Mar 3, 2019

Monster Hunter Stories Review (Mobile, 2018)


Title cover for Monster Hunter Stories for iPhone.

Monster Hunter Stories is an interesting spin-off in a rather interesting franchise. The series began on the PlayStation 2 and has since become one of the biggest selling names in Japan. With every installment it seems to catch even more momentum in the land of the rising sun. I imagine that Monster Hunter Stories then, is a result of brainstorming within the company. Capcom execs know that both Monster Hunter and RPGs are popular, and so why not combine the two? While Stories failed to set the sales charts on fire it was still a hit critically, and now it's available on mobile devices. Is Monster Hunter Stories a worthwhile RPG? Let's dig in a little deeper.

Stories bucks franchise tradition right in the beginning. Instead of playing as the titular Monster Hunter as per a normal iteration of the franchise you instead play as a monster rider. These are fighters who have made bonds with monsters they themselves hatched from eggs stolen from nests. You begin by customizing a character; you name them and choose their physical appearance. From here you are thrust into the world of Monster Hunter which is one of huge dragons and mythical beasts with huge wild lands to explore. Your character is a boy (or girl) from the small Hakum Village which, after a little exposition, is attacked by a monster infected by the dark forces. Fast forward years later and our protagonist is now a full blown monster rider, and is setting out on a journey of their own to discover and destroy the source of the darkness infecting the monsters.

The plot in Monster Hunter Stories is pretty lame to be honest. It has that whole 'friendship is more powerful than the sword' angle that so many other similar properties focus around, and it's pretty sugary sweet to be honest. With that aside, Monster Hunter Stories is not the type of game that needs a focused story. With your customized character you're soon sent into the wild lands which are full of hostile monsters. You can see all enemies on the field, and when touched by them you're whisked away to a separate screen showing you, your monster and the enemy. Gameplay is strictly turn based, and Monster Hunter Stories plays more like your typical Final Fantasy title than Monster Hunter. You take turns inputting commands for your character (the A.I. handles inputs for your monster) and the battle ends when either your party falls or the enemies are defeated.

The main character and a Blue Yian Kut-Ku battle against two Konchus.
You'll be seeing the battle screen an awful lot as you play.
There are a few conventions that set Monster Hunter Stories apart from other genre staples. You only ever have a two person party; it's you and your monster against the world. Secondly, there's a rock-paper-scissor mechanic related to your standard attack. You're given three options – power, speed and technical attacks. Each one cancels out one other. Each monster leans toward one of these options more which makes defeating them easier after the first few rounds and encounters. Unfortunately your partner monster often doesn't get the hint and the A.I. is quite poor to be honest. When you and your monstie choose the same attack they will strike in unison for more damage which is a nice touch. With each command carried out you gain kinship points and when your kinship stone is charged you can ride on your monster. This increases your defense and attack power, and allows you to use a super powerful combined attack as well. You're given a fair amount of options for use in battle in Monster Hunter Stories.

The monster collection aspect of the game can be readily compared to that of Pokemon. To gain new monsters you must raid lairs which each have a nest awaiting at the end that you can steal one egg at a time from. Sometimes these are guarded by the parent monster, and other times they are not. You have to bring an egg back to a hatchery to see what monster you're getting, but generally you can tell by the color and design on it. Monsties (as they're called) can be stored back at the hatchery and though you can only have one in your party at a time it's a painless process to change between them. What's interesting is that you're even given the option to transfer genes from one monster to another which most often results in them gaining new moves out of their element. It's a pretty interesting system that makes almost every monster you hatch of some use.

Monster Hunter Stories retains a lot of the franchise mainstays such as scavenging for items and completing quests. I must say that the mechanics translate well into a straight up role playing game. With that said there are a few issues with this game. First of all the battle system and mechanics don't offer enough variety to keep things interesting across thirty hours. Yes, you get no monsters, equipment, and add genes to your monsties but things become a bit monotonous pretty quickly to be honest. The environments are vast and have beautiful scenery but they just aren't different enough from one another. The first few new areas I had a blast searching for monster lairs and battling the new foes, but after a while things become a bit too repetitive. Despite the name of this game the story just isn't enough to carry along the action and I wasn't invested at any point therein.

The main character of the game and one of his monsties in a field with cherry blossoms.
The environments are seriously beautiful.
Monster Hunter Stories is an absolutely beautiful game. The 3DS version had some serious framerate issues but these have all been taken care of along with adding a generous bump in resolution for this mobile release. It looks absolutely incredible on my phone. The use of colors makes this look like a watercolor painting at times, and the variety of different environments is extremely enjoyable. On the other side of the coin I'm not a fan at all of the soundtrack. None of the music is particularly catchy, and I can barely even remember the main themes despite having just turned the game off a few minutes ago. If you're anything like me then Monster Hunter Stories is not a soundtrack you'll want to be adding to your collection. Mobile titles live and die by their controls, and Monster Hunter Stories fares really well in this regard. You have a virtual joystick that's highly responsive, and all of the menus have large buttons and are quite easy to navigate. I really liked the controls and had no major issues with this mobile version.

