Review of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds

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Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is a spin-off game from the Phantom Breaker series, which is mostly made up of 1v1 Street Fighter like brawlers. The franchise is supposedly popular over in its native Japan, but has sadly not made its way over here to the west. Battle Grounds changes the franchise’s winning formula by having the Phantom Breaker cast participate in a side scrolling beat-em-up. At first glance it reminds me of the obscure NES game Mighty Final Fight. Like the aforementioned Capcom release, Battle Grounds uses eight-bit pixel art to transform its fighters into adorable chibi characters. It’s amazing how artistic design can drastically alter the tone of a game. Pummelling women in the face would normally be abhorrent, but it doesn’t seem so bad when the punishment is being inflicted on a cute diminutive cartoon.

OVERVIEW

The game sees the player dimension hopping through alternate versions of Japan, as they race against time to rescue a lass named Nagi from the clutches of the wicked Phantom. The roster of playable characters mostly comprises of weapon wielding high school girls who like to charge into combat dressed as maids and shrine maidens. Their choice of attire is somewhat questionable, but I suppose they could do a lot worse. The garments in question are more protective than the bikini mail donned by other video game gals and should boost sales by attracting anyone with a fetish for female servants.

Gameplay wise, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds plays a lot like Double Dragon and the excellent Scott Pilgrim video game. Pressing x allows your character to block whilst the remaining face buttons unleash weak, medium and strong attacks. Unlike other 2D brawlers movement is limited to walking forwards and backwards, although it is also possible to skip between background and foreground paths by tapping on the left shoulder trigger. Reading up on the game’s advanced controls will teach you how to execute flashy special moves, but if that sounds too complicated don’t worry because button bashing is sufficient to carry you through the game’s campaign. Yeah, when it comes to beat-em-ups I’m a scrub who forgoes the finesse of combos in favour of spamming Blanka’s one button electric attack.

After clearing Phantom Breaker’s opening stage your character is stripped off her powers and turned into a level one weakling. In order to regain your might you’ll have to earn experience points by collecting the gems dropped by vanquished enemies. Once sufficient experience has been accrued your character levels up, conferring them with skill points that can be exchanged for new abilities or spent to beef up their physical attributes. Defeated enemies also drop coinage, which is used to determine your high score. Sadly the currency you accumulate cannot be used to buy new weapons or more appropriate clothing for the feisty ladies.

VERDICT

If you grew up loving games like Streets of Rage I can highly recommend Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds. It’s a solid brawler blessed with charming pixel graphics and catchy chip tune music that fans of retro gaming soundtracks should enjoy. The game is only eight levels long, with each stage taking around ten minutes to complete, making it a little on the short side (just like its characters.) There is however some replay value as unlocking all the secret fighters requires completing the game on both normal and hard difficulty. Anyone born with the RPG gene, which compels them to level up characters, should get plenty of mileage out of their purchase as they can revisit the story mode multiple times with each of the playable fighters.

Those seeking multiplayer fun will be pleased to learn that Phantom Breaker allows buddies to play through the main campaign cooperatively, in addition to offering a battleground arena where human players can spar against each other. Sadly I have been unable to experience either mode, as none of my friends own the title. Logging onto PSN didn’t help either as I soon discovered that the game’s online lobbies are perpetually vacant. What’s especially infuriating is that two of the game’s trophies are only obtainable by playing multiplayer (bah, why must developers punish hermits with co-op virtual accolades.) Visual novel readers may also be interested to learn that Stein;Gate’s Kurisu can be purchased as a DLC character. She’s rather pricey to buy, but unlike the other characters she at least has the smarts to dress sensibly.

FINAL RATING: THREE AND A HALF STARS

Review of Valiant Hearts

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When it comes to major conflicts World War Two has the video game market cornered. The only other war of note, which has been featured so predominately as the backdrop of a game, would have to be Star Wars! How refreshing it is then to see Ubisoft cover the First World War in their digital title Valiant Hearts. What is also novel about the release is that, rather than being a bog standard shooter or a historic strategy game, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a puzzler with a touching story that is brought to life via some gorgeous comic book style graphics.

