19 hours of play, I am finally done with Explorers of Sky. I didn't fully explore the vast postgame territory as I initially planned, quitting instead in the early stages of Zero Isle. Although my postgame endeavours had started well with a quick and nice exploration of Mystifying Forest, things got rougher as I started progressing through the North part of Zero Isle. Traps were overabundant, ennemies were powerful and, cherry on top of the tediousness cake, I was not gaining levels anymore. After 15 floors, I also started suspecting that Zero Isle would be a ridiculously huge dungeon; a quick research on the internet confirmed that hunch, which turned out to be the proverbial last straw that prompted me to stop playing. I don't want my warm feelings about that game to be spoiled by a frustrating trudge through punishing dungeons, so I'll wisely abstain from clearing the rest of the postgame content altogether.
I'll abstain all the more so as I already had my share of fun while clearing the main game. I certainly got much more enjoyment out of Explorers of Sky than I had bargained for: I initially only wanted to get over my grudge and give another chance to the DS instalments of the series, yet I ended up loving Explorers of Sky even more than Gates to Infinity. Here's a list of all the features that made this game so pleasant to me:
—The story was excellent and told in a very convincing way. From the mundane beginnings to the unexpected plot twist, followed by the sudden discovery of higher stakes and crowned by a sweet emotional ending, the pacing was pitch-perfect. Talking about the emotional ending, I shed a tear or two while witnessing it, and I'd wager that I'm not the only one. Cutscenes were a precious few and judiciously dispatched while avoiding dialogue overdose, making for a pleasantly compact and streamlined storytelling that never treaded on the gameplay's territory.
—The crawling was pure pleasure thanks to a winning combination of good dungeon design, lovely graphics and stellar music. Although the dungeon design of Explorers of Sky cannot be described as truly clever or excellent because of its randomized nature, it was still quite palatable: dungeons sported a reasonable size, with an average floor size that gave room for exploration without being overwhelming and a decent number of floors, and many dungeon layouts displayed patterns that could be used to streamline the crawling. The graphics were definitely finer than in Blue Rescue Team, with a abundance of exquisite details that made every dungeon unique. Last but not least, the crawling was crowned by a stellar soundtrack comprised of dozens of beautiful and complex themes that caressed the ear without ever becoming irritating.
—The overall atmosphere was really lovely and soothing. I love mellow games that are welcoming to the player and make them feel at home, and Explorers of Sky was exactly that. This kind of sweet atmosphere was what I initially expected to find in the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series and failed to feel in Blue Rescue Team, so I'm glad I could feel it in Explorers of Sky. The settings were so enchanting that I even felt a bout of that gaming fernweh I already mentioned in my post about Astonishia Story: I wanted to be there, to explore that world myself instead of gazing at it on my DS screen.
And since I'm mentioning my DS screen, I can also say that Explorers of Sky reignited my love for the Nintendo DS and reminded me how much I actually fancy that system and its special brand of gaming. DS games have a visual style, a sound, an overall atmosphere that are unique and instantly recognizable and that I absolutely adore. I have somehow deserted my DSi these last months to concentrate on my Vita, but I feel now that it is time to lavish some love on it again. I have literally dozens of DS games to play yet, and I could use some positive Nintendo-related experiences after my recent disappointments with the 3ds. So until my next DS game, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!
My exploration of the Joker Route led me first to its ridiculously numerous bad endings. We're talking about seven bad endings there, people, and I uncovered all of them first thing. Six of them belong to the 'branching path' category and can be smelled from afar; of course, I had to see what they had in store for me, and I jumped into the lion's den with some giddy masochistic satisfaction. Oh, the fun of being killed in a million different ways! I was murdered by Ukyo, kidnapped by Toma, crushed to death, burned alive and so on, in a deliciously gruesome display of bad luck. The seventh bad ending is tied to the Parameters and happens if the Trust and Affection Gauge are not filled enough after the other six bad endings have been successfully dodged. This was the last bad ending I uncovered; and after witnessing that most entertaining collection of grisly outcomes, I started hunting for the better endings in earnest.
