Anime: Castlevania – Season 1

Despite being a fairly mainstream nerd, I actually have a very unusual opinion on anime. As a general rule, I don’t enjoy it. In fact, several years go I made a post about my struggles with anime on this very blog: The Anime Conundrum. To date, the only real anime show that I’ve actually found enjoyable has been Sword Art Online. But, when I heard that Netflix was going to be debuting a show based on the classic video game series Castlevania, I knew that I was going to have to set aside my reservation and give it a watch.

I am a lifelong Castlevania fan. In fact, I have reviewed every single canonical game in the series on this site.  So to say I was pumped to be able to watch a Castlevania story unfold on the television is an understatement. But, I was skeptical. Movies and shows based on video games typically end up being very poor in quality. If you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes of Super Mario Brother’s Super Show or even the Double Dragon motion picture…. YUCK.   –  Thankfully, this cycle has been broken with Castlevania.

This “series” consists of four 30-minute episodes. So, I really feel like this was one film that was actually refitted into a four-part series. I’ve heard several people comment that this is actually a bit of a test run, and if Castlevania proves to be successful, a longer full length series will follow. If that is true, I fully expect we’ll be hearing news of a second season before long.

The storyline is actually a retelling of events from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Symphony of the Night.  The show begins by telling the backstory of “Symphony”, it explores Dracula’s relationship with his wife and her ultimate fate. It then skips forward to events from Castlevania III and covers what is essentially the first half of that game. I was impressed by the level of detail included in the telling of the story. It is very apparent that the people who put together this anime have a deep knowledge and appreciation for the lore behind the Castlevania story. They absolutely nailed it.  I don’t want to spoil the show for anyone who has not yet watched it, but there are many details included from the game that I wouldn’t expect to see on the screen. And their inclusion does not feel forced or cheesy in any way.

My only gripe with the show is that it is for mature audiences only. The language and subject matter are very extreme. I have no problem with this on it’s surface, but Castlevania is a franchise beloved by people of all ages. Kids are going to want to watch this series and I’ll be honest and tell you that they should not. You have been warned. This show is NOT KID FRIENDLY.

All in all, this show holds the honor of being only the second anime that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching. I think I’m going to make a point of finally following up on some suggestions that have been given to me over the years and reviewing them on the site. So, if you’re curious about my opinions or even if you have a suggestion or two, please feel free to drop me a note of leave a comment.

Final thoughts: A surprisingly accurate portrayal of what is a classic video game story. The artwork is vivid and awe-inspiring. The voice acting is simply superb. I was hooked from the first scene. My biggest complaints are that the series is very short and much of the mature language seems unnecessary.

Score:  A

Check Up: Diablo III – Rise of the Necromancer (Patch 2.6.0)

It’s been a little over six months since I last checked in on the status of Diablo III. At the time, the game was just getting into it’s ninth “season” and the Diablo Anniversary event was in full swing. Now, Diablo fans have something new to celebrate. Just in time for Season 11, Blizzard has a released a new batch of paid DLC for Diablo III called Rise of the Necromancer. I call it DLC because the content does come at a cost and it’s contents are a bit more extraordinary than what you’d find in a mere patch, but also less than what you’d expect from a full expansion.

Essentially, for the cost of $15.00, you gain access to the new Necromancer character class, and all of the fluff that comes with it, but there are no new levels or main storyline content. The purchase does include a few cosmetic items as well. (A portrait frame and a pet).

Personally, I feel like this is a fair asking price from Blizzard. Asking $15.00 from players who are already well invested in the game is reasonable. But if you’re new to Diablo III or considering buying it in the future, it may be best to wait and see if there is going to be an “all-in-one” collection. But, if you’re impatient the existing Battlechest collection only costs $20. That includes the base game and expansion. So even if you purchased that and Rise of the Necromancer, you’re only out $35 total, which if we’re being honest, is a more than acceptable price for a full game of this quality.

Just like any other class in Diablo III, the Necromancer comes complete with it’s own skill tree, item drops and audio dialogue. So, this class is in no way a cheap tack-on. In fact, I found the Necromancer to be a the perfect fit into the Diablo III universe. I daresay that it might be my favorite class in the game! It has arrived just in time for the upcoming season. So, seizing this opportunity, once Season 11 starts, and friend and I plan to play through the game again as Necromancers. So, if you have similar plans (and I’m sure many do), feel free to look for me.

My final thoughts on this release are as follows: considering the  success that this DLC release has brought Blizzard, I can only wonder if they plan future releases using this model. Diablo III is now several years old, but it remains popular and profitable. Perhaps future add-ons to the game will come in the form of piecemeal DLC like this. Aside from character classes, maybe we’ll see new storyline areas or other paid content in the future? Blizzard has been very hush hush on such matters in regards to Diablo III, but we know from other games like Overwatch or even World of Warcraft that they tend to embrace paid content. We’ll have to see.

