Review of The Banner Saga (PC)

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The Banner Saga is the debut game from developer Stoic, a fledgling studio made up of former Bioware employees. Loosely based on Norse mythology, the game is set in a dying world that is coming to terms with the loss of its gods. Players take control of a trade caravan containing a mix of humans and a race of giants known as the Varl. Your immediate goal is simply to survive as your group travels across a region that is being ravished by the Dredge, a wicked force of armoured invaders. As you would expect from a company that has ties to Bioware, the game features some Mass Effect style decision-making. Things in the Banner Saga are however never as clear-cut as picking between paragon/renegade. If you are the sort of person who wrestles for hours on what starter to pick from a restaurant menu this may not be the game for you.

As a fan of strategy RPGs the Banner Saga was high on my shopping list as soon as it appeared on Steam. What really caught my eye though were the game’s gorgeous visuals. Although the background characters, appearing in the battle and caravan sequences, could benefit from extra detail the artwork featured during the story segments is stunning. It’s reminiscent of what you would find in a classic animated movie such as Sleeping Beauty. Oh how I miss the days when Disney appreciated the artistry of hand-drawn imagery. I have never understood why modern audiences are so wowed by their current CGI offerings. The character models used in those movies are often inferior to what you would find in a video game cut scene.

Gameplay is divided into two parts – travelling and combat. Battles occur on an isometric grid map (similar to Disgaea) were the player and enemy forces take it in turns to move their units. For the most part the action plays out much like other strategy RPGs, although it does feature a unique mechanic were attackers choose whether to target an opponent’s strength or armour. Cracking a combatant’s armour doesn’t harm them directly, but in the long term is beneficial as it increases how much damage they take. The strength attribute is both a fighter’s vitality and offensive potency. As their strength drops so does the amount of damage they dish out. Any unit whose strength drops to zero is eliminated from the battlefield.

Defeating enemies earns you renown, which is the game’s currency. Renown is used to level up your characters, purchase equipment and buy food supplies. I’m not sure how using renown for trades works in practice though. Do you just walk into a shop, boast about how you are famous for killing people and then get free stuff? Anyway, using one resource for all these tasks plays well into the game’s theme of making difficult choices. How much renown you accumulate during the story is limited, so you have to be savvy with how you spend it. Blowing it all on beefing up your fighters may be tempting, but doing so will prevent you from buying new gear and will condemn your caravan to death via starvation.

Speaking of the caravan, I cannot finish this review without touching upon the game’s travel segments. In a way they remind me of the retro classic the Oregon Trail, as they involve watching your troops trek across the inhospitable landscape and seeing what misfortunes befall them. At any time you can setup camp to rest your weary bones to replenish morale, but be aware that doing so prolongs your journey, which isn’t a good idea as every day out in the wilderness is depleting your food rations. As your caravan ekes onward various events will occur, which you need to deal with. What shall you do if you come across a starving traveller? Leave them to die? Share your dwindling food stocks with them? Perhaps you can invite them to join your party. Selecting the latter option may bolster your ranks with an appreciative warrior or you may find that the ungrateful git vanishes one night after looting your stores.

My rating for the Banner Saga is four stars out of five. Despite being a truly excellent game it just misses out on a perfect score as I felt a little short changed after completing it. The game retails for over twenty quid, which is pricey for an indie title, especially when you consider that an average play through clocks in at just nine hours. The game is also part of a planned trilogy so expect things to end abruptly with a lot of loose ends dangling to be tied up in the sequels. Paying full price for something that feels partially finished can be a bummer, but I don’t mind forking out to support Stoic as they have delivered a tactical masterpiece with this inaugural release. I can highly recommend the game despite its asking price. If you cannot afford it wait for a Steam sale or try to become famous. Apparently you can buy things with renown these days.

999 coming to iOS devices

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Great news everybody! Aksys Games have announced that the Spike Chunsoft visual novel Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is due out for iOS devices this coming Monday. Originally released for the Nintendo DS, back in 2009, the enhanced port will be purchasable on the Apple App Store for use on iPads, iPhones and iPods. Fingers crossed that this means that the title will be available to download off the UK store, as I am keen to purchase it after loving its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward. If you think I am crazy for playing the follow-up before the original don’t blame me – the DS version never came out in Europe.