I must insert a disclaimer here; although I unearthed that ultimate good ending all by myself, I have to admit that I didn't manage to pinpoint the exact requirements for uncovering it. My winning strategy involved uncovering all the memories from other worlds involving Ukyo and dodging the memories from the Joker Route involving anybody else while simultaneously trying to max up the Trust and Affection Gauges. My reasoning was that if I managed to avoid all memories of the Joker world until the scripted event that would trigger the memory of my encounter with Ukyo in that world, then Orion would not separate from me and would be able to save the day, leading me straight to the good ending. It turned out that this reasoning was unvalid and that Orion being kicked out of my consciousness was actually a scripted event as well; yet my strategy ultimately paid off and generated the good ending. Since I had reached completion at long last, I didn't play a test run in which I could have checked the validity of my hypothesis regarding the requirements for the good ending, for instance by triggering memories of the Joker world involving other persons than Ukyo. That is why to this day, I don't know if the good ending is tied to the Parameters, to the recovering of the memories of Ukyo from other worlds or to a mix of both. Well, that question will have to linger unanswered until my next playthrough of Amnesia:Memories.
Next and last is my report on the Joker Route, and then I'll be done with Amnesia Memories. Until that final post, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!
Heart and Spade Routes, the Clover Route doesn't offer the merest shred of a clue to help the player figure out which memories they are still missing. These missing memories could be absolutely anything at all for all the player's knowledge, which forbids any kind of speculation and kills the suspense before it can even be born. Things get even worse when said missing memories are finally revealed, because the plot twist they introduce can only be described as weak at best. Learning that Toma had attacked me in the Heart Route and that Ikki was the unwitting victim of some kind of creepy love trafficking in the Spade Route had some interesting shock value, but the sudden revelation that I had been in love with Kent all along and that I was actually referring to him when I told him about my heartbreak came accross as inane and maudlin. The whole route came across as inane and maudlin, if I have to be totally honest: it solely revolved about my totally unfascinating and awkward love story with Kent, conveniently sprinkled with pieces of cheap sentimentalism such as the episode with the dog. My character was also considerably more passive and whingeing than in the other routes and Kent managed to come across as ruder, duller and more annoyingly overbearing than Shin and Ikki combined, which is quite the feat. I started feeling some lassitude after my third run, hence the use of an FAQ to unlock the last bad ending—which I wanted to witness, yet not enough to risk failed runs by searching for it myself.
That's all for the Clover Route, fellow gamers! I'll see you soon with a post about the Diamond Route. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!
And so did I. The opening quiz produced Pikachu—to my mild surprise, since I had tried hard to obtain that Pokemon in Blue Rescue Team and failed entirely. I had already played as Pikachu in my run of Gates to Infinity and wanted to try out another 'Mon, so I took the quiz a second time... And landed Pikachu again, to my utter surprise. Well, I guess it was destiny! I thus went with Pikachu and selected Skitty as my partner, because hey, I just cannot resist cats. Especially if they're kittens. I decided from the get-go that this would be a duo run because a) I didn't feel like levelling up other 'Mons and b) The Lucky Critical's review had conveniently revealed that the last dungeon had to be tackled with your partner only, so better get used to it right away! And so, I dove into action with that colourful fury duo.
After 14 hours of said action, I am literally glued to Explorers of Sky and loving it more by the hour. I certainly didn't expect that in the beginning, given how slow and unimpressive were the early stages of the game. I was not allowed to tackle more than one mission at once, which was annoying as my greatest desire was to Crawl'n'Grind. Each mission was preceded and followed by unskippable cutscenes taking place at the Guild; and although these scenes were kind of cute and helped establish a sense of belonging to the Guild, they became irritating after a while. There was an annoying mini-game that further ruined the already slow pacing, and the story consisted of fending off the attempts at stealing food perpetrated by a team of cartoonish ruffians. All that was rather vapid, and although the game was much more pleasant than Blue Rescue Team, I was not exactly glued to it. I would play only once in a while, clearing a mission or two before closing my DS and diving back into Demon Gaze.
Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt either that the game looks and sounds amazing. This is a late-era DS game, and it show beautifully: the colours are splendid, the graphics bristle with exquisite details and the 'Mons detailed animations are absolutely adorable. There is a staggering graphical gap between that game and Blue Rescue Team, and it's all for the best given how primitive the latter was in that department. As for the soundtrack, it is a pure piece of ear candy with dozens of tracks in various styles, most of them being considerably more complex than what you'd expect to find in a Pokemon spin-off aimed mainly at kids.
