Root Letter – All fluff and no meat

*This review is also posted on GameLuster.

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Root Letter is the first title in the Kadokawa Game Mystery Series with contributions from key staff who worked on Konami’s Love Plus+ series, like character designer Mino Taro. When it was first announced, I found myself drawn in by the gorgeous art and knew I needed to play it. Other than its art, Root Letter also further held my attention with this line:

“I’ve killed someone. This is farewell…goodbye.”

Almost everyone who read it would find themselves gripped by curiosity, and like me, decided to give the game a chance. This was reflected in the sales for Root Letter, which had exceeded expectations and sold over two hundred thousand copies, the head of marketing of PQube describing it as ‘Phenomenal’ success.

Unfortunately, for all the excitement and intrigue the game generated from the art, summary and trailers, Root Letter ended up disappointing me. As someone who has played a number of visual novels, Root Letter is merely serviceable, failing in both story and its attempt at a mystery.

For the uninitiated, a visual novel is an interactive game with static graphics, most often using anime-style art, with minimal gameplay, consisting predominantly of narration. Many visual novels are similar in that they have multiple endings that are determined by the choices of the player, and Root Letter is no different in this regard.

For the sake of making this review less confusing, I will be referring to Root Letter as a game throughout the review.

Story

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The story puts you in the shoes of an adult man in his thirties, who discovers old letters from his pen-pal he regularly wrote to fifteen years ago. He finds an unopened letter with no post mark and to his horror, discovers it contains a confession where she claims to have killed someone. His curiosity bubbles over and sends him packing to Matsue, the town which his pen-pal, Aya Fumino, lived in.

The first chapter is a glance into what you can expect from the rest of the game. Throughout the story the main character is only propelled from place to place by vague reasons that makes absolutely no sense, playing detective and generally being a nuisance to the Matsue community. The premise of Root Letter is promising, but is badly executed and poorly written.

One example of this, is the reason the main character sets out to search for his pen-pal. His motivation for doing so is laughable. He decides to search for her just because he was curious, not even bothering to form any sort of plan. It’s a lazy attempt to justify why he sets off on a wild goose chase, and had me scratching my head.

From there it’s just a series of poor coincidences and random discoveries that pushes the story forward. The pacing is choppy, with the main character going from place to place with no rhyme or reason other than the game needing him to be there, and it really hinders the atmosphere of mystery and anticipation Root Letter is aiming for.

As you attempt to solve the mystery, you’ll run around Matsue and confront people who vaguely resemble the friends your pen-pal talked about in her letters, and wonder why your attempts to wheedle information out of them ends in hostility. The main character lack tact and comes off as a wannabe detective, constantly relying on brute force and wild guesses. There was a scene where he walks into a high school, searches the premises, and is surprised that the staff and security haul him in for questioning!

Root Letter feels like the writer scribbled down a bunch of vaguely interesting ideas and strung them together, lacking the coherence a proper story should have. I could only play it in short bursts because my attention would inevitably drift away, bored out of my mind as I read painful lines like:

I made a reservation at the Matsue Inn.

I have arrived at the Inn.

“This must be the Matsue Inn which I made a reservation at.”

Thankfully, Root Letter doesn’t last longer than ten hours, because I doubt I’d have completed it if it were longer.

Characters

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Root Letter’s characters fall into either category: interesting and thoughtful, or plain obnoxious. You’re given some backstory on each character as the game progresses, and how their relationship with Aya Fumino shaped them, and for the most part, they are decently written. Being able to compare the characters’ past and present selves also made the game interesting. There’s something bittersweet about seeing how far they’ve come, or how far they strayed from their dreams.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the main character. He’s bland and uninteresting, the only thing resembling characterization is his obsession with his pen-pal, Aya. What Root Letter is doing, is giving us a blank canvas to project ourselves onto. This is a common tactic in visual novels as it gets the player to feel more invested in the story.

However, the failing of Root Letter is that it forgets the player has no control over the actions of the main character. The only thing you have a bearing on is how he replies to Aya’s letters, which determines which of the five endings you’ll end up with. This is a problem because when the main character does something thoroughly unlikable, doing something you wouldn’t, it creates a dissonance between the player and the game.

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Root Letter’s only saving grace is its art. Each location in Matsue is beautifully drawn and brought to life, the clean and crisp backgrounds giving my eyes plenty of things to appreciate while searching for clues. Characters are also tastefully designed and gorgeous to look at, with none looking similar to the other. The game could have been so much more, but ends up falling short because of bad writing.

