Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS) – Review

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2016 was the year of the Pokemon. Pokemon Go was one of the cultural phenomena of the year, the free-to-play mobile game generating an exceptional level of interest that briefly captured the public imagination. Of course, Pokemon Go was developed and published by Niantic, rather than Nintendo, but Nintendo still benefited from the massive exposure their franchise received. Pokemon Go’s runaway success undoubtedly helped sales of Pokemon Sun/Moon, the fully-fledged Pokemon RPG released for 3DS last year. Nintendo shipped over 12 million copies of Sun and Moon in 2016 (over 15 million at time of writing), making it the best-selling game of the year, two million clear of Fifa 17.

The Pokemon bug got me too. Before Sun, I hadn’t played a Pokemon game since the one that started it all, Pokemon Red/Blue, almost twenty years ago. Although the series is often associated with the famous catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”, there is more to Pokemon than an addictive compulsion to catch cute monsters. The Pokemon games – at least the main-series RPGs released on handhelds, if not necessarily all the spinoffs – have always been robust and well-crafted, even if (by all accounts) few have recaptured the perfect balance and pacing of the originals. Sun/Moon were generally well-received by critics, and with their cheery aesthetic and legions of cute monsters, this is a hard game to dislike. But while it reminded me why I have such fond memories of the franchise, it never quite lived up to my hopes.

Pokemon Sun/Moon are set in the archipelago Alola, a new, Hawaii-influenced setting for the series. This establishes a bright, sunny and colourful tone, likely to prove appealing to all but the most morbid of players. Alola also features quite some biodiversity, and there are about 300 monsters in the game. This means not all of the 800 or so creatures in the franchise are present, but there are still some new ones in addition to “Alolan” variants on familiar creatures. The quality of the monster design varies a little, and like many people I strongly favour the “original” Pokemon cast; but I suppose there needs to be some variation, otherwise I might as well have just played Red/Blue again. As a solo player, I was irritated to find some monsters won’t evolve without trading with another person. Believe it or not, as a man in his 30s I don’t know many people who play Pokemon, and I can’t rightly start hanging around outside schools asking people to trade. Thus I was never able to evolve the likes of Machoke and Kadabra into their final forms. I get that playing and trading with others is part of the game, and the developers want to get you interacting with other players in the world; but I just found it a shame not to be able to get the evolutions I wanted.

For a game as aesthetically cheerful and upbeat as Pokemon Sun/Moon – the closest thing to a holiday without actually taking one – the gameplay mechanics are surprisingly liable to frustrate. Wild monsters can summon a partner to help them in a fight, and you can’t throw a Pokeball to catch a monster unless it’s on its own. Monsters can also summon a partner on the same turn you take one of them out, leading to a near endless supply of reinforcements you have to eliminate (which can make you fell pretty bad, too, like you’re killing a bunch of wildlife for no reason). Of course, Pokemon can also break out of a Pokeball, and you often need to make several throws before a successful catch. This means random fights in the wild can go on for much longer than you would expect, at least if you are bothered with trying to catch new monsters (and who isn’t?) At the same time, the actual story progression for the first 20 or so hours is really easy – even boss fights feel trivial – and I didn’t find the artificial “challenge” derived from the frustrating and random catch system to be very rewarding.

As far as presentation goes, the music is chirpy but some themes can become a little grating. On the other hand, the graphics are impressive: as well as being bright, bold and full of colour, they’re surprisingly crisp and detailed. It’s a joy to see such a nice-looking game on a handheld, and it’s a tribute to Nintendo’s 3DS hardware. To get it running smoothly they’ve dispensed with 3D effects – a move in line with the recent release of the 2DS and 2DS XL. I still think the 3D effect is quite cool when it’s used, but Nintendo ditching it does encourage you to think of it as something of a gimmick. It’s funny now to read game reviews from five years ago which criticize inadequate or unimaginative use of 3D, when the Big N themselves seem to have abandoned it.

As for the 3DS’s other features, the bottom screen is mainly used for a world map, but it’s annoying that about half the screen is taken up with the googly eyes of Rotom Dex (the Pokemon who lives in your Pokedex). You can use the touch screen for selecting commands, or for stroking your monsters after battle to reward them, cure status ailments, and increase your affinity. I tended not to do that much just because it made me feel guilty for playing a game instead of bestowing affection on my actual cats. That said, the relationship between people and animals is at the heart of the Pokemon experience, and if the game helps nurture childish affection for animals, then that can only be a good thing. It’s also nice to think of children being able to spend time with Pokemon as surrogate pets if they’re not allowed or able to have real ones at home.

