Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Game Review: Eiyuu densetsu: sen no kiseki II / Trails of Cold Steel 2 (PS Vita)

Sen no kiseki II (Trails of Cold Steel 2) is a sequel that boasts many improvements over the original, notably the music, graphics, and combat. It picks up shortly after the cliffhanger ending of Sen no kiseki (review here), and resolves a number of mysteries from the first game. Overall, it's a terrific game with a couple of glaring flaws.

In the sequel, the chancellor's shooting ignites a civil war within the Erebonian Empire. As the Noble Faction pits its provincial armies against the imperial forces still loyal to the chancellor, protagonist Rean Schwarzer must reunite with Class VII, his comrades from Thors Military Academy. Together, they contribute to efforts to end the fighting and assist innocent civilians. Meanwhile, hidden forces plot an outcome that bodes ill for everyone, regardless of allegiance...

Sen no kiseki II is the seventh entry into the Eiyuu densetsu: kiseki (Legend of Heroes: Trails) series, which takes place on the continent of Zemuria. Characters from previous games/other countries make an appearance, such as Prince Oliviert from Sora no kiseki (Trails in the Sky, my review here), and [SPOILER] from [EXTREME SPOILER, my review here]. These cameos, as well as mentions of other states and international events, expand the scope of the game and remind players that everything is connected, so buy the other Trails games now!

The gameplay in Sen no kiseki II retains most of the elements of the original, with a turn-based combat system, tons of sidequests and hidden quests, character bonding events, and NPCs with elaborate backstories. Towns, monster-infested roads, and secret dungeons abound. The main story progresses in two Acts, with an Intermission, Finale, Divertissement, and Epilogue to further pad playtime. This allows the sequel to expand the world introduced in the first game, with a larger roster of playable characters, lots of mecha combat, and more locations available and easily accessible via airship.

A digression: the airship mechanic annoyed me. It’s fine if you have stuff to do or people to talk to on board, but actual travel, presumably the vehicle’s primary function, is a three-step process. THREE STEPS! Ain’t no one got the time to (1) get on board, (2) talk to the captain, and (3) select a location. It’s such a contrast to the teleportation function in towns/cities (press square, instant travel!). Grumble, grumble, I am old and cranky.

Fortunately, the shining gem of Sen II’s gameplay – the combat system – is so wonderfully broken that I’m willing to overlook most anything. Apart from the devastating special crafts (S Crafts, basically Limit Breaks), there’s the Over-Rise mode (essentially the Burst feature from Ao no kiseki), which unlocks when combat-linked characters fill a special meter. In Over-Rise, characters get extra HP, EP and CP, and spells are instantaneous. Then there’s Rush, which, as the name implies, is when multiple characters rush in simultaneously to attack enemies. But the core of the battle system is the combat links, wherein paired characters get special abilities that improve as their link levels rise, e.g. Arts or CP boosts, quick healing, EP recovery, etc. With my favored paired characters decked out with speed enhancements and other attribute boosts, by the end of Act 2, I was practically untouchable and could wipe the floor with supposedly difficult hidden bosses (Lindbaum didn’t even scratch me!).

The soundtrack is similarly outstanding. Every single track is worth a listen, and I was surprised at how familiar and nostalgic the Divertissement track was—those who played Zero and Ao no kiseki will know what I’m talking about. The music is so good that I get all pumped for epic boss fights, and dutifully tear up during emotional scenes. I am a puppet, I dance!

Another strength of Sen no kiseki II is the characters, although not everyone shines in this category. Despite having 21 playable characters, the core of the game is still Class VII, a group of nine youths assembled to overcome the empire’s social stratification (plus two added later for less idealistic reasons).

Top row: Jusis, Machias, Laura, Emma, Gaius; Bottom row: Instructor Sara, Fie, Alisa, Rean, Eliot, Millium, Crow

Rean is his usual lost-yet-determined self, quick to jump in with an inspirational and corny speech to change hearts and minds. Jusis makes a choice that makes him a true noble. Emma becomes less distant. Laura and Fie remain badasses, and Eliot is still adorable. The most unexpected improvement was Alisa, who shows that she’s observant, empathetic, and understands the burdens carried by her classmates. By contrast, in the first game, she was mostly defined by her terrible relationship with her mother (who is still not Mother of the Year, by the way). Only Machias and Gaius, whose backgrounds were covered in the original, stay flat and frankly, pointless. Be OP (overpowered) or get out!

