Friday, June 5, 2015

From Game Reviewer to Game Dev: The Struggle

I have had this site since I was a student in 1997, back when the Otaku Fridge was still hosted at GeoCities. It has launched my career in web development and eventually helped me get into the game development industry. I have written so many game reviews that are more detailed than my anime or manga reviews. You may have noticed, however, that I haven't been reviewing anything for the past few months.

I still could write game reviews when I became a game writer/tester and eventually a producer because the producer job entailed making sure all the developers were delivering on time while keeping the budget in check. Thing is, the longer I spent in the game industry, the harder it became for me to write reviews.

And that became even more difficult when I decided to go indie and become a developer myself. I look back at all the reviews I have written and I wonder how many developers' morale I have crushed with my words. Let's break it down into smaller, chewable pieces:

1. We already know our games' flaws before reviewers even mention them.
We learn a lot in video game studies and game design classes. We know all the design principles. We have testers to tell us what's wrong with our designs. Thing is, the implementation is not as easy as it looks. I've spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to make conflicting features work with each other and yet frustratingly fail about 60% of the time. Which leads us to cut some features out or we'd never get the game shipped. Sometimes, we only learn how to fix conflicts in the next iteration, the next game project. So yes, we know what reviewers want to say and we'd like to do it the way most reviewers say we should. Truth is, we can't always.

Many of us don't want to end up like these devs, whom I'm guessing have worn themselves out.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Persona 3 The Movie: 1 Spring of Birth

CREDITS: 2013 Atlus, AIC ASTA, Aniplex
DIRECTOR: Noriaki Akitaya
WRITER: Jun Kumagai
MUSIC: Shōji Meguro
PRODUCERS: Akira Ishida, Megumi Toyoguchi, Kōsuke Toriumi, Rie Tanaka, Hikaru Midorikawa, Mamiko Noto, Kazuya Nakai, Isamu Tanonaka, Miyuki Sawashiro

Persona 4 games
Persona 3 Movie: 1 Spring of Rebirth
Persona 3 Games
Persona 3 Action Figures
Persona 3 Books and Manga Description:
"If I told you that there's more than 24 hours in a day, would you believe me?"

"The Dark Hour:" the time which exists between each day. During those hours, the town stands still, the people are transformed into mere objects, and countless monsters called "Shadows" run rampant through the town. Only the Personas, beings with special powers, are able to combat these creatures. Makoto Yuki, a transfer student at Gekkoukan High School, is suddenly awakened with the powers to control a Persona. Yuki is recruited to join other Persona summoners of his school in the "Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad." As they continue to investigate the situations surrounding the Dark Hours, they all come face to face with their shocking fate...

Running Time: 91 minutes

Better if you've played the game. >>> by skysenshi

I have to admit that of all the Persona games I've played, Persona 3 is what I liked least. I saw the game as a transition from the darkness of the first three titles in the series and into the fun lightheartedness of the fourth.

But if there's one thing you will remember from Persona 3, it will always be the supporting characters. For me, specifically, it would be sophisticated and intelligent Mitsuru Kirijo and the boxer Akihiko Sanada.

I had no love for the silent protagonist, Makoto Yuki, so I was very detached from him when I finished the game. Heck, I even forgot the game's ending. To this movie's credit, Makoto's development as a character could actually be felt. He starts off seeming like a sociopath but then gradually develops a personality as he interacts with the other characters.

The women, Mitsuru and Yukari Takeba, are as fierce as they had been portrayed in the game. And Akihiko...well, I wish I could see more of him. The problem I noticed while watching Spring of Birth was that the events flow too fast. I appreciated that it reminded me of many game scenarios that I had forgotten but there were also some really fun aspects of the game that weren't shown due to the limited time. I wish they had turned this into a series, like Persona 4: The Animation, but I can also see that they might have problems keeping it as accurate as possible.

As usual, I have no complaints about the music. Yay for Shōji Meguro! If there's one thing that's constant throughout the Persona games, it would always be my appreciation for their soundtracks. I'm glad to see that they're utilizing the music to its fullest in the movies as well.

The visuals are also beautiful! Without so many words, the film visually conveyed the darkness that surrounded Makoto's environment and Makoto himself.