This is a game heavily marketed at young kids, of course, perhaps explaining the very low difficulty (a shame Nintendo didn’t adopt the same policy when I was a kid). Only towards the end do you have to deploy much in the way of strategy or grinding, and the rock-paper-scissors elemental system is quite straightforward. The main story is quite short and simple, clocking in at just over 30 hours. There’s a fair bit left to do in the post-game, but unless you’re really into context-less Pokemon battles and filling out your Pokedex, it’s unlikely to grab you. The game also has lots of little side mechanics – like developing little islands to house your Pokemon – but none feel very compelling, or are well-integrated into the core gameplay, meaning they’re easy to ignore.

I noticed a couple of other curious things as well. One was a literal way the game has of describing your actions after you acquire an item, explaining each and every time that you “pick up an item and put it away in the item pocket”. It soon felt like a bizarre pastiche of Hemingway. I was also put off by Team Skull, the rival faction you encounter over much of the game’s story. Team Skull are a bunch of generic ne’er do wells who are cruel to Pokemon and engage in various low-level crimes and disorder in Alola. They have a very “ghetto” style, wearing gangbanger outfits and using a rap music motif. The weird thing is, although Alola is an ethnically diverse place with lots of light- and dark-skinned people, every single person in Team Skull is white, giving it the profile of a racist gang. I don’t know whether this was conscious, and whether the developers were scared of being accused of racism if they had non-white members indulging in stereotypically “gangster” behaviour. It may just be an accident because the Team Skull “grunts” (as they’re called) all have the same character model.

In the end, Pokemon Sun/Moon is an enjoyable game with a good heart, and one that’s worth playing. 3DS owners are, of course, spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and there are plenty of other games that can offer better and more sophisticated stories and gameplay. But there aren’t many that can show you more love.

7/10

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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

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (3DS) – Review

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In the strange and persistent absence of a new Advance Wars game for the 3DS, I was grateful to The Otaku Judge for recommending Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars to me earlier this year. Shadow Wars is a military-themed SRPG which might help scratch the itch for those hankering for a new AW game. Rather than gathering resources and building units, Shadow Wars gives you control of a team of around six operatives who level up over the course of the game. In this sense, it’s a bit more like XCOM or Fire Emblem, with an important difference: if any of your units die, you fail the mission, as you can’t recruit new units to your squad.

Shadow Wars is part of the Tom Clancy universe which includes the Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell franchises. I’ve never been a big fan of these games, partly because I don’t like quasi-realistic first-person shooters. I suck at this style of game, and would much rather play something more slapstick and unserious like the Hitman series. Also, the Tom Clancy games are generally based around a very gung-ho valorization  of American military power which sticks in my craw. Shadow Wars is no different, as the story sees your team of American ‘Ghosts’ carry out various black-op missions in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. The pretext for this is a cliche-ridden tale of Russian military and mercenary groups following a programme of violence and aggression to terrorize their peace-loving neighbours, and the Ghosts are the only thing standing against them. It’s basically a neo-con fantasy, which some players will be into, but it’s not for me.

As far as the dialogue and exposition goes, the writing is eminently unimaginative, with your squad engaging in by-the-numbers military banter and characters largely conforming to strict archetypes. But the draw here is the gameplay rather than the story or the script, and Shadow Wars largely does a good job of delivering a satisfying SRPG experience. Although your squad only consists of a few members, they level up after almost every mission, with linear but very long skill trees. You can then customize their loadouts so they can specialize in, for example, anti-personnel or anti-armour weapons. The game takes a distinctive approach to SRPG fireams combat: unlike something like XCOM, your characters can never miss, but have strict range requirements. So, a sniper has better range than an assault trooper, but has more restricted movement. If the character is out of range, they can’t shoot. It’s a simple solution, and removes the element of frustration when your sniper misses a 95% chance-to-hit shot for the umpteenth time, like in XCOM. You also get access to explosives, drones, and so on, as well as unlocking special attacks which can really help turn the odds against your opponents. It’s sort of like real life when the technologically superior force can just call in an airstrike and wipe out half the map.

The greater certainty in the gameplay perhaps contributes to Shadow Wars being a relatively easy game. The campaign is surprisingly lengthy, but is relatively light on challenge, and anyone who has completed games like Fire Emblem or XCOM should probably dive right into the top difficulty setting, Elite. I played it on Veteran and failed maybe one or two missions in the whole campaign. As you progress through the story you unlock Skirmish missions, which are usually based around a certain idea (hold a position with a group of snipers, complete a mission with only engineers, etc). Some of these are quite cool and there is a decent amount of content here. If it was released now, most of those skirmish maps would probably be paid DLC. However, I got bored before finishing them all. There is also a versus multiplayer element, but I didn’t try that. As the game is now five years old or more, I’d be surprised if there was much of a ‘scene’ around it.

