Avalon Code: My own private cult classic

I've been replaying Avalon Code lately, for the 15th-or-so time. This game is an absolute cult classic of mine: I played it first in late 2013, racking up seven playthroughs in a row for a total of 150 hours; and I've been playing it on-and-off since then, which probably makes my global tally of played hours a good 300 and counting. Avalon Code is even to thank for the existence of that very blog, which I started in no small part due to my desire to convey my burning passion for that game.

Of course, years and runs have changed my vision of Avalon Code. It's still very much a cult classic of mine, but I'm not as crazy in love with it as I used to be back in the days. Some things have gotten worse with time, such as the entire second half of the game: while said second half was a feverish, desperate race to regain what was lost during my very first playthrough, it feels more and more like a fake longevity-infused trudge as runs go on. This is not surprising, though: the impact of the devastating event that takes place at the halfway mark is bound to diminish as one replays the game and knows what to expect, exposing the game's second half as the poorly designed rehash of the first half it is. Nowadays, I don't always bother replaying said second half, preferring instead to give up after the Tournament and the love confession if I get one, that is.

And since I'm mentioning love confessions, romance is another feature that kinda lost its shine with time. I still like the overall romancing process very much, with its simple and no-fuss mechanics and its varying outcomes depending on when you start wooing sweethearts; however, I really cannot say as much about, well, the sweethearts themselves. More specifically, the huge quality gap between the male and female romance material. While the beaus are complex characters with shades and rich backstories, the belles are deep-as-puddle one-trick ponies. Duran is a coward haunted by guilt, who tries his hardest to overcome its crippling weakness; Fana, on the other hand, is just a sweet sick girl who spends her days in bed. Anwar is a cold loner who slowly warms up to human affection; Sylphy, his female counterpart in the 'ice queen' department, is a snotty elf who does little else than bitch about how weak human ares. (Granted, she gets to mature a bit, but only if you tackle her personal side quest; Anwar, on the other hand, evolves no matter what.)

To make matters worse, the belles hardly take part in the overarching story beyond a few cameos here and there, while the beaus are all over the place all the way to the end. Say goodbye to Sylphy, Dorothea, Lauca Meia and Fana once you're done meeting them for the first time, because you won't see them again unless you actively look for them. The only belle that manages to avoid that sad wallflower destiny is Nanai, who is graced with a complex personality and touching backstory on top of playing an important role in the story which is probably the reason I always end up as her (barely-legal-and-maybe-not-even) mate when I play with the male avatar. Either the writers thought that male players would be fine with just a pretty face to woo, or the romance options for the male avatar were added as an afterthought; at any rate, this lack of depth on the belle side is really frustrating.

Not all is gloom and doom, fortunately: some things have gotten genuinely better with time. Arranging codes is getting easier by the playthrough, because I remember better and better where to find the codes I want. Fighting, I could do with my hands tied behind my back, as well as solving dungeon puzzles and finding secret spots on the map sections. Overall, each playthrough is getting smoother thanks to my ever-growing mastery of the game; and since I went platinum during my very first playthrough, finding every single item, fulfilling every single side quest and generally doing everything that was possible, I'm now free of the completion pressure and can play for as long or as little as I want, as superficially or extensively as I want. And I love that.

So indeed, this is not the last time I play Avalon Code. As for writing about it, well... There are sure a couple of subjects I haven't covered yet in my posts about that game, such as the aforementioned romance; so there's definitely some untapped potential when it comes to writing about that personal cult classic of mine. Only time will tell if more tidings of Avalon Code come your way, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Labyrinth of Refrain Demo: Second helping, please!!!

And third, fourth and fifth, for that matter. It should surprise absolutely no one that I love that game to pieces. I mean, we're talking about a first-person dungeon crawler here; so it's absolutely not surprising that I spent six hours straight playing the demo and that I let out a genuine cry of dismay when the message notifying me that said demo was over popped up on my Switch's screen.

