artifacts on Eden Prime. Whatever they’ve found is said to be important and could aid Shepherd in his quest to defeat the Reapers. What he finds is much more important than simple artifacts though, it’s a living Prothean frozen in time.
Mandatorily joining Shepherd is Liara T’Soni, the resident Prothean expert. With her intellect and Shepherd’s insight into the Protheans (thanks to the visions he received in the first game on non-other than Eden Prime), they’re able to piece together how to release the Prothean from his contraption and keep him alive. As the crew searches the dig site, they discover evidence of Cerberus troops attacking civilians, a puzzling move that reveals ulterior motives for the dastardly group and ties into their work in Mass Effect 3 proper.
When the Prothean is revitalized he joins Shepherd to take the fight to the Reapers personally, after all, Javik is extremely distraught upon learning of the events of the past 50,000 years. Back on the Normandy, Javik answers many questions one might have about the Protheans, such as Liara, but what I got a kick out of the most was hearing other people’s reactions to him. When using him as a squad mate, people would occasionally reference his presence and the conversations that ensued were interesting.
As far as combat goes, I used him quite a bit after he joined up, but he’s fallen by the wayside now that I’ve found my “go to” teammates. He uses biotic powers like slam and pull so he’s still of use to my biotic-less soldier Shepherd. Javik also brings along a new assault rifle, one of Prothean origin. It operates differently from just about every other weapon in that it doesn’t require ammo. It had a meter that depleted when used, but if I used the gun properly and didn’t exhaust its charge, it’d fully recharge. Plus it fired a neon laser beam that melted enemies and that’s pretty cool.
I’d recommend From Ashes. It doesn’t add to Mass Effect 3’s plot in any substantial way but playing through it will provide players a deeper understanding of the Protheans. The ancient civilization was influential in shaping the universe and they’re often mentioned, but details on them have always been a little murky. Beyond gaining a deeper understanding of Mass Effect’s lore, gaining a new squad mate is a great perk and personally I really like the new assault rifle.
March 14, 2012
Originally released for the Sega Master System in 1988, Phantasy Star was Sega’s attempt to duplicate the role-playing game format standardized by Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Unlike those games, Phantasy Star is set in the future and in space, although the execution of this setting is poor (treasure chests and fantasy outfits). Still, for those interested in a challenging quest that requires heavy player involvement with little narrative reward, Phantasy Star shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of the previously mentioned titans of the genre.
As Alis watches her brother die, she listens to his final request: kill the evil king Lassic and set things right in the Algol Solar System. Alis’ quest for revenge begins on the forest rich Palma, continues on the arid Motavia, and leads her to the icy Dezoris before finally heading back to Palma and defeating Lassic. Along the way she builds a party of like-minded individuals including the feline Myau, Odin, a warrior turned to stone by Medusa, and the wizard Noah. Getting these adventurers to join Alis’ party was no easy task however.
Gathering leads on these individuals required Alis to chat up everyone she met, and required me to keep a record of what they said. Heck, without the NPCs doling out such vital information, I’d have little reference for towns and dungeons, items, and even where I should be heading. Phantasy Star wasn’t a game I could passively enjoy; if I didn’t keep a record of acquired knowledge or chart out maps on paper, I’d never have beaten Phantasy Star without resorting to a FAQ, which I still did.
Like every other console RPG from the era, I viewed towns and the overworld from a top-down perspective, granting me a large view of the game at a time. But, when Alis entered dungeons the perspective changed and I saw them from her eyes. Without a large view of dungeons, I had a hard time navigating them without getting lost. Some were small enough that I could get through them without much trouble, yet others were so large and filled with traps that it’d take hours if I persisted with trial and error.
An RPG like Phantasy Star wouldn’t be complete without battles and character progression and it has both! Like its contemporaries, Phantasy Star has a simplistic battle system. Battles occurred randomly as I explored the overworld and caves, and these were also viewed from the first-person perspective. I had few options and the two that really mattered were fight and magic. I had multiple types of magic; what I found most effective was the healing kind although there were helpful spells that exited my party from caves or returned them to towns; on top of powerful damage dealing magic. The order of events seemed fairly random, sometimes I’d attack an enemy first, while other times I’d fight the exact same enemy type and they’d attack first; characters had no speed stat.
I didn’t find the early portion of the game very enjoyable. When I started out, my party consisted solely of Alis and in her early state she could only fight a couple of battles before having to be healed. As I accumulated better equipment and experience enemies began fearing me. Especially once I increased my party size. Grinding for experience and mesetas (money) took up most of my time with the game, and that’s just how these older games are. It’s not a bad thing; in fact once my party could withstand a lot of punishment and equally deal it out I enjoyed returning to caves and building up a small fortune. But doing that over the course of twenty or so hours doesn’t appeal to everyone and in fact I ran out of steam at the end of the game.
