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 The Lost Child

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I love the Persona role-playing games. Shame then that it takes so long for new instalments to come out. How I wish the franchise would release new stuff on an annual basis. Then again, I suppose that the series would feel far less special if it appeared in stores with the regularity of an Assassin’s Creed sequel. Rarity builds anticipation and shorter development cycles tend to harm a title’s quality. Some people have suggested that I play the other Shin Megami offerings, whilst I wait for a new Persona. The problem is that those RPGs are bloody hard. I’ll try The Lost Child instead. This game may be a shameless Megami clone, but at least it caters to my lack of skill by providing an easy mode.

OVERVIEW

Hayato Ibuki is a reporter for one of those trashy occult magazines. Not a glamorous career, but hey it could be worse. Writing for a tabloid publication is still more respectable than being a games journalist! When the story begins Hayato acquires a weapon that is capable of bending demons to his will. A big-breasted angel named Lua (who dresses like a witch for some reason) informs Hayato that he must use the gun to defeat Cthulhu, who is presently plotting to take over Heaven. A weird and somewhat blasphemous plot… although that should be expected given that the game is affiliated to the equally bizarre El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

The Lost Child is broken up into eight chapters. Each level has you battling through puzzle filled dungeons that are made up of multiple floors. Players explore the stages through a first person view. Every step you take has the potential of triggering a random turn based battle. When in combat, Hayato and Lua are accompanied by a party made up of previously captured demons. Like in most RPGs the heroes grow stronger by accruing experience points. The demonic entities they recruit are meanwhile strengthened via karma. Killing creatures is the main source of karma, although it is also possible to acquire it by making dialogue choices during certain story events.

VERDICT

My rating for The Lost Child is a three out of five. The game is a decent, albeit unoriginal, dungeon crawler. I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the genre. The story may be forgettable but I didn’t mind, as the thrill of navigating labyrinths was enough to keep my interest for the forty hours it lasted. Compared to other RPGs, there isn’t much in the way of character customisation. You can however tweak Hayato and Lua’s attributes by distributing stat points upon levelling up. Ally demons meanwhile can be taught new skills and evolved, akin to a Pokémon. Just be aware that instead of cute critters, in this game, you evolve fallen angels and topless Succubi.

Overall I had fun with The Lost Child. I must however say that I have some grievances with the game. First up was a glitch that prevented me from earning one of the optional characters. Another complaint is that some of the puzzles can be annoying. Examples include invisible walls, sandy currents that drag you back to a dungeon’s entrance and pitfalls that drop you to a lower floor. The latter especially blows, as transferring to a new zone is preceded by lengthy load times. Not sure what causes the Vita to process for so long. The floors aren’t huge and the graphics comprise of still pictures. Oh well, no matter how slow the loading is the wait for them to finish is still shorter than waiting for a new Persona.

Omega Labyrinth Z Banned in the West

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Right now I am enjoying the Muv-Luv visual novels that recently got released on PlayStation Vita. The highly acclaimed trilogy came to the system courtesy of a successful 2015 Kickstarter campaign. Muv-Luv starts out as a high school harem rom-com, in the first title, before transitioning into a sci-fi mech adventure in the later sequels. If you are interested in downloading the games be sure to manually search for them in the PSN store. Sony’s inept European staff never bothered to list either VN on their New Release listings. Guess they really hate anything that publisher PQube brings out.

Case in point, earlier this week it was announced on PQube’s website that Omega Labyrinth Z won’t be getting a Western localization after all. A handful of prudish nations (including Australia the kings of censorship) refused to give the dungeon crawler an age rating, thus barring it from being sold in their retail outlets. The rest of the world was however expected to get the game at some point this year. Unfortunately for RPG fans Sony has scuppered those plans at the eleventh hour. A press release from PQube reveals that Sony has effectively banned the game in the US and EU…

“In the case of Omega Labyrinth Z, while PQube has worked with all relevant age rating bodies in their respective territories, PQube must respectfully comply with the wishes of the platform holder and have therefore withdrawn any future plans for Omega Labyrinth Z’s European and North American release.”

When I say Sony I mean their European and America branches, because the game came out last year in Japan without incident. Shame that said Asian version doesn’t carry English subtitles, because that would have allowed prospective buyers to import it. Thank you very much Sony Europe/America for policing what grown adults can buy. You are okay with profiting from games that revel in graphic murder (God of War) but heaven forbid that an eighteen year old gets to play something that features cute cartoon girls. Better not tell them that their Crunchyoll app already allows people to view ecchi content on their machine.