Those six hours were spent exploring and roaming a mere three floors, and not entirely at that; this makes me think that LoR has the potential to be a FPDC of massive proportions. Also, the fact that I didn't feel a shred of boredom during those six hours spent on a mere three floors makes me think that LoR has the potential to be a very engrossing FPDC indeed. In fact, I don't just think that: I know it. No other FPDC I've played boasts such a perfect balance between exploration, team building, farming and combat, making for an incredibly addictive gameplay experience.

Exploration: Oh, the thrill! Complex and stimulating dungeon layouts, large floors, puzzles, and last but not least, hidden areas up the wazoo: LoR offers everything a FPDC aficionado could wish for. Oh, and you can break walls. Break. Walls. I cannot find words to explain how exhilarating it is to carve yourself a shortcut or to uncover brand-new areas by punching your way through walls. 

Team building: Say goodbye to the solo run temptation! LoR is one of those games that gives the same amount of XP to all party members regardless of their numbers, which means that I can indulge in team building without a second though. And since there's no equipment galore and all pieces of gear can be equipped by all classes (albeit weapon efficiency varies greatly between classes), I don't have to bother with nightmarish levels of micromanagement. Sure, the game makes things a bit more complicated than necessary by slapping all sorts of fancy concepts on top of its (very traditional) gameplay mechanics, like many recent FPDCs; but it doesn't take long to make sense of LoR's terminology, especially when you have a couple of FPDCs under your belt.

Farming: I just revised my opinion on farming: I don't dislike it overall, I dislike it only when it's poorly handled. Which is so not the case in LoR. Heck, this game elevates farming to an art and to an ungodly obsession. On top of the obligatory monster drops, you can gather mana, which is used as a currency of sorts and serves various interesting purposes (oh, how I love sucking mana from the dungeon's dirty walls); even better, you can get your greedy hands on all sorts of lovely loot, from neat pieces of gear to rare items. Oh, and the game resets the mana and loot points every time you exit the dungeon and kindly shows you where all those treasures are lying. To say that I could hardly resist the lure of said treasures when I roamed is very much an understatement, and impromtu farming sessions made a good chunk of those six hours I spent playing LoR's demo.

Combat: It's your standard turn-based fare, with a couple of clever twists the main and best one being that encounters are not random. You can see enemies on the screen, just like FOES in Etrian Odyssey; and if you maneuver well, you can approach them from the back or the side and take them by surprise, which makes fights much faster and smoother. This also means that you're free to make a beeline for foes or to run away from them, depending on your goals of the moment. Another neat twist is that the game kindly lets you know when your attacks and weapons are effective or ineffective against a foe, just like any good old Pokemon game. Also, battles flow fast and are usually over in a couple of turns, which only makes you greedier for the next battle. 

What else? The soundtrack is lush, the art is gorgeous, the story is deliciously wacky, and main character Dronya is such a complete b*tch that it become hilarious. I need that game in my life, and I need copious amounts of it. Here's my plan laid thereupon for you, dear fellow gamers: first, I'm going to purchase the Vita version of LoR for collecting purposes, before it becomes prohibitely rare and expensive; then, I'll purchase the Switch version, play it to death and sell it once I'm done, after which I'll turn to the Vita version when I want to replay the game. Such a perfectly designed plan, which will allow me to play LoR right now and not struggle with japanese to do so! 

This post marks the end of my Demo Runs. The whole endeavour was not as fructuous as I had hoped; but one final purchase out of seven demos is better than nothing, I guess. Still, it was entertaining: I could be fully honest with my feelings about those demos and drop them in a flash if they failed to please, knowing that I had gotten them for free. No sunk cost fallacy here, baby! I think I'll try my hands at demos more often from now on, especially given how expensive Switch games are. I hope you enjoyed those Demo Runs as much as me, dear fellow gamers; as usual, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Valkyria Chronicles 4 Demo: I'm confused

Valkyria Chronicles 4 opens with a picture of a tank in a flower field; and that picture pretty much sums up my experience with the demo. This game is such a potpourri of contradictory features and elements that it could totally have been subtitled 'Cognitive Dissonance'.

