Review of Death Mark

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Screenshots can be deceptive. Based on Death Mark’s promotional images, I expected this horror title from Aksys Games to be a first person dungeon crawler. In actuality it is a visual novel with point and click adventure segments. Over the course of five chapters, which took me around six hours to finish, players take control of an amnesiac whose wrist has been branded with the titular Death Mark. At first glance said marking looks like a cool tattoo. Early on in the story however it is revealed that the Death Mark is a curse placed on the protagonist by a vengeful spirit. Unless he is able to rid himself of it, our hero is fated to die within the next few days. Regrettably for him, erasing the Death Mark will prove to be more painful than enduring a session of laser tattoo removal.

OVERVIEW

Death Mark’s hub world is a mansion that once belonged to a paranormal expert. The player controlled character is based there, as he is searching the estate for clues on how to cure his condition. His investigation hasn’t uncovered much, but on the plus side he does find a cute talking doll that resembles a character right out of Rozen Maiden. At the start of each chapter more victims, who have been cursed, show up at the mansion’s doorstep. They seek help with escaping the fate that has befallen them. Unlike the main character, who has no memory of his past, the visitors have some idea of where they got marked. They take the protagonist to said location, hoping that he can defeat the spectre that roams there. In theory, exorcising the ghost should purge the hex it cast on them.

By using the d-pad players can navigate each area. The levels available to explore include a sewer, an abandoned school and a forest frequented by suicidal folk. Crikey, this game is starting to sound like a Logan Paul simulator! Via the use of the analogue stick players can aim a flashlight, which is used to examine objects and pick up items. The inventory procured is in turn used to solve puzzles. Pretty standard stuff. Open a locked door with a key, use bug spray to kill bees that block your path and um, repair an elevator with condoms. Wow, I don’t recall MacGyver ever doing anything like that. Items are also required to defeat the phantoms you encounter. Every now and then the player is placed in perilous Life or Death situations. These come in the form of timed events, were an action needs to be selected from a multiple choice list of options. Picking the wrong response will result in damage and potential death.

VERDICT

My rating for Death Mark is a four out of five. If you enjoyed Corpse Party: Book of Shadows I imagine you will like Death Mark, as they both have similar gameplay. Don’t expect much in the way of animation, as this is one of those titles that relies on text and still pictures to tell its story. The main campaign has two endings to unlock. How each chapter concludes is determined by the choices made during the end of level boss fight. Overall I liked the cast of characters you partner up with, over the course of the adventure, and the game’s plot. Aside from the main mystery, of who cursed the protagonist, each chapter serves as a stand alone ghost tale. It’s interesting to discover the tragic origins responsible for birthing the creatures you are pitted against.

Anyone who is left wanting more, after the end credits roll, can purchase the two-hour DLC for a bonus chapter. This applies to the Vita version only. For some reason the other console releases come complete with the extra chapter. That may seem harsh, for long suffering Vita fans, but it all evens out, as the edition on Sony’s handheld is the cheapest to buy. In terms of scares Death Mark isn’t too terrifying. The developers try to make things creepy with sound effects and the odd jump scare, but none of it phased me. I only had to change my underwear two times. All that said, I would only recommend Death Mark to gamers who are in their late teens or older. Apart from the occasional gruesome death the game includes a few kinky images. These include a bondage scene involving plant vines, a picture of a naked woman who is covered in serpents and a spirit possession that causes one of your female partners to strip. Maybe that’s what Ray Parker meant when he said (ghost) busting makes me feel good.

Review of Tokyo Tattoo Girls

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Screenshots can be deceptive. Back in the day, when I owned an Amstrad CPC 464, I would often be disappointed by the games I bought. The graphics, of the software I had purchased, were much uglier than the images plastered on the box. Gullible me had been duped by sneaky publishers, who would promote their wares by using pictures from the more advanced Amiga version. I guess the practice continues to this day, in trailers that use rendered cut scene footage rather than gameplay visuals. Tokyo Tattoo Girls is another example of a release that misled me with its imagery. At first glance it looks like a strategy game, but in actuality it is a glorified clicker, were you wait around and click the briefcases of cash that sporadically appear.

