Final Fantasy XV Platinum Demo

Square-Enix probably shouldn’t have released this as the first public-facing demo because it assumes that you’ve played Episode Duscae and are familiar with how the combat will play out once you have most of your options. If this was your first experience with Final Fantasy XV, you’d be pretty underwhelmed, as evidenced by the reactions over at NeoGAF. (Unrelated note: It still makes me giddy that GAF, self-proclaimed last bastion of the “hardcore”, overwhelmingly voted Portal and Skyrim as 2011 GOTY over Dark Souls.)

The game actually gives some decent advice in the loading screens: press and hold Circle to attack, press and hold Square to auto-dodge, and that some attacks can’t be auto-dodged. It also tells you that you can perform a dodge roll by pressing Square and holding a direction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mention somewhat important things like that you can use different attacks by holding different directions while holding Circle, that you use MP for certain things and running out is bad, and that you can use a powerful charged attack that gives you invincibility frames by letting go of Circle and then holding it again after a combo string. If you’ve played Episode Duscae, you’ll be familiar with a few combat tricks, but the game could use a good tutorial (note: hahaha) or maybe gamers could learn things by experimenting (note: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA).

Because of that, the game looks like it has no combat depth and that you can just “hold Circle to awesome” your way through the game. And really, it’s hard to blame people for thinking that way, partially because most of the interesting combat was in Episode Duscae, and partially because that’s the way the industry is trending. Sure, the game has lots of interesting combat tricks, but it remains to be seen how many of them will be “required” to complete the main story. The game will probably have its share of bonus bosses, but the vast majority of gamers, even at the self-proclaimed last bastion of the “hardcore”, won’t ever beat them.

Overall, most demos do more harm than good, and it’s especially true with this one. It didn’t do much for people who already played Episode Duscae and it gave a poor impression for those who were on the fence. My hype remains steadily in the 80-90 range, but I can see why some gamers would be falling off.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Capcom threw its dedicated American fans a great present in the form of the fourth entry in the Monster Hunter series. The franchise has been making steady improvements with each successive entry, MH3U’s underwater combat notwithstanding, without losing what originally drew in gamers. How many franchises can say that?

The first thing I noticed upon starting the game was that the mighty Tigrex makes a triumphant return, along with some other monsters that skipped the third entry, like the Gravios and the Basarios. Capcom was smart enough to let the newest monsters take center stage, though, as the game opens with you hunting monsters like the Seltas, an overgrown beetle with a giant horn, and the Nerscylla, a giant spider that swings on its webs like a frightening Spider-Man. Later on, you’ll meet the Zamtrios, a giant shark that can inflate his belly and bounce on top of you, and the Najarala, a snake-lizard hybrid that encircles you and can paralyze you with its bite.

The coolest thing about the early quest progression is that you face monsters with unique movements and attacks, a far cry from the normal -dromes and charging wyverns from the previous games. Unfortunately, Capcom couldn’t completely break from series tradition, as they saw fit to stick you with those crappy fishing and egg-gathering missions again. Argh.

Capcom seems to have put some thought behind the story this time, with more (nicely done) cutscenes, characters to interact with, and places to visit. Fortunately, it doesn’t get in the way of the hunting, although the characters can be a bit talky at times.

There are two new weapons, the Insect Glaive and the Charge Blade. Since I don’t use the Blade, I have nothing to say about it. But the Glaive is an extremely cool and fun weapon that relies on you using your Kinsect to steal essences from the monster to buff yourself. The Glaive also has a cool pole-vaulting attack that takes advantage of MH4U’s emphasis on verticality and aerial combat. You can now climb ledges and leap down on monsters to mount them, which can lead to an easy knockdown if you do it right.

Although the verticality is cool, it does occasionally lead to some troublesome moments where you’ll attempt to roll out of an attack but get hit because you went over a tiny ledge, which forced you into the “leaping down” animation instead of the “invincible rolling” animation. Mounting is useful in solo play but sometimes problematic in multiplayer, as the non-mounting players can’t attack the monster without potentially ruining it for the mounting player.

Another new feature is the addition of subquests, which are optional objectives that give extra rewards upon completion. You can leave the quest without completing the main objective if the subquest is completed, although there’s little need to ever do that if you’re prepared. Take the free rewards and run, I suppose.

