Summer gaming break!

As the title abundantly implies, this is a brief message to let you know that I'm taking a summer gaming break of sorts, dear fellow gamers. I've being playing games quite consistently these last months; as a result, not only are my thumbs and wrists experiencing some serious strain, but I'm starting to feel a teeny-weeny bit of gaming fatigue. On top of that, this is summer, and my whole being craves the outdoors. I've thus decided to indulge in a retreat away from gaming and blogging until the end of July, after which I'll go back into business full force. I'll see you in August with fresh posts, dear fellow gamers! Until then, enjoy your summer! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright—Done and dusted

King Garon is no more, and thus I'm back for my final post about the Hoshido side of Fates.

The final showdown was not as excruciatingly hard as I had feared, but that's not saying much given the forgiving difficulty parameters I chose at the beginning of my playthrough. I tremble at the though of tackling an old-school entry of FE and having to deal with permadeath and its harsh consequences—and I'm thinking first and foremost about fake longevity there. I wouldn't have minded tackling a given battle ten times in a row in order to let all my units escape unscathed when I was a teenager starved with games, but I certainly would mind now that I have a backlog the size of the Everest to polish off. Oh, well; no need to worry about future FE playthroughs now, I guess. I'll see how it works out when I play these intimidating older entries; and in the meantime, let's move back to the subject at hand, namely the end of my run.
I'll be honest: although I'm quite delighted with my Birthright playthrough and proud of the feats I managed to accomplish as a complete beginner, I'm harbouring sour feelings towards Fates right now. The reason is pretty simple: as I witnessed the purposefully vague and unconclusive ending that unfolded at the end of my 16-hours run, I realised that Fates was not the game I had imagined. Before purchasing it, I assumed Fates was a trilogy of standalone games à la Pokemon, only with a wider range of narrative variations; however, Birthright forced me to confront the awful truth—Pokemon this is not, indeed. Far from being the triumvirate of SRPG masterpieces I pictured in my eager mind, Fates is one big pie of a single game that was arbitrarily divided into three portions—each portion being then sold for the price of the full pie. Birthright is not solid and meaty enough to stand as a game in its own right, and it takes but a playthrough to realise it. Not only were there still heaps of unanswered questions when the credits rolled, from the true nature and purpose of Azura to the reason why Garon changed so much lately, but I was also left unsated and craving for more. This was not due to the shortness of my run per se—I've played plenty of 15-hours playthroughs that left me deeply satiated—but rather to the fact that Birthright is a truncated game that cannot offer a fully satisfying gaming experience.

Now, to cut a standalone game in three and sell it as three distinct games—with the matching price tags, obviously—is definitely a rip-off and a swindle in my book. I have a hard time believing that Nintendo pulled off such a dirty sham, and yet the facts are there: I forked out $120 to get the full Fire Emblem Fates experience, courtesy of Ninty and their money-mongering schemes. After the region-locking, the shortage of games and the gimmickry, this was definitely the last straw for me, and I thus officially declare that I will stop supporting Nintendo at the end of the 3DS' tenure. Granted, they are the company that single-handedly got me into gaming twice, and that should count for something; but although I'm obviously forever grateful for the major part they played in my gaming career, I never let the past cloud my assessment of the present—and my assessment of Nintendo's current policies is scathing. I don't like their decisions and haven't done so for quite some time, and that shameless Fates scam is the last indignity I will suffer at their hands. There will thus be no more Nintendo handhelds for me, even if this implies renouncing future Pokemon entries. I don't think I'll be missing that much anyway, given that they seem to have become unable to develop their own IPs on their own machines in what can be considered a decent amount of time.

Rants and pledges asides, I won't pick up Conquest or Revelations right away. I spent 33 hours toiling through Birthright, only to be left feeling unsated and cheated when the credits rolled; I thus need some time away from Fates to nurse my wounds and rekindle my desire to play that game. But fear not, dear fellow gamers: I'm definitely planning to polish off the whole package, all the more so as the gameplay itself was quite satisfactory. Let's thus meet later to savour the rest of the Fates pie, shall we? Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Atelier Rorona Plus: My (great) work here is done

After 14 hours of alchemic deeds, I'm done with Atelier Rorona Plus. Although I managed to clear all assignments with three-star rankings—bar the last one, which reaped only two stars—the fact that I totally neglected to build up my popularity during my playthrough meant that I could only pretend to the Normal Ending and its rather uneventful outcome. I have to admit that for the time being, I really can't fathom how I could have cranked up my popularity to the sky-high levels required for the better endings. I mean, I hardly had enough time to fulfill the assignments, let alone run errands for the townspeople! I guess this is manageable with more experience, and I'm pretty sure seasoned Atelier players can get all the endings with their hands tied behind their backs. What I'm also pretty sure of is that I won't ever become one of them.

