Friday, November 16, 2012

The Little Battlers W (Vita) - Early Impressions

New protagonist Hiro starts out blind to the real world of LBXs, but quickly comes to dominate.

The Little Battlers W (LBW) is the third entry in the Eastern-only series The Little Battlers from developer Level-5, this time appearing both on the PSP and PS Vita. To jump the gun and gush real quick; It's awesome!
To summarize The Little Battlers games is that they're a mix of RPG and Action games. You explore the world as one young protagonist or another, chatting with NPCs and managing stats, but mostly you're getting into battles with others using your miniature robots titled LBX's to show who's boss. Battles take place in small, varying area maps that range from cities/stadiums/highlands/etc: and within them you'll fly and blast your way to victory by smashing someone's expensive toy to smithereens. It's an instantaneously addictive series, and the depth of charm and compassion within each of these titles will lure you right into the clutches of fanboyism. From the crisp, entertaining character art in dialogue to the forceful plunge of a dash move, The Little Battlers is a series that anyone of any age can appreciate for its sheer authenticity and faith within itself.

Battle Backgrounds are bland, but in-game LBX's are delightful (despite this blurry screenshot)
LBW starts out with casting you as an all-too geeky looking young male named Hiro Ozora. An apparant champion of the Arcade LBX game, Hiro wins a tournament and goes off to collect his prize; what is supposed to be an action-figure of his favorite hero "accidentally" turns out to be an LBX, and here LBW begins in its wild, exciting journey of adorable, miniature robot terrorism. After a brief switch of character to previous protagonist Ban Yamano where he and friends, Amy and Kazu, are unfortunately caught up in the beginning of this terrorism at the revealing of a new LBX model at the Tokyo mall, you are returned to the role of Hiro and spend the majority of Chapter 1 blasting through the mall and getting tangled into the mysterious world and plot-line of this sudden LBX outburst.
LBW is definitely a wild leap to the Vita; the anime cut scenes are simply stunning, each color and shade exploding from the screen and utilizing the OLED to its full advantage, and the world areas, from the short entryway to the imposing mall or the narrow, busy avenue of Shoten all wield a new depth from the Vita's visual intensity. The in-battle LBX's are crisp and sharp also,  cute and riddled with "kawaii" movements but intimidatingly impressive none-the-less. Unfortunately though, the same can not be said for the battle backgrounds; they're bland, appearing as they would on the PSP version rather than the Vita, with stages from the previous entries looking like they were ripped directly from them and placed here completely untouched. Fortunately though, LBW stands out for its game play in regards to battle and battle arenas, and while mostly unchanged, still shines brilliantly.

Who knew what khakis and a jock vest could do for a young man?

Battling is mostly a brief affair, whether you're battling other LBX owners or getting into fights with renegade LBXs (who are seen in-game; no random battles). Damage is high and ranged attacks, while formidable, are used mostly to build your Function ability, a special attack (multiple per weapon) that deals damage that a normal sized robot would (a lot!). For the most part though you'll be charging in, hopping over bite-sized buildings and scaling canyon sides, then slashing into each other with hopes your combo hits first. Attacks are handled solely from the Square button, but various combos can be performed by moving the left stick in varying positions during your onslaught. Again, each weapon, be them knives/dual-swords/hammers/lances/etc: hold their own slew of combinations and animations, but in LBW there seems to be a larger assortment of combo attacks possible, with launching enemies into the air and pummeling them down an impressive attack time and time again. While most fights won't push beyond a minute long, each are filled with a deep sense of reward and enjoyment, and so level grinding, whether it is your character, his/her LBX, it's subsequent parts, or individual weapons, is never once a chore.
So far, the game has been mostly linear so I haven't much to say about the scope of the world or how much else there is besides the standard LBX store and NPC interaction. Still, as stated above, the world itself is extremely impressive, particularly in scope, and it's been a delight just wandering the stretch of Shoten or punching my way through the wreckage of the mall. I can only assume that the levels, both RPG and Combat builds, will increasingly grow in both charisma and awe.

Battle combos are a delight, as the slightest movement of the Left Stick opens totally new possibilities
I'm only just past the entry point, having just started Chapter 2, but I'm having a blast. For those who have played a previous entry in the series, then there isn't much new here, but it is still the same, solid game play from prior. Personally, I couldn't get enough from Little Battlers: Boost, so I'm more than ready to dig in yet again to the LBX world.

