Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires [2006] ANALYSIS

Platform: PSP

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 40%, 20+ Hours

Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires is a port/remake of a PlayStation 2 game. I will not go into the lineage of this extensive franchise. Idea Factory has published or developed gobs of games interchangeably using a combination of “Spectral,” “Force,” and “Souls.” Some are new, some are ports, and some are sequels. I suppose when something works you stick with it, although how well this particular entry works is up for debate.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced strategy RPG gameplay experience, Spectral Souls is not the game for you. You will get a hipster opening movie featuring a song from the band “Dogschool.” It played out very much like a music video with all kinds of jump cuts and pans. It may have looked nice to some, but it did not make much sense for the game.

We went into this game with expectations neither high nor low. However we did envision something above average as we were exposed to good art and a polished initial presentation. But the more we played the more we came to the conclusion that this game was a tragic miss. The slow, monotonous progress and gameplay took its toll as well, as we struggled to maintain interest.

The game features fine 2D sprites on a 3D rotatable background. Though it appeared to be technically sound, its flaws could not hide. We went in not sure what to think. We came out with definitive knowledge that this game is flawed.

The Good:

  • Charge It: The charge and hold option integrated into the attack system added flexibility and fun combinations. It was interesting to use, and not just about damage points. It made me want to see what the related “mix” system would do.
  • Legend of the Phoenix: if you are going to copy a system for reviving fallen characters, the classic Final Fantasy Tactics system that uses Phoenix Downs to raise fallen characters within three turns is the one to copy. It is, in our opinion, the best and most exciting character retrieval system. It adds intensity, because you need to keep characters alive. Immortal characters, or ones that return after the battle, really suck out the desire to play well. This system also adds strategy as you struggle to get to a fallen character within three turns.

    “Yeah, I’m fine. I always lay down in the street this way. It’s very relaxing.”

  • Sounds Good: The sound effects were technically well done and interesting to listen to. There was a flame one we found particularly good.
  • Action on Point: The action point system was transparent and sensible. That may sound easy to say, and rather dull “good.” However, a good action point system does not just happen. Credit given where credit is due. This does not mean that the system was crucial, though. It wasn’t.
  • Following Orders: Modern incarnations of the strategy RPG genre have benefited from visual depictions of turn order ( believe me, that wasn’t the case In many of the GBA and PlayStation era games). Spectral Souls offered an easy straight order system with thumbnails as an option alongside, and a well done, dynamic linear display along the top.

    The artwork was mostly high quality. These were pretty good and fun. But some later will be high quality misses.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • “Huh? Charge What?” We mentioned in the “good” section that we liked the holding charge system. It was good enough to be given its own bullet point. But, however interesting that mechanic for team play and self charging, it was not well explained in an easily understandable manner. Don’t let a good mechanic slip away with poor explanation.
  • Nice Parts, Questionably Assembled: It is an accomplishment to have richly textured environments. However, the execution of that richness was not up to the quality of the textures. Is it a bomb? A rock? Why is it covered with a grass texture? It just seemed to us poor application.

    Is this a scene from a Neo Geo game? Super Nintendo? Playstation 1? Uh… no, sadly not.

  • “I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter:” While the action point system made sense, there was an element buried within that forced you to attack up to the action point limit. It was okay perhaps in theory, but application was distorting, and this element lead to some frustration. There were times where a character just sat there and was hit four times in one turn.
  • More is Less: Double the storylines! Twice the characters! …Half the investment and caring….

    Good art? Maybe. Poor design. Yes. Ugly even. A reject from the punk movement. A girl with no color sense. Another who made a dress out of her mother’s curtains. And finally, a women who did not have enough material for her whole outfit.

  • For the Discriminating Mage: Those accustomed to the genre know that area of affect magic attacks often dole out damage with equal opportunity. In Spectral Souls, such attacks discriminate between friend and foe and thus require less tactical planning and skill to set up. Easier is not necessarily better in a strategy RPG.
  • Let’s Make Some Magic: Synthesis systems can be a lot of fun in games. Something that you think of as your unique creation adds ownership to the play experience. In the case of Spectral Souls magic combos, it was too hit or miss. Sometimes awesome, and other times ZZZZzzzz…..

    Uh, it really wasn’t.

The Bad:

Form your own opinion. It’s a game that inspires this kind of cosplay. Apparently many females found resonance with it.

  • One Hit, One Kill?  Unless you are a special forces sniper or uber powerful and facing off against a n00b, one hit kills are not game enhancers. The Special Attack system needed some adjustment. It may sound great, but it gets old.
  • SHUT UP! Spectral Souls is plagued by a dry, obtuse, dull, torpidly delivered story. There is screen after screen of slow text. They describe things we have no interest in and about which we have absolutely no caring. It is hard to “advance” a story which grows more obtuse and uninteresting by the session.

    YES, PLEASE!

  • Bad Bullets: Not worth more than a sentence to mention:
    • It was a struggle to find the next story battle!
    • Some VFX brought the game (slow to begin with) to a crawl.
    • Numbers were of the Disgaea inspired ultra-high school. More zeroes does NOT equal more fun.
    • Moves cannot be undone even before an action is determined. Hey, thanks for nothing designers!

      Uhh… a heart? Really?

  • Goofy, Phoned-In Enemies: This is not Pokemon Gold, Silver, Sapphire or Crystal. In a game like that you might expect an enemy like “Oddish,” which is pretty much a little walking onion. Or a fish like “Magicarp.” Such lame enemies look even more lame when placed in a wartorn, military-esque, sword & magic “adventure.”

    Gotta Catch ‘Em All! “I choose you crabby-chu!”

  • Programmed for Dumbness: The enemy AI was just bad. It watched ridiculously or fed enemies one by one into the maw of your units. It seemed to force overly conservative tactics, where you kept units grouped and laboriously edged them forward. It was dull play in an already time-consuming game.
  • Cut Scenes That Should Have Been Cut: This game featured the dullest cut scenes EVAR. (And that is saying something.) They were without animation or anything else that might inspire interest. They were technically sloggy too, sometimes needing excessive load and seek times. There were scenes where nothing happened at all.

    I don’t know about him, but I’m rooting for this game to end.

  • Bad Bullets: Because apparently, one set was not enough:
    • Red usually means bad. Not in this game when it came to destinations. Standard conventions anyone?
    • Battle music? You need more than one good track. Are you trying to annoy?
    • Keeping up with weapons upgrades was so much more work than fun. So easy to stop altogether. Design miss.
    • Enemies do not show their weapons until they move. Hey, thanks for NOT making weapons match-ups matter.

    How do you hide this weapon?

  • Static (Environmental) Shock: There is no technical reason for such un-fluid, static and boring environments. Nothing changes, breaks, configures differently. Remember the Shining Force III train? We do. Additionally, environmental objects that blocked the camera view did not fade. There is no longer reason for that and it should not be tolerated.

    Oh the action… The excitement… the…. yawn…

  • Not so Crafty: The item crafting system was unclear and not easy to use. We should have been given some clarifying visuals and some easy, early successes. This is especially true if you want the player to use something that is unnecessary.
  • A Hill Too Far: Area of effect magic did not hit units at any significant elevation change. Apparently the elevation change was not significant enough to us. This turned out to be more frustrating than tactical.

    Good art, ridiculous design. Looks like the middle school overflow crowd from some sort of fighting maids convention.

Too Big for a Bullet Point: Accessing Boredom & Frustration

Disc access delays can be made better or worse with clever design. This is probably not news to you or to the developer, but none-the-less it was an issue magnified by poor design choices. Doing ANYTHING caused a delay.

  • Selecting a menu.
  • Going to the worldmap.
  • Causing VFX to happen.
  • Going to the Shop.
  • Selecting something WITHIN the shop.
  • Adding new destinations to the worldmap.
  • Bringing up anything to do with turn order.
  • Zooming the camera.
  • “Would you like to access the disc?” *delay – accessing disc – delay*

    Please, for the sake of sanity, pick the direct route. Do it for the children!

