LTTP: Puzzles & Dragons: SMB Edition & Pokemon Picross

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No that’s not some kind of super combo back of Nintendo puzzle games. They’re two Nintendo published titles with free to play influences and mechanics.

Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition is actually two games in one. Puzzles & Dragons Z is the free-to-play Japanese mobile sensation stripped of its F2P annoyances and the Super Mario Bros. edition is as the name suggests: Puzzles & Dragons with a Mario flavor. The latter is apparently more user friendly for new comers like myself. I played that version.

Pokemon Picross is as straight forward as the name suggests: a Pokemon themed picture crossword game. It’s also completely free to play and equipped with the usual trappings of energy bars and currency to gather and unlock new areas.

I started Pokemon Picross first but was increasingly frustrated by the limitations. It was my first Picross title and so I was making mistakes and restarting puzzles frequently. I also wanted to accumulated Picrites to progress and unlock functionality early on but thanks to the energy restrictions, I was kept at bay.

Then Puzzles & Dragons went on sale and I decided to check it out after hearing the praise by Drew Scanlon of GiantBomb. Like him, I never played Puzzles & Dragons before and was curious.

Firstly, it turns out that I’ve played this kind of game before. Match 3 puzzle games like Puzzles & Dragons spawned many clones and I encountered one of them on FreeMyApps. I immediately saw the appeal of the game. The combos, the flashing colors and all the high damage numbers flying out was satisfying. All I had to do was manipulate a single orb, wave it around to setup other potential combos and then watch the resulting mayhem.

I enjoyed the collecting of monsters, powering them up by feeding weaker variations and evolving them with items. It was apparent that I needed to invest time in this area in order to make significant progress later on but there was something peculiar with the lack of item drops or collectible monsters early on. I thought the drop rate would start ramping up as I progressed but that wasn’t the case at all. No matter how many combos I was setting up, I hit a wall and needed to grind to level up my monsters. I was effectively done with Puzzles & Dragons at world five.

Even though my focus was on Puzzles & Dragons, I continued to check in and chip away at Pokemon Picross. I did the daily challenges and slowly upped my Picross game. Even though I was accumulating Picrites at an agonizingly slow rate, I felt I was making progress. I felt I was improving as a Picross player and working towards unlocking a new area.

Now, my opinion on both games have flipped. The game which I thought was going to be a fun romp without free to play mechanics turned into a meaningless grind and cutesy Picross title turned from aggressively frustrating to a nice little daily taste of puzzling. Perhaps I should approach Puzzles & Dragons with the same mindset as Pokemon Picross but why should I? It doesn’t have free to play mechanics impeding progress. I should be able to play as often as I want and make meaningful progress every time I do. Unfortunately that’s not the case and it’s the free to play riddled Pokemon Picross that I ultimately enjoy more.

Puzzles & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition Verdict:
I don’t like it

Pokemon Picross Verdict:
It’s okay

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Xenoblade Chronicles 3D

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I don’t know why I was compelled to finish Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. I finished it in approximately 60 hours and enjoyed – at most — a quarter of that. I played the majority of the game while watching sports or listening to podcasts; I just used to keep my hands busy.

My MMORPG experience consists of Guild Wars, small stints with a few Korean free to play online RPG equivalents and listening to enough World of Warcraft stories to last a lifetime. I haven’t experienced an MMORPG first hand but, by all accounts, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is what I imagine an MMORPG would look like if it was taken offline.

Everything from the vast empty spaces, paper thin fetch quests, to the battle system and even the way the characters jump reminds me of an MMORPG.

By now it’s obvious that I use the term “MMORPG” as a derogatory term and I mean it. There is depth, complexities and joy within certain MMORPGs but there’s no denying that there’s a dearth of shallow experiences full of meaningless grinding.

Nintendo and Monolith pulled off quite the feat squeezing this huge open world into the New Nintendo 3DS. I was genuinely impressed with how big the world was and how well it ran considering the size. I braced for frequent slowdowns in the open world but was relieved to discover that wasn’t the case at all. The most severe performance issues arose when there were several large enemies on screen at once. Those moments occurred more than I would like but they were not game breakers.

