Hearthstone Beta Impressions

Having luckily got into the beta a few days ago and dumped a fairly sizable amount of time into the new Blizzard CCG, Hearthstone, I decided I would settle down and write up my impressions of it.

Hearthstone is Blizzard's new free to play CCG, based off the World of Warcraft franchise, aimed at being very accessible to a wide audience. It's a game that isn't without it's depth, but it also isn't nearly as involved as the existing WoW TCG or Magic: The Gathering.

The gameplay will be familiar to anybody who has played a CCG before, two players take turns drawing and playing cards in an attempt to whittle their opponent's health down to zero. There is no resource management like in the WoW TCG or M:tG, your available mana pool simply grows by 1 each turn. If you have an 8 cost card in your hand, then you can play that on turn 8 at the earliest, generally. The exception to this are Druid decks which have some ways to gain additional mana. Similar to the WoW TCG, it is possible to equip your hero with weapons, which let them directly attack other minions, or armour, which reduces the amount of damage your hero takes from an attack. Minions are summonable creatures that can freely attack ANY target on the board, and retain damage between turns. Additionally, every hero has their own unique hero power that costs 2-mana and can be used every turn. For example, the Mage can spend 2 mana to do 1 damage to anything on the board. Currently the gameplay seems very minion-focused, as they are just way more cost-effective in most cases than focusing on abilities or direct damage from your hero.

Decks consist of 30 cards, with at most 2 of any 1 card in the deck. You first select your class and hero, there are currently 9 classes and one hero for each of them, before building your deck. Each class has a series of class-specific minions or abilities they can draw from, as well as a neutral minion pool that anybody can draw from. Blizzard has done a good job of making each class feel like there is a play-style attached, with certain card mechanics appearing only on certain class cards. Rogues, for example, often have cards that have a Combo effect. If the Combo card is played after another card, it gets a bonus effect. This makes it important to have lots of very low cost cards in Rogue decks that you can use to activate the combo bonus on your bigger cards. Druid cards often give you a choice between different effects, while Warlock cards often hurt yourself to get a powerful minion out at a cheap cost.

There are currently three ways to unlock cards for your deck in the game. "Basic" cards are earned naturally just by leveling your hero of choice to level 10. This doesn't take very long at all and should give you a good array of cards for the class. "Expert" cards have to be earned either by booster packs, which can be obtained for real money or in-game currency, or using the game's card crafting system which I will explain later.

There are currently three game modes in the beta, Play, Practice, and Arena. Play is exactly what you would expect, it allows you to take your custom built decks into a duel with another player that is decided via a quick match mechanic, either ranked or unranked. Practice modes lets you test your decks versus an AI, as well as level up each hero to a max of 10, anything further requires playing against real people. Finally Arena mode is a draft mode that will have you crafting a deck from a series of choices and then taking it against other players who have done the same. In this mode, you will earn bigger and bigger prizes, such as booster packs, for every victory. However, after three losses your deck is retired and you cash out. This mode is a ton of fun, but it is worth noting that it takes either in-game gold (150) or real money to enter the Arena, so it behooves you to try to get the most out of each arena run before your deck gets retired.

As far as the free to play hooks and currencies, it's fairly simple. Booster packs can be purchased for 100 gold in game, or for real money (It's around like a $1 for a pack if I remember correctly). Arena matches are $2 or 150 gold to enter into. A unique mechanic is that you can break down any cards you don't want into arcane dust, also obtainable from Arena matches, which can be used to craft specific cards that you do want. This means that if there is one card you really want, you don't have to dump $100 into booster packs hoping to get it. They don't seem exceptionally cheap though, especially legendary rarity cards. Gold doesn't seem TOO scarce, there are quests you can every day to earn some gold, and playing matches in the Play mode will earn gold as well.

Overall, I am really digging the game. There are a series of different board environments that have pretty neat interactive elements. My personal favourite is the Orgrimmar board that lets you load and fire a catapult. The animations are fantastic and everything looks really great, whether it is the card animations, the interactive board environments, or the opening of booster packs.

