Fantasy Life Review: Really guys, I think it might be too much game

I should be playing and reviewing so many other things. I have dozens of games sitting there with maybe a few hours of time spent on them, but goddamn Fantasy Life keeps pulling me back in. Seriously, fuck this game.

I like three things in a game. I like to explore, I like to kill things, and I like to feel some sort of progression. It’s called an adventure. Look it up. I mean, I don’t really have to explain this to you, do I?

Some games do parts of these things well, or even all of them. But, even among the greats, certain things tend to be lacking. Bethesda knows their way around exploration and progression, as evidenced by Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls, but even these incredible games are somewhat lacking in quality combat. The Far Cry Franchise excels in exploration and combat, but the sense of progression could stand to maybe, I dunno… exist? I mean, apart from locking off whole combat mechanics, ala Far Cry 3, the series has very little sense of character growth. Borderlands, the game I should be writing about right now, has great gunplay, as well as character progression that puts most other games to shame (Pirate ship mode, guys. Am I right?), but the exploration is hurting so bad it might as well be dead.

These games are all great, no doubt about it, but they all suffer from a lack of one of these three qualities. Fantasy Life has, arguably, too much of all three. Seriously. There is way too much to do, and that is coming from someone who likes having a lot to do in a game. Give me something I can easily sink 60-70 hours into, and I will give you my money without hesitation. I am currently 40+ hours into this game, and I have barely even scratched the surface. (Update 3/19/15: My fiancée stole this game from me and held it hostage in her 3DS for a long-ass time. She hit 100 hours this week and I hit 85 after buying a second copy so I could play it again. Still haven’t done everything. And, bonus, since she likes it, your less-nerdy friends might like it, too. Nerd.)

Fantasy Life is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You live someone’s life in a fantasy game. It’s similar to games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and Rune Factory, in that the gameplay consists of waking up in the morning, doing your job, maybe talking to a couple of the other townsfolk, completing a few menial tasks, then going to sleep.

I have never been able to get into this style of game. I find Animal Crossing to be nauseatingly adorable while it demands that I only play an hour a day. Harvest moon was the opposite, and didn’t seem to want to charm me at all. And Rune Factory… It feels like Animal Crossing with simply the ability to go to bed and progress time added in. All of these games claim to be life simulators, but limit me to one, maybe two different types of lives to live, and they dictate what pace I must use. I really don’t like being told to play an RPG at a certain pace. It’s my adventure. Don’t tell me that I have to go to bed.

During all of my time with Fantasy Life so far, I think my character might have gone to bed roughly four times, and that was just because he was near his bed and low on health. There is a weird kind of bliss in keeping your character awake for weeks at a time in a life simulator. It’s absolutely cathartic. Makes me feel, like, a million times better about my own life. I might have a hard time getting comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, but at least I’m not so addicted to fishing and killing bears that I go a month or two between naps. Makes me feel like frickin’ Rip Van Winkle.

I voiced another complaint about the life simulator games earlier: lack of choices in the type of life I lead. Harvest Moon allows me to be a farmer, Rune Factory allows me to be a farmer and a warrior, and Animal Crossing allows me to be a… um, a… fucking… silent conversation partner/slave worker? I honestly don’t get Animal Crossing at all. I find its popularity mystifying. Fantasy Life, though, has a list of “Lives” I can live. I can choose any of those lives at, essentially, any time. It’s locked out while actively pursuing a main story quest, and possibly for a little while at the beginning? By the time I was ready to start learning about the other lives, I was able to change, so if it is locked off at all at the beginning of the game, it isn’t for long, and it’s probably just because you’re experiencing the main story.

I started as a Paladin. Swords and shields and piety, or so I thought. Instead, I got swords and shields and being a town guard. This is not as boring as it sounds, really. The dialogue is both charming and witty, and the characters are mostly distinct enough to be somewhat memorable. Once I started branching out into other lives, I encountered other characters who were eerily similar to characters I’d met before, but the plot is that perfect combination of well-written and forgettable that it has the right to get a little samey. If you take the time to actually read the dialogue, you’ll enjoy it every time, but it’s also not really needed after you have the base mechanics down. In fact, you have the option to skip the introductory quest for each life after your first, and there is generally special dialogue written that lets you know that there are gonna be people in town who you should have met during the quest you skipped, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they inexplicably seem to know you. It’s a nice touch, and it helps alleviate the strange sense of guilt I feel every time I skip some of the game’s carefully crafted script.

But, who gives a shit about the story? In this sort of game, i.e. one that doesn’t entirely rely on its story to carry it, like Bioshock Infinite or Telltale’s Walking Dead Series, we have to judge it mostly by the meat of the game, which is the gameplay. In the spirit of the introduction on this review, let’s break it down by the three qualities I mentioned.