I'm not a big fan of this game, and that really surprises me. Monster Hunter Stories has all of the ingredients that I like, but perhaps they just don't blend as well as I would have hoped. The game is actually a lot of fun in the beginning. Learning the mechanics while exploring the environments and collecting new monsties is a lot of fun. At first. About ten hours in it becomes somewhat of a slog, and without a compelling narrative to keep my attention I had nowhere else to focus except on the mundane and formulaic layout of this game. Hatching new monster eggs is fun, and combining them to make your current team for powerful allows for the perfect amount of customization. I just wish the developers had done something to make the experience more fresh because halfway through Monster Hunter Stories loses some serious steam.

Pros:

+ Beautiful HD graphics
+ Fun environments to explore
+ Monster Hunter conventions carry over well to this RPG
+ Deep monster hatching and gene copying system

Cons:

- Repetitive gameplay
- Annoying status effects
- Poor story
- Bad soundtrack

Overall Grade: C+

Mar 1, 2019

Final Fantasy II Review (Super Nintendo, 1991)

Picture of the front cover of Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo.


The subject of today's review is Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo. It also just happens to be my favorite video game of all time. I decided to give it an objective look for review by replaying the game again but with all of my modern cynicism. What I didn't originally know in  my childhood was that this is actually the fourth Final Fantasy game but was renamed as the second because the previous iterations (aside from the original) were not translated and released in North America at the time. What I discovered by powering on the cartridge again, is that even through these tired eyes the game still holds up as well as it ever did. Final Fantasy IV is still the greatest RPG of all time, and today I'm here to prove it with this review.

Final Fantasy II throws you into the shoes of a dark knight in the kingdom of Baron in a whimsical medieval world brimming with swords and sorcery. The game begins with a routine mission to claim a crystal; the source of magic from a village of humble mages in the magical town of Mysidia. As a dark knight Cecil is head command of the kingdom's fleet of airships known as the Red Wings, and he completes his mission with little to no resistance from the wizards. Realizing that what he's doing is wrong Cecil later sets out to rectify his sins and stand up against Baron. The plot is very basic and by modern standards is pretty generic. It's a charming adventure that's met with a memorable cast of characters and charming areas to explore. It might be very 'by the book' but let's not forget that this is the game by which the developers largely defined the genre.

Characters face off against one another in the crystal room of Fabul.
There are twists and plot points aplenty.
Gameplay is pretty standard by RPG standards. You guide Cecil and his merry band of companions (up to five characters can be in your party at one time) across a world map containing within it various types of terrain, towns, caves, and dungeons. Battles occur at random while exploring, and these take place on a separate side-view screen which displays both your characters (and their health) as well as the monsters you're facing. You input commands such as attack, magic and item, and exchange attacks with your enemies. It's pretty typical, but Final Fantasy II is most noteworthy for having introduced the Active Time Battle system to not only the franchise, but to the entire genre as well. This adds real-time elements to gameplay as each character/monster must wait a specific amount of time for their action bar to fill up at which point you can input a command for them. This means that the action flows constantly, and this was a major innovation when the game was first released.

So how does the game hold up? Quite well, actually. The story is timeless and it's charming even though it's very simple by modern standards. You never get to choose who to use in your party, and the line up is always determined by story events. This sounds limiting, but I actually really like some of the gameplay scenarios that this creates. As characters come and go you must switch up your strategy accordingly, and though this severely limits customization it instead encourages you to come up with strategies based on the tools at your disposal. My only quip is that in Final Fantasy II the characters tend too often to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the story. It's more than a little silly when you reach the end of the adventure.

The dungeon designs are well done with tons of secret passages, and out of the way treasure chests that reward exploration in some pretty significant ways. You will rarely run into a dead end, nor is any area frustrating or confusing to complete. Some will find them too simple in nature but I found the length to be just perfect never allowing me to get bored with any one environment. The designers did a great job making this one fairly straightforward in the face of other RPGs at the time which were confusing and unfocused (here's looking at you, Phantasy Star II). Some call it too easy, but I think Final Fantasy II is just right in this regard.