According to the game’s official website, the iOS version will benefit from higher resolution graphics, newly drawn artwork, speech bubbles that give the experience a more comic book feel and a VLR style flowchart that easily allows readers to skip back to key events (a godsend for anyone wanting to unlock all of the endings.) For some strange reason the puzzle segments have been removed, which is odd as one would assume that they would work well on a touch screen. Ah well, who cares. If my time with Virtue’s Last Reward is anything to go by the highlight of these games is the immersive story and not the brainteasers.

Hopefully this release will give the series some much needed exposure as director Kotaro Uchikoshi has previously revealed that he is struggling to secure funding to make a third game. So what do you guys think? Are you happy with this news or are you displeased that the puzzles have been removed? Have any of you played 999 or VLR? If so what did you think of them? Let me know in the comments section below.

Review of Dusk Maiden of Amnesia

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Dusk Maiden of Amnesia is a twelve episode anime series, currently available to buy in the UK from MVM Entertainment. The series takes place at Seikyou Private Academy, a school that has a prolific history of ghost sightings. Most of the institution’s spooky myths revolve around Yuko Kanoe, a teenage girl who is said to have perished years ago prior to the school’s renovation. As it turns out the spirit of Yuko is indeed haunting the halls of Seikyou Academy, but only a few select people are able to see her. Freshman Teiichi Niiya happens to be one of the chosen few, which he discovers after spotting the busty poltergeist roaming around a dilapidated wing of the school building.

Thrilled at finding someone who can see her, the lonely Yuko strikes up a friendship with Teiichi. The pair decide to form an after school Paranormal Investigation Club to research the school’s many ghost stories. Yuko hopes that doing so may shed some light on her past, as all memories of her death have been exorcised from her mind. The club’s investigations would probably go more smoothly if Yuko could keep her hands off Teiichi. Given that Teiichi is the only one able to touch her normally incorporeal body I guess you cannot blame her for engaging in some playful flirting. Good thing then that, as far as apparitions go, Yuko is easier on the eyes than Slimer from the Ghostbusters films.

In terms of tone, Dusk Maiden of Amnesia skirts through various genres over the course of its twelve-episode run. The early adventures of the Paranormal Investigation Club are comedic capers were viewers see the group tackle occult cases whilst the bashful Teiichi gets embarrassed by Yuko’s tendency to shed clothing. Given that she is invisible, to most people, she doesn’t see the harm of scampering about nude, although she does blush on one occasion when Teiichi stumbles upon her decomposed body. Apparently spying someone’s skeletal remains is paramount to be ogling a person at their most naked.

Things start to get more serious around the show’s midway point once the chilling manner in which Yuko met her demise is uncovered. Adding to the darker narrative is the revelation that, in addition to Yuko, there may be other more sinister entities patrolling Seikyou Academy. Yuko herself may not be as innocent as she first seems either, as she gets increasingly possessive of Teiichi as the plot advances forward. In addition to humour, mystery and horror Dusk Maiden of Amnesia also dabbles with romance during its finale that seeks to explore if love can blossom between a human and a ghost. I don’t see why not. If dorks can marry pony plushies then surely dating the undead is acceptable.

As far as the cast goes Yuko is the clear star of the show. At first glance she comes across as a stereotypical anime chick whose sole role is to aggressively pursue the show’s male lead. The episodes focusing on her backstory however prove that there is more depth to the character than your average harem lass. Sadly the same cannot be said of Teiichi. He’s a dull do-gooder, lacking any real personality other than having a phobia of cute girls throwing themselves at him. Thankfully the other two members of the Paranormal Investigation club are more interesting.

Momoe Okonogi is the hyperactive comic relief that often falls prey to Yuko’s pranks. She joined the Paranormal Investigators after the club saved her from a curse involving a stabbed toy bunny and a bizarre game of hide & seek. Although Momoe cannot see Yuko, her fellow club mate Kirie Kanoe can. I would best describe Kirie as the show’s voice of reason. Despite being the serious type she does have some amusing quirks. The main one is an insecurity over her lack of cleavage and she is also prone to bursting out into tears during scary situations.

Four stars is what I am awarding Dusk Maiden of Amensia. I enjoyed it from start to finish and was impressed by how the story successfully incorporated elements of comedy, mystery and romance. My only beef with the series would have to be its length. I would have happily watched more episodes so it is a shame that they didn’t adapt more stories from the manga the series is based off. One thing that may infuriate viewers is how the series ends. I was okay with it, but it is clear to see that the creators were uncertain on whether to settle for a happily ever after finale or a bittersweet resolution. Depending on your taste you may or may not approve of the outcome they settled on. Either way I still recommend giving the show a (ghost of a) chance.