First, we have exploration. Sweet, baby Jesus, do we ever have exploration. Think Skyrim, but segmented like a Zelda game. Portions of the world are locked off by the main story, and do not open up until specific tasks are complete, and fast travel can take even longer to unlock for a given area, but, for the first time in my life, I almost welcome this. The game’s map is massive, and even the small portion I currently have access to (maybe a third of it, tops?) is slightly overwhelming. To make matters worse, or better, depending on how you view it, each area is positively flooded with things to do. You want monsters to kill? Take ten goddamn steps in any direction outside of town. You want a quest to complete? Go back to town and, again, take ten steps in any direction. You want to gather crafting materials? Bitch, you have no idea what you’re getting into, there. Every single area, regardless of whether or not combat is possible, is riddled with resources to gather. In addition, smaller areas branch off from each map, lending it a size that can induce panic attacks in those not prepared for this game’s size. I seriously cannot emphasize this enough: this scope of this game is bonkers, especially for a handheld title.

On that note, let’s take a step back before we look at combat and progression. This is a fucking handheld game, and I am comparing it to an Elder Scrolls game, at least in terms of size. That sinking in for you? The Nintendo 3DS has a game that rivals a hardcore, open-world RPG for consoles and PCs. For those of us paying attention, though, this is what we have come to expect from Level-5. They brought us the Guild Collections, which I recommend googling, since I couldn’t possibly do the size of these collections justice in a single paragraph or two, and that’s all the space I want to dedicate to fellating these guys with my words. I talk a lot about “pedigree” when it comes to studios, and these guys are so full of pedigree you could show them off at the fucking Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. No shit. Look them up. You probably know several of their games if you play RPGs at all, and love them if you’ve played them. They came onto the scene in the year 2000, when they released Dark Cloud, one of the unsung heroes of the PS2. Dark Cloud 2 followed in 2002, then they hit the big-time, when Square Enix approached them to develop Dragon Quest VIII, which is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest games of all time, and quite possibly the single best old-school, turn-based RPG ever created. Even IGN ranks it at #39 on its list of the best games of all time, which is impressive when you assume that the 38 games above it probably bought their way into that list, to some extent, or, at the very least, were made by much larger studios. At the time that Dragon Quest was started, Level-5 was still considered to be a small startup company.

With the success of Dragon Quest 8, Level-5 was able to expand dramatically, hitting 150 employees by 2010. They released dozens of high-quality games, including Jeanne d’Arc, Ni no Kuni, Inazuma Eleven, Dragon Quest IX, and the Professor Layton games. If you move in gamer circles (and I assume you do, since you’re reading my bullshit), you know these games. Even if you haven’t played them, you’ve heard talk. No one has bad things to say about these games. In recent years, they have focused more on smaller (file-size-wise) games for handheld systems, but every single one has made their first game, Dark Cloud, which was universally praised, look like the work of amateurs.

I love this studio, and I didn’t even know it. They have something like 3% of the Japanese game market on lock, which doesn’t sound like much, but, considering that they have less than a tenth of the staff of giants like Square Enix, that figure starts to become impressive. With a small market share like that, they don’t come up often in every day conversation, though, and that’s a fucking shame. Go download Bugs vs. Tanks for like $3.00 right now, and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing else at that price point approaches the level of quality these guys can pull off.

Anyway, Fantasy Life. It’s a game. We’ve already talked exploration, so let’s talk combat.

It’s… meh.

It kills me to say it, but that’s always the way with these games, right? Now, that is not to say that there isn’t a lot of combat, because it’s everywhere. I would even go so far as to say that much of the resource-gathering is combat, as well. When you approach a tree or an ore deposit that you would like to make yours, you press the A button, then swing at the tree or rock from different angles, trying to find the sweet spot that will let you deplete its health as quickly as possible, so you don’t get too tired to keep going. Really, the combat against inanimate objects might even be more compelling than combat against actual enemies. You have exactly one button for attacking that does a lunging hit when you move toward an enemy while swinging, and a multi-hit combo while standing still. If you have a shield, you can block, but it usually only shaves off a few points of damage, so just walking out of the way of attacks is preferred. If you are in a combat life that matches the weapon you are using, you get a special gauge that slowly fills and allows you to do an extremely overpowered attack. You cannot do a special move at all in combat if you’re in a non-combat life. It’s not like, the best thing ever, but it helps, when you have exactly two different attacks, otherwise.

