Recently Played: Valkyria Chronicles

My roommate introduced me to Valkyria Chronicles when it first came out a few years ago. I got about halfway through before stopping on account that I had a nasty habit of beating his games before he did. But I really enjoyed my time with it. I think it's what Advance Wars should have been if when it was brought to a console, although Valkyria Chronicles is more like a crossover of Advance Wars and Fire Emblem as you fight in a faux World War II with a squad of quirky characters.

Also, if you looked at the box art by now you can probably tell it's got all the hallmarks of anime, for better or worse. I got it for less than twenty bucks, which means I made a killing because I had a great time leading my squad to victory over and over again.

Valkyria Chronicles (Advance World War II Wars: The Game)

That Lady up top is Trouble

I was somewhat tempted to turn this into a Past Expiration (where I talk about lesser known games) but the Valkyria Chronicles series is still kicking around on the PSP. The PS3 debut, however, didn't sell very well which probably prompted them to move the franchise to a handheld. The Valkyria Chronicles I played is a turn based strategy game with action elements and a small (very tiny) dash of cover based shooting. You have a team of guys and gals that you assemble yourself (plus a few regulars who play into the story) and move them one at a time around a battlefield taking shots at enemies, healing allies, and taking cover behind sandbags. You also get to use a few tanks that make a big splash with mounted machine guns, mortar rounds, and the all important tank cannon. Later on you get other fun things like Flamethrowers (tank mounted ones!) Gatling guns and grenade launchers. This game has crazy customization (from weapons to personnel), which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.

Somehow, this sounds Vaguely Familiar...

The story pulls heavily from World War II, mainly the European Theater, but is more of a fantasy version with different countries and technology. You can still draw a lot of similarities what with fancy military uniforms and some major events like a people persecuted to the point they're rounded up for labor camps and executed when they outlive their usefulness. But the fictional spin is less with avoiding stepping on toes and more about getting away with some spectacular scenes by the end game. Like a massive land battleship that can plow through front lines, gates and castles like it's no big deal. This game has an awesome collection of over sized tanks and cannons you couldn't get away with in a traditional World War II setting. Another point is that you don't play as any of the major sides. Instead you focus on a small independent nation caught in the middle of the conflict known as Gallia. To take it further, you don't even play as a the main military. Your team is an old tank and bunch of scrappy volunteers that make up Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia.

They also have Physics. Yeah...

Considering the anime styling of this game, it should come at no surprise that there is plenty of melodrama, relationships, and ladies with guns. But extremely skilled ladies. You can find women filling the roles of everything from captains, ace snipers, anti-tank units, and shocktroopers armed with submachine guns. You can make your entire squad women if you want to take it that far. It's not as creepy as it sounds, and characterization does hit about even. For example, on one hand you have Yoko, a middle aged mother who joined up to protect her kids. And on the other hand you have an enemy commander Selvaria, a woman with comically over sized breasts who wields a light machine gun when she isn't blasting your army with ancient artifacts. She would probably be a good character if her design wasn't so terrible. Also, female scouts and shocktroopers wear skirts instead of pants.

But the story is decent, but it probably won't melt anyone's heart. And lets not forget the most important lesson of all- War is bad.

Engaging the Enemy

I wish Giant Bomb had a page for the action gauge. The heart of this game is the strategy and that plays a huge part. Most missions are taken on with a team of 8 or 9 soldiers (plus your tank), but you'll always have 30 or so in reserve if you need reinforcements or your soldiers get killed. That's right. Valkyria Chronicles has permanent death, Fire Emblem style, for characters who aren't critical to the story. If you don't rescue them by 3 turns or an enemy gets to them first, they're gone forever. It's in the best interest that you deploy a well balanced force, as you have five different classes to pull from. Scouts have the largest gauge so they can move all over the map but don't take many hits. Shocktroopers do the dirty work, with submachine guns and decent health. Lancers are your anti-tank soldiers with rocket launchers, but they're unwieldy things and almost never hit people. Engineers are your medics, they can also fix tanks and barriers. Lastly, snipers hang back and shoot from far away (mostly because they have tiny gauges and can't move very far). Winning battles gets you experience, and you can spend it to level up an entire class. This is really nice, so you can swap out soldiers left and right without anyone falling behind.

Oh God, Please Hit this Time!

They nearly have a rock-paper-scissors balance that reminds me of Advance Wars... but due to the mechanics of aiming and shooting. Any class can take out another class if they have a good angle and plenty of luck. It's just usually not a good idea to send a Scout up against Shocktroopers, Engineers against Lancers, etc. Once you aim you have all the time in the world to pull the trigger. Enemy units only shoot at you while you're moving... so the rest is up to the dice rolls behind the scenes. And that's one of the unfortunate parts of this game when starting out new. At the beginning, your militia has zero training and really crappy weapons so completely missing targets is very common. This is especially bad for snipers who will seem, at first, like the worst marksmen in the ENTIRE WORLD... until you buy them better rifles and level them up until they're killing every target in one, clean head shot. That also goes for the other classes, but not as bad since they have machine guns and grenades to pick up the slack.

For that reason, I understand if someone couldn't get into this game. It's kinda frustrating until you level up your squad and get better equipment.

There's also a point system in place for battles that you spend to move your forces around. Troops use one, while tanks use two. When you run out of points, your turn is over until you get new ones the next time around. You can also end turns early and save up points, but that's not really a good idea until later when you get Special Orders that work a lot like CO Powers from Advance Wars. You learn them throughout the game that allow you to do things like boost offense or defense, heal your squad, or call in mortar or artillery strikes. The offensive ones are crazy expensive though, so they're more entertaining than practical. The Artillery Strike hits every enemy on the field... but it's six stars. You could move your tank three times. Or six soldiers with that amount. The best ones I found were the orders that can rescue wounded troops without risking another soldier to save them.

It's like a Book. Hard.

Rattatattattattata. Bang

Usually I don't worry about graphics. I'm not that picky. But Valkyria Chronicles does go for some visuals that work toward other objectives than looking pretty. The events of the game are told like a history lesson out of a book. Chapters and menus are like turning pages with graphics that take on a cell-shaded color penciled look. It's a lot like watching an illustration in motion with sound effects popping up comic book style for explosions, tank engines, and gunshots. Characters are very bright and vibrant, which is nice considering this is basically a war game and usually war games get the Next-Gen Brown look complete with smoke and blackness. Even deserts, dry lifeless places, look pretty good with yellow, orange and red shades against black outlines. I'm not very good at this, but there's plenty of screenshots on the Valkyria Chronicles page if you're curious.

My dumb header up there also brings me to the difficulty. When you get near the end of the game, things get shit hard. Part of that is justified as your squad is the militia and treated little more than cannon fodder for the main military, so you get sent on plenty of suicidal missions. But then it just gets really, really hard. The game thinks nothing of starting you on the low ground while the enemy has several levels above to shoot down at you, including a woman who can snipe your troops halfway across the map- with a light machine gun. Or randomly deploy enemy reinforcements that can scurry over and capture your camp before you know what's going on. Or put Lancers in a spot to destroy your tank and cause a game over because Welkin can't die. And when you go up against bosses, it will never be as simple as "Shoot X until Victory." There are always multiple stages that will come down to the wire. Because of that, the last boss in this game is a pushover compared to pretty much everything else you've faced up to that point. Not that it hurts the game. It works toward a pretty satisfying end.

I also bought some of the DLC to check it out only to find that... holy shit. The DLC is also fucking hard. There's one mission in particular "Edy's Detachment" where you're defending an area completely surrounded by tanks and all. If one enemy enters your area, it's over. Oh, and there's also a mortar strike on your position every single turn that destroys the sandbags you use as cover. It's a major bummer... because it's obviously tailor made for people addicted to difficulty so there no choice to just enjoy the content. "Behind Her Blue Flame" is also fucking hard where you play as the bad guys with the worst equipment known to man.

Squad 7, Move Out!

While the DLC is a bummer, the main game is pretty entertaining not to mention long. There's a huge glossary in there that fills you in with all the random trivia of the Valkyria world. Some of it is hit and miss, and the ones I enjoyed most was about the crazy tanks you fight. Like I said before, if Advance Wars ever gets another game on a console, I would want it to be something like this.

