Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)

This (at the time of writing) preview can also be found on Shadowlocked, here.

The Mario RPGs stick a hefty middle finger up at the stat-crunching of traditional RPGs – and I love it. Whereas in the Final Fantasy series, a large portion of the combat is aiming to reach 9999 damage per attack, Mario's quests (and the Paper Mario games in particular) make you put a lot of strategy and effort into dealing what damage you can.

Couple this with the ability to deal extra damage and dodge blows taken via 'Timed Hits', and the combat of Mario RPGs feel more like puzzles than a series of statistics comparisons. However, among the series, there are some variations and exceptions. The Wii instalment, Super Paper Mario, crammed the system into a (surprisingly loose) platforming game – which didn't really work for me. Its predecessor, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the Gamecube felt like the pinnacle of what a Mario RPG could offer me, and I was secretly hoping that Paper Mario Sticker Star would match that.

The setup is exact Paper Mario fare. Bowser interrupts the annual Sticker Fest of Decalburg by causing the Sticker Comet to explode, throwing the 6 Royal Stickers in all directions, and leaving Mario to clean up his mess. His only companion in his adventure this time is Kersti, a 'sticker fairy'. For the early sections that I played, Sticker Star definitely echoes Thousand Year Door in tone and style (which is excellent and a huge plus by itself), and the writing is as long-form and self-referentially goofy as you could ever want. However, mechanically, it takes a surprising step towards... the adventure game genre?


Preview: Paper Mario Sticker Star

Yes, while the basic tenets of a Mario RPG are present and correct – with 'Timed Hits', enemies to be defeated in less-than-straightforward ways, and incredibly jaunty battle themes – battles are given slightly less of a focus to favour exploration and puzzle solving in the game world. Think Monkey Island, and you're on the right track.

You could reason this change as being related to Sticker Star's main theme and mechanical gimmick – all of your actions and abilities are powered by stickers. Littered across the game world are stickers depicting weapons and items, and these are your only means of attack in battle. This means that if you run out of stickers you're defenceless; but they are easily replenished, and will generally be tailored to the foes in the area. Other, more significant items found are also turned into stickers for use in combat.

This system is incredibly streamlined; and forces you to think in a way that's contrasting to many RPGs – you don't benefit from holding onto your strongest items. Why waste three stickers on winning a fight when you can do it in one? Unfortunately, it also means that the finer features of Thousand Year Door are no longer present. There's no audience cheering you on in fights, or Partner Characters. The loss of the latter is a huge shame, but begrudgingly accepted. Attacks do a lot more damage than standard for a Paper Mario game, and you're rewarded for finishing fights quickly without taking damage. You don't even gain experience after battle (which is honestly a good thing). It definitely feels like battles are being pushed out of focus, but not in a way that makes them irrelevant or poor.

Puzzle me this

Preview: Preview Mario Sticker Star 

And what of the puzzle-adventure aspects? The game world is broken down into many small acts spread across a map, as with Super Mario Bros. 3/Super Mario World/New Super Mario Bros./etc. Not only is this a sensible decision for a 3DS game (it makes it a lot easier to play in bursts), it gives a focus for each area having a main event or puzzle to solve.

As with battles, they are also sticker-related; the focus of your play will be on finding items to resolve requests and obstacles in your path. What would wake up a sleeping Wiggler? Can you replant a Toad's destroyed flower garden? Some of the puzzles even take an oft-criticised aspect from point 'n' click adventures, with very specific and arguably obtuse solutions. There will only be one item that will wake up that Wiggler, even if you have something else that would make sense. Fortunately, you can press the L button at any time to get a hint from Kersti.

While, from its opening hour or so, Paper Mario Sticker Star is not Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door again, it doesn't really need to be (which is painfully obvious when said like that, but fans of a series have complicated feelings about sequels). It's mindful of the past in all the right ways, and the shift towards puzzle-adventure is a genre I actually like a whole lot (for whatever that's worth). The Mario RPGs continue to offer more than what's normally demanded of an RPG, and that's a very good thing indeed.

Ape Escape (DVD)

This review can be found at Shadowlocked, here.

Review: Ape Escape DVD

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting when I popped Ape Escape into my DVD player. My frame of reference of the series was the original Ape Escape on PS1; the pioneer software for Sony's dual-stick Dualshock controller; a sweet soundtrack filled with poppy drum 'n' bass, and more ridiculous monkeys than you could count - trying their hardest to put their IQ-giving 'Pipo Helmets' to good use.