Judging by the quality of the visuals, it’s obvious how Monolith and Nintendo managed to get the game to run as well as it did. I’m not kidding when I say it’s one of the ugliest games I’ve played in recent memory. The visuals did have a PlayStation era charm to them though. The character models were stylized enough to convey their intent but not quite enough to deliver the gravity of dire situations.

I was fascinated by the lore of Xenoblade Chronicles. Two titans frozen in battle with life flourishing on the surface of them after some time. What if the Earth was a living creature? The idea that I was traversing across the back or leg of the titan, Bionis, was an amazing spectacle. However by the time I made it across to the other titan, Mechonis, I was no longer wowed by this idea.

I was tired of running across giant expanses by foot. Fast traveling eased some of the boredom but only between known destinations. Every area was largely the same; it was vast, filled with blue orbs representing some nonsensically named collectible and full of the same handful of enemy types.

Every so often, I would encounter a town and the hopes for a break in monotony would be renewed. I slowly discovered that these towns fell into their own cycle of repetition as well. Outside of the big story beat, I expected numerous fetch quests and monster hunts. The reasons behind them were unsubstantial and did very little with regards to world building. I was better off tapping through the gibberish and just getting down to what I had to gather and moved on. Eventually, my quest log was filled with so much junk quests that I stopped tracking them down. If I happen to finish a quest, so be it. If I had to go back to town to turn it in? Who cares. I would have found or crafted a better reward by then anyways.

Early on, I found the cast of characters endearing but the more screen time each of them got, the less I liked them. The protagonist, Shulk, grew to be irritatingly selfish with his visions and worries. He had the power to see the future but for some reason he wouldn’t share what he witnessed despite others around him imploring he did so. I thought Reyn, Shulk’s hometown friend, would develop into more than just a meathead with good intentions. There were moments where characters like him and Sharla showed they were more than caricatures but those moments were too infrequent and were dwarfed by the blatant fan service.

Did I mentioned that I found the Moogle knock offs, the Nopons, annoying as well? I was particularly perturbed by their speech patterns and the party member, Riki’s, was undoubtedly the most irritating because he reminded me of Jar Jar Binks.

The threat based battle system was a surprise to me because I thought it would be the one aspect of the game that I would wear thin the quickest. I operated with the standard tank/healer/fighter lineup and stuck with it all the way through. I experimented with other setups but I was most content maneuvering Shulk for optimal attacks. I was waiting to see if this simple setup would fail me but it didn’t. I played the exact same way from beginning to end with just a small degree of variation in skills.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a game of quantity; there’s a whole lot of stuff to do in this game. There are dozens upon dozens of checkboxes to tick off and a giant world to explore. But I didn’t want to do any of it because it wore out its welcome at least twice over. The world was huge but it was mainly empty space. There were a lot of quests but nearly every single one them were frivolous fetch quests.

Towards the end of the game, I entered a town with two rows of computer terminals. The town was uninhabited, overrun by rogue robots. There were no NPCs to interact with but there were the terminals. There was a store terminal which contained useless equipment. As for the other terminals? They dispensed the same set of quests that I’d been given for each and every town up to this point. I was literally being given quests by terminals. Even though there was context, it was like they had given up but it was also the very essence of everything I disliked about this game distilled into one town.

Verdict:
I don’t like it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Undertale

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“You should play Undertale.”

I’m not one to refuse indie game recommendations — especially ones that have a large fervour around it. I watched the first few minutes of GiantBomb’s Quick Look and noticed the high praise for the game’s soundtrack but that was it. I kept the game in the back of my head and as soon as I saw it go on sale on Steam, I took the plunge.

The early turn from charming to evidence of an underlying darkness with the introduction of Flowey piqued my interest. I was curious how this lost little girl was going to get out of this underground world filled with monsters. Who was Flowey? Was he the G-man of Undertale? Was he part of something more sinister? I had so many questions.

Undertale featured one of the more interesting turn based battle systems found in Japanese styled role playing games. I was able to ‘Fight’ or ‘Act’ with enemies, giving me the ability to deal damage and kill them or interact with them through gestures like petting, feeding or talking. It was immediately obvious that the ‘Act’ option was the more interesting of the two. Using the right actions or combination of actions placated the foe which would allow me to spare them. I tried my best to not kill anyone but I occasionally found myself stuck or lost patience with the mini games and struck down the foe.