The environments are quite well-rendered, and the game features some in-engine cutscenes which look surprisingly good in 3D. There is also a fair amount of character art which is pretty decent for the most part. On the other hand, the character animations in missions are rather minimalist, as are the tinny sound effects, and the game’s score is forgettable and generic. All that said, Shadow Wars is still likely to deliver a reasonably engaging experience for anyone looking for a portable, military-styled tactical RPG. And, considering that 3DS games generally hold their value pretty well, Shadow Wars is comparatively cheap now and should only take a nibble out of your bank account. Just don’t expect it to match up to the offerings of Intelligent Systems or Firaxis.

7/10

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (3DS) – Review

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Majora’s Mask is widely regarded as one of the best Zelda games ever made, but because it was released towards the very end of the N64’s life cycle, comparatively few people actually played it when it was first released. So it’s a good thing that Nintendo gave it a proper re-make for the 3DS last year. Having never played it before, and aware of its high critical standing, playing Majora’s Mask was one of my top priorities when I acquired a 3DS earlier this year.

Majora’s Mask eschews the older version of Link who figured prominently in Ocarina of Time and later games like Twilight Princess, focusing instead on Young Link. The story seems to pick up where Ocarina left off, and finds Young Link travelling the world trying to find his ‘friend’. I couldn’t figure out from the game who this was supposed to be, but apparently it’s Na’vi, Link’s erstwhile fairy companion. During his travels he is accosted by the mischievous ‘Skull Kid’, who steals a bunch of Link’s stuff, leaves him stranded, and turns him into a Deku Scrub! What a jerk. Link’s adventure starts by trying to return to normal, but soon expands into a mission to save the land of Termina, a kind of parallel dimension inhabited by the Skull Kid as well as a bunch of other characters who are more or less familiar from Ocarina of Time.

Majora’s Mask’s world occupies an odd place, being quite reminiscent of Hyrule in many respects, and containing a lot of its iconography and races, but also seeming quite separate and distinct. This has given rise to a slew of fan theories about the true nature of Termina, its inhabitants, and its mythology, ranging from dream-state theories to how the whole game is a metaphor for Link’s sense of grief. This all seems a bit excessive to me: the game was made in a single year, heavily recycling a lot of the aesthetic and technical assets of Ocarina of Time, and there is a simple practical explanation for the perceived tension or ‘weirdness’, in that the designers faced a challenge in making the game artistically and thematically distinctive from Ocarina while still relying on that game’s engine and art pool.

What is unique about Majora’s Mask is its three-day time cycle. Link is tasked with preventing an apocalypse, as Skull Kid is pulling the moon towards Termina, threatening to crash it into the surface and obliterate all life. It’s a terrifying prospect, enhanced by the deeply disturbing appearance of the moon itself. Fortunately, Link can use his ocarina to turn back time, meaning he has a seemingly endless supply of three-day cycles to complete the various tasks necessary to stop Skull Kid’s plans. The time-travelling mechanic is well-executed, and integrated into a lot of storylines and side quests.

Majora’s Mask has a somber and at times very sad atmosphere. It’s not just the impending destruction of the world, as if that weren’t bad enough; the game is full of the spirits of people who have died, often in tragic ways, and who are often filled with remorse or regret. Similarly, there are many characters who have lost loved ones, and are filled with pain and loss. Many of the game’s quests involve Link working to help people come to terms with their grief, which can lead to some quite moving moments. At the same time, one of the curious things about the game is that every time you reset the cycle, all these incidental events are reset, meaning everyone goes back to the state they were in before, plunged once more into the midst of their pain and grief.

From a gameplay perspective, this resetting of the gameworld contributes to a certain amount of frustration. Many of the side quests have a specific time limit, as you have to complete a certain task by a certain time in order to leave enough time to move on to the next step of the quest. Sometimes this can be quite arbitrary, for example if you have to wait until the next sunrise or whatever. Considering that in order to even begin certain sidequests, you have to kill a dungeon boss to, say, change the season in an area from winter to summer, this can turn a potentially interesting side mission into a frustrating chore. Moreover, the game has a certain inherent difficulty: this isn’t exactly Dark Souls, but neither is the difficulty trivial, and it has the potential to be a punishing experience for players unfamiliar with older Zelda games.

The fact you are always playing against the clock makes this even more acute. This can create a positive sense of tension, as you race against the clock to get things done, but it can also lead to frustration if you run out of time when trying to complete a long-winded side quest and have to go back to the beginning. Some people won’t mind this, of course, but from a contemporary point of view it is quite a ‘hardcore’ mechanic.