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Recently Played: Arkham Asylum (and the Joker)

Getting caught up on good games always gives me a great feeling, and not just because I only spent 20 bucks on Arkham Asylum with all the DLC included and the "Play as Joker" mode for challenge maps... but that always helps. Since I'm several years behind it may come at no surprise to many of you that this is a damn fantastic game where you play as Batman and regularly take on mobs of prisoners and kick their asses.

With Arkham City coming out in the near future, I thought I would get caught up with the PS3 version of the game because I wanted to play as Mark Hamill and beat up security guards. I mean, play as the Joker.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Metal Gear Batman: The Game)

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong at this Point

There's really no getting around it. This game is basically Batman and Metal Gear Solid combined to perfection. You spend the entirety of the game exploring Arkham Asylum on an island you can't leave because the Joker has taken over. They even have a moment in the game where the Scarecrow screws with your game Psycho Mantis style. You even have radio contact with an ally who feeds you information. The major difference is that you're Batman and the sneaking has less to do with survival and more to do with picking off enemies one by one until they're all terrified of you. Making this easier is a whole list of gadgets and batarangs you've come to expect of things involving Batman.

Also, I was born in the eighties so I got to know and love Batman: The Animated Series. Seeing the major voice talent come back to do a well made video game almost makes it too good to be true. But it works so well.

Take On Twenty Dudes at Once

To be fair, there are only a few moments in the game where you actually face twenty guys at once, but the combat works so well that large groups are the most fun to take down. Basic combat uses the four face buttons. Square is a good ol' fashioned punch, Triangle is a counter move that is critical when an enemy can't wait his turn, X is used to jump over enemies if things get too hairy, and Circle stuns enemies with a cape flourish that allows you to lay into them. How you target enemies works by simply pushing the control stick in the direction of an unfriendly. Complementing this is quick taps of the shoulder button that toss batarangs or grapple enemies with grappling hooks. You can get pretty creative with it. But the main draw is keeping a combo going without getting hit, that let's you toss guys around or take them down with a one-hit-KO.

I admit getting used to this took me awhile. But as soon as I adjusted, crowds of enemies were like face punching buffets rather than intimidating mobs. And that's how it should be, because you play as Batman. The only time you really have to watch out is when guys have assault rifles or sniper rifles. Guns kill Batman pretty quick. Mobs of prisoners also change this up with Stun Batons and knives that make attacking them head on useless. Every move is important, and you will use them.

The Other Stuff a Batman Does

The other two parts of this game involve investigation modes where you find a critical clue and then track it around the island and sections where you sneak around a room full of guys with assault rifles and take them down. I didn't find it as enjoyable as combat, but that's really a minor complaint. It does mix things up and keep it fresh as you chase the Joker around Arkham. The "Sneaking around a Room" reminds me most of Metal Gear Solid except you can't shoot guys from across the room if you have a clear shot. Batarangs really only knock guys down, and if you aren't quick they'll get right back up. Still, placing explosive gel and blowing floors and walls out from under unsuspecting goons is a lot of fun. Not to mention using gargoyles to zip around a room as enemies fire blindly into the ceiling. Hearing them panic is a lot of fun. Of course, once they're on to you, they also like to buddy up and watch each others backs. There's definitely some finesse to it.

The Weakest Part

He Looks Big, but there's not Much of a Fight

The one thing I had the most problem with in Arkham Asylum is that this game doesn't really know how to do boss battles. I'm not the kind of guy to demand boss battles in every game, but I often find them to be the best part of an adventure. Considering Batman has a whole gallery of crazy characters like Scarecrow, Clayface, and the Joker, it was a little disappointing that you never go toe-to-toe with them like you do with random enemies. The closest you get to a real boss fight is Poison Ivy and that was fine. The rest (even someone as intimidating as Bane) is reduced to playing the part of the matador as you make them charge headlong into a wall so they're stunned, and then attack them repeatedly. How do they make these fights harder? A mob of lesser enemies jump in.

Of course, they get a little creative when it comes to fights with Scarecrow and Killer Croc. Killer Croc's "fight" doesn't work so well for tension or difficulty. The boss battles aren't enough to ruin this game, but it does stand out considering how well everything else works. The last fight with the Joker, while crazy, doesn't really make much use out of what he's become at the time.

Play as Mark Hamill, Beat Guys Up

Don't Mind Me, I'm About to Go on a Rampage

In the grand scheme of things, the ability to play as the Joker in challenge maps on the PS3 is a minor deal. He's a little harder to play as considering he doesn't get health upgrades and has less gadgets than Batman... but it's the Joker. Voiced by Mark Hamill. And he's so entertaining to watch. All of his moves are appropriately silly what with a salute that turns into a karate chop to the neck and poking guards in the eyes as a takedown. Not to mention his brutality has some great swings from harmlessly kicking a guy in the nuts to snapping a guard's neck after beating him in the head- repeatedly. He also has a ridiculously over sized revolver (with one shot, reloaded between rounds) and is the one time in Arkham Asylum where you can just shoot a guy dead. And the laughing... I love Mark Hamill's Joker laugh. And you get plenty of that, often brought on by takedowns or chattering teeth stuffed with explosives.

By the time I had unlocked all the Challenge maps I was ready for a game where you play as the Joker and just terrorize people with his low tech insanity. Maybe a mode where you free roam Arkham Asylum attack guards would work better? Probably not. It reminds me of something I heard a long time ago where someone proposed making a GTA style game where you play as the Joker. Six stars calls in Batman. Or something. Playing as Joker is a lot of fun, that's all.

The Last Laugh

On an somewhat subjective note, I didn't really care for much for the enemy character design. With the exception of the lanky Joker, everyone looks kinda chunky in this game. Even Scarecrow looks pretty ripped from what I can remember, and his whole shtick is an average guy who uses biological warfare to get what he wants. The character bio screen probably made this stick out the most, because it has much better art of Batman and his enemies. Of course, this has more to do with the engine the game was made with and I'm sure you can only do so much. I don't want to make a huge deal out of it, because the game was fun enough that I quickly got over it. Not to mention I was a big fan of the Animated Series. Even with the voice talent from that show, this is just another take on Batman including character design and tone.

Either way, I had a lot of fun and I'm excited for Arkham City. Initially it sounds kind of crazy they'd just change part of Gotham into a penal colony... but hey. It's Batman.

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Past Expiration: Okami

For those who don't know, Past Expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, an adventure game based on Japanese folklore with heavy influence from Legend of Zelda. Topical!

Okay, so I might be pushing it with this one. Okami isn't exactly an obscure game. Many have probably heard plenty about it either through news about the now defunct Clover Studios or general word of mouth. Not to mention it was also released for the Nintendo Wii in 2008. But I'd still like to cover it because I enjoy this game and... well, it also didn't sell very well. So there's that too.

Also, this new editor is god damn killing me, so excuse my (most probably) funky looking blog entry.

Okami (Nippon Mythology Brushwork: The Game)

Japanese Box Art Always Wins

If you think too hard about this game it's actually pretty bizarre. Okami is basically one long affectionate parody of Japanese Shinto mythology from the Nihon Shoki, Kojii, and other stories where you play as the sun goddess Amaterasu. For a Western comparison, it would be like making a game where you play as Jesus and go on an adventure poking fun at the stories from the Bible. In that respect it probably didn't help the game find an audience... but I doubt that many people outside Japan are that familiar with the subject matter so that's really just speculation on my part. Either way, the game trades more on comedy than anything else. Even the title is a Japanese visual pun. Okami, depending on how it's written out, can mean "wolf" or "god" but sound similar enough when spoken. And to be fair, the main character you play as is both.

So it should go without saying that this game is pretty damn Japanese.

"Amaterasu, Origin of All that is Good and Mother to us All..."

In Okami you play as the sun goddess Amaterasu as she takes the form of a white wolf to rid the lands of demons that have ravaged the land of Nippon. You play as a wolf because gods and goddess often work in mysterious ways... and it also plays to the game's title pun I mentioned before. The only weird part about this was the marketing, which I distinctly remember just how hard developers and PR people tried to downplay or sidestep the fact you play as a sun goddess. A lot of them were going the route that a divine being can be genderless and stuff like that... but in the game characters pretty obviously refer to Amaterasu as a goddess. Repeatedly. There's even a blind priest you run into who can see people's spirit and envisions Amaterasu as a gentle maiden. It showed a lack of confidence at the time... but considering they were pitching this game to the Western world, I guess I can understand. As someone born in the United States I can attest that we Americans love violence in our entertainment more than just about anything you can think of, for better or worse.

