Hexyz Force: Brilliant in its own modest way (1)

Since I purchased my PSP a couple of years ago, I appointed myself the pleasant mission of tracking down and purchasing every RPG available for the system. I can honestly say that I’ve performed well, since a good 95% of all PSP RPGs are now part of my precious collection. However, some games persistently slipped under the radar because of their rarity and collateral high prices. Hexyz Force is one of them, or used to be: I had had an eye on that game for a fairly long time before I finally managed to get my hands on a copy. The said copy cost me the hefty price of $60, which was still one of the cheapest prices that I’ve encountered for a full copy of that game. Understandably, I had very high hopes for Hexyz Force. However, I was also acutely aware that my hopes could ultimately be crushed: current games may be expensive because they are excellent and/or popular, but older games are primarily expensive because of their rarity, without any guarantee of collateral goodness. Fortunately, I was not to be disappointed this time: I totally loved Hexyz Force. It may not be an instant cult classic, but it is a surprisingly excellent game in its own quiet, subdued way. 

Let’s have a bit of data before I expand on that game’s tranquil goodness. Developed by Sting and released in 2009(jp) and 2010(na) for the PSP, Hexyz Force became a rarity in the West nearly as soon as appeared there. It avoided Europe entirely for no good reason and North-America was not exactly flooded with copies, which led to the current scarcity of the game. Sealed copies can sell for as much as $200; as for my own copy, it is obviously a second-hand one, albeit complete and in mint condition. At any rate, the lack of Western distribution of that game is a trifle puzzling: Hexyz Force is by no means a niche game, but rather a straightforward J-RPG that could definitely have found an eager audience in Europe. Atlus’ ways are sometimes unfathomable, indeed. That being said, let’s now move on to meatier topics and explore that game’s goodness! 

Quietly excellent

Hexyz Force may appear as a fairly classic J-RPG at first sight, with its turn-based combat, cookie-cutter characters and vanilla story involving the tracking of mysterious artefacts in order to prevent an upcoming apocalypse in a world where races wage war on one another. However, there is definitely more than meets the eye in all these departments, and the game reveals some unexpected originality under its apparent layer of RPG classicism; on top of that, and to make things even better, it boasts a rare and unmistakable quality that I would love to encounter more often in RPGs—but more on that later. 

For now, let’s concentrate on the others pieces of goodness, starting with the characters. They are cliché, that much is undeniable: from the strong-headed yet slightly clueless young lady to the brave and loyal knight striving for peace, without forgetting the expressionless Elf, the touchy princess and the lad who looks like a teenager but is actually several centuries old, everyone fits a J-RPG/anime trope in the book. However, Sting didn’t dive too deep in cliché territory and kept the trope factor to a minimum, preferring instead to expand the characters’ personalities through well-crafted dialogues and revelatory cutscenes. As a result, the whole crew comes across as lively and vibrant, and very much loveable. I developed an instant liking for my party and really cared for them deeply, and their ever-so-slight banality didn’t bother me one bit. There is a zesty tang of humour in their interactions, as well as a soft romance element that is handled in a pleasantly sober way (spoilers): Levant and Irene’s established relationship is comforting and heart-warming, and Cecilia and Rafael’s shy and gentle burgeoning love will make the heart of even the most hardened gamer flutter with sweet anticipation. (End of spoiler

The storyline follows the same pattern: it is not particularly original content-wise and does not pack any soul-shattering plot twist or heart-wrenching revelations, but it is told in a very convincing and well-crafted way that makes you care for what happens next. To make things even more interesting, it unfolds through two different routes, which you both have to play in order to get the full picture story-wise. This could be a case of fake longevity, if not for the fact that the two halves of the story remain perfectly understandable per se; playing the other half only refines the narrative and adds interesting details to the already known storyline. This is more of a case of two different teams of characters aiming for the same goal, whose respective paths meet occasionally and finally converge towards the end of the game. As a matter of fact, your final party comprises all the playable characters of the game, which gives you the pleasant—and rather rare—opportunity to tailor-make your party for the last boss fight—providing that you are ready for a bit of grinding in case you choose characters that were not in your party up until then. 

Let’s now explore the battle system, which is truly one of the highlights of Hexyz Force. It is fast-paced and dynamic, and can be even more so with the use of the fast-forwarding R button. (This option is truly a blessing, and I wish all RPGs could offer it.) This battle system is pleasantly easy to master yet offers some welcome depth thanks to a system of complementarity between the three attributes that infuse the various weapons of the characters. Add to this a handful of conveniently devastating special attacks that can be unleashed after you fill a special gauge and you get a fighting system that is classic yet incredibly smooth and efficient. To make things better, enemies are visible on screen and can be avoided providing that you run fast enough. However, it is not recommended to run away from encounters: Hexyz Force is one of these streamlined games in which fighting all the enemies you encounter will grant you enough XP to tackle all the challenges that come your way. In other words, no extra grinding is needed in that game—except if you change the composition of your party at the last minute, as I mentioned earlier. 