The Language Barrier
*Firstly, The Little Battlers games, and all Level-5 games, support Furigana script. If you're a beginning Japanese student who wants to take on the challenge of understanding their first Japanese game or are just interested in building your vocabulary, these games are a terrific way of doing so.*

Without knowing a pinch of Japanese, The Little Battlers W is a pretty easy game to get into. Plot Progression is always known because of a pointer on the mini-map or a blatant pulse surrounding an area on the main map, and battles are handled with an almost casual simplicity of controls; there's nothing that requires you to look up a guide online to know how to do, and so after taking a spin with each button you'll have acquired the overall knowledge of how to pilot your LBX. The various faculties of battle, such as those seen in the above image (LP/BP, Tension, C) are also understood borderline instantly once you take to battling (tension is how much more you may boost/attack before being required to wait for a recharge/LP is HP, and BP is remaining Battle/Battery Points and allows you to perform Function attacks/C is just the amount of stored C points you have to perform whichever equipped Function attacks). And moving around town and chatting/battling with NPCs is also blatant and strangely enjoyable also even if you don't know the language.
That said, LBW is really about customizing your LBX, and this poses a certain degree of issue. For the most part, choosing which weapons/armor to equip can be decided by their rank and Atk/Def stats (it's written Atk and Def also, so you'll know), but there are also a slew of variable in managing your LBX, whether it is using same-set parts or understanding which stats and elements your armor/weapon supports and is weak against. This can be overcome with trial and error, as so long as you're playing the game without month-long breaks you'll acquire the knowledge/memorization of which color shade means what, except LBW poses a new issue in the form of modifying chips handled similarly to the Inventory Screens of Resident Evil games; six different chips to allow mega modifications of your LBX, from LP/BP gauge through to elemental purity, and this is a pretty aggravatingly Language-Barrier segment as messing with chips can really make or break your LBX, especially when going into elemental-heavy areas.
Still, I would say LBW is only slightly less friendly than the previous entries for the series, and that it is is no way near an "impossible" import for just about anybody who has the slightest patience. Sincerely, I haven't used my dictionary for anything other than the dialogue thus far, and I'm not doubting in the slightest how I've modded my LBX; he's bad-ass, and I know it. And that's just it; you'll know it too. Trial and error, if only for a few minutes, and then continue the game and enjoy it, which you certainly will.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Project Diva f (Vita) - Review

Project Diva, a rhythm game that began on the PSP in 2009 and has since exploded into a super series alongside wielding what is a distinctly large import following in the western sphere, is now on it's eighth entry following three PSP games, two iOS titles, one 3DS game and one Arcade entry, this time for the PlayStation Vita; Project Diva f. Hosting a vast soundtrack of 32 absolutely jamming songs, an in-game store with a tremendous assortment of outfits, items, and decorations, and a slew of gameplay additions that revolutionize the series' gameplay, Project Diva f is without question the strongest entry to the series yet.
Gameplay in Project Diva is similar to other rhythm games; gray spheres appear on screen which are followed by trailing button icons (the four face buttons) where you then press the corresponding button when it is near or within the sphere. The button presses are timed to the song playing so that your input is consistently syncopated with the music, a staple of the series as this is handled extremely well for not only beats of the music but lyrics also.  It is simple and accessible, but also bears a rapid change in button variety and speed per difficulty level. There are also Chance Times, which are brief segments where points are doubled (in this entry they also conclude with a "Swipe Star" (more on that below)).
The music selection is of the first radical changes, something which may have to do with the alleged lower interest from women for the series; these songs simply rock, and nearly all songs are of such extreme energy and pace that you'll rarely find yourself taking a breath between. While there are a few slower or more sentimental songs, mostly you will find the tracks bearing toward punk rock, electronic/club music, and straight rock n'roll, and they are each downright cool. There's a lot of diversity in each track's sound, but this is without doubt the most energized and demanding of Project Diva soundtracks, host to songs such as Sadistic Music Factory and the acclaimed Vocaloid track Black Rock Shooter. All tracks are selected carefully though, and you'll be hardpressed to find one you genuinely do not enjoy.
Project Diva f (PDf) holds the established gameplay of the series to a fine point, but it is the several, subtle additions that make this entry stand out; Player Immersion seems to have been on the mind of Sega here, and they nailed it. The addition of Technical Zones, areas where you have to hit a number of notes with only a "Fine" or "Cool" rating to achieve a 1.5 bonus, really enliven the gameplay element for each song. If you want to close the gap between a "Great" and "Excellent" rating (or to just keep yourself from failing), these technical zones are absolutely crucial, and cause each song to not only be played and listened to, but submerged into. All songs have at least one Technical Zone, and the longer ones have multiple.
The most important addition though are the Swipe Stars. Swipe Stars act just like the buttons, but are inputted by swiping your finger across the screen. Fortunately these aren't just a utility of "gimmick" for the Vita's touchscreen, and are only used in sporadic brilliance throughout each song, particularly in opening segments, solos and closings, areas where swiping your finger goes alongside what is usually a singular instrument (keyboard, guitar, etc:). It feels completely natural, and best of all is the intelligence surrounding them; Project Diva f does not ignore that swiping requires you to take your hand from the buttons, and even on the hardest difficulty the Swipe Stars are never used in an improbable or hindering manner, always allowing enough time for you to re-adjust to the face buttons. Mostly Swipe Stars are used in areas of their own, but on harder difficulties become a part of combos, and still there is never a moment where the game ignores the handicap of taking your finger from the buttons. They're a terrific addition to the series as, like the Technical Zones, they keep the player focused on gameplay while holding a unique reward of their own; it feels good to nail an 10 streak swipe.
As for the Vita's dominating power, PDf doesn't skimp; all songs are accompanied by simply outstanding music videos which really take the series to a whole new level. Whether Miku is driving a Hoverbike within a Cybernetic City, smashing guitar jams in a burning down building or just doing a standard performance before a planet-sized crowd, everything is simply beautiful. All animations, all scenery; everything is just delightful and crisp, and this new potential for detail and variety really explores the scope of identity for the Project Diva experience. It's wild, and at times I even found myself ignoring buttons just to watch the music video. Fortunately completing a song unlocks the option to listen to and view it without having to do inputs, so you don't have to cripple your score over it.
I really can't express how stellar PDf's graphics and content are; it was genuinely saddening to know I can only choose so few from my tons of screen shots for this review.