I digress, but anyway, the majority of the events in the game are based on mythological events. Characters and demons of legend, etc. Only everything plays out slightly differently and comes off as a "true story" played for funny epic journey. It's like that basic truth that no two people can tell the same story the same way. Everyone puts their own spin on it. For that reason, this game leans hard into narrative. It has a shit load of text and unskippable cutscenes that kind of hurts the game's pace at times. So if you're not a patient person, or don't like reading, you should probably ignore Okami. Or buy the Wii version where they let you skip scenes the first time around.

For me, I enjoyed the story even if got a little long winded. I thought it was fun.

Live by Brushwork, Death by Artwork

Careful, She Spins Webs

The main selling point of this game is the game's art style and the Celestial Brush mechanic that plays off it. If you haven't seen screenshots, Okami's basic look is a Japanese painting come to life. I think that phrase was said or written a hundred times before this game came out, but it really does look pretty damn good. I mean, art has always been a subjective thing... so if you're into graphics so realistic you can see the sweat on your character's face... you won't find it here. Everything is stylized, for great effect I find. And manipulating the world with the brush mechanic is a lot of fun. Basically, you hold down a shoulder button to drop a canvas effect on the screen and paint symbols to use abilities like firework bombs, call down lightning, and repair broken objects. You gain these abilities throughout the game Zelda-style for use in a dungeon, to defeat a boss, or move the story along. How often you can use this depends on your ink, which leads me to the next paragraph...

Upgrading Amaterasu's abilities like health and ink power plays out in an RPG fashion, but getting there doesn't rely on how many X you've killed in someone's basement. You gain praise, because Amaterasu's strength depends on belief, from helping out the people of Nippon with their problems and purifying cursed zones and dead land. You get a lot of scenery porn as you do this, restoring a black and brown muddy area with a long montage of exploding color. You can dump praise into categories like health, ink, astral pouches to increase Amaterasu's strength as you see fit... or just horde it all together if you like to challenge yourself because... I'll just be brutally honest here, this game is stupidly easy. I mean it reminds me of L.A. Noire in the way that you progress even if you've completely fucked up. If you had to pick a game that a portrays a goddess as an unstoppable force... this would be a pretty good example.

A Matter of Taste, I Guess

The definition of a game, or what it tries to do, has expanded so much since Okami came out that I have a hard time deciding if the complete lack of difficulty is really such a bad thing. Take a the 2011 release, Child of Eden, where "losing" or "failing" to pull back to a Game Over screen seems counter-productive to the title's parade of trippy visuals. Most of the enemies in Okami will take a long, long, long, long time before winding up for an attack or start coming after you. And it's pretty entertaining just to see how badly you can curb stomp a gang of imps or take down a towering boss like Orochi. The game gives you plenty of options. You can chop a demon fish in half, blow it up, pull off an Izuna Drop with a well timed counter attack, set them on fire, shoot them to death with rosary beads, etc. And in the unlikely event you run out of health, Okami has you covered with an item known as the Astral Pouch that will revive Amaterasu instantly. True, you have to fill it up with food to make it work each time... but that's not hard to do. Items are plentiful as well, and it's entirely possible to win a fight without attacking by dropping a bunch of area bombs picked up in a dungeon. There's never really a point in Okami where the pressure is on. You will miss entire enemy attack animations because you will kill them so fast they never had a chance to try. Honestly, how many of you who beat the game knew that Lechku and Nechku have special attacks where they maniuplate time? I bet you killed both of them before it ever came to that.

If you like your games low impact, or play to enjoy an adventure or meet quirky characters, you're in luck here.

The Bossest of Bosses

You Also Fight Orochi like... Three Times throughout the Game

The part I like the most about Okami has to do with its enemy design, which ranges from pretty cool to completely off the wall. You don't have to look much further than late game bosses, Lechku and Nechku for proof of that. Please click those links and check those dudes out, because they are sophisticated twin clockwork demon owls with top hats, canes, and monocles. They control time. Naturally. They can also be a Sly Cooper shout out because I can't think of many other games with clockwork owls that feature so prominently as villains. You also have the eight headed Orochi with each one wearing a different helmet and displaying some personality. The lightning head is always off his mark in cutscenes (either because he's blind or dumb) and the water head just wants to splash-splash all day. But both of them are still part of a demonic being that demands sacrifice from a nearby village.

Then you have the very last boss of the game, Yami, which seemed like a personal challenge of the design team to see how many different bosses they could squeeze into a transforming sphere. Some of them are funny, like Yami's dreaded slot machine form. Which tells me he doesn't take Amaterasu seriously if he's going to whip out the one-armed bandit during their fight to the death. It's clear at that point that he's just fucking with you. It also helps that all of these bosses aren't hard at all so it's easier to appreciate their design while they jump around and animate. Ninetails is also pretty neat considering it has nine tails that whip around while it darts and dodges over the boss area.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Looking back at this game has really soured my opinion of the DS sequel Okamiden. I mean, I didn't like it in the first place, but I didn't think it was absolutely terrible. But when you go from fighting twin clockwork demon owls to a... catfish... when your last boss goes from Yami to... I won't spoil it... the laziest thing they could possibly do, I start to realize I really hate that game. The kind of effort that went into Okami compared to Okamiden is night and day. Maybe a spiritual sequel would have worked better.

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Past Expiration: Dark Cloud 2

For those who don't know, Past Expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, an RPG randomly generated dungeon crawler slash town builder that was released in 2003 for the Playstation 2. Topical!

Dark Cloud 2 (Fantasy Back to the Future: The Game)

He's an Inventor, She's a Princess: They fight Crime

I have to admit I don't remember how I was introduced to Dark Cloud 2. I may have rented it back in the days when you actually visited a store to rent games. But for whatever reason I remember that it had a strong opening and a crazy invention system that involved creating items and weapons by taking pictures of objects and combining them. So I took it upon myself to track down a copy and play through it to the end. And this is a great little game. Well, not little. This game is long and dense. It's one part dungeon crawler, one part Sim City with plenty of story to fill out everything else. You might consider it a slow burn, but once things get moving there is a lot of fun to be had.
 
Well, unless you hate randomly generated dungeons. Then you're flat out of luck there. 
 

Story Keeps on Slippin' Into the Future

 No Such Thing as a Good Clown
This game is pretty easy to sum up in a sentence. A young inventor named Max and a princess from the future named Monica team up to restore the land through use of time travel. If I had to be more specific (and I do) it starts in an isolated town called Palm Brinks where no one has gone outside the walls in a really long time. You play as Max right off (and eventually Monica) when the circus comes to town with some really shady clowns and discover that the world is pretty fucked up at the moment. After a tutorial dungeon in the sewer and shaking off a bunch of carnival freaks, you learn that the only way to save the future is to rebuild key areas in the past. How they get this done involves amulets known as the red and blue Atlamillia. Max can travel to the future with his, while Monica can use hers to go back in the past.
 
That means you get a whole system dedicated to planting trees, placing houses and other environmental stuff. The closer you can stick to history, the better off the future will be (and you'll also get some helpful upgrades). Of course, Emperor Griffin, the guy responsible for wrecking the past has plenty of soldiers to harass you throughout the game. You meet friendly faces and get to the bottom of all this time distorting nonsense. There's also a time traveling train involved. Doc Brown would be proud.
 
Overall the game is pretty lighthearted. I did appreciate that Monica is no damsel in distress and will frequently hold her own in and out of cutscenes. Max is pretty chill for a main character and doesn't get annoying after 20 plus hours of game time. There's also a great villainous clown known as Floatsam early in the game.
 

Crawl, Crawler

The RPG action part of the game involves exploring randomly generated dungeons. Every area you visit and revisit will be different every single time. The only constant is the type of enemies you'll find in a particular section. When it comes down to fighting, fleeing and using items, it plays out like an third person action game. Max and Monica play similarly with both a melee and projectile attack. The difference between them really depends on how you upgrade their weapons, but I played most of the game with Max because his special move is an awesome Mech called the Ridepod that you can customize throughout the game. It can LAY WASTE to most of the enemies in a stage no problem. Whether you're feeling Metal Gear or Main Battle Tank, Max has the guns to bring it. Also, as you upgrade his weapons he becomes the long range master equipped with rapid fire pistols or a fully automatic sub-machine gun.
 