Last but not least in this goodness recital is the general user-friendliness of Hexyz Force. Here is a game that seems dedicated to make your life—and your gaming—easier through the implementation of a series of clever features that are not so often encountered in classic J-RPGs. One of them is the fast-forwarding button that I mentioned above, but there is more:

—A map of the current area is displayed at all times in the upper right corner of the screen. Not only does it spare you the annoyance of losing your time exploring dead ends, but it also conveniently shows chests, enemies, save points and “Force Sites” where you can restore your HP and MP (more on that later). What more could you ask for?

—The world map allows you to travel at will between places in an instantaneous way.  You don’t need to cross paths filled with monsters or to use impractical travel means to rally a given spot, which is incredibly neat. On top of that, once a place is discovered, it can be accessed at all times: no patronizing on the game’s part by preventing you from returning somewhere on the basis that the storyline doesn’t justify it. Now that is how I want my RPG to be. Freedom is mine!

Hexyz Force has one of the best sidequest implementations that I’ve ever encountered in a J-RPG. For one thing, the sidequests are as unobtrusive as they can be, while immediately identifiable as such; there is virtually no risk of mistaking a sidequest for an essential plot point in that game. For another, they can be cleared at all times, all the more so as all locations can be accessed easily; there is no such thing as a ridiculously narrow time frame to clear a sidequest, which is an absolute blessing. They are also pleasantly logical, and it doesn’t take any twisted thinking or exhaustive FAQs to figure out the right course of action. Last but not least, the game offers a quest log that details all the sidequests you unlocked. What’s not to love, seriously? 

Here ends my first survey of Hexyz Force’s placid goodness. I still have a lot to say, actually; but I am currently trying to make my posts a tad less stuffy, which means that I will take a break for the time being. My second post will cover what I consider to be Hexyz Force’s greatest quality, as well as the couple of minor flaws that I spotted during my run. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Coveted Games: Flying under the radar

I know that I've already written a wishlist for early 2015; however, some potentially interesting games managed to escape my sharp and ever-scanning eye. In addition, I have reconsidered my position about a certain high-profile title, which I disdained until now but may well be inclined to buy after all. Without further ado, let’s dive into the second part of my early 2015 wishlist!

Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed (Vita): There is no shortage of Hyperdimension Neptunia games on the Vita these days, and this title adds another entry to an already long list. It seems to pack lots of Hack and Slash goodness à la Dynasty Warriors, complete with a hefty amount of cuteness and an ever-so-slight dose of fan-service for good measure. I love to indulge in a good Hack and Slash every once in a while, which makes this game highly desirable; however, I am no gamer to be fooled by cutesy sprites and fan-service, and this game will be allowed a place in my precious collection only if its physics are rock-solid. 

Toukiden: Kiwami (Vita): The sequel to Toukiden: The Age of Demons, as the title abundantly implies. It packs new characters, new locations and a new story, and just like the first game, the trailer alone was enough to get me all hyped up about this game. Charismatic characters, great voice acting, gorgeous overall aesthetics, what more can you ask for? Well, great physics would be one thing, as well as camera moves that don’t make me vomit my lunch. I want this game, granted, but I will definitely check these two points carefully before I purchase Kiwami

Oreshika 2: Tainted Bloodlines (Vita): This is the sequel to Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke (Oreshika for short), a PSP remake of a Playstation game released only in Japan. Oreshika 2 mixes gorgeous stylised art, dungeon crawling and breeding mechanics and promises to be a smash hit—at least, I’m certainly looking forward to it. There seems to be some controversy about a certain character stealing your own family’s thunder almost constantly and de facto becoming the main focus of the game, but let’s be honest: as long as it doesn’t alter the gameplay in significant ways, I really don’t have an objection. Gaming hours are too short and precious to rant about ego issues. 

Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX (3ds): I don’t think I need to present Hastune Miku, the series that propelled a modest user interface to the coveted rank of gaming icon. Weirder things have happened in the world of gaming, but not many. At any rate, this is yet another iteration of the successful rhythm game franchise, and its inclusion in this list has more to do with curiosity than with fandom. I’ve never played a Hatsune Miku game, and I’m not even sure such games are right for me; but I’d like to see for myself what the fuss is all about. This 3ds entry seems to be a good starting point, with its bright colours and cute chibi sprites; I have to admit that Hastune Miku: Project Diva F on the Vita look a trifle too much like a copy-paste of The Voice or American Idol for my comfort. I want to play a videogame, not some kind of real-TV rip-off. 