Overall, Root Letter isn’t the worst visual novel I’ve played and there are people who played and liked it. But I can’t recommend it unless it’s on sale, simply because there are better ones out there to spend your time on.

6/10

Meh.

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Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – Weird, wonderful, and amazing

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With the announcement of Deep Strange Journey, I thought it appropriate to play the original game. I’d gotten a used copy of SMT: Strange journey a year back but due to being somewhat of a compulsive buyer, never got around to actually playing it until now. As a fan of Shin megami tensei and its spinoffs, I was eager to see what the game would be like.

Strange journey has captured my heart with its mature storyline, well-written characters, and challenging gameplay. This game absolutely floored me, and I’m more excited for the remake than ever. A game like this deserves a new lease of life and needs to be experienced by 3DS owners who have never gotten the chance. In short, missing out on a gem like this would be tragic.

Story

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The game begins with a piece of horrible news being delivered.

The earth is at risk of annihilation as a black void called the Schwarzwelt, rapidly expands and consumes everything in its path. You play as an officer who get drafted into the Schwarzwelt Investigational Team at the request of the U.N to find a solution. The intense prologue inflated me with a sense of urgency and importance, and was a glimpse into what to expect from strange journey.

The story only gets more interesting from there. The journey through Schwarzwelt proves to be a hard, but not impossible, feat. Everything from the setting to the story is beautifully written and handled. I would sometimes feel I was reading a sci-fi epic rather than playing a game.

In strange journey, you can choose to side with three different alignments. Law, neutral and chaotic. Your reactions to different events in the game will determine your alignment and the ending you will reach, so think carefully when presented with a decision.zelenin.png

Choosing a side is up to personal tastes or whoever you think is ‘right.’ There isn’t a side which is inherently right or wrong which makes it harder for the player to choose, and once you do make a decision, it can feel like you’re merely picking the lesser evil.

Strange journey doesn’t hold back with its subject matter and subtly expands on topics like morality, consumerism, and religion throughout the game. You know, typical SMT stuff.

Other than the main story, you can also choose to complete side missions. Known as Ex-missions in the game, completing those awards you with items and in-game currency known as macca. You get to experience more of the Schwarzwelt and its demon inhabitants. My favourite side mission was helping a demon find out who ate his meat, titled FOOL EAT MEAT.

Most of the side missions are quirky and make the game more charming. The occasions where I found myself bored while doing a mission are extremely rare. There is always content to keep you busy.

Gameplay

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Strange journey is slightly different from mainline SMT games. It still retains the tried and true turn based battle system and allows you to exploit demon weaknesses, but instead of giving you extra turns when you attack a demon’s weak point, you get to do a co-op attack instead.

If the demons in your party are the same alignment as you, you can launch a devastating co-op attack to deal extra damage. I like this mechanic because it gives you the chance to deal damage even if your party members are weak. It comes in handy when battling bosses or when individual attacks do little damage. This mechanic takes some getting used to, but once you get a hang of it you’ll realise how useful it actually is.

One thing players have to take note of is how difficult Bosses can be. You have to plan for boss battles and go through some trial and error to find a good strategy, but you will eventually defeat them. Exploiting weaknesses, using buffs and debuffs is a good way to keep the enemies in check and prolong your survival. Strange journey is challenging but with the right demons and some practice, you’ll find yourself enjoying yourself immensely.

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Strange journey also makes use of first person exploration. As a fan of dungeon crawlers like Etrian Odyssey I got used to it fairly quickly, and the game helps you along by automatically mapping where you traverse on the bottom screen.

The dungeons in the game are unique and are fun to explore, each filled with different types of demons. However, they can be ridiculously complicated at times. Some dungeons are rich with floor traps that decrease your HP, while others can afflict you with status effects, poisoning your party for example, and leave you vulnerable to demon attacks.

Exploring them also requires a bit of luck. You will either reach your destination quickly or end up lost and frustrated. Thankfully, there are plenty of guides to ease your pain and it’s a good idea to consult them if you’re stuck.

Overall

I can wholeheartedly recommend strange journey to gamers who’ve played SMT games but not so much for newcomers. If you’re someone who dislikes hard games or occasionally grinding for EXP, Strange Journey might not be the right choice.

This is just my personal opinion, of course, so you’re welcome to take a shot at it if you’d like. But if you looking to enter the Shin Megami Tensei series, I would recommend SMT IV over this one.