 Gatling Guns would work Better
Monica was more of my melee master. She has some really great swords... and that's about it. Her projectile attack involves some magic that hardly does any damage (if you're lucky) and becomes situational at best by the end of the game as higher level enemies develop immunities. Not to mention, her special mode involves transforming into enemy monsters... but they're so weak, slow and overall pathetic that I never stuck with it long enough to find out if she got anything better. It also doesn't help that you have to jump through some serious hoops wooing enemies over with care packages in order to get more monster transformations. I found it damn near impossible to see if it ever paid off.... because enemies never develop immunities to tank cannons. Nope.
 
However, the game is pretty good about keeping you from blowing through a dungeon with one character. There are stages that pop up where you can only use one character only. Luckily, all you need to do is find a key and then the exit. So if you weren't giving Monica the time of day, you're not totally screwed if she's too weak to fight. It also has you keep track of weapon condition, ammo, fuel so you can't one button it through an entire stage. You can buy supplies at shops... but it can get pretty pricey.

Build a Wrench, then Build a Town

The other part of the game involves inventing things and rebuilding towns. The invention system uses a camera Max carries around. He can take pictures of objects like windows, barrels, stop lights, trumpets, and store it in a photo album. Then you combine three objects you've taken photos of and see if it results in an item or weapon you can make. Of course, doing this repeatedly with random objects will result in frustration. Your best bet is to look around town and get "inspired" by books and people that give you a useful combinations. And since you can whip out the camera anytime, anyplace, it gets really tricky figuring out what can be used for an invention or not. There's one combination that uses a hallway chandelier right before the final boss confrontation. Some even use certain frames of an enemy's attack animation. It can get pretty crazy. But sometimes you can create a trumpet gun made from a fountain, a rapper, and a tree.
 
 Gonna Build a Town
More importantly (as in, required to move the story along) is rebuilding towns in each area of the game. You get materials from dungeon crawling and things called geostones that allow you to make houses, trees and other stuff. It will also give you conditions to fulfill in order to repair the future. Stuff like, putting a fence around a house, or putting a bridge over a body of water. It's sort of like Sim City with the overhead view but without the income tax and water works. Each area has different materials to build with, like the coastal town that uses large docks to build on. You only have to hit a certain percentage to fix the future, but if you go 100% you get items that increase health for Max and Monica. Mercifully, the game is not really picky about each objective, so you can build some ugly ass towns and still get through the game. The only time building gets frustrating is when you don't have enough geostones to figure out what each objective is. When the game tells you to put "??????" next to "??????" you'll want to give it the middle finger.
 
Once you've put a town back together, you'll also need to move people in. Ghost towns don't count in the world of Dark Cloud 2. Most of these people are recruited from Palm Brinks, the starting area. And just like Suikoden or Majora's Mask they'll all want something before going along with your crazy plan to save the future or whatever it is you plan to do. This varies from simple actions like answering questions and more annoying tasks like upgrading a piece of junk weapon or figuring out complicated math problems. Yeah.

Lost FOREVER and Time Distortion Golf

Dark Cloud 2 is also not afraid to use the greatest of gaming fears, losing something forever. One of the worst offenders is a guy who wants you to take photos of certain events, characters, or boss battles. The majority of his requests are events you will only see once. So if you didn't catch that elephant rearing up to smash you to pieces... tough luck. Or when that effeminate fish pulls a big goofy smile. The list goes on. Certain weapons also fall under that category too. My best advice is to just roll with it. This game is not so hard that you'll regret missing out on some content. And luckily a lot of the missable stuff is side quests and other junk you can live without.
 
The other thing I have to mention, because it gets really damn bad, is a mini-game where you try to fix time distortions with a game of golf. They justify it with a piece of time and space rolling around where it shouldn't and Max or Monica can't touch it because it's dangerous. The end result is a golf game where you try to hit a color changing ball into a vortex. But since every dungeon is randomly generated, there are countless times where you just can't win because you can only hit the ball a number of times before it disappears. What keeps you from trying over and over again is that you can only play this game after killing every enemy on the stage. Even if you're power leveled, it takes time. Way too much time just to figure out that you can't possibly hit a ball up and down a hallway, bend around a corner, and cross a gap because the stage isn't set up right. And winning gets you gold cards that can buy pretty cool stuff too.
 
I guess it's not gamebreaking, but I still found it really annoying.
 

Final Thoughts

Dark Cloud 2 is a really cool game. At first I was afraid it would be too hard to balance town building mechanics and exploring dungeons for materials and boss fights. It seemed awkward at first but I got used to it as I went on. I appreciate all the crazy names they give each level of a dungeon, and the level of customization in costumes and pieces for the Ridepod is awesome. Slap a rotor and some cannons on that thing and you're good to go. Don't forget the voice box that gives your mech plenty of one liners.
 
And remember, clowns are always trouble.
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Recently Played: Might and Magic - Clash of Heroes

Before I get started I want to put a little disclaimer here. No matter what I might dip into in the following paragraphs, at the end of the day this game broke about even for me. How good is it? Depends on what kind of mood I'm in. I think it's got a fairly even split of good and bad, so it's okay. I wouldn't go so far to describe it as a love/hate thing. That's far too generous. Most of my opinion is based on a part of the game that will most likely vary from person to person. So there's that.
 

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (RPG Puzzle Combat LOADING: The Game)

Fantasy Team: Assemble!
Arrrrggh. This just about sums up my experience with this game. Lots of groaning, lots of profanity, and a fair share of middle fingers. I've posted before about what I think of the difficulty in this game, so I'll summarize it by comparing it to the world's most schizophrenic roller coaster. Sometimes I can waltz through battles without trying. Most of the time I get curb stomped. Every now and then I have fun. Maybe. It depends if the random number generator is feeling merciful. Most of the time I find it's pretty vengeful.
 
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is a weird RPG puzzle combat game that originally came out on the DS. The version I played was the XLBA release in HD, but I'm totally not sorry that I missed it the first time. If I found it then I would have been pissed off and frustrated sooner. But I'll try to tone down the anger from here on in. The one thing I can be glad of is that Clash of Heroes taught me that I have no stomach for this kind of game, no matter how many times I keep coming back to replay it.
 

How to Play

 DS Version, Close Enough
The way you play this game is managing a spread of units on a 8x6 grid trying to make columns or rows of 3 matching colored units to attack and defend while an opponent tries to do the exact same thing across from you. You only get three moves each turn (for the most part) to juggle your forces, so there is an element of thinking ahead. To mix this formula up you also have special units of larger sizes that have special abilities and cause more damage. Not to mention Heroes (more like generals) who have magic attacks that charge up from taking damage. The goal of the game is to get your units to the other side of the board to cause damage to the enemy hero. First one to hit 0 HP loses. I admit I'm having a lot of trouble describing it in a paragraph... but the game's tutorial is solid enough to get you in on the basic rules. Not to mention Giant Bomb has a Quick Look if you want to see things in motion.
 
On a higher layer up, you have five different factions with different stats and special items to give you a lot of room to find the playing style you prefer. For example, if you like the Glass Cannon strategy (paper thin defense but bunker busting offense) then you'll probably like the Undead with the Spider's Cowl. If protective walls are your very best friend, then the Elves have regenerating defenses. There's a lot of opportunity to mix it up. And if you play through the campaign mode (which is required to unlock more heroes and all the special items) you'll get very familiar with what each faction has to offer. It's a nice set up in concept.
 
The schizophrenic part that I mentioned earlier comes with the randomly generated unit spread. Most of the time the Computer AI will get the best set ups while I have to dig out my special units or waste several turns playing catching up or wasting attacking opportunities to hastily construct walls so I'm not obliterated in a single turn. Every now and then (after I restart enough times) I'll get a good spread where I can actually stand a chance. This makes most of the boss confrontations laughable jokes and minor enemies unstoppable killing machines. If you asked me if I'm good at this game I couldn't tell you. I beat it. Although that doesn't mean anything.
 