The party faces off against the Dark Elf boss.
The Dark Elf is one of the more memorable boss encounters in Final Fantasy II.
If Final Fantasy II does suffer any one major issue it's that the game is too easy. Battles are rarely challenging, and with the short dungeon length you'll never have a difficult time managing supplies. It seems like, for the most part, your physical fighters can generally take out enemies in standard battles with just a few hits. When that's not the case you also have overpowered mages that can just frequently decimate all of your foes in one fell swoop. To balance things out a bit the developers made it so that the more powerful spells often take more than one turn to cast, but it's still pretty crazy. Boss battles are the most challenging part of this game, and despite some being very creative (Asura, for example) they pose little threat outside of a few of the optional encounters near the end of the game. The in-game currency GP is won in bountiful amounts at the end of each fight and you'll rarely be unable to afford what you need to progress. For most this makes the game more approachable, but the more hardcore gamers out there will be plenty disappointed by just how easy this one is. There's never a need whatsoever to grind which is sure to please modern Final Fantasy fans.

While this was one of the best looking RPGs of its time the graphics in Final Fantasy II are extremely simple especially when compared to later SNES titles. The sprites are quite simple, and characters are composed in a way that makes them look chibi. The tilesets are re-used over and over again due to the limitations of the cartridge format, but the graphic artists still did a good job of making each area distinct from one another. Unfortunately you're once again stuck with palette swaps for enemies but that's pretty common for RPGs of this era. The enemy designs are my favorite part of this game's visuals. They're extremely inventive, unique, and fit the magical fantasy world exceptionally well. The soundtrack, despite this being a cartridge format game, is truly exceptional. FFII has some of the best music in the entire franchise, and given its pedigree that's no small statement. The world map themes, as well as battle music are highly memorable and by now iconic. The Giant of Babil track is one of my all time favorite pieces of video game music. Nobuo Uematsu was a real wizard when it came to the SNES soundchip. This soundtrack is definitely worth getting on its own.

Sure, it might be nostalgia, but Final Fantasy II is still my absolute favorite game. I've played through it so many times, and know every corner of the in-game world, but I never hesitate to start a new game on this one. The story is very simple, but it's overflowing with charm. The battle system might be limited and offers no customization but it's still one of the most functional in any RPG, ever. If you're a fan of the genre you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Pros:

+ Fun, simple and all around charming story
+ Pleasant and colorful graphics
+ Entertaining battle system with lots of options and strategy
+ Whimsical worlds to explore including the underground and moon
+ Absolutely incredible soundtrack

Cons:

- Too easy
- Graphic limitations from the cartridge format

Overall Grade: A+

Feb 24, 2019

Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. Review (Nintendo 64, 1998)

Front cover of the Nintendo 64 game Bio Freaks.

Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. and I do not go way back. I remember seeing reviews for it in EGM at the time of release but I didn't think it looked particularly interesting. It was yet another gory and edgy fighting game meant to cash in on the popularity of Mortal Kombat. It seemed doomed to obscurity and has been largely forgotten. I decided to give it a modern look when I found it for cheap. Does Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. Go toe to toe with the likes of Tekken or even Mortal Kombat? Hardly.

The opening scrawl gives us insight to this unique world. The story here takes place in the future where America has fallen and mega corporations now own the land on which it once sat. Rather than having large scale wars to fight over it they instead send their best cybernetic combatants forth where the outcome is determined in a simple one-on-one fight. This scenario gave the developers a lot of room to be creative with the roster and they managed to make a few memorable faces. You've got a line-up of pretty flamboyant people with robotic limbs (zipper head in particular will stick with you) and weapons. You also have a clown and a robotic lizard. It makes little sense, but that was the intention I suppose. The characters definitely have that 90's style attitude to them that I don't miss.

Matches appear at first to be typical fighting fare. You and another opponent square off and compete to reduce each other's life bar to zero, and the best of three wins. Bio Freaks relies on its gimmicks to set it apart from the pack. The first and most obvious are the fully 3D arenas. These are much larger than in a typical fighting game with dashing both forwards and back playing a strategic role in the action. Your characters can also fly. Yep, you didn't misread that; you fight your foe mid-air or simply go up in order to avoid their attacks. Many of the arenas have multiple levels you can reach, and some contain hazards. This can cause some issues with the camera and that left a sour taste in my mouth. Midway tried to take the carnage a step further by allowing the characters to lose limbs in combat. If you're thinking it's just a graphical change then you're wrong; this actually affects what moves can be used. It's one of the more interesting ideas Bio Freaks brings to the table.

