EWE’s Insomnia & Gaming – Part 1

So, humans, it is a fairly poorly kept secret that old EWE has issues with sleeping through the night. For whatever reason, I am typically unable to get a thorough night’s sleep – and thus the search begins to find something to do during those hours when the world is aslumber and I’m left alone and awake.  Of course, this primarily means Switch, Vita, 3DS, my laptop with Steam access, or occasional classics on PSP and GBA.  Doesn’t mean I won’t switch a PS4 or Xbox One game in there, but generally these are last resort options due to having to go downstairs from bed and risking waking the neighbors – so what games make the grade?  Well here is the first in a haphazard and sporadic series on what I play when I sit bolt upright in bed, look at my phone, and utter some type of curse at the time.

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It is no secret that I absolutely loved Trails in the Sky – in my opinion, one of the best classic-style turn-based RPGs to be made in years.  So I naturally picked up its sequel series, Trails of Cold Steel, when it initially released on Vita.  But, as I had something of an extensive (cough massive cough) backlog, I had yet to do more than start the first game once or twice.  That has now changed, as when I woke up at 2 a.m. the other night the first thing I did (Editor’s Note: the second thing, actually, the first being looking at the time and saying, I believe, “god-fucking-dammit) ahem, the SECOND thing I did was fire up a new game on my Vita.  While I have thoroughly enjoyed the game thus far, I will say that all of the comparisons between this game and similar “social life” RPGs in the Persona series are not entirely accurate.  Time often passes in chunks rather than day by day, and as of this writing the social link aspect hasn’t really done much but give me some cute but predictable cutscenes and a slight increase in combat teamwork.  But if this comes across as a criticism, it is not intended as one – if I wanted to play Persona on my Vita, I would, you know…play Persona on my Vita.  I like what Cold Steel has offered so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of it…though preferably not always in the dead of night.

As an aside, and at the risk of sounding sappy (Editor’s Note: please, before you mock him, remember that he would not hesitate to set the world, quite literally, on fire), I’m well aware that it is some type of corporate emotion holiday today, and while I do not have a “Valentine”…if I were to, I know who it would be, and I got to make that person smile once or twice today, so I will take my small victories where I can get them. – EWE

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Pain Sucks and Other Wisdom

It’s been a while, humans.  While I would actually love to be able to say I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time to sit down with you all, unfortunately the reason is MUCH more of a pain in my ass.  Actually, it’s pain literally everywhere.  See, years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  Essentially, I hurt, everywhere, to varying degrees, all the time.  There are medications and treatments that they try to help mitigate the condition somewhat, but the bottom line is that fibro itself isn’t that well understood yet, and they can’t cure it or do much more than try to treat the symptoms.  Several months back, I started to experience significantly increased, debilitating levels of pain, along with increased frequency of migraines.  Dealing with that day in and out is, quite simply, exhausting.  So after months of testing to figure out what was wrong – as I have a family history of other issues that they wanted to rule out – it was finally determined that my fibro has advanced in severity and intensity, and in addition, my nervous system is actually more responsive and acute than most – top 4 percent of people, from what they’ve said.  While normally, I’d be thrilled to be in the top percentile of anything, when it means you feel exponentially more pain from your CONSTANT FUCKING PAIN DISORDER, it loses its charm.

All that to say…I have to accept a higher level of pain as my new “normal.”  And that has sapped most of my waking energy lately.  So the updates have been very sparse, and may still be for a while – but I promise they will keep coming when possible!

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But while I’ve been laid up I’ve found some ways to spend my time – like, for example, the digital crack that is Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Switch.  Yes, my cat Zero and I have started quite the cozy little farm, creating mayonaise and cheese and trying to win the love of the dark gamer girl Abigail.  Sadly, art imitates life – and she wants nothing to do with me.  Goddammit.

I also decided that, in order to fully immerse myself in the storyline of Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward, the ideal class to play was Ishgard’s own Dragoon.  So after some intense grinding to get my level up to snuff, I can say it was well worth it, as much of the lore and history of Ishgard and the Warrior of Light’s quest there is inextricably woven with the Dragoons themselves.  While by no means do you NEED to play as a Dragoon to appreciate the story, I’ve felt much more of a connection to the characters and their struggles as one of the high-flying dragon-slaying knights than I would have otherwise.  FFXIV remains my favorite MMO of all time – and I’ve played many – as well as one of my favorite FF games ever – and I’ve played them all.

