Mini Reviews: Rytmik Retrobits, Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar, Skyrim

Rytmik Retrobits (DSiWare)

Perhaps it’s that I come from a musical family, but I love playing around with music creation software from time to time. ’tis good! Pretty easy to work out to use, though selection is sometimes a little finicky, and scrolling is a little unintuitive; physically dragging right to… go right. Rather than drag the left into view.
I guess I miss the precision of the software pretending I’m actually dragging the view around. I just can’t estimate how far I’ll drag it.
I also ended up picking up the basic Rytmik, though each of the Rytmik releases is a standalone application.

Since starting on this post (quite a while ago) I’ve made a few simple things with Rytmik Retrobits. It’s easy-to-use, but transferring compositions over to anything else requires a bit of work.

Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar (DS)

Yes, yes, secret shame, one true weakness, et cetera.
Harvest Moon has always been entertaining. Grand Bazaar is competent. The Bazaar is actually fairly interesting, though nowhere near as engaging as Secret of Evermore’s bazaar. Selling mechanics are nowhere near as detailed as Recettear or even that section in Dragon Quest… 4? Chapters of the Chosen, anyway.
Also, Windmills. Windmills do all of your crafting save cooking for you. It’s vaguely windmillpunk.
That said, does let you play as a girl without waiting for the not-usually-released-over-here updated version. That’s an improvement.

Skyrim (PC)

Needs work.
Oh, it’s as good a game as Morrowind and Oblivion were, as can be expected. Maybe a bit better, though not significantly; you probably can’t do much better in terms of worldbuilding, for example.
But why do Bethesda release such bug-riddled software? I know at this point they can count on it selling despite the assurance that the game has at least three game-stopping bugs on launch, as… well, estimates place 3.5 million copies sold in the first weekend. Maybe they know that players are ultimately the ‘best’ bug-testers, as everything but the most strange of actions will get replicated many times over, and actual players won’t get bored and don’t require employing.
…I wonder how many people Bethesda pay for QA.
Anyway, great game as usual, needs work. Desperately needs January’s release of the Skyrim Creation Kit so we can have competent people creating the Unofficial patch. And good mods. Skyrim’s world is somewhat less bland than Oblivion, but whilst there are a few random locations to stumble upon, they aren’t nearly enough or strange enough, and whilst there are a few good mods out there already, they mostly relate to UI overhauls or crafting stuff. Honestly, what’s been achieved already is more than I thought could have been done without the creation kit; I really look forwards to seeing what these people will be able to do given the rest of the tools Bethesda’s teams used.

Miniview: Deep Labyrinth

I love…
…the story. Well, the one I’m playing right now; the game has two stories, or chapters, and I’m not sure whether and how they connect. I started with the first as, well, they might connect, and the difficulty is supposed to be lower. I’m not used to real-time games, and I figure I should learn to play before I start running. This one’s supposed to be the ‘lighter’ story, but thus far it’s turning out to be darker than what I’d expect from that.

I like…
…the magic system. Like Lost Magic, Deep Labyrinth has you drawing characters with the stylus for spells, and though most work separately, you can combine some characters to make more spells; I just love this kind of magic system, even if it rarely comes close to what Words of Power did. Enemies are usually colour-coded to show element or elemental weakness, and provided you can recall what the glyph is for the spell you want, magic is a pretty good way of dealing with things, as long as you have MP.
…the graphics. It’s 3D like Eternal Ring is – I should play that once I’m done with this – but it doesn’t try to do much more than the system can do. It’s all passable-to-good; environments are good and there’s a decent amount of variety in the decorations, whilst NPC models – mice in particular – are somewhat samey. Enemy models are fairly good, and outside of the dungeon you encounter them in, don’t repeat – they are reused to show off enemy elements or weaknesses, I guess, but it isn’t overdone, and with only one exception every model in the second dungeon is different from those in the first. Boss models look nice, too.
…the music. Sound effects are probably going to get repetitive, eventually, but haven’t yet, and the music is pretty nice, and doesn’t sound too synthetic.