This causes most of the hard decisions in the game. Playing as a Paladin is great, because it gives you a special move that does assloads of damage. But, if you’re in a combat life, it means you will have a harder time gathering resources. I spent most of my time playing as a miner, a woodcutter, or a fisherman, so that I could at least gather one type of resource with relative ease, because, again, trees and rocks and fish are the toughest enemies in the game. Many of these trees and rocks will be entirely skipped by you when first encountered, because you simply can’t damage them no matter how hard you try. There are a few trees I found that I still cannot damage 40 hours in, and I found them in hour ten.

Last, we have character progression. And holy shit, do we have a lot of it. There are experience points that increase your character level, giving you extra points to put toward stats of your choice upon leveling. There are stars, which can generally be earned in any Life, that increase the level of that particular life, from Fledgling, to Novice, all the way up to Master and, supposedly, Legend. It could go past Legend, I don’t know. I try not to look up stuff about games I haven’t finished. I’m right in the middle on all of my Lives, either an Adept or an Expert, and I have completed an awful lot of challenges. I can’t even wrap my brain around the amount of sushi I would need to make to become a Cooking Legend. There’s Bliss, which is earned by performing tasks to make you feel more connected to the world and its inhabitants, which can be spent to unlock larger inventory, pets, horses, and even better inventory for shops. The three crafting-type lives (Alchemist, Woodworker, and Smith) allow you to craft better gear for your character, which also adds to your sense of progression. One could feasibly do nothing but craft items to gain levels, and the crafting mini-game is just barely tolerable enough to make that a possibility. So, not only is there a fuckload of character progression, there are also nearly limitless options for accomplishing this. Sure, you could run around and murder things until you have enough money to buy gold armor, or you could buy the raw gold and craft your own, which could land you a higher-quality set of armor. Or, even better, you could mine your own gold ore, smelt it, and craft for the chance at better gear, gaining experience and stars every step of the way.

This game is remarkable, all things considered. The combat is bland, but is also mostly avoidable, and it is varied enough to make it at least more interesting than the combat in an Elder Scrolls game, if you decide to include fighting lives in your run through the game. I didn’t mention it above, but the graphics and music are also extremely pleasant. The music was all done by Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy soundtrack fame. Here’s a little taste, because, let’s face it, I could never describe a graphical style or sound well enough for you to understand it as well as this (It’s the trailer, so it starts off with a bit of cutscene, but gameplay starts right around the 25-second mark and continues for about a minute, and all of the music is from the game.):

All-around, I can recommend this game to anyone who enjoys life-simulators or lengthy RPGs. If you require gore and intense violence, you’ll probably be bored by this friendly little title, but in the current market that is flooded with realism I, personally, welcome any title that remembers that it is, in fact, a video game and not a real-life simulator.

Score time. Damn it. Either an 8.5 or a 9, depending on personal taste. The bland combat is all I can really fault it for, and I lean toward 9 simply because, if you don’t want to engage in the boring combat, you don’t have to. This is, however, the best life simulator I’ve ever played, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking about picking up this wonderful little title. That’s funny. “Little” is about as far from true as possible. We’ll call it a massive little game, at the very least. For a handheld title, it’s practically The Elder Scrolls VI.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review – Giving your game a name like this makes it hard for me to decide which tense to use when writing

Alright, it’s been out for a while, we’ve played as much as we’re going to in a lot of cases, so let’s talk about The Pre-Sequel. It’s good to let it sit for a bit before we discuss it, I think.

Here’s what I think: lower gravity is a good thing.

You want more than that? Fine, we’ll break it down a bit.

You know how I feel about this game series. If you don’t, it’s like the last post I put up or something. Go check it out. I think I made some valid points while keeping things light and pleasant, but I’m also my most gentle critic. Short version: I like Borderlands for its concept, and I love Borderlands 2 for refining that concept into something more accessible while jacking up the writing to 11. The second game did let me down in a couple ways, I admit. It wasn’t the step up toward a large, immersive world that I thought it would be, and the exploration was minimal and unrewarding. The first Borderlands was like Fallout 3 cut into bite-sized segments and infused with multiplayer, and I think we all thought the second one would go more that way. When it went more mainstream, it lost a bit of its soul, but it gained a lot of appeal and playability, particularly where multiplayer is concerned, so it’s hard for me to fault Gearbox for these decisions.

Additionally, it seems that Gearbox themselves feel the same way. Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox, has been widely quoted as saying, “When you think of what Borderlands 3 should be… No. we don’t know what that is yet. We can imagine what it must achieve, but we don’t know what it is yet.” There’s a lot of buzz in that statement, as is the tendency when developers talk about their own games, but it belies a certain amount of desire to excel. When held up to the ending of the second Borderlands game, which seems to imply that the third game will be huge, Pitchford’s statement gives me hope.