Expeditions have replaced Moga Woods as the game’s free hunt mode, and while the Everwood is pretty dull compared to Moga Woods, Expeditions themselves are fun and a useful way to practice fighting. You can also find Rusted Weapons and Armor in the Everwood, and when polished, you might find that the equipment has different abilities and stats from the “normal” version of that particular piece of gear. Interesting and potentially useful, especially for weapons like the Bowguns and Hunting Horns.

The core gameplay remains as strong as ever, and despite some goofiness with the verticality, it’s still a net positive because it opens up some neat opportunities, both for you and the monsters. Veterans of the series can pick this one up and feel right at home, and they should, because Capcom has been able to keep the core gameplay intact despite all the goofiness. Who cares if you’re talking to a bunch of weirdos and pointlessly running around in the Everwood at times, when the fighting just feels so good?

Traps & Gemstones review

Title screen

Traps & Gemstones bucks traditional iOS naming conventions by being a Metroidvania, rather than a match-3 Puzzles & Dragons clone. That’s noteworthy as it is, but the game itself is pretty solid, too.

The goal of the game, condensed to fit in a handy text bubble.

The game features an unnamed archaeologist whose quest is to descend into a dangerous pyramid in search of 25 relics that have been stolen from their proper altars. Fortunately, the thieves placed the relics into easily-accessed treasure chests within the same pyramid that they stole the relics from in the first place. Courteous thieves, aren’t they?

Inventory and map screenLike any good Metroidvania, collecting items and returning relics to their altars open up previously blocked passages, allowing further exploration. The focus on collecting relics over items, though, means that your character doesn’t really gain much in terms of powers and abilities throughout the game. It also means that the game can be quite obtuse at times, as the altars do not give any hints as to what relic should be placed there.

The control scheme is a bit unusual, with left and right on one hand and up and down (jumping and rolling, respectively) on the other. When you obtain the whip, which is your only weapon throughout the game, a button appears above the up and down arrows. Most actions such as collecting coins and opening chests are done automatically, and a large pop-up window appears when you need to use an item or place a relic.

These controls work well and it doesn’t take too long to get used to the unusual placement. Unfortunately for those who prefer conspicuous consumerism, the game doesn’t have controller support, although the game is so simple that it probably isn’t necessary to begin with.

Caves are scary!

Your character is a One Hit Point Wonder who frequently dies to hazards such as spikes, scorpions, mummies, and piranhas. Fortunately, the game is quite forgiving: dying merely returns you to the entrance of the current room. On the flip side, though, dying also returns your score to zero. Traps & Gemstones has Game Center support, with achievements and leaderboards tracking your high scores.

Traps & Gemstones is enjoyable for a bit, but the lack of new powers and abilities hurts the game. For some players, shooting for high scores might let them get a bit more entertainment out of the game, but as a whole, it feels shallow. The game is on sale for $2.99 for the month of July to celebrate the official launch, but if you miss out, I’d recommend waiting for another sale before you pull out your credit card.

Swords & Poker Adventures full review

Swords & Poker Adventures is just a bit too much like actual poker for my own tastes: all the glossy sheen and the surprisingly deep card battling system can’t hide the fact that they’re just trying to reach into your wallet.

Konami presses a bit too hard with their incessant nagging to connect with Facebook, but the real problem is how the temptation to spend kinda sneaks up on you. At first, the game is fun and you feel like you’re doing well. Then around the fourth zone, the difficulty ramps up a bit, and the game starts to feel a bit luck-based. Did you take too much damage in a fight with a bear (and you’ve already used your once-per-zone free refill)? Okay, a few gems won’t hurt. Hmm, that was a tough fight. Maybe it’ll be a bit easier if I had better equipment or if I could equip on these powerful spells. Well, say goodbye to a few more gems. Wow, I’m on a hot streak, but now I’m out of battle energy. You get the idea.

What’s disturbing is how quickly Konami seemingly mastered the art of manipulating gamers. Every zone has three bonus objectives that you can attempt to complete, which include things like defeating enemies using specific equipment or poker hands, causing a status effect to every enemy in the zone, or defeating an enemy without taking damage. You get nothing for completing these objectives, and yet Konami is banking on the fact that gamers won’t be able to resist trying and hopefully being forced to spend their gems in the process. What’s particularly disturbing is that it’ll probably work.