Dungeons & Dragons: Starter Set

As I promised a few months ago, I’m going to be making posts discussing each of the official Dungeons & Dragons supplements that are available. To date, I’ve only really discussed the core rule books and player supplements. But there’s a number of other products available. Today, I’ll be discussing the D&D Starter Set.

I want to start by discussing what this set actually is. If you’re someone who is interested in playing Dungeons & Dragons, most people will tell you that you’ll need to go out and buy a set of dice and a copy of the Player’s Handbook. That’s pretty accurate, but what if you’re still on the fence and you’re not sure if you want to sink a bunch of money into the hobby yet? Well, that’s where the Starter Set comes in.

The Starter Set is a great entry point into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. You can find it at most hobby shops or book stores. The set actually comes in a big cardboard box. It contains the following items:

  • Starter Set Rulebook  (softcover)
  • Lost Mind of Phandelver adventure (softcover)
  • a pack of pre-generated character sheets
  • a set of polyhedral dice

The Starter Set Rulebook is essentially a compact version of the D&D game rules. It’s enough to teach you the basics, but if you decide to get serious you will eventually want to purchase a copy of the Player’s Handbook. For existing players, there’s not really much of value here.

The next main object of interest in the box is the “Lost Mine of Phandelver” adventure. This is included in the box so that consumers will have a sample adventure to play. Aside from containing the adventure module itself, the booklet also contains a small bestiary of the monsters used in the adventure. (This eliminates the need for a copy of the Monster Manual). If you’re an existing player/dungeon master, this adventure is likely the main reason you purchased the Starter Set – as it is quite a good sized adventure that is designed for level 1 players. It is set in the Forgotten Realms game world.

As I mentioned above, the D&D Starter Set is really marketed towards brand spanking new players. For the price of only $20.00 they can get everything they need to take their first step into Dungeons & Dragons. That being said, if it’s a hobby that you enjoy and end up sticking with your next purchase will want to be the Player’s Handbook. I glossed over that book in an older post, but I think I’ll actually be making an updated post in the coming days that goes a little more in depth.

If you’re a Dungeon Master (game referee) or even a player who likes to read up on “behind the scenes info”, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual  are probably going to be your next purchase.  Another great book to pick up is Volo’s Guide to Monsters – this books serves as both an add-on to the Monster Manual as well as some in-depth information that bother players and Dungeon Masters will find helpful.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing some of the adventure books that have been publish since the release of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Once we’re all caught up, I’ll be discussing items as they are released.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Products:

Starter Set    –   Character Sheets   –  Dungeon Master’s Screen

Core Books:  

Player’s Handbook   –   Dungeon Master’s Guide   –   Monster Manual

Supplements:

Volo’s Guide to Monsters    –   Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

Adventures:

Hoard of the Dragon Queen   –  Rise of Tiamat   –   Storm King’s Thunder   – Princes of the Apocalypse  –  Out of the Abyss  – Curse of Strahd   –  Tales from the Yawning Portal

 

Review: Dragonia

It is with both shame and amusement that I type this review… As it is my ritual every summer in the weeks leading up to the Steam Summer Sale, I always take a moment to browse through the store looking for games that interest me. When I find one, I will add it my wishlist to ensure that I receive a notification if it goes on sale. This year, while perusing the store I came upon an interesting trend – I found a number of anime style games, of various types that were selling for $1.50 or less. Due to the extremely low price, I snatched up as many of them as I could. One of them happened to be an anime-style shoot-em-up by the name of Dragonia. After scrolling through the store page for the game, it quickly became obvious that this was an adult title. But, the game play looked interesting and the reviews were great so I bit the bullet.

Now, even knowing that the game contained some adult themes, I had NO IDEA what I had got myself into… to say this is a “mature” game is an understatement. This game is downright pornographic. On top of that, there’s even an “uncensoring patch” available directly from the developer, just in case you need absolutely nothing left to the imagination. In fact, I debated even reviewing this game at all, considering the content. But, as you will see, it’s actually a somewhat intriguing title. So much so, I decided to review it regardless of it’s extremely adult nature.

Let me take a moment to explain what this game actually is. First off, in it’s heart and soul, Dragonia is a bullet-hell schmup. You play the character of Feeney, a half-human, half dragon. Feeney is summoned by an old witch to help purge the land from the grip of several Evil Dragons. As it turns out, only Feeney has the ability to defeat and “purify” these dragons. As might be able to guess, to “purify” them, Feeney has to resort to her… seductive skills and… well… you can guess the rest.

(Censored by Sensei)

The basic storyline outlined above is easy enough to decipher. However, that’s about all you’re going to get out of the storyline text in the game. The English translation in this game can only be described as horrendous. It seems to literally be a copy paste from Chinese to English via Google Translate… Which in some ways is actually a godsend, because the text likes to describe in detail every single thing Feeney has to do to “purify” her enemies.