The Pre-Sequel is not the fulfilment of that hope.

I knew that going into it, though. The screenshots and videos released before the game came out made it pretty damn clear that The Pre-Sequel would be made using the same engine as its predecessor, and we already knew that the engine in question could not handle massive environments. So, rather than the giant leap that Borderlands 3 will (hopefully) be, The Pre-Sequel is more of an incremental step. It’s not ideal, but I can at least respect it for what it is.

This is all talk about franchising, though. To some extent, we always need to judge a game (or a movie, or a book, or an album, for that matter) by the entries that came before. If a studio cannot improve constantly, the franchise stagnates, and the money we gave to the developers goes to waste, and we learn to resent them because of it. I want to make it clear right off the bat that Gearbox has not put me into that position. All-around, it’s a great game, and I love what they did with what they had.

Still, let’s rip it to pieces real quick. Out of respect. Or some shit.

As I mentioned in the previous piece, I don’t play Borderlands games online. I will always prefer local multiplayer games. Borderlands is a franchise my fiancée will play with me, and I’ll game with her any day over total strangers on the internet. No offense, I like you guys and all, but I like her more. That’s why I’m marrying her. That, and she’ll let me marry her. But, I digress. I’m reviewing this as a couch co-op game. I’m sure someone could find something completely obtuse to say about the differences between the methods of playing other than the obvious, but, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s fun to play with one other person, it’s probably fun to play with three other people instead, and it’s also probably fun to play alone.

I’m not gonna get into the general ideas of the gameplay too much, here. It’s a Borderlands game, and it’s the same engine as Borderlands 2. If you like Fallout 3 and/or Diablo, and you’re a fan of shooters, you’ll probably like it. Go pick up a copy of Borderlands 2, play it, then come back and read this. You’ll thank me. You don’t even need to play the first game. Situations derived from the first game’s plot are mentioned maybe once or twice, but the story is an entirely separate beast, and all of the DLC for Borderlands 2, as well as the Pre-Sequel and all its DLC, branch out from the story of Borderlands 2, rather than the first one. As stated earlier, I think the first game has better maps and exploration, so it ends up being a bit meatier of an experience, but it isn’t needed to enjoy what came after.

One might be able to enjoy The Pre-Sequel without playing Borderlands 2, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You won’t get the same impact from the story, and that impact is the whole point of the story. It all revolves around Handsome Jack, the villain of Borderlands 2. The story fills in some gaps between the first and second games, which is why they were able to give it such a ridiculous name. If you haven’t played Borderlands 2 and start up The Pre-Sequel, you’ll probably still be amused by the story, but you’ll be a little lost when it comes to the more nuanced ideas they’re dealing with. After all, Handsome Jack started off as (at least in his eyes) a hero. It’s the story of how Jack came to be the murderous sociopath in charge of the HyHHyperion Corporation. If you didn’t spend an entire game wanting to blow him away, you’re not gonna get the same “oomph” out of the story as everyone else.

The story is, to my mind, at least, both the high and low points of the game. The concept is great: watch a fairly normal, while somewhat narcissistic, guy slowly descend into madness and villainy. It’s a tried-and-true story for most media, but is rarely tackled in video games. Jason Brody may have become less human in his journey through Far Cry 3, but, like other protagonists whose games approach this sort of plot, he’s still the hero when the game ends, and probably didn’t start off as one. Handsome Jack starts off as a hero, and turns into the bad guy over the course of the game we’re playing. The whole script reeks of Anthony Burch’s social awareness, from the lesbian thief who is your main source of interaction in the game to the little orphan boy who know where all of the best scavenging is. Anthony loves to write non-traditional characters and situations, and the Pre-Sequel is no exception.

But, it seems to me that he merely provided suggestions and guidance on the story and characters. Most of the dialogue is a little more clunky than what we’re used to from Mr. Burch, and their character flaws aren’t as pronounced as they have been in the past. Most of them should seem a little evil, or at least psychopathic, as is tradition in these games, but they all ended up a little… happy-go-lucky. Maybe this is by design, to highlight Jack’s descent, or maybe that’s just what all Australians seem like to Americans. I don’t claim to know at all what can be held accountable for the disparity in tone, but there is undeniably a difference between the script of Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel.