Although I'm not done yet with my playthrough, I can safely say that the DS branch of the series has totally and beautifully redeemed itself thanks to Explorers of Sky. It has done so to such extent that I'm even considering giving another try to Blue Rescue Team, the game that started the grudge in the first place. Or former grudge, should I say, because this is now a thing of the past. The present is all about playing Explorers of Sky and enjoying it to the fullest, and you can expect more writing about that game before I'm done with it—and after, for that matter. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!
The Spade Route was quite different from the Heart Route in terms of narrative logic. Unlike the Heart Route, the Spade Route didn't offer me an enormous and conveniently obvious clue on a silver plate to let me know what memories I was missing and how to retrieve them. Ikki was also significantly harder to decode than Shin, and his feelings and intentions toward me were murkier. As a result, my first run ended up on two of the three bad endings, which was not exactly encouraging.
This opening run led me first to the "I'll get rid of those who hurt you" ending. This is a 'branching path' type of ending that is triggered by a single answer, regardless of everything that happened before, so it's actually quite easy to avoid once you know the crucial dialogue choice leading there. Since I didn't know, I fell prey to that ending and had to joy of witnessing my own demise at the hands of Ikki's crazy fan club members. My, what a chilling outcome! I was expecting to be murdered by Ukyo again, so this came as a total surprise. How many psychopaths are hovering around me, exactly? Anyway, I reloaded my last save file presto and kept playing, and unearthed the "I wanted us to live together" ending at the end of that first playthrough. Not too surprising, given that I had been instinctively odious to Ikki from the get-go. Still, getting two bad endings in a row stung a bit.
That's all for the Spade Route, fellow gamers! It was a challenging and fun route despite Ikki's irritating behaviour. I'll see you soon with my report about the Clover Route. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!
So, here's my run in a nutshell. I played for 38 hours, which is quite a reasonable amount of time for a dungeon crawler, and reached Lv. 72. I stuck to the same three Artifacts the whole time, namely Counter, Killer Edge and Slash (1 then 2), as they were perfectly fit for a solo run; the last two slots accommodated whichever extra Artifact I found, although none of them stuck for long. My favourite and most used demons were Mars, Chronos, Venus and Neptune; I occasionally cruised around with Comet, Hermes, Uranus and Pluto and never touched Jupiter and Astro. I obtained very few pieces of gear, usually sticking to the same ones for hours on end; this occasionally created slight unbalance problems, as I found myself overpowered by enemies because of my outdated equipment. I farmed gear very seldom and never needed to grind for money since I was playing solo; I level-grinded only twice, namely before the very first and the very last boss fight of the main game. And that, fellow gamers, is the gist of my run. Now let's move on to the good and not-so-good points of Demon Gaze!
I won't elaborate further on the lovely atmosphere, the solo run-friendliness and the awesome roaming since I already covered them in my first post. Instead, here are the new positive points that I discovered since:
- The fan-service is pleasantly varied, catering to every potential audience in equal measure. There's plenty of bare skin, bosoms and revealing outfits, both on males and females. Shotacon and lolicon adepts should be most fond of Lulu, Kukure and Prometh, while the yaoi crew will lap up Cassel and Lezerem's constant bickering and sentences such as Astro's "Take me with those eyes"—addressed to the main character in a deep, nearly sultry voice, of course. Yuri aficionados are not forgotten and get a pleasant treat with Pinay's hilarious obsession with Fran. It's nice to find such an open-minded stance about fan-service, and the pervasive humour at work in the game makes that inclusive brand of fan-service even more palatable.
- The boss fights are totally awesome, period. For a more elaborate take on the matter, check out my boss run posts here, there and there.
- Instead of getting steadily larger, the dungeons inflate and deflate at random throughout the game. The largest and trickiest dungeon of the main game, Grimodar Castle, is located at the halfway mark, while the last and second-last dungeon are even tinier than the very first one, and in-between can be found dungeons of all sizes. This variety keeps the crawling fresh and interesting and injects a modicum of pacing into it. Cherry on the cake, the dungeons always remain easy to navigate and don't overuse cheap traps and tricks to disorient the player and increase the game's longevity.