All of the adult material in the game is limited to the cutscenes that play before and after each game level. The gameplay itself is pretty much family friendly. You control Feeney from a birds-eye-view as she flies around and blasts her opponents from the air.  Enemies approach from every angle. It’s a classic bullet-hell scenario.

As you play through each level, Feeney will collect “souls”. In between stages, souls can be exchanged for a variety of things. You can unlock new modes of attack, you can increase your damage level, health, etc.  So in some ways, this game has a very RPG-like progression element to it.  You complete a level by defeating a certain number of enemies. Once you reach this number, the level boss is spawned. Defeating the boss allows you to proceed to the next area.  At first, the game levels are fairly simple but eventually you will come across a boss that you just can’t take down. This is where you’ll want to grind up some more health of damage output. Some bosses are weak to certain attacks (lightning, fire, etc). So unlocking specific attack modes is also part of the strategy.

In this way, despite the extremely high levels of fan-service, the game actually has some redeeming value to it.  I personally found the gameplay to be engaging and overall very well done. There’s no shortage of upgrades to unlock. So, this game gets quite a few things right. It’s hard to argue that the gameplay itself is bad. And, depending on your viewpoint, the cutscenes are either going to be a big plus or a big turn off.

The down points to this title are without a doubt the terrible localization and the UI/playcontol. The in-game menus look like they were designed by rank amateurs. There’s no logic to them at all. But with a little diligence, you’ll be able to figure out their quirks and limp through the UI. The game itself can be played using a keyboard, but I don’t recommend this. These types of game just work best with a controller. Personally, I played Dragonia using my trusty USB Xbox 360 controller.  Even on a controller, the control-scheme makes little sense. But, it is accurate and responsive. Normally, these types of complaints would be a BIG DEAL, because when I say they are bad, I mean they are really REALLY terrible. But, when the game sells for $1.50, it’s very difficult to complain. Especially for all of the content you actually get with that $1.50. Dragonia is a short game, but it’s longer than others that I’ve paid premium prices for.

If you enjoy schmups and bullet hells, this is a game that might tickle your fancy. Just know going in, that it is filled with unapologetic hentai visuals.

Difficulty: Easy–  This game is a curious case in terms of difficulty simply because as a schmup, it is exactly what you’d expect: bullets flying everywhere, endless enemies pouring from all sides, etc. Each level gets harder and harder. But, as mentioned in the main review, you can upgrade your life meter and even the damage that you deal. So, if you find yourself stuck on a particular level, the only thing you really need to do is be patient and grind until you are overpowered enough to blast your way through whatever roadblock you encountered. This mechanic actually renders most of the challenges in the game meaningless.

Story: If we’re being honest, the storyline for this game is nothing more then a vehicle to deliver some heavy doses of fanservice. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the game itself was developed separately from the dirty cutscenes and the two were cobbled together into the game that we see now. The in-game story is shallow and weird. But, admittedly mildly interesting. The translation is barely comprehendable.

Originality: Hentai games are nothing new. Neither are bullet-hells. But, I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve ever seen them lumped together in one title. Add in the the RP/progression element and you have a pretty original package.

Soundtrack: The game has a somewhat catchy soundtrack. But the sound effects can be a bit annoying at times. One weapon in particular sounds like high volume static. It is quite annoying. Overall, the audio in this title is pretty poor and unimaginative.

Fun: It’s hard to admit this. But, I had a pretty good time with the game. The gameplay kept me hooked. I enjoyed leveling and unlocking all of the weapons. The cutscenes are amusing, albeit shocking at times. A certain fraction of players will no doubt be able to have a really good time with the cutscenes.

Graphics:  The cutscenes are colorful, crisp and well rendered. Fans of anime-style art will be pleased. The game itself is actually quite-well rendered as well. The bullet effects are colorful and dynamic. Sadly, the UI is crudely chopped together and messy.

Playcontrol:  No matter what method you use, the playcontrol is rough and very non-intuitive. Playing with a controller is manageable, but it still just feels off.

Downloadable Content:  None. 

Mature Content: Pornographic content and extreme adult language.

Value:  Despite the many negative things about this game, it’s hard to argue with the price. Someone paying a little over a dollar for a game shouldn’t expect much. Considering the paltry cost for this title, you are getting your money’s worth ten times over.  Often, many adult-content games actually come with a premium price tag. It’s hard to go wrong here from a value standpoint.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Content aside, a lot of aspects about this game are well done and interesting. There’s quite a bit of content for a very small price. On the other side of the coin, the game suffers from bad localization, terrible UI and playcontrol. It’s an interesting but largely mediocre title, but one that will appeal to certain gamers.

