LTTP: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

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Third time’s the charm with Vanillaware and I. I tried Odin Sphere, but found the original PS2 release onerous to play. (The remaster was only marginally better.) I didn’t like Dragon’s Crown Pro either so I really didn’t pay much attention to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim until I started seeing the praise and noticing that it wasn’t a beat ’em up game like their previous works. I was cautiously optimistic so I put it on the watch list and finally picked up a copy during Boxing Day 2021.

I generally like the look of VanillaWare games despite their grotesquely proportioned women. Things were looking up for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim though; it only had one character was stupidly busty. The rest of the cast was fine, but a majority of them weren’t instantly memorable. Generic anime high schooler was a very common through line.

VanillaWare aren’t a big budget studio and they tend to wring out a lot of use with what they make. With Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, the backdrops, character animations, and gameplay ideas were reused to their breaking points. Unfortunately for beat ’em up styled games, that breaking point hits me very fast. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim mitigated wearing out their assets in a few ways. Firstly, they developed a story that justified the need to see events from different character’s perspectives. They made it actually interesting to revisit areas to reveal meaningful story tidbits. 

Secondly, they metered out exposure by splitting up the gameplay and story segments and then gating progress based on the different characters and battles. Subdividing the story into different character arcs may have been a source of frustration early on, but it ensured I wasn’t burning out on any one thing too quickly; they saved me from myself and I ended up appreciating it.

The story started off quite slow and reserved. After the tutorial and character introductions were out the way, the pace and science fiction tropes began flowing. The tropes may sound like a knock against 13 Sentinels, but there were so many of them that it somehow all gelled together to create something that compelled me to come back to on a nightly basis.

I was initially invested because of the strategy gameplay scenarios, but by the end, I just wanted to know how this wild story pieced itself together. I was content with the ending and even got a tiny bit misty eyed with some of the revelations and moments in the epilogue. 

I had reservations about the size of the cast. I thought I would lose track of storylines and wondered how many of them would resonate. As it turns out, if you spend enough time steeped in this game (just over 30 hours), you get to know everyone and everything rather well. Thankfully they included an easily accessible events timeline and information files that I could peruse at any time for a refresher.

I don’t think it’s a controversial opinion, but I despised the selfishness of Megumi Yakushiji.

Whenever I feel a strong negative reaction to a character’s actions, and discuss hypotheticals with my fiancee about a character’s decisions, I praise the writers for making me care enough about their story. While her choices ended up working out, her motivations were not just and nobody will ever call her out on it — in fact, she gets a very happy ending which upon reflection, sends the message: Obeying talking animals and shooting your friends with mystery bullets always pays off.

The gameplay half of this game was very straightforward, but I felt like I broke it from the get go. As soon as I was able to generate A.I. controlled interceptors and sentry turrets, I kept dumping upgrade points into it and then kept spamming them in battles. I S ranked every mission except for the last couple on the first try. I figured the game would force me to change tactics at one point, but it turns out that investing in drones, chainsaw swords, and EMPs was enough to bulldoze everything. Don’t get me wrong, I still found it satisfying to stomp through the hordes of enemies, but I was hoping for a bit more variety in the objectives. 

I ended up liking 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim quite a bit, but when I evaluate its component pieces, I realized a lot of what I liked about it was in the cutscenes and story payoffs. The strategy gameplay missions were serviceable if not repetitive. The adventure/story segments were not interesting mechanically often exposed the limits of asset variety as well. What made this game work was how the gameplay, story, and mysterious context of everything melded together to deliver an experience that warranted all that repetition. Intrigue and curiosity took me a long way with this and thankfully for me, I had boatloads of both.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Yakuza Kiwami 2

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Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 was an eye opening experience for me. It was my first Yakuza title and it was also my first time experiencing a smidgen of life in Japan. The neon of Japanese nightlife, the small cramped alleyways, the hostess clubs, and the art of punching tigers in the face. Yakuza Kiwami 2 allowed me to revisit all those wonderful memories through its faithful remake of that 2006 cult classic.