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Getting tired (and pissed off for being tired) but before I go for now, one last tidbit that caught my attention, and that is that sleeper-hit SRPG God Wars: Future Past is getting a full story DLC expansion in Japan.  The main game made its way to the West on PS4 and Vita and was one of the best SRPGs I’ve played in some time, so here is hoping that the DLC makes it here (for Vita especially since that’s what I played it on) as well.

Now, it is time for meds and trying in vain to actually sleep for a while before giving up and playing a game while watching Dragon Ball Super all night and being exhausted tomorrow.  This isn’t a cry for help – it’s just my natural state now.  Actually…that might be a cry for help.  I don’t know anymore. – EWE

God Wars: Future Past Review

Greets, humans!  It’s once again been a minute since I was here last – I was under the weather the last few weeks, which after work and spending time with my sons and Malevolent Moogle, I have not had energy to do much more than crawl into bed and play some games or read a book for a bit before falling asleep.  But the GOOD news for all of you is that now I can bring you the good, the bad, and the ugly of what I’ve been playing while laid up.  Aren’t you all just the luckiest things?!

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Is that a grinning samurai bear in the corner?  Fuck yeah it is.

We begin with a title that I’ve been anticipating since I first saw that it was being localized for the Western market.  It’s not secret that I’m a huge fan of SRPGs.  So when NIS America, the purveyors of the amazing Disgaea series, began to show off their newest property, God Wars: Future Past for PS4 and Vita, I was giddy with anticipation.  Well, ok, maybe “giddy” isn’t a word that particularly applies to me…but I was looking forward to it with something approaching positive emotion.  While the title is available on PS4, my purchase and review were done with the Vita version of the game – because I will support the greatest Sony console of all time for as long as it takes until I get a goddamn Vita 2.  Are you listening to me, Shuhei?!

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Mmm…cruncy, munchy stats.

Now, this isn’t going to be a deep dive on what makes up an SRPG.  Suffice to say, the name of the game is tactical positioning and planning, as well as class grinding to mold your individual characters into a well-balanced and complementary fighting force, to be deployed on various isometric, grid-based maps and engage in turn-based movement and combat with enemy forces.  That basic concept underlies the entire genre; but that said, SRPGs through the years have tended to gravitate toward one of two camps.  The first camp is made up of games with tough battles, deep plots full of political scheming and intrigue, and relatively little grinding outside of that needed to unlock new classes or purchase new equipment.  Some excellent entries here include Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.  Those of you that have been here since the beginning of my little blog will remember that I reviewed Tactics Ogre once upon a time.  In the other camp, one populated by NIS itself on many occasions, are wacky, anime-inspired SRPGs which are the essence of the term “over-the-top.”  These games eschew dark political plots for comedic, barely necessary stories that are primarily there to get you on the grinding treadmill, which is the true star of the show – getting all of your stats to obscenely high levels in order to challenge god-like uber-bosses after the main scenario has ended.  In games like my recent review of Disgaea 5 Complete on the Nintendo Switch, the vast majority of the game doesn’t start until the “story” is over.

Bridging the gap between these two groups is a PSP original title that I absolutely adored – Jeanne d’Arc.  A fantasy retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, set in an anime-inspired alternate history involving beastmen and magic, it deftly combined the slick anime presentation and somewhat quicker combat of the Disgaea titles with the deeply political and historical plotline that would have been at home in a Final Fantasy Tactics title.  So, where would God Wars land – serious, wacky, or somewhere in the middle?

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It’s Japanese history, if every anime you ever watched were historical fact.