Available on: PC (Steam)

Nerd Fuel: Green Mountain Coffee – Caramel Vanilla Cream

It’s been a crazy few weeks for me. Aside from burning through both Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood and XV: Episode Prompto, I’ve also been recovering from the Steam summer sale and putting in some extra hours at work. So, thank God for coffee…

This week, I found myself with another Green Mountain flavored selection, the Caramel Vanilla Cream.  As I’ve mentioned before, artificially flavored coffees can be very hit or miss, so picking up a new box is always a gamble. But, I’ve had some luck lately so I figured I’d roll the dice on this one as well.

First thing I noticed was the aroma during the brew cycle was very strong and pleasant! I figured that with such a powerful aroma, this might end up being a rich medium roast coffee, but I was wrong. It’s not specifically stated anywhere on the packaging that I could find, but to me this actually seems to be a light roast – and it really shows. There’s not much here in the way of actual coffee flavor. Instead, the blend is heavily masked by the artificial flavoring. Now, the flavor is not particularly unpleasant… It a rich, creamy, burnt-caramel flavor. But it does taste VERY artificial. There’s obviously nothing natural about this cup. But again, it’s not terrible.  Many of these flavored coffees don’t fare well hot, so this is an example of one of those coffees that is actually better over ice with lots of milk or creamer.

To me, I don’t really understand why this coffee exists. There are other vanilla/french vanilla flavored coffees out there that manage to nail the taste quite well. The same can be said for caramel flavored coffees. Merging the two flavors into one cup sounds like a good idea, I guess. But in practice, it just falls flat.

Score: 2 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Doubtful.  Not terrible, but not particularly good either. The rich, fake flavoring might appeal to kids and casual coffee drinkers. But people who really enjoy the complexity of a rich blend or even a quality single-origin coffee are likely to be turned off by this.

DLC Review: Final Fantasy XV – Episode Prompto

The second batch of DLC goodness for Final Fantasy XV is finally here, Episode Prompto. Much like the previous downloadable chapter that focused on the character of Gladiolus, this entry shows you what happened with the character of Prompto during his hiatus from the main game.  Again, like the previous DLC, this entry is both a mix of familiar as well as new mechanics that help keep things interesting. Whereas Gladio’s DLC had a very melee/brawler feel to it, this chapter is reminiscent of a third-person shooter. In a lot of ways, it actually reminded me of the old FFVII spin-off Dirge of Cerberus.

Those that played through all of Final Fantasy XV may remember the scene in the game where Prompto falls from a moving train and is separated from his friends for a time. This chapter shows you what happened to him during that time away. In a nutshell, Prompto finds himself alone, wandering the frozen wastes. Finally, he collapses and is “rescued” by Imperials. It is during his captivity that the bulk of this DLC takes place. During this chapter, Prompto will learn the truth behind his origins as well as uncover the details behind the Empire’s true motive.

The main scenario of this entry can be cleared in about two hours. However, for players that wish to take their time and explore there’s actually quite a bit to do. This DLC also includes a handful of sidequests. The bulk of these involve scouring for materials that can used to upgrade a snowmobile that Prompto finds and uses to aid in his escape. But a few of them feature optional boss battles. Typically, I always try to complete optional content as a I go. But in the case of this DLC, I actually suggest completing the chapter first. Then, starting it over and exploring all of the nooks and crannies. I make this suggestion due to the large play-style learning curve of this DLC presented when compared to the main game. By the time you’ve actually played through Episode Prompto once, you’ll have your feet wet enough to tackle many of these optional challenges.

When I said that this DLC had a third-person shooter element to it, I meant it. Most of the combat in Episode Prompto is ranged melee. Prompto will rely on various guns as well as duck and cover behind obstacles when engaged in combat. His arsenal ranges from a handgun, to an SMG, Sniper Rifle, Grenades and even a Bazooka. Most of the combat takes place on foot, but some portions of the game even find him shooting from a moving snowmobile or even from the back of a motorcycle. It’s a whole different world when compared to the main Final Fantasy XV game.

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that a lot of it is really clumsy feeling. The weapons run out of ammo pretty quickly, and when they do you’ll be left scouring your surroundings to find a new gun to grab and use (usually while enemies are firing on you). The targeting is pretty terrible, but after a while you manage to get the hang of it, so it’s ultimately bearable. Despite the iffy playcontrol, the shooter aspect is a nice change of pace when compared to the original game. So in it’s own way, it a bit refreshing.

All in all, the best part about this DLC are the story elements. Even though Prompto’s backstory is covered in both the main Final Fantasy XV game as well as the Brotherhood anime, this DLC scenario sheds even more light on his origins. It also includes several welcome cameos by some fan-favorite characters. Completing the DLC unlocks both a weapon and clothing set for Prompto in the main game. It also unlocks a special timed-trial mode and an “Intensive Training” mode of play. The downloadable chapter is included in the season pass of available for $5.00 on PSN.