A wheel featuring every playable character in Bio Freaks.
Here's the roster of 'freaks.' Yep, this game tries to be pretty edgy.
On the plus side I was pretty impressed with the controls especially considering this is the Nintendo 64 pad we're talking about. This game uses all six face buttons as your primary attacks, and in typical fashion these can be linked together with directional inputs to perform special moves. The sheer number of moves each character has, and how unique even punches and kicks are between them, is pretty impressive for this era. As per the Mortal Kombat influence there's also finishing moves, but these are actually done as a way to end the match rather than after your foe has already fallen. The only thing I don't like is the side step. Using a shoulder button (or Z if you're using the joystick to play) your character will rotate either to the left or right which allows you to dodge attacks. Unfortunately they move too much with the single press of a button and it can be disorienting and takes too long to complete. This feature feels a little sloppy in my opinion.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't like the gimmicks. They're easily the high point of the game are the only reason anyone even remembers Bio Freaks. Unfortunately they just aren't enough to save this sinking ship. In typical Midway fashion the best way to play is by mashing on the attack buttons. There's a combo system in place, but it's very shallow and you're best off with the random inputs. What's worse is that every character comes with a projectile attack (a gun of some sort) that's linked to a single button. Far too often you'll find you and the enemy trying to shoot each other from across the stage, and the pitiful shield system isn't enough to dissuade this tactic. At the end of the day you're left with a shallow button mashing, projectile spamming fighting game that you'll soon grow very bored of. No amount of edgy character designs and gore can make up for such a flawed fighting game engine.

For a Nintendo 64 game Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. Is pretty impressive visually. Even though the arcade version was never released I can't help but feel this cartridge is pretty close to what their original vision was. The characters are quite detailed with some decent texture work and more rounded designs with few jagged edges. The real high point however is in the animations. While the fighting flows decently with unique motions for every character the developers really show off how much detail they put into it with the character introductions at the beginning of every match. While a lot of this is just the characters banging around and yelling it looks motion captured to me and is pretty detailed. I found Psyclown's acrobatics to be particularly impressive. Unfortunately the backgrounds fall a little short. There's a lot of generic dungeons and grungy factories here that miss their mark, but by and large you'll hardly notice or care.

A cyborg clown and android soldier fight in a dreary dungeon.
The graphics aren't half bad especially the character models.
Button mashers are a dime a dozen, and were back when Bio Freaks was released. That's probably why no one remembers this dark fighting game. That, and the fact that it's not very good. The game does a few things right but by and large if I want to watch characters beating the blood out of each other while I frantically mash buttons I'm going to go with something else. The only reason anyone ever even looked twice at this title is because of the fact that everyone was so starved and depraved for a sixty four bit fighting game back when it was released. Bio Freaks has interesting characters, some decent mechanics, and great graphics but the button mashing is just... well it's just too much.

Pros:

+ Decent graphics
+ Somewhat interesting roster

Cons:

- Shallow gameplay
- Rewards button mashing
- Overly violent with little purpose behind it

Overall Rating: D+

Feb 6, 2019

Square's Tom Sawyer Review (Nintendo Famicom, 1989)

Front cover of Square's Tom Sawyer for the Nintendo Famicom.

Square No Tom Sawyer is one of the most interesting role playing games I've ever played. As you can probably guess from the title it was developed by Squaresoft, is based on the classic American novel the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and was released only in Japan. That's a pretty interesting list of facts, but the weirdest yet is that it's a traditional turn based role playing game in the style of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. It's a very unlikely package and is infamous for being racially insensitive and an all around bad game. Being such a fan of the genre there was no way I could pass it up so I sat down with a copy of Square's Tom Sawyer and a handy translation guide and jumped right in. In this case the critics were mostly right. It's easy to see why it was never translated.

As I've already said this game is loosely based off the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You play as Tom and his party of friends in 1855 in Missouri. The kids (and Jim) are journeying South to piece together pieces of a map leading to pirate's treasure, but along the way they get caught up in various sub-plots involving a colorful cast of characters. Some of these will be familiar to those who have read the book, and some are brand new scenarios. I don't like to get political in my reviews, but it must be said that it's not tough to see why many deem this game insensitive. The graphic designers either didn't know better (this was developed by Japanese programmers after all) or completely threw all political correctness out of the window. Jim's design is abhorrent with exaggerated features that hit every mark on the hateful stereotype list. It's really as bad as everyone says it is.

Tom Sawyer explores the town in the start of the game.
A pretty game this sure is not.
That criticism aside Square's Tom Sawyer is a pretty typical role playing game. You wander around town areas (which are generally safe with only one exception) gathering clues, collecting items, and recruiting party members. After speaking to everyone and completing all plot related tasks you must wander outside of town and into dungeons where you can encounter enemies at random. Battles take place on the traditional behind the shoulder view of your characters with enemies in front as you take turns inputting commands including attacking, special moves, using items, etc. It's very all very standard. The major difference between Tom Sawyer and the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest is that there's no world map. You have a slanted side view when outside of battle, and the environments are generally small and linear. Once you get the canoe the world opens up a bit, but it's still pretty easy to navigate as long as you pay attention.