Review of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

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Being stuck in school, until the end of time, is not something I would enjoy. Thinking back to my comprehensive days I recall spending more time studying my wristwatch, counting the hours in anticipation of the final bell, than listening to what was being taught. Hmmm perhaps that is why I flunked all my exams. Anyways, in the PS Vita title Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, an eternity in high school is the nightmarish prospect awaiting the freshmen of Hope’s Peak Academy. I guess they should have read the fine print before signing up. It’s now too late to enrol at Cambridge instead.

Despite my bashing in the paragraph above, Hope’s Peak is considered to be a prestigious school that accepts only the most talented of students. This semester’s class includes an established novelist, a world-class baseball player and an exceptional gambler who has amassed a small fortune via games of chance. The player controlled character Makoto Naegi is however nothing special. Despite being an average teenager he has managed to enlist into Hope’s Peak after winning a raffle (thereby earning him the title of Ultimate Lucky Student.) As it transpires “Unlucky Student” would be a more apt nickname.

On his first day at school Makoto faints, much like a teen girl subjected to ear-splitting Justin Bieber “music.” After regaining consciousness Makoto finds himself inside an empty classroom, where all the windows have been boarded up with thick metal plates. Upon exploring the rest of the school it soon becomes apparent that he is trapped inside the building. All the exits are blocked and worryingly surveillance cameras appear to be tracking his every move. After arriving at the school gym he meets fourteen other students who are equally puzzled as to what is going on.

It’s at this point that headmaster Monokuma shows up to reveal what is happening. Apparently the fifteen students are forbidden from ever leaving the premises, unless they are able to graduate. On the plus side the school will provide them with food and lodgings for the length of their stay. That’s pretty bizarre, but things only get weirder from that point on. In order to graduate a student must kill a fellow classmate and not get identified as the guilty party in the ensuing class trial. Not strange enough for you? Okay, how about this. Monokuma is a sadistic teddy bear… pretty much what you would get if Rupert and Jigsaw, from the Saw movies, ever decided to have a kid.

To escape this nightmare Makoto needs to search for a way out and ultimately determine the identity of the mastermind pulling Monokuma’s remote controlled strings. Unfortunately his classmates are not united in this goal. As the days tick by things start to get more desperate. Squabbles begin to erupt between the group and it is only a matter of time before someone gets murdered. It’s then up to Makoto to investigate the crime scene to determine whodunit. Guess wrong and the bloodthirsty fiend graduates, dooming the remaining students to a gory execution.

Danganronpa’s cases are divided into two stages. When a body is discovered the player needs to collect evidence by using a cursor to question characters and examine a particular room’s highlighted areas. Once this is accomplished the trial proper begins. The evidence you have amassed is turned into “truth bullets” that are used to shoot down lies/contradictory statements made by Makoto’s classmates. Occasionally your evidence is called into question, which triggers a rhythm mini-game that needs to be won in order to refute the arguments being made against you. Once a case has been solved all that remains is to sum up what happened by using a series of pictures to complete an unfinished comic, which highlights the key events of the solved homicide. It’s a little hard to explain, but overall the trial system does a good job of injecting some action into what is a text heavy game.

My verdict in the Danganronpa trial is five stars. If you have a Vita I would say that it is a must own title. The well-plotted storyline should hook in players via its clever mysteries and surprising twists. The likable cast of characters all boast distinct personalities, although I would warn against getting too attached to any of them as most of the students won’t survive long enough to see the game’s six trials. Visually the game doesn’t push the Vita to its limits, given that it was originally a Japanese PSP release, but it does have a stylish look to it. The environments you explore are presented in a 3D first person view whilst the characters you encounter pop up on screen as two dimensional anime cut outs.

The main story lasts for around twenty hours, which is good value for money. Although there isn’t much point in replaying the game, once it is done, anyone doing so will be rewarded with coins that can be used to purchase images for the various artwork galleries. Completing the main campaign also unlocks a neat “school mode” resource game were you can build up relationships with Makoto’s classmates. Completing this mode, after maxing out a friendship, gives you a unique character ending, which is pretty cool. Overall I loved Danganronpa and I am looking forward to seeing its sequel get localised. If you are a fan of the Phoenix Wright series this game should be right up your alley.