What about loading text? Yes, even that amazingly difficult task for a computer (made in 1939) took time. It was exaggerated by meaningless, empty, unnecessary dialogue. Writing short pithy dialogue for games is an art. One obviously not learned here. Responses were tremendously sluggish. Load portrait, delay, load line, delay… ad infinitum. All that time for bloated, pointless lines like, “Yes sir.” “Me too.” “Sure.” Etc.

Final Thoughts:

There was a large cast of characters in Spectral Souls. Too large in our opinion. Partially because the characters were spread across two factions. You were never quite sure who you were rooting for, and sadly, why. When they introduced a THIRD faction, and it was over. No thanks. What is our mission? What are we playing for?

There were gaming systems that must have cost many development hours that added little to the game. The augment system and even the combo attacks along with the weapons upgrades. Wasted effort in our opinion for our game experience.

The game also had the unfortunate habit of lapsing into a common disease for Japanese RPGs and SRPGs: Breaking into philosophizing passages. Be it the cost of war, corruption, the nature of evil, the nature of man, the nature of nature be corrupted, King George’s tea tax, etc., etc.

Spectral Souls could have been made by a robot programmed with fun mechanics but lacking the ability to implement them in a fun fashion and with heart–or to understand delays and patience. The last especially sapped our desire to play a game which uncannily inspired zero passion. Apathy is a sad commentary on any game. This one could have been more accurately called: Spectral Time Sink.

Ugh… I think this game was more girly than I remember…

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Advance Wars: Dual Strike [2005] ANALYSIS

Platform: Nintendo DS

Turn-Based Strategy: Turns by Team

Completion Level: 66%, 15-20 Hours

Remember these guys? Take a good look, because they make few appearances in Dual Strike…

Advance Wars had well refined the turn-based strategy genre. More or less freed from RPG aspects, the series focused on quality units, immaculate balancing, and interesting/challenging layouts. With such a well oiled machine, it is best not to fix something that is not broken. The greatest challenge should be inventing new content of a quality level where the of the previous entries. However, Advance Wars: Dual Strike did indeed make the mistake of trying to subtly reinvent a perfectly round wheel.

The game opens by telling you that months have passed since the previous entry. What also had passed was the cute art direction that served the franchise well. It was not a complete overhaul. The original characters were still there, but only in limited roles. The game is now carried by two new, hipster characters, on a different continent, and with different art direction. Did this series really need to do that? Did it need to go totally “hip?” We would say no.

Out with the original, in with the hipster!

We do not think another entry similar to those previous, but with perhaps a new interesting story and a smattering of new quality units would be resting on laurels. In fact, we think it would be quite challenging to maintain the level of quality in character design, seeing, gameplay balance and design. Unfortunately, we think Dual Strike was sloppy in each and every one of those categories.

The Good:

Okay, that’s impressive. Obviously a VERY BIG fan of Advance Wars.

  • Solid Foundations (covered with a little debris…): Despite misguided additions and changes, the core unit versus unit gameplay is still solid and fun. There is a very balanced system of strengths and weaknesses as it relates to units. Even the mightiest tank can be bombed from the air, whittled down with inexpensive units, or run out of fuel and ammunition. Additionally, it is very expensive.
  • New and (Arguably) Improved Units: Like the super ultra mega tank. It was fun, although costly. It stretched the balance, but did not break it.
  • A Clean Environment: From sea filled coastal regions to winter environs, the visual depiction of terrain was crisp and quite acceptable.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

It’s so deceptively simple that you can play it with paper models.

  • Tutorial – Too Much of a Good Thing: It felt too long and drawn out. One of the strengths of the franchise was that is was simple by design. Easy to learn, with the challenge coming though the combination of the elements.
  • Unforgiving Goals: Challenge is a good thing in SRPGs, but it should be about informed strategic decisions. The (map) objectives and goals for some missions were unclear. You might decide upon a reasonable strategic tack only to find out later that it completely hosed you and your chances of victory. The game should remain focused on strategy, rather than making you trial and error your way to victory.
  • When Genres Collide: The first advance wars was cute, and for the most part so was the sequel. However this entry did not successfully pull off “cute”, nor did it pull off “cool.” It was a strange mix that turned out to be neither very fun, nor very deep and thoughtful. We would suggest not trying to force the round peg of advance wars into the square hole of a semi-serious toned game.

Prepare yourself for hipster cliche overload!

  • Two Battles? Twice the Fun… Not: Some scenarios required fighting a land war and air battle simultaneously. While this may have sounded fun in a design meeting, in actuality it was distracting and a little burdensome. The connection to the air battle was tenuous at best. Why include it if it can just be handed over to the AI to fight? Discrete separation and clear, fun missions for the areas would have worked better.
  • Is this AI Really Necessary? If you did indeed turn the air battle over to the AI, you had a choice regarding its aggressive, neutral or defensive stance. It was extra control worth little, in an extra battle worth little. …eh. These development hours could have been better spent.

The Bad:

We don’t even get what that-guy(?) on the bottom right is trying to be.

  • Pointless Sacrifices:  We already mentioned how the secondary battle was ill-conceived and unfun. Worse was that in some cases you do not even have to win it. But that did not keep the game from suggesting you send precious units into this pointless air battle. To add to the frustration they could even run out of fuel, thus crashing to the ground perhaps having accomplished nothing.
  • “I’m invincible!” Various commanders can be chosen to lead your units in battle. They each have a different special ability. One enemy commander has the ability to make his units 100% invulnerable. That was about as fun as it sounds, which is absolutely not. Additionally, it just did not fit the game where every encounter had some sort of cost.
  • Art MIS-direction: Trying to fit a weird, semi-hipster art style onto the existing more lighthearted assets resulted in what you would expect; a clashing mishmash. We are sorry, but a new continent is not an excuse for a new art style. New content, sure. The new good guy characters were dull and overly hip. The new bad guy characters were just weird, showed no continuity and added little to the game.

  • Unappealing Goes Beyond Skin Deep: The enemy commanders especially not only looked unappealing but were also less than fascinating. They were not heartfelt, had no compelling story in which to get behind, and in many cases were not even worth trying to understand. Advance Wars is not a deep story RPG, but it did used to have a lighthearted narrative which kept one moving from battle to battle.
  • Complications: An important maxim of game design: Complication of gameplay does not necessarily equal more fun. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. Is it adding fun? We are not convinced this question was asked enough during the development process.
  • Unfunny Humor: Our theory is they were trying to be funny by filling the protagonist’s vocabulary with every overly hip cliché imaginable. However it was overdone to the point that you never took seriously anything the protagonist of the game said. He became a joke, and it was hard immerse yourself in any of the battles. Additionally, the dialogue was just inane, even for Advance Wars.

You thought one set had the cliches covered? No way.

  • You Don’t Need to Answer: Advance Wars requires a button press to advance the dialogue, so each line should be carefully chosen and dialogue should be kept to a minimum. Just the opposite was done, as if it was written by a first-year game developer. Every conversation was peppered with empty responses that had to be dismissed with additional button presses. How many, “Yeah,” Okay,” “You bet,” and other such responses must we be subjected to?

Lots ‘o talking… Little being said…

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Commander’s Specials & Double Attacks

The advance wars franchise started out as an extremely balanced, easy to pick up, and well-crafted combat system. The two sequels have gone a long way to eroding that value. One of the key tools for this devolution is commander’s specials.

The game is naturally one that requires strategy, and advanced thinking about your own movements and those the enemy will do. You will soon find out that special abilities can totally ruin that. The result is either overly conservative play which risks little and becomes boring, or even worse, not caring about your units. In the latter case you will quickly find yourself putting down the game.

Wait a minute… The ion cannon from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and one of those annoying mega-cannons from Advance Wars… hmmm.

The most egregious perpetrator was the special that allowed two turns in a row. That’s right, you get to do your attack move, then activate the special and attack for another turn. This totally crumbles any kind of planning And throws off the entire rhythm of the game. Think of it as chess and imagine a scenario where you got to move twice. Cheesy checkmate.