I’m pleased to say that much like Jeanne d’Arc, God Wars occupies a happy middle ground in the SRPG genre.  Imagine a feudal Japan in which every mythological god, goddess, yokai, spirit and the like were all present and accounted for, accepted as part of the fabric of the world.  In this fantastical history, Princess Kaguya is freed from imprisonment and sets out in search of her mother, who disappeared after being forced to sacrifice Kaguya’s sister to appease the angry gods of Mt. Fuji a decade before.  Along the way, she will meet and befriend a host of humans, demons, gods and goddesses, as well as master over twenty different character classes, each with its own skill tree and abilities.  Along the way, she will also help the common villagers she encounters by way of taking up requests from shrines – side missions that are repeatable and function as both sidequests as well as the grinding mechanic to replace random encounters on the world map.  This is a welcome change, as once a request is accepted, the party is transported directly to the battlefield.  Combat is standard, grid-based SRPG fare.

The story manages both lighthearted and serious moments, and treads the line of being serious without ever taking itself TOO seriously.  Likewise, battles are challenging, but never to the point of needing hours of grinding simply to proceed to the next plot point.  Each character may equip a main class, a sub-class, and has an inherent unique class, all of which determine the pool of abilities available to that character in battle.  The system is flexible enough to allow for a wide variety of builds, without suffering from the crippling feeling of having TOO MUCH freedom and being paralyzed by that freedom.

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That is a whole lot of brown…

The artwork in this game is what jumps out immediately and grabs hold of someone, and interestingly this beautiful aesthetic also serves to highlight one of the games biggest weaknesses.  While cutscenes, character models, and portraits are absolutely gorgeous to behold, they stand in stark contrast to the bare minimum effort that seemed to go into designing the levels and maps on which you will spend most of your time in combat.  A dull, brown rock quarry looks like the dull, brown mine, and you’ll quickly stop paying any attention whatsoever to the backdrop for your battles because it’s just so boring to look at.  The other primary flaw in God Wars is not a visual, but technical.  Despite having the entire game downloaded and installed on my Vita’s memory card, I still experienced far too many loading screens that went on for far too long.  Now, I’m no stranger to SRPGs and portable consoles – and had the load times been limited to transitions between the map and combat, I likely would have said nothing.  But a cardinal sin in gaming for me is when I press the menu button and am forced to endure a load screen just to arrive at the main menu.  This is compounded by a fucking load time when going into submenus for inventory or class management.  I understand this is a portable title with a lot of assets but this just seems like it could have been avoided with a little more work on the part of the developer.  Thankfully, the game is good enough that these irritants are minor and don’t detract from wanting to proceed through it.

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When you see ??? instead of numbers for health and magic, shit has just gotten real serious.

All in all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with God Wars: Future Past.  It has combined all the things I’ve enjoyed in other SRPGs into one slick, beautifully presented package – and despite a few technical hiccups and some bland backgrounds, is just an absolute blast to play.  It has kept me up more than a few nights saying “just one more battle” – and really, as gamers, isn’t that the ultimate praise we can give something?

EWE SAYS:

EWE Says God Wars

So that’s the verdict on God Wars!  Looking down the road, in addition to bringing you some more reviews as I get time (and more recipes if I ever find the energy to cook again), I’m also toying with the idea of doing a redesign of the look and layout of the entire blog.  As I’ve said before, I never thought anyone would ever find or enjoy my little contribution to the interwebs, but as some folks have and you all seem fucking crazy enough to keep coming back (boy do I wish you’d have a few words with this girl I know…), I want to keep things looking good!  For my fellow bloggers and writers out there, if there are any suggestions or favorite layouts that you would recommend, I’d greatly appreciate if you would leave them in the comments or find me on Facebook or Twitter.  Thanks in advance, and I’ll see you all again soon!  Unless that motherfucking maniacal mental midget masquerading as the US president manages to get us all killed by starting WWIII via Twitter somehow. – EWE

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Review

Welcome back, minions!  Glad to see you once again.  Tonight I am going to start out with a review of one of the absolute gems of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs).  Years ago, Falcom released the first in horrifically generically named series The Legend of Heroes.  The early titles in this series were…OK.  I mean, if you are like me and you can forgive A LOT of missteps in the name of getting to play a turn-based, character and story driven game, they scratched the itch between major releases.  But unsurprisingly, the games failed to draw much of an audience in the West, and localisations became few and far between.  Then a surprise came – the PSP entry in the series known as Trails in the Sky would see an English release.  And it is a damn good thing for anyone that loves gaming.