CHARACTERS

The game begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked off the hostilities that engulfed most of Europe back in the year 1914. The rising tensions resulted in France booting German nationals back to their country of origin, because back in those days you could deport undesirables from your borders without the EU kicking up a fuss. One of the chaps affected by the mass exodus is a bloke named Karl who is separated from his French wife and conscripted into the German ranks. In a cruel twist of fate his father in law Emile is recruited to fight for the opposing French army.

Valiant Hearts boasts a quartet of playable characters. Aside from Karl and Emile, the story also covers the adventures of a an American named Freddy and Anna a Belgian student who sports a sheepdog like hairstyle (I have no idea how she can see where she is going with those bushy bangs.) Freddy has joined the French army so he can get vengeance on the Germans – specifically a commander named Baron Von Dorf who led an assault that resulted in the death of his beloved. Anna on the other hand, who has studied medicine, sets off for the frontlines to aid the injured and search for her missing father.

GAMEPLAY

Playing through Valiant Hearts reminded me of old school puzzle adventure games like Codemasters’ classic Dizzy series. Getting through the levels sees the player collecting useful items, which have conveniently been strewn across the landscape, and figuring out how best to utilise them in order to solve the brainteasers impeding your progress. In addition to using objects, Valiant Hearts’ cast also have their own set of unique skills, which can get them out of a sticky situation. Anna for example can treat the wounded via a bandage themed rhythm mini-game, Freddy can use wire cutters to hack through barbed wire, Karl is a master of disguise who can sneak past guards and Emile carries a shovel that comes in handy for digging tunnels and whacking unsuspecting enemies on the noggin.

If puzzles aren’t your thing fear not. When developing the game it’s clear that Ubisoft wanted players to experience the story with minimal frustration. The puzzles you come across are so simple than even my feeble intellect managed to suss them out. If all else fails however you can rely on the handy hint system to point you in the right direction after a couple of minutes. Aside from tackling conundrums Valiant Hearts also mixes things up with some light action sequences. These usually involve dodging a rain of artillery fire or using your driving skills to weave past oncoming traffic.

VERDICT

Although Ubisoft has recently been lambasted for releasing subpar AAA releases, Valiant Hearts proves that the company can be surprisingly creative with their smaller projects. Using minimal dialogue Valiant Hearts is able to deliver an emotional tale that highlights the cruelty of war, rather than glorifying it like other games do. The cartoony visuals plus a smattering of comedy ensure that the game is fun to play and not overly depressing despite the subject matter being covered. I also found my play through to be an educational experience thanks to the collectables scattered across the levels. Unearthing these items trigger pop-ups that impart you with historical facts pertaining to the period. I can honestly say that I learnt a lot about World War One from completing this game. Shame that software of this calibre didn’t exist when I was a lad – if it had I might have not flunked my history exams!

FINAL RATING: FIVE STARS

Review of Btooom

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Ryota Sakamoto is a slacker or if you want to be polite a NEET (not in employment, education or training.) Rather than further his studies or go job-hunting, the twenty-two year old freeloader spends his days indoors playing a multiplayer online death-match game called Btooom. Irritated by her offspring’s rudeness and hermit like tendencies, Sakamoto’s mom decides to rid herself off Ryota by requesting that the corporation running Btooom kidnap him. They duly oblige and whisk him off to a deserted island along with a group of other undesirables. What’s the purpose of this mass abduction you ask? Well it seems like the Tyrannos Corp would like to recreate their virtual game as a real life event. If Ryota wishes to return home he’ll have to compete in a life or death contest were participants try to blow each other up with explosives. Sounds bad. Bet he wishes a developer of dating sims had kidnapped him instead.

OVERVIEW

Animes based on online games seem to be all the rage these days. Were Btooom differs from something like Accel World is that the show’s characters are forced to battle in the flesh rather than in a virtual reality environment. This raises the stakes because Ryota’s prowess with a mouse and keyboard counts for little when surviving out in the wilderness. At least he seems to be in decent shape so the odds of him emerging victorious are greater than if a stereotypical World of Warcraft nerd found themselves in a similar position. Those overweight basement dwellers may be able to slay dragons online, but in the real world climbing up a flight of stairs is a quest they would rather not undertake (I should know as I’m a former MMO addict who resembles the chubby antagonist from South Park’s Make Love Not Warcraft episode.)