PDf also retains the usual outside of the main gameplay, with a few nice additions; Shop, which is the in-game store where you can purchase Modules (Outfits) for the full cast of six characters, items to assist you if you're having trouble with the songs/going for High Scores, and decorations for the Diva Room (a place you can just watch Miku do whatever she wants; you just watch). There is also the inclusion of items for individual segments that go on over Modules (Back items , Hair/Face items, Eye pieces,  and Neck Items); these tend to be more towards the quirky side of Diva, and when combined can make some seriously bizarre/hilarious "Divas." Edit Mode is also still here, which allows you to customize and make your own tunes using the included songs (But you're going to need a considerable knowledge of Japanese to really utilize this); you can post your own tracks online as well as download others also. Ranking and Awards are kept under a tidy section where you view in-game awards, make your own Diva profile, and see how much you've done in the main game.
The new option is the AR Mode; this works by either using the included AR Marker which has Miku dancing to a song of your choosing wherever you place it, or taking a still photograph of Miku. It's a nice addition riddled with some of the most unique, adoring or sick possibilities that any person could think for silly lil' Miku, but it's nothing mind-blowing or necessary.

Project Diva f isn't completely without flaws though; On very few occasions did I find the background music video to blend alongside the button inputs causing me to miss or be distracted. Also, you still don't have the option to begin the game on either Hard or Extreme difficulty; for series' regulars, this is a bit annoying, as once you obtain the skill to handle these difficulties playing the game on Normal just doesn't bear the same immersion.
Project Diva f is certainly the most complete entry for the series to date, and while it does nothing to break the formula (a good thing, as it rocks), the carefully selected additions create an entirely unique perspective for the gameplay.  And, so long as you don't have an utter distaste for the Japanese lyrics, then you've no reason to doubt Project Diva f; this is a must-have Vita title, and arguably the best for the system yet.

Language Barrier
Project Diva f has almost zero Language Barrier. The main menu is accompanied with helpful little icons like a shopping basket for the store or a house for Diva Home, and playing the game is as easy as clicking the O button twice. There are no secrets to playing Diva other than just beating a song and unlocking the next, and there's genuinely no "patience" required to just chowing right down into it.
That said, the Edit Mode and Items are going to be a shot-in-the-dark if you don't know Japanese. While the items are okay to pass (they disable you from either really clearing the song or keeping your score), losing the Edit Mode is kind of a bummer. Still, it's the core game of Project Diva f, which is 32 songs just over 3 hours total, alongside the two elevated difficulty settings besides Easy and Normal. where the series really shines.
If you have zero knowledge of Japanese, than this is the borderline perfect import.