Campaign Mode

 He got axed. Get it?
The heart of this game is the five different campaigns that make up story mode. But the story is definitely not the game's strength. Now, I'm not well versed in the Might and Magic series but this puzzle game spin off is standard fantasy through and through. Prophecies, magical weapons, demon invasions, "Blood Moon Eclipse", elves that use nature, middle children that become evil... if you've heard of it before you can find it in this game. I know there is an audience for that, but this game doesn't really take itself serious enough to call it straight faced. You can look forward to an awkward, heavy handed Smokey the Bear reference in the first campaign. The second campaign quotes a few lines from Deliverance word for word, and all kinds of other shit like that. I''m one of those types that hate pop culture references in works of fantasy so it was especially painful to sit through. I admit it won't ruin the game forever, but it hits an especially sour note for me. The characters are okay I guess. They don't have very strong personalities but they have just enough to drive the plot.
 
I will say that if you're looking for a game to last you awhile, Clash of Heroes' campaign will not disappoint. By the time I beat it, the game clock was 30 hours or so. It probably would have taken longer if I accepted more losses like a good sport instead of immediately quitting out and reloading my save file. Which brings me to the more subjective part of this blog. Due to the randomness of unit spreads and reinforcements, the leveling system and difficulty means jack shit. A level 5 side mission might take you to task over and over again like they were a bonus boss. And then you'll get to a real boss and steamroll them in one try. It all depends how the random chance of this game will treat you. Maybe you'll get lucky and never run into this problem. Maybe you'll get unlucky and feel like the game is pulling this every single battle. You can also look forward to some fucking unfair battles to compound this in the very last campaign where you get three zingers back-to-back without a single chance to save- at the very start. The game has some pacing problems, that much I can be sure of.
 

Loading Loading Loading

I usually don't stress graphics or loading screens when it comes to gaming... but I do have to mention them because holy shit... this game has some loading screens out the ass. I don't know if it's the cost of HD graphics or something to do with the transition to XBLA, but if a loading screen pops up every time you change screens, start a battle, end a battle, start a cutscene, end a cutscene, or press a button on the start screen to access the menu- I don't think it justifies the cost. And if you have to restart battles as much as I did all this adds up in no time flat. Now, the animations for the larger units do look pretty cool like the Angel's holy beam of death and the Ghost's opening scream before she lays into the enemy... but I would be willing to sacrifice them just to get a smoother running experience. Loading screens are pretty ridiculous in this game and it's not even running off a disc.
 

So... what? Good? Bad? (Psst. What about Multiplayer?)

Dude, I don't know. I've been up and down so much on this game that I just want to get through this blog. There's local and online multiplayer, but if the campaign is any indication I'm pretty sure I would go out and murder someone if I lost to a real life person. The godsend of fighting a computer AI is that they never rub it in your face. They never talk and they never comment on your playing abilities (I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions). This game does bad enough things to me that the last thing I need is someone throwing fuel on the fire with a bad joke or a snide comment about my strategy.
 
....
 
So, yeah. This game is okay.
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Desk Jobs: L.A. Noire (All sorts of Spoilers)

I finished up L.A. Noire and I thought I'd capture my initial feelings for it. I think it will take a little longer before I decide how the game is overall, but I like coming back to things later and looking them over. So, for posterity's sake, here it is. Just the facts.

L.A. Noire (Law without the Order in 1947: The Game)

To cover basic game play stuff, I like going around a scene and discovering clues. The game's difficulty isn't really about finding everything and more about putting evidence together in interrogations. There are a few exceptions to the rule but the procedural element was entertaining. Shooting is... decent. I respect any game where the shotgun can be treated like a shotgun instead of a big knife you can only kill people with when you're point blank. And there are BARs. I mean, Browning Automatic Rifles. And considering the setting and tone of this game, they're treated as serious weapons which is nice.

Patrol Desk

Tutorial stuff. Nothing to see here people, move along!

They aren't great cases, but it was kind of fun to chase the jewelry store dude down. I actually shot him in the leg the first time because I wanted to stop him via non-lethal gunshots. This was before I learned that once you shoot someone in L.A. Noire, that means you have openly declared your desire to kill them. So, no foot shots or shoulder wounds. You shoot to kill.

The shooting thing also goes for Street Crimes... The way L.A. Noire is grounded as a more realistic setting I figured I'd be putting more offenders in cuffs than in caskets. But almost every single Street Crime ends with a shootout or a headshot to save a hostage. The way Phelps and his partner stand around all grim faced as a dead body is wheeled into the Corner's Van... I always feel like I've screwed up real bad. But they seem to just be shootouts to add more action in case someone was getting bored of investigations.

Traffic Desk

The traffic desk is the best desk in the game. Even though it's only three parts you get to investigate some awesome crime scenes. There's a car absolutely covered in blood, a hit and run, and a crash scene right across from the police station that dips into the movie industry scene. L.A. Noire had me hooked on the first investigation where you find a car's interior drenched in blood (like someone got blown to pieces with explosives) and then you find a small pipe covered with blood that couldn't possibly cause such a mess no matter how hard someone could swing it. It's a great "Wait a second..." moment that I wish more cases had. This is also the very last desk where you actually make meaningful arrests and get a sense of fulfillment by doing right by the law.

Homicide Desk

For me, this is probably the most disappointing part of the game. When I look back on it Homicide should have been great. You're solving murders now. I imagined gunshots, and knives, and some premeditation. The stakes are higher. You have a new partner who's somewhere between lazy and indifferent but still has some great lines. Unfortunately every case on the Homicide desk is mauled for an overarching plot involving a serial killer. That means you get a lot of repetitive crime scenes with dead women, bloody ropes, and size 8 footprints. That's four cases of the same basic set up over and over again where you're questioning a husband or some social miscreant. They lean hard into the Black Dahlia stuff and that's too bad.

This is also the part of the game where you can no longer make satisfying arrests. It gets abundantly clear that your bosses at the LAPD care more about headlines than the truth. Even if you have OVERWHELMING evidence in favor of a particular suspect... if you don't convict that Communist dude your ass is grass, boyo. And this emphasis of headlines over truth persists through the rest of the game. Maybe more true to life, but very unsatisfying if you're looking for a solution to your mystery stories.

Vice Desk

This is my second favorite desk. Even if your partner is a dirty cop like Roy Earle who is practically smug personified you get to solve crimes around Hollywood and go into clubs trying to make drug cases. "The Set Up" swerves pretty close to Pulp Fiction involving a boxer who didn't throw a match like he was supposed to, and you're racing against the mob and a suspicious girlfriend to find out what happened. Shooting up an old (or new?) movie theater is recipe for a good time. You also get to spend some time with Phelps' old Marine buddies and play with BARs in the streets of L.A. It's a damn shame this desk didn't last longer. I was quite surprised it was only three cases. I guess L.A. Noire does short and sweet well.

The only real downer to the Vice Desk is the downer ending. Phelps decides to become a shitty human being and cheat on his wife just in time for Roy Earle to profit from it and make out like a bandit. Dude is crooked, but at least he knows how to work the angles. Asshole.

Arson Desk (More like two parts Arson, three parts endgame)

It's hard to rate the Arson desk. You only do two cases before the story's big picture hijacks everything and runs off with its new favorite playable character Jack Kelso. Again, I was pretty excited to investigate fires despite everyone in the city laying into Phelps like they had just discovered the punching bag. Your new partner is awesome. Biggs has a great voice and some good lines too. It also has a bit of the same problem the Homicide Desk had with repeat offenders. It would have been cool to look into forest fires and other fire related crimes. Although that immolated family was... really fucked up. Who jumped like Biggs at that part? I did.

And like I said before, you play as another guy to the end of the game. I didn't have a problem with Kelso, but I would have liked it better if he had his own file or separate section of the game. Arson loses out a lot of potential to redirect the player to a conspiracy involving land grabbing and crappy suburban homes for returning G.I.s. Plus, you get to learn why Phelps is actually a pretty bad human being and that hating him is justified by pretty much everything he's ever done. That might be a little harsh considering you never see Phelps' home life or when he's not a cop or a Marine. But dude, the man is not fit to lead. At all.

DLC?

I am interested in what they'll do with DLC. The story kind of hangs in the background as you play from case to case until the Arson desk, so it would be pretty easy to slip in more content with "hey, more cases." I doubt they'll do anything with Homicide, but it would be nice to have a more traditional investigation instead of getting hung up on ropes and shoe sizes. Arson could also use some more fire related investigations and I would love more Traffic Desk cases. But if they decide to go the route of outfits and weapon skins... that would be a shame. Because the shooting really isn't L.A. Noire's strength. It's more about suspicious characters and crime scenes. I would like more of those.
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Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes Difficulty Curve

A Helpful Visual for your Information
Times like these is when I'm glad I don't have photoshop. I'm pretty sure I'd never use it for anything good. But if my MS Paint mock up is any indication... I feel like this game doesn't have any idea how hard it is or wants to be.