I haven't seen the second movie and I'm wondering how they're going to pull off the entire story with just three installations. I hope they slow down the pace a bit. (Which was exactly the opposite of my complaint about Persona: Trinity Soul, a spin-off non-canon series based on Persona 3, but that's for another review.) I was also disappointed that Makoto was the protagonist, actually. Yes, he is the canon main character, but his female version, for me, had better gameplay and story experience. She has a personality, too, and it showed despite her silence. It would have been more interesting to have her as the protagonist.

I can't say much else, except that it's a good addition to your gameplay experience. Again, a rarity in movie/TV adaptations of video games. That's the thing, though. I felt that the Spring of Birth would be incoherent to someone who has not played the game. It's just too fast-paced and have little time for character development. So game first, movie after.

Individual Rating: Art 10; Story 7; Characters 10; Sounds 10

Monday, July 28, 2014

Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist

Haven't done live action reviews in a while and this is a backlog post. Sorry about that!

Anyway, I'm not going to do a full-blown review because this series is so short, anything too descriptive might be too...spoiler-y. What I'm going to say is this: If you had your childhood destroyed by the 1994 live-action Street Fighter movie, this rebuilds your childhood and takes it to the greatest of heights.

At first, I had my misgivings about Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist despite seeing a very promising trailer in its Kickstarter page. But private backers resulted in it being pulled out of Kickstarter (thank goodness!) and I was not disappointed. The casting was perfect. (My first thought was: Oh, wow, they found a Ken who actually looks hot even when he seems like he is in dire need of a bath.)

And the story, though short -- it's a 14-episode series with 10 minutes run time per episode -- was very cohesive. Though I've seen some people complain about not seeing their favorite Street Fighter characters, I find that it leaves just enough for one season.

Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist revolves around the origin of Gouki and Gouken, plus the development of Ryu and Ken's relationship as brothers-in-arms. If you're not after the story, which, by the way, is as close to the game as it can possibly get (with a few compromises here and there), you'd have lots to enjoy from the fight scenes as well.

Anyway, don't just take my word for it. Go and watch it! This indie effort needs a lot of support and it has already proven that it can deliver. They also work quite fast, as they been showing some indications that they're already working on the second season.

You can watch the playlist through this:

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bravely Default

GENRE: Role-Playing
PLATFORM: Nintendo 3DS
CREDITS: 2013 Atlus
DIRECTOR: Kensuke Nakahara
PRODUCER: Tomoya Asano

Bravely Default Collector's Ed
Bravely Default for the 3DS
General Merchandise
The RPG You Should Be Excited About! (Demo Review) >>> by John Santillana

Bravely Default is a new RPG by Square Enix which was developed by Silicon Studio, the studio that created the game "3D Dot Game Heroes". It's a classic, turn-based RPG similar to the traditional Final Fantasy games. Basically, in this demo, your party is tasked with aiding the people of Ancheim. You talk to the townsfolk and get quests from them. You are also tasked with rebuilding the village of Norende (more on this later). So you run around town talking with the NPCs to fulfill their requests. There's a world map and specific areas/dungeons where you will be venturing to to complete the various quests in the game. Completing these quests grants you bonuses for use in the full version of the game. The interface and menus are simple and this is good for an RPG as it can get irritating if there are too many items to go through just to access one thing (I'm looking at you Mass Effect). Graphics are also simple yet beautiful both with the 3D slider turned off or on.

Bravely Default's gameplay system is similar to classic Final Fantasy which is turn-based with a twist. The game has a "Brave" and "Default" system which uses "Brave Points". Brave Points dictate how many actions you can do in a turn. If your Brave Points are 0 and you activate Brave, you basically borrow future turns in order to do multiple tasks in one turn. Be it using items, using a skill or just simply attacking. The drawback to using Brave is depending on how many times you use it, you leave your character open for a number of turns after based on your Brave Points. In contrast to "Brave" you can also decide to "Default". Doing so puts your character into guard mode. You take less damage from attacks and you gain 1 Brave Point. So now its up to you whether you would like to build up your Brave Points first or go out all from the start and risk taking the damage. Levelling up your characters (level cap for this demo is 20) is just like in any RPG. You just need to grind for it. You can also adjust the battle speed during encounters. Pressing the Right key on the d-pad increases battle speed (or fast-forward) while pressing the Left key decreases the speed and can even pause the battle. Battles occur randomly when walking around the world map and dungeons.