I liked exploring the caves from the first-person perspective. It seems like a remarkable technical feat considering when Phantasy Star came out. But, keeping track of where I was, was very difficult, especially when caves began growing in size and they had trap floors dropping me a level. I also enjoyed having to personally piece together what my next step was through NPCs, although the lack of character or plot development wasn’t what enticed me to continue playing, it was strengthening my characters. I battled and battled and battled some more and empowered my party to great strengths and this was pleasurable. Battles were very simple, but I was able to speed through the menus and overpower enemies once my party members were of high levels and equipped with good gear. I did run out of steam in the end however. I tend to do that, probably because I’ve proven my strength in the game and the payoff I’ll get for completing an “ancient” RPG like Phantasy Star won’t be revelatory. Still, Phantasy Star was enjoyable, as long as I had the gumption to get involved.
February 27, 2012
The final piece of downloadable content for Mass Effect 2, Arrival, leads directly into Mass Effect 3 and explained away some of the confusion I had after playing the demo for the trilogy’s finale.
Admiral Hackett reaches out to Commander Shepherd and asks him to undertake a rescue mission solo. An agent of Hackett’s has been working in Batarian space and has uncovered substantial evidence relating to the arrival of the Reapers. She has been apprehended by the Batarians however and is currently in prison. The Batarians and humans have a frayed relationship and if Hackett sent in a squad, this would cause turmoil; much like the relationship between the USA and Pakistan when a special forces squad took out Osama bin Laden. This relationship is why Hackett is asking Shepherd to go it alone. Hackett explains that it’s better for the operation to be viewed as the act of an individual rescuing a friend, rather than an act by the Alliance itself.
So, Shepherd sneaks into the prison and rescues Dr. Amanda Kenson and the two then battle their way out and back onto the asteroid that houses Dr. Kenson’s base. When they arrive Shepherd is shocked to see what Dr. Kenson has found – a Reaper artifact, and one that’s out in the open. Shepherd is immediately worried that everyone on the base has been indoctrinated as Saren had been in Mass Effect; Dr. Kenson claims that’s not the case and they begin discussing the importance of her find.
What Dr. Kenson has gathered relates to the Reapers arrival through the mass relays. Her crew had developed a plan to crash the asteroid her base resided on into the nearby mass relay, preventing the Reapers from entering the solar system. However, they had a change of plans because they had been indoctrinated. They overtake Shepherd who wakes up days later as his window of opportunity to save the day is shrinking. Shepherd proceeds to blast his way through the indoctrinated Alliance members until he reaches a lacking conclusion.
One of the hallmarks of the Mass Effect games has been the ability to shape Shepherd and the universe around him through key decisions. Arrival finishes in a way that seems (almost) ideal for a chance to make hefty moral decision but whimpers out, in spite of an explosion.
Arrival leads directly into Mass Effect 3 (despite the two year gap between games) and explains away my confusion over the soon to be released finale’s opening. Arrival is heavily combat skewed and not having Shepherd’s crew is pretty lame. It’s probably ideal to play Arrival to fully understand Mass Effect 3, but compared to the three other DLC packs for Mass Effect 2, it’s my least favorite. Plus I’ve explained much of the DLC anyways so go figure.
February 21, 2012
Remember when I was ate up with Mass Effect and I played everything I could, including the DLC for Mass Effect 2 in a few month span? Well, to prepare for the release of Mass Effect 3 I figured it was time to revisit Mass Effect 2 and play through the two remaining pieces of DLC I saved. Luckily for me, I probably left the very best one to begin with.
Lair of the Shadow Broker sees Commander Shepherd receiving valuable information on the whereabouts of the mysterious figure whose influence Shepherd has occasionally felt. He, or perhaps it, is similar to a gang lord that deals in information. He has a supply chain consisting of an innumerable amount of henchmen that is able to span the galaxy and gather information. With this supply chain, he’s able to control information so well that little is known about him; it helps that no one who has seen him has lived to tell the tale.
When Shepherd left Liara T’Soni on Illium in Mass Effect 2, he left her as she continued her search for the shadow broker’s whereabouts. Liara has been tracking the information overlord with a vengeance, believing him to be the cause of a partner’s death. When Shepherd receives the information on the shadow broker, he naturally thinks of Liara. Thinking the information is too good to be obtained by just anyone, Liara believes the source of the info is her previously thought dead partner, giving her even more reason to ally with Shepherd again.