Might and Magic: Clash of Random Chance

This is the second time I've written a blog about a game I have overwhelming feelings against (the first is Okamiden, if you're absolutely curious.) Usually I favor keeping it to myself if there's something I really dislike. Most of the time a good rant is just instant gratification where you can feel good for a few minutes at the cost of accidentally or intentionally putting down a bunch of people at the same time. But in the case of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, I want to get to the bottom of this. I feel like there's some fun to be had in this game. The puzzle system seems pretty cool and would probably work great if I wasn't mauled by something I can't control every time I fight a battle. I'm talking about whatever system the game uses to decide troop patterns for my side and the computer's side. This also includes when you reinforce.

There's either a serious problem or I just can't handle the rules of engagement. Giant Bomb, help me out!

More about Chance than Skill

I've put some time into campaign mode. I just reached the third area and I would compare this game to Poker. You can understand some basic combinations and rule sets (like chaining and fusing core units) but ultimately it comes down luck. Or in my case, a whole shit ton of luck. It seems like every battle the computer begins with some cushy set up where it can triple chain a bunch of units and activate it's 4x4 special unit of death on the first turn. On my first turn I have to delete a bunch of units and juggle my much more manageable (or so I thought) 2 block units. Or I'm choked full of 4x4 special units (to the point I never use them anymore because they always get killed). It never seems fair. And I'm not talking about the standard CPU advantage because as a human I'm way more capable. It just seems uneven. And unlike Poker, there's no choice to fold and wait for the next hand. You take those losses and lose those resources, or like I do get so angry I quit out of the game and reload the save file.

The other bad end of this is whenever I reinforce and the spread dumps units all over setups I've been working on. This is especially bad for 4x4 units where it decides who wins and who loses. Without fail, every time reinforcements will choose to bury my special units under an avalanche and not even cases where I can easily delete a guy and create a wall or link something so units move to the back of the line. Facing the computer, you get as much time as you need, so it's not about missing the patterns. I just have nothing to work with. It makes for some really vicious swings where a nice lead can quickly turn into defeat.  This is when the computer opponent gets bunch of special units gift wrapped with everything they need to activate them and I end up throwing middle fingers at game code and something that literally can't care if I win or lose.

Because of this, the experience system means absolutely nothing to me. Why does the Lv.8 guy roll over like a dead log when the Lv.5 guy is like Nemesis and just won't die? The first boss in story mode was a complete joke compared to the random Elf on the side of the road. No, he wasn't a bounty. Just some random guy you could choose to fight. All that matters is how the units are placed at the beginning of the battle. It's almost impossible to build any confidence. Sometimes it's just funny when I managed to buy all the special units for the second campaign before the game introduced them to me.

The Other Very Real Possibility

The other side is that I may be really, really terrible at this game. More than I realize. I can accept that. But I was pretty bad at Super Meat Boy, another unforgiving game. The difference is that I could eventually get better at Super Meat Boy where in Clash of Heroes, I can never get better at random unit placements. Also, no one else seems to have this problem from what I've been able to find. It could be that they understand it's just part of the game and you deal with it. In that case let me know, please!

I had to post about this because there's three other areas left in the game, and if it's going to be like this through the rest of the game I'm not interested. And if this is how it works online with real people then forget that.
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Going Overboard: Advance Wars - Dual Strike vs. Days of Ruin

Fight!
Advance Wars is one of my all time favorite video game series that uses an effective blend of turn based strategy and colorful graphics. This series started a long time ago known as Nintendo Wars in Japan, but it didn't really take off until a release on the Game Boy Advance. To overly simplify things, it's like chess involving tanks, planes, and battleships with a rock, paper, scissors approach to balance. An RPG-toting Infantry division can crack a tank no problem, but if an attack helicopter buzzes them, they're doomed. If a fighter jet finds the attack helicopter... well that copter is toast. The appeal comes from deploying a well balanced attack force along with a quirky Commanding Officer adding some bonus stats and special powers to mix things up. Couple that with some awesome music and a map editor and you're ready to roll.

I'm positive I could play this series forever. Sadly, Advance Wars has always been overshadowed by Fire Emblem which is a similar series with an emphasis on individual units in a fantasy setting. There's no telling if Intelligent Systems will ever release another game in the series. The last time an Advance Wars game came out was Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict on the DS in 2008. And it hasn't even released in Japan yet. To be fair, when the very first Advance Wars came out on the GBA it was right in the wake of 9/11. And considering how war is still part of our everyday lives I can see how an upbeat somewhat cutesy spin on commanding legions of infantry, tanks, and airplanes into combat might rub people the wrong way.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this blog is to take a look at the last two major releases in the Advance Wars on the Nintendo DS and match em' up 1v1 style. Why? Because I like both of them, but they are pretty different. I don't think this will turn into a contest of "which one is superior?" but more why I think both of them matter.

Basic Intel - Need to Know

Dual Strike and Days of Ruin might be in the same series but they are two very different beasts. It's the difference of balls-to-the-wall action disregarding all balance in contrast to a more reserved but better polished experience. The deciding factor comes down to how you like your games.

Dual Strike

At Least He's Honest
Dual Strike, released in 2005, takes the kitchen sink approach and packs the game with as much stuff as they could fit on the cartridge. Looking back on it, it was like a party blowout for characters that were back for a third and final time. They had new faces, an RPG-like progression system, tagging characters in and out, battles on two screens, new units, challenge modes, and a weird combat mode that would totally be a dual joystick shooter... if the DS had any joysticks. There are 27 commanding officers in all. You know how many they had in the very first Advance Wars? Twelve. There is a lot of stuff to do in Dual Strike.

However, this means that balancing the game was impossible. The dual strike system allowed COs to tag in and out and make use of their various abilities, so you could very well pick the guy who buys cheap units for lower firepower... and then switch to the guy who pays more for his units but gets superior firepower. The number of ways to break the game with crazy CO combinations is more than it should be. No one in their right mind should go up against someone using Sami and Eagle together. You could break this even further by equipping skills COs unlocked from leveling up. Some of the new units also didn't work so great in practice like the Piperunner that almost never gets any use unless there are pipelines it can roll on. Considering pipes are impassible objects, you didn't see them much.

I do have to give major props to this series for killing off one of their major villains (an alien? robot? snifit? named Sturm) and actually keeping him dead. You couldn't get away with that in a series like Zelda or Mario.

Days of Ruin (Cause I'm in the U.S.)

 Dust some Fools
Days of Ruin, released in 2008, was a reboot of the series with a new continuity and overall tone. When Advance Wars first came out it had a colorful, anime style to go along with the turn based military strategy. This game tossed all that out for darker and edgier with a decidedly next gen brown color scheme. It also has less content than Dual Strike, scaling things back and reworking the cost of units, Fog of War, and CO Powers. There are a few new units like the Duster plane, Biker Infantry, the Anti-Tank unit and a totally reworked Aircraft Carrier. It plays a lot better at the cost of slight tweaks to unit behavior, less COs, and a brand new cast of characters.

Instead of the simple good vs. evil storyline, Days of Ruin went a more complicated route. It was a survival story in a world totally devastated by meteors. Most of the characters represent various reactions to the end of the world. You have a guy like Waylon, who is ready to party down 'cause rules don't mean a thing in the apocalypse. There's Brenner, who's trying to do right because "where there's life, there's hope". And then you have NPCs like "The Mayor" who is so two-faced and backstabbing that he makes the major villain Caulder look good. It's one of those rare examples where making the game darker actually works in the favor of the story. There's only one character in the entire game who looks like a Mad Max extra and even one of the player characters falls pretty evenly between good and evil because she's the cold and calculating type.

The Cast - Commanding Officers


Dual Strike

Jake is Mad Fresh, Son
While the story in Dual Strike might be simple, it allows for a lot of awesome characters and general insanity that you couldn't pull off in a more grounded setting. Since every nation (with the exception of Black Hole) is somewhat based off a real world military at some point in history, they go through a lot of archetypes. Orange Star is the U.S. Military, Blue Moon is Soviet Russia. Yellow Comet is Imperial Japan. Green Earth is WWII Europe. Air ace Eagle does the Blitzkrieg, and when his CO meter is charged up he can move most of his units twice in one turn. Drake is the British Navy who can also launch giant tidal waves that steal fuel. You also have Sami, who represents all sorts of Special Forces where a single solitary solider can capture an entire city (or enemy HQ) Rambo style.  But sometimes you get a really dumb character like Jake, who uses so much slang he could be considered offensive.