When I think back at Yakuza 2, I see Kiwami 2. The character models, the cutscenes, the cities; all the years of playing Yakuza games slowly evolved that image of Yakuza 2 to what Kiwami 2 actually looks like. The reality is anything but. I took a look at some screenshots and footage from that old PS2 game to remind myself how far the series progressed in the last 15 years.

While it plays and looks a whole lot better than the old PlayStation 2 version, I’ve grown accustomed to playing this game at 60 FPS and I really wish that was an option on the Xbox Series X. It runs fine on the console, but the sluggish response makes navigating in the cluttered and crowded streets of Osaka awkward. It’s hilariously awkward, but not ideal if I were trying to evoke the calm and cool Kiryu Kazuma demeanor.

 The story beats were as I remembered which only reminds me of the disappointment of not seeing Kaoru Sayama play a role in subsequent Yakuza game. I recognize that other prominent characters introduced in one game would fade away in the future games, but she was Kiryu’s love interest and the lame way that she just disappeared in Yakuza 3 and to never return was a bummer.

While the core story remained intact and relatively untouched, the peripheral activities and side missions received more significant reworks. The hostess management game from Yakuza 0 made its way here along with a brand new real time strategy game involving Majima’s construction crew fending off gangsters guest starred by Japanese wrestlers. I’m not familiar with any of those names, but they gave off strong wrestling vibes. 

I didn’t spend much time with either of those activities. I spent more time playing Riichi Mahjong which I actually learned how to play for the first time. It was similar to Hong Kong Mahjong which I learned earlier this year so I wasn’t going in blind. 

I also spent a fair bit of time completing all the side missions and trying to impress Haruka by taking her places around Osaka and Kamurocho. The latter I gave up on after her demands became increasingly ridiculous. Taking a little girl to various eateries around the Osaka was one thing, but her request for me to dominate a poker game in a seedy underground casino was just too much. This little girl needs to stop hanging out with Kiryu.

I declared Yakuza 2 as the best of the series for the longest time only to have it be dethroned by the excellent Yakuza 0. I wondered how well Yakuza 2 would hold up many years later and I’m glad to see that it has. It’s still the second best Yakuza title. I have yet to play Yakuza 5 and Like a Dragon, but I doubt they would do much to sway my opinion on this.

Framerate preferences aside, revisiting Yakuza Kiwami 2 was a pleasure. An engaging story set between two iconic Japanese locations filled with drama and over-the-top action? What’s not to love? With the remasters, remakes, and the availability of a majority of these games on Xbox Game Pass, it’s never been a better time to check out this weird and wonderful franchise.

Verdict:
I liked it

LTTP: Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

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I started Final Fantasy VI at least three times now. I started it a couple of times via PC SNES emulators of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it was the third time on the SNES Classic where I finally saw credits. It took me about 35 hours to conclude that it was “okay”.

The game started very strong and maintained a great pace until the World of Ruin. I loved meeting the new characters, seeing the new places, and the escalating absurdity of Ultros. The soundtrack was on point from the very first minute and was the timeless highlight of the entire game. It far outstripped the visuals which I found a bit dodgy in spots. Mode 7 was all the rage back then, but it did not age well at all. The same could be said with a lot of the more realistic looking backgrounds.

Chrono Trigger is the gold standard for JRPGs from the SNES era for me — especially from the visuals standpoint which I found to be very cohesive. The characters, the enemies, and the backgrounds all fit well in that classic. By comparison, Final Fantasy VI looked like they had three different artists with three divergent styles creating the backgrounds, enemies, and heroes. When they decided to mash them together, the results were inconsistent at best.

I decided to play the game with a revised translation by the Final Fantasy VI Relocalization Project because I wanted minimize the dated nature of this game. The translation patch also included bug fixes (and introduced a minor text based one) along with small rebalances, but I still found many of the characters hugely overpowered and too useful to not use. Edgar, Celes, Sabin, and Cyan were my A squad. They took down Kefka. I only used other characters because there were situations where I was forced to manage three squads of characters in epic battles or to solve environment puzzles. 

Relm, Gau, Setzer, and Strago were effectively useless without magic spells so I invested time rotating characters and assigning them different Espers so they could become viable in combat. I ended up with a well rounded team where everyone can heal or revive. They weren’t all as effective as Celes, but being able to have anyone cast Arise was a bit broken.