Overall Impression:  Another short but sweet add-on to Final Fantasy XV. Players who enjoyed Episode Gladiolus are also likely to enjoy this one. That being said, players who didn’t enjoy the last DLC release are also likely to enjoy this one due to different pacing and the inclusion of some open-world elements. It seems that SE is listening to their fans and modifying the DLC to meet the expectations of their players. Personally, I’ve enjoyed both.

Value: Again, like the Gladio DLC, this chapter is very short. But for a price of $5.00, I find it hard to complain. The new side-quests and optional challenges also give fans a little more bang for their buck.

 

 

Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood

It’s been two years since the release of Heavensward and SE has spent that time working on the next chapter in the Final Fantasy XIV saga: Stormblood. Well, it’s finally here! I’ve spent the last two weeks playing the new content and I’ve finally completed the expansion. So, as expected, I’m here with a full review!

Stormblood brings Final Fantasy XIV up to version 4.0. With that version bump comes a ton of new content. Stormblood adds two new (long awaited) jobs to the game: Red Mage and Samurai. It also raises the level cap to 70 and adds an entire new continent to explore. The focus of the expansion is the retaking of the nations of Ala Mhigo and Doma from Imperial control. The occupation of Ala Mhigo has long been a part of the game’s lore, reaching back as early as 1.0. In this way, Stormblood finally brings a capstone to nearly every loose-end that is left from the original version of the game.

Whereas Heavensward introduced flying to the world of FFXIV, Stormblood brings about the ability to dive and swim. Even some areas of the original game have been updated to allow players to swim in shallow waters. For many of the new zones, players are able to dive down and explore areas of the deep. Flying mounts are also able to traverse the underwater zones as well.  Currently, this ability is pretty novel and really only comes into play for the new scenario missions. But SE has hinted that more content might be coming that incorporates swimming/diving.

I have to go on record and state that the storyline for Stormblood is absolutely fantastic. At worst, it is on par with A Realm Reborn, but I daresay it even exceeds it. To me, Heavensward was a decent expansion. But, at times it became very repetitive and downright boring. This was not the case with Stormblood. Everything about this expansion felt fresh and interesting to me.  From the storyline, the new cities and zones, the innovative dungeons and even the boss fights, the whole of Stormblood was just spot on for me.

Aside from all the new content, Final Fantasy XIV version 4.0 also marked a major revamp to the core game itself. The whole job system received an overhaul of sorts. Skills and abilities were streamlined, with several actions being revamped or even eliminated. The pointless concept of customizing character ability scores (an old mechanic from the now defunct 1.0 version) has finally been removed from the game. 4.0 also introduces the “Job Gauge”, a job-specific on-screen graphic that is unique to each job and related to that job’s special abilities.

A major theme of Stormblood is that of the Far East. Pretty much any type of Asian flair is represented in the new zones. From the Japanese-inspired city of Kugane, to the Chinese-like landscape of Doma. There are even elements of ancient Mongolia, Turkey, and Slavic inspiration found in the new zones.

At the time of this writing, Stormblood has received one minor content patch, bringing the game up to version 4.01. This patch added the highly awaited Omega raid to the game.

All in all, I cannot say enough great things about Stormblood. If I had to find a complaint, it would not be with the expansion itself, but rather with SE’s recent decision to sell level boosting potions on the Mog Station store. For cold hard cash, players can now purchase an item that will level their characters to either level 50 or 60, and even one that will clear the main scenario content for A Realm Reborn and Heavensward.  I understand the concept behind such items: they allow new players to jump right in and join their friends on new adventures. But at the same time, I feel they cheapen the game play experience somewhat. As a player who has stuck with FFXIV since the early (and often dismal) days of 1.0, I couldn’t imagine spending money to purchase a game, then spending more money so that I don’t have to actually play it. But, to each their own I suppose.

I’m going to continue my tradition of reviewing each major patch as they are released. So stay tuned and as they say in the FFXIV community; “Please look forward to it!”

FFXIV Hub

** Final Fantasy XIV  (1.x)  –    A Realm Reborn  –    Heavensward   –  Stormblood **

Nerd Fuel: Green Mountain Coffee – Brown Sugar Crumble Donut

As I burn my way through the content of the new Final Fantasy XIV expansion, I find myself turning to my good friend caffeine to help fuel the late nights and early morning play sessions.  This week, I decided to take a trip to the grocery store and pick up a couple of new varieties. The first one that landed in my shopping cart was the “Brown Sugar Crumble Donut” by Green Mountain.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tread a fine line between both shying away from, and being a sucker for flavored coffees. They always look so good sitting there on a shelf. But generally speaking, they usually tend to taste artificial and just… not very good. Of course, there are a few notable exceptions to this. So with that in mind, I decided to bite the bullet and give the Brown Sugar Crumble Donut a shot… and I was pleasantly surprised!