Plot-wise, the Ape Escape DVD provides the last of those three. A series of two-to-three minute episodes that largely focus on Specter - the villain of the Ape Escape series. He's an evil ape granted a genius intelligence though an experimental helmet. With his army of fellow apes (given helmets of their own), he intends to take over the world... but never manages to succeed.

At the very least, I expected an animation of the Ape Escape series to be an anime. Anyone would with such a 'typically Japanese' source material. But upon watching, these expectations were heavily subverted! Ape Escape is animated by Frederator, an American animation team, most notably responsible for The Fairly Odd Parents, but have more recently had a hand in the production of Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors. 

A More American Monkey

There are two issues with this, one an outright problem and the other... more of a thinking point. The problem here is that Ape Escape was very much a side-project for Frederator. Written to fill Ad-break slots on the Nicktoons channel in 2009, the animation was produced in Flash, leading to a cheap and loose-looking finished product. That would be perfectly fine when watched on TV, but packed together like this, it stands out much more.

That's not to say Frederator didn't put in any effort into the production. The writers and directors of each episode shuffle around and are recognisable from the team's larger projects, and the voice cast (Greg Ellis as Spectre and Annie Mumolo as the kids out to stop him) are well-established in doing voices for cartoons and video games.

The show's writing is my second issue, but not necessarily a complaint. With an American studio handling the project, the writing is very typical of a Western show aimed at children, rather than a Japanese one. Since, as said before, the source material is full to the brim of Japanese-specific wacky humour, the absence of that is a surprise.

Here, you'll see slapstick reminiscent of Dennis the Menace; Sound effects just like a Hannah Barbera cartoon, and the visual gags of Dexter's Laboratory. All of it is aimed at someone at least a decade younger than me (I'm 22), but every so often a gag would be absurd and timely enough to get a chuckle from my cold, dead heart.

A Good Catch?

Still, the biggest question lingers: who should buy this? Animation fans aren't going to get much entertainment from a show that could be technically compared to Johnny Test. Fans of the Ape Escape games are likely to want the Japanese humour of the source material. Young kids would enjoy it, but Ape Escape is barely a recognisable name in the West these days, and as a kid your watching habits are very much franchise-driven.

For those who want to give Ape Escape a shot, the DVD will go on sale on February 18th for a reasonably cheap £7.99.

The Solution is Fisticuffs

This feature is also available at n-Europe, found here.

The Menu-Based RPG. Iconic for the games that come under it, the way it changed perspectives on game design, and the impact it had on gaming culture. It's also a genre that's fallen almost entirely out of favour with the present gaming scene; all due to two common design features.

The first is grinding, a concept that - if you're reading this - is most likely known to you. The process of doing a task over and over until you're in the condition to progress. It could appear in subtle fashions, but because grinding can lengthen a 10 hour game into 20 hours, the games of old used it to make the title worth the high sale price, and the games of today use it to keep you firmly glued to your screen.

The second is something I call 'Stats as Progression'. It's something also familiar to RPG players, but it's less commonly discussed. Since the classic definition of the RPG is based around concepts of pen and paper games like Dungeons & Dragons, RPG characters have their abilities quantified. I'm talking about Health Points, Defence, Agility... Let's just call them your 'Numbers'. As a shorthand for your character growing stronger, these Numbers increase as you fight and win battles. The player can feel as though progress is being made, but in games without an action element, they can remove 'agency' from the player a little. It's frustrating to have an attack miss, just because a hidden calculation dictates so.

Final Fantasy
Combine these two ideas in one game, and you have a system where progression through the game is dictated by how high your Numbers are. And to get your Numbers to a level where progression is possible, you need to grind – most likely through killing enemies. But if this was just a flat proportion of Numbers Required to Time Playing, the game wouldn't feel like it's increasing in difficulty. So to combat this, the time grinding to get to the target Numbers gets progressively longer.

Does this sound like a game you've played before? I'm sure you can name a few. The thing is, when that's all that there is to a game's progression, the only aspect of a player that's being challenged is their patience. In an action-oriented game, to progress requires a steady increase in skill. Here, the player's skill need never improve.

Honestly, it's the number one reason why I, personally, will stop playing a game. Grinding is not fun by itself, and if the process isn't made engaging, or the reward doesn't feel worth the effort, then it's time to move on to greener pastures.

To avoid a game where winning is simply a matter of having the biggest Numbers, game designers need to look at what exactly their barriers to progress are, and how they can give the players more agency. It's almost like... a puzzle.