Earth Seeker (Wii) - Impressions

Earth Seeker, developed by Crafts and Meister, is a Wii action game that is, in simplest explaination, a clone of the massively successful Monster Hunter games. There's a hub town where you accept quests, build weapons and food, and an off-branch of the town where you employ some rather alcohol-saavy, pint-sized creatures called Gajiin to assist you. Gameplay is handled by going out into an apocalyptic Earth and battling your way through highly-challenging monsters that don't support HP bars, finding treasures of the Earth-past as well as mountains of materials, and then returning home, cashing in, and doing it all again. In truth, this game really is a clone amongst several others, but like 2010's MH-clone (not to mention overwhelmingly underrated) title, Gods Eater Burst, Earth Seeker does a lot to not only differentiate itself from its idol, but is also a downright solid videogame that is just a ton of fun to play, language understood or not.

Language Barrier
Earth Seeker is very playable, and there are several hours of gameplay before any "required" sleuthing within the more complex game world becomes apparent. While the brief introductory moments may cause the less-creative of import gamers some confusion (which you can remedy by checking out the First Hour Gameplay Video here on Youtube), from there on it's pretty much blind, enjoyable sailing.
It's worth mentioning that I have a miniscule knowledge of Japanese writing, but that, with Earth Seeker, the little bit of it didn't do a thing (for those wondering, Earth Seeker does not have Furigana outside of the instruction booklet). I've been playing completely blind, but in the 8 hours spent I have not hit a single hiccup or aimless frustration, and this game has been one of those surprising imports that just really succeeds by its gameplay alone. Accepting quests is handled by a single desk which reveals a list of lined objectives, and from there its only a short run to the huge ship in the middle of the hub-town which transport you to the location of the quest. The gameplay I can assure to be understood within minutes, and the controls are basic and singular. Knowing when a quest is complete is also unanimous, as either a large golden font will collapse into the center of the screen, or your tough-nut Gajiin will successfully drop a collected part onto the ship (more on this below).
But it isn't a perfect import. The meat of Earth Seeker comes down to collecting materials, customizing your weapons, and managing your team of Gajiin. While the former two are more blatant and easier to grasp, the latter is a downright pest, and this is a serious issue. While you will be neither forced nor stalled due to the complex tablet of upgrading and structuring your team of Gajiin, it's undeniable that you'll be nagged, subconsciously at least, and the frustration of not knowing how or if you're actually maximizing your team is pretty bothersome. The little guys play an important role in your battle abilities (they alone can utilize elements), and not knowing how to boost them appropriate to your ability will be an enlarging tumor as the game progresses.
Still, the language barrier, as far as I've been slumped by it, comes down strictly to your team. There's no halt to actually playing the game though, and the enjoyment of it is never hampered by the language barrier. This is a highly accessible import title, and certainly surpasses the bar of "possible."

There are two aspects of Earth Seeker's gameplay; the peaceful Hub-world (which is accompanied by a wonderful, sleep-inducing melody) where you accept quests, organize your things, upgrade weapons and manage your team, and the vast, dangerous ruins where you will be battling monsters and pillaging the loot randomly strewn about.
Let's talk about the battle first.
Earth-Seeker is an action-title with a Time-Stop battle system. When you are out in the ruins and come across a baddie, pressing the A button pauses the in-game world and brings up a combat menu. Here you select which available attacks to use, then initiate them with a press off the Z button. Which attacks you can choose are subject to the amount of Action Points (AP) stored, which is shown by a series of red plates on the bottom of the screen. Each attack, be it a blazing melee strike by your main character or a spell from your accompanying Gajiin, takes a certain amount of AP, and not having sufficient AP renders the attack-option inoperable. While this style of gameplay may seem like it would disrupt the gameplay heavily, it's quite the opposite. While the first operation may have you carefully analyzing and choosing your attacks, it quickly molds into a very fluent, hasty process that never feels as though it's halting the action. In defense of the pausing occurrence though, I can't stress enough how important your choosing of attacks actually are; when you select a melee attack, your character withdraws her blade and marches right up to the monster, then starts swinging. While choosing constant melee attacks is alright for the little guys, it'll show to be a one-way ticket to Game Over when you're up against a far more hurtful, if not larger, badass. Having the combat menu is a surefire way of the game knowing what you want; if you decide to stampede the monster with blows and die, then it is entirely your fault, a quality that, while damning, is well-sought and praise worthy.
Other aspects of the battlefield would be the variety of missions, which are quite selective. While there are plenty of "Kill the Big One and get his Treasure" missions, there also "Slay X amount of this creature," "Get the Treasure (Which involves finding a teleporter which brings you into a big, cyber-like Freight chamber)" and "Find the Spaceship part." The first three are practically the same; explore the area until you win. The latter though is unique, and worth discussing. While I don't know exactly why you're building a spaceship (which you can check and watch it's growth at the Hub-Town), the rarer missions require you to head out to the field and find a large segment of the dismantled ship lying around. This mission-type brings to mind the videogame Pikmin; when you find the piece, your Gajiin will circle it, lift it up, then head back for the ship (entrance/exit) in the level, completely defenseless and unable to support you. While carrying this, you're assured a plethora of monsters to show up and try and stop them, and it's up to you, the lone melee fighter, to prevent them from knocking out your creatures. It's a tough mission type, but without a doubt edge-of-the-seat inducing and downright fulfilling when its mastered.