Now let’s talk about the plot, which is both a strength and a weakness. There are two things going on here: the Erebonian civil war, and the machinations of Ouroboros, the hidden society whose members side with the Noble Faction to further their own ends. The Erebonian civil war is straightforward: nobles who want to preserve the social order are vying against the reform-minded meritocratic national army (and Class VII, which is a mix of the social classes).

Meanwhile, Ouroboros has been a mainstay of every single Trails entry, meaning they (and the developers) are playing a long game. The society has an ultimate goal called The Orpheus Final Plan, and their various projects leading up to it serve as the main obstacles to Trails heroes, e.g. the Phantom Flame Project from Sora no kiseki. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a musician who tried to bring his wife back from the dead, so I’m guessing Ouroboros wants to revive the goddess Aidios, the oft-mentioned and sole deity in all Trails games. In Sen no kiseki II, Ouroboros’ project is the grandly-titled Phantasmal Blaze Plan, and it’s connected to events in Crossbell from the Zero and Ao no kiseki games. It's a hot mess, and thus weakens the plot: all the confusion takes focus away from the characters' growth.

Speaking of hot mess, what was up with that fake ending??? Here’s what happened, dear reader: I went into what looked like the final dungeon, defeated four sets of sub-bosses, whomped all three forms of the presumably final boss, and got rewarded by a predictable plot twist. And then came another plot twist, and the screen cut to black, a J-pop song blared, and credits rolled. I was like, “Nailed it in under 80 hours! Will wonders never cease!” AND THEN THE GAME KEPT GOING FOR ANOTHER BILLION YEARS.

I exaggerate, but there were two whole other sections that followed that “ending,” which NO. Just No. The only good news is that it leads into a wonderful callback to Ao no kiseki, where a certain scantily-clad lady shows off what a dancer’s legs look like (Muscular! Amazing!).

Speaking of scantily-clad, what happened to the rest of Fie’s civilian clothes? What, Nihon Falcom couldn’t just make her breasts bigger for the sequel, like they did with all the other ladies?
Fie: Still 15, now with 40% less clothing!

In conclusion, Sen no kiseki II is a strong sequel that requires a lot of time and commitment that perhaps could be lavished on other things, such as one's offspring, for instance. While I’m happy with the experience and shipped Rean and Laura as hard as I could, I will likely not be playing Sen no kiseki III  anytime soon because (a) it's on PS4, not Vita, (b) meaning I would have to create a new PSN account so I can play the game since there’s no localized version yet, and (c) I’d rather play the latest Ys, which has a far superior combat system and manages to create a sense of epic scale despite deliberately limited geography and a much shorter playing time.

TL;DR: Recommended for hardcore fans of the Trails series or lovers of excellent JRPGs.


This post brought to you by water!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is a rollicking prelude to Asgard's end times. Headlined by the power antlers of Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death, utter destruction has never been so appealing. In his third movie, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is determined to stop her and save his people...because that's what heroes do.

Humor is the standout in Thor: Ragnarok. There are so many quotable lines ("I have been falling for thirty minutes!"), absurd exchanges, and just plain goofy moments, like Thor's attempt to smash a window with an exercise ball. Jeff Goldblum is a riot as the Grandmaster, and Korg (Taika Waititi) is ridiculous. Even Hela will pause her murder spree long enough to make a dry observation. This movie is lighthearted despite its high stakes, and a lot of that is because of its lead.

Thor is uncomplicated. He's Odinson, the god of thunder, next in line to the throne, and a hero. He's sure of himself and his place in the world, and is as swaggeringly confident here as he was in his first movie. He is single-minded in purpose; the many beatings he receives only strengthen his resolve to save Asgard. He's a lovable lunk who's worth rooting for.

The supporting characters are similarly stellar. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is up to his old tricks, and he's such a fun character because the tiny bit of goodness and decency he still has sometimes makes his actions difficult to predict. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is, as always, a formidable ally. And Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is a welcome addition to the team. Her memories of Hela's defeat of her sisters comprise the most gorgeous scene in the film:

A number of themes from Thor are present in Thor: Ragnarok: family, secrets, ambition, responsibility, and the use/abuse of power. But this time around, Thor's nemesis is seemingly undefeatable -- how do you win against the goddess of death? Especially when she's played with gusto by a scenery-chewing Cate Blanchett and her eyeliner? The answer makes sense, and now other parts of the Marvel universe will be embroiled in the consequences.

TL;DR: Thor: Ragnarok is fun! Highly recommended, 3D optional.


This post brought to you by what feels like an early winter!