Probably the most interesting thing about Majora’s Mask is its general sense of poignancy and its thematic emphasis on loneliness and companionship, and love and death. It’s a curious mix, and for a company not known for its fondness for ‘mature’ themes, this is an emotionally mature and sophisticated game. In a world where it seems most people don’t get a happy ending, the game emphasizes the value of kindness and compassion in a way that’s all too rare. Although Majora’s Mask is probably not for everyone, it’s certainly a unique and memorable experience.

8/10

Fire Emblem Awakening character guide

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Welcome to my brief guide to the characters of Fire Emblem Awakening. This is an amazing game with a huge roster of characters. Many of them come to you in the course of the main story, but others require you to complete special objectives to meet and recruit them. One of the game’s interesting mechanics is the presence of time-travelling kids from the future who you can recruit by shipping their parents in the present day. Pretty much all of the offspring characters are exceptionally powerful and so giving them ratings is a little pointless; they can all pretty much end up as 10/10. Moreover, there are lots of guides out there already designed to help you max out your team and get the most powerful units possible (such as this one).

In contrast, this guide is a more general overview of the main cast of characters. Because of Awakening’s mechanics, you can generally level up your characters as much as you want, meaning everyone can be useful and there are no downright ‘bad’ characters. However, some require much more work than others, and some are more inherently ‘fun’. This guide attempts to reflect that.

Chrom: 8/10

The main character of the game, Chrom’s default class is ‘Lord’ although he has access to other classes as well. Chrom is useful throughout the game and has good offensive stats and skills/abilities. However, his defense can be a bit lacking, meaning he’s not always the best unit to leave in harm’s way. Nevertheless he’s a fun character to use, which is a good job as you’ll have to use him in pretty much every mission.

Chrom’s main marriage options are a female Avatar or Sumia, both of whom make for very good support partners. In the long run, though, you will probably find Chrom is outshone by many other characters, including his daughter, the other ‘Lord’, Lucina.

Chrom is also very handsome, well-acted and written, and an all-round JRPG hunk.

Avatar: 9/10

The player-created Avatar starts off fairly weak but has enormous growth potential and a very high ceiling. The Avatar, who can be male or female, has access to almost all classes and to very high growth rates, meaning that by the mid and end-game they can be quite a beast. Also their child is basically the strongest character in the game as far as I can tell, and there’s a lot of competition for that spot.

Because the Avatar can be male or female, it feels a bit more generic than other characters, but still has access to many entertaining support conversations and scenarios.

Frederick: 3/10

Frederick is this game’s Marcus, or Jeigan. That is to say, he is a pre-promoted character who is strong in the first few levels but doesn’t make efficient use of experience points. This was a big problem in older Fire Emblem games where you couldn’t grind optional fights to level. However, in Awakening you can fight as much as you want, meaning there is XP for everyone. So, you can use Frederick if you want, but you’ll probably find him to be an underwhelming character in the end.

Frederick is useful in the early levels for protecting teammates, and this is essential on higher difficulties where some of your characters are very fragile. But there are much better units out there to focus on.

Sumia: 8/10

Sumia is your first Pegasus Knight and a very useful character. She has high Speed, Skill, and Luck, and making her a Dark Flier seems like a good choice so she can get Galeforce, enabling her to move and attack twice in one turn. However her HP and strength are a bit low meaning she can be vulnerable, and all-round I found Cordelia to be a better Pegasus Knight. You’ll probably want to use them both.

Sumia is fun and her daughter, Cynthia, is also very entertaining and can become an absolute monster with the right abilities. Cynthia was the daughter of Sumia and Chrom in my playthrough and was the first character to hit the level cap.

Sumia is the default wife of Chrom and will probably end up marrying him in most playthroughs.

Lissa: 4/10

Lissa is Chrom’s sister, and an archetypal healer. Healing with staves is important in the early levels when your access to Vulneraries is quite limited. However later on you will find healing items easier to come by, and characters will find ways to regenerate their own HP, meaning healers are less important. You also don’t really want a roster slot taken up with a dedicated healer most of the time.

Lissa does have access to other classes but her offensive abilities are underwhelming unless you are prepared to put a lot of time into it. It’s probably not worth it in most situations, unless you’re doing an ironman playthrough and got all your other mages killed.

Vaike: 6/10

Vaike is your main axe user and a very entertaining character. He has some of the best voice lines, and often refers to himself in the third person as ‘The Vaike’, or as the nickname he gives himself (which nobody else uses), ‘Teach’.