I feel bad for PQube because they must be out of pocket, after going through the expense of translating a game they can no longer sell. Meanwhile the folks at Sony have accelerated the death of their handheld with this decision. Banning games is not going to help the lifespan of a system that is starving for new releases. One thing that concerns me is the signal that Sony has sent out. Game publishers are hesitant to localize niche games because they aren’t big sellers. I suspect in future even fewer quirky titles from Japan will reach our shores. The risk is too great when the threat of a potential Sony ban hangs over their heads.

The Top Five Games I Reviewed in 2017

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The year 2017 was a great time for video games. It was a little too great in fact. The sheer quantity of excellent titles, which came out, was so vast that I only managed to play a small fraction of them. Many releases that other sites have named in their best of year lists remain in my backlog unopened. Still, who cares about my first world problems? Below are the finest games that I managed to complete and review in the past twelve months.

5th) Miitopia: Nintendo has discontinued the Miiverse, but at least we can say that the franchise went out on a high note, courtesy of this casual RPG. Players assemble a party of real life friends and celebrities to battle the wicked Dark Lord, who is responsible for nabbing the faces of innocents. The game’s lack of interactivity (you only have direct control of one character) will put off some hardcore gamers, but I was able to overlook that fault thanks to the title’s charm and humour. Goodbye cute Miis. You shall be mii-ssed.

4th) Last Day of June: From a pure gameplay perspective, Last Day of June is arguably the weakest entry in this list. It compensates for its shortcomings however with an emotional, short but sweet, story. Players take control of wheelchair bound Carl, who attempts to save his fiancé from a fatal car crash by using mystical portraits that transport him to the past. The game boasts some clever third person puzzles, a beautiful soundtrack and graphics reminiscent of a Tim Burton stop-motion movie. Well worth the three hours it takes to complete.

3rd) Sonic Mania: After a number of recent flops, Sonic the Hedgehog returned to prominence in 2017 thanks to Sonic Mania. Indie programmer Christian Whitehead ended up overshadowing Sonic Forces with this effort. Mania delivers the look and feel of vintage Sonic that veteran fans have been demanding for years. It plays just like the classic Megadrive trilogy thanks to its excellent music, multi-path 2D stages and retro pixel graphics. Brilliant stuff, even if the dizzying sphere collecting mini-game still makes me nauseous.

2nd) Danganronpa V3: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Danganronpa V3 once again features sixteen trapped juveniles who are forced to compete in a death game by a beary demented teddy. Recycling the same plot for a third successive occasion should feel stale, but thanks to a quirky cast and some unexpected twists V3 remains just as captivating as its predecessors. This anime themed murder mystery is easily the best visual novel I read in 2017. Even if the big reveal at the end is a tad polarizing, don’t let that put you off. V3 is one of those experiences were the journey is more important than the destination.

1st) Persona 5: The phantom thieves steal the top spot. Even if the cast aren’t as likable as their Persona 4 counterparts, I still loved this stylish RPG. It’s ironic that in a year were I moan about lack of gaming time, I ended up getting immersed in a game were time management is of the utmost importance. Should I dungeon crawl to advance the story or socialize to unlock new abilities? Those decisions are what make Persona so enjoyable. Work may limit my gaming sessions these days, but when something this good comes out it’s amazing how one’s schedule can be rearranged to accommodate a 100-hour tour de force.

So there you have it, my favourite games of 2017. The top three pretty much picked themselves, but I had a tougher time filling in the final two slots. Chaos;Child, Fire Emblem Echoes and Monument Valley are honourable mentions that narrowly missed the cut. But enough about my selection, what were your best games of the year? Let me know in the comments section below. It will be a big help in helping me prioritize what to play next from my enormous backlog.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review

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The original Danganronpa trilogy concluded not too long ago, courtesy of an anime double bill. With the Hope’s Peak saga wrapped up, a new game has emerged and this time round it has been released both on PS4 and Vita simultaneously. I opted to purchase the game on Vita, as I find reading text heavy titles more comfortable on a handheld. That and I am also a cheapskate, so the Vita edition’s lower asking price helped to tip the scales in its favour. Like in past Danganronpas, Killing Harmony stars a group of sixteen talented youths who have been kidnapped and had their short-term memories erased. Trapped inside an Academy, they are forced to participate in a murder game. Is this latest release from Spike Chunsoft to die for? Read on and find out.