At some point in the game, Rorona's mercurial master Astrid asks her if she loves alchemy, and I couldn't help but take that question personally. Do I love alchemy? Well, not quite. I obviously like it to some extent, given that I cleared the whole game without having to force myself too much; but my feelings for virtual alchemy are pitifully tepid when compared to my burning love for all things grinding, roaming and crawling. To put it simply, there are at least half a dozen RPG subgenres that I love more than alchemic RPGs à la Atelier. I certainly didn't expect that; as I mentioned in my last post about Rorona, I expected to adore the series and enjoy it deeply. Alas, a blast this was not. Although I finally managed to relax and get used to the gameplay, I was never really enthralled by the game. I plodded through the whole thing, doing only what was strictly necessary to progress and never feeling compelled to accomplish more. Not that I could really have, anyway; I don't have the knack for multi-tasking, neither in real-life nor in videogames—and the game didn't really accommodate me with its somewhat unclear interface and messy gameplay. (For instance, the fact that recipes sometimes require a specific trait rather than a specific ingredient was too complicated for my taste; I would have preferred to deal solely with clear-cut base ingredients.)

All in all, my biggest issue with Rorona's gameplay lies in the degree of freedom alloted by the game, which I would describe as too large to be reassuring yet too narrow to be exhilarating. Rorona offers neither the compelling and fulfilling freedom of dungeon-crawlers—a favourite gaming subgenre of mine—nor the stimulating and challenging constriction of puzzle and adventure games—another favourite subgenre of mine. The former allow a seemingly limitless number of ways to play while the latter tolerate only a single one; they are standing at opposite ends of the freedom spectrum and are riveting because of their extreme nature. Rorona, on the other end, lounges somewhere in the middle of the spectrum—with the lack of intensity to match. This is a game that requires the player to do their best in a given time and with a limited amount of resources; in practice, this means that there is neither a single suitable way nor thousands of them to play your way out of an assignment, but rather a general course of action allowing a limited number of variations. Deviate too much from that stringent course of action and you'll get a Game Over as a punishment for your wayward ways. The same kind of limited freedom can be found in Fates, and I'm starting to think that this is actually the essence of strategy as a gaming genre. "Do your best with what you're given, and try again if you're not happy with the result" could be the motto of such strategy-flavoured games. While I'm adamant that I can never come to love these games as much as I adore dungeon crawlers and puzzle/adventure games, I'm pretty sure that I can learn to genuinely like and enjoy them on the long run.

When all is said and done, I'm definitely not swearing off Atelier games. Although my playthrough of Rorona was not the most enrapturing run of my gaming life, it was still pleasant enough to make me want to play the other Atelier games I own. I will just play them my way, accepting my limitations and focusing on what I feel capable of accomplishing without fretting over what I'm missing out. On the other hand, I don't think I will invest in any more Atelier games from now on, and I highly doubt I will ever replay Rorona in particular. My only hope now is that the other Atelier games I own will somehow prove more interesting and gripping than Rorona. Hope springs eternal in the heart of the gamer who wants to recoup their investment, indeed! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Fire Emblem Fates: The end is nigh

As the conclusion to the Hoshido arc is drawing near, it's time to write a last progress report before wrapping up the whole thing. The final showdown is going to be bloody and messy, that much is sure: not only are story-related battles getting harder by the chapter, but I stopped clearing Challenges a couple of chapter ago in order to get in shape for the Nohr arc. The last three engagements, i.e. from chapter 23 to 25, were ruthless battles that I managed to win only by the skin of my teeth, with just a couple of characters still standing at the end. I was literally down to my last unit during the chapter 25 confrontation, with only Ryoma alive to slay the boss; you can easily imagine the relief that washed over me when this survivor hanging onto half of his HP bar landed a death blow on said boss. While I find the fact that Ryoma is so much more powerful than other units a bit overindulgent and ridiculous overall, his amazing capabilities certainly come in handy in such circumstances.

Ryoma "I save the day" aside, my final dream team comprises Corrin (obviously), Kaze, Scarlet, Kagero, Reina, Hinata, Oboro, Subaki, Hana, Azama, Takumi and Shura, as well as Caeldori and Hisame, who are respectively Subaki's daughter and Hinata's son. I generously used Master Seals on all units that could benefit from it, which led to most interesting class changes. Hana is now a Priestess and can wield both the bow and the staff; likewise, Azama has gained the ability to fling around the naginata when becoming a Great Master. Subaki and daughter Caeldori are now Falcon Knights and can also wield low-tier healing staves, which makes a grand total of four polyvalent units that can work both on the offensive and healing front. Most of my other units have become offensive powerhouses through the class change process: Hisame and Hinata are now Swordmasters, Kaze and Kagero are Master Ninjas, Oboro is a Basara and Takumi a Sniper, and all can wreak havoc on the battlefied. My force is overall well-balanced and doing a decent job on the battlefield, if not a stellar one; but I attribute my often lacklustre fighting performances to my lack of experience in the SRPG field. The only notable issue that cropped up lately is the weakness of my four flying units, who have been regularly and thoroughly overwhelmed in the last confrontations. They were doing a great job in the first twenty chapters with their ability to cover large expanses of terrain and scour isolated opponents out of the battlefield, but they are clearly reaching their limits in the last chapters. With hindsight, I wish I had ditched two or three of them earlier and focused on other potentially interesting offensive units; but what's done is done, and I have to make do with the force I created with my own hands.