OVERVIEW

Tokyo Tattoo Girls is set in the city of London. Just kidding! It takes place in Tokyo. Despite what I wrote above, the game isn’t so disingenuous that it doesn’t feature the titular capital. Anyways… a disaster has struck the metropolis, which has led to the government cordoning Tokyo off from the rest of the country. Devoid of state administration the area’s wards have been taken over by twenty-three girlies who are empowered by mystical tattoos. Players take control of a tattoo artist who has joined forces with a cute waifu, who harbours aspirations of ruling the entire city some day. In order to accomplish this goal players will have to build up a syndicate and invest the funds they procure to cover their lady with more ink than Kat Von D.

For the most part the game plays itself. When the campaign begins you select an area to invade and from there your empire gradually spreads across the map. Turf wars occasionally break out, which deplete your clan’s honour meter. If the honour gauge hits zero your conquest of Tokyo ends in a premature game over. Paying bribes can thankfully reduce the likelihood of honour-sapping conflicts erupting. Alternatively income can be spent on tattoos that bestow passive bonuses. Clicking on the briefcases that manifest on the map collects racket money. It’s also possible to generate cash by playing dice at the gambling dens. The buxom croupier who rolls the D6 cubes flaunts her cleavage more than a female Twitch streamer.

VERDICT

My rating for Tokyo Tattoo Girls is two stars. I don’t hate the game, like some other reviewers do, but I can’t award it a higher score due to the lack of interactivity. Despite what the game’s convoluted tutorial suggests, Tokyo Tattoo Girls is far from complex. I would file it under the category of “podcast game.” Something that doesn’t test my concentration skills, but at least serves the purpose of keeping my hands occupied whenever I partake in an audiobook listening session. One thing that puzzles me about Tokyo Tattoo Girls is its high frequency of load screens. If the PlayStation Vita can handle 3D games seamlessly, why does it need to pause so often with Tokyo Tattoo Girls’ less demanding text menus and still pictures?

I am surprised that NIS America localized Tokyo Tattoo Girls, when there are far better Japanese titles still awaiting a Western translation. Tokyo Tattoo Girls would work better as an inexpensive mobile game rather than a twenty-five quid Vita product. On the plus side the character designs are nice. Whoever is responsible for the game’s artwork deserves to work on a JRPG or visual novel. Apart from the anime girls I also thought that the tattoo outlines looked impressive. No wonder that some people endure the discomfort of adorning their skin with skulls, names of loved ones and Final Fantasy characters. Speaking of Final Fantasy, which monster gives the best tattoos from that series? The answer is Cactuar, because he has one thousand needles!

Review of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3

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Play Asia recently gifted me a discount voucher, which I opted to spend on Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 – a game that Koei Tecmo refused to release in the West. In this politically correct climate they must have been concerned that the game would attract bad PR from the social justice brigade. That logic I fail to understand, given that the raunchier Senran Kagura titles get localized over here without much fanfare. Presumably the sight of ladies relaxing at the beach is offensive, but they have no qualms about players assaulting women in the mainline DOA fighting games. Forget about Middle East travel bans. To protect society from the ills of bikinis we should bar all flights to the Costa del Sol and Hawaii!

OVERVIEW

In this Dead or Alive spin-off players pick their favourite female, from Team Ninja’s fighting game franchise, and help her have a fun fortnight at a tropical resort. To raise your waifu’s satisfaction level you can buy her trinkets or participate in various mini-games. Out of the six activities on offer, beach volleyball is by far the most challenging. If you prefer a more casual way of accruing experience points and cash I recommend giving rock climbing a bash. To conquer the cliff face all you need do is clear a few quick time events. Just be sure to keep your eyes on the button prompts and not the babe in a swimsuit that is recklessly ascending the wall, without a safety rope or shoes.