- The soundtrack is pure ear-candy—to the point that I was just that close to purchasing the special edition of the game for the OST only. A special mention to the theme track of Fall Palace, a.k.a. "Eden of the Monarch". These choirs!! This orgel!! Oh, the delight!! This track is the epitome of grandeur and one of the best pieces of music I've ever heard in a video game, period.
- The demons ooze charisma, so much so that I grew seriously attached to them. I really appreciate that so much effort was put into designing their looks, clothing, attitudes and speech patterns, making them sparkling and magnetic despite the fact that they are not even animated. Cherry on the cake, the voice acting is absolutely stellar, and I couldn't get enough of my demon foils' babbling. And it certainly doesn't hurt that they shine in battle and grant so many passive abilities, now does it? They are simply awesome, and I wouldn't be surprised if I miss them when playing my next first-person dungeon crawler.
- The romance with Fran was heart-warming and refreshing—just like the rest of the story. I half-feared that Fran would turn out to be the Real Final Boss in disguise, but these fears were unfounded; instead, I got a lovely "let's live together at the Inn forever!" ending that warmed my soft gamer's heart.
The "could have been a trifle better":
- I was none too pleased with the fact that the best gear had to be farmed in Demon Circles, preferably with Increase, Strenghten and Gold/Silver/Bronze gems. Regular monster drops are few and far between and mediocre for the most part and the selection available at the Inn is absolutely pitiful, which means that farming is not an option but rather the only way to get something valuable; and to be honest, I resented that. I love grinding, yet I dislike farming; and I would definitely have preferred to grind for money in order to buy ludicrously expensive yet powerful pieces of gear in Cassel's shop rather than to try my luck in Demon Circles and manically reload my save file until I got a good drop. I'm not saying it's an horrible system per se, mind you; it just didn't click with me.
- The Ether Forge was an awesome idea, but why put limitations on the strengthening? And why are these limitations totally random? It doesn't make sense that some pieces of gear can be strenghtened up to Lv.30 while others can only reach Lv.10. I would have preferred to have access to unlimited strengthening, be it against a hefty sum of money.
- The Treasure Maps were an great idea on paper, but the execution was flawed. Each individual map occupies one of the 99 available item slots in the inventory, so carrying these maps around at all times quickly becomes impossible; and once they are tucked away in the Inn's Storage, it's all too easy to forget about them entirely. It certainly doesn't help that most of them refer to places that belong to postgame territory and that they don't mention the name of the dungeon itself, but rather the name of the dungeon subsection where the item can be found, which forces the potential treasure hunter to do a lot of scanning and double-checking. Add to this the fact that the obtained treasures are items rather than pieces of gear and you'll understand why, as my run went on, I got into the habit of selling these maps as soon as I came back from roaming.
- Only three Demon Slots, no matter how much you level up. That's plain stingy, game!
- Instant deaths because my "weakness was exploited", as the game kindly puts it. And no, Poinee Dolls don't work in such instances—tried and tested. Now that's plain cheap, game!
Well, well. That's all about Demon Gaze for the time being, but I'm far from being done with that game. I loved it with a passion and still do, and I can assert with absolute certainty that this precious cartridge will grace my Vita slot again. And now, on to the next first-person dungeon crawler! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!
Interestingly, what fascinates and enthralls me so much in that game is not the romance side or the cast of bachelors. The romance is both utterly cliché and too twisted to feel rewarding, and the potential sweethearts are downright unlikeable, so these blooming relationships don't make my heart flutter in the slightest. What rivets me and glues me to my Vita screen is the challenge set by the game, which is none other than to try my hardest to figure out how to get all the available endings.
Unlike Steins;Gate, Amnesia:Memories sports a solid dose of logic when it comes to narrative developments. It is actually possible to determine which course of action must be followed in order to get a given ending, and bad endings can be smelled from afar. Likewise, it is pretty easy to figure out which dialogues are relevant to the plot and which ones are idle babbling that won't alter the course of events. The gauges that can be found in the "Parameters" options of the menu also help tremendously as they allow a close monitoring of the consequences of dialogue choices, as well as the fact that already chosen dialogues options are highlighted in subsequent reruns. Using all these clues as well as rational thinking, I cleared the Heart Route and managed to unearth the good end and the normal end as well as one of the two bad endings all by myself, and I'm quite proud of that feat. (SPOILERS ahead!)