It’s a shame, really, because as I mentioned in my first impressions, the game itself is actually pretty good. It’s clear that Konami still knows something about creating fun games. It’s just a shame that they’ve started using their knowledge for evil.

SteelSeries Stratus review

SteelSeries Stratus

iOS 7 was a blessing for gamers, as Apple finally added an official API for controllers. There were a few different controllers that were released to meet the demands of mobile gamers, but I’m going to talk about the SteelSeries Stratus.

The Neutral

The Stratus is made of lightweight black or white plastic and features the standard button configuration: four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, a D-pad, and two analog joysticks. It comes with a clear plastic cover that both protects the front of the controller when not in use and snaps to the back of the controller to provide a better grip when in use. The MSRP is $79.99.

The Good

The most notable thing about the Stratus is that it’s currently the only one that can be used with an iPad, which is great for games like Monster Hunter Freedom Unite that really like the larger screen. The face buttons and the D-pad feel really nice as well, with a satisfying click every time you press them. (Don’t underestimate that click, by the way. It’s the best way to “feel” the buttons being pressed, which is important when you can’t afford to take your eyes off the screen.) The L1 and R1 buttons have three raised bumps each, to help your fingers locate them quickly.

The Bad

iPhone 5 and StratusThe first thing I noticed is how tiny the Stratus is. As you can see from the photo, it’s about the same width as my iPhone 5S and just a bit shorter in length. To the designers’ credit, it doesn’t feel particularly fragile, but gamers with larger hands may find the placement of the analog sticks to be awkward. In addition, the L2 and R2 buttons are just a bit too awkwardly placed, and some gamers may find themselves accidentally hitting R1 when they meant to hit R2. Battery life is solid, although the device could give better feedback when the battery level is running low. There’s little more unsettling than to have the controller die in the middle of a hunt and have to finish off a Yian Kut-ku with the touch screen.

Parting Thoughts

So should you buy one of these? I say yes, but only if you were planning on purchasing a controller for your iOS device anyway. The price is quite steep, but it’ll pay off in the long run.

Here’s an incomplete list of supported games. If you don’t see your favorite game on that list, ask the developer if controllers are supported or if controller support will be added in the future.

One final thought: Using the second stick for camera control in Monster Hunter is so good, it feels like cheating.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite iOS Review

MHFU title screen
What am I getting myself into?
What am I getting myself into?

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is one of, if not the most ambitious iOS game yet. Can Capcom deliver? I spend $15 to find out.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. I tested the game on two different devices: an iPad mini and an iPhone 5S. Both devices were running iOS 7.1.2, and both devices were listed as compatible on the App Store’s page. The game looks great, especially on my Retina-capable devices. Capcom did a good job converting the assets to a larger screen. The game seems brighter as well, although that can possibly be chalked up to advances in screen technology since the PSP.

The four button control scheme in action.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. No one cares about the technical aspects of the game. It’s all about how the game plays. Or more accurately, how the game controls. Capcom came up with a fairly clever control scheme that works fairly well on a touch screen. The camera is controlled by swiping the screen, and you can quickly reorient the camera behind your character by tapping the screen. Each weapon has a primary action button; touching the button activates a basic attack, while sliding the button in a particular direction activates secondary attacks or functions. A secondary action button activates other features of the weapon. For example, blocking weapons use the secondary button to guard, while the bowguns use the secondary button to activate the scope. A third button is dedicated to rolling, or crouching if the player is standing still. Finally, the fourth button is used to sheath the weapon if it’s out, or to perform various context-sensitive actions such as gathering, mining, climbing up ledges, or using the supply boxes.

After a bit of practice, this will happen all the time.

How well does this scheme work? Surprisingly well, although purists may gripe about the automatic camera focus that was partially borrowed from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. It’ll definitely feel awkward at first, but after slogging through the required tutorial missions, it almost becomes second nature. You will want to take the training mission(s) for your chosen weapons, though, if for no reason other than to get the weapon-specific controls under your fingers.

So, the burning question. Should you buy this game? If you’re a Monster Hunter vet who has an iPad, the answer is a slightly enthusiastic yes. This is the authentic Monster Hunter Freedom Unite experience, down to the ridiculously slow text speed, and if you can come to grips with the controls, the game will definitely deliver.