The majority of the game though takes place in the hub-town, Panga. It's a clean, vacant place that is readily adorned with a bakery, weapons shop, storage robot, quest desk, art museum, spaceship works and a vast tomb mostly occupied by a lonesome old woman named Rosa who is in a huge metal suit accompanied with still, liquid chambers reminiscent of the Mako Chambers from Final Fantasy 7. There's also the grassy underworld of the Gaijin, accessed by taking a floating branch. Again, I can't read the script, so I really don't have a damn clue why for any of this.
For language-ignorant, interactive purposes, you'll mostly be obliging three portions of the hub-town; the quest desk, the storage/save robot, and the weapons desk. While the Storage Robot may require some trial-and-error to understand, the actions of these places is quickly recognized, and whether you're choosing to upgrade your blade or take on another quest is pretty apparent. Other places, like the Item Shop and Spaceship Works, are probably going to be downright confusing and most likely ignored, but the Art Mueseum is a readily available place worth checking up on. The main objective of each Quest is, when not to fetch the rare Spaceship part, to acquire an artwork, which is modeled in the golden "Complete" text when you finish a mission. These artworks are Earth's, the real Earth's, best, and be them the statue of David or Van Gogh's Starry Night, the historic artworks acquired from the main quests are then stored in a 7-story cylinder located in Panga, which you are free to view and grow pensive over whenever you like.
The land of the Gajiin I can't actually explain, because this has been the single article of Earth Seeker that I just cannot get a grasp on in any way, shape or form. There isn't much to it either; a building where you manage your Gajiin (hiring/firing, equipment, Rank and skills, etc:), and an ominous hole where bright yellow eyes stare at you and ask you for... something. I dunno; I can't understand it. Whatever is going on down there thought, it's here that there isn't a single "click" that will give you results of imminent activity, not unless you spend some serious, concentrated time out in the battlefield figuring out just what exactly you did. I won't muddle you with my "thoughts" here, as quite simply I just cannot grasp a single of the Gajiin area's offers, but it's probably safe to say you'll avoid it for as long as possible.

Worth to Import?
Earth Seeker is a highly practical import title, and I was incredibly surprised by how readily playable it has been. I can't stress this enough, even for the Japanese-absent, and that even though it bares the scope of a console title, I believe anybody with just a pinch of patience can get a solid amount of playtime and enjoyment here.
There are some things to consider though. As of this blog, Earth Seeker has only been out for little over a year, which is a far cry from labeling it an ever-import title. Localization takes time, especially when Earth Seeker's distributor, Kadokawa Games, doesn't have a western agent. Xseed has also already expressed an interest in Earth Seeker, and their upcoming localization, The Last Story, may very well decide for them the choice on whether or not they consider the Wii a worthwhile expense for localizations. On the pessimistic side though, Earth Seeker only sold 5000 copies on its release week, so if Xseed's intrigue falls through it's highly possible no other company will choose to take a chance on this title.
As a game currently available only in another language though, I do consider Earth Seeker a grand example of an import possible, will really give you a lot of fun alongside a surprisingly low amount of frustration, and is one smooth, cool ride until the more demanding aspects of the game take mental hold. I've had a terrific time experiencing Earth Seeker so far, and am enthusiastic to get back to exploring the strange and fascinating world within.

Introduction - A Lingering Gamer

To summarize, this blog is about a guy who doesn't know Japanese (but is learning!) and plays Japanese-only video games. Rather, it's about offering Language-Barrier impressions for others, who presumably do not know Japanese either, interested in an import-only title. I'm not too sure how canon I'll keep this, as I like to write about localized games also at points just to keep myself writing and busy, but for the most part I want to aim this blog at just being a gamer who really has his mind blown every time he stumbles across some title locked forever in the East.

That's enough for an introduction, I suppose. Hope you can take something away from this blog!