Sunday Summaries 26/06/2016: Dreamfall Chapters & Tales of Xillia

Well, this is it. The last Sunday Summaries for the first half of 2016. I'm just going to indulge in some broader recollection; a Sunday Summary but for the past six months, in so many words. Obviously, I'm not going to talk about general news and politics, because both have been depressing/scary as hell of late. Instead, I'm going to specifically consider the past six months of game releases and Giant Bomb content:

Thumbs up for all the shit I've yet to play.
Thumbs up for all the shit I've yet to play.

Game-wise it's been a surprisingly packed six months. The Beastcast brought up the fact that this has been a year where the "AAA" side of the industry has been stepping up, along with the always busy Indie segment, and we've had a parade of mostly well-received big releases - Uncharted 4, Doom, Dark Souls III, The Division, Ratchet & Clank, Mirror's Edge Catalyst, Hitman and Overwatch - as well as some promising Nintendo stuff like Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Rhythm Heaven Megamix, Kirby: Planet Robobot, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, Bravely Second: End Layer and Final Fantasy Explorers. Then we have the deluge of Indies, and as always I've managed to bolt on another twenty games to a growing Steam/PSN wishlist: Stardew Valley (I own this now! Can't wait to get stuck in), The Witness (which I also own, but... well, I don't imagine I'll get it running smoothly any time soon), Darkest Dungeon, The Banner Saga 2, Hyper Light Drifter, Firewatch, Jotun, Superhot, Lumo, Salt and Sanctuary, Enter the Gungeon and Ultimate Chicken Horse to name but a few I'm personally interested in.

I'd make a
I'd make a "don't count your chickens" observation about the list of upcoming games on the right, but that would just make me want to play Stardew sooner.

Perhaps more vitally, there's still a lot on the near horizon (as it were) to be excited for. I'm sure I'm not alone in desperately wanting to get my hands on Persona 5, No Man's Sky, Dishonored 2, I Am Setsuna, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Mass Effect: Andromeda, NieR: Automata and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. On a personal note, I'm also both gratified and somewhat overwhelmed by the number of RPGs - both J and C - that are getting released this year. I'm unsure where I'll find the time to play even half of them. Then again, it's not like I'm particularly current with my gaming these days - in these past six months, I've only played one 2016 release, and that was the last chapter of a mostly 2014/2015 episodic adventure game and barely counts. Apologies for sparking off any backlog-related anxiety about all the great releases so far this year, incidentally, though I'm sure it's a net positive to consider all the wonderful games you've yet to play.

"Dope" and "What's really good?" won't be leaving the GB lexicon any time soon.

As for Giant Bomb itself, we're all of course saddened by the departure of Austin "Professa Killah" Walker, who received an opportunity few would turn down in his position. Giant Bomb is routinely and paradoxically considered one of the most intelligent and insightful homes of video game discussion as much as it is known for any number of incredibly dumb tangents, features and notions, and Austin was of a rare breed that was willing to contribute to both those aspects of the site's personality. He raised the level of discourse on the site between his own contributions and those of the talented freelancers he recruited, but also threw himself into every silly little digression Vinny set up on the Beastcast. He's left his eventual successor with a difficult hole to fill.

Even with that one exception, however, we can agree that the site's had a great year so far. Maybe not so much in terms of new premium features - though Game Tapes is shaping up to be very promising, and all the extant features like UPF, Mario Party Party and Demo Derby have been fun - but the site was firing on all cylinders for E3, and the Beastcast, though now down a member, has gone from strength to strength. I'm also happy to hear that the guest articles won't leave with Austin; other staff members will step in for a while, until we have a news editor again. I have high hopes for the site in the months to follow.

New Games!

I still don't believe this is a real thing that's coming out.
I still don't believe this is a real thing that's coming out.