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (3ds): Last but not least, here is the high-profile game that had be all riled up and fuming about remakes and ports stealing the limelight from brand-new games—as well as precious development resources. You’ll notice that I used the past tense: while I’m still annoyed that a mere remake should be celebrated with such fervour, I’m not as fervently opposed to the idea of purchasing that game as I used to be, and there is a crystal-clear reason for that change of heart. Beyond the laziness inherent to the act of remaking/porting and the ridiculous hype elicited by that port stands a truth that cannot be denied: Majora’s Mask is a brand-new game as far as I’m concerned. I never played it, and the only footage of it I’ve ever seen was the one used in the “Ben Drowned” creepypasta. I may have my opinions about remaking and porting, but I’m first and foremost a gamer in search of new gaming experiences, and Majora’s Mask is exactly that. I have to admit that the available footage from the 3ds remake caught my eye: sure, the overall blocky aesthetic hurts my retinas and reminds me why I retreated into retro gaming back in the late ’90s, but the sickly purple hue that seems to seep through every polygon is definitely enticing to my colour-hungry eyes. And it’s Zelda, after all. Heck, for all I know, Majora’s Mask may become the next entry in my Cult Classic list.

On the hardware side, February saw the Western release of the much-anticipated New Nintendo 3ds. Or is it, indeed? It’s hard to get a reliable feel of the hype surrounding the system; and for every gamer shedding tears of joy and ready to spend hundreds of whatever currency to get a limited edition of the beast, there seems to be a gamer grumbling that Nintendo releases way too many iterations of its handhelds. I stand somewhere in the middle, waving hesitantly between both sides. When the Monster Hunter 4 limited edition of the New 3ds became available in January, the beauty of that piece of kit caught my eye in such a way that I pre-ordered it instantly. However, I cancelled my pre-order the very day of the actual release, before the console was sent to me. I felt a trifle stupid for caving in to my collector’s instincts so readily and without pondering the matter. And after having done so, it turns out that I don’t really need to get a New 3ds right away, especially one packing Monster Hunter 4: I still have to check if I can tolerate the type of 3D used by that game, and there are not nearly enough exclusive New 3ds titles in the pipeline to justify a day one purchase. I will most certainly purchase a New 3ds sooner or later, if only to use as a back-up system; however, I will probably go for the regular model with interchangeable face plates rather than for the XL one. There will probably be more limited editions including interesting games, so it’s really just a matter of being patient and waiting for the right combination. And the infamous Majora’s Mask Limited edition, you may ask? Well, I didn’t even consider this option. Apart from the fact that it was virtually impossible to find, I was really not fond of the garish golden colour donned by the system. I would probably have canceled my pre-order as well anyway, so that settles the matter.

That’s all for the second part of my Early 2015 Wishlist. More Vita games, more discoveries, the months to come look bright indeed! And of course, you’re more than welcome to share your own coveted games in the comment section. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Sorcery Saga (2): Tips and tricks for a smooth roam

Here we are, back for my second post about Sorcery Saga. This post will be all tips and tricks, and I was not planning to write about such a matter at first; however, reading reviews about the game promptly convinced me that it wouldn't be such a bad idea after all. I was quite surprised to come across numerous reviews complaining that Sorcery Saga was too difficult overall and mourning the fact that you lose your equipment every time you die in a dungeon. Such complaints denoted not only a lack of awareness of the general gameplay mechanics of roguelikes, but also a lack of awareness of the gameplay mechanics of that particular roguelike. For, like I hinted in my first post, it is perfectly possible to hold onto your equipment in Sorcery Saga, and quite easily at that. Without further ado, let’s see how this can be done!

Kuu is the key

The key to success, that is. Despite its modest looks, Kuu is much more than a mere pet tagging along: the little creature can basically make the difference between a smooth and a rocky run of Sorcery Saga. Yes, that’s how tremendously important Kuu is. The little chap has many virtues that can come in handy; but for now, let’s concentrate on its most stellar one, which—you guessed it—is none other than being the safekeeper of your precious equipment.