OVERVIEW

Escape from The Ultimate Academy for Gifted Juveniles is only possible by committing homicide and not getting caught. When an assassination occurs players must investigate the crime scene and determine whom the culprit is, in the subsequent class trial. Deduce the killer’s identity correctly and you progress to the next chapter. Guess wrong and the evildoer is liberated, condemning you to a Game Over. The judge of the court cases is a mechanical teddy named Monokuma. He’s a beary bloodthirsty character. On this occasion, Monokuma is assisted by a quintet of offspring named the Monokubs, who are modelled off past Danganronpa characters. For the most part Killing Harmony plays like its predecessors. Scouring the environment for clues has been enhanced though, thanks to a new feature that allows budding sleuths to move onscreen objects.

What makes the Danganronpa games such a joy to play are its quirky cast of characters. Their humorous interactions are funny, which helps endear the sixteen hostages to players – making the moments when a victim perishes all the more poignant. Some of the students that feature in V3 include an accomplished maid, a bashful magician who insists that her tricks are genuine magic, a martial artist who detests men, a cosplayer who often quotes anime, a kinky inventor, a muscle-bound gentleman who is fond of insects, a spikey haired android and a compulsive liar (who tells more fibs than Hilary Clinton). My favourite character is astronaut Kaito Momota. In the first chapter Kaito comes across as a buffoon, but as the story progresses he proves to be a true bro.

VERDICT

My rating for Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is a five out of five. The game was a blast to play from start to finish, with the narrative’s only blemish being that the final trial drags on for a bit longer than I would have liked. Speaking of finales, I suspect that the twist at the end will prove to be divisive. I personally thought that said reveal was cool, but some fans are likely to disagree as it makes the events of past games feel inconsequential. For readers who may be wondering how the Vita version performs – I experienced no crashes and for the most part things ran smoothly. I did however encounter a brief glitch that caused the background music to cease playing whenever someone spoke. Thankfully the bug remedied itself after a minute or two.

I highly recommend Danganronpa V3, especially to gamers who are fond of Phoenix Wright. Just like Capcom’s lawyer series, Danganronpa is packed with zany mysteries that will test your deductive skills. The trials feel more kinetic than Phoenix Wright, as they are peppered with mini-games that include block smashing and driving sequences where you cruise across the highway collecting letters. In terms of content, the story clocks in at a respectable forty hours. Once the end credits roll some bonus content unlocks too. Right now I am playing the RPG mode, which involves fighting through dungeons with a party that you level up via a Danganronpa themed board game. Murder and board games? Sounds like Cluedo, only with fewer candlesticks and more robotic ursine.

Review of Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax

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Cross over fighting games are a plentiful commodity these days. Capcom started the ball rolling with titles that pitted their Street Fighter brawlers against Marvel superheroes and in more recent times Nintendo mascots have pummelled each other in Smash Bros. Not to be outdone, the Vita has recently jumped onto the bandwagon with Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax – a one on one beat-em-up developed by Ecole Software and French Bread (I had no idea that baguettes were proficient at coding games.) Fighting Climax’s roster of warriors feature characters that appear in ASCII Media Works’ library of light novels. From my grammatically challenged reviews you may have ascertained that I am an illiterate dolt, who doesn’t read, but I was still looking forward to this title as I recognise many of the characters from the books’ anime adaptations.

OVERVIEW

Fighting games aren’t known for their stellar storylines and Dengeki Bunko is no exception to that rule. The solo arcade mode has players squaring off against a sinister entity named Zetsumu at the behest of Denshin, a pink haired girl who has a Dreamcast controller plastered to her forehead. To save the day players will need to vanquish a total of nine fighters, plucked from the Dengeki Bunko universe, who have been brainwashed into doing Zetsumu’s nefarious bidding. Much more interesting was the Dream Duel mode, which pits you against a series of six challengers. Prior to each bout the competitors partake in humorous banter, which is sure to amuse fans of the novels in question. If you have ever longed to see Taiga (Toradora) bicker with Shana (Shakugan no Shana) or Kirito (SAO) wax lyrical with Mikoto (Scientific Railgun) this is the game for you.

Combat is the usual fare you would find in something like Street Fighter, only that instead of featuring muscly men the battles are fought between effeminate chaps wielding swords and underage schoolgirls. Victory is achieved by smacking your opponent, with an array of standard attacks and special moves, until their life bar is depleted. Square, triangle and circle perform weak, medium and fierce strikes respectively whilst x allows you to momentarily summon a support character into the fray. The selection of non-playable allies you can call upon is impressive, but I was a little disappointed to discover that only a dozen fighters are controllable. Titles like Mortal Kombat have spoiled me into expecting a bigger roster (even if they cheat a bit by recoloring the same ninja and calling him a new character.)