Most of my favorites are the villains though, like the crazy Black Hole inventor Lash. She seems to have the most awareness about how absurd Advance Wars is without breaking the fourth wall and generally tries to have as much fun as she possibly can. Why is she evil? Because she can make giant ICBM cluster bombs and tanks with legs. She can produce cannons the size of mountains. While safe science is talking about ethics she's busy blowing up Olaf's hometown and installing self-destruct devices in airports just for fun. There's also Jugger, who is basically a webcam with arms and legs with some of the best dialogue in the game. These guys are gloriously dumb sometimes but always entertaining.

Not to mention, there are a shit ton of characters in this game. You're bound to find someone you like.

Days of Ruin

 Fascinating!
The cast of Days of Ruin is much more low key compared to Dual Strike but that makes them slightly more realistic if you're into that. Lin is probably my favorite example because she tries to do good things but is pragmatic enough to suggest non-heroic actions like leaving civilians behind if they aren't pulling their weight or shooting villains in cold blood when the opportunity presents itself because they had it coming. Some aren't as great though, like Will who falls into the "never say die, never give up" pothole that most designated protagonists fall into. Brenner, while a decent and kinda cool, pulls and Obi Wan. And there's Tasha who can be summed up in one caps lock word, REVENGE.

Probably the strongest aspect of the cast are the villains who are actually really bad guys. They range from complete assholes to complete monsters. Like I mentioned before, Waylon is one of the biggest dicks I've ever seen in a video game. But he's so good at it, it's hard not to like him. Greyfield is a warmonger who goes the extra mile and nukes one of the protagonists out of spite. And then you have Dr. Caulder, who is downright sadistic. Under the guise of science he pits the remnants of humanity against each other just to see what would happen. Meteors weren't good enough for him, so he creates a virus that causes plants to grow out from under people's skin. He also has a bunch of creepy "children" ( Penny and Tabitha) he's ruined through experimentation that they're more weapons than human. It's stark contrast to the villains of Dual Strike who try to be evil but are not very good at it.

Spoils of War - Outcome

The split between Dual Strike and Days of Ruin comes down to whether you like an exaggerated take on turn based strategy or a more focused affair. I think Days of Ruin plays a lot better with a healthier balance across units and COs... but there's something great about the series origin as an expressive, somewhat goofy turn based strategy game where a commander could drop a meteor on the battlefield and that was perfectly normal. Both games have their fair share of missteps what with two of the new COs from Dual Strike, Jugger and Koal, as slightly modified copies of Flak and Adder. It's clear that Flak and Adder were going to get cut from the game but for some reason were hastily slapped back in. Days of Ruin also has a strange flip-flop where a CO in the campaign, The Beast, isn't playable and Isabella takes his place (who never got involved in fighting). Not to mention the difficulty which can be a little uneven in Dual Strike with terrible missions like Crystal Calamity and Pincer Strike, and soul crushingly hard in Days of Ruin with the final stage. Sunrise is probably the hardest mission in the series history.

But the one things both games do well without fail is the soundtrack. Dual Strike might be a little less impressive considering a bunch of CO themes have been carried over three games, but there are some good ones in there. I'll finish this (probably overly long) blog with a selection of my favorites. You know, just in case you're into it.

Dual Strike

Jake's Theme
Koal's Theme
Sami's Theme
Lash's Theme

Days of Ruin

The Owl's Flight
Flight of the Coward - Waylon's Theme
Mr. Bear - Penny's Theme
Supreme Logician - Lin's Theme

Advance Wars 2 (Bonus)

Sturm's Theme
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Past Expiration: Star Fox 64

Normally I use Past Expiration to talk about lesser known games from way back that people have little to no chance of ever finding much less playing through again. But today I'm going to cover a game that doesn't need any extra exposure. I'm talking about Star Fox 64 because... I really like Star Fox 64. I think it's a fantastic game. Topical!

Star Fox 64 (Animals locked in Space Combat: The Game)

 The PAL Box Art, just for Kicks
It really doesn't need an introduction mostly because of internet memes about barrel rolls or a space wolf not letting you do things... but I'm going to do it just to be on the safe side.

Star Fox 64 is (for the most part) a rail shooter where you fly an advanced space fighter called the Arwing and shoot down tons of enemies that swarm the screen. The Nintendo spin on this game is that the major cast is a bunch of anthropomorphic animals. You play as Fox McCloud (who is a fox) and lead the Star Fox Team (a gang of other animal mercenaries) to defend the planet Corneria against the evil forces of Andross (who is an ape). The story is good enough to get things rolling, but it's no Shakespeare even if it does have a weird reference to a Shakespeare play. Now, this game is a sequel to the Star Fox game on the Super Nintendo, but you don't have to play it to enjoy this one.

On a more historical note, Star Fox 64 also came packaged with the Rumble Pak. This used force feedback to shake the controller when an explosion went off, your ship crashed into something, or a massive boss rolled past. I didn't think much of it at the time. It was entertaining sure, but kind of a gimmick. Now, try to find a controller today that doesn't rumble when you fire a gun or toss grenades. Or at least a game that doesn't make some use of the controller rumbling in your hand. I couldn't imagine that it would be so widespread as it is today.

Don't You Know It
Awhile ago I mentioned it was a rail shooter and put "for the most part" in parenthesis. While the majority of the game has you flying down a corridor shooting at things, there are a few moments when you can break out in free flight. The game calls this "All Range Mode" complete with a short cutscene and a demonstration of Fox's voice acting. This was somewhat of a bullet point for this game, but people who regularly put in time with flight sims on the PC probably weren't impressed. Even still, the ability to fly wherever you want (in a conveniently box shaped zone) added some opportunities for dogfighting. This was especially true with the Star Wolf Team who acted as direct rivals to the main characters. They were pretty good at showing up, dropping a bunch of one liners, and teaching you how to pull off a U-Turn or a 360 flip by shooting you in the ass.

Now only a few areas in the game made use of all range mode, so it never got old or unwelcome. At the same time, some of the worst levels in the game are entirely all range mode... Like Sector Z. So there's that too.

While blowing through levels collecting power ups and saving your incompetent wingmen over and over again is fine, my favorite part of this game has to be the boss battles. The Nintendo 64 is not the most advanced piece of gaming machinery to ever grace the planet, but they still came up with some memorable fights and crazy enemy designs. For example, there's one boss called Mechbeth you fight in a tank that looks like a giant robotic kite anchored to a train. Why? The player's guide has an explanation for that, but it's pretty weird all the same. There's also the most bizarre submarine I've ever seen, known as the Sarumarine. It's one of my favorite boss fights ever because you're encouraged to abuse the hell out of the game's screen clearing smart bomb. And the captain talks like a pirate too. Other bosses include a fist fighting robot, an Independence Day knock off, a giant clam, the world's most cowardly golem, and a smug ass jerk who pilots a meteor crusher. Any route you took, you were bound to run into something that was fun to shoot to death.

This brings me to one of my favorite parts about early Star Fox games. Route select. In the Super Nintendo version you simply picked which way you wanted to go, which was more of an "easy, medium or hard" selection. Star Fox 64 upped the ante by hiding most of the alternate routes. You had to pull off some feats in order to take a detour to other planets in the Lylat System. Sometimes they were pretty obscure, like saving Falco in the first level and flying under a bunch of rock arches. Other times they made more sense like stopping a doomsday weapon from obliterating an allied base, or crashing an enemy supply train. Either way, there was a ton of replay value going back through the game and trying to find the routes. Of course when this game came out I didn't have the patience for it. Which is why I convinced my parents to buy the Star Fox 64 Official Player's Guide.

What? You Cheater
To give you some perspective, this was back before I knew how to use the internet to its fullest potential. I can't even remember if I knew GameFAQs existed. Cheat Code Central? Anyway. I really wanted to go to places like Sector Y, Aquas, and Zoness. I could save Falco but how was I supposed to know about flying under some stupid rock arches?

