Monthly Archives: February 2015

Tales of Graces f (PS3)

Winter is my gaming time… Been finishing up a lot of ongoing games recently.

Story: Asbel Lhant isn’t exactly a model child, despite being the firstborn and his father’s clear choice to one day inherit the land of Lhant. When he sneaks out to Lhant Hill and finds a strange girl who can’t remember anything, he determines to take responsibility for her, despite his father’s warnings that this will involve more than he expects. But circumstances don’t work out how he hoped . . .

Fast-forward seven years, and Asbel is now training to become a knight. He hopes that this time, he’ll have the strength to protect those he cares about. But as the world begins a long slide into chaos around him, he will be forced to decide what is most important to him and how far he is willing to go for it.

It’s kind of hard to write a good plot summary of this, since so much of the heartbreak and drama hinges on events that, although they may show up fairly early, come as a real surprise to Asbel and force him to completely reevaluate his direction. That was one of the things I appreciated most about the story. Maybe because I’m old enough to have been there a few times, I can really identify with Asbel struggling to achieve a dream for his life only to have it snatched out from under him—multiple times. He learns the hard way that good intentions aren’t enough, that working hard isn’t a guarantee of success, that he can’t control other people or stop them from making the wrong decisions. And yet despite that Asbel maintains a positive attitude and forges one of the most interesting endings (regular game; f-arc is also good but not nearly the same level). His solution to Lambda is a huge personal gamble that opens the door for a change no one thought possible.

That said, I’m not blind to the weak spots. The beginning of the f-arc is particularly painful plot-wise with a lot of wince-worthy moments. Asbel’s decision at the end of the main arc is largely supported by plot details that are crammed as flashbacks in the last dungeon. Certain plot twists with Richard are hardly twists at all given that everyone but Asbel can see it coming.

Character-wise, both Pascal and Hubert took a while to grow on me. Pascal got better once she stopped being so obsessively grabby, and Hubert was just frustrating until he started to let his grudge relax (perpetually angry characters don’t do a lot for me).

On the other hand, I don’t think Malik had a single bad moment. The title he gets in a sidequest for “Best Supporting Actor” certainly fits. He’s an odd mix of serious maturity and simple fun (“I got a win stick!” . . . still one of my favorite skits). And then there are gems like when Hubert allows his inner geek out, or Pascal starts building mecha-Asbel, or Richard goes all “Mask of Barona”. Some of the after-battle skits are great fun too.

Gameplay: Graces did something a bit different than the typical Tales. You have two sets of attacks, physical (A-Artes) and magical (B-Artes), and they both use a bucket of action points called CC, with more powerful moves taking more CC. A-Artes force you to chain from a basic 1-CC attack up to the most powerful 4-CC attack (so you’ll need 10 CC total to perform a full chain), but B-Artes can be cast individually (although there are bonuses applied in many cases for tacking them on the end of an A-Arte chain).

What this does practically is eliminate the need to save big spells or high-cost moves for special times, as CC recovers very quickly. And even though the regular attack in different directions has always behaved a bit differently, I never had as much reason to use them as I do here, because not only are the attacks all different, but you can hit different weaknesses with merely physical attacks. Despite Asbel having a huge B-Arte attack stat, I played him as more of an A-Arte user because it was more flexible with move variations on the fly and more interesting for me.

Another really nice feature is the Eleth mixer, which can generate items, provide field effects like increased drop rates or enemy avoidance, and cook during battle (specific conditions apply to each meal to get it to trigger). This feeds into the synthesis system, which for items is straightforward and useful (weapons stats, unfortunately, is a completely opposite experience).

The title system has also been revamped. Titles are acquired through the main story, sidequests, and meeting specific criteria. Each title can be leveled up 5 times and will give certain bonuses upon each level increase and mastery. Mastering titles actually isn’t that difficult, particularly if you don’t mind upping the difficulty as higher difficulty levels give greater bonuses. Getting some of the titles, though, is another story (completionists beware…. some of the “Hit a weakness” titles require THOUSANDS of hits. Have fun getting that for members you generally benched throughout the game). If you’re not a completionist, then it’s pretty easy to get and master a good number of titles.

Overall: Based on sheer number of hours, this is my top Tales game at 146 hours and counting on my first playthrough (still working on the optional postgame dungeon and some completionist things so it will be more than that… wouldn’t be surprised if I top 200 hours once I get everything). I had the game mostly beaten well before that, but hunting down extra titles, working for the soul orbs that drop when you kill enough of a particular type of enemy, dualizing everything to fill my collector’s books, and generally messing around with the subsystems ate up a lot of extra hours. Still, I think that’s a good indicator that the game has a lot to offer, and if you’d rather get some of those things on a second playthrough it would cut down the time significantly.