In order to attain their freedom the Btooom competitors need to amass a stockpile of eight crystals. The catch is that the gems in question are only obtainable from enemy combatants. The crystals are grafted onto the right hand of each unwilling participant and can only be extracted by killing its owner. Rather than go on a murdering spree Ryota instead elects to band together with fellow friendly players and search for an alternate way off the island. Will this pacifist approach succeed in a twisted game being fought by some rather unscrupulous characters? Time will tell. The real question should however be why is Ryota so averse to committing homicide? He is after all a gamer, which the media brands as sociopaths who have been brainwashed into violence by the likes of GTA and Flappy Bird (don’t laugh, the latter has caused me to go on a destructive rage many times.)

VERDICT

Overall I have to say that I really enjoyed watching Btooom. I did however find Ryota’s love interest Himiko to be somewhat irritating. She spends a good chunk of the series being distrustful of men, even after Ryota saves her life on multiple occasions. When she eventually warms up to him her personality switches from a devout man hater to a damsel in distress that cannot do anything without prince charming bailing her out. Perhaps I am being harsh though as her rabid loathing of men is explained during her backstory. Another thing worth mentioning is that, despite being presented as token eye candy, I doubt anyone is going to get fan service jollies from Himiko given that she is often the victim of sexual assault. Btooom doesn’t shy away from what would realistically happen if a buxom blonde found herself on a lawless land populated by degenerates – so be forewarned that some scenes make for uncomfortable viewing.

On the action front Btooom delivers some exciting sequences that capitalise on the fact that each character has been assigned their own exclusive type of armaments. It’s fun seeing how the rivals try to outwit each other using a range of grenades, mines, gas bombs and remote controlled flying BIMs. It’s edge of your seat stuff… or at least it would be if the creators didn’t overuse the trope of having the hero dramatically avoid a blast at the last possible second.

My rating for Btooom is three and a half stars. I can’t quite bring myself to give it four stars, as I have seen other shows handle the plotline of “strangers being forced to kill each other” a little better. It was also disappointing to see episode twelve finish on a non-ending, which teases a potential second season. I’m uncertain if a season two will ever be green lit though, so fans may have to bring out their reading specs to see how the story continues in the ongoing manga. Ironically the anime about bombs ends up going out on a whimper instead of a bang.

Review of DuckTales: Remastered

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DuckTales Remastered is a video game based on the popular Disney cartoon series of the same name. Specifically it is a remake of a Capcom platformer that originally appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy back during the early nineties. I remember owning the Gameboy version, back when I was a wee lad, and enjoying it loads despite the game’s lack of difficulty and content. Much like Kirby’s Dreamland, it was one of those titles that you could beat on your first attempt but it didn’t matter because you would replay it ad nauseam anyway. Remastered is coded by WayForward Technologies who have previously proven that they are more than capable of revitalizing retro classics, as evidenced by the brilliant Double Dragon Neon.

OVERVIEW

For those of you not familiar with the franchise, DuckTales stars a billionaire mallard named Scrooge McDuck who is a bit of a miser when it comes to money (no surprise then that he has a Scottish accent.) In the cartoon Scrooge spends most of his time gallivanting across the globe in search of valuable relics aided by Donald Duck’s nephews (Huey, Dewey & Louie) in addition to Launchpad McQuack – a pilot known for landings of the crash variety. The game’s opening stage, which acts like a tutorial level of sorts, has Scrooge fending off an assault from the thieving Beagle Boys who are attempting to raid his vault. After successfully repelling the criminals, Scrooge finds a crusty map pointing to the location of five valuable treasures. Never shy about adding to his considerable wealth he sets off to uncover the priceless artefacts, much like a documentary crew trying to unearth E.T cartridges from a landfill.

Similar to Capcom’s classic Mega Man series, DuckTales’ core levels can be tackled in whatever order the player desires. The destinations Scrooge will visit consist of the Amazon, Transylvania, African Mines, Himalayas and even an outer space trip to the Moon. Each of the environments has its own distinct feel complete with unique enemies, a diverse range of traps and pesky end of level guardians that can only be trounced once you suss out their attack patterns. Also residing on the levels are several supporting characters from the cartoon, including Mrs Beakley who gifts Scrooge with life replenishing treats. I’m not sure why she is so generous given that McDuck often makes unflattering remarks about her portly figure.