I loathe…
…sword combat. Well, I don’t loathe it, but I’ve got three sections here, two of which are positive and one negative. Different stylus gestures mean different sword strikes – across the diagonals, or straight down, or horizontal. Enemies have weakspots, and the game suggests that some of them are weak to certain strikes, but it’s really difficult to tell whether you got a good hit in, or whether you got a lucky critical. Some enemies are invulnerable to the sword except in certain bits of their animation, and some can’t easily be hit by certain strokes, and that’s pretty nice, but I don’t know about weakness to specific strokes otherwise…
…boss stun animations. Thus far, every boss has been a matter of running straight up to it and hitting it until it dies. That’s all you have to do to avoid being hurt – no boss thus far has had an attack that works faster than my attack, and being stunned from getting hit interrupt their attempt at attacking me. Most also don’t move, and don’t seem to have ranged attacks, so there’s little to save them. One gave me hope, then they threw me against a dragon which stayed where it sat. I hope future bosses are more tough.
…movement. Everything but this is controlled by the stylus, and everything else controls fairly well. Movement, however, is via the d-pad, and is pretty insensitive – aiming for magic is a chore, as you can’t target-lock things unless you’re within melee range. It’d be worse if they also tried to control this via stylus, but as-is, my hand aches and I haven’t been playing for too long.
…swordsmen who throw their swords and then instantly have another reappear in their hands. That move is powerful, they do it when you’re out of melee range, and dodging it in a corridor is difficult. I wish it had a cooldown.

Worth getting, as it’s pretty cheap for how good it is. Nothing much brings it above less-obscure games, though, aside from that. It also boasts of being the ‘First ever 3D first person RPG for NDS’ on Amazon… and is, I guess, as it came out before Orcs & Elves, which it surpasses. The plot’s more interesting and it’s more challenging.

Miniview: Time Hollow (DS)

I love:
…seeing things change as you mess around with the past. Time Hollow takes a stance similar to that of Shadow of Memories, where whilst the present changes with the alterations you make in the past, the protagonist – the character making the changes – remains mostly untouched; he has flashbacks of the new present’s ‘memories’, which serve to tell you how and why the new present differs from the old one, but otherwise is the same person he was before the change happened.

I like:
…visual novels, in general. This is one of the odd genre of games that sits somewhere between pure visual novels and proper point-and-click style games, filled with puzzles; I uneasily class it as an adventure game, but it has far less puzzles than a game like Another Code, Hotel Dusk, or Flower, Sun and Rain contains. At times I found myself wishing for ‘better puzzles’, or a protagonist as quick on the uptake as the player, but Time Hollow focuses on telling a good story, to great effect.

I loathe:
…a few, nagging loose ends. On the whole, Time Hollow does a very good job of dealing with these, even if you’d need to make a diagram to keep everything straight, but there are a few points that are never really answered, or weren’t in the playthrough I just completed. They kind of stand out.

A pretty good game, though any ‘challenge’ involved is fairly non-challenging. It’s similar to games like this one or the Fedora Spade games, where you just need to make sure to examine everything and talk to everyone, and make a few deductions yourself, to move the plot on. That said, it – and those others – tell very good stories, and are all worth checking out if you enjoy that kind of thing.

Miniview: Flower Sun and Rain (DS)

I love:
…suddenly hearing Gershwin. A light instrumental elevator-music-sounding Gershwin piece, but still… Gershwin. I have a bit of a soft spot for a lot of his compositions, as I’ve sung quite a few of them, and to hear it in a game like this, along with a lot of other good music, was totally unexpected.
…the main character… and Christine, and everyone else. It’s a mixture of realism and strange behaviour that tends to turn up more in magical girl anime than anywhere else, and altogether it’s rather appealing. Think… I don’t know. Killer7 and the sentai team. There’s something in the characters here like that… and it’s not really a surprise, as the same person is behind both games.

I like:
…the voices. They’re not voice acting for the lines; rather, like Animal Crossing’s speech and Simlish, it’s all remixed babble like a vocal Rorschach inkblot. I hear Spanish, personally. The DS doesn’t usually do proper voices well, beyond short clips; full voice acting tends to produce tinny voices only. Flower Sun and Rain somehow got around this, and its babble sounds positively human.
…the puzzles. I’m not far, but it looks like a lot of them are going to be ‘find the right number’ puzzles, and… well. Whilst the result of a puzzle might be a number, the puzzle itself could be anything; paging through a tourist magazine to find camera settings, for instance. It’s not just a dry conversion of a book of puzzles, and it’s nice to see real puzzles that can’t simply be solved by exhausting all possible arrangements of numbers.

I hate:
…the controls. Well, I dislike them, at any rate. Though you have the option of controlling the main character with either the d-pad or the touch screen, both tend to lead you to veer off to the side on certain screens. It’s just slightly inaccurate, but that’s enough to be annoying, as it could probably have easily been fixed. There’s only been one screen where it was very noticeable, however; since most rooms are much smaller than the path outside the hotel, I don’t think it’ll be too bothersome. I still don’t think games should be steered from the bottom screen if the main game isn’t on there, personally; it’s like steering a RC toy if not.

Ah, adventure games. The DS lends itself well to these, with Another Code: Two Memories and Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Another Code was nothing special, utilising the DS’ capabilities as gimmicks rather than building a strong story, but Hotel Dusk, another game taking place in a hotel, was very enjoyable. Flower Sun and Rain looks set more to follow Hotel Dusk than Another Code, with the makings of a complex, and absorbing, story on top of strong puzzles and truly challenging content.
Still, all praise to GameFAQs for when I inevitably get stuck, hm?