There’s a lot to like about Tales of Graces f. The story and gameplay are both strong. The last boss of the f arc has one of my favorite enemy designs. Despite a few rough patches, by and large the game works very well. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (Wii/PS3)

Story: Two years have passed since the Chosen and her companions went on a journey that merged two worlds into one (Tales of Symphonia). But the new world is struggling in more ways than one. Strange weather disrupts cities. Monsters are growing aggressive. And the technologically-superior Tethe’allens are lording it over the Silveranti badly enough that a resistance group called the Vanguard has formed to revolt against Tethe’alla.

Worst of all, Lloyd, who was a key player in restoring the world, is now attacking cities.

Emil is a survivor of the Palmacosta Blood Purge. After seeing Lloyd murder his parents, he’s sworn to get revenge. But for now, he lives with his aunt and uncle in Luin, dreaming of things he’s too afraid to go after. Then Marta shows up—a girl who seems to know him from Palmacosta, a girl with a strange animal companion who calls himself a Centurion, a girl trying to wake up Ratatosk to save the world. Marta has the shards of Ratatosk’s core embedded in her forehead, and that’s made her a fugitive, as various groups who are after Ratatosk’s power for their own ends would need to kill her to get it. So Emil, who has no idea how to fight, agrees to become a Knight of Ratatosk and help her on her journey . . .

Despite the awkward start (flashbacks! Stop with the flashbacks, already!), I really liked this story. I think part of that is because these sequel games (Xillia 2 being the other) tend to introduce a limited number of new characters and then focus most of the story on them, with the old cast playing more of a glorified support role. Emil and Marta both have interesting character arcs, although I prefer Emil. Marta is a romantic who fell in love with Emil when he saved her in Palmacosta, and much of her side is learning that the real Emil is different from her imaginations, and how to appreciate who he really is and not who she wants him to be. Emil has two character arcs. The main one is, as one might expect from the first 15 minutes, him learning to stand up for himself and find the strength to follow his own convictions. But once he agrees to use Ratatosk’s power, his personality fragments into the “nice Emil” everyone likes and the “Ratatosk mode” that gives him the ability to fight. His second arc involves figuring out who he really is and who he wants to be.

And I can’t forget Tenebrae, the Centurion of Darkness who accompanies Marta and provides a lot of the humor. He’s dignified and capable of telling the most outrageous lies to make himself the center of attention. And his cultural references are about 4000 years out of date.

IMPORTANT: The good ending has a few non-obvious tricks, the most critical of which is the last set of boss battles. Lose the second one (the one you fight solo) to get the better ending. Or just redo the first fight once you’ve seen the bad ending if you saved before the final boss.

Gameplay: Dawn of the New World introduces something unique to the Tales series: monster catching! Although a great deal of the game’s story involves monsters, this is actually a rather optional part of the gameplay. You are given two creatures by default in the beginning as part of a tutorial, and if you wanted, you could simply use those two to fill party slots for the rest of the game. Or (especially if like me you enjoy the Pokemon-like aspect) you can try to “catch them all”. Realistically it’s way too much effort to evolve everything up its tree, so consult a guide or look at some Youtube videos of the monster book to figure out which ones you like best and work towards that. GameFAQs has some excellent guides. By endgame I had to do a bit of scrambling because I decided to replace one of the physical-attacker monsters on my team for a mage and getting the new one up to speed was a bit painful. For the record, my final team of four was Were Hedden (physical attacker), Moon Rocks (stealing/rare item drops), Vroom (mage-physical attacker hybrid), and Ravenous (mage).

Now, the non-monster teammates you’ll acquire come with one rather painful limitation. All the Symphonia characters are level-capped. By end-game they’re only going to be level 50. That said, human characters still have a number of advantages that makes the level cap less murderous than it might otherwise be. Aside from the ability to control them directly, their AI handled a lot better than the monsters, who frequently would sit for several seconds between each attack combo, and would often fumble to hit smaller or faster enemies. Monsters will indirectly penalize you because if all human characters are dead it’s game over, even if the monsters are still alive. And once the Symphonia characters hit level 30+ you have the option of a mystic arte, which is going to do massive damage.

