Hyakki Castle (PC) Review: A Tense Dive into Japanese Folklore

Hyakki Castle (PC) Review: A Tense Dive into Japanese Folklore

Hyakki Castle is a mythological monster fan’s dream. For those who are sick of thumping orcs, goblins, and knights in their dungeon crawlers, Hyakki Castle offers a ton of monster variety, pitting players against incredible, unsettling creatures from Japanese folklore. It’s a joy just to see what new beasts lurk on each floor, even if they might spontaneously stomp the life out of you and force you to redo a half-hour of play time.

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Hyakki Castle (PC) – gameplay image via Asakusa Studios and Happinet

Hyakki Castle puts players in control of a party of self-made characters, all of whom are looking to defeat Doman Kigata, a sorcerer who was banished after trying to overthrow the Shogunate during the Edo period. Players can pick from ninja, samurai, monks, and more, all of whom come with their own special skills. Players are also given the choice to play as human, Tengu, Oni, or Nekomata. Races offer little boosts and drawbacks, making some more useful for certain classes than others. It’s up to the player to cobble together the party they want—brute force, distance fighting, and magic are all viable builds, as is a mixture of all of them.

Once players choose their party, they’ll notice they’ve been dumped in the castle alone, the rest of their party having been captured. Hyakki Castle lets players split their party up into different groups, and this introduces the ability to move the split parties independently. Despite how much the game seems enamoured with this ability, it’s not all that useful in practice. It allows players to leave a character to hit a switch while they go do something else, or do pincer attacks on monsters, but the former is the only real use for this ability. Shuffling a second party around in the game’s clunky, block-based movement style is far too slow and unwieldly when you can just hammer away at attacks from the front and move the whole party out of damage range when the monster’s going to hit back.

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Hyakki Castle (PC) – gameplay image via Asakusa Studios and Happinet

Party splitting being largely useless in combat also means that some of the character abilities aren’t that handy either. Players are free to select from several powers as they level their characters, choosing where to go on each class’ skill tree in terms of party buffs or character attacks. Buffs often affect the whole party, which is highly useful, although the most damaging abilities tend to kill monsters so fast there’s not often much point in buffs (sidestepping attacks is much more effective). Also, some attacks build up Hate like a tank would in an MMO, which would be useful if the two-party system was all that great, but it is typically not that useful.

You will want to get that sidestepping/dodge timing down to live long in Hyakki Castle. Early enemies don’t hit that hard, allowing players time to fiddle with their attacks without having to get out of the way. This is nice, as it lets players click around their various attacking/buffing/healing abilities (of which each character can have four equipped at one time, and can click through them in a hurry), getting used to where those selections are on-screen so they can slam monsters in a hurry. That way, players will know their attack layouts well for when harder beasts show up. Expect many single-hit defeats from monsters even three floors into the game, so players need to know their attacks and movements well.

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Hyakki Castle (PC) – gameplay image via Asakusa Studios and Happinet

Dodging can be as simple as stepping back or to one side, but knowing the monster is important. Each one has an attack timing that players can get to learn, as well as which attacks they can use. If players learn them well, they can often easily get out of danger with a few well-timed steps, then get back in to lay more hurt down. However, many monsters hit extremely hard or for lethal damage, and save points are infrequent (often only at the beginning of each floor), so it’s imperative to learn the timing of these attacks to avoid death.

Hyakki Castle makes learning these monster attacks quite pleasant, as each monster in the game stands out. Monsters range from piles of living flesh and undead samurai to ghosts of old ladies and a woman’s head on a foot. They all stand out in their design, offering delightful looks into monsters from Japanese folklore. Since they’re all unique, it’s often easy to remember which monster attacks and moves in what way, making them a visual treat AND a learning aid in how to fight.

The rest of the game’s visuals can be a little on the dull side, although it works in tandem with the music to create an eerie, almost horror game-like atmosphere. Hyakki Castle is filled with dimly-lit halls and stark corridors, creating this strange monotony, and is typically filled with the sounds of dripping water or whistling wind. It’s technically kind of plain, but when you’re being stalked by extremely odd monsters, it delivers a sense of unease (especially when combined with how easy you can die) that makes the experience a pleasingly fearful one.

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Hyakki Castle (PC) – gameplay image via Asakusa Studios and Happinet

To increase that tension (and to keep players from spamming saves), they have to deal with Hunger as the party wanders the dungeon. Health and magic will regenerate on their own, letting players freely use the best of their abilities often, but Hunger drains with every step and attack. Once it is far down, characters do less damage and receive more. This can be fixed with food, but there isn’t a lot of it and it doesn’t restore much hunger. This encourages players to be aggressive, pushing to fight and explore more, and adds a pressure that keeps play exciting.