Once the five treasures have been secured Scrooge is whisked off for a final battle against a vampire duck, who disappointingly isn’t Count Duckula. Gameplay wise DuckTales plays like many of the classic 2D platformers you would find on the NES, were precise jumping is the order of the day. Our top hat wearing protagonist can only sustain three hits, before being defeated, but thankfully he can protect himself with the aid of his trusty cane. The walking stick can be used to stomp on enemies, whack obstacles out of the way and even acts as a makeshift pogo stick allowing Scrooge to bounce up to otherwise unreachable areas.

VERDICT

My rating for DuckTales Remastered is a four out of five. It’s a great update of a vintage NES platformer. Given that PSN Plus members can download it for nowt this month there’s no excuse for not giving it a go. Even if I were paying money for it I would highly recommend the game thanks to its fun gameplay, superb 2D artwork and fine voice acting. I’m especially impressed that the creators managed to coax Alan Young into reprising the role of Scrooge McDuck given that he no longer lives up to his surname (he’s over ninety years old.) Audio wise video game maestro Jake Kaufman delivers on the soundtrack front with catchy remixes of the DuckTales theme and the original game’s tunes. The ditty that plays during the Moon level deserves special praise for its toe tapping qualities.

The only negative I could levy at DuckTales Remastered is that, much like the original, it isn’t an especially long game. Remastered is a bit tougher than its predecessor and boasts some extra levels, but even so I was able to best it within a few sittings. It’s not a big deal though given that multiple playthroughs are required to accumulate sufficient coinage to purchase all of the bonus artwork on offer. Needless to say, DuckTales gets a thumbs up from me. You would be quacking mad not to give it a chance.

Review of Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods

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A decade since the last animated movie was released, Dragon Ball is back courtesy of a new feature subtitled Battle of Gods. DBZ is easily one of the most recognisable properties in anime and despite its age remains popular partially due to Bandai Namco’s never ending conveyor belt of Dragon Ball video game releases. Personally I loved Dragon Ball, back when it originally aired, but in recent times my fondness for the franchise has waned due to some subpar cash grabs. The non-canonical follow up Dragon Ball GT was not well received by some fans and the less said about the live action abomination that was Dragon Ball Evolution the better. Ah well, I am sure Battle of Gods will herald a triumphant return to form given that series creator Akira Toriyama was involved in its production… or maybe not.

OVERVIEW

The movie opens up with the god of destruction Beerus (named after what I say when ordering a round at the pub) awakening from a protracted hibernation. On a whim the purple skinned deity, who somewhat resembles Doctor Evil’s cat, decides that now is as good a time as any to test his fighting prowess on a Super Saiyan god. With that in mind he seeks out series hero Goku and promptly dispatches him with a couple of flicks from his pinkie finger. Unimpressed Beerus decides to venture off to Earth where the remaining vestiges of the Saiyan race reside. This could spell doom for our world given that Beerus earned the title “God of Destruction” due to his disposition for obliterating planets whenever he gets miffed.

Conveniently for Beerus the handful of surviving Saiyans can all be found at the same location, as they are attending a lavish birthday party hosted by Capsule Corp heiress Bulma. When Beerus arrives he turns out to be a surprisingly courteous guest who ends up enjoying the celebrations rather than causing trouble. That all changes however when his fine dining is disrupted by the gluttonous Boo who refuses to share his pudding with him. Desserts are serious business so the greedy display ends up sending the humanoid feline over the edge. Beerus decides the time has come to rid the Milky Way from the third rock from the sun. Oh yeah, there’s also a subplot about a trio of thieves trying to nab the Dragon Balls and a prepubescent Trunks trying to court a forty year old lady. Mr Toriyama must have been intoxicated on sake when he drafted this idea.