There's some good here, but most of it is bad. You have a pretty comprehensive list of characters to assemble your party with and can switch between them with ease. Eleven characters in total join, but you can only use four in your party at once. You're always stuck with Tom (he's the strongest and can carry the most items so it's not exactly a raw deal). Several of the others outlive their usefulness pretty early on such as Jim, Billy and Johnny whose max stats pale in comparison to the others. Speaking of stats there's no traditional level system here. It's a little more cryptic than that; you get in battles and then become stronger after resting. I didn't really understand it but it's simple enough that you don't really need to. I imagine this was done for the younger players. In addition there's no equipment here either. You have almost no customization and you almost wonder why the developers chose this genre for the game when they decided to keep everything so locked in.

Tom and Jim battle against enemies in a turn based battle.
You'll really need a fan translation for this one. There's a great guide available online.
The battle system is very traditional. You take turns exchanging blows with the enemies, and the battle is over either when your team is out of hit points or all of the on-screen foes are defeated. Each character has the same basic attack, can use the same items, but they all have a special skill that's all their own. These are generally defense in nature such as running from the encounter, scaring an enemy away, or forcing the enemies to target the character in question. I found these mostly useless and rarely paid them much mind; I couldn't even figure out what a few of them do at all. Square No Tom Sawyer is generally a pretty easy role playing game as long as you do a small amount of grinding and make sure not to jump to areas you aren't yet supposed to. There's almost no warning when you enter an area with enemies too strong for you until a battle starts and you're wiped out. It can be pretty infuriating to be honest especially when you haven't saved your progress in a while. All the boss encounters here are really easy which makes the game mundane.

Tom Sawyer's one and only RPG outing is not a pretty one. The environments are very drab looking and lack detail with the most generic looking buildings, character designs, enemies etc. The only thing that can be said in its defense is that this game makes use of some rather large sprites and back at the time of release this was a positive point. Nobody cares anymore unfortunately. It's not a particularly colorful game with some very dull colorization. The only scene I thought was impressive at all was on the canoe on the lake; the use of scrolling is very smooth and quite nice looking considering the hardware for which it was released. Nobuo Uematsu did the soundtrack here. You'd expect that to mean the game is full of amazing compositions but that's not the case. This may be his weakest project ever. The music fits the Tom Sawyer motif but it's all very boring, seems to repeat itself in short loops, and is very simple. I really don't care for the soundtrack much at all to be honest.

As a huge fan of RPGs (especially retro releases) I simply can't recommend Square's Tom Sawyer. The game is too restrictive, the battle system is too generic, the story is a real snooze-fest, and the graphics/music are pretty bad. I haven't even mentioned the fact that this game is downright offensive in its portrayal of poor Jim. Regardless of whether or not the developers knew what they were doing it's still comically bad and in very poor taste. Square No Tom Sawyer is just boring, and it's no big loss that this one was never published in North America and that we haven't had a fan step up for the job yet. This is a blemish on the Squaresoft of old's legendary record.

Pros:

+ Unique setting and license for a role playing game
+ Great atmosphere
+ Some interesting areas to explore

Cons:

- Tired battle system
- Boring scenarios
- Bad soundtrack
- Terrible graphics

Overall Rating: D

Jan 27, 2019

Tail of the Sun Review (Sony PlayStation, 1996)

Front cover for the Sony Playstation game Tail of the Sun.

The cheap licensing fees and low cost of producing compact discs allowed developers a lot of room to get creative on the original Sony Playstation console with little to no risk. It was a very experimental time for game development as we saw unique concepts and genre bending the likes of which we hadn't seen since the early days of the medium. Tail of the Sun is one of the more unique releases from this period. I recall reading a review for it in Electronic Gaming Monthly. The single screenshot they provided made it difficult to tell exactly what the game looked like, but the descriptions of it piqued my interest something fierce. Unfortunately I missed out on it, but I've always wondered how the game plays and if I would even like it or not. I was finally able to track down this limited release, and I'm sad to say that it didn't live up to my expectations.