Hyakki Castle is a solid dungeon crawler with some fun classes, mechanics, and amazing monsters to keep drawing the player deeper into the labyrinth. While the party-splitting ability isn’t especially useful, the rest of the game offers some tense journeys and tenser fights against truly unique, powerful monsters.

Hyakki Castle (PC) Review: A Tense Dive into Japanese Folklore
Hyakki Castle (PC) – gameplay image via Asakusa Studios and Happinet

 


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Joel Couture’s reviews such as Fight’N Rage, The Evil Within 2, and Outlast 2!

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Songbringer (PC) Review – Many Songs That Sound Very Similar

Songbringer (PC) Review - Many Songs That Sound Very Similar

If you’ve got a hankering for a top-down Zelda-like title, then you may want to check out Songbringer, a randomly generated offering with a hip art style and cohesive story.

In Songbringer you play as a futuristic man who is just minding his own business riding his air bike when he gets struck by lightning and falls to the ground. When he awakes he’s shirtless and missing the top hat he was previously wearing, showing off what I can only assume is a mohawk. After a brief conversation with his robot sidekick (AKA this game’s Navi from Ocarina of Time), he enters a nearby grave and pulls a humming sword from the ground before setting off on an adventure across an overworld filled with more than eight dungeons.

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Songbringer (PC) – gameplay images via Wizard Fu Games

If you’ve played the original Legend of Zelda then you know what to expect here: a large open overworld map made up of squares with the camera shifting between squares as you exit the screen, along with dungeons that include bosses, an item or two that help power-up your hero, and an extendable amount of health. Songbringer doesn’t vary all that much from that classic formula other than the fact the lead character talks and instead of a boomerang you’re throwing your top hat with the same physics. Oh, and also the game is randomly generated based on six-letter seed words (my playthrough was using the word SUITOR).

Unlike most games that have an element of random generation, Songbringer is surprisingly cohesive. There was very clearly a story being told with multiple characters, and the dungeons were numbered on the mini-map letting you know whether or not you should try to tackle them yet; that said you can do them in almost any order or even skip some, just like in OG Zelda. The game does a good job at piecing the overworld map together into different biomes with varied paths, and everywhere I went I was able to find something to do or collect (and even then I only found 68 per cent of items by the end of my 6+ hour playthrough).

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Songbringer (PC) – gameplay images via Wizard Fu Games

While randomly generated adventures are a big selling point for Songbringer, I didn’t find the urge to replay the game other than to test out the differences a bit. Playing a second time was like playing the optional second quests in some of the earlier Zelda titles where everything is just rearranged or moved a bit—something I also never felt the drive to do. Surely some people will see this as a selling point, however, it just wasn’t something that made me enjoy the game any more or less.

On the technical side of things, Songbringer runs and looks fine, at least if you’re into this kind of pixel art which can sometimes look like a mess at first glance. I personally don’t mind it and appreciate the developer taking a chance on a bold art style instead of just doing basic NES pixel art. There are options to play at higher resolutions and framerates, all of which run smoothly.

One of my only gripes with the game is the soundtrack—it just isn’t for me. It’s made up primarily of a combination of chiptune-like noise that isn’t memorable or fun like the series it is inspired by; instead, it’s unsettling and sometimes a bit annoying. I know one particular track has just random pulsing beeps, which always made me wonder if it was something in the game world making the noise that I should interact with or if it was part of the soundtrack.

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Songbringer (PC) – gameplay images via Wizard Fu Games

Songbringer doesn’t bring a whole lot of anything new to the table, but it’s still a decent top-down Zelda-like. At $20 USD it felt maybe a little steep for someone like myself that only intends to play it one time, so if you’re not the type to replay a game multiple times maybe wait for a sale before you start using your top hat as a weapon.

Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate (PS Vita) Review

Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate (PS Vita) Review

Have you ever heard of Shiren the Wanderer? I hadn’t until this game, but apparently, this is the fifth game in the series and a spinoff of the Mystery Dungeon games. I had never played any game in the Mystery Dungeon series, not even the cute Pokemon ones, as I’d heard they were rather brutal JRGP dungeon crawlers that took lots of time to learn. I heard correctly.

First, the good, Shiren’s retro-like graphics practically pop off the screen, especially on the original vita’s OLED screen. If you like 16-bit or early PlayStation 1 JRPG pixel graphics, you’ll be quite pleased here, aside from the atrocious character portraits that display whenever characters talk – these look like a child drew them. The musical score is easy on the ears, and the characters are likable, such as your sidekick, who is a talking mongoose, or a girl wearing a panda onesie who offers to join you on your journey – for a price. Shiren is also on the Vita, which is a plus for anyone who owns the Vita, since it has so few games released for it these days.