For my fellow gamers interested in the romantic side of Fire Emblem, here are the pairings I managed to craft throughout my playthrough: Kaze/Corrin (obviously), Caeldori/Hisame, Takumi/ Kagero, Subaki/Hana and Hinata/Oboro. I also paired Orochi with Saizo and Silas with Azura in the early stages of my playthrough—before mercilessly ousting the four of them from my force as I focused on other units. As you can see, I played it safe and mostly went along the game's not-so-subtle pairing suggestions. Poor Ryoma didn't find a mate yet, nor did Azama and Shura; as for Reina and Scarlet, they are still single as well—courtesy of the game itself, which doesn't allow them to marry for some reason. All in all, I think we're pretty much set romantically, as I won't integrate any new units just for the sake of marrying my remaining trio of bachelors.

I'm now more eager than ever for wrap up my playthrough. Bring it on, game! My force is all prepped up and my body is ready! This is the final push, dear fellow gamers; I'll see you when I'm done beating Garon to a pulp and dancing over his remains. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Atelier Rorona Plus: Cramping my style

This had to happen: I finally made my first foray into the long-running Atelier series as well as into the vast world of so-called "alchemic RPGs".

I was initially planning to play Atelier Escha&Logy Plus, but I reasoned that it would be better to start with what can be considered the roots of the series on the Vita, i.e. the Arland trilogy. More specifically with the first game in the trilogy, namely Atelier Rorona Plus. And thus I found myself embroiled in Rorona's epic fight to keep her master's atelier afloat and discovering the marvels of videogame alchemy for the first time ever. And boy, does it defy and crush my expectations regarding virtual alchemy in general and Atelier games in particular.

Indeed, I used to have my own private vision of how both virtual alchemy and Atelier games should play like. Said vision was informed by my love for all things grinding and by my playthrough of Hometown Story, which is the closest thing to a simulation game I'd played before picking up Rorona. I envisioned games that would let me forage for hours on end and synthesize items by the truckload, in what could only be described as an alchemic-flavoured take on good ol' grinding. As for the time limit, while I vaguely knew of its existence, I fully expected it to be lenient and to allow for a lot of foraging, synthetizing and running around trying various things.

The actual gameplay of Rorona is, of course, a million miles away from this rosy picture, and I can see from here the knowing smiles on the faces of the players who are familiar with the franchise. Never before did I play a game in which every single decision matters so much and must be so carefully pondered. Not only is the time limit so stringent that there is very little room for error and/or experimentation, but the resource management is absolutely diabolical. Nothing is given for free in that game and nothing must be taken for granted: every single action costs resources, time and/or money, and balancing everything that must be accomplished is a full-blown challenge. In fact, not only is it a challenge, but it's actually the whole point of the game. The alchemy is but a pretense here: at its core, Rorona is really just a game revolving around time management, whose sole purpose is to accomplish as much as possible in a given amount of time.

Despite the fact that I've performed honourably so far, clearing the first two assignments with a three-star evaluation and all ratings to the max, I have to admit that playing Rorona makes me feel quite fidgety and cramped. This is not the most relaxing of games, especially for a total beginner. Not only do I tend to fret about the best course of action, but the risk of failing an assignment and seeing a couple of gameplay hours go down the drain looms large over my playthrough. Of course, there is no indication that this is ever going to happen; if anything, my first steps into the game are rather indicative of the opposite. Now, only time will tell if I keep up with the good work and manage to do a clear round or if I stumble along the way. At any rate, I hope I will manage to relax a trifle and handle my alchemic duties with more gusto and abandon on the long run. Let's play and see!

So far, while I'm having a decent amount of fun playing Rorona and can certainly feel a rewarding sense of accomplishment when I manage to monitor tasks and assigments in a clever way, I didn't have a massive crush on the "alchemy simulation" subgenre. As a matter of fact, I was expecting to love the genre considerably more, and the relative tepidity of my feelings for Rorona definitely took me by surprise. On the other hand, this means that I can dispense with purchasing Japanese physical editions of all the Vita Atelier games for the sake of perennity; given my moderate love for the genre, my physical edition of Atelier Escha&Logy will certainly suffice to satiate all my cravings for virtual alchemy in the decades to come. Good thing I restrained myself and didn't purchase Japanese physical versions of Atelier games before playing Rorona. Patience is definitely paying off! Now if you'll excuse me, my third assignment is waiting to be tackled. See you later for more alchemic deeds! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!