In Tail of the Sun you play as a caveman (or woman) in prehistoric times. Your goal in this 3D adventure game is to make your tribe prosper by defeating animals and collecting their meat and eventually to stack mammoth tusks so that you can climb your way to the sun. You can choose between three different cavemen, and what's interesting is they have a set life-span (indicated by flames at the top of the screen). This is basically an open-world game from an era before they were popular. You can basically go anywhere right from the start, and the world is absolutely huge by system standards. It features grassy plains, forests, mountains and oceans.
A caveman runs through a dark scene in the forest.
It can be pretty difficult to tell what's going on sometimes.
Unfortunately the scenery is a little bit sparse. The forests are hardly dense with just a few trees here and there. The oceans are just water with very little fish and other wildlife. The grassy plains are extremely boring and all areas look too similar if you ask me. The world is huge, but what's the point when it's so barren and boring? Gameplay options are pretty limited. You're encouraged to explore in order to find food which increases your stats. Instead of being given numbers as indicators your abilities are measured by a diagram showing various parts of your caveman's body. The color which fills in your head, legs, arms, etc. shows how strong these body parts are. You increase the strength by eating foods which affect different areas. Basically this means you'll spend most of the game running around like a chicken without a head. Tail of the Sun feels aimless, and while the emphasis on exploration is a nice change of pace the world is so empty and lifeless.

Combat is a joke here. While you do get new technology later on (giving you weapons) you start out with only your bare caveman fists. The problem with this is that, rather than a punch, your character tries some half-effort haymaker that's clunky and has terrible reach. In the beginning it's tough to kill anything to get any sort of meat to bring back to the tribe; I found myself being killed by simple birds and fish in the beginning. With some practice I was finally able to defeat the most elementary of animals, but it took some real time before I was able to take down some serious game. If there's one thing Tail of the Sun does right it's the feeling of progression. You are rewarded for the amount of time you spend here, and your caveman avatar clearly becomes stronger as you play.

Speaking of clunky just about every action in the game is a chore because the controls and physics are so darn unpolished. To run you hold down the square button but your caveman acts as if he's moving across ice. He has to build up momentum to run and then slides all over the place when you stop. Additionally, walking on sloped terrain is a nightmare. Rather than keeping their posture upright the cavemen you control tend to stand outward at an angle basically defying the laws of physics. This also means that when they jump, instead of jumping upwards, they bounce in the direction they're standing. This leads to some rather disorienting gameplay. Tail of the Sun's worst offense however is the fact that your caveman suffers from narcolepsy. He or she falls asleep almost at random and constantly. This even happens in the middle of a fight which is terribly inconvenient. This entire mechanic should have been removed because it's an annoying hindrance.
The caveman protagonist hunts a deer in the woods as the sun is rising.
A pretty game this most certainly is not.
Tails of the Sun looks like something you would expect to see on the 3DO. That's not a compliment. The graphics are pretty bad; textures are heavily pixelated, the scenery is bland and sparse, character models are blocky and lack detail. The animals are easily the worst looking things in this game. Some lack textures and with the sparse amount of polygons used in them it can actually be tough to tell exactly what the models are supposed to be. Yes, it's really that bad. The cherry on top is the awful framerate that hovers somewhere between fifteen to twenty frames per second even with nothing on-screen. It's ridiculous that, with such sparse scenery, the developers couldn't get this game to run better on hardware we all know is capable of handling much more. At least the transitions from night to day and vice versa are kind of nice. If there's one highlight to this game it's clearly the soundtrack. It's best described as 'caveman electronica.' I was really into the prehistoric rave thing it has going on. The music is incredibly original and really good to boot.

Tail of the Sun gets points for originality, but that's just about all it has going for it. There are few games I've played where I've ran around so aimlessly, accomplished so little, and was bored the entire time. The developers just didn't have a clear enough picture of what they wanted to do here leading to an extremely unfocused package. I'm sure there is someone out there that will appreciate this one as an 'artsy' video game, but that person sure as heck isn't me.

Pros:

+ Unique concept
+ Wide open gameplay with a lot of freedom
+ Great music

Cons:

- Aimless
- Repetitive
- Terrible graphics

Overall Rating: D

Jan 24, 2019

Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure Review (Sega CD, 1994)

Front cover of Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure for the Sega CD add-on console.

Northern California based publisher Working Designs worked overtime to bring early Sega fans a decent line-up of role playing games from overseas. Without them platforms such as the Sega CD and Saturn would have been barren wastelands as far as the genre is concerned. Today I'm going to take a look at one of their more curious releases; Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure (or just Popful Mail for short). This was a remake of an earlier title in the franchise (yes, this was an actual franchise) which took advantage of the Sega CD's large new software medium by offering up plenty of voice acting and animated sequences. Now that stuff like this is hardly impressive by today's standard we can take an objective look at the game looking past all the glitz and glam, and that's what I'm here to do today. With that let's dive right in for a Popful Mail review.

