Devil Survivor Overclocked (3DS) – Review

devil_survivor_overclocked_logoI purchased Devil Survivor Overclocked on sale at Halloween last year. Having only recently discovered Atlus’s excellent Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series of JRPGs, I’ve since made it my business to play through as much of their enormous back catalogue as I can. Overclocked is a 3DS remake of a 2009 Nintendo DS game (hence Devil Survivor), brought out for the 3DS in 2011 in Japan and the USA and 2013 in Europe. It’s a satisfying and competent story-driven tactical RPG that, while it was never going to set the world on fire, is a reliable pickup for any RPG fan in possession of a 3DS. It achieved a decent amount of commercial and critical success and even spawned a sequel and an anime series.

Devil Survivor is a spinoff from the Shin Megami Tensei series, and deals with the same kind of themes you’d expect to encounter in a SMT game (demons; friendship; Tokyo teenagers trying to avert the apocalypse). The game has an idiosyncratic structure. The bulk of the “action” takes place in tactical SRPG missions in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics, where your party engage demons and other hostiles in parties of three. In between missions, you choose between a list of locations, some of which have events associated with them which can advance the story, provide new information or flavour, or trigger a fight. These options each use up a half hour of in-game time, and you only have a limited amount of time to make friends, save lives, and kill demons (just like real life, right?). You’ll get to make choices at times between different events, or in conversations, which can have significant consequences.

Combat is pretty good fun for the most part. The demons you encounter are varied, and some of them have creative design and a surprising amount of personality. Like other Atlus games, much is made of elemental strengths and weaknesses, and you have to try and build your party accordingly to prepare for fights and make sure you’re covered. This contributes to one of the game’s weaknesses, though,as many boss fights are punishingly hard and practically require you to pursue a specific tactic to advance. In the early game, progress is relatively straightforward, but at a certain point the game will make you suffer if you thought you were going to get away without grinding “optional” content.

Each party member is accompanied by up to two demons, and you can learn and equip a variety of offensive and defensive moves. Demons themselves are recruited for the most part in a purely mercenary system whereby you can bid for their services against computer-controlled characters, or exercise a hassle-free “buy it now” option. You can also fuse demons to create new, more powerful creatures, which is an established mechanic in SMT games and a surprisingly deep system here. There are some exhaustive guides on the internet which show just how much work was put into designing this, but fortunately you can generally come up with pretty decent results through a bit of intuition and trial and error. I found the demon fusion system in Devil Survivor to be quite satisfying, and I welcomed the fact you don’t have to recruit demons through laborious trial and error conversations in combat. Sometimes a simple cash transaction can be in everyone’s interest.

As for story, Devil Survivor Overclocked has an interesting set-up whereby the centre of Tokyo (inside the Yamanote line) has been locked down due to a demon infestation. The story is quite detailed (for which read: there’s a lot of exposition), and you gradually learn about the machinations of the various human and supernatural factions involved. On the whole, I found the story to be well-paced: although the supernatural shenanigans can feel overwrought, for the most part this is balanced against the real-world disintegration going on inside the lawless lockdown area that’s been overrun by demons. I particularly liked the sophisticated and intelligent integration of mythological content into the story, which seems to be a hallmark of Atlus’s games. Having read both The Golden Bough and The White Goddess last year, I felt quite smug understanding the references to the various demons and sub-plots going on in the, at times, convoluted story. It’s rare for a video game to make these kinds of literary allusions – or at least, to make them in a way that’s sincere and meaningful to the plot and action.

The other cultural references are quite apparent, and without wanting to labour the point, the understandable Japanese preoccupation with urban obliteration is a central theme here. I also felt a (very welcome) influence of Death Note, not least in how some of the characters can see “death clocks” above the heads of people who only have a few days to live. As far as other video games go, Devil Survivor seems to be often compared to the highly overrated Square Enix RPG, The World Ends With You, but as Atlus have pointed out, Square’s game itself made use of certain tropes and devices that have been well-established in Atlus games for a long time. Overclocked’s story is almost entirely revealed over the course of lengthy talking-head scenarios that have something of the feel of a Japanese “light novel”. Remarkably, all of these sections are fully-voiced, which is no mean feat as we are talking about a very significant amount of dialogue here. Most of the main characters are voiced well, but some of the secondary characters will annoy you (see: Haru and, to a much greater extent, Midori). You know the voice acting is bad when you start trying to kill a character off. We’re not talking Final Fantasy X levels of awfulness, but it still stands out.