The CEOs who use the special of this nature were so overpowered in comparison to the original commanders. Andy, the fun youngster from the first game had a repair special Which partially fixed all your damaged units on the field. Compare that to the cheese ball crud specials, and too many of them, this game threw at you.

Final Thoughts:

We went into this game with high expectations. After all, it was “Advance Wars.” What we got was a mishmash. Although, despite meddling with a successful formula, it still managed to be somewhat fun. However, not nearly as fun as previous entries, nor did this entry compel the same amount of play.

This franchise used to be one in which you could play it your way. Do you like heavy duty, up close tank combat? You could outfit your forces that way. Were you more of a ranged attack fan? You could load up your army with artillery and missile launchers. Perhaps you were about capturing territory and filling the terrain with platoons of specialized soldiers. All of the strategies now seemed forced to take a backseat to the way THEY want you to play each scenario.

This franchise may have needed a bit of sprucing up, and perhaps could have used the injection of some new ideas that still fit in with the style of gameplay they already established. However, what we got was a complicated, anything goes, seemingly designed by committee stew that leaves a bad aftertaste.

Ugh, more? Are you kidding? Sadly no. The trendy jargon-fest continued…

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Play What You Like Advanced Wars Analyses:

Advance Wars (2001) GBA

Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising (2003) GBA

Advance Wars: Dual Strike (2005) DS

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure [2000] ANALYSIS

Platform: PlayStation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 40%? 60%? –10 hours

By the time we got around to playing Rhapsody, Disgaea was out and making waves in the SRPG world. It focused attention on Nippon Ichi Software, the developer of both titles. We decided to play their SRPGs roughly in the order made. Rhapsody offered insight into future games by NIS.

Every SRPG aficionado has reason to be knowledgeable of Rhapsody. It was the first SPRG foray into North America for NIS. But “knowledgeable” does not mean one has to log hours playing, because the target audience of this game is 11-year-old Japanese girls.

While there is nothing wrong with that, we can hardly think of a less promising demographic in terms of North American sales forecasts. Before internet games and independent publishing fully bloomed to widen the spectrum of players, we have to wonder what was going through Atlus’ mind when they decided to translate and import this Japanese game.

Despite its incredible femininity, we still played in hopes of an enjoyable tactical experience irregardless of juvenile content. NIS has many devoted fans out there. Analyzing this game started us on a journey which eventually told us whether or not this fan base was fully justified.

Check out this impressive, professional looking sculpture.

Check out this impressive, professional looking sculpture.

The design of Rhapsody built atop standard RPG traditions more than many other SRPGs. Overall look and environments stand up well or better than most similar titles on the PlayStation. The camera looks down upon a 2-D painted world for most interactions but sometimes lowers to eye-level.

The Good:

There is some coplay out there regarding Rhapsody’s lead character, the Puppet Princess herself, Cornet.

  • Lead Character Cornet’s cornet Sound Byte: There is a lovely 10 second sound byte in which Cornet plays her horn. It has stayed with us as pleasant and memorable. A pleasing soft sound. A minor thing really, but it makes our list. Hear it below at TIME INDEX 3:16.
  • Soothing Background Sounds: The stylized background music, not the vocal singing numbers. The former were enjoyable if slightly puerile. The latter, we will leave to you in the “Good and Bad” section.
  • Quality, Lots of Quality: There is a decent amount of content in this game. Some of it you may like; some of it may make you gag. However almost all of it is high quality. They developers seemed to care greatly about this product and did not let junk pass muster.

Nice sprites. Microscopic, but nice.


Too Big for a Bullet Point: Awesome Art

Apparently girls play SRPGs in decent numbers in Japan. In other countries they watch the Kardashians… ugh.

Nippon Ichi set the bar very high in every visual category (but special effects). Artist Yoshiharu Nomura crafted a series of good-looking characters including humans, puppets, and animals. His designs, whether your taste or not were of excellent quality. His portraits take a backseat to none.

Every developer wants their game to inspire such devotion. This one, apparently, succeeded. *(For a very small group)

The backgrounds were one of the first things that caught our attention. Having experienced many games on the PlayStation, we were pleasantly shocked by the rich, verdant painted backgrounds. Lush forests, colorful buildings and an overall texture that seemed lifted from the pages of a painted storybook. We do not know where all those colors came from, and have to wonder why other PlayStation game environments did not quite match up.

The menus were and text boxes were well done and readable with subtle transparency. The colors chosen for highlighted grid squares worked well. Once again, all this under the constrictions of the PlayStation.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

“You know, just another day hanging out with my buds in the park.”

  • Puppets… are your Weapons: It is an interesting enacted concept. In this game a party of puppets are amassed instead of a crew of people. It fits the property, and the puppets have some personality, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Myao does not look much like a bad guy.

  • A Quick and Efficient Combat System: Button presses and combat decisions are quick and easy. However the combat system is shallow. As deep as an 11-year old Japanese girl might like.

“Yes, we actually give you the option for almost ZERO tactics. Enjoy.”

  • Musical Numbers: Broadway style singing and dancing is almost never in a video game thing. Rhapsody is the reason we have to have “almost” in that sentence. Many people who played this game recall these numbers fondly. Though we did not care much for them, they were well done and in some strange way fit this game. Review the clip below if you choose, and make your own determination.
  • Explore Your World: Like in many standard RPGs, towns are combat free zones to be explored. Rhapsody adopted this well and it was mechanically sound. However we would have preferred interaction with shops and townspeople to have  more substance and interest.

Look around and find deep, “scintillating” plots…


The Bad:

  • Failure of Message: A great pitfall in any video game when a player gets the point of saying, “I just don’t know what to do next.” Then they proceed to wander around aimlessly, draining there desire to play, and goodwill towards the game. In our opinion it went beyond the occasional missing of a clue.

Not only is Crowdia cosplayed well here, but also… Burdy?

  • Static Experience:  We have no need to pull punches and deliver our analyses as we see them. You can play this game for two hours or twenty hours, but aside from some inane story elements and characters your experience will change very little.

  • Get a Compass: One reason people play SRPGs as opposed to RPGs is they enjoy streamlined navigation. There is a world map and there are locations of interest. There is not a lot of wasted time or movement. Rhapsody got us lost in senseless mazes like caves. Save it for RPGs please.

These caves were so much fun! *This statement not approved by the Truth Squad.

  • That was Random: Abuse of the random encounter can destroy the enjoyment of a game. Final Fantasy Tactics limited them to stops on the world map. It was tough, but fair. It seems Rhapsody can lapse into a random (and meaningless) time-sinking encounter every time we sideways scroll to another screen. Ugh.

Yup. Stuffed sidekick cosplay. Burdy.

  • The (lack of) Tactics: This is a strategy role-playing game. Sometimes called a tactical role-playing game. Note the words “strategy” and “tactical”. We know the combat system was simplified for the target audience, but we saw little progression and got tired of mashing. An 11-year old Japanese girl might too.

Pretty, but also pretty flat. There were no elevation decisions.

  • Pies…: Sure, it is funny picking a certain spell to deal vicious damage to your enemies. You can choose candy, or flan, or pies. Yes, it sort-of makes sense for the property, however huge out-of-scale pie slices flying past the scree break the game reality. It reinforced a sentiment like, “Oh, we are playing a silly video game.”

Oh look, isn’t it funny?


Final Thoughts:

Maybe you can explain to us what is fun about wandering around, lost in a maze, and subjected to random encounters? You have to keep exploring to find your way through, but every bit of exploration done opens up another random encounter. That was not fun. That was the opposite of fun.

More fourth wall breaking.

If judged solely on art and overall quality, Rhapsody is an excellent game and portends good things for NIS. However once you factor in design and content choices, the future becomes more muddled. We learned just about all we were going to after ten hours, and without the enjoyment factor there was no reason to play on.

Okay, so we like happy endings. We would recommend Grandia (PSOne). It has more well rounded appeal and is a better game overall.