10/10

Here be demons

 

Fire Emblem Echoes – A remake fit to knock your socks off

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The revival of the Fire Emblem is one of Nintendo’s greatest accidental achievements. No one anticipated Awakening to be the hit smash of 2012, and even less would have guessed the franchise going mainstream with the release of Fates.

But despite the success of both games, many old-school fans were vocal about disliking new the marriage system. The arguments against it consisted of worries that it was turning Fire Emblem games into ‘waifu simulators.’

In a stroke of genius, Nintendo decided to remake a game that was never released outside Japan. A remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden.

The news of this remake titled Fire Emblem Echoes was met with rabid excitement from both new and old fans. The game would be released to the world with new art and additional content. For the first time, the entire fanbase looked forward to the game’s release.

The great news?  It did not disappoint.

After playing Awakening twice and all three routes offered by Fates, I felt burnt out from Fire Emblem. A change of pace is exactly what I need, and what I’m guessing many players need, to revive our love for the series.

This was partly the reason I was looking forward to the release of Echoes. It was once regarded as the black sheep of the franchise due to its odd gameplay mechanics, which includes allowing players to roam/explore dungeons.

Story

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Alm and Celica

The story follows two children of fate, Celica and Alm. At the start of the game, we learn that Celica is the princess of Zofia. Due to the schemes of a power hungry man bent on ascending the throne she flees the kingdom and with the help of a loyal soldier, is hidden in Ram village. This is where she meets Alm.

They get along splendidly and become as thick as thieves. They also bond over the identical mark on the back of their hands.

Unfortunately, they part ways soon after Celica’s pursuers find them, as she is no longer able to stay in Ram village for fear of getting captured. Celica and Alm promise to meet again, not realizing that their eventual meeting is destined to be far less happy than they hoped.

The game has five chapters, or acts, in total. The player gets to control both Alm and Celica’s armies as they march toward their individual goals, both of which involve different ways of stopping the war between Zofia and Rigel.

Each army has different aims to accomplish and both routes are well-written. Despite the problems of pacing when going back and forth between the two routes, I found that it ultimately suited the game due to the type of story it tries to tell.

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It might seem strange for the game to make you play two differing perspectives but it helps a great deal in fleshing out the story. Thus, Echoes delivers a far more intriguing narrative than previous two games. There are people who described the plot as straight forward, but I disagree. The story isn’t complicated but to say it is straightforward would be doing it a disservice. Overall, I loved it, despite the clichéd end boss.

Other than the main story, the player can also choose to do side quests – which comes in the form of helping different characters/villagers you come across. Rewards differ, some giving helpful items or weapons while others allow you to recruit new characters once the quest is fulfilled.

Echoes lacks a marriage system but still has supports between characters. Most of the supports are thoughtfully written, I would say they were more enjoyable or on par with Awakening’s.

My gripe is that not all characters have supports with each other, as the pairings follow that of Fire Emblem Gaiden. It limits the immersion of the army and makes the ‘interactions’ feel more artificial then it should be.

This is only a minor nit-pick but I felt I should point it out for newer fans of the franchise who expect a similar system to previous games.

Characters

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The overall cast of Echoes was great. They were varied and interesting, some with their own interesting backstories. But the ones who stole the show were Alm, Celica, and Berkut.

Alm evolved from a whiny brat to a level headed leader, while Celica grew into her eventual role of a princess. There were times where their dialogue bordered on being ridiculously cheesy, but other times really brought the best out of them and allowed individual traits to shine through.

One complaint I have about Alm and Celica is that they seem to lean too closely towards anime tropes.

There are times Alm behaved like the classic hero protagonist, who could lead soldiers or people and do no wrong, while being relentlessly optimistic. Likewise, Celica could come off as the damsel in distress despite the fact she could defend herself very well. Her decisions were sometimes mind bogglingly stupid. But the game tries its best to steer away from those tropes and leaves us with a balance of good characterisation and clichéd ones.

The protagonists – Celica and Alm – were everything I hoped them to be. What I did not expect was one of the antagonists to be as interesting. Or perhaps even more than Celica and Alm were.

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Berkut and Rinea

Introduced in chapter 3, Berkut steals the show in every scene he appears in. The nephew of Rigel’s Emperor, he is every inch an arrogant noble he portrays himself to be. His mannerisms and traits are cookie cutter, and I bet you’ve seen variations of his type of character in other games or anime.