Now that that is over with, let us commence with the bad. Upon arriving at the first town in Shiren the Wanderer, I came across a beginners house where a girl offered to teach me to how to play the game with a menu filled with tutorials. Since I’d heard these games aren’t user-friendly, I decided I’d do all of them before I continued on with the game. Three hours later, I’d finally completed all of the over 45 manually selected tutorials available. It should go without saying that no game should require that many tutorials, nor should I have to load each one separately.  A good tutorial is one you don’t know you’re playing and one that is built into the actual game, something the developers of Shiren clearly don’t understand.

The thing is, these tutorials are absolutely necessary, as Shiren the Wanderer has many mechanics that I wouldn’t just pick up playing the game, such as how to turn around without using a turn (don’t let the trailers fool you, the game combat is a combination of real-time and turn-based action) and what types of environment I could walk and attack diagonally over.

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After completing the monotonous tutorials, I ventured towards the meat of the game, thinking I was ready to destroy everything in my path with ease, but Shiren the Wanderer had other ideas. The first section is easy enough, as I walked around killing enemies in one or two hits, collecting items, and advancing up the floors of a tower, but the two later towers are brutal if not unfair, and that is just the start of the game! Enemies constantly spawn, and no matter how well prepared you are, there is always the chance the game just decides it’s time for you to lose.

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At one point, I walked into a room and was informed it was a monster house, at which time tons of enemies spawned and surrounded me. Sure enough, I was dead. As Shiren the Wanderer is not only a dungeon crawler but a hardcore Roguelike, dying means losing all your items, all your money, and all your experience; I woke up back in town at level 1 to do it all over again, which meant going through the starter area, grinding monsters to level up myself and my equipment (if I had got any from town) only for the game to decide to kill me some other way. Seemingly the only way to complete the game is to grind for a few hours in the starter area to be overpowered and hope the game doesn’t decide to just spawn super leveled monsters around you.

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In Shiren the Wanderer, your time is equally split between slicing up monsters and navigating menus, as the inventory system is a nightmare. You can only carry 25 items at a time; however, you can store multiple items in pots and each pot only counts as one item in your inventory. To get items out of pots you must throw said pots against walls to break them open. Items range from healing items, to magical scrolls and staffs, to food. You’ll have to constantly keep an eye on your hunger meter as well as your health meter or else you’ll die even faster thanks to the game’s extreme difficulty. If you want to use a scroll or staff, you can only do so by going into the menu or assigning one to a trigger button. As you’re constantly forced to use items, you’ll be taken out of the action nearly more than you’re in it.

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The main story of Shiren the Wanderer is another dull damsel-in-distress situation, with a man in one of the villages attempting to change the fate of his terminally ill lover by collecting the three Dice of Fate and facing a god of Fortune. The story is barely there: I could summarize the whole thing in about three sentences from start to finish, so it certainly wasn’t a motivating factor in pushing on to finish the game.

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Perhaps the difficulty and seeming unfairness of some of the encounters is duein part to the world being randomly generated as you play, but even so, this doesn’t excuse the fact that the Shiren the Wanderer forces you to grind a ridiculous amount in hopes of even advancing, let alone finishing the game. I can say without a shadow of doubt that this is my first and last Mystery Dungeon based game, as everything I’ve heard about the series is true. It isn’t friendly, it forces you to grind, and it just isn’t fun, at least to me. Clearly, someone buys these games, as they keep getting localized, but this critic can’t recommend it.

Dark Souls Board Game Kickstarter Launches

Dark Souls Board Game Kickstarter Launches

Praise the sun! The official Dark Souls Board Game, designed by miniature gaming company Steamforged Games, has officially launched their Kickstarter crowd funding campaign. The campaign will last for 26 days and has already been funded five minutes after going live.

Read moreDark Souls Board Game Kickstarter Launches

Dungeon Travelers 2 (PS Vita) Review

Dungeon Travelers 2 (PS Vita) Review

JRPGs are notoriously difficult to review; even for die-hard fans of the genre. We have a limited grace period in terms of time we can spend playing a game before the review is due, and any JRPG worth its salt will have many times that worth of game content. This becomes a problem when you consider that JRPGs are notoriously… unsatisfying (for lack of a better word) for the first few hours or so. Gameplay tends to take a while to grow and develop over the course of the early to mid-game content, and most JRPGs survive this via a combination of story setup, aesthetics, and fan service. So what happens when the story setup is typically Japanese and convoluted, the aesthetics are that of a first-person dungeon crawler that mated with a bishoujo visual novel, and the fan service is semi-SFW loliporn?