It is a 99.9% certainty that 11-year-old Japanese girls, or even an 11-year-old American girls are not reading this analysis. But one were, we might, might recommend this game to them. But to everyone else who enjoys this genre, you can do better than this shallow experience. That is of course unless you are looking for Broadway style numbers.

If you say so.

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Vandal Hearts II [1999] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns-Simultaneous?

Completion Level: Campaign Completed 100 Hours

We are not pleased to have spent this amount of time playing VH2. The game is not worth that investment. We do not doubt much time was spent staring at the screen trying to determine who the AI was going to move next and what we should do about it. You will understand that more when you read the “Dual Turn System” entry under “Good”.

This game does not engender the passion of  its predecessor Vandal Hearts. From some games, not much is expected. If they are good it is a pleasant surprise. However from VH2 something was expected. It was the sequel to a stylish well known forerunner, it had a decent budget, and it came during those heady days of Playstation SRPGs. Final Fantasy Tactics widened the appeal of this genre, exposing many through its famous IP.

What? Vandal Hearts II begins with a village burning? Shocking!

VH2 did not stay true to its roots. There is little connection to VH1. Some key mechanics were changed, the art direction was different, the story and characters were unrelated. Most of the things one may have liked about VH1 were not reflected in its sequel. How does the sequel stand up on its own? For a big budget, mainline game, not terribly, but not exactly well either.

The slightly faded environments are rendered in 3D and the camera can rotate its view upon them. Vandal Hearts as a franchise allows you to bring a large party to battle. Between battles there is opportunity to shop and talk to townsfolk for mostly unnecessary information.

The Good:

Lira and Agress were kick-butt female warriors. Since we could find no Vandal Hearts cosplay, we have decided to use pictures of other cosplayed female warriors.

  • Many Story In-Game Cut Scenes: No one can fault this game for lack of conversations overheard, and human dramas played out, sometimes interactively, right before our eyes.
  • Fighting Uphill: Elevation played a role, but not in the classic sense of putting an archer on the high ground. It was more about having to traverse huge steps in order to complete a battle. however we do recall having more fun fighting uphill. Assaulting the enemy on a slope was an interesting change up.

Fighting uphill in VH2 was a challenging but fun experience.

  • A Humorous Quote: This game is not going to overflow the “Good” category. So we will include a point about a line that made us laugh: “That’s a load of crock!” Uh, is that not a mixed colloquial metaphor?
  • Bosses: You do not see many SRPGs tackle large boss encounters. So we definitely give props to VH2 for attempting it and mostly succeeding.

Giant bugs. Starship Troopers go!

  • A Character of Few-ah, One Word: “Agress” spoke in single word answers, or with no words at all. Exclamation points were sometimes all she needed. It was humorous. Is it surprising she had some quirks with a name like Agress?

Too Big for a Bullet Point: The Dual Turn System

Imagine getting together with a couple buds to try out your new game, Vandal Hearts II. One of those guys, like you, was a fan of the original. All of you are a little curious and filled with anticipation about what you shall see.

Yes, this screen is split right down the middle!

We skipped hurriedly through the opening cut scenes (which went from stereotypical to mildly interesting to dippy). Although curious, this game was going to be carefully played later. This session was all about getting to the meat of the game, the combat.

So here was, our first encounter versus gigaslugs. Okay, not the most fearsome or powerful enemy, but we were armed with a wooden stick. We selected our warrior and selected our target and pressed go. But instead of going the game focused on one of the enemies and what it wanted to do. And then out of nowhere the screen split. One side showed our warrior moving to the position we selected and striking while the other side similarly showed the enemy gigaslug.

This unexpected, astounding and unique game experience caught us by jaw-dropping surprise. Eyes bulging, we exclaimed, “What the heck,” to each other. After calming down we realized that our targeted gigaslug moved at the same time as our warrior. So yes, we swung at empty air. Thus was the nature of combat for the entire game.

We found ourselves staring at battle setups for long minutes throughout the game, trying to figure which unit the AI would move next, and who they would target. There were many attacks on empty spaces, accidental interceptions (which stop an attack), and just general hijinks associated with this mechanic. Sometimes it had the strange effect of making battles feel like one continuous turn.

The Dual Turn System was unique and daring, and not un-fun. It kept us playing this game longer both for its unique challenge and by the sheer fact that it required extra brain time. If legitimate challenge is fun, this mechanic qualifies. We understand that putting this in the “Good” section may be considered controversial by some. However there is no doubt in our mind that it was the most memorable and clever aspect of this game.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

Uh, R2D2?

  • Level Layout Roulette: For whatever reason, a few level layout misses were sprinkled into the mix. In some cases it was difficult to see where a unit could step. This game did not need that kind of additional challenge.
  • Art ‘Direction?’ It’s aiming sideways: The special effects varied. Some were eye catching. Others were what we considered ugly. This game needed consistent art direction.

Some visually interesting visual effects. We especially are fond of ice magic.

Also some hallucinogen inspired effects from 1974 and another style we thought ugly.

  • Open Sesame… or Not: To open a treasure chest a party member with a dagger and the unlock skill was necessary. Those are valuable weapon and skill slots. It became an unnecessary challenge. They do want us to get the prize, don’t they?
  • Unusual Environments: VH2 took us through many varied environments. We fought battles not only on open land, but on a train, a ship, and even a giant plane. However the actual affect on the battle these environments could have offered were not realized. These were not the train yard battle of Shining Force III.

The Bad:

  • Story: You want us to care, right?  It can be argued that there was not enough deep story to keep players engaged. It started off okay in our mind but quickly went downhill. Less arguable is that it was somber, slow, depressing and most critically, boring.
  • Characters: Bags of Dry Bones. The characters were dry. We felt no real sympathy for them, nor their slides to doom.

There was something a little “off” about the environments in regards to the scale. It was a little like “Land of the Giants.”

  • Tactical Change Up, or Lack Thereof: Interest is often maintained by creating new situations for your existing characters. Outside of bosses, the Dual Turn system and a few select situations, the game lacked.
  • Perhaps the Ugliest Portraits-Ever: Vandal Hearts one did not wow us with its character art direction. This game made us long for it. We were not thrilled by the digitized and modified photo likenesses.

Ugh. Can it not be done better? Who are those last two? Bono and Chuck Norris?

However, some good art was painted for various backgrounds.

  • Move Fest: The number in your party could reach the double digits, likewise the opposing force. That is a lot of units. Between sometimes distant starting positions and the Dual Turn System, it became a cavalcade of moves.
  • Boring Items: This is a more complicated issue considering items were used to delineate and empower the character roles. That issue aside, we found them to be snoozers. Remember the days when items were special?

  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want: You thought you could reach that treasure chest? You were wrong. Some sort of deformation spell is required. And honestly, even if retrieved, the contents are not going to be so great.
  • Serious Plot Point Multiple Endings: Not just the little stuff like romances or wrapping up the story of Fred the Blacksmith from level 17. No, life and death for major characters. 6 endings. We appreciated the customization, but branching was based on answers in seemingly casual conversations. At least the overall “war” was won and there is no total loser ending.

Final Thoughts:

We had too many Silvanus Windrunner cosplay pictures left over to not add this montage.

Despite the unusual Dual Turn System, this game was the first to dull our desire to play SRPGs. Quite a sad indictment coming from Play What You Like. It is not that the game was horrible, just that it got stale and let falter our will to stay engaged. A mediocre game that we knew was so right from the start would not be given that benefit of the doubt.

The Dual Turn System created tactical conundrums that enamored us for far too long. Eventually and thankfully the novelty wore off. After that, what was left proved insufficient to leave this game sitting well in our memories. Quality? Yes. Bold? Yes. A satisfying SRPG experience we would heartily recommend? Sadly, no.

When your game is part of a franchise, it is wise to build upon the previous entry. We felt no connection to the memorable first entry in this series. It is fine to go your own way as they did with the Dual Turn System, but in other ways either draw upon the connection to the previous game or start a new franchise.