Vaike is a good guy to have around in the early game, as his high HP makes him a bit tankier. He also has very high strength. However, later on you will find that his low defense means his +5 HP doesn’t help that much, and he can end up surprisingly squishy. What’s more, his low skill and speed means he will miss more often than you would like. It’s a shame, as although he is your main axe user you might not rely on him all that much.

Sully: 7/10

Sully is one of your two Cavaliers, or mounted knights. She is this game’s red knight, which in Fire Emblem terms means she is the more passionate of the two. Sully is useful early on for her high movement and relatively good skill and speed. Overall, I found her stat growth to be quite generic, and low defense and HP made her much less tanky than I want from a Cavalier.

However, after promoting her to a Great Knight, Sully became much more useful and I ended up using her more than Stahl, the green knight. Sully is also quite macho, leading to some entertaining conversations and skits. I married her to Vaike.

Stahl: 6/10

Stahl is Mr Average. He has higher HP and defense than Sully but will find it relatively hard to one-hit-kill enemies in the late game, and often finds it hard to ‘double’ enemies (attack twice in one turn). Much of his character development revolves around him being average at everything, which is not much of a complement. He’s likable enough, but not really worth investing in over better options. I married him to Miriel.

Miriel: 8/10

Miriel is arguably the best of the four mages you get in the main story, with fairly high magic. She is an ‘anima’ mage for the most part, meaning she uses the typical fire, thunder, and wind types. She is very squishy early on, but worth investing in as her magic can be devastating in the lategame. Even then, you won’t want her to leave undefended.

Miriel is an egghead and her conversations revolve around her obsession with study and her lack of social skills. Not a big fan of her personality so I married her to Stahl. Their son is a good mage but not that appealing to me as a character.

Maribelle: 4/10

Maribelle is a Troubador, ie, a mounted healer. This means she has better movement than Lissa but pays for it in slightly worse stats. Overall, she suffers for the same reasons as Lissa, in that dedicated healers aren’t really worth it in the long-run and her offensive capabilities are limited. If you really like her you’ll be able to find ways to use her, but most players will probably not bother.

Maribelle is a snob, and some of her skits and support conversations can be quite funny.

Ricken: 7/10

Ricken is a cheerful, earnest young mage who wants to learn about magic and show everyone what he can do–in other words a tropetastic anime character. He’s quite good, but probably has less magic damage than Miriel, and is also quite squishy. You won’t end up wanting to use both of them, but you won’t really go wrong with either of them. It’s down to personal preference really.

Kellam: 5/10

Kellam is your armoured knight. He is penalized by very low movement (worst in the game I think) but high defense and HP, and decent strength. However he has low speed and luck, meaning he will often miss attacks; and as a knight he is vulnerable to magic. Kellam makes a decent early game tank, and his Rally Defense ability can give your other characters a welcome defensive boost. On the whole, though, he is not a very inspirational unit, and a bit of a disappointment as he is the main knight for much of the game.

Kellam’s gimmick is a weird one: nobody seems to notice him, despite his massive armour, and some of his interactions with other characters almost make it seem like he’s being bullied. Poor guy.

Cordelia: 9/10

Cordelia is your second Pegasus Knight, and a very good all-round unit. She has high skill and speed and superior strength and HP to Sumia, meaning her weaknesses are not as obvious and her strengths are still strong. Like Sumia, she has amazing movement as well which ignores terrain.

Cordelia is also a likable character with entertaining interactions. She’s basically very noble, dedicated, self-effacing, and earnest, and other characters end up making fun of her because she’s so perfect. She’s also in love with Chrom (unrequited), so a bit sad. I married her to Gaius to make her feel better. Her daughter, Severa, is great too.

Gaius: 8/10

Gaius is brilliant. He’s your main thief, meaning you’ll want to use him a lot to open doors and chests. He has low luck and defense, so he can die easily, but his utility makes up for it. Moreover, he has high skill and speed, and decent strength, making him a bit of a killing machine. He makes a good Assassin.

Gaius is one of the best characters in the game. As a thief, he’s a bit of a rogue, but has a monomania about sweets and tasty food which comes up all the time. He has some of the best support conversations in the game and is a great character to have around.

Virion: 7/10

Virion is your main archer so you will end up using him a lot. While not as powerful as I would have liked, he still has high speed and skill and decent strength. He will normally one-shot flying units but not always take out ground units in one turn, even at high levels. His defensive abilities are reasonable for an archer, although you won’t want to leave him unprotected too much. His main weakness is simply that as an archer, he can’t counterattack from melee range, whereas mages can.

Virion is a noble with a French accent. As a result, he is an incorrigible lech and hits on pretty much every female in the game. This is a JRPG, so he always fails and everyone makes fun of him mercilessly.