Popful Mail kicks off with an animated sequence depicting the titular hero chasing down a nefarious criminal named Nuts Cracker in hopes of collecting the bounty on his head. He manages to escape at which point Mail returns to town to find a new target. This is where she hears about Muttonhead; a once kind (but crazy) wizard who has turned to the dark side. With a two million gold bounty on his head he's an irresistible target for our greedy hero, and so she sets out to track him down and bring him to justice. Along the way Mail will meet new friends; Muttonhead's former apprentice Tatto, and flying dragon creature Gaw. As the plot unfolds we learn the stakes are higher, but that's par for the course as far as Japanese role playing games go. The story is told through a significant amount of voice acting and few animated sequences that really pop. In typical fashion Working Designs incorporated a lot of humor into the script, and for the most part it hits the mark.

An animated sequence where the hero Popful Mail stares at a robotic head in held in her hands.
"Boomba!"
What we have here is one of those genre bending side scrolling platform role playing games. From a side view you walk left, right, and jump. You have ladders to climb as well. Enemies are dispatched by weapons instead of hopping on their head, and they have health bars that appear on-screen when you strike them. It's pretty similar to Zelda II, but with a few key differences. For starters, Mail and friends do not gain experience points. There is no leveling system; you have one hundred hit points in the beginning of the game and that's your maximum factor even as you face down the final boss. Like in a traditional RPG however you can purchase and find new equipment in shops and this will give you new forms of attacks, increase the damage you do, or in the case of armor give you a higher defensive value. Each of the three characters has their own unique set of tools. You can buy items in shops from gold dropped by enemies and these include healing items, weapons, armor and accessories. Money is basically the only resource you can grind in this game.

You start the journey with just Mail in your party but soon into the quest Tatto and Gaw join up with you and from that point you can switch the active character during gameplay. On top of each having their own hit points (which means you essentially have three life bars at your disposal which certainly helps during some of the boss fights) each have their differences in handling. Mail is the most agile and fastest of the three, Tatto has projectile attacks but is slow, and Gaw has the worst handling but can jump higher than the other two. It's nice that they have differences, but for the most part I found myself sticking with Mail because of her versatility.

Basic gameplay is fun. It's typical walk from left to right while performing light platforming and fighting enemies. The only thing I didn't really like is the way you progress in the game. There's an overworld map wherein select you destination ala point and click. From here every environment is the same side view style area. This works well for the dungeon areas, but everything such as towns and the like are interconnected. It sounds interesting, but it actually makes exploration a little boring to be honest. I didn't find town areas fun to investigate in the least, and though they offer side quests, Popful Mail would be a stronger package without them. The game is also a little unforgiving with large spans of time wherein you cannot recover or buy healing items. This makes the whole thing a bit of a drag to play to be honest. It tries to offer Metroid style exploration, but the developers only went halfway with this resulting in an unbalanced package.

A screenshot in the game wherein Popful Mail is wandering around in a multi-leveled forest.
A day in the life as our hero Popful Mail.
Popful Mail is a very good looking game. The first thing I was drawn to is the colorful aesthetic. The outdoor stages really pop with brightly colored scenery, and the characters really stand out against them. Each of the three protagonists animates quite nicely for a 16-bit game. The enemy designs are a bit sub-standard but that's forgivable. They just lack personality and tend to be drab against the colorful backdrops. The animated sequences are some of the best I've seen on the Sega CD. They're fully animated and take up a large portion of the screen with scene transitions and nice effects as well as great lip syncing. I have no real complaints when it comes to the graphics here. The soundtrack is also really great, but there isn't a whole lot to it. For a game on the CD medium the developers opted to have repeating songs a lot between the stages. The voice acting is some of the best of its era with hilarious over-the-top performances all around. It perfectly fits the anime motif and lives up to Working Designs legacy.

This one had big shoes to fill. It's a rare Japanese RPG on an unpopular platform that hasn't been translated into English anywhere else. That alone ensures Popful Mail has quite the devoted fanbase. The game is fun, but it certainly doesn't deserve the amount of praise I've heard for it over the years. It tries to be a wide open Metroid style side scrolling role playing game but I feel this sounds better on paper. The developers failed to design a world that's fun to explore. Popful Mail can feel like a chore at times, and it quickly gets to the point that the appearance of even standard enemies gets annoying. I do love the aesthetic, but that alone isn't enough to make this one a classic

Pros:

+ Nicely done animated sequences
+ Fun translation and dialogue
+ Some interesting level designs
+ Great soundtrack

Cons:

- Some boring areas
- Can feel like a chore to play
- Artificially difficult
- Exploration is not fun

Overall Rating: C

Jan 21, 2019

Kolibri Review (Sega 32X, 1995)

Front cover of the video game Kolibri for the Sega 32X add-on console.