How the heck did you come up here without crushing flowers, buddy?

First, you have the fighting system, which I would describe as 'realistic, yet not quite'. VC4 sure looks like a wannabe FPS at first sight, with its various weapon types, its aiming feature and its naturalistic-looking battlefields; yet weirdly enough, units get tired after a mere couple of steps and everybody can eat several bullets before kicking the bucket, pretty much like in any other grid-based SRPG under the sun. This mishmash of FPS and SRPG would be tolerable, if not for the fact that it makes battles painfully drawn-out and tedious. So my units cannot take more than ten bloody steps at a time, yet they have to choose the right weapon for each enemy and aim precisely? Give me a break and automatic aiming, game. You cannot be realistic just when you fancy it.

Cannot walk more than 50 m, but has faux cat ears and camel toe. Nice sense of priority, Sega.

Then you have the atmosphere, which is just way too mellow and easygoing for a warzone. It's all lovely villages surrounded with pristine green pastures: is there even a war going on there? Also, the game mixes light-hearted bantering and anime tropes with a supposedly serious story about a bloody war covering a whole continent; maybe that's just me, but I cannot help but think that there's a teeny-weeny tone issue in that picture. I'm also growing too old to swallow the fact that only youths are fighting in that supposedly all-encompassing war. Oh, and the journal gimmick is just ridiculous. Who has the time to keep a neat, tidy little journal when toiling on a warzone?

Err... Nevermind.

Last but not least, the art is painfully out of touch. For once, VR4 boasts way too many pastel colours and not nearly enough red and browns for a game that's all about war. (I never though I would call for browns in a game ever, but there you have it.) For another, there's a serious issue with character design, and especially with outfits. Are leggings and short skirts really the most practical options for female soldiers, in a game that wants to play it realistic to a certain extent? And what's with all the boob, butt and crotch shots? I really cannot take meetings about the next operation seriously at all when you're zooming on the commanding officer's bosom, game.

On the left half: soldiers. On the right half: fan service.

In a nutshell, there's one thing I want to say to that game, and by extension to Sega: you cannot have your cake and eat it too, buddy. You need to choose: either you go for a full anime setting, and then you get off my case with annoyances such as manual aiming and messy realistic-looking battlefields; or you go for a gritty, FPS-ish setting with the colours and the seriousness to match and then I won't touch your game with a ten foot pole, but that's another matter. As it is, I won't come closer to VC4 anyway. I wanted to love that game, I really did; but it's just too confusing and disconcerting for poor little me. And too slow and cutscene-laden too, which certainly doesn't help matters. But now comes my ultimate demo, dear fellow gamers; and as you'll see very soon, I pretty much saved the best for last. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Lost Sphear Demo: Dreadful

I'm not gonna go all dramatic and cry that Square Enix have lost their touch, that their glory days are long gone and that they couldn't produce a good RPG these days even if they had the manual. Instead, I'm simply gonna say this: playing Lost Sphear fills me with a dread that I can hardly put into words. I usually enjoy playing even the most mediocre of RPGs, simply by sheer virtue of them being, well, RPGs; but not so with Lost Sphear. This is simply the dreariest, most depressing and disheartening RPG experience I've had in a long time maybe ever. Here's a list of the things that made me give up on Lost Spear's demo before it was even over and oust the game from my To-Get-My-Paws-On List for all eternity:

— The graphics are disgusting. I'm usually not too finnicky when it comes to that particular aspect of video games; but the combination of Lost Spear's cheap, plasticky phone(y) game art style and pukish, shitty colours really offends my retinas. (Don't trust the pictures here: the game looks much worse when you're actually playing it.) On top of that, the sprites are ridiculously tiny, especially on the word map. I have the sharpest eyesight and never had any problem with sprite size in any game, ever; and yet I have to squint to keep track of Lost Sphear's characters.