The Symphonia characters play more or less how you remember them from Symphonia (with somewhat fewer skills). I played most of the game as Emil, with a short stint as Marta to get through Coliseum for her title. Aside from a huge variety of artes (especially once he starts picking up elemental attributes for them), Emil is the first character I’ve played where doing arial combat was not only possible but completely natural. Equip him with the Echo Tracer (a synthesized sword with Accelerate ability) and later Nether Traitor (best sword, also has Accelerate) to speed up his reaction time to the point where he can pretty much solo anything. In fact, in order to actually lose a battle near the end (required to get the good ending) I had to equip Emil with non-regen equipment because he would otherwise recover the damage faster than they were dealing it.

And Marta with two Mystic Symbols plus one piece of equipment that also has Speed Cast 2 is completely untouchable. She can basically instant-cast high level magic like Prism Sword and Divine Saber. Actually, I had far less trouble in the Coliseum with her than Emil because nothing could even get close enough to touch her.

The only real downside to playing with both Emil and Marta is that the after-battle quips get old after about chapter one. In order to have something different and interesting, the other human characters do need to be in the party (and strike the final blow).

The Katz quests also get old fast, however, if you don’t care about catching monsters or getting the chest contents, they’re entirely skippable. The fastest way to get the Treasure Hunter’s Trophy would be to fail the dungeon quests (go ahead and fight the single-fight quests since that would take about as much time as losing them) until the Treasure Hunter quests show up. So the Twilight Palace (which contains the best equipment) is possible without sinking a ton of time into the ordinary quests.
Overall: I really enjoyed my time through this. The game is short enough that it never hit long stretches full of non-plotted quests (like the boring trek of getting the last summon spirits in Symphonia, which was puzzle dungeon after puzzle dungeon with hardly any plot). It hits up several tropes I adore, like Emil’s split personality and the various complications (Ratatosk-Emil can’t understand why everyone prefers the wimpy him). And not having been a huge fan of Lloyd, seeing him cast as a villain was decidedly funny (even though it’s pretty obvious Something Is Wrong With This Picture). I beat the game in roughly 60 hours, and that was with quite a lot of time spent tracking down some of the rarer monsters (alas, I still do not have them all, but I have most of the ones I like). A better estimate would be 35-40 hours max if you aren’t too much into the monster collecting aspect.

One thing that really makes this game stand out to me is the use of motion capture. Although the graphics themselves are fairly bad, and there aren’t a lot of animated cutscenes to help with that, the way the in-game models move is a real treat. I couldn’t get over how natural the motions look in many of the key scenes, because even with much newer games I’m usually noticing little pauses or a stiffness to the motion that betrays the scripting.

Obviously, your mileage is going to vary tremendously based on what you thought of the original Symphonia (if you played it, which isn’t required but would make more sense of some of the backstory) and what you think of the monster system. But I still think this is a good time if you can get through the first hour or two of rough plot.

I played the PS3 version, but there isn’t too much difference between the PS3 and Wii versions. A few chests switched items, and the PS3 version took out the beginning bonus if you had a  Symphonia save game, but by and large there’s no significant version difference. At this point, given that the PS3 version includes both games (as well as upgrading Symphonia with additional moves and costumes), that’s probably the better option. I rate this game Recommended.

Baten Kaitos Origins (GCN)

I actually bought this game before I got a GCN, since I found it on sale and liked the look of the game. I did, however, play through Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean first.

The first game isn’t strictly necessary to understand what happens in Baten Kaitos Origins, since Origins is a prequel set about 20 years before, but it does have quite a few references to characters that show up in the other game to reward players who know what’s going on.

Story: You play as Sagi, a spiriter just enlisted in the Dark Service. He’s got a mechanical puppet friend named Guillo, a machine which is a bit more than the typical puppet (though they’re not telling the Dark Service that). But when his first mission leaves Sagi framed for murder, he and Guillo are suddenly fugitives. And then they stumble across a giant creature which provokes Guillo into some frightening abilities . . .

Milliarde (Milly) joins on your way out, and from there on it’s a crazy romp through floating islands and a dream-land that Sagi keeps entering whenever he encounters one of the beasts. Unraveling the mystery of these “afterlings”, stopping an ambitious politician’s attempt to promachinate the world, and uncovering dark secrets about the word and themselves is par for the course.

It’s hard to say too much without spoiling some of the better plot twists, but overall I love Baten Katos Origin’s plot. I think it generally improves tremendously on Baten Kaitos. The fact that there are only three party members means they each contribute significantly to the game, there is a major arc involving each one, and the inter-party dynamics is a huge part of the humor and drama. Guillo and Milly’s infighting brings out some of the best humor of the game. They all have such a personal stake in what’s going on—and Sagi in particular has a shocker of a revelation that makes what looked like a plot contradiction with the first game something that works perfectly.