This is not to say that the script is bad. It’s just different. Some of the characters are even more memorable than they were previously, or they’re brand new characters who really stand out. Red and Belly, a pair of enemies who are too close for even each other’s comfort, stick out as particularly magical new additions, and existing characters like Moxxie and Nisha are fleshed out and given depth that they lacked, before. I also really like that the dialogue changes based on what character you are using. The best instance of this is during a mission you receive from the Hyperion lady-voice (You know, “Don’t think of your death as failure, think of it as fun! Don’t think of Hyperion’s New-U respawn charges as war profiteering, think of them as war… fun!”) while playing as Claptrap. I don’t want to spoil it, because the entire script for this mission is so great that you should really just experience it, but I will say that it gives us an almost unwanted look into Claptrap’s head. It’s dialogue you would entirely miss if you weren’t playing as Claptrap, and I can assure you, you don’t want to miss it.

Let’s take a minute to talk Claptrap. I know a lot of people don’t like him. Everyone I talk to about this cites the fact that he’s annoying as their reason for not liking him. I would like to point out that this is the point of his character. Everything he does, he does in the most obnoxious way possible. It’s not about to change, and I love it. We should always have well-written characters around that we don’t particularly like. This character trait actually comes across in the skill tree for Claptrap. All of his skills are just… fucking annoying. Like, annoying to the people you’re playing with. Through gameplay, with no dialogue at all, Claptrap is annoying.

THIS IS FANTASTIC DESIGN.

Yes, that deserved its own paragraph.

So did that. For emphasis. Because, honestly, I hardly ever see so much character in a game’s mechanics as I do with the skill trees in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Claptrap’s skills all revolve around him being terrible at everything. He goes down easily, stays down longer, and does more damage from the ground. Honestly, he’s just lying on the ground and crying for most of the game, and we already knew this to be what his character is like. Wilhelm, who I honestly thought was a robot in Borderlands 2, appears as a human who is addicted to cybernetic implants, and his skill tree not only reflects this but also explains how he ended up as a towering robot monstrosity. Each character feels different from the others, not just because of their special skill like in the previous games, but also their other skills. I feel like this becomes a more impressive feat when we hold it up to another game in a similar style: Diablo 3. The barbarian class is cool in Diablo, and the skills are great, but I am generally just confused by what they might say about the character. Making a volcano erupt at will is neat and all, but all it tells me about the barbarian is that he can make volcanos erupt at will. Claptrap’s skills make him seem like an annoying crybaby, Nisha’s skills make her seem like an Old West sheriff, Wilhelm’s skills make him seem like a technology addict, and Athena’s skills make her seem like a protector of innocents. Absolutely stunning design, in the character skills department, and I applaud Gearbox for every single square in the skill trees.

I know I already mentioned this, but the decision to make a mostly low-gravity game was another fantastic decision. The first Borderlands had pretty low gravity, as evidenced by your character’s above-average jump height and the fact that falling from a great height did very little damage. Borderlands 2 stepped it up, and removed falling damage. Entirely. It was already so low in the first one that it was negligible, but Gearbox committed and just took out fall damage, completely. The Pre-Sequel took it further and lowered the gravity by a lot, allowing for higher jumps that take you much further. Long story short, it’s a fucking blast. They also introduced a new type of gear to assist in this: the Oz Kit. Oz kits give you a refillable source of air that can used to breathe in vacuum (boring) or you can expel some oxygen to propel you in mid-air and give you extra distance and height on your jumps (fucking awesome). The designers recognized that you might not always want to spend 10 full seconds in the air, so the Oz Kits also give you the ability to slam into the ground, Kirby-style, when you have enough height. Slamming is also awesome.

Low-gravity jumping and slamming alone make this game leaps and bounds (damn unavoidable puns) more fun to play than its predecessors. Boss fights will have you jumping over missiles as they fly harmlessly at the space you used to occupy, and slamming is great for crowd control. There are plenty of small, skittery enemies who would be miserable to shoot one at a time, and slamming gives us an efficient and fun way to handle that situation. Again, great design. Once you figure out that you can one-shot the little Torks by slamming, they go from being an enemy you dread to one you actually enjoy fighting. You kind of get excited to jump and slam around like a cracked-out pole-vaulter.

This game is absolutely riddled with great design hampered by its basic nature. No part of this game is bad, but it’s still just a placeholder, something to slake our thirst until Borderlands 3 comes out. And that’s fine! I’m glad I have a game to fill that void! But, I also wish it had been more than it was. I love the bigger maps, but they still aren’t big enough. I like the new gameplay mechanics, but I wish that we’d gotten an updated engine. I like the new characters, but I’m mad that I have nothing bad to say about them or their skill trees. I wish I liked this game more, and my instincts make me think I should like it less.

It is a Borderlands game, though, so I’ll keep playing it.