Besides telling you how to go everywhere and kill everything, it also had some extra material in the form of stupid Star Fox 64 lore. Stuff like planetary data (which I'm extremely curious if they did scientific research or just made it all up), information behind bosses and trivia about the enemies you shoot down. It's got some great pictures. It also tells you the names of all the bosses. And it's from Nintendo so it must be legit, right?
Official Confirmation
One of the reasons I bother mentioning the Star Fox 64 players guide is my username. It's so obscure that I usually always get it (like when I came to Giant Bomb). Considering how much fun it is to kill the Sarumarine in the game and how crazy that sub design is, I just went with it.

Always a good sign when people think Lord of the Rings because of the "saru" part. I've heard that saru means monkey in Japanese, so it must be a weird portmanteau of monkey and submarine. But I don't know that for sure. Either way, this is probably more than you ever wanted to hear about the name Sarumarine.

One of the last things I'll mention before wrapping this up is the short, but effective voice acting included in the game. They're soundbites compared to the monologues you can find in games these days. I used to have a link to a database of all the lines from Star Fox 64. My favorites included the train driver from Macbeth and the Area 6 commander. You can probably look through YouTube if you absolutely have to hear it. I think it stands up. It's not outstanding, but it does its job. The only exception would be Slippy's voice which is absolutely terrible. The sound quality is probably terrible compared to today's standards. But show me another game where a boss gets so fed up with fighting you he calls your entire team "cocky little freaks!"

Now that I've got this out of my system, I'll leave you with this.

What Did You Call Me?
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Past Expiration: Valkyrie Profile 2 - Silmeria

Past expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, we're going to talk about an RPG involving Norse Mythology that came out in 2006 on the PS2. Topical!

It's also one of the most complicated RPGs I've ever played. What this means to you may vary, but when people are beating this game at level 40 and I'm barely scraping by at,level 86, clearly something has gone wrong.

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (Complicated RPG Action starring Norse Mythology: The Game)

Nice Logo
By the time I heard about the original Valkyrie Profile for the Playstation, it was already an obscure hard-to-find game. Which is a shame because I liked the character design and the straight faced take on Norse legend involving Valkyries, fallen warriors, and the Ragnarok.  The best I could do back in the day was get my hands on the sequel Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (used, of course, with no instruction booklet). It's an odd little game. And by odd, I mean completely bewildering sometimes. This has nothing to do with the story which is easy enough to follow, but more with the leveling up system and how you control battles. I can see why this game series is never at the forefront of RPG discussions. You really have to "get" this game or at the least be really into it. If someone was casually jumping into the pool of Valkyrie Profile head first- dude, the water is freezing. The concept sounds simple enough but once you get rolling this game does not let up.


Action, Adventure, Gods

The simplest part of this game? The story. You play as a princess named Alicia of an island bound kingdom named Dipan. They have some serious beef with the gods (that means the big boss of all creation, Odin) and are planning to start a war. Complicating matters is that Alicia contains the soul of Silmeria Valkyrie, one of Odin's battle maidens that collects fallen warriors for the Ragnarok. But she wants to help the mortals win because she's tired of Odin's dismissive attitude of humans and doesn't want to work for him anymore. You go on a grand adventure (meeting other characters on the way) in the pursuit of something called the Dragon Orb that can really screw over reality and disrupt the balance of power. And this is all well and good until the last quarter of the game where things go off the deep end. Until this point you could say that Valkyrie Profile 2 had gone the way of final fantasy including similar characters, similar worlds, and different stories. But nope, shit gets crazy and let's just spoil it, this game becomes a prequel and a sequel to Valkyrie Profile in a single bound.

 Ye Olde Creepy Raper Guy
Mostly due in part to Lezard Valeth. He's this game's creepy raper guy who has one mean obsession for Lenneth Valkyrie (the main character of the first game). He's willing to screw over reality, the gods, time, space, and the game's plot just so he can screw her. Of course, you don't really know about this until the end. He's good at acting nice until things go his way.

Good thing he's got some great voice acting to sell it. And one creepy laugh.

Oh, and you get to kill him. It's extremely hard to pull off, but great.

Level Grinding Can't Save You Now

The meat and potatoes of combat in Valkyrie Profile 2 involves a weird (but fun) system. This is an RPG, so you have plenty of stats, exp, and money to go around. But when it's time to cut stuff up... well... how can I explain this? Basically, you can have a party of four. Each member of your party is mapped to a different button on the PS2 controller. When you press the Circle, Square, Triangle, and X buttons that person will attack. The idea is to string together combos with your party of four jumping in at the right moment to stab, shoot, or cast magic. There are launchers, spikes and other tricks so it's entirely possible to flip an enemy into the air and have 3/4ths of your team completely whiff their attacks. Button mashing will get you nowhere. You really have to wait, coordinate your team, and have everyone attack when the enemy is in the right position.

The first game was turn based, but VP2 adds a little action gauge flavor. It's a 3D battlefield where you can move around and maneuver behind enemies and all that stuff. It's kind of like real time, except enemies only move when you move. The speed of the fight is entirely up to you. The map also shows helpful red zones to let you know the range of enemy attacks. There's a dash move to get around quickly and evade. How many times you can dash, use items, and attack depends on the action gauge I mentioned earlier. You only get that gauge back if enemies attack you, or you move around enough to charge it up. Remember, enemies move when you move so it's hard to get around without something targeting you.

Just in case this isn't making sense, check this video out for a visual demonstration.

Most battles can be won by finding the enemy leader and cutting him down. That's right. You really only need to kill a specific enemy to end the fight and the rest will run away. But as you attack, you can cut off limbs and body parts that sometimes become items. These items can be sold to shop keepers to unlock new equipment. But not every attack or victory will break off items. Sometimes you have to get lucky. And if you're one of those people who like to 100% games... God have mercy on your soul, dude. So, it's kind of a trade off of finishing a battle quick or hacking enemies to pieces hoping for items.

Wait, it Gets Trickier!

 2D Dungeon Exploring Action
Dungeons also have another system just in case you were getting a handle on things. There are these things called Sealstones that modify combat by slapping another rule set on top of the battle system. Rules like "No Blocking" or "Always Surprise Enemies" or "All Attacks are Fire Based" and stat based rules like "120% Attack Boost", "150% Magic Resist" etc. You can find most of these on podiums that broadcast these curve balls into the surrounding area. You can always grab them to remove the effect (like if you were sick of enemies always getting the drop on you) but you can't take them to other dungeons unless you cough up a crystal fee. Crystals are gained after killing enemies and they accumulate painfully slow. The "Turn Attacks into Fire" orb sounds like it could be useful, but if you want to take it to other dungeons you need a whopping 20000 crystals. After 10 hours through the game, you know how many crystals I had? 2000. Yeah. Fuck that.

The systems in this game are dense. Throughout the whole time I always had a feeling like I was missing something. There are boss battles where it was so one sided I thought I was supposed to lose. Then, after my party is quickly wiped out, I get the Game Over screen and realize "Holy Shit! I was supposed to win that one!" After the tutorial dungeon, this game starts kicking you in the ass hard. I haven't even mentioned the whole releasing warriors souls. You often find weapons that you can turn into party members (because of the whole Valkyrie leading the dead thing.) When these characters are a certain level, you can "release" them into the afterlife and they give you some cool items... usually. So you can wage that decision war whether or not you want cool items, or a party member to fight for you. And this is entirely your decision. The game never drops hints or tells you when you should pull this off. The possibilities to fuck up your game is endless. Endless.

I *AM* the World's Worst Valkyrie Profile 2 Player

The end result of this is the massive mountain I had to climb to beat this game. My party was about level 86 or so at the final boss. Getting through this game was like pulling teeth. And to make it worse, after I beat the game, I looked up some information and apparently you can finish the game at level 40. The super hard bonus dungeon that appears at the end of the game? Level 50. I don't understand it myself. I can't even get into the bonus dungeon because of the skill check boss at the entrance. And it sounds especially pitiful after hearing that some people beat this game with only one character through the entire game. One character!

Even still, this game was fun when I wasn't doing 7 damage to a boss with 10,000 HP. I wish I could have gotten the mechanics down better so fights weren't quite as headache inducing. Special attacks are pretty cool though. It also helps that the Norse angle pushes this game away from standard fantasy stories I have a lot of trouble getting into.

If anyone else has played this game I'd love to hear what you think of it. Tell me what you did. Maybe I'll find out where I went wrong. I don't know, maybe this game is just hard. Either way, it's tough to find a combat system like this anywhere else.
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