Cherche: 6/10

Cherche is your wyvern rider. She starts off great, with brilliant movement, high strength, and good defense. However, later on her skill and speed start to fall away and she will become much less useful, not reliably taking out enemies. The curse of the axe wielder. She is also highly vulnerable to bows and magic.

Cherche has a touching bond with her wyvern, Minerva. She’s quite a nice companion so it’s a shame she’s not a more useful character.

Lon’qu: 6/10

Lon’qu is a myrmidon. This means he has high skill and speed, and decent luck, but low strength and HP. The low strength is a problem as it means he relies on crits or special abilities to kill enemies, which is often unreliable. On the whole, he takes a roster spot you will want to give to Chrom or Donnel, if Donnel is a Hero.

Lon’qu’s gimmick is that he is terminally shy of women. Not much more to say really, he’s quite laconic so much less memorable than many other characters.

Panne: 5/10

Panne is the last Taguel, a species of human-giant rabbit hybrids. Weird. Panne hates humans for wiping out her species, and her interactions with the other characters are generally shaped by her bitterness and resulting meanness. Her conversations are much less light-hearted than most.

Panne starts off quite strong. Like the manaketes, Panne transforms in combat, in her case into a giant rabbit. When you recruit her she is quite tanky and can often one-turn-kill enemies. She seems to have reasonable growth rates at first, but as she can’t be promoted (instead levelling to 30, rather than 20), she suffers in the long run. Moreover, she can only attack in melee, whereas manaketes can perform a ranged attack. Like manaketes, she also can’t use most weapons.

Overall, Panne represents an interesting idea that’s executed in a way that ultimately leaves her significantly underpowered. The fact she is so cold to everyone in skits means there’s little reason to persevere.

Gregor: 6/10

Gregor is the first Mercenary you recruit, a sort of Slavic-sounding sellsword. Gregor is underwhelming at first but has reasonable growth rates and Mercenaries/Heroes are a strong class. However, if you are using Donnel you will almost certainly have made him a Hero, and he is infinitely better than Gregor. Gregor is also quite similar to Chrom and Lucina, but worse, meaning he will see relatively little action. A bit of a shame as he’s a different kind of character to most of the others and one who can grow on you.

Nowi: 7/10

Nowi is a manakete, a human who can transform into what looks like a sort of cute baby dragon. She looks and acts about 12 but is in fact over a thousand years old, a source of much confusion and some squickiness when you consider some of the available ships.

Nowi is fairly powerful, tanky and has good growth rates, but by the late game she falls off significantly. It’s possible to recruit a couple of other manaketes who will be more powerful. She’s worth shipping to get her daughter, Nah, and has some good supports. Simply because she can attack from range, she’s better than Panne, and you probably have room for a tanky ranged attacker in your squad in the midgame.

Libra: 4/10

Libra reminded me very strongly of Lucius from the old GBA Fire Emblem. Libra is a very beautiful blonde man who looks at first like an exquisite lady, the source of much merriment in his skits. Libra is a pre-promote, a War Cleric who wields an axe and can heal with staves. Considering that axe users are a bit weak in this game, and manual healing is a bit of a waste of time, Libra is unlikely to be a major part of your team in many playthroughs. However he’s reasonably strong when you first get him which is probably useful on higher difficulties.

Anna: 5/10

Anna is a merchant, who you recruit as a fairly powerful pre-promote (Trickster) but who falls off eventually. Anna is kind of crazy and obsessed with her merchant business and will generally talk to people about commerce exclusively. She has a lot of identical sisters who function as merchants on the world map. Not that much else to say except she stands out because of her monomania and not really in a good way.

Tharja: 7/10

Tharja is the first dark mage you can recruit. She’s reasonably strong but has low luck and is fairly squishy; she also has kind of low magic at first which means it can be difficult for her to get kills with low level spellbooks. She will eventually become more powerful but is arguably the weakest of the four mages. That said, her gothic, bitchy, borderline insane personality is very entertaining as is her obsession with the male Avatar. She’s worth having around for her support conversations alone.

Henry: 8/10

Henry joins the team at a very sombre point in the storyline and lights things up with awful (ie amazing) and totally inappropriate puns that drive Chrom crazy. Henry’s personality is very odd, as he’s always happy and cheerful but obsessed with blood magic and macabre subjects in general. Makes sense for a dark mage I suppose. His dialogue and voice lines are some of the best in the game. He’s a pretty handy mage too, giving Miriel a run for her money as the game’s best.

I shipped Henry with Olivia, and his happy personality helps me explain to myself the carefree personality of their son, Inigo.