The subject of today's review is a hummingbird shooter. If that didn't kill all interest you had in this game then here's the final nail in the coffin; it's for the Sega 32X. You do have to hand it to Sega for trying to push less violent video games like this and Ecco the Dolphin in an age of Mortal Kombat and Doom, but was a game centered around a hummingbird battling insects and aliens really necessary? Furthermore, why put the kind of resources this game required into a 32X exclusive that has never been ported anywhere else? There are so many questions, but the big one is whether or not Kolibri is still worth playing in this day and age. Today I'm here to take a look at it.

Kolibri starts out with you playing as an outcast hummingbird. When you try to approach the flowers that your peers are feeding on they push you away. Upon finding a lone flower away from the rest of the pack the bird's mealtime is interrupted as a meteor crashes to the Earth, and our avian hero is granted special flowers by a magical crystal. He can now shoot beams of energy from his beak, and he will need to do so to defeat the alien infestation in the nearby wilds. It sounds unusual and it is, but thankfully there isn't a lot of story exposition here as Kolibri throws you into the action immediately. The game is a side view shooter where you can pick up and use a multitude of different weapon types but only equip one at a time. These all have different advantages and none of them are completely useless. It's all a matter of preferred play style and the options are nice.

Three hummingbirds fly together near a flower.
Yep, this is a hummingbird game all right.
Besides the general scenario there are a few other areas of Kolibri that are strikingly original. First of all there are several different types of levels in this game. In the beginning the stages are free roaming and you're simply tasked with defeating all of the present enemies before moving to the next area. You can freely explore these levels and though they aren't very big there's a definite sense of freedom especially with the outdoor natural ambiance. Later stages force scrolling which makes for a more traditional shooter experience, and it's a nice change that the game becomes more focused in areas. Finally you have large underground areas that are basically free roaming labyrinths. These segments feature very light puzzles and can be slightly confusing at times. These are not very fun to be honest. Kolibri would have benefited from being a tighter experience.

The weaponry offers a fair amount of variety, but compared to a more traditional shooter it's pretty limited. You have your typical straight forward blobs of energy and several similar shot types, but there's also homing lasers, multishots, etc. Generally you're going to want to stick with the laser because it makes everything else pretty useless. What's interesting about this game is the fact that the theme of nature comes through in the enemy types. Your primary enemies are insects which feature a lot of distinct attack and movement patterns. You'll also have to deal with snakes, lizards, etc. I actually found some of this disturbing. Specifically the bull frogs and chameleons that kill you instantly by eating your hummingbird whole. It's surprisingly ominous and adds a lot of tension to the game.

Unfortunately there are several bland stages in this game. The outdoor forest areas are brilliantly drawn, colorful, and really make you feel like you're a part of nature just trying to survive. These moments are the best. Unfortunately the developers didn't realize this and decided to make most of the game take place underground or in caverns. It makes little sense in the context of the setting and story, and seems like a lame excuse to re-use assets in a less obvious manner. In addition there's an uneven difficulty curve here. The first few stages are extremely easy, but then suddenly you have enemies coming at you from all directions shooting a myriad of projectiles at your poor little hummingbird. Following these moments are a lot of mostly empty underground caverns. It just feels like poor pacing to me, and there should be a much more gradual build-up that maintains itself.

A hummingbird fires projectile shots at a nearby toad.
That toad will soon prove to be your worst nightmare.
Kolibri could easily be mistaken for a plain jane Sega Genesis game in screenshots. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's a poor poster boy for the ill fated supposedly 32-bit add-on for which it was released. The outdoor backgrounds are really well designed with moving elements and a sort of watercolor feel to everything. The sprite work is pretty great, and the world certainly feels lived in. The enemies are generally pretty bland looking with realistic enemy designs, but that's what the game was going for. Kolibri succeeds with its natural art style, but as I mentioned earlier the cave and underground stages look far too plain for my tastes. What's interesting is the fact that Kolibri lacks a HUD. This is obviously on purpose to enhance the natural feel of the game, and I found it to be pretty effective. The music actually fares quite a bit better than I expected. There's a lot of natural sounding music which fits the ambiance perfectly. The deep bass on the drums is a big highlight.

All in all Kolibri is a slightly less than average shooter. It does best when it's focused and linear, but the majority of the game is the opposite of this. The all natural theme is somewhat unique for the genre, but I personally guarantee that this is the only video game wherein you play as a hummingbird. It's a mediocre shooter with more lows than highs. It's interesting thematically, but that's not enough to save this bore fest. Kolibri's worst offense however is being locked behind the train wreck that is the 32X; I can't imagine anyone picked up that awful hardware add-on just to play a game where you play as a hummingbird battling against insects and aliens.

Pros:

+ Pleasant and original theme
+ Lack of HUD adds to the experience
+ Not particularly violent

Cons:

- Boring music
- Uneven difficulty curves
- Uninspired and repetitive

Overall Rating: C-