VERDICT

How Manga Entertainment had the gall to nominate Battle of Gods for best picture at the Scotland Loves Anime film fest is beyond me. Although I thought the film was all right, whilst I was watching it, when it came down to penning a critical review of the feature I was left struggling to point out any worthwhile merits. What I most like about the Dragon Ball Z series are the flashy martial art fights were combatants zip through the air hurling destructive projectiles at each other. The opportunity to see these spectacular duels brought to life with modern animation techniques was however squandered, as the movie is severely lacking in action.

Instead the bulk of the movie concentrates on the goofy shenanigans occurring at Bulma’s party. I can’t say that I approve, as I never thought that comedy was Dragon Ball’s strong suit. The silly filler used to pad out Dragon Ball Z is after all what makes the series so hard to re-watch these days. Hardcore fans are unlikely to care though and will revel in seeing their favourite characters return after all these years. Just be aware that most of the cast don’t get any significant screen time, aside from Vegeta who acts completely out of character. Instead of being a prideful warrior, who likes to test his mettle against mighty opponents, the prince of Saiyans is reduced to the role of comic relief – cowering in terror whenever Beerus loses his temper. Given the choice I would recommend The Devil is a Part Timer over this movie. They both feature a scant amount of super human fighting, but at least The Devil is a Part Timer succeeds in tickling the funny bone with its gags.

FINAL RATING: TWO AND A HALF STARS

Review of Pocket RPG

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Years ago I was really into dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Nothing beats the satisfaction of exploring catacombs, slaughtering hordes of monsters and continually beefing up your character by donning the equipment you salvage from defeated foes. Sadly these days, thanks to working shifts and trying in vain to clear an ever growing unwatched anime backlog, I have insufficient time to invest in those types of games. Pocket RPG from Tasty Poison Games could however be the answer to my dungeon crawling predicament. It’s designed to satisfy loot hunting cravings via bite sized gaming sessions. Sounds good to me… unlike the flavour of sprouts. My how cruel life can be. Veggies are good for you, but taste gross whilst toxic substances like poison are apparently tasty.

OVERVIEW

The goal of Pocket RPG is to clear the game’s seven levels, which range from icy caverns to trap infested ruins. Budding adventurers have a trio of playable heroes to choose from. For my inaugural play through I opted to control the Blade Master, who I share an affinity with given that we are both lacking in the hair department. The Blade Master is a good pick for anyone who likes to dispense carnage up close, as he dual wields a range of axes and swords. The other two characters are the Dark Ranger and Battle Mage, who prefer to inflict damage from afar. The Ranger, despite lacking a quiver, is able to pelt opponents with an inexhaustible supply of arrows whilst the Battle Mage blasts enemies with spells. Out of the three heroes the Battle Mage is the most powerful, but unlike her compatriots she cannot attack indefinitely as she periodically needs to rest in order to replenish her mana reserves.

Gameplay wise, Pocket RPG feels like a casual version of Diablo. Were Pocket RPG differs is that upon clearing a dungeon your character’s levels are reset and they are also stripped off any equipment they have accrued (hopefully they get to keep their clothes because I’d rather not have to stare at the Dark Ranger’s junk.) Diablo’s philosophy is to consume your life by snaring you in a never-ending quest to upgrade your character. Pocket RPG instead wants players to start each game afresh so they can revisit completed areas with the aims of bettering their high scores. That’s not to say that the game is completely lacking in character progression though. Once you beat an end of level boss and vacate their domain you’ll be awarded skill points that can be invested in permanent boosts such as learning new special moves. In a similar fashion gold can be spent on bolstering the array of loot you’ll find in your upcoming ventures.

VERDICT

My rating for Pocket RPG is a three out of five. Whether you are charging headlong into danger as the Blade Master or nimbly counter attacking legions of monsters, as one of his companions, the combat is good fun. I can’t rate the game higher though as it feels a tad overpriced given the limited amount of content that is available. During my first run I managed to clear the campaign’s seven dungeons in exactly two and a half hours, which isn’t great value for money. If you are the type of player who won’t abandon a purchase until they beat a game with every character on offer the asking price does however become more palatable. Overall I would say that Pocket RPG lacks the polish and addictive qualities of something like Diablo, but it’s still worth a punt if time constraints prevent you from playing some of the meatier examples in the dungeon crawling genre.