Uh, are those giant, strange-looking rats? We need a cat.

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The Vandal Hearts Games:

Vandal Hearts [1997]

Vandal Hearts II [1999]

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment [2010]


Yu Yu Hakusho – Ghost Files: Tournament Tactics [2004] ANALYSIS

Platform: Gameboy Advance

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 90%, 28 Hours

We have not watched Yu Yu Hakusho. We know nothing about the franchise. Apparently it is quite popular and rather venerable. There is indeed no shortage of games based upon it. The list is surprisingly extensive digging all way back to the early 1990s. One of these many games happens to be an SRPG. Now it entered our territory and will be judged solely on its value in that regard.

We went into this game with very low expectations. In fact we believe this is the only SRPG Sensor Sweep Studios has made. They appear to be a studio whose repertoire is licensed titles. Yes they even did a Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi game. But we know what it is like to have to pay the bills as a company, and will not hold it against them.

With all that said you can imagine our surprise at finding out what a solid game this turned out to be. We did not say incredibly deep, but we did say solid. There are no deal breaking flaws, and the majority of the gameplay is built around solid mechanics. It is a rather pure SRPG experience that moves along quickly, not bogged down by excessive button presses, cut scenes or story.

As one might expect in a GBA game, the terrain is non-rotatable 2D with implied elevation. The game’s overall path is linear, with only minor order choice within sections. You can field up to five characters of your choosing as your roster grows to about twice that.

The Good:

  • Kurama is supposed to be, male?

    Face it: From which direction a unit is attacked makes a difference in damage and potentially dodging. While most high-end SRPGs include this mechanic, we were pleasantly surprised to see it here. Enemies did not dodge much or at all, so this mechanic was underutilized.

  • Death Matters-duh: while we prefer Final Fantasy styled phoenix down death, at least there was some consequence here. Characters who fall in battle gain no experience from it. Additionally if they are chosen for the next battle they start at only half power in both hit points and mana points.
  • Easy on the Controls: The button the economy of the control scheme was pleasantly lean. The menus were fast and shallow. An SRPG needs minimal inputs for its numerous repetitive actions. Here Yu Yu Hakusho succeeded with a pleasantly navigable game.

The worldmap above and the first two areas below.

  • Rare but Satisfying Counters: Counterattacks (melee only) occurred a small percentage of the time, and almost exclusively with your units. When they did happen, highlighted by a red exclamation point, it was surprisingly satisfying. They could never be counted upon.
  • Acting or Directing: There is flexibility in the choice of whether to move or act first. Regardless of which you do, the other is still open afterward. There are many games out there that will not let you move after you act, so don’t take this point lightly.

She’s so encouraging!

  • It’s Smarter Than It Looks: There are SRPGs that suffer from serious empty head syndrome. Yu Yu surprised us with a decent AI that was neither one-dimensional nor foolish. Enemy units concentrated their fire, withdrew when wounded and healed themselves. The AI successfully made us split the team at times when it was safer to stay together. Bravo.
  • Dodging an Attack or Just Hanging Out: The variously tailored idle animations for the characters were fun. We were especially fond of the individualized dodge animations. One character floated upward, one sat back down on the ground, and one seemed to fade out in horizontal teleport. It was entertaining.

A simple but visually pleasing background and-wait, isn’t that enemy an Ostro from Super Mario Bros.?

  • Taunting the Enemy: We did not expect to use the “taunt” command often, but during the course of the game it came in handy. Not very often, but when it was needed to take the heat off a wounded character we were grateful. Most nearby enemies reacted to taunts and only attacked that person.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • Taking the “Initiative:” Yu Yu used an action point system they called “initiative” to determine turn order. Heavy duty actions took more points leaving a unit to wait longer before acting again. Action point systems are fair, but this one could have been more transparent. One had to select a separate screen to see who had the next five turns. Additionally duplicate enemies like “Wolf” could not be identified individually.
  • Hiding in the Weeds: We did not expect a Gameboy Advance title to fade terrain objects like trees when they interfered with the view of a unit. We would think most similar titles avoid this by minimizing the occurrences altogether. Yu Yu did not fade such objects, and while occlusion did not happen often it was not unusual. It did not bother us much however, and in some cases even made enemy units seem sneaky when they hid.

  • A Slightly Opaque Role-Playing System: Experience in battle earned ability points spent in four different categories. Advancement in them determined available special attacks. However there was no way to tell the target levels you needed in order to achieve greater specials. Experience is precious and many times may have been spent inefficiently. We do not like reliance on FAQs.

  • You’re Leaving? As Capt. Kirk once said, “A no-win scenario is something everyone may have to face.” This game forced you into one which you may have frustratingly tried to win. We are of mixed opinion as such a scenario does add to the drama. However we were not pleased to lose a character in which we had spent much of our precious experience.
  • Three Squares a Day: Attacks that covered multiple grid squares were few, and they were introduced too late in the game. trying to match the patterns to enemy formations added tactical fund. But generally speaking the attacks were not powerful enough to warrant there cost in mana or action points.

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Self Contained Mana System

Units have a “Focus” menu that provides interesting additional action choices beyond physical attacks. Likewise they also take action point time. “Charge” is one of the Focus options. It fills a unit’s SE (Spirit Energy) meter, or what we are calling mana for the sake of consistency. As a unit develops spirit power the meter is filled to a greater extent with one charge action. See all four choices in the cap below:

Defend we thought practical, but in practice did not use it. Taunt is mentioned in “Good”. Mend and charge together made for an unusual but solid game mechanic. A dedicated healer was unnecessary. In fact, when one came along only her highest level, late game abilities were of real use. The drawback of course is that a fighting unit is spending turns charging, and turns mending. These are not turns spent damaging the enemy, and battles can get drawn out because of it.

The drawbacks of turns spent not fighting are highlighted in encounters featuring enemy generators. When time is of the essence you are spending it doing something else. Also, some units had no zero mana attacks, and were forced out of the action when empty. We suggest every character have at least one. Overall, we found the mechanic versatile and fun, but it did not foster team composition strategy. With every unit able to take care of themselves, specialties were superfluous.

This enemy generator battle was well laid out and a fun challenge. One down, and one still to go in the upper right.

Some games give you X amount of mana at the start of encounter. When it runs out it must be supplemented with items. Some games start you at zero and let your mana build up every turn. The self-sufficiency of this system was appreciated, and perhaps matches the IP, but its pros came with some cons.

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Mission Types

This encounter ended the game for us. A three generator map. The third still generating at the top. The enemies not only look like rabbits but they multiplied like them.

Yu Yu should have made encounters that required party numbers other than five. However the mission types upon which your team embarked had decent variety. The game in this area made wide use of its core mechanics by changing up the objectives:

  1. Destroy all enemies.
  2. Destroy all enemies as we beam in more through generators.
  3. Destroy all enemies within a time limit.
  4. Reach a destination in a time limit.
  5. Keep an enemy unit from reaching a destination.
  6. Timed floodgates.

If that last one sounds unclear it was to us too. With only a hint that the next encounter was different, we plunged into a multi generator map. Our units were being worn down and generators for the first time took no direct attack damage. We had to resort to a FAQ to get the answer (after some experimental time wasting and frustrating play), which means the game failed to explain properly.

Time limits are not our favorite thing, because they sometimes force you to sacrifice units. This game was generous with the time, but that undermined the significance of the mission type. Enemy generators are potentially great gameplay additions but are dangerous. Yu Yu used them well until the last section where numbers replaced better difficulty mechanisms.

There are no lifeguards posted on this beach. Fight at your own risk.

The Bad:

  • You Call That a Story?  Perhaps it makes more sense to those with knowledge of the show. For the rest of us it was simple, even understandable, but weird. Also the Yu Yu Hakusho universe was not well explained. We never felt any great or pressing need to find out more or beat this game.

Uh, that’s pretty much the story as told by this game.