Also, Baten Kaitos Origins continues the Baten Kaitos conceit of making you, the player, an actual character in the game, as Sagi’s guardian spirit. There are some rather obvious pauses in some of the spoken dialogue to allow for your custom name, but it’s still a win to have the characters talking directly to you and involving you in their decisions. (Sagi, as an aside, is much nicer to you than Kalas was, which is doubly ironic considering how both of them end up).

There were a few oddball moments, though. Anuenue bogs down the plot due to the sheer amount of backtracking and running around doing little errands to get the action going again (tip: the Holoholo bird and chicks is not the nightmare fight it’s made out to be, as long as you favor ex combos with Guillo with finishers that hit multiple opponents. He’ll kill both chicks every turn or two, allowing Sagi and Milly to focus on healing and/or damaging the Holoholo bird, who wastes the fight respawning the chicks). And one of the villians at the end was a total shock in a bad way, in that I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out why it happened at all.

(And don’t turn the game off too soon! There’s an extra scene after the credits.)

Gameplay: Baten Kaitos Origins, like Baten Kaitos, uses card-based battles with cards called magnus. If you think that sounds boring, watch a short clip of a fight on Youtube—these are very fast-paced, particularly as you level up the ability to see and discard more cards at once. The game rewards long combos as well as specific types of combos (called Ex combos which will boost your damage). Battle cards range from standard attack cards anyone can use, to character-specific finisher attacks, to weapon/armor/accessory cards, to healing, to various modifier cards.

Out of battle, there’s also quest magnus, which are generally environmental things you can “draw” for help completing puzzles, boosting stats, or upgrading equipment cards. Along with the quest magnus you get mixer magnus, which allow you to combine the quest magnus to make new magnus. Any recipes you create get filled out in your library, so you can easily refer to them later. The library will also store any Ex combos you’ve done, magnus you’ve collected, and enemies you’ve fought, so it’s a nice way to see everything.

Unlike Baten Kaitos, only the quest magnus decay (usually getting worse with age), so there’s much less deck micro-management (and your battle healing items no longer become useless on you, yay!). You can also create multiple decks, if you want to balance them differently (eg, a multiple-enemy deck versus a single-enemy deck, or a boss deck with more healing versus a random encounter deck).

There’s also a Coliseum, although it’s worth mentioning the Coliseum has a rather significant bug if you make small talk with the receptionist before unlocking Vega that will cause Rank 5 never to show up. In general there are some nice prizes and it offers some optional boss fights near the end for a good challenge.

Overall: I would recommend a guide (GameFAQs has many good ones) if you’re interested in the sidequests or filling out the Library, but generally going through the game isn’t too hard by itself. The story is very good, managing to support and subvert Baten Kaitos all at once. It’s a shame the game never got a lot of attention, as this packs a lot of highlights into one game. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

The Curse of the Midions (Grimoire #1)

Title: Grimoire
Author: Brad Strickland

Jarvey Midion’s life has always been plagued by strange things happening. Things breaking, or exploding, for no discernible reason. But he never thought those things might be a symptom of something more. When his family goes to London for a few days, Jarvey ends up in a world within a book. Can he rescue his parents, escape the book, and outwit the sinister Siyamon?

I wanted to like this, but mostly I found myself bored. Jarvey starts off rather interesting, with incidents that are clearly magical in nature sparking off around him, except his powers hardly ever manifest in the book, and the magic system seems to mostly be one of those “just try really hard” types. Jarvey’s possession of the Grimoire is akin to having the One Ring—a corrupting magical power that can do very great things at a very great cost—but since the book won’t even let him open it most of the time there really isn’t any opportunity for him to be tempted.

Most of the book is Jarvey getting used to an alternate-London and learning how to live on the streets with some kids from there. In that respect, nothing about this stands out from the dozens of other stories I’ve read about kids living on the streets in an old-fashioned London, and in some ways it might be worse because I can’t figure out what the point was. Only the lockpicking seems like it might be a useful skill for the future, unless he goes back to that world (and at that, it was rather unbelievable that he learns to pick locks in a mere two days).

Overall this feels like too little story stretched out for a book in order to make a series. I wasn’t particularly invested in any of the characters, and I didn’t find any of the ideas particularly unique. So although the end isn’t really a conclusion, I find myself disinterested in going any further with the series. I rate this book Neutral.