The Top 5 Games I Played in 2014

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With my list highlighting the best animes of 2014 done and dusted it is now time for me to focus on the other form of entertainment that The Otaku Judge covers – namely video games. For many gamers 2014 was a tad disappointing as the next gen consoles are still finding their feet. I myself have yet to purchase a Playstation 4, as no must own titles have caught my attention, but I am sure the situation will change at some point in 2015. Thankfully the humble Playstation 3 is still going strong, providing me with many hours of enjoyment, along with the handhelds that I own. Below are the top five games I played in 2014. As was the case with last year’s chart, to keep things interesting, I am limiting myself to one title per system. Let the show begin.

5th. 999: The Novel (iPad) – I have previously mentioned that Virtue’s Last Reward was one of the best games I played last year. Unfortunately for European gamers, such as myself, its predecessor 999 was never released over here. That oversight was finally addressed when 999: The Novel became available to download off the Apple Apps Store. This enthralling visual novel has players guiding protagonist Junpei Tenmyouji and eight other captives through the deadly Nonary Game, were they must escape a sinking cruise liner within a nine-hour time limit. It’s a thrilling tale packed with conspiracies that boasts multiple endings depending on what choices you make. For some inexplicable reason the iOS port is missing the puzzles found in the DS original, but given that it’s available to buy at a budget price I’m not complaining.

4th. South Park: The Stick of Truth (PS3) – Despite being in development hell since 2009 (and having to change publishers, after THQ went bust) South Park: The Stick of Truth managed to beat the odds to become one of the best console games released in 2014. Although the Costume Quest style timing based combat was fun the main reason why the game is such a hit is because of its hilarious comedy. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker had a huge input on the design of the game and man does it show. This humorous RPG, were the South Park residents battle Nazi zombies, is filled to the brim with gags that reference the cartoon. It’s a prime example of how licenced games don’t always have to suck, with the only disappointment being that the EU console versions were censored.

3rd. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (PC) – This digital card game is the spiritual successor to the World of Warcraft trading card game, which I tried many moons ago but ultimately gave up on due to a lack of players in my area. Unlike my short lived affair with the WOW card game Hearthstone has kept my interest since launch, making it the only title on this list that I am still currently playing. Since its inception the game has gone from strength to strength with its initially modest selection of cards beefed up via two expansions. The game is fun to both play and watch, which has led to some pro players eking out a living by attracting donations from spectators who delight in watching them stream matches online. Even if card games aren’t your thing it’s worth a go as it is accessible to newbies and you have nothing to lose because it’s free to play.

2nd. Bravely Default (3DS) – If you are an old school Final Fantasy fan, who is fed up at how these days the series focuses more on graphics than gameplay, then Bravely Default is the game for you. It’s a retro FF title in everything but name featuring traditional turn based combat, summons and a story were you must venture across the land in search of elemental crystals. What really got me hooked on Bravely Default were the strategic battles and the job system that allows you to mix and match a character’s skills by levelling them up in various different roles. Bravely Default is almost perfect, but it just misses out on the top spot due to an unwelcome plot twist that makes the later levels needlessly repetitive. If you have played the game you’ll know exactly what I mean.

1st. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (Vita) – It’s funny how some people dismiss the PS Vita as a flop because, for the second successive year, a title exclusive to Sony’s handheld has walked away with my game of the year award. This follow up to the equally brilliant Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc has a class of sixteen talented students trapped on a deserted island, where they are forced to kill each other in order to escape. Gameplay wise there isn’t much here aside from mini-games and wacky courtroom drama that channels Phoenix Wright. You won’t care though, as the murder mystery plot is so enthralling. Another plus is the likable ensemble cast that includes a sadistic robot teddy, a harem of potential waifus and a breeder of rodents who acts like a maniacal overlord. Danganronpa 2 is a must have title for Vita owners and if you don’t own a Vita it’s a good argument for why you should buy one.

With that the curtain draws on my annual top fives. Juggling my time between shift work, getting through a massive anime backlog and writing for a (un)successful blog means that I didn’t get the opportunity to play as many games as I would have liked in 2014. Are there any releases from the past year that you think I should check out? If so let me know in the comments below.