— The fighting system is horrendous. In a nutshell, it's Hyperdimension Neptunia's fighting system done wrong. HN reaped all the good points of all three main RPG fighting systems while neatly ousting their bad points; Lost Sphear, on the other end, racks up all the bad points of said three fighting systems and lets none of their good points in. Lost Sphear's (sorry excuse for a) battle system has the tension of real-time combat (you lose your turn if you don't spring into action quick enough), the slowness of turn-based combat (you still have to wait for your turn) and the fastidiousness of tactical combat (you have to position your character properly to land an attack). I swear, it's like Squeenix went out of their way to create the most cumbersome and tedious fighting system ever; this is not an homage to retro RPG by any stretch of the imagination, no matter what Lost Sphear's promotional blurb claims. I kid you not: this is the first time ever I found myself actively avoiding battles in an RPG after a mere ten minutes of play. 

— The level design is boring. Empty space is strong with this one, ooh yes indeed. Big empty corridors that could accommodate regiments of sprites, vast stretches of (waste)land filled with absolutely nothing: I feel like I'm playing an early 3D Playstation game here, not a retro-heavy JRPG crafted by the two former companies that single-handedly built up the genre.

— Last but not least, the pet peeves. The demo starts in medias res, with people throwing orders at me and my whole party lounging around lv.20; this gives me the unpleasant impression that I'm playing someone else's save file not to mention that this also probably means that you cannot import save data from the demo to the full game. Also, I hate the whole mecha gimmick. And I also hate all those dumb, outdated little hindrances such as the long animation for climbing ladders and the fact that you cannot climb said ladders with the mecha suit.

In a nutshell, I'm not buying Lost Sphear in a million years. Playing that demo was a lifeless, tedious and pitiful experience, and I honestly cannot fathom how Square Enix could go from the sheer retro brilliance of Bravely Default to the utter dullness of Lost Sphear. That's two Switch demos down, and I can only hope that the last two will prove better. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


One More Dungeon Demo: No way

That game's name reminds me of my blogging beginnings. Did you know, dear fellow gamers, that I initially wanted to name my little blog 'One More Level'? As in: "heck, let's just grind a liiiittle more and gain one more level before I turn off the game and go to bed". Alas, the name was taken; I had to rack my brains to find a name with a similar meaning, and the rest is history.

That anecdote will be the meatiest thing in that post, I'm afraid; because the truth is that I have painfully little to say about OMD itself. It's a Doom ripoff with a fantasy setting, and it has the worst control scheme I've seen this side of... Well, nothing, actually. You move with the left analog stick, orient the camera with the right analog stick, and fire your two weapons with... the L and R buttons. Because the A and B buttons are so over, you know. This is the most unintuitive, uncomfortable, cramp-inducing control scheme I've ever had the misfortune of enduring on a handheld, and it's an absolute deal-breaker as far as I'm concerned. Compared to those controls from hell, the fact that the game is ridiculously hard and that hitboxes are as wobbly as jelly pudding is hardly worth mentioning. But I'm doing it anyway, just out of spite.

Next please! OMD was my first Switch demo; and needless to say, I hope that my three other Switch demos will raise the bar and be more enjoyable. See you soon for more demo tidings, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! Demo: I'm bored

By all accounts, I should just love that game. I should revel in its simplicity and straightforwardness, I should lap up its retro graphics, and I should have a field day with its hack-and-slashy fighting system. And yet, none of this is happening; instead, I'm bored. Dreadfully, terribly, horribly bored. So bored, in fact, that I cannot even bring myself to play ClaSen for more than a couple of minutes at a time before turning off my Vita with a sigh of relief. I cleared the first chapter with great difficulty; and although the demo is not over yet, I really don't feel like going any further.