Those of you who prefer competitive pursuits can try Butt Battle instead, which is pretty much a poor man’s Keijo. Alternatively you can race in the Beach Flag event. Pound the X button to run faster, akin to the NES days of Track N Field, and pray that your controller doesn’t break in the process. Another mini-game of note is Tug of War, where you pull on a rope until your opponent is dragged off their platform and into the pool. The victor is rewarded with cash and the loser screams in agony as their eyes get scorched with chlorine. Out of all the games on offer Pool Hopping is my favourite. The aim is to traverse the body of water by bouncing off foam blocks. Bonus points are awarded if you press the face button that matches the colour of the block you are stepping on.

VERDICT

My rating for Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 Venus is three stars. If you desire a fun mini-game collection, which is rich in eye candy, this title is worth an import. Don’t worry about the language barrier, because the Asian version comes complete with English subtitles. Xtreme 3 boasts an impressive number of collectables (mostly bathing attire) and gorgeous visuals. Even on the humble Vita the character models are beautiful. I’m sure that the PlayStation 4 version looks even prettier, but I don’t regret my purchase. Sacrificing graphical fidelity for portability is worth it. I can now play DOA on the commute to work… and get weird looks from the strangers sitting next to me on the bus.

Be aware that Xtreme 3 carries an eighteen-age rating, as it features some casino games. The roulette sucks, as the wheel takes ages to spin, but the Blackjack and Poker are enjoyable. If gambling is your thing Xtreme 3 is more affordable than blowing your life savings at 888.com. Overall I give Xtreme 3 a thumbs up. More mini-games would have been nice though, as playing the same six events continuously gets stale after a while. A larger lineup of characters would have enhanced the game too. Koei could have padded out the roster with some of the DOA guys. Both genders would then have something to drool over and critics wouldn’t be able to brand the game sexist. Oh well, it’s probably best to keep things female exclusive. No one wants to see Ryu Hayabusa in a thong after all.

Review of Root Letter

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Back during my middle school days I used to have a foreign pen pal. She ceased writing to me once I sent her the postal stamps from my country that she desired for her collection. Ouch, I felt so used. Unable to trust people ever again I retreated to the world of video games, hiding away from human contact in my bedroom. That torrid tale explains why I am a hermit who spends his free time reading visual novels. Call me overly sensitive if you must, but the past is too painful for my fragile heart to bear. Anyways, enough with the sob stories let us move on and review another fine PlayStation Vita release. Oh, this one looks good. Root Letter from Kadokawa Games and published in the west by PQube. According to the synopsis the game deals with a chap who is searching for his missing pen pal…. pen pal?!? Nooooo. Ingrid why did you abandon me? Didn’t you like my stamps? Waaaah!

OVERVIEW

Root Letter is a mystery visual novel starring a bloke named Takayuki. The game begins with our protagonist partaking in a spot of spring-cleaning. Whilst sorting through old correspondences from former pen pal Aya Fumino he stumbles across an unopened letter. Curious, he opens the note only to discover a written confession from Aya were she remorsefully admits to committing murder. What would you do after making such a morbid discovery? Dismiss the message as a childish prank? Report the matter to the police? Well you could, but that wouldn’t make for a very interesting video game would it? Takayuki doesn’t want to star in a game that is duller than Desert Bus so he travels to Aya’s hometown of Matsue in search of answers. When he arrives Takayuki learns from locals that Aya perished twenty-five years ago. Huh? That can’t be right. Since when do the deceased send out snail mail?