Score? 8/10, I’d say. It’s passable in every way, but it didn’t change my views on games like the two previous games did. I guess they can’t all be game-changers. I just have to accept that. Gearbox, make us a game that compels us to go 10/10 with Borderlands 3. I want you guys to raise the bar again, like you did twice before.

Azure Striker Gunvolt Review: Fleep, Flop, Floobity Doop

The Nintendo 3DS has an awful lot of games launching every week in the e-shop. These download-only games are mostly made by companies no one has ever heard of, so the more discerning shopper might hesitate to buy them. I know this pain, and have put myself through it several times in the last few weeks so I can hopefully help you decide if you want to play some of them. We’re gonna start off with Mega Man X.

Shit, I mean… what’s it called? Right, title of the post. Azure Striker Gunvolt. I cannot imagine a worse name. Actually, I take it back. I can think of a lot of much worse names, but I wouldn’t put them on something I produced. Shut, that’s pretty mean of me. Now, to seem like less of a dick, I will give this review a terrible name, so Gunvolt doesn’t feel as bad. I guess the title doesn’t really matter, though, so let’s move on to the gameplay.

It’s Mega Man X. You like Mega Man X? You might like this game.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s not enough like Mega Man X to really draw the comparison. Where Mega Man X has upgrades squirreled away all over its levels, encouraging you to replay them several times, Gunvolt’s replay value comes in the form of “Challenges,” which just aren’t as good. Some of them are kind of interesting, but most are forced speedruns. Count. Me. Out.

I’m gonna make the Mega Man X comparison a lot. When you make a game that takes nearly all of its core mechanics from the Blue Bomber, you open yourself up to these comparisons. And Gunvolt fails just about every litmus test.

When you purchase Azure Striker Gunvolt from the e-shop, if you do so within the time limit, which is probably over because I took forever to play through it, you will also receive the fake first game in the series, called Mighty Gunvolt. It’s not a fake game, people, it’s a fake first game. It was not released that I can find before the release of its companion game. You know how I said Azure Striker Gunvolt is Mega Man X? Mighty Gunvolt is Mega Man.

It’s honestly not bad. It’s arguably a bit longer than the first Mega Man game, since there are three characters to play with, but from the bit I played with a second character after beating it, I think it was the same levels in a different order, so the length argument seems pretty flimsy.

It’s just… Mega Man. The first one. Each character has slight tweaks to make sure they don’t control quite the same as the man himself, like a double-jump, hovering, and… somersaults? But, their base movements and jumps are basically identical to Mega Man.

You know what I like about it, though? The story. It’s one of those stories that’s so vague, awful, and poorly-translated that it transcends to pure hilarity. I get the feeling it’s meant to be a pretty deep story with some real social commentary, but it… it doesn’t make sense. Like, for instance, the following excerpt from the intro:

“The other time, the other place: Experiments on humans started by massive media group ‘Sumeragi’ to audition for next ‘muse’ idol. Their magic hand even reached female schools. Female students vanished and no new couples formed. Love was in a danger.”

Wow… Love was in a fucking danger, indeed.

Every mistake I typed was directly from the source material. Honestly, what does that even say? It starts off talking about human experimentation, and ends lamenting the death of love? There is one more paragraph of explanation that makes a little more sense, but sheds no light at all on the paragraph above. The game itself also does nothing to explain its own plot. Guys show up, then they hold up swords and turn into super-powered robots. I have no idea what the auditions are that they mention, although I am fairly confident that I played a level in one of the fabled female schools, and I can attest to the fact that no new couples were being formed. I would like to point out, before we move on, that those are the first lines in the entire game. It’s brilliant! Confuse them right off the bat, then everything else makes sense in comparison!

Apart from this, I’m just a little worn out on Mega Man clones. The controls are tight, and the music is honestly great (like, really great and you should check it out if you’re into the 8-bit stuff), but it’s not enough to keep me interested. The levels are riddled with seemingly unavoidable damage, and it doesn’t feel fun. You learn the patterns, you jump exactly right, and you still get hit. It feels like a tax, not gameplay. Run to the right, take half your health worth of damage, grab a heal, climb a bit, run to the left, take another half of your health in damage, heal, repeat, repeat, repeat. Fuck taxes. They aren’t fun. Oh, boy! Gonna really tear into my damage tax return this year! I hear they passed a bill that’ll let me deduct every bullet I pull out of my leg! I’m gonna be the richest tax whiz on the block!

This annoyance ends when a boss appears. These guys definitely know their way around boss fights. They all still seem to have unavoidable tax-attacks, so they become a game of avoiding the attacks that actually can be dodged, to survive long enough to kill the boss, while trying to kill him fast enough to not have to deal with the unavoidable attack more than once. It’s almost like a puzzle. Most of the bosses will kill you several times before you succeed, and the feeling when beating one is pretty great. You feel like you earned it, and it didn’t feel quite as unfair as the run up to the boss.