Needless to say, I tried to figure out why ClaSen so totally failed to enthrall me. Could it be because of its half-baked combat marred with wobbly hitboxes and a general stiffness that doesn't go well with real-time action? Could it be because of its ugly pukish colour palette? Could it be because of its pint-sized dungeons totally devoid of challenge and interest? Could it be because of its party support system, which tries to be sophisticated yet comes across as needlessly complicated and pedantic? Or could it be because of all of that combined? Blimey, of course it's because of all of that combined!

Or not really, actually. The aforementioned flaws are certainly irritating, but let's be honest: on their own, they certainly wouldn't be enough to bore me to tears and make me swear off ClaSen. I've played plenty of retro-ish games ripe with similar blemishes, from Astonishia Story to Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, and totally lapped them up nonetheless; so there had to be something else, something that made me want to forget I ever touched that game. That something can be summed up in one sentence: there is just absolutely no reason for that game to sport retro aesthetics. It's neither a throwback nor an homage to a popular gameplay style from the 8-bit era; quite the contrary, ClaSen is a very modern proposition with its phone game-sized dungeons, its gimmicky mechanics and its inclusive sprites that are similar for male and female characters. It could have sported 3D graphics, and nothing would have been lost in the process. As a genuine retro gamer who was there back in the days, I feel like ClaSen's developers try to pry on my nostalgia and use my soft gamer's heart to make monies; and needless to say, I don't like that much.

It goes without saying that I won't purchase the full version of ClaSen. Another one bites the dust! The good thing with demos is that since they're free, I don't feel pressured by the desire to recoup my investment and I can be fully honest about my feelings for the involved game. The bad thing in that particular case is that I own the first two Cladun entries; and if there are as lacklustre as ClaSen, there goes my money down the drain! See you soon for my next demo report, dear fellow gamers; and as usual, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


London Detective Mysteria Demo: Maybe, maybe not

I was utterly surprised to find a demo for London Detective Mysteria, a VN I had heard about a long time ago yet totally forgotten. How on earth did I miss that demo on the PSN? Is it that old? Or do demos simply not appear in the regular game list? At any rate, I now have my eye on LDM, if only because it was not developed by Otomate; I'm curious to see what other developers can do with the otome genre, and if we can escape good ol' Otomate tropes such as confinement, childhood friends and wolves in sheep's clothing.

The demo is painfully short, as expected for a VN; but that short time with LDM was very pleasant nonetheless. Those fifteen-or-so minutes were more than enough to realize that the colour palette is gorgeous, with rich and crystalline hues, and the character design is lovely without being overdone. (I'm especially fond of Watson's faux-bavarian style and MC Emily's cute yet sassy little face.) Characters are well-defined, and their personalities get to shine right from the start. Based on those elements alone, LDM would be a surefire purchase.

But then, there's also the story. I have to wonder if that "detective" in the title means that I'll get to flex my investigative muscle, or if it's just an excuse to write a big, fat crossover fanfic featuring luminaries from all walks of detective fiction. The demo didn't offer dialogue choices, so I'll be inclined to think that the latter is true; however, this was only the prologue, and things could change later in the game. For now, I'll just assume that LDM won't let me investigate anything myself, just for the sake of avoiding disappointment. That being said, I also have to question the overall quality of the story: because if the 'case' featured in the demo is any indication, then I'm not holding my breath at the thought of the investigations to come. (Spoilers!) Said case involves the crew tracking down a cat whilst babbling nonsense about feline behaviours such as the notion that cats can willingly backtrack in their own prints to hide their whereabouts, yeah right after which Emily produces an ad hoc plant that can attract cats when burnt, which allows her to capture the fleeing cat. Am I supposed to take that 'case' seriously, or is this just a silly appetizer before the story starts for good and starts being good? (End of spoilers)