The second conversation—the one that introduces your first two party members—starts with an underage panty shot. The next one introduces another adventuring party consisting of a bear and a penguin that serve as a sort of every-now-and-then series of run-ins to deliver tutorial information in a very self-aware tongue-in-cheek manner that’s not at all afraid to blatantly bash the stereotypical otaku that this game is being marketed to—that conversation also features an arrow-to-the-knee comment (yes, really). The lewd dialogue from the almost exclusively female cast (and the naïve responses from the male main character) feel like they were originally designed for an H game; as does the mechanic by which the game rewards you with absurdly sexualized and suggestive CG images of the bosses in compromising positions with their clothes torn off after you defeat them—right before you bind (their word, not mine) them in your magical spell tome. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
dungeontravelers2insert3After the first few hours, I was ready to just call it quits and label the game a shameless yet shameful example of the breed; particularly after encountering my first Spider Girl (don’t look that up, you’ll probably end up on a watch list, or something). The catch, though, is that I was there to review it, not simply judge it. The game was still throwing new features at me, so I could hardly call my job done. Dutifully, I soldiered on through battle after battle with near-naked undeveloped girls, flanked on all sides by fruit (because why not make the rest of the enemies fruit?). Between all the bananas, oranges, cherries, and underage girls, waiting to see the next enemy line-up was like waiting on the reels of the world’s creepiest slot machine; one where the only thing I could possibly win was a seat across the table from Chris Hansen from Dateline.

At around the fourth chapter, though, something intriguing happened; most of the enemies I started encountering had an almost acceptable amount of clothing on (for a Japanese game), and the dungeons started throwing interesting new curveballs at me. Instead of just the usual traps and pitfalls hidden behind doors, some of those doors were now secretly one-way, trapping me in parts of dungeons. I even ran out of gold and found myself unable to purchase more revive items, and even the story had me genuinely curious to see how things would pan out. Things had moved away from the early game stage of “punishing because you only have two characters and no proper party dynamics” and into the territory of “punishing because there’s actually a pretty solid game here”.

In reality, if you can get past the “fan service”, Dungeon Travelers 2 is quite a solid JRPG. If nothing else, it’s an incredibly in-depth waste of time in the way that only a JRPG can be. The main story—effectively an off-rails tutorial—will set you back in excess of 60 hours of gameplay—depending on how many times you forget the game lacks an autosave feature and play for a couple hours before your healer gets one-shot while casting. I’ve been told that the post-game exceeds another hundred or so hours of playtime, and I don’t doubt that for a second. Each of the characters in the game—of which there are 16—has several different classes they can play as, each requiring a character reset and class change to adopt. Furthermore, resetting your characters’ progression nets them additional base stats based on the difference between their current level and the level they bump down to. The most efficient way to max out this bonus requires playing each character to lvl 61 and resetting to 1… twenty-five times.

In fact, after my time with DT2, the only obviously glaring fault I can find with it (assuming you don’t mind the grind—this is a JRPG, after all) is that there’s shockingly little information to be had from in-game. From character stats to consumable items, I’ve literally no idea what all but the most rudimentary of either do, and there seems no buttons or menus to shed light on the situation. Even still, this doesn’t ruin the overall experience. In truth, I’d be perfectly happy if I had spent my own money on Dungeon Travelers 2, and even the creepy fetishization of all that is lolicon is, in fact, beautiful and colourfully rendered CG. Do I find it topically ironic that the game launched in the same week that saw Jared Fogle locked up for, well, you know…? Absolutely. But stripped (heh) of all else, Dungeon Travelers 2 is actually a very enjoyable game.
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Lost Dimension (PS Vita) Review

Lost Dimension (PS Vita) Review

Treachery is hot right now. From party games like Resistance and Saboteur, to video games like Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Danganronpa, players have really embraced the surprise and satisfaction of the “find the traitor” experience.

Yes, Lost Dimension is landing in fertile soil. The game is a tactical RPG dungeon crawler, following 11 psychic soldiers that have been hastily assembled to stop a villain named “The End” from bringing about—you guessed it—the end of the world. Soon after you storm his tower, The End plants a seed of doubt within the group: there are traitors among you.
LD Screens (1)Et tu, Barbato?

Lost Dimension plays up the theme of trust in both narrative and gameplay. You must periodically root-out and execute the traitors within your dwindling group, while at the same time building friendships to enable much-needed “assist” attacks. In practice, though, trusting any character is futile: the traitors are random and change with each playthrough. That means you won’t see a betrayal coming a mile away, even on a second or third time through, but you’re also robbed of the fun of trying to predict who will stab you in the back and why.

For each floor of the dungeon, the game invisibly marks three characters as possible traitors. The protagonist, whose unique psychic gift is “vision,” will hear the jumbled thoughts of his squad mates after every mission. Based on the whisperings, you can determine how many possible traitors are in your active party. Therefore, in order to isolate these three, you have to harken back to the classic code-breaker game Mastermind, trying different combinations of party members to see how that affects the whispers. This is a clever mechanic that ensures you try out each of the different characters and their unique gifts in combat and don’t just stick to your favourites.