Unfortunately, like I have done so with many JRPGs, I found myself fairly under-leveled during my run up to Kefka. I was able to fell just about every boss encounter with ease except for him. I remedied that with a couple of hours of farming, but it wasn’t fun. 

I also found the idea behind Active Time Battle’s Active mode silly and stuck with Wait mode. Trying to navigate a poorly organized list of spells isn’t my idea of fun. Inputting fighting game motions in a JRPG? That was fun. I still found the idea behind Sabin’s Blitz commands to be the highlight mechanic of the game. He was a powerful or risky character to pick depending on your own proficiency with command inputs which is not something we saw much of after Final Fantasy VIII. Even then, the commands in that game didn’t ask players to pull off half circle or 270 degree motions. Oh, and they didn’t explain how input those commands so there was a lot of early trial and error.

I haven’t relied on an FAQ or walkthrough for just playing a game in ages, but Final Fantasy VI brought that back in a major way. There are things that just aren’t explained well even when you read through thick manual. Speaking of manual, the one included in Final Fantasy VI reads more like a mini-walkthrough than a manual. It even spoils a bit of the story.

Despite its shortcomings towards the latter act of the game, I’m glad I finally finished Final Fantasy VI. I was happy to have finally experienced its wonderful soundtrack in context. I enjoyed many of the battle scenarios; they made good use of the large cast of characters that many other games in this genre do not. I liked the idea of the World of Ruin, but it quickly felt like someone threw a carefully arranged deck of cards and then the game made me play 52-card pick up. It had a few bright spots, but that final chunk of the game felt like a depressing slog which is kind of fitting considering what happened.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Call of Duty: World at War

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I had no interest in Call of Duty: World at War back in 2008. After the excellent Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I did not feel the desire to go back to yet another World War II first person shooter. No offence to Treyarch, but this was before they found their footing with the Black Ops sub-franchise. I had little to no faith in their ability to deliver something that was comparable to Modern Warfare. And now, many years later, I finally played it and I was right.

I dusted off the PlayStation 3 Slim, grabbed our copy of Call of Duty: World at War and finished the campaign on Veteran difficulty for the very first time. It didn’t age well. The portrayal of the Japanese, the way the campaign was structured, and the over-reliance on numbers to build intensity made for a dated game. It felt older than Modern Warfare even though it debuted a year later. 

Kiefer Sutherland lent his voice Corporal Roebuck, a plot armor wearing grizzled soldier who didn’t even feel the need to wear a helmet. I found the American half the campaign ran out of steam very early. There’s only so many ways to say “The Japanese were fierce fighters who fought dirty”. I also had my fill of mowing down Japanese infantry as they charged at me while screaming “Bonzai!”. It got old. 

The Russian campaign against the Germans felt like it was most influenced by Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare campaign. There were moments of intrigue, and tension built as Reznov lead me through the war torn streets of Stalingrad. There was even a named villain. Reznov kept things relatively interesting with his speeches imploring his fellow Russians to continue the fight against the Germans.

Call of Duty: World at War was a very ugly game. The relatively high framerate made it playable, but it’s just a very unpleasant game to look at with its grimy textures and sub-720p resolution. Treyarch’s decidedly more gruesome take on Call of Duty resulted in a lot more blood and gore than other Call of Duty titles before and after it. While the techniques used to convey the violence of war was primitive, I found it somewhat effective. The combination of  gross visuals, death screams, and the discordant soundtracks worked to successfully deliver an uneasy sensation towards war. 

There was not much “fun” to be had with Call of Duty: World at War. Playing it on Veteran difficulty may have forced me to suffer through some excruciating gameplay segments for longer than I cared to admit, but outside of the one “Vendetta” mission, I struggle to recall other moments that I would describe as “neat” or “interesting”. At least this game had some redeeming qualities compared to the otherwise stale rendition delivered by Call of Duty: WW2. While WW2 was more playable and more appealing to modern tastes, it failed to deliver on the brutality of the war experience on a moment to moment basis; it didn’t evoke dread like I felt while playing through World at War. I wouldn’t recommend either, but if I had to choose one, it would be this one. 

Verdict:
I didn’t like it

Ratings Guide

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