Well, I guess the only way to find out is to purchase the game, isn't it? Alas, XSEED is not exactly forthcoming about release details: apart from a vague "Fall 2018" mention on their website, there is no information available regarding the release format or the price tag. Those two elements are probably going to determine whether I purchase the game or not: if LDM is digital-only and comes with a hefty price tag say 40 euros or more then I may simply pass on it. Or I may buy it nonetheless, if my gaming instinct really craves it. Or I may wait for a hypothetical discount. Heck, I really don't know yet, to be honest. Let's just wait and see, shall we? Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Shining Resonance Refrain Demo: I'll pass, thanks

Demos are short by nature, and so will be my posts about them. Let's kickstart these Demo Runs with the 30-minute-long Shining Resonance Refrain demo, which I'll sum up as such: that game is just not good enough to be on the Switch, let alone with a 50 bucks price tag.

Granted, it may seem a bit unfair to judge a whole game after playing it for a mere 30 minutes. However, those 30 minutes were more than enough to realize that we're dealing with one of those mediocre, cookie-cutter JRPGs that try to lure the player in with a whole posse of scantily clad female characters and a crap ton of flashy, stylish cutscenes. Peel away all that eye-candy, though, and you're left with crappy dungeon design and a mediocre fighting system.

I'll pass on the crappy dungeon design, which consists mostly of empty corridors bigger than they should reasonably be, and focus on the mediocre fighting system. I honestly fail to fathom how a 2014 PS3 game could be (dis)graced with such poor, half-baked real-time combat. (Heck, Avalon Code on the DS has better real-time combat than SRR, and it was released six years prior on a much weaker system.) The crux of the problem with SRR's fighting system is how stiff and unintuitive it is. It's supposed to be real-time action; and yet, the game pauses for two seconds every time you engage a foe in order to change the music and create some kind of 'fighting dimension', just like any good old turn-based RPG. Not only is that pause totally useless, but it also completely breaks the flow of combat. Then, there's the issue of combos: like any ARPG worth its salt, SRR lets your character perform a combo after delivering several hits in a row. That would be all nice and fine if the combos weren't so stupidly long, which allows foes to hit your character before the combo animation is over. And don't get me started on the stupid action gauge, which depletes as you hit foes and leaves you unable to strike when empty, forcing you to retreat while it refills. I mean, why? Why won't you let me hack and slash to my heart's content, game? Are you an ARPG or not? Last but certainly not least, long-range weapons are horribly handled: the character that wields them doesn't shoot fast enough and cannot shoot while moving, which means that you have to back down constantly to avoid being hit and have enough room to shoot. Horrible.

That being said, I kinda liked SRR's combat nonetheless, and I could probably have gotten used to it under other circumstances. As it is, SRR is too loaded with cutscenes and dialogues for my taste: the demo features roughly ten minutes of fighting for twenty minutes of cutscenes, and that's with me going out of my way to kill all the available enemies. But most importantly, my decision to pass on SRR is mostly a matter of expectations vs. reality. See, Shining Resonance was initially part of that long line of outlandish Shining games with highly recognizable character designs by Tony Naka Shining Hearts, Shining Ark, Shining Blade and the like. Most of these games were released on the PSP around 2010, and that's how I came to view that particular part of the Shining series: PSP-ish games, with the graphics and gameplay to match. Had I played SRR on the PSP, I would probably have enjoyed it and deemed it perfectly decent; however, it simply doesn't hold up as a 2018 Switch game. Ten years have passed since the PSP's heydays; and things that were totally acceptable on Sony's first handheld, such as a clunky fighting system or bland dungeons, just don't cut it on Nintendo's latest hybrid console.

And so I'll pass on SRR. I was actually a hairbreadth away from purchasing it when I played the demo; and needless to say, I'm immensely glad that I gave said demo a try. 50 bucks saved! Geez, all games with price tags above 40 bucks should have demos. With that said, see you soon for my next demo report, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!