There are a total of 9 different job classes for the characters in this demo. These are Freelancer, Knight, Black Mage, White Mage, Red Mage, Ninja, Performer, Valkyrie and Swordmaster. But even though you select one of the classes, you are also allowed to choose the command abilities of another class. For example, if you select Black Mage as your main class, you can select the White Mage job command to access white magic spells. Levelling each class (the maximum level in the demo is 4) grants you access to specific abilities for that class. This system allows you to mix classes to what suits you. I personally love mixing the Knight and Swordmaster classes. You have the defensive abilities of the Knight and the counter abilities of the Swordmaster. Their look also changes with each of the different job classes. It's just awesome!

The game also has a "Summon" feature of sorts which makes use of StreetPass. When you recieve StreetPass from another player, you recieve whatever character they chose to send. You then bind that character to one of yours and they can summon the character from StreetPass. When summoned, they do a move which was selected by the player who sent it. It's a one time use thing though. If you want to re-use it, you'll have to pass that person again to restock.

Another part of the gameplay in the demo involves you managing people to do certain tasks to restore the Village of Norende. This part of the game I call Facebook-game-ish. How it works is you tap on an item on the town map to choose a task. Be it build a shop or clear a pathway to expand the village. Each task will require a specific amount of time to be accomplished. So you select the task then assign a villager to work on it. The more villagers assigned to the task, the less time it will take to be completed. You will only have one villager to work with at the start. If you want more, you will need to StreetPass other players who also play the game. Though at some point, one of the NPCs will send you one additional villager so that at least sort of helps. The one problem I noticed with this part of the gameplay though is that if you exit the game, the counter stops. So if you plan on building up Norende, you're not allowed to exit the demo (3DS on sleep mode with the game running is fine).

Final Word:
Overall, the demo has me exicted for the full version. It took me 13+ hours to finish it mainly because I was grinding to level up and max out all the job classes (I ended up maxing out their base level too!). The full game will be released on February 7, 2014. It's less than a month away and I can't wait! ^ u ^ 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMTIV)

GENRE: Role-Playing
PLATFORM: Nintendo 3DS
CREDITS: 2013 Atlus
Composers: Ryota Koduka, Kenichi Tsuchiya, Toshiki Konishi
Images: Art from RPGFan, panoramic view from (Other photos I took manually with a Samsung Galaxy Note cam.)

Artbooks and Manga
SMTIV game and merchandise
Everything Shin Megami Tensei Description:
The Eastern Kingdom of Mikado is a city of the chosen, sitting on high and protected all around by towering walls. Yet its people are at risk from an ongoing demon threat that the player as a newly appointed Samurai are duty-bound to fight against. Throughout the player's journey, they must choose their own path. The choices will affect them, other NPCs, and the overall outcome of the story. Decisions players make throughout the course of the story will have lasting repercussions, as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

A third-person RPG epic, Shin Megami Tensei IV is the latest addition to the main Shin Megami Tensei series. Developed by the award-winning ATLUS team, Shin Megami Tensei IV features powerful new demons, expansive dungeons, epic story arcs with branching plot lines, game-altering decision making, and more. Built specifically for the Nintendo 3DS system with optimized graphics, 3-D dungeons, voiced dialogue, and StreetPass functionality, Shin Megami Tensei IV is a premium title that should grace every RPG fan's collection.

A decade since the last release, the latest Shin Megami Tensei game introduces new features such as the digital demon lending, brought to life by the Nintendo 3DS StreetPass function. Use the 3DS' game coins to buy the ability of resurrection, allowing players to jump right back into the game without fear that the previous hours of hard work will go to waste. Taking advantage of the autosave and autoload functions will also save the player from encountering future problems.

Clap clap clap. >>> by skysenshi
Before everything else, I'd like to note that this game came with a Prima Strategy Guide (with design and art) and a soundtrack disc. I love Atlus for being consistent with their physical copy bonuses.

As for the game itself...

A turn-based RPG that feels both old and new. Literally and figuratively. The newer Shin Megami Tensei games in general have proven to effectively combine 2D and 3D so perfectly. Once you're immersed in the SMTIV world, however, you'll see that even the setting feels old and new. I can't really talk much without spoiling it for you but you will start off in seemingly Feudal Japan but then you have that computerized gauntlet. Finishing the first 5 hours of the tutorial session will bring you to a bigger world and with many other techie things to do. Besides that, I appreciated that the whole 3D environment did not make me dizzy like most 3D games do. I'm not sure if it's because I had a 3rd person avatar during exploration but switch to 1st person upon engaging in combat. Whatever formula it is they used, it worked. After the first 5 hours, the proverbial glove finally fit and I was able to weave my way through most dungeons with very little difficulty. (The operative words are "most dungeons", but we'll talk about that later.)