Here’s how things work in practice. The dungeon crawling comes to an end as soon as Pupuru is taken down, regardless of whether Kuu is still standing or not; you are then sent back to town empty-handed, in classic roguelike fashion. However, there is a twist to these mechanics: if Kuu is indeed still conscious when Pupuru faints from enemies’ blows, he will take your equipment back to town for you, where it can be donned and used again right away. This works at all times, regardless of whether your equipment is tagged with an ID Scroll or not, and this is basically the supreme trick to progress smoothly in Sorcery Saga

From what I’ve read, most Sorcery Saga players seem to be unaware that Kuu can save your equipment—and the day—in such a way. And this is not so surprising given the nature of the gameplay mechanics involved: since Kuu can lose consciousness without ending the roaming and be reanimated at all times with all sorts of items, it can be really tempting to use the little chap as a convenient shield and let him take blows instead of Pupuru. However, by a vertiginous and highly ironic twist of gameplay mechanics, the safest way to play is actually the other way around. If anything, Pupuru herself should be used as a shield for Kuu when the going gets tough in order to ensure that all the hard work you put into upgrading of your equipment will not be lost when defeat strikes. And don’t even think of letting Kuu starve in order to spare items: the fuller the ever-hungry creature is, the further you are from losing your equipment at defeat’s doors. “Keep Kuu full at all times” should be a cardinal rule in Sorcery Saga, indeed: as long as the little chap has a shred of satiety in him, your equipment is as safe as it were tucked away in your room. Remember this and act accordingly, and losing your finely honed equipment should be only a distant nightmare. For the record, I didn’t lose my sword and shield a single time through the whole game despite dying a good number of times, sometimes in entirely stupid ways. (The most stupid death was probably when I pressed the wrong button and accidentally lashed my sword at a Dungeon Merchant instead of paying him, after which he head-butted me to death. But I digress.) I remember once being cornered in a Monster House with no Healing Items or Spells and no Transport Book, and monsters so numerous around us that it was pretty obvious that we were headed for a defeat. Instead of flailing about and delivering useless blows, I used my last turns to throw items at Kuu in order to keep him alive and well; and when the last blow fell on Pupuru, the deed was done and the conveniently sated Kuu dutifully brought my precious equipment back to town. 

Overall, Pupuru and Kuu are really two sides of the same coin: you cannot separate them and treat Kuu as a convenient extra shield. This is actually a very interesting and rather original gameplay feature: allies controlled by the CPU are usually mere commodities that can be used at will with no dire consequences, but not so in that game. Kuu is more than a useful ally or even a part of your team: he is actually you, although this may not be obvious at first sight. You incarnate Kuu as much as Pupuru in Sorcery Saga, and taking them both equally into account is the key to smooth progression. 

Extra treats for the road

To complete the exposition of this very important gameplay mechanic, here are a couple of tips that should definitely prove handy and make your dungeon-crawling easier. Enjoy those yummy side dishes!

—Cursed items have no effect whatsoever on Kuu and will fill him all the same, so don’t hesitate to feed him any cursed item that you don’t want to hold onto.

—If your attempt at cooking curry fails and produces an inedible plate of curry, do not despair! Cursed Curry, as it is called, can be thrown at enemies to paralyse them. Incredibly handy during boss fights, as you’d expect.

—As a whole, all cursed items can deal various amounts of damage to enemies, so don’t hesitate to experiment with such items. I once disposed of a boss solely by throwing a cursed item at him; the thing dealt 300 points of damage, and the boss instantly became history. Too bad I cannot remember what this amazing item was. Oh, well. 

—The game rewards the continuous use of weapons and shields in the most pleasant way: as you cleave your way through dungeons while relying faithfully on the same equipment, said equipment will somehow level up. Not only will it become stronger, but special slots will also become available: these slots are visible in the item’s description and can accommodate a variety of so-called Seals with awesome effects, from protection against thievery to stats bonuses, without forgetting the good ol' elemental immunities—and many, many more. To help you make your choice, an exhaustive list of all Seals and their effects is available in town at the Library. Each piece of gear can hold up to five Seals and some of these Seals can really turn the tables, so stick to your weapon and shield!

—The fusion process has some limitations but can still be played to your advantage. There are two types of weapons available, namely Swords and Staves. If you decide to a fuse together, say, a Sword +5 and a Staff +2, you will obtain neither a Sword +7 nor a Staff +7, as extra points/ranks can only be transferred between similar weapons. Classic, shall we say. However, if you fuse together a Sword with an X Seal and a Staff with a Y Seal, you will indeed obtain either a Sword or a Staff with both Seals—providing that the base weapon holds enough empty slots, of course. This is a neat trick to obtain the Seals you want more easily and it should be used and abused without the slightest hint of shame, especially since some of the Seals are pretty rare. 

This addendum dedicated solely to tips and tricks is now coming to an end, and I hope that its content will prove useful to any player wishing to ease their way through Sorcery Saga. There are certainly more gameplay mechanics to uncover, as is usually the case in roguelikes; but they will have to wait for my next run. If you are aware of a secret that I didn’t mention, feel free to expose it in the comment section; and if you are planning to play Sorcery Saga, I wish you tons of fun and bon appétit! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!