I've been gushing for the months to follow, but just this next week alone has a lot of games I'd really like to play in the near future. First and foremost is the unexpected surprise that is a new Zero Escape game, Zero Time Dilemma, soon to be released for Steam, PS Vita and 3DS. The status of that particular series was left in the air after the excellent and weird Virtue's Last Reward failed to do as well as its publishers had hoped, but fan outcry got the third game's production back on track. I've deliberately avoided learning anything about it, up to including the inevitable Quick Look, just because so much of those games hinge on mystery and twists. I don't doubt it'll be as convoluted and strange as its forebears though, and I can't wait to try it out.

If that wasn't enough for 3DS owners, we also have the BOXBOY follow-up BOXBOXBOY. The minimalist, monochrome puzzle-platformer was a surprise hit last year, and this sequel looks to adapt the simple but versatile mechanics of the original in some promising new directions. HAL's had a busy few weeks between that and the recent Kirby: Planet Robobot, and BOXBOXBOY seemed to come out of nowhere. It's a good thing Nintendo didn't stick with their original plan of showing nothing but Zelda coverage this E3, because there's a lot they sneaked under the radar for reasons that escape me. If you produce a couple of consoles and a very limited amount of first- and third-party output for that hardware, wouldn't you be shouting from the rooftops about those games?

Thumbs up... for animes?
Thumbs up... for animes?

Because we can't have just two things, this week also sees the release of: Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, or Star Ocean 5, a JRPG series I bounced out of a few games ago but still have some respect for as an uncommon merging of sci-fi and fantasy; Inside, the new atmospheric platformer from Limbo's Playdead; a new JoJo game to take advantage of all these Roundabout memes, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven; LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I'm still critical about because they've always done the Star Wars movies in trilogies; The Technomancer, the new CRPG from the Mars: War Logs developers Spiders that is also based around a Martian conflict, which hopefully has more potential than their previous project; and the PS4 remake of the Vita Monster Hunter-like God Eater Burst, named God Eater Resurrection, is also out this week. For being smack dab in the middle of the Summer slump, that's a hefty amount of new releases.

Wiki!

Daggerfall's easily one of the runs I'm looking forward to most. I imagine it'll be faster than Vinny and Dave's attempt.
Daggerfall's easily one of the runs I'm looking forward to most. I imagine it'll be faster than Vinny and Dave's attempt.

I want to write something about the Summer Games Done Quick schedule closer to when the event begins next Sunday (July 3rd), as well as the wiki work I've been doing to ensure we have some "completed enough" pages for the purposes of Giant Bomb's partnership with Twitch and how they've opted to integrate our wiki database (i.e. very ambiguously, which makes it fun for the wiki mods when some developer can't get Twitch to accept a wiki page's "complete" status), but I can speak in more general terms about this week's wiki output before that article goes up some time later this week.

Tetris: The Grand Master 3: Terror Instinct - shattering any delusions one might have of being good at Tetris since 2005.
Tetris: The Grand Master 3: Terror Instinct - shattering any delusions one might have of being good at Tetris since 2005.

Because this particular wiki project isn't as in-depth as the console ones, many of which require a lot of screenshots as well as additional research on various Japanese sites, I've been able to whiz through the big list of games that will be featured at this year's SGDQ at a relatively brisk speed. This expediency is largely due to the fact that, as this is something like the fifth or sixth time I've built a wiki project around a Games Done Quick event, a lot of the games featured involve treading some familiar ground. There's always similar "blocks", for instance, for Sonic, Mega Man, Mario, Castlevania, PC FPSes, Tetris: The Grand Master, a handful of recurring JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and FF6 and probably a Pokémon or two. The more pressing concerns, then, are all the new Indie games that have built up speedrunning communities since their recent releases, especially as we see more and more that are explicitly geared towards speedrunning, since that particular play style has really risen in stature with these increasingly elaborate Games Done Quick events. There's also the semi-facetious "Awful Games" block that sees a lot of obscure (and deservedly so) turkeys get their speedrun spotlight by particularly masochistic runners that require some digging up.