Once you think you’ve narrowed it down, you can spend a rare resource to see if one of the three you’ve picked out is, in fact, that floor’s traitor. But even if you find the rat, that doesn’t mean you’ve succeeded. Turncoats are executed based on popular vote, and if you can’t convince the rest of your party that you’ve found the right person, an innocent may be killed. Fortunately, the other characters look to you for guidance; unfortunately, they pester you after every mission, even after you’ve told them a hundred times that, “Yes, I think it’s Zenji!”

Shut up or I’ll betray you myself

The investigation mechanics work well, but the themes of trust and treachery depend on good characterization to be effective, and that’s where Lost Dimension stumbles the most; the writing is extremely blunt. Each character has one and only one personality trait (the fiery redhead, the logical doctor, the spunky schoolgirl) and always spells out exactly what he or she is going through.

For instance, one character (the arrogant hothead) has no psychic gift of his own; instead, he copies those of others. Rather than give hints about the root of his anger, the character comes right out and says: “I think I was self-conscious about not having my own identity. I think I hurt others just so I could leave my mark.” There’s no development leading to this revelation, either. After gaining enough camaraderie points and having enough “I’m mad at The End!” conversations, he simply has an epiphany.

That’s not to say that these personal narratives are without redeeming qualities—a few characters have thought-provoking internal conflicts—but they’re handled without the slightest sophistication, and no one comes off as especially human or likeable. Your thought process is less, “Please don’t let Agito be the traitor. I love that guy!” and more, “Please let it be Marco. I can’t stand to hear that kid for another second.”

Lost Dimension’s combat provides a stiff challenge, so you may be tempted to let a powerful character live, even if you have your suspicions. Though you can pass-on certain skills from dead party members, each character has truly unique gifts. You’ll definitely feel it if you lose the only natural healer early on. This adds a great bit of tension to the decision. Still, a word of warning: though you face no immediate consequences for axing the wrong characters, it will come back to haunt you.
LD Screens (5)Stick together, gang

It’s not as bad as the dialogue, but the combat in Lost Dimension can be monotonous. Enemies come in three flavours: humanoid, flying drone, and mecha tank. While there are a few variations on each (exploding drone, flame-throwing humanoid, floating tank), it’s not enough to keep things mechanically or aesthetically fresh. Their AI is also pretty sad: enemies will often get stuck trying to move past each other and have no regard for friendly fire.

The different maps (and the characters’ initial placement on those maps) definitely help mix things up. Yet, the goal is almost always the same: group up your allies and hunt down enemies before they can do the same. Because of the “assist” system—in which fighters get extra attacks if they’re in range of allies—there really is no other viable strategy. It would have been fun to send high-mobility characters to harass enemy flanks or to corral baddies into one place and burn them down with area-of-effect abilities. Sadly, that would be suicide in nearly every case; the numbers just don’t add up.

There’s a host of minor annoyances as well. Characters blurt out a line like “I’ll tear ‘em apart!” or “Teeheehee” every single time you switch to them. This happens dozens of times per mission, and scrolling through characters causes a cacophony of catchphrases. The game also never explains what the various stats actually do. Does dexterity affect accuracy? Critical-hit rate? Dodging? Range? Damage with ranged weapons? Mankind may never know.

Reach out for the truth

Players who grow bored with Lost Dimension may stick it out just to see how the mysterious plot gets resolved, yet the game has the indecency to withhold those answers. Completing the story once only gives you cryptic nonsense and half-truths, demanding you reach maximum camaraderie with each character before unlocking the true ending.

Given that you are forced to axe several characters in the early stages, that means you’ll have to play through the game at least one more time. You may even have to sabotage yourself by ignoring a known traitor just so you can get more time with them. This is a pretty risky attempt at replay value.

Whether the game earns that much patience will depend on how taken you are by the inventiveness of its betrayal mechanics. Certainly, the game’s writing and combat are mediocre. That said, there’s still nothing exactly like Lost Dimension on the market. If you want a dash of intrigue in your dungeon crawler, you may want to see this one through to The End.

LD Screens (6)

Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy (Vita) Review

Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy (Vita) Review

There’s Dungeons That Need Crawling

At the dawn of the PC gaming era (back when PC meant Apple, Atari or Commodore 64), an early off-shoot of role-playing games based on the Dungeons & Dragons table-top experience was a genre called “the dungeon crawl.” It was a first person experience that had players exploring dungeons laid out on a grid, killing monsters, collecting loot, returning to town to heal up and sell loot, then go back in for more. It’s a genre that’s mostly died off in recent years, but Experience Inc. is keeping the flame alive on the Vita with Operation Abyss.
operationabinsert1Experience is already pretty well versed in the dungeon crawl, having previously released Demon Gaze on the Vita. Operation Abyss shares a lot of similarities in that it’s also a modestly budgeted experience, with traditional text boxes and portraits in lieu of shiny CG cut scenes. But where Demon Gaze was more of a conventional fantasy game, Operation Abyss moves the action to modern Tokyo setting. As a hapless victim kidnapped by demons, your character is rescued by an organization using super-powered teens as front line soldiers, and you become the latest recruit.