Before leaving the financial capital of the universe, Shepherd and his squad deal with the can of worms that hunting an information magnate opens up. An assassination attempt on Liara keeps her and Shepherd separated, but it’s not long before his squad, and Tela Vasir, an asari Spectre meet back up with Liara in an enemy-filled skyscraper. That Spectre double-crosses them, leading to a chase scene between the towering skyscrapers of Illium. This chase scene was very fun and reminiscent of similar futuristic chase scenes from popular science fiction movies. Liara and Shepherd eventually catch Tela, but not before waging battles against more henchmen and passing through a high-end brothel. Tela was a very strong adversary and I had a hard time with this boss fight – I was playing on the second hardest difficulty level however. Afterwards Shepherd gave the most fantastic line of dialogue (paragon choice) when Tela took a hostage. He subsequently chastised Tela with underwhelming reasoning that, when applied to Shepherd himself, doesn’t hold water.
With Shepherd, his squad, and Liara all together again, their search for the shadow broker begins in earnest and leads them to a planet with extremely harsh weather patterns. The shadow broker resides in an enormous starship that remains hidden in an ongoing storm. Landing on the starship, they have to deal with the shadow broker’s henchmen before gaining access to the interior, at which point they have a few more quick bouts with yet more henchmen before finally meeting the shadow broker.
The shadow broker hails from a pre-spaceflight race of aliens that are ferociously deadly, quick learners, yet they’re unable to cooperate with other races, let alone each other. Hence, the shadow broker represents the first (and possibly only) time players will get to see this race of alien. The ensuing battle was representative of a lot of video game boss fights; figure out the boss’ pattern, exploit the boss’ weaknesses, repeat two more times. Not that that’s bad, I really liked this boss fight; it was balanced much better compared to the battle against Tela, and it gave Shepherd a chance to flex his melee skills.
Lair of the Shadow Broker concludes with a fantastic role reprisal that should have major consequences for the upcoming Mass Effect 3. Thanks to the shadow broker’s diligent record keeping, there is plenty of fun information to sift through on Shepherd’s squad and other important characters in the game after the conclusion. And there is an epilogue of sorts with Liara and Shepherd having a heart-to-heart conversation of their strengths and weaknesses and the lack of clarity relating to what the future has in store for every living being.
Lair of the Shadow Broker was a lengthy addition to Mass Effect 2 with a conclusion whose effects should be felt throughout the remainder of the series. The DLC is well worth the price and should be required playing for anyone with a copy of Mass Effect 2.
February 15, 2012
Of the games announced for release this year, Mass Effect 3 is easily the game I’m most looking forward to. It’s a series I only fairly recently began playing – I completed the first two games in early 2011, but it’s a series I’ve quickly become infatuated with.
After a minute or two of customizing Commander Shepherd, the game proper began. Shepherd watches as a young boy plays with a toy before he is quickly ushered to speak with important political figures. Having not played the final piece of DLC for Mass Effect 2 (Arrival) I was a little confused on why Shepherd wasn’t in the position of power he formerly was. Whatever happened in Arrival, Shepherd stood trial for it and Lieutenant Anderson had a role in defending him. During this meeting, the Reapers land on Earth and begin causing havoc. Shepherd was brought in for a conversation on what to do and there were a few more times during the demo that I had conversations, although my options in these were very limited.
This stage sees Anderson and Shepherd fighting their way through groups of the zombie-like husks in order to reach the Normandy and escape. Anderson’s plan is for Shepherd to return to the Citadel and convince the other alien races that the Reapers are here and the only way anyone is going to survive is to work together. During this scene, Anderson and Shepherd battled husks and scaled destroyed buildings as the enormous Reapers launched attacks. It took about twenty minutes all in all and at the end, Anderson decided to stay on Earth and lend a hand to the fight on Earth. This stage had a strong subtext that the heroes were not going to be able to save everyone and I imagine there’ll be dramatic outcomes to the choices Shepherd makes throughout the game. As Shepherd flies away, he watches the young boy from earlier board a doomed escape vehicle.
The demo had another stage, this one farther into the game. It allowed me to upgrade Shepherd and his party of Garrus and Liara from the ground up, choosing which stats and abilities to upgrade. The gang arrived on the Salarian home planet in order to rescue a female krogan – an important concept for anyone familiar with the series. This stage had many familiar faces including Wrex, back in cahoots with Shepherd, and Mordin, the brilliant Salarian doctor. This stage was totally action-orientated and reintroduced me to Cerberus. Cerberus, for whatever reason, is trying to get to the female krogan, and it seems like they’re going to be a constant pain in Shepherd’s butt. This stage had many more weapons than the previous one and allowed me to use my party’s abilities. It didn’t take long for me to develop powerful combinations and become the Spectre I once was.
Mass Effect 3’s combat was really responsive and fast-paced, and blending my party’s weapons and abilities is still super fun. Even though it’s not an improvement, the information I got from targeting enemies was still super helpful; knowing their health and shield levels was vital to developing combinations of weapons and abilities. It seems like there’s a multitude of ways to spec Shepherd and his group still and I can’t wait to dive into the full game and end the trilogy when it releases March 6, 2012.