Though there's a lot of the usual customers that I can safely skip past, having already given them the discerning eye in previous years, I'd say a third of this list still required some significant work to build them up, or at least clean them up. That's a fairly frequent statistic with these wiki projects, and why I'm usually satisfied that these little detours always help to some extent.

Dreamfall Chapters!

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Not much to say for this one, since I've already said a mouthful in last week's two enormous 3000+ word rundowns of the last two Books of Dreamfall Chapters here and here. The game doesn't quite reach the emotional peaks of something like Life is Strange, but as the culmination of years of excellent adventure game storytelling from Ragnar Tornquist and his new studio Red Thread Games, it perhaps deserves more attention than it is presently getting. In particular, the last two Books took in a lot of fan criticism of those that came before, reducing the difficulty and ambiguity of its puzzles and focusing more on the characterization and story aspects its fans were there to see. Though Dreamfall Chapters has a whole had some early issues with how much those city-wide puzzles could drag down the pace of the narrative, its finale was able to course-correct and deliver a brilliant (if overly tidy) conclusion for the many fans who had stuck with it to the end.

If you were even a passing fan of The Longest Journey or Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, I'd highly recommend seeing the adventures of those characters through with this final game, now that all five Books are finally out. I might even recommend playing those first two games before you do so, to minimize the number of callbacks and references that might otherwise be lost on you. It's a marathon I hope @vinny considers turning into content, as the site's biggest adventure game fan.

Aw man, this is the last time I'll be able to use this.
Aw man, this is the last time I'll be able to use this.

Tales of Xillia!

No Caption Provided

I'm only a few hours into the Tales of Xillia, but I have so much to discuss. (It's fortunate, then, that I'll probably be playing this for a few more Sunday Summary features.) That's the nature of every entry in Namco Bandai's Tales series - while the plots and characters tend to be full of familiar (almost comfortably so) tropes and archetypes, the gameplay mechanics are always taking on new ideas and experiments, while ensuring that the core real-time combat is as snappy and enjoyable (though also deeply tactical, once you get to grips with its nuances) as it ever was. In that sense, it's not unlike a fighter game - you're largely driven by instinct gleaned from lots of practice, given the speed of the combat, but at the same time you have to consider the weaknesses of your opponent and the most advantageous approach with the many options you have, seizing on opportunities in the split-second when they present themselves.

Because Tales is such a feature-rich series, especially with every subsequent entry adding something new to the formula, I'm actually a little reluctant to get too deep into any one aspect of Tales of Xillia in case it has more in that area - combat, character progression or exploration - left to introduce. I've still got party members left to recruit too, and all the character-specific talents and abilities they bring to the table. I'll broadly go over some of the new features that Xillia has introduced.

The first is the link system, which seems to be the big new thing for Xillia's combat in particular. When in combat, you can link with one of your three other party members, who will then flank the enemy your character is targeting - you do more damage with back-attacks, including a higher crit rate - and provide a special skill that procs more frequently depending on the enemy type. For instance, the wiseacre mercenary Alvin has a "Breaker" move that greatly reduces the defense on enemy types that guard a lot, while the enigmatic swordswoman Milla can "Bind" faster enemies, like birds who fly out of your range, and hold them in place for you to wail on them. Knowing which of your companions is going to be the most useful for the enemies in front of you is key to this system. More vital to consider, though, are the linked artes. Artes are what the game calls special attacks and spells, which require a separate "Technical Points" stat that slowly regenerates after regular attacks, the idea being that you balance out powerful artes and standard attack combos. When you're linked with someone, and the linked arte gauge is sufficiently high (it raises through regular attacks too), you can perform an arte and then immediately follow it up with another arte that you and your linked partner perform together. Not only are these linked artes extremely powerful, but they don't cost any Technical Points to use, and can even offer a sort of "overlimit" mode that allows you to use artes and regular attacks freely with no cooldown or Technical Point expenditure for a brief time.