According to the label, this is a medium roast coffee. But, to me it tastes a little on the light side. There’s very little bitterness in this cup. The brown sugar is the prominent taste here. But there’s also a slight artificial cinnamon/cake donut flavor as well. But, it’s really not that bad. I found this to be a pleasant and drinkable coffee. It would go great on a sunny Sunday morning with a nice hearty breakfast.

Despite being a decent coffee, it just doesn’t seem unique enough to stand out against many of the other similar offerings out there. Yes, the main flavor here is brown sugar, but as a whole this coffee is too much like the superior Cinnabon coffee to shine by itself. Perhaps if it was a bit cheaper I’d be more inclined to recommend it over some of the others. Regardless, it’s a solid offering.

Score: 3 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Maybe. It’s tasty and certainly has it’s place. But, I feel it too much like many other similar, and superior coffees to really recommend over others. That being said, if if you like brown sugar and cinnamon, and this is the only option at your local store, don’t hesitate.

 

Review: Tale of ALLTYNEX Trilogy

As I type this, I’m downloading the Final Fantasy XIV 4.0 patch and awaiting the release of that game’s new expansion. It’s during downtime like this that I tend to dig through my library and pull out something that can be played start-to-finish in a reasonable amount of time. In keeping with my current theme of games from the late-90’s era, I came across a trilogy of arcade-style schmups (shoot-em-ups) called The Tale of ALLTYNEX. This trilogy consists of three games: ALLTYNEX Second, RefleX and KAMUI. I’ve had these titles sitting in my Steam library for some time, but I’ve never paid them much attention. If I remember right, I got them as part of an indie Japanese game bundle several years ago. Last weekend, I found myself with a desire to step away from all the deep and complicated RPGS that tend to consume the majority of my game playing, and jump into some old school, bullet-hell arcade action. So I installed these games and went in completely blind.

Unless you’re really into the Japanese indie scene, you’ve probably never heard of these games. So, let’s take a moment to bring ourselves up to speed. This trilogy contains a set of games created by Japanese developer Siter Skain. This collection was actually made possible via a project on Kickstarter. It contains the following titles:

ALLTYNEX Second – This game is a semi-modern remake of the Japanese 1996 arcade classic ALLTYNEX.

RefleX – A 2008 remake, this time of an indie freeware game called Reflection from 1997.

KAMUI – A 1999 Japanese PC game, based on classic shoot-em-up arcade titles.

Originally, each of these games were separate entities with each successive game being largely inspired by the one that came before it. Now, they have been compiled and somewhat re-imagined as a loose trilogy. Oddly enough, due to the various remakes, the newest games are actually the oldest chronologically.

As mentioned above, the first game lore-wise in the trilogy is ALLTNYEX Second.  Essentially, you play as the pilot of a “superfighter” starship.  In this title, mankind’s  orbital defensive supercomputer, ALLTYNEX suddenly goes rogue and uses its control over all of all of Earth’s military hardware to wage war on humanity. As a result, the human race is forced to flee the planet and regroup on the far reaches of the solar system. In a last-ditch effort to reclaim the planet, a team of  “superfighters” are dispatched to destroy ALLTYNEX.

This game is very well done. It feels just like one of those old quarter-pumper arcade machines, and thanks to moderns graphics, it makes the genre look better than ever.  It embodies the classic Starfighter schmup gameplay: swarms of enemies, rapid fire, bullets everywhere.  The player can choose between their regular blasters or a special shield that both protects your starship as well as damages enemies.  The gameplay is intense and not particularly easy – but few bullet hells are. The nearly unlimited continues make the game accessible for even a casual player. From start to finish the game can be completed in under an hour by an experienced player.

Next up is RefleX. This game is very similar to the others. It’s an overheard bullet hell/schmup. But unlike the other entries, you don’t have multiple lives. If your ship is destroyed, it’s game over. Luckily, the starship here is protected by a reflective shield. Enemy bolts will bounce off the shield and back towards the sender. This provides a whole new level of strategy to the game.

RefleX actually has quite an in-depth backstory, but to find all the juicy details you will have to dig through the manual. (The Steam version does have a PDF manual).  Essentially, you are a member of a resistance group that is rallying against an overbearing government. What’s unclear, at least to me, is how this ties in with the first game… has humanity retaken Earth and now bad guys are running the show? Despite several similarities, it just isn’t made very clear.

Finally, we have the third game in the trilogy, KAMUI. Despite being the last game in the series, this title is the one that shows it’s age the most. Which, considering the other two are remakes, I guess that’s to be expected.

This is the game that actually manages to tie the other two titles together. It features story elements from both ALLTYNEX and RefleX and presents a final battle between the resistance and a new militarized version of the ALLTYNEX AI.

Despite being the most dated of the three, I think KAMUI is my favorite of the trilogy simply because it reminds me the most of those old arcade-style shoot-em-ups that consumed so many hours of my youth. Which, is odd in itself considering KAMUI was a PC title.