Olivia: 8/10

Olivia is the game’s Dancer, which means she has a unique ability. By dancing for a unit who has finished their turn, that unit can move and act again. In certain situations this is a very important skill and can help you complete an objective or kill a boss just in time. However, she suffers from negligible offence, just being able to wield a sword by default and with horrible stats and stat growth, she’s highly vulnerable. You can always train her up in other classes to make her stronger, though.

Say’ri: 6/10

Say’ri is another pre-promote, a Swordmaster you recruit about halfway through the main story. Unlike other pre-promotes, Say’ri is actually decent, not being that much weaker than Lon’qu once you get him to the equivalent level. Say’ri also plays a fairly important role in the story for a while which means there’s sort of a narrative purpose in bringing her along. She talks more than Lon’qu, as well, so if you don’t take to him you can always wait and use Say’ri instead. That said, you can also do without using either of them.

Tiki: 8/10

Tiki is another manakete, recruited in a side-mission. Tiki is supposed to be a very powerful being and this is reflected in her stats: she’s certainly stronger than Nowi, although she is still outshone by some of your other units. As a pretty self-sufficient and tanky ranged unit, Tiki can be damn useful, though. Well worth recruiting and using if you’re not going to use Nah.

Donnel: 9/10

Ah, Donnel. Donnie starts off as a laughably weak unit called a Villager. Of course, this is a Fire Emblem game which means he will eventually turn into an unstoppable monster. This is in large part down to his skill Aptitude, which means he has insane stat growth. In particular, he can easily max out his Luck; combined with the Hero’s Armsthrift ability, this can mean powerful weapons never lose durability, effectively making him unstoppable.

In Normal you’ll eventually stop using him because it makes the game’s difficulty trivial. On higher difficulties, though, it’s going to be very hard to recruit him and get him those first few levels. Considering you can get some of the super-powerful kids through shipping alone, it’s questionable whether it’s worth the effort.

Donnie is very powerful and a likable character, but the extreme nature of his mechanics stops me from giving him a 10.

Lucina: 9/10

Lucina is one of the kids (Chrom’s kid, in fact), but because you get her during the story I’ll mention her here. Lucina is basically a stronger version of Chrom, meaning she’s very good at killing things but can be a bit vulnerable if left alone. Overall her survivability is probably a bit better than Chrom, meaning she gets the nod over her dad.

Like Chrom, she’s a very well-written character and her voice lines are brilliant, making her one of the highlights of Fire Emblem’s incredible roster.

~

Whoever you decide to use, have fun playing one of the best tactical RPGs ever made!

 

 

 

Thanks, Nintendo

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When I left home at the age of 18 handheld games became very important to me. Video games have been part of my leisure time and part of how I’ve managed stress since early childhood; and when I was a student, frequently moving between low-quality accommodation and with very limited income, handheld gaming provided something of a lifeline. I spent a lot of time with the Game Boy Advance, an underrated device that had an amazing lineup of games; and the DS was pretty good too. Although I never really liked it as much as the GBA, the DS benefited from strong support from Nintendo and Japanese developers, as well as backwards compatibility.

Around 2009, I stopped playing handheld games, for two main reasons. The first was that by then I was working full-time and finally had the money, time and space to get a 360. The second was that the proliferation of smartphones and mobile gaming that started around then made me think that dedicated handheld consoles were finished, and that mobile phone gaming experiences were the future. So why bother with a Nintendo handheld?

How wrong I was. My smartphone gaming experiences since then have been risible, mainly consisting of a brief Angry Birds addiction around 2011 and a disappointing Warhammer RPG in 2013. I’ve been put off by the abysmal controls, low production values and terrible performance most mobile games seem to suffer from, as well as the sinister rise of freemium gaming. As a result I haven’t played any handheld games at all for the last couple of years.

So I’m delighted to have recently purchased a New Nintendo 3DS. The main inspiration was the release of a trio of new Fire Emblem games, which brought home the fact I never played the well-received Awakening. I love the Fire Emblem series and, 25 hours into my first Awakening playthrough, it’s thrilling to be able to return to it. The game features mature writing, humour, satisfying gameplay, and great polish and production values that you just don’t get with most mobile games. It’s more expensive, sure, but well worth it, particularly considering the insane replay value the series is known for. I’m absolutely loving it and looking forward to reviewing it and doing a character analysis on this blog.

It’s also been a pleasure to introduce my girlfriend to the Fire Emblem series, and I think she likes Awakening even more than I do. We’ve got a couple of Zelda games lined up, including Majora’s Mask, a birthday present from my brother. The console has an amazing back catalogue. As for the machine itself, it’s very nice. It’s compact, with a satisfying weight, and a pleasing appearance. The front and back panels are prone to blemishing but they can be replaced if we want. The stereoscopic display is an intriguing feature and a lot of fun. Overall that’s the best way to describe it–the 3DS feels like wholesome fun.