The gameplay, right now, is a bit on the simple side. It's nowhere near as complicated as even the existing physical WoW TCG, and that's a shame. I'd love for them to add more variety in heroes as well as possible decks. In the WoW TCG it was possible to have hero-decks that really never used any minions at all, and that just doesn't seem possible in Hearthstone, even burn decks are going to be running a lot of minions. I've been running a Rogue Creature Removal deck that is incredibly effective just because I know every opponent HAS to run minions.

The arena mode is a ton of fun, it's unfortunate that it is gated behind a paywall, even if you can use in-game gold for it. If you're good though, you can win more booster packs from Arena than you can purchase with the same amount of gold, so it's a good investment.

If you get a chance to check it out, I recommend it, it's a very polished if simple CCG. It has a lot of potential in the future if they continue to add to it, adding different types of heroes with different hero powers for each class, and maybe more variety in the cards you can make.

If people are interested, I may do some videos of it as well.

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Playstation Vita Hands-On Impressions

Disclaimer: This is written from a Japanese use-case scenario. 3G/Near/App experiences may vary for European or US launches. For those interested in importing one, all the UI elements can be set to a variety of languages.

So after a couple weeks with my 3G Vita, I feel I have had enough hands-on time with the device to offer some initial impressions of the device: where it succeeds or falters, what unexpected surprises it had for me, and some hands on time with a few games I've managed to have the time to play on it. This will be a lengthy post, so feel free to skip to the sections you may be interested in.

Hardware

Probably the area that needs the least explanation, all the hardware specs have been available for people to pore over for quite some time, so I won't go into specifics of every feature that the Vita hardware offers. The actual device is a fair bit larger than a standard PSP, and won't easily fit in a pocket, but does fit very comfortably in your hands with notable soft grips on both sides. The touch-screens on both the front and back are smooth and glossy, which makes them very victim to picking up fingerprints, I recommend screen protectors on both sides (which are already available). The new analog sticks are really responsive and comfortable, way way better than the sticks that were on the original PSP. The entire device feels very smooth, light, and comfortable even if it's larger than previous PSP incarnations.

The screen is absolutely fantastic, everything looks really crisp and vibrant on it (it's several times the resolution of the PSP screen), and it gets very bright at maximum brightness settings. If you are using the device on the go, you won't be using it at that max brightness though, but the screen seems to hold up relatively well. This may actually become my goto portable video device when I don't have my iPad handy, things look just that good on it. Hardware-wise, this is probably the highlight of the entire device.

The battery life, while it could certainly last longer for my tastes, isn't quite as bad as I was worried about. My usual use-case scenario (3G on, 3/4 brightness, 1/4 sound) seems to get me just under 5 hours of battery life. The device can charge from empty to full in just over two hours, which is actually pretty nice. Nicest part about the battery is that should the battery die, the system will suspend itself so that you won't lose any playtime at all, the system will pick up your game exactly where it left off.

The touchpads...well, they work just fine. Just like you'd expect from any modern smartphone or tablet type device, I haven't had any issues with the touch at all. I haven't played a whole lot of games using these input mechanisms, because I am not that infatuated with touch controls for games, but they work for navigating the interface just fine. The back touchpad takes some getting used to, since you are using a touch screen that you can't actually see, but it's been put to some pretty creative uses in some games. I'm not sold on touchpads or gyroscopic controls at all yet, otherwise I'd probably be doing all my gaming on iOS devices.

The cameras suck, you're not going to ever want to use this device for taking pictures or anything like serious video work. They are there for AR type games and other novelties, which they manage fine, not any kind of serious photography. This probably doesn't come as any kind of shock, and if you were planning to buy this device for photography, you will want to look elsewhere.

Internet connectivity works great, both on 3G and Wifi. 3G speeds seem comparable, if not faster, than on my iPhone (likely due to it being on a better cell carrier here in Japan). This is going to vary greatly based on your carrier though, so take into account what service provider is carrying the Vita in your region before you get the 3G model. It picks up my house wifi with no real problems in configuration, and actually seems to get a better signal than my PS3 on the other side of my room.