Like Demon Gaze before it, Operation Abyss is largely a menu-driven/first person dungeon crawler where your adventuring party is composed of randomly generated characters. This isn’t like regular JRPGs, where your party has drama and character arcs, it’s pure functionality here, where names and personalities are irrelevant and the important thing is whether you have your healer, melee and combat magic members properly balanced and positioned. As with most dungeon crawling games in this older tradition, combat is turn-based, with enemies appearing on screen and all attacks are presented on the enemy portraits; no fancy attack animations from your party members here.
operationabinsert2Although the presentation is pretty budget, and there’s a lack of sprawling side-quests and other activities, the main game is deep, with comprehensive RPG systems that let you level your characters and craft your own equipment in a variety of ways. Once again, this is pure, old school RPG design at work, it’s all done entirely in menus, so while you’ll never see your new destructive power in action like a Destiny player with a coveted Gjallarhorn rocket launcher, you’ll be able to craft and mod your own weapon to your taste. Operation Abyss is both more comprehensive and more forgiving than its predecessor Demon Gaze, in that shaping both your character and your gear is affords a lot of freedom, but the game doesn’t put in arbitrary money sinks like having to pay rent for yourself or your party members.

That’s not to say the game is easy, and in many ways still echoes the more unforgiving nature of its predecessor. As with old fashioned, table-top RPGs, magic users can only cast a limited number of spells before they’re tapped out, and leveling doesn’t occur automatically; you need to rest to replenish these. Both of these options require cash, in form of “GP” that you spend at the medical lab. There’s also a level cap in place to prevent more patient/sneaky gamers from simply power-leveling to the point where they eclipse enemies, and this cap won’t be lifted until you advance the story. For those that play with their Vita online, there’s a Demon’s Souls-esque message function that allows other players to leave little hints—or obscure vulgarities—dotted around the dungeons adventurers to read. It all makes for a substantial experience that’ll take dozens hours, it but it lacks the polish and bells n’ whistles of a big, AAA RPG project.
operationabinsert3Dungeon crawling fans, especially on the Vita, don’t have a lot of options,  so it’s good thing that Operation Abyss has it where it counts. It’s a budget title, and it shows and feels that way in many respects, but it also has deep RPG systems and a challenging level of difficulty for those that are tired of being coddled. Don’t go into this expecting The Witcher, and you’ll find a decent, no frills, little dungeon crawling RPG with a taste for your blood.

The Awakened Fate Ultimatum (PS3) Review

The Awakened Fate Ultimatum (PS3) Review

When you begin The Awakened Fate Ultimatum you find the main character, Shin Kamikaze, narrating his own life and by his own admission, it’s pretty sad. A loner, Shin finds solace in seclusion and he truly prefers it that way. Imagine his surprise when winged devils descend and attack him and he is protected by a beautiful angel who arrives just a little too late; Shin is killed by the devils. Luckily, the angel manages to fly Shin to Celestia where he is implanted with the Fate Awakening Crystal and resurrected. Even more to his surprise, the Crystal has turned him into Celestia’s god – their ultimate weapon to help them finally overcome the devils in their eternal war.
awakenedfateinsert1To help Shin coming into his powers and to cope with his new status of ‘God’ are angel warrior Jupiel and devil scientist Ariael. In order to save Shin and activate the Fate Awakening Crystal, Jupiel and Ariael gave a piece of their soul up and are physically and mentally connected to Shin. For every choice that comes to Shin throughout the story he, quite literally, has an angel and a devil on opposite shoulders telling him what to do.

The gameplay is split into two avenues. The actual game is a classic dungeon crawler where you have a limited number of items and a limited amount of energy and health to navigate the various labyrinth’s that represent each mission. You can choose to explore the dungeon in its entirety and get maximum experience and pick-ups at the risk of dying and losing everything, or you can choose to find the exit to the next level and clear the dungeon as fast as possible.

The second part is the RPG element of the game and where the term Ultimatum comes into play. You’re dungeon diving will allow you to level up and acquire skills and increase your stats to allow you to continue through the game. However, you are also tasked with choices to make and deciding one way or the other will also give you Angel or Devil points to further increase your powers on either side. In the dungeons you are able to switch between an angel’s and a devil’s powers to help you better combat either devil or angel enemies that you run into while you explore. As an angel your are more effective against devils and vice versa. Your choices will not only affect the story, but it will also you give you extra skills and power ups when you are one or the other. I ended up far more powerful as an angel in my game and thus began to fear running into angel enemies while in the dungeons.
awakenedfateinsert5The gamble in Ultimatum‘s dungeons is that while it is possible to zip through them as quick as you can, choosing to fully explore them results in far better weaponry and pick-ups than you would find in the store as well as giving you substantial amounts of experience to level you up. However, dying in the increasingly difficult dungeons will result in you losing everything on your possession for good and that could mean setting your gear back by a lot. This is what keeps the dungeons challenging as you progress through the game. It’s always a numbers game as you balance, health, power and movement to try to maximize exploration without getting stuck or killed.