It turns out I still have my old DS Lite–untouched since about 2010–and my old copy of the original Fire Emblem on GBA; the only GBA game I still have. As well as firing that up for another playthrough we plan to get Chrono Trigger to play on the old DS. Chrono Trigger was never released in PAL territories when it came out for the SNES, and though I played Secret of Mana in the late ’90s, CT is a big gap in my gaming library. I’m very excited about playing it, and the DS version is supposed to be the best adaptation around. We’re also going to track down some old Advance Wars games as it doesn’t look like there will be a new one for the 3DS any time soon.

I realize now that in assuming dedicated gaming handhelds were finished, I fell victim to the kind of techno-faddishness I regularly decry when it’s applied to music or books. It’s a very good thing that Nintendo have continued to support high-quality handheld game experiences. I should have learned by now not to make sweeping assumptions about future technology markets, so I will just say that I hope Nintendo continue to do so, and handheld games like Fire Emblem continue to thrive; and that the growth of the toxic free-to-play industry, centered around exploiting gambling and addiction, doesn’t put paid to it all.

 

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS) – First Impressions

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In years gone by I’ve seen these blue arrows in my dreams. Now it’s a matter of time before that happens again. 

The term ‘Killer App’ isn’t really used much anymore, but back in the console war days it was all the rage. Nintendo used to be the king of ‘Killer Apps’, that is to say, console-exclusive games which were so good you simply had to buy that console in order to play them. The N64 was probably the best example of such a console. Anyway, for me Fire Emblem is the closest thing there is to a killer app these days, and we recently bought a 3DS so that we could catch up on the Fire Emblem series, following the recent release of Fire Emblem Fates.

Before we can get round to Fates, though, there’s the small matter of Fire Emblem: Awakening. This is the game that basically saved the Fire Emblem franchise by breaking into the commercial mainstream and making bank for Nintendo. Its critical reputation is sky-high too, supposedly one of the best games in the franchise; and certainly the best since Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken on Game Boy Advance, which was the first FE game released in the West and the first one I played.

Having played through the first few chapters, I’m certainly enjoying the game, though it doesn’t make the brightest of starts. There is a sort of player avatar in the form of the ‘Tactician’, and you get a few options to customize him. I was disappointed that the customization options were unbelievably slim: beyond your character’s gender and life stage (pubescent, late teens, or 30s), you can’t really choose much, with five options for a face (which all look the same) and five hairdos, all of which look stupid. You also get to choose between English or Japanese dialogue, but aside from the most important scenes most of the dialogue is not voiced. There’s an awful lot of dialogue and character interaction, though, so that’s fair enough. The character portraits are very nice and quite expressive, and the dialogue is well-written, but I find the 3D models and backgrounds somewhat plain, and less appealing than the sprites in the older games.

After a pretty nifty cinematic sequence gets the ball rolling, you go through quite a lot of exposition before the game really lets you experience any fights, and I confess to finding the game’s opening section quite boring. You can choose from three difficulty levels at the beginning (Normal, Hard or Lunatic). I plan to play through all of them, so I started on Normal to ensure I have the freedom to use any characters I want. In older Fire Emblem games you had to be very  careful which characters you used, as there was a finite amount of experience available from killing enemy units, and you had to be precise about who on your team got kills to ensure that XP was not wasted. The basic archetype of the series is that characters who are strong early on end up useless in the late game, whereas characters who start off weak have great stat growth so you need to babysit them through the first missions. The same system seems to apply here, although it looks like you can summon fights on the world map using items, which should make it easier to level up everyone if you can be bothered.

In any case, starting on Normal is the best way to ensure you can use all the ‘hard carries’ you want, and so I benched Frederick, this game’s Jeigan/Marcus XP hog, straight away in favour of characters like Sumia and Donnel instead. On harder difficulties, I expect you have to use some of the tankier units early on just to get through the first chapters, which will provide a different kind of reward. It certainly looks like there will be a lot of re-play value in this one.

This is my first proper experience with a 3DS. Apart from the FE games, I’m also excited to play Majora’s Mask, and to play a Pokemon game for the first time since Red/Blue. There are about a gazillion versions of the 3DS now. I opted for a New Nintendo 3DS, having been put off by the reports that the XL’s larger screen causes polygon stretching and that its shell picks up grubby fingerprints. In hindsight, the New Nintendo 3DS strikes me as quite small, and even though I have small hands I wonder how comfortable it will be for long sessions. Even so, I’m delighted to have it and am looking forward to levelling up my team of overpowered misfits as I steamroller Fie Emblem’s easy mode.