All internal storage is performed using Sony's proprietary memory sticks, which are in short supply here in Japan right now. It's a bit unfortunate they don't use more standard formats, as memory sticks ARE more expensive than formats like SD cards. All games currently run between 500 MB and 3GB, so take that into account when planning your storage solutions.

Vita Software and Apps

Next up is the Vita software and UI itself, which is something readers are going to have far less experience with. The UI itself is designed entirely around touch, and you are going to have to use the touchscreen to navigate the Vita UI, even if you intend to only use analog controls within games. It's a very intuitive and simple interface for anyone that's used to touch-screen controls, and actually contains a pretty cool mini game collection/tutorial (called Welcome Park) that introduces you to all the Vita software has to offer. Interestingly enough, you can even get trophies by completing this tutorial.

The main screen you'll see is very reminiscent of an iOS or Android device, with a grid of bubble like icons that displays all installed games, options, and apps. Flipping through the different screens full of apps is done just like you would on any smartphone device. Tapping one of these bubbles will expand into a menu for the game or the app, with the ability to launch the game, visit the game's website, launch directly into multiplayer, or expand the array of options for settings or network functionality. It's all pretty intuitive, and anyone that has used a touch device before will feel perfectly at home navigating the main UI of the Vita. The Store shares similar touch UI elements, and is pretty easy to navigate, which is good as that is where you will probably be downloading just about all your games.

The web browser included with the Vita is...sufficient. It's not a device you'll want to do extensive browsing on because it renders pages incredibly slow, I have no idea why. The on-screen touch keyboard is actually really solid, so it makes the browsing a bit less painful, but I don't find myself ever using the browser except to launch specific game sites (which I usually launch directly from the game app menu). The included niconico app that ties to the niconico website (it's like a Japanese youtube) works MUCH smoother than the browser, and is actually quite a pleasant experience. The twitter app is actually really nice, reminding me quite a bit of the Twitter app for the iPad, which is a really good thing. Since I have a 3G model, I find myself swiping over from a game I am playing to check on twitter without having to pull my phone out of my pocket. Other apps include the usual bevy of movie player, music player, and photo manager. All sufficient, nothing really incredible here.

Near rounds out the suite of apps included on the Vita, and is perhaps the most significant. I'll write an entire blog post on this later, because there's actually a ton to talk about within Near, but it's essentially a geographic social network for the Vita (similar to what you may experience from a 3DS street pass) that will show you what anybody near you with a Vita is playing, their PSN info, and more. At the time of this writing, I can see that within less than a KM of my location there are over 30 people playing Minna no Golf. Some games like Katamari even automatically share gifts between players that are playing katamari within a certain radius of each other. For privacy concerns, of course all these features can be turned off/on as you desire.

The Vita also supports cross-game chats/party chats, and batch group messaging. These all work great, and it really makes me wonder WHY Sony hasn't added this to the PS3 yet, since they'd be very welcome features there. Since you will be on a unified PSN, this means that you can message your friends that are playing on their PS3s, see what games they are playing, etc. There is trophy support on the Vita too, for those who were unaware.

There IS a huge problem with the current iteration of the Vita software, though it's only going to be a big issue for a very small percentage of the population. You can only have ONE PSN account tied to your Vita at a time, which makes it more of a personal device than something you can share between multiple people. As somebody who has both a Japanese PSN account and a US PSN account, I have to decide which account I want active on my PSN. Anytime I want to switch accounts on my PSN, i actually have to wipe the Vita and log into an entirely new account. I have no idea why Sony does this, but it's extremely frustrating for those of us that have multiple PSN accounts. If you have multiple memory sticks, a semi-workaround exists where you just store all your US data on one and all your Japanese on the other, and switch back and forth. Be very aware of this issue before you buy your Vita though and expect to set up multiple accounts on it.

The Games

I haven't got a chance to play everything out there yet, there's a pretty significant library of games available at launch. There's a handful of games I've really had much playtime with. These are of course, what matters most when it comes to the system.

Minna no Golf 6: The most popular Vita game in Japan right now, for a very good reason. Known as Hot Shots Golf in the West, this game is a ton of fun. It uses a wide range of the Vita features, from motion controls to touch pad to network connectivity. I don't even like golf particularly much, but the game is such a fun full-featured package that I couldn't help but jump on the bandwagon and tee off.