Trails in the Sky, first and foremost, is not really one game.  It is two (kinda three).  The First Chapter and Second Chapter are complete RPGs that tell one continuous story, with First Chapter ending on a cliffhanger that leads directly into Second Chapter.  This review will cover First Chapter only, but it should come as no surprise that if you like FC (and you should, or you’re just wrong) then you will like and should plan to play SC.  This means you have a substantial time investment in front of you, but it is worth it.  Both games are available on PSP/Vita through PSN, or on PC via Steam.  The third game is more of a side-story to the other two, and is currently not released outside of Japan.

Trails in the Sky combines some of the best elements of Eastern and Western RPG design.  At first glance, these images would indicate a fairly standard, sprite-based JRPG from the Playstation era – but it is so much more.  The combat is turn-based, with some light strategy elements in the form of character positioning and attack ranges on a grid-based combat field.  Enemies are pallet-swaps of one another to a degree – while this is somewhat of a shame, the designs are well done and humorously tongue-in-cheek at times – an element that extends through most of the game in its entirety.

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If “shoo” was ever going to work on a horde of monsters, evil bunnies would be the ones.

Once engaged in battle, the depth and breadth of the combat system becomes quickly apparent.  Each party member has certain strengths and weaknesses, but can also be customized to some extent through the Orbment system.  Orbments are similar in nature and function to the then-groundbreaking Materia system found in Final Fantasy VII.  Elemental stones corresponding to a spell, skill, or passive are slotted into each character’s unique layout.  The number and placement of elements can also unlock further spells and tiers of spells when equipped.  While some characters are more proficient with magical or physical attacks, any character utilizing an elemental spell against an enemy weak to that element is going to be extremely effective.  Beyond Orbments, each character also has a selection of character-specific skills and abilities that function off of either the games version of mana or skill points.  What’s more, once skill points have been accrued to a certain threshold, characters can jump the turn order and attack immediately with a powerful skill – at the cost of all accrued skill points.  The more points are accrued before unleashing this attack, the more devastating it is, but the less frequently one may jump the turn order.  All in all, the combat system is nearly-flawless in its execution of classic turn-based mechanics layered with strategy and enough unique elements to make the entire engine feel fresh.

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All RPG combat should be this good.

But believe it or not, there is something greater – something that Trails in the Sky does so well, it may be the epitome of its kind for some time to come.  Trails in the Sky features a narrative built around some of, if not the, best and most fully-realized characters I’ve ever seen in any game, ever.  Period.  The story has its JRPG requirements – there is a wide-spanning threat that results in our protagonists journeying with an every growing and changing cast of companions to investigate and combat it.  But that actually takes a backseat to the moment to moment characterization of the players.  Everyone in this game has a story.  Absolutely everyone.  Standard NPC shopkeepers have small micronarratives that give them flavor and make them a part of the world, not just a vehicle to expand your arsenal.  Temporary party members are real characters, with believable motivations and relationships that connect them to the player.  But the absolute stars are Estelle and Joshua Bright.

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Moments like this are what make this game amazing.

Estelle and Joshua Bright are adoptive siblings and the protagonists of the story.  And the story is their adventures as Junior Bracers (a combination of adventurers’ guild and mercenaries with hearts of gold) as they search for their father Cassius, a famous veteran bracer who has disappeared.  This isn’t just a framework for the world-saving – the bulk of the adventure is Estelle and Joshua going town to town, piecing together information on Cassius’ last known whereabouts, and undertaking duties for the Bracer Guild from the local townsfolk.  And through these small, individual tasks, they build real relationships with the people, and slowly grow in their own relationship between one another.

It cannot be overstated just how phenomenally well-written these characters are.  This game has no voice acting and few cutscenes – nearly all of the characterization is done through the text boxes and dialogue in the game, as well as short in-game books and documents.  Every last bit of it is warm, engaging, and evocative of emotion – just a masterpiece of writing in the form of a game.  Estelle, in particular, is one of the most likable, easy to relate to protagonists that I have ever encountered in any medium.  Her earnestness and kindness to others, her stubbornness and perseverance, and her own inner doubts and self-consciousness about her feelings are expressed in the most genuine manner possible.  If you somehow play this game and don’t feel anything by the cliffhanger ending, then congratulations – you may be the only form of life that is even more bereft of a soul than I am.