Puzzling Punch-Ups Performed on Paper

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is my favourite title on the GameCube. Its aesthetics were top-notch and would be enough for me to love the game alone, but it was the gameplay that sold me. PM:TTYD turned combat into a performance, figuratively and literally. To defeat enemies by just selecting your strongest attack was inefficient, and in some cases outright impossible – success came to those who mastered the infamous 'timed hits'.

And it wasn't just about attack execution – many enemies were designed with a puzzle-solving element. Beyond Mario's skill-set of stomps and hammers, he gets an entourage of partners who each have their own special skills. Koops the Koopa Troopa is immune to damage from spikes. Vivian the Shadow Siren can pull Mario into the ground, avoiding attacks that would otherwise be unblockable. As your partners are introduced to you, the fights get more demanding, requiring you to use your new abilities effectively.

To have battles be 'perfect' puzzles, the abilities of the player have to be known at all times. This can be a hard thing to incorporate into the normal RPG style. While this works for Zelda games, where access to every weapon is carefully timed with what dungeons and bosses you'll be fighting; imagine if Pokémon limited the monsters available to you for Gym battles! It would definitely be more challenging, but a lot more restrictive.

Examples off the Beaten Path

Puzzle QuestSome titles get around this by making the method of combat puzzle-like, rather than detailed strategies to defeat specific enemies. Puzzle Quest immediately comes to mind (though I find it a bad example, as the computer tends to cheat), but if you take a dip into the esoteric there are some good examples.

The 2009 DS title Radiant Historia was, in many respects, generic. The setting, characters and writing were entirely uninteresting (at times painfully so). However, it had a fascinating battle system. Enemies you fight hang out on a 3x3 grid, and can be repositioned by your party's attacks. Consecutive attacks will chain together, so with some careful planning you can force all foes onto the same panel, taking heavy damage with every attack.

Baten Kaitos was a beautifully weird GameCube game that featured cards as your means of attack. While each card had its own ability, they also came marked with a number; creating 'chains' of cards with incrementing numbers was vital to dealing good damage. As such, building your deck of attacks was a very involved and careful process.
Final Fantasy XIII (forgive me for not using a Nintendo example) was heavily criticised for being linear, but that meant the game ensured that each fight would be a worthy challenge – and its battle system (which revolved around changing team tactics on the fly to keep up with fast and vicious enemy strategies) made for some of the most intense fights I've played in a main-series Final Fantasy.

The Paper Mario of the Present

With the release of Paper Mario Sticker Star, fans everywhere fiercely compared it to the lofty heights of Thousand Year Door. Unsurprisingly it doesn't hold up, but not because it's inherently bad... just different.

With the sticker gimmick that Sticker Star is based around, it takes the idea of battles being puzzles to extremes. The puzzles outside of battle have direct impact on your progress in battle, and vice-versa. For those who aren't familiar with the game, Mario's abilities are taken from an inventory of stickers. Solving puzzles in the field and attacking in battle uses the same resource, and stickers are single-use.

Paper Mario Sticker StarThis turns Sticker Star into a giant resource-management puzzle. Every battle forces you to decide between using your best skills now or later – but hoarding stickers results in dead weight. Running out will cost you time and money to replenish your stocks (so failure isn't crippling), but you're gently encouraged to collect any stickers you find – even if they appear useless.

This is all well and good on paper (har har), but for those expecting a more tried-and-true RPG experience, the different approach to battles has proven a little off-putting. Still, this shouldn't dissuade any Paper Mario sequels – or the Menu-Based RPG genre as a whole – from getting wild and experimental with their enemy slaying. 'Solving' a battle brings out a sense of satisfaction wholly different from sweeping digital vistas or satisfyingly chunky gun feedback.

In a gaming climate where the big-name RPGs are action-oriented, open world affairs; the Menu-Based RPG is slowly being forgotten. While no one will be too sad to see rigid, grind-heavy affairs fall by the wayside, there have been innovative puzzle-like experiences through the console generations. Who knows, maybe the next big RPG title of 2013 will challenge our minds in unforeseen ways.

A Professor Layton RPG, maybe? Hmm.

Why You Should Play Virtue's Last Reward

This review and eulogy for my game save was originally posted on n-Europe, and can be found here.

Virtue's Last Reward is outstandingly fresh, gripping and challenging. It's by far the most interesting 3DS game I've played. But you shouldn't buy it; at least, not yet.