Uncharted: The Golden Abyss: I can't say a whole lot about this title except that it feels amazingly like a proper PS3 Uncharted game, which is quite the accomplishment. All of Drake's personality and witty remarks are here in full force, with characters that seem like they came right out of Naughty Dog's studios. Production values are astounding, screenshots don't do this game justice until you can actually see it on the Vita's screen. The analog controls are really tight for both shooting and platforming, and never really seemed to get into my way. There are optional touch controls for platforming elements, but you can forsake them for analog controls if you prefer, so I never really used them. A few points in the game require you to use the touchpads for certain puzzle-solving elements, but these parts are few and far between and work well enough that they never really bothered me that much.

Blazblue Continuum Shift Extend: A portable version of one of my favourite fighting games, this game is basically identical in every way to the arcade version of Continuum Shift. The game looks gorgeous, animates beautifully, and controls really well. The game does offer touch support, but I really can't recommend playing such a twitch-based fighting game with touch controls, it just doesn't work. I'd recommend using the very comfortable d-pad for input, though the analog sticks do work reasonably well if that is your preference.

Disgaea 3, Lords of Apocalypse, Ridge Raiser, and Army Corps of Hell are on my list to pick up, but I haven't had the time to get them yet.

Overall Impressions

The Vita is a really impressive machine backed up by some great software. It's not going to convert somebody from hating portable games into a believer, but it's a pretty solid update for people who already greatly enjoyed the suite of games that the PSP offered. Enhanced network capability, hardware, and social features really make this a much more advanced system than its predecessor. There are a few design choices that I do not understand at all, such as Sony's insistence on limiting each Vita to a single PSN account, but these can always be rectified in a later update. Hopefully this will happen by the time of a US release.

If I left anything out that you are interested in, by all means ask and I will be happy to try to answer any questions. I could write a ton more on about any subject here, but I wasn't sure what areas people were interested in specifically. I'll be trying to get some more game time in with a wider variety of games (Gravity Rush Demo!) and can answer some questions about those too.

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On the future of JRPGs

Would love there to be a JRPG forum for this, oh well.  It's a topic that has been brought up several times I know, but maybe this is a slightly different outlook.  Flames are fine too if you hate it that much, doesn't bother me ^^. 

So having recently moved back to Japan, I've been dabbling back into the Japanese game industry in assorted forms, largely JRPGs (as they were my first love of gaming.  In Japan, there seem to be two major categories of JRPGs these days.   
 
1) The Classic - Most often seen on portable systems like the DS and PSP, these are your basic tried and true JRPG formula.  Often with some anime inspirations, they don't do anything out of the norm that you haven't seen since the early days of Final Fantasy.  Often they seek to appeal to nostalgia for the 'good old days' of JRPGs.  Dragon Quest also seems to be part of this category, even though it exists outside the standard portable formula. 
 
2) The Experimental - Think of the recent Final Fantasy games, maybe even White Knight Chronicles or Resonance of Fate.  Basically these are your games that may take a JRPG narrative style but seek to introduce really unique gameplay mechanics.  Sometimes they are great (streamlined FFXIII battle system) and sometimes they are a bit more of a miss (Resonance of Fate's...well, whatever it's combat is).  This seems to be the general trend for the console RPG. 
 
It almost has reached a point where the two have become their own genre, as there are many people that have hated games like FFXIII specifically for being too experimental.  On the other hand, there is fair criticism to be made of the classical style of JRPGs, as they don't really innovate or bring anything new to the table that we haven't seen thousands of times before.  Personally I am much more a fan of the experimental style, as even when it misses it is seeking to push the genre forward.  Yet at the same time, making games like this seems to be alienating a fair bit of the JRPG fanbase. 
 
The question remains, should the genre attempt to innovate at the risk of alienating its base, or should it stick to the classical style even if it runs the risk of becoming stale.  Is there a happy medium?   
 
Note: No comparisons to WRPG are necessary, it's an entirely different genre as far as I am concerned with a totally different set of pros and cons.

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