Whenever it was the enemy’s turn, I was given the opportunity to avoid damage by manipulating a heart confined in a box. Dodging frogs, tears and other gibberish was amusing for the first couple of hours but I grew bored and annoyed by the process. Like the JRPGs Undertale was inspired by, random battles played a significant role. I could have fled battles but at the same time, I wanted to accumulate money for healing items.

There were quirky and interesting twists to those mini-games but I only ever wanted to play them once. Flexing, dodging sweat and arms for the third time in the span of 10 minutes erased any charm that was built up. I felt the first two thirds of my time with Undertale felt like a long drag and if it wasn’t for the stupendous soundtrack, I would have dreaded my time with the game even more.

The final third of Undertale was a barrage of quirky characters and twists to established video game mechanics. The final sequence culminated with fourth wall breaking mechanics which made me wonder if it would ever make its through the stricter console environment. I had long gave up trying to interact with the mini-games in any meaningful way so I summoned the determination that the game so frequently made reference to and brute forced my way to the final credits.

One of the reasons why I disliked the mini-games and random battles was because it got in the way of me exploring and finding clever bits of dialog throughout. I found those incidental lines of text humorous and incited more than a few chuckles and smiles.

Far and away, the most enjoyable aspect of Undertale was its soundtrack; it’s the only reason why I finished the game. I love it for its variety and its incredible ability to elevate any scene. Most of the songs were around short one to two minute in length but there was a precision an efficiency to its use that’s so often lost in today’s games.

I wish the visuals were as eloquent as the audio work. The main cast of characters exhibited the same qualities that I admired in the sound work but the backgrounds and other designs left me wanting. This feeling was especially strong after seeing some of the wonderful art and designs in the latter parts of the game.

There’s a lot to like in Undertale but most of it fell off for me because of poor pacing, repetition and uneven quality in many areas of the game. I enjoyed many individual moments but I cannot say I was fond of the journey. I can listen to the soundtrack from beginning to end for years to come but the very idea of having to play through another one of those mini-games makes me recoil with disgust. I would love to explore more of the underground and revisit the town of Snowdin and its many residents but just thinking about wandering through all those barren lands and random battles gives me pause. To me, Undertale is the very definition of an uneven experience with high highs and some very irritating lows.

Verdict:
It’s okay

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

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I started The Order 1886 last night and while I was restricted to explore an area at a snail’s pace, I suddenly remembered that I didn’t write up my thoughts on The Chinese Room’s “walking simulator”, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Now the struggle is to recall what I took away from the game. I guess it’s telling that all I can recall are:

  1. Poor framerate
  2. Detailed & realized location
  3. Village in England
  4. Excruciatingly slow movement speed

It’s clear that The Chinese Room wanted to the best looking English town they could on the PlayStation 4. They were so obsessed with that goal, they were willing to allow the framerate to vary wildly and dip down to well below 30 FPS. The result is a sluggish and disappointing because I’m just looking at things. I’m an active observer; I can manipulate where I look and what I look at but I’m not causing an overload of explosions or special effects to incur a framerate drop.

What made these framerate issues so pronounced and vivid was the fact that they capped the movement speed to a plodding pace. There was a “sprint” option but it merely elevated the speed from a slow crawl strolling speed. With so much time inbetween points of interest and so little to pay attention to, I began noticing the game’s faults like the framerate.

The slow movement speed also discouraged exploration. Not every single home or room was accessible. As I encountered more and more locked rooms, I was discouraged to get off the beaten path to explore unless I can clearly see or hear something of interest emanating from that building or area. It’s a weird design choice and one that I don’t understand or agree with.

Discouraging exploration was a huge disservice because the town of Yaughton was genuinely pleasant and the mystery surrounding it was intriguing. “What happened to these people? What caused all of them to disappear?” The hook was compelling enough to draw me in but not enough to put up with the framerate and movement issues. I eventually stopped caring and “rushed” for the end. I soaked up what I could and then did a bit of light reading on the intricacies that I may have missed. I came in as a fan of Dear Esther and open to these kinds of experiences but in the end, I was left yawning and forgetting to even document my time with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. And that’s one of the most damning thing I could say about a game.

Verdict:
I don’t like it

Ratings Guide

 

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