Difficulty: Hard–  Most schmups and bullet hell games are infamous for their high degree of difficulty. These games are no different. Unless you’re one of those machine-like professional gamers or some kind of savant, you’re going to die a lot. Luckily, the games are pretty forgiving in that you are granted nearly unlimited continue credits. So, in reality, as long as you are persistent you can manage to complete the games regardless of overall skill. This still doesn’t change the fact that the game itself is difficult in it’s own right.

Story: As a whole, the storyline shared between these games is surprisingly rich. This is true despite it being largely absent from the games themselves. Schmups are not typically known for being rich is lore and storyline, so for this type of game any real attempt to provide one is welcome

Originality: Back in the 90’s games like these were a dime a dozen. These days, they have become a bit a niche category. Despite being based on a tested and tired model, the games in the ALLTYNEX Trilogy manage to stand out in their own little ways. For example, the ricochet shield from RefleX is a pretty unique feature. Little things like these keep the games feeling semi-fresh in a pool of stagnant copy-cat titles.

Soundtrack: One of the high points of all three of these games are the fantastic soundtracks. All these of titles come complete with a groovy, high-energy techno-like score. The music is catchy and appropriate. It does a fantastic job of keeping your blood pumping for the split-second twitch action that games like these require.

Fun: I can imagine that many people would find games like these to be frustrating and overly difficult. But that is something that fans of bullet hell games have come to expect and love. So you’re either going to enjoy this type of game or you’re not. For people like me, I don’t really consider myself to be a fan of these types of games, per se. But I do enjoy them for the nostalgia factor. And, I can appreciate them for what they are.

Graphics:  Being a trilogy of games from different eras, the graphics are a mixed bag.  Kamui and RefleX, are both still stuck in the 16-bit era. While ALLTYNEX Second has a much more modern, polished look. 

Playcontrol:  Even though these games support keyboard controls, take my advice and plug in either an Xbox or Playstation game pad. Games like these were made for controllers. Personally, I found a trusty old Xbox 360 controller to be perfect to all three games, with no real issues.

Downloadable Content:  None

Mature Content: Sci-Fi violence.

Value:  Each of these games is available separately on Steam for $8, or together in a bundle for $20. If you’re a fan of this genre, the $20 pricetag may be well worth it. But, these games are on sale frequently so a bargain shopper can usually snag them on a deal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Even though I don’t really consider myself a fan of the shoot-em-up genre, I found a lot of enjoyment in these three games. It was really a nice break our of the norm for me. Everything from the fast-paced action, to the visuals, to the soundtrack really scratched an itch I had been having for some retro arcade action. My biggest complaint about the collection is that the original versions of ALLTYNEX and RefleX were not included.

Available on: PC (Steam)

Review: Planescape Torment (Enhanced Edition)

If you’re a frequent reader to this site, you know I’m a Dungeons & Dragons fan. I love the Forgotten Realms, the world of Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Ravenloft, etc. But one campaign setting that has always held a special place in my heart is Planescape. Ever since I first cracked open the original Manual of the Planes all those years ago, the Outer Planes have captivated my imagination. In Dungeons & Dragons, the “Outer Planes” are best described as different dimensions. The Seven Heavens, The Nine Hells, The Abyss, Ysgard, etc – all of these mysterious places, both good and evil, make up what is known as the Outer Planes. While nearly infinite in their own way, they all share an astral connection. And right in the center of it is the wondrous city of Sigil. It is the crossroads of all other dimensions, a place to total neutrality. It is ruled by a mysterious being known as the Lady of Pain. She is a silent enforcer of order. So powerful is The Lady of Pain, that even gods cannot trespass on her territory.  It is here in the city of Sigil, that the classic RPG known as Planescape Torment takes place.

This was a title that I had not originally planned to include in my backlog of playthroughs. But with the surprise release of the Enhanced Edition, I added it my list. Planescape is a game that I enjoyed many years ago during its original release. But it never really caught on in the mainstream. Over the years, the game has built a bit of a cult following. I’m pleased that Beamdog studios has finally decided to give this title the same treatment that they gave Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine games.

If you’ve played any of the other D&D Enhanced Editions, or even if you’ve read my reviews of Baldur’s Gate or Baldur’s Gate II, you already have a pretty good idea what to expect. Planescape Torment (Enhanced Edition) is simply a remaster of the original classic. It’s been updated for modern computers and includes a few quality of life improvements. But unlike Baldur’s Gate EE, there is no additional content or revisions to the game.