So, the first game wasn’t much to get excited about. I think anyone could agree. The only people that Mighty Gunvolt may appeal to are those who wish there were more of the original Mega Man game. And it hurts to say that, you know? Right now, with the death of our favorite blue, shot-chargin’, left-to-right-runnin’ hero, I want more Mega Man games more than anything. I grew up on those games, you know?

It just doesn’t make sense to me. The members of the team making these games have made Mega Man games. Were they intentionally making Gunvolt less appealing? Check out their Wikipedia page. The studio is called Inti Creates. Seriously, pull it up. I can wait.

Look at that pedigree! Mega Man Zero, Battle Chip, even the upcoming Mighty Number Nine (the rebirth of Mega Man, in case you weren’t aware). I’m willing to admit that I might not be viewing the game in a completely objective manner, but I don’t think that’s the case. My current assumption is that they are focusing all of their resources on Mighty Number Nine. That’s how I have to justify it to avoid losing faith in the game I helped kickstart.

The other justification I use is that it’s a weird, artsy tech demo for, or maybe a preemptive homage to, the real game: Azure Striker Gunvolt. I have not yet finished this one, but that is something we’ll get to later. The only character playable in this one is the titular Gunvolt. He is nothing like he was in the first game. Or demo tape. Or parody. Whatever Mighty Gunvolt is. I have never had this much trouble figuring out what a game is and why it exists.

Shit, ummmmm, anyway… Azure Stirker Gunvolt. It’s not bad.

It’s definitely not for me. If I want a game in this style, I have the Mega Man Zero collection sitting in my 3DS. Azure Striker Gunvolt has just a little too much resource management for my taste. It feels like the rule set of Starcraft crammed into a left-to-right runner.

There’s never just one thing to worry about at a time with this game, and it can get overwhelming. You can’t just shoot bad guys with your darts; that takes too long, so you shoot them with darts and hurl lightning in their face. That’s cool and all, but the only button I remember the game telling me to push for that skill is under my right thumb, along with the jump button and the button for shooting darts. I can handle jumping and shooting. I’ve been jumping and shooting for as long as I can remember. I fucking grew up jumping and shooting. When you throw a third action in there, and that action involves a button that you have to hold down, it goes from second-nature to next-to-impossible. It’s like trying to pat your head, rub your belly, and drink a glass of water while making it seem like your dummy is singing The Star Spangled Banner at the same time. After an embarrassing amount of time, I accidentally pressed the right shoulder button, which also apparently shoots electricity. It made things infinitely better, but I’m still pretty mad that I wasn’t told about this at all. Clearly, since people enjoy Starcraft, there are probably a lot of people who enjoy managing several different resources on the fly, but I find it to be more similar to work, which is also pretty much exactly what I think of Starcraft. People can be good at it and even enjoy it if they dedicate themselves to learning everything about it, and I completely understand why people do enjoy it, but I’m not looking for that in a game. Not my style.

The level design in this game was a huge disappointment to me. One level tried to do this thing with portals, but it only happened at scripted moments. There was no real control over when it happened, and not indicator to warn you, so it just felt out of control and tacked-on. And, apart from a couple exceptions, all of the levels were pretty samey. Two in particular do stand out in my mind as being different from the pack. One was annoyingly vertical with moving platforms, and one was on a cargo train that forced you to destroy boxes to progress, and neither of them were interesting at all. Apart from those slightly less boring levels, nothing really stood out, and even the levels that did were pretty annoying as a result.

You know what’s a shitty idea? Putting the checkpoint for a level before both a miniboss and a jumping section. Why not between them? I really, truly, do not want to fight the miniboss over again when I miss a jump on your blustery-ass platforms. The platforming is less than fun, and it all involves using your electricity to hover in a way that the game doesn’t do the best job of explaining.

I assume this lack of direction is a translation issue, though, since the plot actually makes even less sense than it did in Mighty Gunvolt. So far, I’ve decided the story is about a pop star clone who is possessed by… something? Not quite sure who or what has possessed her, yet, or if it’s even a literal possession. The translation seems much better in Azure Striker than it did in Mighty Gunvolt, so it weirds me out that the story still makes no sense. It’s just a device to put bosses in our way, though, much like the levels that lead up to them. And, just like the smaller game, the bosses are the real substance here, rather than the environments or the story.