Channelling his inner Fox Mulder, Takayuki sets off in search of clues to solve the pen pal conundrum. Is there a logical explanation or could supernatural forces really be at work? The investigation won’t be easy though, as the townsfolk all deny knowing Aya. His only lead are the friends mentioned in Aya’s correspondence. Unfortunately for Takayuki he doesn’t know the true monikers of Aya’s chums because her letters only mention their nicknames. Locating the fabled Four-Eyes, Snappy, Shorty, Monkey, Bestie, Bitch and Fatty is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Wait a minute. Bitch? Fatty? Those nicknames are rather disparaging. Perhaps the aforementioned friends killed Aya after being insulted one too many times. No one likes being called obese or a female dog. To be honest I have committed homicide for much less.

VERDICT

My rating for Root Letter is three and a half stars. The game starts slow, but after the first chapter I got hooked in hunting down Aya’s childhood acquaintances. Root Letter isn’t the best-written visual novel on Sony’s handheld, but I still enjoyed its nice soundtrack and anime rendition of Shimane Prefecture’s picturesque tourist sites. Unlike some other visual novels there is a fair bit of interactivity in Root Letter. To advance the narrative players will have to use a magnifying glass to check locations for clues. Phoenix Wright fans will be happy to hear that the game contains some interrogation sequences too. During these segments Takayuki interviews suspects by asking questions and uses the evidence he has previously procured to challenge their testimony. If your detective skills match those of Inspector Clouseau worry not because hints are readily available by selecting the “think” command from the in-game menu.

Overall I had a grand time playing through Root Letter. The original ending I got wasn’t great, but with a total of five finales to unlock most readers should find a conclusion they enjoy. Outcomes range from romantic to downright silliness involving extra terrestrials (looks like the writers may have been fans of Silent Hill.) After playing Root Letter my faith in pen pals has been rejuvenated. Perhaps the time has come for me to be less anti-social and open up to others? Coincidently I received an email from a Russian lady the other day expressing the desire to become friends. Maybe she could become my new pen pal? Unlike that hussy Ingrid she doesn’t expect me to furnish her with stamps. All she requests is that I provide her with my bank details and social security number. What could possibly go wrong?

Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni Review

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What’s this? A new game for the PlayStation Vita? I thought the Internet told me that Sony’s handheld died years ago. Let that be a lesson to us all. You can’t believe everything you read online… except when I proclaim to have the physique of Chris Hemsworth. That statement is entirely true and not a fictitious delusion. Anyway, the point is that the Vita is alive and well if you happen to like niche games from Japan. Before 2016 concludes I intend to add six upcoming Vita titles to my collection, funds permitting. Sorry family, I may not be able to afford Xmas gifts for you this December. The latest Vita game I bought was Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni, which is produced by the maker of Senran Kagura. You know what that means. Lots of hack n slash fun and lots of busty ladies.

OVERVIEW

Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni takes place in a world that is suffering from a VR virus epidemic. Said disease, which only seems to target buxom teenage girls, causes sufferers to transform into weapons such as swords, bows and oversized gauntlets. Gripes, that illness sounds almost as bad as man flu! Anyone afflicted with the condition is whisked off to Bhikkuni Island for treatment, which involves vigorous physical exercise. Patients are expected to follow a strict martial arts regime and periodically participate in duels against fellow students plus their tutors… who happen to be robots. Sounds ridiculous I know, but let’s be honest here. Back in our youth haven’t we all had teachers who possessed the charisma of an emotionless automaton?

Gameplay wise Valkyrie Drive is reminiscent of Senran Kagura. Levels involve dashing to the exit and smacking anyone who gets in your way, be they female fighters or mechanical guards. Square and triangle are used to dish out combos, which gradually fill up your Drive meter. In each stage you must select a Liberator who fights and an Exter companion. When the Drive bar is sufficiently filled Liberators can order their partner to morph into a weapon, which awards a damage boost and permits her to execute special moves. Clearing a zone will reward players with bounty points that can be spent at the store. The shop sells useless stuff like health potions and invaluable items such as lingerie. Don’t get too attached to the skimpy garments you buy though, because clothing has a nasty habit of ripping off in the midst of battle.