VERDICT

My rating for Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is three stars. The combat system may not be robust enough to satisfy the hardcore Evo crowd, but casual players who like anime should have fun with it. Whacking the A.I controlled characters never gets old, which is a good thing given that there are plenty of unlockables and trophies to earn. For the purposes of this review I briefly dabbled with the multiplayer mode and am happy to report that I have no complaints. My online experience was a smooth lag free affair. Despite connecting at an unsociable hour (curse you insomnia) the match making servers did a good job of quickly hooking me up with an opponent of similar skill (i.e like myself he/she sucked.) The titanic duel that followed was all button bashing and no blocking – fighting game champion Yusuke Momochi would shake his head in disgust.

Graphically, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is a fine looking game. The animations are fluid, the colour palette is vibrant and I dug the backgrounds that feature some Sega locales (such as Sonic’s Green Hill Zone and a Valkyria Chronicles battlefield.) If you squint enough however you will spot that the sprites are suffering from jagged edges – perhaps the result of shrinking a PS3 title down to a handheld. That blip in visual fidelity is a black mark on an otherwise enjoyable game. Is it worth buying at full price? That depends on your fondness for the Dengeki Bunko brand of characters. An enhanced version, boasting more content and additional playable waifus, is due out in Japan soon. My suggestion would be to wait and see if that edition gets localized.

Review of Xblaze Code: Embryo

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They say that good things come to those who wait, well if that is the case Xblaze Code: Embryo should be an exceptional game. This prequel to the popular BlazBlue series appeared in Japan back in July 2013, but has only now reached European shores. I suppose we should just be grateful that the title ever saw the light of day over here, as visual novels aren’t very popular in the west. Thankfully the times are changing. On the PC side of things Steam is doing a bang up job of accommodating consumers with a steady stream of digital reading material, whilst handheld owners have in recent times been treated to some quality titles including 999 and Danganronpa.

OVERVIEW

Xblaze Code: Embryo stars Touya Kagari, an unassuming high school student who works part time as a waiter at a local curry house. One evening, after serving spicy dishes to the restaurant’s patrons, he ventures into the Restricted Ward – a dilapidated area where his mother vanished a few years prior. Drawn to the location by the sound of a ringing bell, Touya encounters a crazed magic user amongst the ruins of a research lab. The insane mage attempts to assault our teenage hero, but he is thankfully rescued from harm by a blonde cutie who sports a ginormous sword and even more ginormous chest.

Touya’s attractive protector, who answers to the name of Es, is an agent for the clandestine Mitsurugi group – an agency charged with hunting down out of control mages (better known as Unions.) When it becomes apparent that Touya has the ability to sense the presence of Unions, he is promptly recruited by the Mitsurugi Agency who require his skills to track down a serial killer known as The Ripper. With Es in tow, Touya sets off on an incredible adventure that will pit him against both The Ripper and three rogue members from the powerful Ten Sages faction. Hopefully he will survive the ordeal, as I am peckish for a curry and a good waiter is so hard to find.

VERDICT

All in all, Xblaze Code: Embryo is a decent sci-fi visual novel that will appeal to anime/manga fans (specifically connoisseurs of the harem genre.) Aside from Es, the emotionless bodyguard, Touya gets to interact with a bevy of other good-looking girls. The list includes Hinata the bespectacled childhood friend, Mei a spell caster who has a short fuse and Kuon an apprentice sage hailing from the magical kingdom of Ishana (her mix of pigtails and sorcery reminds me of Rin from the Fate franchise.) During key moments in the story players will receive various written articles courtesy of the portable TOi app. In a system reminiscent to Steins;Gate’s mobile phone messages, the articles you choose to read will ultimately determine which girl Touya hooks up with.

Despite not being acquainted with BlazBlue’s lore I found Xblaze Code: Embryo to be an enjoyable read. Compared to other visual novels I was impressed by the title’s production values. There’s a good selection of background music to listen to and the script’s dialogue is fully voiced in Japanese. Unlike other visual novels, which rely on static pictures to tell their tale, the onscreen visuals contain a fair bit of movement. Character portraits zoom across the Vita display during battles, camera angles frequently change position mid-scene and whenever someone speaks their lips actually move. These neat little touches make Xblaze feel more like a high-end motion comic rather than a text heavy novel.

My final rating is three and a half stars. I don’t know how fans of the action packed BlazBlue brawlers will react to this slower paced wordy prequel, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed it. Given the opportunity, I would gladly check out the recently released follow-up Xblaze: Lost Memories. Hopefully Europe will not have to wait another two years for a localisation to reach us!