  • Who’s Next? Turns by individual unit can add a whole dimension of strategic gameplay. Not only the actions of who is up need to be considered but those of the next few. Later games display turn order on screen to make it easier to incorporate into strategic thought. Here it was buried on a separate screen and was rarely important enough to check.
  • Take the High Road: The designers took advantage of obstacles like water, swamp, rocks and even holes in the land. However they failed to make significant use elevation. There seemed no advantage or disadvantage to it. Additionally climbing costs were onerous and fun-sucking. There was no joy in taking the high ground, nor any kind of archer class to take advantage of it.

  • Goofy Enemies: Once again, maybe this is an IP thing, but most of the enemies were not very intimidating or exciting. You met a few humans of like ability in the area end arenas, but most of the time the battle were against humanoid animals. Walking house cats and pony-ish looking wolves? Come on. This is not My Little Pony.

Are you kidding? We do not know who looks goofier, Rinku or that unicorn-horned Sesame Street lion.

  • Ramping: The difficulty level was generally too easy, except for the arenas (experienced only once per area). Aside from a few well designed maps, the designers did not make genuinely harder challenges. In the end they resorted to numerous enemy generators. That is a cop out, and a frustrating one.

One of the few arenas.

  • UNDERdrive: A special meter called “overdrive” filled upon successful attacks. It did not yield special overdrive attacks when full, but rather allowed you an extra powerful version of any regular attack. The powered versions were not so powerful. The whole overdrive system was underwhelming. Resources used, but potential unrealized.
  • Tune Out: Ugh. There were few music tracks. The little experienced was simple and repetitive. Do not tell us it is the platform. Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and others have made fine music on the GBA.

  • Useless Items: For the first half of the game the items restored so little health or spirit energy that they were not worth taking up one of your battle actions to use. Later in the game when you got better items your units progressed to the point where they can do much the same with the focus menu. Attack items were even more useless.
  • Occasional Inconsistency: Sometimes an enemy with a ranged attack of a certain strength could melee attack with significantly more. It was surprising and many times felt a cheap shot. There was a subtle undertone of inconsistency amongst certain attacks with the added variable of your unit’s vulnerabilities.
  • Friendly Fire: The unit dedicated to healing had that ability listed under the attack menu. Yes, under the ATTACK menu. You can see where this is going since that unit also had an attack under the attack menu. Ouch. Sorry.

The secrets at the top of the Dark Arena will remain hidden. Much like the Ark of the Covenant and Roswell Aliens, hidden in government warehouses.

Final Thoughts:

Just when we thought we were done with the Gameboy Advance category this little game appeared on our radar. It was not a diamond in the rough, but we are glad we played. It was an informative and educational experience for the self-contained mana system alone.

We still have no idea what Yu Yu Hakusho means. It wasn’t anybody’s name. We just have to chalk that one along with numerous other points to the fact that we don’t know what the anime is all about. However a game should endeavor to give players familiar and unfamiliar with the IP incentive to play. Yu Yu needed to do better on that front.

The art direction did not stand out enough to warrant laud or ding. Some characters did look of indeterminate sex. A “guy” who smells roses, uses a whip and throws some sort of flower bomb?

In a game of this type where you want the player to have investment in the characters, it is important to know for sure their sex. However this is likely not the game’s fault, but rather the IP. So is the fact that the cast was almost completely male… We think.

Look at all these, males?

Yu Yu succeeded in making a fluid battlefield where a lot of maneuvering was necessary. The game moved along well and was not sluggish. Until the end we did not have to grind for which we give the game props. However the problem of shallow gameplay was revealed at the end when they threw large numbers of enemies at your team to keep the challenge up.

The solid mechanics of Yu Yu Hakusho kept us playing for quite some time. But in the end monotonous play and lack of interest in the near nonexistent storyline did not warrant further investment. It is not a wast of time, but know what you are getting into.

But what about the romance?

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Front Mission 3 [2000] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team

Completion Level: Campaign Completed 55 Hours

Technology based SRPGs are not as common as those based in fantasy settings. So when one comes along, we want to enjoy it and wring out of it all the good gameplay we can. Some games feel as though they are thwarting you in this effort. Thankfully, Front Mission 3 was not one of them. Though you fight in big machines, within a vast vista of events, yet it does not veer too far from the personal stories of the participants.

Did we say “large machines”? While that is true, the correct Front Mission term would be “WANZERS”. That’s right, wanzers. That is what they call their large walking tanks. They come in a variety of configurations and pretty much take on the roles you might find in a fantasy-based SRPG. There are melee wanzers not unlike a heavily armored knight. There are ranged attack wanzers not unlike archers and mages. There are also repair wanzers similar in function to a healing cleric.

Front Mission 3 is a long game with a large cast. There are many environments on and off the battlefield, copious combat encounters, and a story whose scope is in the largest SRPG percentile. Made by Square, the quality experience will not leave you feeling gypped.

-

The game view puts you farther above the 3D, rotatable battlefield during combat than the average SRPG. Some reasons are the giant scale of the mechs- er, wanzers, and the number of grid squares some can traverse. The interface is smooth and understandable. Most anyone with fantasy SRPG experience should have no trouble picking this up.

The Good:

Okay. We could not find any Front Mission 3 cosplay. So since wanzers and larger machines in the game are like metal gears why not use the copious Meryl Silverburgh cosplay out there from the Metal Gear game series? Her position right under “Good” is fitting. (Also note her *tactical* gun positioning. What we in the biz call, “The Full Sabrina” from the original Charlie’s Angels.)
  • Storytelling Technique: The story was well told through a variety of devices. Considering it was so detailed and large, this was a good idea. The developers incorporated conversations during battle or when just hanging out in your wanzer. Also used were noncombat room choice/menu-based conversations, pre-rendered and game engine cut scenes.
  • Theater Major or Major Theater? The game engine cut scenes featured more than just the wanzers. Some involved lower polygon human characters in interior settings. It was ambitious and largely successful, especially for PlayStation.

Will this man get shot? Is Yun a hothead?

  • No Experience Required: We played this game carefully, and spread our experience around well. with good tactical decisions and some wise upgrading we needed to take no trips to the experience yielding simulator. In our opinion that is the sign of a well-ramped game. The difficulty was just right.
  • Pretty as a Portrait: the artwork used for the many, many characters you encounter was good and appealing. Much of the male artwork was interesting and the females easy to look at. Some appear to be homage to celebrity visages, but we will not ding them for that small percentage.

Normally we are not fans of diminished function when units are wounded. But it made sense for damaged wanzers and worked in this game.
  • Satisfying Impact: The special effects were decent, but when combined with good sound effects and cinematography they yielded a very satisfying combat experience. All game long, encounter after encounter they did not grow tiresome. Take a quick listen.

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  • Ejection: Taking It down a Notch: If desperate, or when there was a less damaged available wanzer nearby, a pilot could eject. Such a person was extremely vulnerable to wanzer fire. This mechanic allowed for certain story conditions requiring someone on foot. It also gave occasional opportunity to commandeer an enemy wanzer. Overall, a good tactical addition.
Quite the uh, variety of people types.
  • Colorful Squares: The colors and subtle grid outlining used to show move distances and weapons ranges were clear, helpful and easy on the eyes. One benefit of tech based SRPGs is the ability to use garish electronic color displays without them standing out of place.

 

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Humor and the Barilar Family

The overall tenor of Front Mission 3 was a little somber. And if they had not injected a little bit of humor we may have dinged this game for that. That humor came in the form of the unusual Barilar family. You encounter them fairly early on in the game during your Asian tour.

They are run by a kooky and eccentric patriarch. (He likes being called, “master”.) However he is quite the practical inventor. He builds a very earth friendly, easy to maintain, methane powered and a very uncool wanzer. Yes, it looked very much like a truck on legs.

Behold! The future of wanzers!

You end up in a situation where you are forced to fight this family, including the patriarchs to rather fetching daughters. We did not want to defeat him and were a little saddened afterwards. He dropped his bravado and bemoaned about why people were not buying his “wonder wanzer”.