But instead of just having him be a forgettable obstacle on Alm’s journey, the game chooses to develop him extremely well. There’s more to him than just being ‘the noble who belittles everyone’ and underneath the bravado, Berkut is a fragile, egoistic man with an unquenchable thirst for strength. Like a cracked glass which cannot be filled.

Accompanying him in most scenes is his wife, Rinea. Other than his disdain for commoners, his love for his wife is also plainly seen. In contrast to similar antagonists, he genuinely loves and cares for her. I began to see him not as just the man Alm needs to defeat, but also the man who defends his country and wants to see it prosper. The game does well to remind us that despite his faults, Berkut is human.

Echoes would not be as memorable without Berkut. It would have been good. But not great.

Sound

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The Emperor of Rigel

The soundtrack for Echoes is amazing. Every track is memorable and fits the scenes they are played in extremely well. Dungeons sound ominous and creepy, battles are intense and exciting, and rest areas do well to soothe and relax. Even exploring a drab area can feel delightful because of it. 

Another great thing about this game is that almost all dialogue is voiced. In my opinion, the English voice actors knocked it out of the park. The voices for every character felt fitting, and emotional scenes really knock the wind out of you with the heartfelt performances.

Some people might complain that the game lacks the option to switch between Japanese and English voices, but to them I will pose this question: Why do you need it? I would honestly rather play Echoes in English than in Japanese. The voice acting is superb, not a single line ever stuck out to me as being weird or bad. I feel like the definitive way to play this game is with english dub.

Conclusion

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Both newcomers and veterans of Fire Emblem will find something to enjoy in Fire Emblem Echoes. An enjoyable battle system and fantastic narrative will be a real treat for anyone who felt previous Fire Emblem games fell short of their expectations. This game will be a permanent fixture in my 3DS library and I hope it will be in yours.

10/10

Brilliant

Refunct – Soothing? Check. Fun? Check.

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Refunct is a short platformer that caught my eye during Steam’s Summer Sale. It was originally on my wishlist because of its ‘overwhelmingly positive reviews.’

It’s rare for games to be that well received on Steam, which pushed me to get the game when the price dropped. I picked it up for less than two dollars but even without the sale it had a pretty affordable price of around three dollars and fifty cents.

I didn’t know what to expect other than getting a brief but pleasant experience which many steam users claimed to have had.

Upon loading, I was greeted by a minimalistic looking screen that drew me in with bright colours and a simple art style.

The game runs buttery smooth. Refunct sells itself as a casual open world platformer with no tutorial, no death and relaxing visuals. I’d say the game was interesting, combining the feeling of freedom that comes with an open world game with a playful and calm atmosphere of walking simulators.

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The platforming is fairly easy. There were few times I was stumped when trying to get the collectible items littered around the map, but it was never to the point where I’d consult a walkthrough or quit halfway.

One thing I found really cool was that when I jumped from surface to surface, the places I’d stepped on changed from white to green and had a nice texture that reminded me of carpet grass. It added to the overall atmosphere, and there was a certain childlike joy that came from jumping to a new platform and seeing the ground turn green under your feet.

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In addition, you are surrounded by water as far as the eye can see. I was also surprised that I could dive in and swim under the platforms. Refunct stays true to the developer’s promise of a seamless and dynamic experience.

There is also a night/day cycle in the game, but I found it to be unnecessary since it didn’t add to my overall experience. Considering it only took half an hour to complete, a day/night cycle felt unneeded.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with this game. If you’re craving for a short but fun platformer and don’t want something ridiculously hard, Refunct is the perfect game to sink your teeth into.

7/10

Time to kick back and relax

Horizon Zero Dawn – Beware the mighty Thunderjaw!

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I’m glad my first PS4 game was Horizon Zero Dawn. Though some may disagree, I am a believer that great games make a great console. I don’t think I’ll be letting go of my PS4 anytime within the next century since it’ll be a crime not to play Horizon Zero Dawn one more time.

There will be minor spoilers in the review, but don’t worry too much as I’m merely touching the surface of what the game has to offer.

Story

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It was a delight following the game’s protagonist, Aloy of the Nora, on her journey. After we watch a lengthy cut scene of a child Aloy trying to come to terms that she is an outcast, we’re first given control of her when she falls into a hidden area – where the remnants of a destroyed civilization greet her. It’s a gripping introduction that served well to draw players in.