Linking's a really useful feature, and a good way of ensuring that you can exert some control over one of your AI companions.
Linking's a really useful feature, and a good way of ensuring that you can exert some control over one of your AI companions.

That probably sounds like a big old word salad to those not accustomed to Tales and its combat, but it's actually very intuitive. You'll face plenty of battles with which to practice - enemies are visible on the overworld, so there's no random encounters, but every area is still teeming with hostiles - and Tales' features have a history of being easier to demonstrate than they are to explain. You also have the usual mix of combat features like exploiting elemental weaknesses, flanking enemies, character-specific abilities like protagonist Jude's ability to back-step away from an enemy's attack only to suddenly appear behind that enemy, combos and air juggles and the effects of curative items and meals, the latter of which is applied before combat and provides a benefit (like an XP boost) that lasts for a set number of battles.

Xillia's other distinctive feature, though perhaps only within Tales itself, is the Lilium Orb. As with Final Fantasy X's giant game of Chinese Checkers that is its Sphere Grid or Final Fantasy XIII's floating crystalline flowcharts, the Lilium Orb provides a grid of nodes that the player can activate once they earn the necessary building points after leveling up. This grid looks like a giant hexagonal web, and the goal is to activate the nodes that surround each square in the grid, which in turn unlocks a new skill or arte for that character to use. The nodes in between tend to improve certain stats, giving the player some freedom in prioritizing the level-up bonuses they need most for that particular character. For instance, a melee-focused character can focus on HP, Physical Strength, Physical/Magical Defense and Speed, as well as techniques like special guards, lengthier combo chains for regular attacks, health recovery after kills and extended back-steps. The player needs to activate a certain number of nodes on the outside layer before more is revealed, and the web-like grid expands ever outward. It's a streamlined version of FFX's Sphere Grid, intelligently so, though it doesn't offer the same versatile crossover opportunities as everyone's Lilium Orb is independent from the other characters'.

Thank the Wiki Gods that we had a picture of the Lilium Orb system I could use for demonstration purposes.
Thank the Wiki Gods that we had a picture of the Lilium Orb system I could use for demonstration purposes.

Since I brought up the trifecta of combat, character development and exploration before starting, I'll mention Xillia's new approach to the final third of those before signing off for this Sunday. The game has no overworld map - rather, it breaks up its towns and settlements with any number of explorable zones in a manner similar to, say, Final Fantasy XII or Xenoblade Chronicles. Each of these zones is packed with enemies, but also a lot of gathering spots and treasure chests. The treasure chests, once opened, stay opened forever, though the gathering spots have a set percentage to refresh their contents every time you leave the area and come back. The vast majority of the pick-ups from these gathering spots are materials, which the player can either sell or invest in stores. Investing in stores increases the inventory for every shop of that type in the game, and the best way to acquire better weapons, armor, accessories and healing items is to keep investing in stores and increasing their levels. In addition, items that are already unlocked become deeply discounted, which means there's never a bad reason to dump everything you've found in expanding the store types. The game offers an extra expansion bonus for certain material types, but these change all the time - if your armor shop level is lagging behind and you don't have the bonus material type to improve it, you can come back a little later and find that it's switched to a different type. Again, a little out of the ordinary, but a great way of giving the player more agency in how and when new equipment becomes available. It seems like the type of game that the player can make easier on themselves if they're willing to do a little extra grinding and farming.

Anyway, I'll have more to say on Tales of Xillia on the weeks to come. Naturally, as soon as I beat this game Tales of Berseria will have already come out in Japan, thereby ensuring that I'm making zero progress catching up with this immense RPG series. Then again, it's perhaps for the best that I'll always have a new Tales game to look forward to if the release schedule happens to be a bit sluggish that month.

Until next time... keep it dope, Giant Bomb. And thanks, Austin.
Until next time... keep it dope, Giant Bomb. And thanks, Austin.

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