Perhaps many of you like us could not help but feel sorry for the guy before things turned around for him.

However his son joins your crew and the resulting fame spurs interest in the uncool machines. By the end of the game the Barilar is happy with orders pouring in. This whole storyline was spread out and also used the game’s internal internet to feature some wacky ads. In a game sometimes verging on being depressing, this was a welcome an enjoyable respite.

Some images just caption themselves…


The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • International Perspective: The translation felt quite literal, and much of the Japanese supporting cultural aspects remained intact. However the game moved past any single nation’s perspective, and you embark upon a tour of Asia as a traveler. It worked for Front Mission, but that international flavor may not satisfy solely domestic tastes.

  • So Cliché: We are not sure of the original’s tenor, but much of the dialogue translated into English was rather colloquial (often said by the lead goober). The translators also included the very classic cliché, “It’s quiet. Too quiet.” we think this was done by choice and so will not ding them for it. It is up to you and your tolerance for clichés.
  • “Imaginary Numbers”: No, that’s not some witty bullet point title. That is the name of a group of enemy wanzer pilots. It struck us as funny at first, and we are not sure that is what the developers were going for. However it did make more sense later.
We did not care for being forced to defeat these sad, noble mercenaries.
  • The Interwebs- is Dull? Between battles within the menus of the game you had access to their world’s Internet. A good idea that fleshed out story and side story detail. However we found it rather uninteresting, and after perusing a number of dull pages gave up the practice altogether. Zzzzzz…

The Bad:

Kazuki: Game protagonist, and goober.
  • Lead Character is a Goober: It is one thing to have a nonstandard lead character. (The lead in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was very reluctant and just wanted the game to end.) However it can be taken too far. This guy was unlikable, hotheaded and childish. Even after 41 hours of playing, he had still not really grown on us.

  • Overzealous Non-Translation:  There is a time and place to leave in specific cultural flavor. However certain terms or place names that are too difficult pronounced and don’t serve any specific purpose need to be localized. Case in point was an unpronounceable city name, “HONMOKUFUTO”.
  • Too Much of a Good Thing: Story events, various room conversations, going to the shop to buy parts and modifying your wanzers all takes time. Sometimes what was required really piled up and it seemed too long in between combat.
Just your average bar with your average patrons…?
Here are some more pretty female portraits- and some guys(?) that look like girls…
  • Stalled Progression: While the game was fun, the execution took too long to introduce new story and gameplay elements. You can only string most players along for so much time.
  • Forcibly Ejected: While we like the ability to get out of a wanzer, it also comes with great responsibility. Certain weapons could randomly eject a pilot even though their wanzer was hardly damaged. The quick and sometimes inevitable result was pilot death and loss of the mission. These kinds of random acts were not fun.
“What the-! How did I get here? Please don’t… ah, nevermind, I’m done.”

Too Big for a Bullet Point: Multiple Paths and Morose Endings

This is a pet peeve of ours and we have talked about before, for example in games such as Riviera: The Promised Land. It can be done wrong in two major ways.

First there is branching content. We can tell you it is difficult to make a videogame, and that every development hour is precious. So it is one thing to offer conversation trees, and optional paths within a necessary environment. However it is another when cut scene and combat content is missed because you picked Debbie instead of Sally at the beginning of the game as was the case here.

There is room for experience customization. However it should not come at the expense of development hours on critical systems, needlessly shortchanging players of fun content, or in any way diluting the main story arc. Additionally, particular to this game, we nor another player we talked to even perceived the fork point at the beginning of the game.


The second major way is multiple endings. Barf. Once again, if you did not talk to the flower girl on level 3 and paid her 57 shekels for a daisy and then take that flower… You get the idea. Multiple endings are a really good thing if they add player choice character content. If you work hard to get to particular game characters into a optional romantic relationship, that is the kind of thing you want added to the ending.

What you don’t want is six different endings, and only one good. If a player works hard and completes the game, they are owed a good ending and satisfying resolution of the main story arc. Period.

Thanks for the newsflash brainiac!


Final Thoughts:

Celebrity look-a-like time! Let’s see: Angelina Jolie, Bruce Lee, Chun Li (from Street Fighter), and …Colonel Sanders from KFC?

There is no doubt that Front Mission is a successful SRPG franchise, and not just a successful tech-based one. After all multiple entry SRPG series are few. While one could argue that the genre is generally more popular in Japan, the tech aspect can garner additional interest on American shores.

We thought this man-made island city was a cool an interesting idea.

We were pleasantly surprised in the incorporation of so much melee. In a world of ranged weapons, this aspect was too powerful to be ignored. It brought a final pleasing dimension to Front Mission combat. The clanking sound of metal hitting metal made the game experience more real.

Who would have thought there would be so much Meryl Silverburgh cosplay? Perhaps the easiness of the costume helped. It added some cosplay spice to this analysis.

There are a lot of reasons to try Front Mission 3. Its strengths and unique personality will leave more of an impression on you than any drawback. There are definitely depths to be plumbed for those interested in such pursuits. However the game can still be one with a more shallow but still customized path.

Maybe you call them “mechs”. Maybe you call them “giant robots” or even “metal gears”. Surely after you play this game there will be another word you will recognize for these giant battle machines: WANZERS. It still cracks us up to say it.

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Front Mission SRPGs:

Front Mission 3 (PSone)

Front Mission 4 (PS2)

Yu-Gi-Oh! Capsule Monster Coliseum [2004] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation 2

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team

Completion Level: Campaign 80%* 14 Hours

We were pleased that Yu-Gi-Oh! Capsule Monster Coliseum (Y:CMC) met our minimum requirements for a strategy role-playing game. Why you may ask? Because it is fun when a well-known intellectual property drops in on our favorite genre. Also, truth to be told, this may be our only chance to use gobs of Yu-Gi-Oh cosplay!

When we said “gobs”, we meant it. Look, it’s the whole gang!

For those into collectible card battling, some Yu-Gi-Oh games may offer a fun experience. We do not mind a strategy RPG whose combat his card-based. For example we enjoyed Culdcept. However Y:CMC is not a collectible card game playing experience, nor card-based combat. We could describe it as Culdcept meets Pokémon meets chess.

The human characters from the show command from the sidelines as creatures based on the intellectual property’s cards enter into combat. The camera looks down upon a 3-D rotatable battlefield environment. Movement and attack are grid based with highlighted squares.

* Our asterisk regarding the completion of the campaign regards seeing most of the environments and all the characters. There are five arenas with five combat environments and five opponents within each. Hoverer the game requires multiple victories in order to win some of the most well known card creatures.

The Good:

  • Friends to Enemies: While there was no real story there was a progression that helped and made sense. First you played against your friend’s, and then your rivals, and finally your enemies.
  • Decent Music: We know what you might be thinking; “If it is only ‘decent’, why include it in the ‘Good’ section?” Well, it is easy to go wrong with SRPG music. Even quality music can get dinged if there is not enough of it and repetition becomes irksome. The music never bothered us, and sometimes we noticed it was quite good and/or dramatic.
  • Spitting Images: The human character artwork was very much in keeping with that of the TV show. The characters looked good, and some cases like Ishizu below, very good.

  • 4Kids Original Voices: We cannot overemphasize use of the interesting, fun and quality voice cast from the TV show. (The nonexistent story and fourth tier monsters did not keep us playing this game.) Not just the main characters either. All were voiced by the original actor, including the many, many minor characters. (Kaiba’s voice is such fun.)
  • Cast Party: Every character from the intellectual property that you can name was in this game. No one was left out, and that is saying something. Even characters like Marik and Bakura with dual personalities had both featured. And there was fun with even the third tier characters like Rex Raptor and Weevil Underwood.

Even minor YuGiOh characters get cosplayed. (Nice job with that jacket on the upper left.)