VERDICT

My rating for Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni is four stars. It’s a fun third person brawler that will appeal to fans of the Senran Kagura series. Aside from some minor combat system tweaks and the inclusion of gigantic bosses, both games are virtually identical. Out of the two I slightly prefer Senran Kagura, as it has a larger roster of playable characters. Valkyrie Drive has a measly seven heroines to control, unless you opt to pay extra for DLC. I’ll pass because I don’t see the point of spending coinage on digital women, when I could spend those savings at the strip club instead. Senran Kagura also trumps Valkyrie Drive in terms of story. Bhikkhuni’s plot drags at times, especially when the lengthy cut scenes are regularly interrupted with loading delays. Thankfully the narrative gets more interesting in the later chapters, courtesy of an unexpected twist.

At the time of writing I have sunk nineteen hours into Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni. That playtime has allowed me to get the normal and true endings, which only amounts for forty percent of the game’s trophies. With many secret areas to unearth and survival/challenge modes to tackle, I expect to be entertained for many more hours to come. As was the case with Gal*Gun, the folks at PQube have done a stellar job localizing a potentially controversial title for Western markets. From what I can tell the game has not been subjected to needless censorship, which is always a bugbear for me. Some typos seem to have sneaked past their QA checks, but I will overlook that transgression. With so much cleavage on display I can somewhat understand why the translators may have been distracted when typing up the English language script.

Review of Zero Time Dilemma

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It’s a massive relief to see that Zero Time Dilemma managed to wrap up the Zero Escape saga in a satisfactory manner. For a while it seemed like the franchise was doomed (much like a Fox commissioned TV show) for cancellation, leaving its ongoing tale unresolved. Thankfully the trilogy is now complete – even if most people won’t care, as the previous games sold poorly in spite of the critical acclaim they received. It always sucks when quality is not rewarded in terms of sales figures… just ask Okami.

OVERVIEW

Despite being the final chapter of the Zero Escape triad of titles, ZTD chronically takes place between the events of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Once again a group of hapless victims has been kidnapped by the mysterious Zero and are forced to compete in a life or death game (think the Saw movies, only with less torture porn and more plot.) Zero, who now sports a creepy plague doctor’s outfit instead of a gas mask, has this time trapped nine science experiment volunteers inside a bomb shelter that has been decorated to simulate a Mars base. The only way of vacating the compound is to input six passwords, but unfortunately for the participants codes are only revealed when someone dies.

Players are tasked with guiding the nine hostages who, at the start of the game, have been split up into three man teams. The roster of characters includes some Zero Escape favourites such as Phi, Junpei, Akane and Sigma. New faces making their debut in this third instalment include Carlos the fireman, an amnesiac boy named Q (sadly not voiced by John de Lancie) and a busty lady called Mira – because it’s impossible to have a Zero Escape game devoid of cleavage.

Just like in 999 and VLR, in order to advance the narrative players are expected to clear the occasional puzzle room by using their handheld’s D-Pad and touchscreen. Scouring the environment for clues and useful tools is the order of the day, as is deduction of logic puzzles, sliding block brainteasers and mathematical conundrums. Wait, did someone say math problems? Yuk, I can now see why the previous games sold so poorly.

VERDICT

My rating for Zero Time Dilemma is a five out of five. Thank goodness that director Kotaro Uchikoshi secured sufficient funding to complete the game, because the end result is one of the finest trilogies I have ever played/watched. Why creative projects cannot attract cash whilst potato salad Kickstarters drown in thousands of dollars is beyond me. It’s a real shame that the series hasn’t courted more attention. Anyone who enjoys smartly written sci-fi really should give Zero Escape a shot; even if puzzlers or games with limited interactivity are not usually your bag. Looking online it seems like some other reviewers have been lukewarm on Zero Time Dilemma, although reading between the lines I think we can attribute those views to expectations being unrealistically high due to the quality of Dilemma’s predecessors.