The mystery surrounding Aloy’s past and how she came to be kept me hooked. While the story isn’t the most complicated I’ve seen, it had its fair share of plot twists and ‘Holy shit’ moments that kept me on the edge. The writing did feel slightly cliché at times, but that’s something I can live with. All in all, the story was fulfilling and well-paced throughout.

Another thing that contributed to the story was how well the world of Horizon Zero Dawn was fleshed out, which we get to experience via side quests. There wasn’t a single thing that felt unnatural about the setting and how things played out.

Horizon Zero Dawn proved that side quests in open world games can avoid being the boring, overused filler that is a staple of other triple A games.

As Aloy, you get to rescue people from bandits, foil any and all dastardly plans, as well as explore large caves known as ‘Cauldrons’ which make the mechanical beasts that populate the world of Horizon. After the quality time I spent with the game, I can proudly give my recommendation and that it is undoubtedly worth the price tag.

One downside is that while the side quests are enjoyable and serve well to flesh out the world, they sometimes distract me too much from the main story. I could be on my way to the next location when I’ll get the urge to explore my surroundings – and end up stumbling onto another side quest to add to my ever growing to do list. It’s not a huge detriment and more of a pet peeve, so it wouldn’t be a negative if you’re a person who loves content.

But I think the story would have had more impact if I wasn’t running off every twenty minutes to help someone find their lost kin.

Characters

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Aloy talking to Sylens

At the beginning, Aloy’s your token ‘I can’t remember my childhood so I want to find out’ protagonist and as tropes go, it’s on the more clichéd side. Nevertheless, Guerilla Games did a marvelous job of showing the players that she is more layered than she seems, through the use of main and side quests. To be honest, Aloy is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve had the pleasure of following. While she does often dream of taking revenge (due to some major plot points) she doesn’t turn into the cynical, depressed protagonists we see far too often.

Throughout my time as Aloy, it was exciting to learn about her as a character. Little things like mumbling sarcastically to herself when she’s inevitably dropped into another dangerous situation. Sassing the assholes who judge her without getting to know her. Making hilarious quips that proudly showcase her dry sense of humor. Her voice actor did sound bland at times, but those moments are few and far between.

There to balance her slightly naïve outlook on the world, is Sylens. After helping her escape from her enemies, he expresses an interest in assisting her. When I first encountered him, my first assessment of the man was that he’s a dick.

But as the story progressed, I began to grow fond of his analytical, and often cold, demeanor. He’s the perfect balm to Aloy’s brashness, often preferring to look at the bigger picture. Sylens comes off as a selfish self-centered person, but really, he’s just a person with flaws. Like Aloy. Like everyone. Overall I thought he was an excellent character that contributed in making Horizon Zero Dawn a cut above the rest.

Some characters get a good chunk of development, but not all of them. It’s unfortunate, but I’d rather have several interesting and well written characters than a large roster of plain boring ones. Two of my favourite characters are Erend, a bodyguard to the Carja King, and Neil, a bloodthirsty and psychopathic bandit hunter.

Gameplay

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Horizon Zero Dawn runs like a dream. Even on my original PS4 I suffered zero lag and frame drops, a far cry from most modern titles. The only thing I was annoyed by was the long load times when I fast travelled from one point to another. This is a minor nitpick, considering there are no loading screens when you run from place to place, but it was still irritating to wait. There is also little to no bugs, and wow did that make me happy.

Another major positive was the game mechanics. Aloy’s numerous weapons provided me with an awesome and versatile hunting experience. When taking out a Stalker for example, I could shoot a ball of volatile electricity to stun it, and then smoothly switch to a bow to blow its grenade launcher off. I think a large chunk of the hours I spent in game was hunting down every single machine I could find.

The large variety of machines kept the game challenging. However, one thing that annoyed me is that the map is overflowing with hostile machines. Once, I entered a new area to explore, and was immediately attacked by three types of machines. One of them was a giant, fucking bird that could shoot electricity from its chest. Needless to say, I wasn’t a happy camper when I had to reload my save because Aloy got torn to small, meaty bits.

Conclusion

Horizon Zero Dawn is a strong contender for GOTY. Considering that I’m still thinking about how fun the game is while playing Persona 5 – an amazing game in its own right – I think Horizon Zero Dawn is worth its asking price. I’ll be back to hunt machines again, that I can guarantee.

9/10

I need a sequel…now.