To explain why you shouldn't buy it is relatively simple, but explaining why the game is so good is more involved – and involves a small history lesson. So without further ado:

Once upon a time there was a company called Chunsoft. They produced a game in 2009 called 999: Nine Hours, Nine persons, Nine Doors for the DS, and it was incredible (see my personal review). While the Visual Novel genre was (and still is) a staple in Japan, the closest many western consumers got in the genre was the Ace Attorney series.

999 offered a suspenseful and harrowing plot; nine people find themselves trapped on a sinking ship and tasked with playing the 'Nonary Game'. The road to escape is filled with puzzle rooms, odd discussions about metaphysics, and the occasional spot of chilling gore. Even though 999 never saw a release in Europe, the title proved to be popular enough for a sequel to be made: Virtue's Last Reward.

In 2010, a separate games studio called Spike released their own Visual Novel for the PSP: Dangan Ronpa. It had a distinct, yet similar theme to 999; A murder mystery involving 15 students trapped in a high school of despair, headmastered by a psychopathic talking teddy bear, Monobear. The title was only ever released in Japan, and was an unknown in the West, until the game was covered as a 'Let's Play', translated into English by Orenronen, a member of the Something Awful message boards.

In early 2012 Spike and Chunsoft had a merger into, er, Spike Chunsoft. They had been owned by the same conglomerate as far back as 2005, but this merger seemed apt; Virtue's Last Reward takes on many thematic elements from 999 and Dangan Ronpa. It has an outstanding pedigree, and it shows.

You play as Sigma, a seemingly ordinary university student who, on December 25th of 2028, finds himself suddenly kidnapped and trapped within a giant warehouse with 8 others. The reason? To play the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition. Escape will only be granted to those who can successfully amass 9 Points, gained by allying with fellow players... or betraying them.

As with its prequel, Virtue's Last Reward is incredibly verbose, but offsets its novel sections with 'escape the room' puzzles. However, this time everything has been kicked up a notch. There are so many possible branching paths to the plot, a function to jump between checkpoints in the game was mercifully added. Puzzle rooms have bonus challenges that give secret files. They explain the game's backstory, in a... disarmingly casual fashion. Getting these bonus rewards requires some lateral thinking, and are definitely rewarding to solve.

Alice from Virtue's Last RewardThe characters are also a joy to get to know. The character designs have a mixture of hits and misses (the character artist, Kinu Nishimura, often adds fanservice to her art, and some of VLR's characters get more than their fair share (as seen to the left); but all of them grow over the course of the game, some in unexpected ways. The voice acting for the European version is Japanese-only (the NA release had an optional English dub), but they all suit the characters well; especially the evil AI that hosts the Nonary Game, Zero III (his inclusion is very similar to that of Monobear in Dangan Ronpa).

The challenging puzzles and compelling plot had me playing every night; staying up until ridiculous hours finding my way out of a locked pantry and deciding whether or not to betray my team mates on this play through. But as I progressed, cracks began to appear in VLR's veneer.

At first they were silly, easily ignored things. The localisation of the text often strays from what's said in Japanese, and noticing when the two don't match up is a little jarring. During puzzles, the framerate stutters when you rotate the camera. The script insists on writing 'donno' instead of 'dunno', along with a number of silly typos in general.

And then there were the save corruption issues.

It was a problem known about in the American 3DS release. There was a bug that could corrupt your save file if you saved in the middle of certain puzzle rooms. This was annoying, but easily avoided. After the EU release, that warning was extended to all puzzle rooms. This was considerably more concerning; but still avoidable.

But then, after around 20 hours of playtime, I decided to take a break. I was nowhere near a puzzle room, so I felt I was safe. Not so. When I next boot up my game and try to load my save, I was greeted with a black screen. My 3DS had crashed. Two-thirds of the way through a great game, and my journey was over.

It brought about an odd feeling inside me. I had pre-ordered and happily laid down my £30 to play a game that would unlikely see Europe's shores. The game was engrossing and compelling enough to lose many, many hours of sleep. I would have given the European publishers, Rising Star Games, money up front if it guaranteed games like this to be consistently released over here. But at the end of the day, I had paid £30 for a game that didn't work.

I'm still not sure how to make peace with that. At time of writing, Rising Star Games have gone on record to say that they are aware of the problem; but nothing regarding what they're going to do about it. 3DS games can be patched (It happened with Mario Kart 7 not too long ago); but who knows if the same will happen here. Until some concrete action has been taken, please hold off on enjoying Virtue's Last Reward. Getting obscure releases is wonderful; but only if they actually work as intended.