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If anyone has an explanation why the writers refer to this character like this, I’m curious to know

The narrative is rather unusually structured in that the main character is given a certain amount of freedom in how he approaches the central events of the game, and what you choose really does have a dramatic impact on what happens, and on who lives and who dies. (Telltale Games should be taking notes here.) There are something like six or seven endings, some of which diverge significantly, and several of the endings trigger extra content that was added in the remastered (Overclocked) 3DS edition. A first playthrough will take you 40 hours and change, so there’s plenty of content. Most people are unlikely to have the time or inclination to do an entire second run through the game, but the option is there. If you’re a 3DS owner who’s run out of RPGs, and especially if you’re a fan of Persona or Shin Megami Tensei, this is a game you should definitely check out.

7/10

Resident Evil 0 HD (PS4) – Review

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Set the night before the infamous Mansion Incident depicted in the first Resident Evil game, Zero is a prequel which provides some extra backstory to the sinister Umbrella corporation and more context to RE 1 & 2. It was first released for Nintendo’s Gamecube in 2002, but was recently given the HD treatment by Capcom and marketed alongside the remastered version of Resident Evil. Zero received a fair critical reception when it was first released: it boasted impressive graphics and featured a couple of new gameplay mechanics to shake up the traditional RE formula. Resident Evil games had normally allowed you to play through as one of two protagonists, but Zero instead included a “partner system” which saw the player in charge of two characters simultaneously. But with the passage of time, how does Zero stand up now alongside the rest of the franchise?

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Zero starts with the player controlling Rebecca Chambers, the improbably young 18-year-old medic attached to STARS Bravo team. Rebecca soon bumps into the muscle-bound escaped convict Billy Coen, a 26-year-old ex-Marine sentenced to death for mass murder. In terms of tone and setting, Zero is a pretty dour affair, and the writing doesn’t invest either character with much personality.  Rebecca will be familiar to anyone who’s played through Chris Redfield’s story in the original Resident Evil, in which she’s a secondary and largely passive presence. In contrast, here Rebecca is the heroine, but although likable enough she doesn’t really get much development. Her vague lack of personality kind of makes sense in that she’s not much more than a child, but Zero still feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Billy is a pretty generic foil who has largely been forgotten by the rest of the franchise.

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For the most part Zero plays out like the first Resident Evil, but the controls have been loosened somewhat in the remaster meaning the game is easier to play. The “partner system” was one of the game’s selling points when it was first released, but then and now its execution leaves something to be desired. The AI that controls your partner is not very good, and you only have limited control over what your partner does. You can set them to attack or to remain idle, which has the predictable results that they either shoot wildly and waste precious ammo, or don’t do anything while a zombie munches on you. Although the system might seem well-suited to co-op, sadly this wasn’t included (and co-op has always been a controversial inclusion in RE games anyway). Moreover, your partner will often block you, fail to follow you through doors or onto elevators, etc.

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The developers did manage to put the partner system to use in some of the game’s puzzles, but it’s somewhat damning to consider that the system is most effective when the two characters are in completely different places. Rebecca and Billy have different abilities, but this doesn’t really come off either. Billy has a lighter, while Becky can mix herbs (Billy must be one of the only people in-universe who can’t mix a green herb with a red one). Billy is much larger and stronger than Rebecca, meaning he can take more damage, and also that he can move objects Rebecca can’t. In practice, this felt a bit lame, as I preferred to control Rebecca for most of the game, clearing areas solo and only summoning Billy to pick up items or move some furniture around.

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Zero features the dreaded inventory management of the early RE games, with each character being able to carry six items. You can transfer items between characters, but there are no longer item boxes to store your stuff. Instead, you can drop items on the floor. This is sometimes convenient, as it means you don’t have to keep shuttling items back and forth from the item box, but in practice save rooms tend to act as your item hubs anyway and you just end up dropping loads of stuff all over the floor. Which is about as elegant as it sounds. It also feels like Capcom had a bit of trouble balancing the game’s difficulty around the partner system. In theory, having two characters should make things easier, but in practice your partner is often more or less a liability. As in other RE games health and ammo are often extremely scarce, and even experienced Resident Evil players may find Zero’s punishing midsection to be harrowing work. Only towards the end does the game become more generous with ammo, herbs, and ink ribbons, and that’s probably just because nobody would ever complete the damn thing otherwise.