However, the big downside to Awakened Fate Ultimatum is that the dungeons end up being little more than interruptions to having a manga voice acted for you. The story unfolds as the characters stand on screen and talk to one another and you can read Shin’s inner monologue. While the story is interesting to begin with, it quickly devolves into the same old character tropes we’re all accustomed to from watching anime and reading manga. Additionally, Shin Kamikaze is a terrible protagonist as he whines his way through the story, taking time to complain and belittle every choice you make, regardless of the outcome. With the story making up the majority of the game and choice being so integral to it, having the story go stale quickly and making the response to your choices so obnoxious really detracts from the game.
awakenedfateinsert4Ultimately, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum ends up being a pretty decent dungeon crawler that gets bogged down by a cumbersome story and poor lead character. Challenging dungeons and okay RPG elements are overshadowed by the domination of a mediocre storyline presented in an incredibly pedestrian manner. I know the series has its fanbase, but I can’t help feel that this entry to the genre will be overlooked and quickly forgotten.

Abyss Odyssey (PC) Review

Abyss Odyssey (PC) Review

Abyss Odyssey disappoints – but not because it’s a bad game. No, Abyss Odyssey disappoints because every element looks astounding on paper. And then you pick up the controller.

A Rich, Original Setting.

The year is 1890 in Santiago, Chile. A powerful warlock sleeps beneath the earth, and his dreams have conjured monsters that are clawing their way to the surface. But not all his creations are evil. There are three playable characters – two women! – that seek to rouse the warlock from his slumber and stop the nightmare, if only for a time.

Many creatures in the game are inspired by Chilean mythology. There’s the Voladora, a witch whose transformation into a bird went horribly wrong. There’s the Camahueto, a one-horned bull that grows like a plant. There’s the Invunche, a monster created by acts of terrible cruelty to a newborn. If you’re tired of Tolkien-esque fantasy, you’ll find Abyss Odyssey incredibly refreshing.

Ornate Presentation.

ACE Team have made their game look like no other with the wholehearted adoption of Art Nouveau, a style popular during the time period. Its characteristic use of curvature and natural forms can be seen everywhere: columns, gates, vines, gardens, character portraits, even the user interface. Hitting the block button produces a kind of halo clearly inspired by the works of Alphonse Mucha.

The presentation also shines on a technical level. The use of lighting, motion and particularly depth make the environments feel alive, and the character models are colourful and richly detailed.

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Ambitious Ideas

It’s a shame Abyss Odyssey is more fun to look at than to play, especially considering how innovative ACE Team was in its design. The game itself does a poor job explaining its esoteric systems, so to summarize:

Abyss Odyssey aims to provide the depth of a fighting game in the shell of a 2D dungeon crawler. Win or die, equipment is temporary, but money and experience are not. The labyrinth leading to the warlock is randomly generated each time, and players can choose their route to avoid tough encounters or seek greater rewards. The full dungeon must be completed in a single sitting, which may alienate people with limited playtime.

Mana can be used to unleash a special attack that has a chance of stealing an enemy soul, allowing you to transform into it. The ability to play as some 30-odd creatures, each with their own move set, shows real ambition and adds some much-needed variety to your trips through the dungeon. If your character falls in battle, a simple soldier comes to your aid. If you die as the soldier, it’s back to the beginning of the dungeon – but if you can reach an altar, you can revive your main character.

A few merchants, bosses and NPCs are peppered throughout. One big highlight is the encounters with Paganini, the Demon Violinist. Players are offered a deal with the devil: if you accept a random item now, he’ll hunt you down for a boss fight later. In a game this difficult, the choice between useful equipment and avoiding another fight takes genuine thought. Every time you reach the end and defeat the warlock, you contribute toward more content being unlocked in the game. It’s a neat incentive that makes your repeated trips feel a little more worthwhile.

Frustrating Execution

The overarching systems in Abyss Odyssey are unintuitive but clever. The real problem that drags the whole experience down is the gameplay. Combat feels wooden and unsatisfying. Attacks are slow, and many have long animations, narrow hit boxes and short range. You’ll end up missing a lot, or getting hurt while trying to get in range. It’s also far too easy to get knocked down or to knock down your opponents, meaning you spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for one of you to get back up.