Smirking. Though the concept of stat distribution isn't really new in the SMT series, I went really weird with my build. I checked forums and saw that people were creating either Strength or Magic builds. I created a Luck build (with Dex and Agi stats being secondary) after noticing that doing critical hits make you smirk, a state which gains you extra advantages like increased critical hits and evasion. If, for instance, your entire party smirks, you can even regain half your HP and MP. This made it easy for me to breeze through regular and boss battles because I was always doing critical attacks, dodging deadly attacks/spells, and instantly killing off enemies. (I only ever used two swords for a long time and both of them have insta-KO effects.) Basically, this concept of "smirking" allows players to think out of the box with stat distribution and this gives each player a unique experience.

Demon conversations. One of the things I loved in Shin Megami Tensei games (and this disappeared in the last two Persona games, 3 and 4) is the fact that you can talk to demons. You can recruit them, extort money/items from them, even trade. Your party wouldn't be composed of human members, but demons. Your human friends only accompany you and they'll be controlled by AI. I find SMTIV's demon summoning system easier than the last SMT game I played (Soul Hackers) because in SMTIV, it doesn't cost anything to summon a demon. You don't lose any points for walking with them either, so you just walk, fight and summon at will. They also don't have attitude adjustment issues (unlike Soul Hackers demons). You can even buy "apps" (wow, so 2013!) that will allow you to gain more money and experience points when you talk to demons. Anyone who has ever missed the demon conversations in the newer Persona games will definitely appreciate this feature.

Androgyny. I love how I sometimes can't figure out whether my demons are male, female or a little of both. I mean, I've seen the same demons over and over in other SMT games but there's something about their voices here... Also, I noticed that the protagonist, though male, is also androgynous. If I localized this game in my mother language, the protagonist could be male or female (because we don't have gender distinctions in my language) and it was easy for me to forget his default gender because of how he looks. He could be just one tough-looking girl, like Lady Oscar of the manga Rose of Versailles.

The only female demon here is on the rightmost. The middle ones I am not sure of.

You can toggle difficulty. This game has a 5-hour tutorial period wherein you die many times before you actually get the hang of things. But see, if you don't reset whenever you die and just let the game take its course, your second death will open up the "Prentice" (Easy) mode. I found this feature very useful because there were many times I'd end up lost in an enormous map and find myself in boss domains far above my party's levels (sometimes even 10 levels above mine). Switching to "Prentice" mode makes it easy for you to get out of a sticky situation, and then you can easily switch to "Master" mode when you want to go back to not being a pansy. It's also handy when you've become dizzy and tired from all the dungeon teleporters. While it won't delete the nasty teleporters, it at least makes the tedious battles less tedious. You can simply switch back to "Master" mode when you've finally found the dungeon's boss.

Moral dilemmas. Like other Shin Megami Tensei core games, SMTIV has alignments that make you choose: Law, Chaos, Neutral and Nihilist. Thing is, SMTIV makes you think really hard about your own values as a person and not just as a gamer. "Law" makes me think of words like good, clean, orderly, and peaceful. Unfortunately, in this game, I also got the impression that non-monastery people who read books are to be considered filth. As an academic, I find this thought offensive. So then I turned to listen to the "Chaos" side, which talked of bringing about change. It still comes with a hefty in-game moral price tag, though. SMTIV basically makes you weigh what you'd value and it isn't always black or white. Conclusion: you have to think things through.

Some quirky characters. The first character I noticed was a bartender who looked like an older Kurt Russell in Escape from New York. His name also happened to be K. Next, I noticed that one of my favorite characters, Isabeau, is a manga addict and I highly suspect that she was reading Rose of Versailles (based on how she described the manga's protagonist). Isabeau, to me, is a breath of fresh air in a very dark game that has no shame in kicking you in the gut on your first real mission out of the tutorial dungeon. They can't make her too quirky, though, or she'd be in a Persona game instead of being in the core series.

Now tell me he doesn't look like Kurt Russell.

The map outside of your starting kingdom is confusing. Again, I can't spoil this for you but there's an area in this game that's exactly like an existing city. Unfortunately, the game is figuratively and LITERALLY dark. The guide that came with the game was hardly any help at all and I had to grab my geography books just to stare at said city's map. Swamps, rivers, and tracks are just about the same somber color that it was difficult to tell where I was or if I had gone beyond the destination. I felt like I was always clawing my way from one area to the next even though there were machines that let you travel from one area to another quickly. All that running around on inane errands in a super confusing map was exhausting!