If it hasn’t become clear yet, I loved this game.  If you are in any way a fan of JRPGs, you will love this game.  If you love well-written, fully realized characters, you will love this game.  The only caution I can give is that even if you purchase both FC and SC and continue on into SC immediately, at some point, the tale will end, and you will reach the end of the Trails in the Sky.  But what a journey you’ll have had along the way. – EWE

RPG Madness; Profile Pondering

Salutations, my little whispers in the darkness (yeah, I’m running low on creativity).  It has been an incredibly busy week on the work front, which has led to a downturn in the amount of time I have had to spend here with you.  For that, I am sorry – I’m sure you have all missed me.  But on the bright side, after less than a full year practicing law, I am taking an issue before the Ohio Supreme Court.  Despite many, MANY character flaws (which if you’ve followed me this long should be readily apparent) I’m not normally one for bragging much – it feels uncomfortable.  But this is a pretty big career milestone, especially in this short of a time, so I am quite proud of it.  Given how extremely low my self-esteem has been for the past several months, it is gratifying to feel good at something.

But you didn’t come here to hear about me!  Or at least, not that bit.  I mean, this is all really about me and my thoughts.  So you kind of did come here to hear about me.  Huh.  I’ll be damned.  Again.  Anyway, another thing that has me quite excited is all of the recent happenings in the game industry, and particularly in the RPG space.  I’ll have more thoughts on some of the big announcements (PS4 Pro, etc.) in the coming days, but for now, this month is being extremely kind to my addiction to RPGs on handheld systems.

First off, we have The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II.  Yes, the name is a mouthful, but dear sweet mother of god, if you are a fan of turn-based, anime-inspired RPGs, this series is amazing.  Trails in the Sky FC and SC were two of the greatest RPGs I’ve ever played on the PSP, with amazing characterization and combat systems.  Cold Steel I took everything great about Sky and turned it up to 11.  Much like FC and SC, there is one continuous storyline across both games, and I’ve been waiting to play Cold Steel until I had access to both of them because I did not want to get to the end of I and be left hanging until II made it’s way across the Pacific.  Now it is here, and I am delighted.

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These kids will kick your ass.

Next up is one near and dear to my heart, Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past on the 3DS.  This is a remake of the original Dragon Quest VII released on the PS1 around 2000.  Dragon Quest is one of my most beloved series, in no small part due to nostalgia – I received the original Dragon Quest as a gift for subscribing to Nintendo Power as a kid.  It was the first RPG I ever played, and the second game I ever played after Super Mario Bros.  DQ VII is famous for it’s tremendous amount of content – finishing the PS1 original was easily a 100 hour undertaking.  I can’t wait to relive it all over again.

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I still think that hat looks fucking stupid, though.

Finally, there is Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse on 3DS.  A retelling of the story in the first SMT IV from a different perspective, the main character in Apocalypse bears a more than passing resemblance to the Demi-Fiend, the player character in the seminal SMT: Nocturne for PS2.  Nocturne is one of my favorite games of all time – I have always loved the dark subject matter and various religious themes explored by the SMT series as a whole, and Apocalypse looks to scratch that itch.

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I’m telling you right now that I’m siding with Lucifer if I can.

Before I go for now, I wanted to pose a question to anyone still with me – I am wanting to prepare another profile post of someone in the gaming industry.  I have a few ideas, but I am very curious to know if any of you have any preferences?  Let me know in the comments below.  I tend to do most of my research for the profiles from open sources, but I am in no way averse to reaching out to people to see if I can find any information that may not be easily searchable.  If nobody has a preference, I can always go with one of my own.

Fare you well this evening, boys and girls, for I must go and continue binging through Pokemon X/Y in preparation for Sun/Moon’s upcoming release as well, but remember – even if the nutjobs are right (they aren’t) and Hillary Clinton is secretly dying (she isn’t), it means that she is spending her last days and remaining strength trying to save the country from a Donald Trump presidency.  This doesn’t make her unfit to serve – it makes her a goddamn motherfucking hero.  Until next time! – EWE