  • Force Structure: You entered into battle with your creatures of choice under a “MP” point limitation. It allowed for flexibility. With a limit of 100 you could bring in two 50 point monsters or one 100 point monster or any other combination. We want to see more of this mechanic in other game’s campaigns and especially head-to-head modes.
  • Pretty Places- Except When They’re Ugly: The combat environments were for the most part pretty. The textures were good and richness was increased with active touches. There were animated signs, fish swimming in nearby pools, plus smoke and electrical effects. Some of the environments were ugly, but we think it was by design.

This environment was not exactly pretty, although it did have animated signs. But what did it have to do with Tea Gardner?

  • Death Means (at least) Something: A game quickly loses buy in when loss of a character means nothing more than them leaving this one battle. Thankfully this game added some consequence to character loss. You are not able to use fallen monsters in your next battle. It made us think twice about who we would pick and was welcome incentive. Would that more SRPGs incorporated something like this.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

You get to duel Pegasus twice. The owner of the Millennium Eye, inventor of Duel Monsters, and bad guy turned good(ish) guy. Oh stop grovelling Kaiba!

  • Starting on a (almost) Strong Note: The opening cut scene was computer-generated and simple, and only partially dated. It did not show the characters nor clarify any story, however after playing the game we understood why. It was different in a good way and of decent quality. We give the game props for not taking the easy way out, especially with this IP, and making an anime opening.
  • Can the Talk: We like that the Pharoah and his opponent would engage in banter during battle. However it was not extensive nor, was there sufficient scripting control. when a line is said can make all the difference. After the first hit of a match we do not think the Pharaoh should be saying, “I’m not defeated yet!”

  • Not so Special Abilities: Aside from the straight combat attack, a few characters had special abilities. Not many however, at least to the halfway point of the game. the abilities were not worth much, and you are almost always better off just attacking. These abilities should have been brought in sooner and made of more value.such
  • Down in Front: There should not be any PlayStation 2 games that do not fade out environmental objects when they are between the camera and the focus area. This game did fade them, yet we still found the environment working against us. At times it somehow still obscured the action, and often made tactical maneuvers more difficult.

Where am I?

  • …Those Tactical Maneuvers: It was difficult in some environments to determine where creature move and attack squares were. Some of them operated in nonstandard ways, jumping to a square a number of spaces away. Good for different tactics, but more effort to make work than it should have been on certain maps.

  • Attributes? What attributes? Creatures had good and bad affinities regarding terrain and opponent types. We appreciate the depth, however the execution was dismal. All these attribute results added up to next to nothing and in our opinion were a waste of time for both developers and players.

Huh?!

That makes one of us…

  • Yu-Gi-Oh In Space: Many of the environments were pretty, but few made a lot of sense to us. most of the time there was not a good connection between your opponent and their host environment. One time we ended up in outer space. It did not make sense.

Wha? Where is… What does this have to do with Duke Devlin…?

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Dynamically Changing Environments

This is a big deal to us. It is a mechanic we strongly recommend to developers of SRPGs. Incorporating this element well can change a standard battle into a memorable confrontation. So we were initially pleased to see this mechanic used to some extent here.

it was not that the idea spotlight the dynamic changes were bad either. Rising water, poisoned mist and electrical discharges are all good ideas. Some made sense, but some did not. Also, it is hard to plan for something if it is a surprise. If the game requires you to make tactical decisions based on an environmental change you kind of need to know that it’s going to happen. And while the snow was pretty, what difference did it make exactly when it started?

On one rocky, coastal environment they had a good idea of raising a wrecked ship into the middle of the battlefield. While that was a surprise it seemed evenhanded and was welcomed. However on another occasion when panels suddenly and without warning opened beneath creatures causing them damage, we raised our hands in quizzical dismay.

You will see six of the seven Millennium Items. Yugi and his Millennium Puzzle, Ishizu and her Millennium Necklace, Marik and his Millennium Rod, Bakura and his Millennium Ring, Shadi and his Millennium Key, along with Pegasus and his Millennium Eye (above).

The Bad:

  • Battle Animations…  When two creatures engaged in battle, you were taken to a separate screen where game engine versions of their likeness blasted each other. The animations were just okay, and really not interesting nor quick enough to leave on. We normally have more tolerance for such things, but turned them off before the end of the first battle.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh Monsters are Not Pokémon: while creatures wore different appearances they pretty much all hit with and within a range of damage points. Pokémon have kinds of attacks that separate them. That was generally not the case here. So cute little Kuribo hit as hard as some nasty looking monster.
  • Rock Paper Scissors Fail: Also like Pokémon, certain creatures were supposed to be more vulnerable or effective against other types. That whole thing could have been dropped with zero effect on our playing experience.

“Dungeon Dice Monsters!” It’s fun to say. (Apparently Duke Devlin is a fan favorite.)

 

  • Slogging: A PlayStation 2 game has enough horsepower to not be slow and sluggish with every command. Believe us, 1 million half seconds add up fast. That quickly drains goodwill you have for a game.
  • Can You Connect With a Statue? With animations turned off, there is just no connection with your troop. On the battlefield all your monsters are represented by dull, static statues. Zzzzzzzzz….
  • Capsule Launching: There was just no fun reason to place creatures in an egg-like capsule at the start of every battle. It took a number of turns using up your limited action points just to hatch them. A waste of time and patience.

Enough with the eggs!

  • Three-dimensional Chess… Minus 2 Dimensions: With special attacks making no difference to the gameplay even halfway through the campaign, you were just left with hitting hard, hitting fast, and hitting first. The attrition strategy was shallow and mostly required you to keep your guys together and gang up on the enemy one by one.
  • No Star Power: We know original series Yu-Gi-Oh creatures pretty well. Aside from Karibo, we encountered none of the big-names. No Dark Magician. No Blue-Eyes White Dragon. It was like starting a football game without your star quarterback. Having to play through multiple times in order to get them rots.

Think Dark Magician, Dark Magician Girl and Dark Magical Valkyrie are cool? We do. Do not expect to see them without multiple play-throughs…

  • Button Economy Fail: The game was already sluggish, so adding unnecessary button presses for common actions only magnified the problem. Why are you asking me if I want to level up a creature? Is there any reason not to?
Suggestion:

When creatures level up during battle, restore their hit points and abilities. That may have helped it feel less empty.

  • What’s My Motivation? While the TV series may sometimes stretch its story, the arc is pivotal. Little Yugi and his friends inevitably get involved in saving the world. The stakes are always higher than just a tournament. There was no such story or motivation in this game except becoming the “King of Capsule Monsters”. Ugh…

Final Thoughts:

Never has the fun and excitement of Yu-Gi-Oh been so dull. Yawn. Thankfully, the character of the series is not in the monsters but in the characters. If not for them and the really good voice work there would have been little reason to stick with this story-less experience. Honestly, if you’re going to go through all the trouble to get the entire- ENTIRE voice cast you might want to spend a little time giving this game a little story.

Mai Valentine, Ishizu Ishtar and Tea Gardner.

There are about 600 Yu-Gi-Oh games, most of which fall into the puzzle category with a few being strategy. Their quality varies, and some if you believe the reviews, are quite awful. We can attest to having played “Yu-Gi-Oh: Duelists of the Roses”. It was indeed a… subpar experience. Capsule Monster Coliseum barely met our SRPG criteria, so we did not want to judge it as if it were Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. However it was not as if the developers were incapable of hitting the mark. We saw a lot of potential here… just not realized.

If you are a big fan of collectible card games, this game is probably not for you. If you are a big fan of the SRPG genre and are looking for a solid gameplay experience in that category, this game is also probably not for you. Nor do we think it will be very satisfying to Pokémon gameplay fans. So who is this game for? Perhaps those who really like the characters and are fans of the IP. We certainly enjoyed it seeing and hearing all the minor characters. It is really the only thing that kept us playing.

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Bonus Picture:

Extreme cosplay! YuGiOh episodes 60-62 featured another wielder of Yugi’s favorite Dark Magician card. Arcana had the red “bad” version- and a goofy mask. It was a great battle featuring most of the characters pictured above. Well done “Arcana” and fellow dedicated cosplayers.