Too many side quests. In connection to the horrible map problem, there will be side quests that ask you to run back to some areas that you absolutely cannot remember how you got into. Since the map exhausted me, there came a point (I think, on my 30th hour) that I decided to skip the side quests altogether. Unfortunately, if you wanted an ending that didn't make you feel like a disgusting person, you'd have to go through some required side quests. I neither had the time nor energy to bother so I left many of the last ones unresolved. I was dying to know the outcome of my choices so I thought the quests were in the way.

On the bright side, these quests will only bother you if they trigger your OC completionist side. If you're just in there to have a fun experience, then you can skip them entirely.

If you think the mini-map will be a great help, you're in for a surprise.
Image credits to JohneAwesome's YouTube channel because I couldn't get a clearer shot of the map.

The endings. Remember what I said about moral dilemma being good? Well, experiencing some cognitive dissonance will help keep you on a sane path. After some time, I realized that the choices being presented to me were becoming less and less reasonable and there were boss battles that questioned your ethics. I wanted to disagree with the options presented but disagreeing meant that the boss would get stronger.

Basically, you have three friends that represent an alignment each. This will be pretty obvious in the intro of your game. Walter with the spiky hair is Chaos, Jonathan with the afro is Law, and Isabeau is Neutral. Isabeau's path is the hardest to get because then you'd have to think carefully about your decisions and also do more side quests than you'd care to accomplish. I have a suspicion that most busy people would be so tired of the side missions that they'd rather go to YouTube and watch the other endings than go through more side quests.

So this was how I knew that I didn't like where I was headed...
SPOILER ALERT (highlight white text at your own risk): [Chaos path. I chose to go with Walter instead of Jonathan because Jonathan sounded like an overzealous religious fool, who would rather follow orders than question the current state of their world. Unfortunately, the deeper I got into Walter's path, the more psycho he became. Later, I was forced to forget Jonathan in order to win a boss battle. Then I found myself with Lucifer on my side, which wouldn't be so bad if he had not brutally eaten Walter in order to become stronger. WTF. I'm with Lucifer. And he ate my friend!!! As if things couldn't get more horrible, Isabeau, my favorite character, decided that I was going bonkers -- hell yeah, she was right! So I had to fight her -- except that at the end of the battle, she slit her own throat so that I wouldn't have to taint my hands with her death.] SPOILER END.

So I'm going to put Isabeau here because she hates spoilers.

A non-spoiler summary: Yep. It felt like I just killed a litter of puppies. I heard that choosing the opposite direction isn't any better. (Except for the fact that no one ate anyone so it wasn't bloody.) In any case, the feeling did not last because...

Damn dungeon warps. What is it with SMT games and their obsession for teleporter-filled final dungeons? Can't think of anything new? See how Wild ARMS did it. Though SMTIV's final dungeon isn't as bad as Soul Hacker's, it's still pretty annoying to be running around in circles and not knowing where you're headed next. That grief I felt after a major alignment decision? Gone. Replaced by sheer annoyance at the dungeon teleporters.

Still, I suppose this only affects the replay value of the game to me. I love SMTIV but I might not replay it. (Then again, I said the same thing about Persona 4 and in the end, I had to stop myself from replaying it a third time so I can move on to the next game.)

None. Shin Megami Tensei IV is a gorgeous game through and through. Sure, I had some disappointments, like they could've let me wallow in self-pity longer, but even then, you'd still notice the thought, hard work, and craftsmanship that went into this package. The gameplay is solid, the graphics and the music are beyond expectations. I think those things more than made up for my bitter ending and the annoying side quests. For all I know, the devs were just as tired and more than ready to move on to the next project. Or it could just be me having a hectic December that I've become The Grinch. I must say, SMTIV is still one of the best new games to come into our shelves and highly recommended for people who have longer breaks/vacation.

DIFFICULTY: Easy to Difficult
COMPLETION TIME: 55 hours and 59 minutes (including NG+)
HIGHEST LEVEL ACHIEVED: Level 61 for both protagonist and Nemissa
RATINGS: Gameplay 9; Battle 10; Story 9; Visuals 10; Characters 8; Sounds 9; Replay Value 5
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