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Resident Evil Zero is not a game without merit. Certain sections of the game, especially the opening, are quite atmospheric, and the old Resident Evil formula has an inherent appeal which will probably be enough to help most series fans get through it at least once. The graphics are outstanding, and at times I thought it looked better than the HD remasters of 1 and 4, which are both far superior games. But I found myself much less tolerant of the game’s weaknesses than I was when I first played it on the Gamecube a dozen or so years ago. In particular, the antiquated AI and punishing difficulty are likely to drive most players today to distraction. Zero will still hold interest for some hoping to mine it for lore about the origins of the T-Virus, but even this material is a bit disappointing, and one can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience. If anything, Resident Evil Zero’s most enduring importance is probably as evidence of why Capcom had to radically change the style of the franchise. Zero sold over a million copies when it was released, and its remasters have done slightly better, but it’s still one of the most under-performing games in the franchise (even worse than a curiosity like Umbrella Chronicles). New series fans drawn in by Resident Evil 7 should definitely check out Resident Evil HD, but should feel free to give Zero a miss.

6/10

Cheers (season four) – Review

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Season four marks a return to form for Cheers, after an uneven third season. We witness the arrival of Woody Boyd, played by a youthful and blonde-haired Woody Harrelson, who replaces Coach as Sam’s bartender. Otherwise the main cast remains the same, and the storylines are largely similar too, although there are a few more ambitious multi-episode arcs which take us out of the bar as we see the characters a bit more involved in life outside the bar. But the eponymous bar, and the relations and sense of community it generates, continue to be the heart that drives the show’s action.

I have been a Woody Harrelson fan for many years. He’s a bald badass with effortless charm and charisma, and the right age to act as an unthreatening role model. But while I was always aware of his involvement in Cheers I’d never really seen any episodes that I could recall. So his appearance as a major character was very welcome, and I personally think Woody replacing Coach heralds a big improvement in the show’s quality. Woody plays a similar role to Coach, being a rather nice-but-dim barman who arrives in Cheers from rural Indiana where he had been Coach’s penpal. (They literally sent each other pens in the mail.) His involvement at first is mainly confined to the same kind of one-liners as Coach, often based around the same kind of misunderstandings, but it works better both because it fits with Woody’s “fresh off the farm” persona, and also because Harrelson’s acting and delivery is more in keeping with the generally modern feel of the show, without the kind of overacting Nicholas Colasanto was prone to.

As in season three, Carla’s character remains one of the weaker parts of the show. Although the other characters don’t necessarily show sophisticated development, they do at least display some variation over time, but Carla is always the same sneering cynic, motivated mainly by hostility to Diane – even after that character is put through the wringer on more than one occasion. I don’t have a major problem with this in theory, but in practice it starts to grate when you have such a high episode count. The episodes that centre around Carla are generally the weakest, but fortunately there aren’t that many.

Frasier is a major secondary character in season four and definitely one of the high points of the series, though he feels underused. That of course would eventually change, and I’m looking forward to watching Frasier (the series) again, this time with a better knowledge of the character’s history and backstory. Norm and Cliff are pretty much ever-present in this season, which is fine, and Cliff in particular sees to become more and more eccentric and deluded. Carla’s best moments generally consist of barbs directed at him.

As ever, Sam and Diane are the main characters, and I was pleased that the writers seem to find a way to keep Sam’s character in a sort of balance where he’s a dick but still likable enough never to fully lose the audience’s sympathy, which was a regular problem in seasons two and three. That said, the central dynamic around which the stories weave is starting to wear a little thin. I’m not sure exactly when things change, but I can certainly see there will eventually be a need to freshen things up.

Sometimes you really need some reliable TV to provide a comforting diversion and, as this show’s famous intro says, help you forget about your worries and troubles. Just as a friendly bar can provide, for a while, a haven of fellow feeling for people who are lonely or lost, so the best TV shows can help distract and console you when your mind needs a break. Most of the time, Cheers is just such a show. It’s fourth season is a welcome return to form that I wasn’t fully expecting, but for which I was very grateful.

9/10