Abyss Odyssey Review

However, the game’s biggest sin is how hard it is to simply turn around. It’s oddly stiff, and you can’t do it when attacking, blocking, dodging or jumping. You’ll often end up attacking in the wrong direction by mistake, but correcting that requires you to drop your defences. Tactical options are limited: jumps aren’t “floaty” enough to make aerial combat or juggling practical, and your opponents don’t stay on their feet long enough to build combos. The result is choppy and repetitive – nothing like the fluid fighting games Abyss Odyssey tries to emulate.

With friendly fire on by default, co-op is often more trouble than it’s worth. It’s nearly impossible to avoid attacking through enemies and striking your partner on the other side. You can turn friendly fire off, but it bans you from the leaderboards and prevents you from contributing to the community goals.

There are also serious balance problems. Equipment costs far too much, considering it’s all temporary. There’s little point in playing through the game twice just to earn enough money to make the third trip easier. Mana builds too slowly as well, especially for only a chance at capturing an enemy soul.

Less than the sum of its parts

Abyss Odyssey is still worthy of praise: its distinctive inspiration, opulent visuals and ambitious design set it well apart from the rest of the pack. However, it’s hard to appreciate all that when wrestling with the controls or playing endless games of whack-a-mole with a peacock warrior. There was a lot of promise – but sadly, as the warlock believes, sometimes the dream is better than reality.

Demon Gaze (Vita) Review

Demon Gaze (Vita) Review

An Old School Adventure

The traditional “dungeon crawl,” as epitomized by the earliest computer role-playing games like Wizardry, is a nearly extinct genre. Many of its elements now appear in other genres, such as the action RPGs like Diablo and contemporary RPGs from both Japan and the West. It’s not often you get an honest-to-goodness, stubbornly old school throwback to those days when a game consisted of gearing up a party and just seeing what kind of loot and experience points you could get from exploring dungeons. Demon Gaze, however, is exactly that. With an anime/comedy tone draped on top. It’s just not much else.

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Otaku & Hardcore Combined

The story of Demon Gaze is, at least initially, a silly and trope-ridden plot. You start out as a cliché mute, amnesiac hero with no idea of how he (you don’t get any choice in race of gender, you’re stuck as a human male) ended up in a dungeon in need of rescue, let alone why he has the power to tame demons with his gaze alone. That never stopped anyone from having a good adventure though (and is often the cause of it), and so off you go to roam dungeons, get loot, level up, and ensnare demons by fighting them and adding them Pokemon-style to your collection so you can summon them to help you in battles. If you’re the sort that doesn’t mind silly/saucy anime comedy, then the suggestiveness and tangential comedy will probably be appealing. If you’re a little more politically correct, the game is sexist and baffling in its randomness, but it’s designed to appeal to fans of Japanese pop culture, not mainstream Call of Duty fans looking for more exploding Russians. This is where the game’s chief differentiators lie. It’s a budget game, done mostly with text, a bit of voice acting, and a lot of still images in the anime style. And then there’s that gameplay.

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And that gameplay consists of exploring dungeons with tough enemies, struggling with meager supplies that never quite feel like enough, and leveling up so you can explore newer, tougher dungeons for more loot and more XP. Combat is 100% turn-based, with none of the tweaks to the system introduced by other games such as Persona or Grandia. It’s a classic, old school dungeon crawler, and it is hard. Grinding is mandatory, checkpoints don’t exist—so remember to save early and save often—and even basic enemies can wipe you out if you’re not careful. On the other hand, despite the difficulty, it also has the one basic weakness of most dungeon crawlers; grinding will always allow a patient player to overcome everything. If one dungeon or demon boss is giving you trouble, go back to another dungeon and get into enough random encounters to gain some levels and make some money, then come back and feel overpowered. This is all very basic RPG game design that hearkens back to the 80s, and while that’s not a bad thing—especially for people tired of easy games—it’s not adding anything either. Demon Gaze is not broken in any way, but it’s not particularly addictive or appealing either. The loot is there, the XP is there, but the motivation to keep playing endlessly a la Diablo or Borderlands is not. It’s one interesting tweak is the ability to defeat demons and then use them as companions that can be summoned into battle with a set number of turns before they go berserk and turn on you. Even that feature isn’t much of a game changer since, once again, patient grinding can make the risk/reward mechanic of demon summoning irrelevant, as you simply don’t need to use the function. The only other tweak to the formula is a very Demons Souls-esque “Gazer Memo” system. It allows you and other players to leave messages that stay in the game “world” for everyone to read, but, as with Demons Souls, this is a mixed blessing of helpful hints and a LOT of sexual innuendo.

While there’s nothing wrong with a challenging game, Demon Gaze doesn’t really present the “tough dungeon crawler” in any new, interesting ways. If all you want is a portable, old fashioned stat-driven romp through dungeons for loot, XP, turn-based combat and some Japanese whackiness, Demon Gaze is a functional scratch for that itch. For people looking for something a little more substantial or modern, Persona 4 Golden is still the best bet on the Vita.