As mentioned above, Planescape Torment takes place in the city of Sigil, in Outlands of the Outer Planes. In this game, you play a strange, immortal character known as The Nameless One. The game begins as The Nameless One wakes up in a mortuary, unable to remember his name or anything about himself. It is there that he meets Morte, a disembodied floating skull. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he is immortal. Having recently died, his body was brought to the mortuary. Covered with scars and tattoos, Morte informs The Nameless One that written on his back is a cryptic message that contains clues to his identity. It is here that his quest begins to uncover the details of his past and the reason for his strange immortality. During the game, players will explore the city of Sigil, it’s mythology, and even venture into some of the outer planes in attempt to unravel this mystery.

Like Baldur’s Gate, this game uses the Infinity Engine, so if you’re familiar with other Infinity games, it won’t take you long to get acclimated to this title. It’s largely a point and click title. Also, like BG and BG2, this game is based off of AD&D 2nd edition rules. What makes this game different, aside from the planar setting, is that is it very much focused on the events surrounding the lead character. Yes, Planescape Torment uses D&D rules at it’s core, but it doesn’t really give you that full and open Dungeons & Dragons experience like Baldur’s Gate. Also, at least from my experience, I found Baldur’s Gate to be a little more heavy on combat, whereas the adventure in Planescape tends to revolve a bit on puzzle solving and diplomacy.

Throughout the game, you will team up with other characters. The relationship you decide to forge with your party members is a very important part of the story. Each character has their own strengths, weaknesses, and skills. As you progress through the story, The Nameless One will have multiple opportunities to change his character class. So it’s easy to adapt yourself to help compliment those in your party.

As you may have guessed, the storyline is a main focus in Planescape Torment. You will be able to explore the city of Sigil freely and interact with it’s residents. There’s quests and tasks around every corner. Engaging the NPCS and listening to their stories is crucial to your success.

Like many RPG games of it’s time, Planescape Torment is a mixture of both open world and “on rails”. Players are locked into certain areas in the beginning, but as you progress through the game you are able to revisit nearly every location. However, the choices you make on your adventure do have consequences. If you’re rude to the wrong person, or worse yet, if you kill an important NPC, it can severely impede your progress.

All in all, Planescape Torment is a classic title. I highly recommend it to nearly any RPG fan. As dated as it is, it actually manages to hold up very well. The Enhanced Edition has proven to be one of the best selling PC games of 2017, and for good reason.

Difficulty: Variable–  Planescape Torment features an Easy, Default and Hard difficultly settings. Having tested all three, I find them to be accurate and appropriate. Planescape, like Baldur’s Gate is an older game. Younger players may have a hard time understanding the pause/start combat strategy that is really required to master the game. But once you figure out the ins and outs, this title starts to click.

Story: Lore and storyline are everything here. If you’re big on story, this is the game for you. Nearly every character you encounter will have a tale to tell. The same is true for almost every location in the game as well. Of all the old D&D CRPGs, Planescape Torment delivers what is arguably the most compelling storyline of them all.

Originality: At the time of it’s original release in 1999, the Planescape setting was a well established brand, but still somewhat of an oddity in D&D. But in my opinion, it is the key to the game’s success. While many players had seen and experienced fantasy RPGS, and by this time, even post-apocalyptic RPGS, there had never been one that explored the multiverse. Having the Enhanced Edition available to allow new players to experience this intricate world, is certainly a good thing. Despite it age, Planescape is still a breath of fresh air.

Soundtrack: Most of the music found in Planescape is ambient and mood setting. There are a few occasions where players are treated to actual tunes, and these are all very well done. As is the majority of the voice acting. For the most part, the story of the game is delivered via text. But there are a few scant portions that are voiced and all of them are well done.

Fun: If you’re a fan of CRPGS and/or Dungeons & Dragons, you’re going to have a blast with this game. However, many players many simply not have the patience for the old-school style found here. The Enhanced Edition does make this title a bit more approachable.

Graphics: At the time this game was released, the Infinity Engine was starting to get a bit long in the tooth. Today, even though a lot of work was put into modernizing the Enhanced Edition, it still looks quite dated. But most of the re-rendered textures are a considerable improvement over the original. The in-game cutscenes and character art remain unchanged from their original versions.

Playcontrol:  I’m not sure why, but Planescape Torment controls way better than other “enhanced” Infinity Engine games. The AI is responsive and accurate, unlike BG and BG2, the controls in this title just work. I did not experience any of the strange and weird issues that I encountered with Beamdog’s other D&D games.

Downloadable Content:  No – At the time of this writing, no DLC has been announced for Planescape Torment. Aside from potentially supporting the fan-favorite “Unfinished Business” mod, it’s unlikely we will see any.

Mature Content: Fantasy Violence, Mature Themes

Value:  This game currently sells for $20. Considering the amount of content packed and the overall quality of the game, it is well worth this.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Planescape Torment is a forgotten classic that, like it’s main character has been resurrected thanks to Beamdog Studios. It’s a must-have for any serious CRPG fan. It’s everything that great about D&D, in a setting that even more fantastic.

Available on: PC (Steam and GOG)