When your story is nothing more than a device to justify gameplay, you should own that. Look at Sonic. The story there is, “Bad guy over there, some kind of gems can stop him.” Or Mario. “The princess is gone, let’s go look for her.” You can have a practically non-existent plot, and it doesn’t have to be a detriment to the game. When you half-ass it, though, it can be a serious detriment to the game. Here’s the plot you could have used: “8 bad guys have magic swords, and we need them.” Sound familiar? It’s almost the plot of every Mega Man game. Oh, but I suppose you would have a harder time resurrecting those bosses if that was the plot. Which brings me to my next point: boss recycling.

For a long time, I was stuck on the second-to-last level. I knew it was the second-to-last level because I was just fighting every single boss over again. In a row. I was “stuck” on the most obnoxious one. I was not actually stuck, since the boss was exactly the same as the first time I fought him, and I’d obviously beaten him once to get to that point. I was definitely capable of killing him. I just couldn’t work up the desire. Remember how I talked about “damage tax” before? That’s all this boss does. He fires a near-constant stream of damage through the entire bottom of the screen, where one would need to stand, since Gunvolt cannot fly. It can’t be avoided in full, so the fight becomes a race to kill him before he manages to kill you, and he will almost always kill you first, because the constant damage attack is pretty much all he does. THIS IS BAD DESIGN. You can’t design a boss whose strategy is “hope the AI is stupid enough to not do his infinite-damage-across-the-screen attack for the entire fight this time so you can beat him.” I shouldn’t be throwing attempts at the wall until one sticks, I should be devising a strategy. Even the other bosses with an unavoidable attack feel more fair than this one, since they are either rare and do a fixed amount of damage, or the attack is a one-shot kill, but it only happens if you take way too long to kill the boss. The worst part is that I couldn’t turn my DS off, or I’d have to fight the previous five bosses over again so I could just get stuck on that shield-bearing asshole one more time. None of them are a challenge. I’d killed them all before, and could defeat most of them on my first try, by then. It’s not fun, though, and I am of the opinion that a game should be fun. Weird, right?

After a week or so of trying maybe once a night before getting bored and hibernating the DS, I did manage to beat him, and was rewarded with the end of the level in moments. This brought me to the final boss.

I did not beat the final boss. There was no way. I could just barely beat his first form, but his second, more awful form could swat me aside, easily. I tried a bunch of times, but it was clear that either my reflexes or my character wasn’t good enough, and I play an awful lot of video games, so I feel like I probably have above-average reflexes. Please, let me remind you that the gear for your character is obtained by playing levels over again with odd restrictions in place, and most of the levels are uninspired enough that I have very little interest in playing them a second time. Saying that I couldn’t beat the boss due to lack of gear certainly aligns with my pride in a convenient way, so I’ll go with that. Once I was sufficiently bored with dying, I just searched for the boss fight and the final cutscene on youtube. I clicked on the first result I found, and the characters started talking in Japanese. That didn’t bother me, at first. I figured that the plot made no sense to me, anyway, so not being able to understand the dialogue wouldn’t make it any more boring. It bothered me an awful lot, though, when I realized that I was hearing full spoken dialogue when there was no spoken dialogue at all in the version I was playing, except for the odd moment when a Japanese voice-actor, as Japanese voice-actors are wont to do, speaks the occasional word of English while doing a special move. I understand why a small Japanese studio would avoid spoken English dialogue, but it’s still jarring to see. I didn’t even watch that much, anyway. People talked to Gunvolt for a while, and I can now scientifically say that the language barrier actually did make me even less interested in what was going on, so we learned something, too!

The parts of Azure Striker Gunvolt that I liked, I really liked. The running and jumping are precise and fun, and the boss fights are (for the most part) an absolute joy, and those are two of the most important things in run-jump-shoot games. I think this bodes well for Mighty Number Nine. This studio still has a knack for interesting theming, and I have to assume that a full retail release of their new flagship franchise will prompt them to step up the things I can complain about, like level design and repetition. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll finally make the 2D spiritual successor to Dark Souls I’ve been expecting from them for years. Give me something sprawling and merciless with constant character progression and fast-paced, deep combat, and I’ll give you my money for the rest of my life. Just sayin’.

Score time. I hate this part. Especially for this one. If Mighty Number Nine is better than this game, I could maybe go as high as a 6.5 or a 7. If it’s equal to or worse than this game, then Azure Striker Gunvolt dips down to a 4, tops. I like a game to be hard, but not if it makes me repeat the same boring shit over and over again to progress. I have to say, for what it is, which is a download-only game for the Nintendo 3DS, it’s pretty solid. I don’t resent my time spent playing it, but I will now be returning to the copy of the Mega Man Zero Collection I picked up a while back when I want my left-to-right runnin’ fix. Can’t beat the real deal, for now.