Bibliophiles may disapprove of the contentious decision to replace the visual novel format of previous titles with fully animated cut scenes, but it worked for me as it gave ZTD the feel of an anime themed Telltale game. All that said the animation was a bit ropey during certain clips. Akane’s pigtail in particular looked like it was possessed by a demonic entity, which would at times cause it to pass through solid matter or defy the laws of gravity. Visual niggles aside, I really enjoyed the twenty hours I spent unlocking ZTD’s numerous endings. I highly recommend the game, although be aware that the story is inaccessible without knowledge of the previous titles. Europeans interested in checking out Zero Escape should ideally start with 999. A puzzle free remake of the DS original can presently be bought on iOS devices. Alternatively you can wait for the PC port to come out. Play now or wait? That’s quite the time dilemma.

MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune VS Zombies

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In a weird way the Hyperdimension Neptunia video games remind me a little of the One Piece anime. Both properties contain an abundance of great characters – shame then that an annoying protagonist fronts each series. Given my low threshold for buffoonish leads, it’s great to see that Idea Factory is contracting third party developers to make spin-off Neptunia titles. First up was Noire’s excellent strategy RPG Hyperdevotion Noire and now Blanc gets a moment in the spotlight courtesy of MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune VS Zombies. Blimey, what’s up with Japan’s fondness for overly elongated video game names?

OVERVIEW

MegaTagmension Blanc takes place in an alternate universe where the CPU goddesses attend a human high school. Despite boasting a student body that contains cute anthropomorphic console girls, Gamicademi is in danger of closure due to an enrolment shortage. If this were Love Live our heroines would try to save the academy by forming a pop group. Film club president Neptune has other ideas though. She will attract new pupils to the institution by filming a horror movie scripted by her partner in crime Blanc. Makeup and props can be expensive, but fear not because the CPU filmmakers can simply record scenes by smacking the real life zombies presently besieging the school!

Gameplay wise MegaTagmension Blanc resembles Senran Kagura Estival Versus, which should come as no surprise given that Tamsoft coded both titles. The only difference between the two is that in one game you smack easily disrobed ninja girls whilst in the other you assault undead hordes. The simple to grasp combat boils down to executing combos, achievable by pressing the square and triangle buttons in a particular order. With each successful strike a character’s SP meter charges up. Once enough SP has been accumulated you’ll be able to perform special attacks or transform into a mightier spandex clad alter ego. If things get dicey players can tag out their injured character and replace them with a reserve, giving the hurt lady time to recuperate from the sidelines.

VERDICT

Looking back through my review archive I note that I previously gave Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed a score of three and a half stars. I will award MegaTagmension Blanc the same rating, as both games are essentially the same. Technically speaking MegaTagmension Blanc is the superior of the two thanks to its larger roster of playable characters, smarter boss AI and a story boasting more plentiful cut scenes. I wouldn’t want to give Blanc four stars though, given that the twelve-part campaign only lasted me a single day. Short levels that can be cleared within minutes and a lack of difficulty make the thirty quid asking price hard to justify. I could have bought sixty delicious eggplants with that money.

Most players will find MegaTagmension Blanc’s repetitive combat and woefully short story to be underwhelming, but I can still recommend the game to diehard Hyperdimension fans (once it gets discounted.) Even if the gameplay lacks depth there is fun to be had watching the Neptunia girls act in a terrible horror movie. Blanc better not quit her day job because the script she penned makes Troll 2 look like a work of art. The inclusion of a multiplayer mode redeems the game in my eyes. Playing with others makes the zombie slaying more enjoyable, plus you can solo the multiplayer stages – giving the title some much needed challenge and longevity. MegaTagmension Blanc isn’t anything special, but it’s arguably the second best Neptunia spin-off ever. Depending on your opinion of the franchise that alone may make it worth a purchase.