Miniview: Sea Monsters – A Preshistoric Adventure (DS)

I love:
…that someone put effort into trying to make this an educational game, even though it’s not something I’d play for long. Though the aim is not motivation for me, there are challenges of which some, I assume, might be difficult. I had a headache when I was playing this, and didn’t feel like trying to eat 15 predators when I couldn’t yet steer properly.

I like:
…the definite similarities this game has with Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of Time (DC, PS2), and Aquanaut’s Holiday (PSX); Ecco being an action-adventure starring a dolphin, having you attacking sharks, alien monsters and various other things, and Aquanaut’s Holiday being a low-interactivity simulation of an ocean and a player-made reef, if you ever persisted playing that long. Imagine something with a few of the combat mechanics from Ecco and a slightly higher interactivity than Aquanaut’s Holiday… minus the reef.
…the air gauge. Usually I detest such things, as they tend to trigger my sense of claustrophobia… but the gauge in this game is much more forgiving than that in, say, any of the Ecco games, and there don’t seem to be any long twisty passages without regular air supplies, anyway. There is also a health gauge, and a stamina gauge, though that last one is somewhat unpredictable and its behaviour changes depending on what form you use. Speaking of which…
…that you can choose different forms, eventually. Unfortunately you need to pick up all of that form’s fossils beforehand. Different forms have different abilities – some are better in combat, or can access different portions of the map. There are only seven forms available and you start with one unlocked initially. Not really enough, but more than most games save that Animorphs release on the GBC offer you.

I hate:
…the lack of a decent aim. Sea Monsters has an aim similar to games like Animal Crossing; collection. In this case, the player is supposed to pick up fossils that unlock additional bonuses for the player or, eventually, additional forms the player can take, with different abilities, and information about various prehistoric ‘monsters’. There are a total of 90 fossils, and I imagine most of them only provide information. As someone not particularly interested in ‘dinosaurs’ any more, this isn’t a great motivation.
…the controls. I know it’s tough to create a good control scheme for full 3D movement – as opposed to 2D motion on the ground with jumping – but other, previous games have handled it better. Turning in any direction is handled by the touchscreen, and unfortunately is a bit oversensitive for any kind of precision. Happily the game lets you lock-on to targets for attacking, as without that you wouldn’t have any hope of hitting them accurately, but as this doesn’t apply to things like fossils, aligning yourself properly to snag those as you swim by can be an exercise in frustration. Prolonged play would probably get a player used to the game, but I think I’ve already given up.
…slowdown. The game visibly slows down whenever you swim in a large open area, close enough to see the sea bed and rock walls. There are also a few odd graphical glitches you get when looking at the sea bed from a distance – things that look like pink algae or seaweed or… something.
…the dumbed-down exploration-puzzles. Letting people choose which form to approach an obstacle with is all well and good, but directly announcing that the player needs a specific form – say, good with jumping – to proceed reduces it all to a memory problem. If I ever unlock the form that lets me jump, all I need to do is recall the spots where the game helpfully displays arrows showing I need to jump over something. I also need to remember where the game told me I was ‘too large’ to fit through something I never saw in the first place because I was busy reading the message, as I unlocked a smaller form before giving up in order to find painkillers. Being told what to do takes the fun out of trying to find out, and the triumph of solving something that initially didn’t seem like a puzzle at all.

Best played without a developing headache.
Beyond that, as far as edutainment goes, this game makes a decent effort. It’s definitely a game, and presents the player with some challenges, such that it is possible that an unskilled player may never uncover every piece of information the game has, rather than being something a player can ‘succeed’ at and have information thrown at them regardless of how badly they do. It’s not particularly fun, but like Aquanaut’s Holiday it’s good for killing five or ten minutes when you’ve nothing better to do, and nothing else playable in that short a time.
Plenty of flaws, but not as bad as it could be.

Miniview: Orcs and Elves (DS)

I love:
…that I finally have a first-person RPG that isn’t real-time. I have a score of old games for the PC that look similar to this, yet sadly have enemies that act regardless of what the player does. Such as, say, go off to make porridge. Orcs and Elves lets you think a little bit more about strategy than Oblivion does, but in return it throws entire rooms of enemies at you at once, in more confined spaces than you’d get for something real-time.

I like:
…some of the characters. Montague, for instance, or Floofie. Though that’s about it; not much effort went into writing characters, I think. Not much effort went into the story, either, I’m afraid; it’s a pretty generic fantasy.
…that it’s short. I picked this up a few days ago, and I’m already close to finishing. It’s nowhere near long enough to justify picking up at the full price for DS games, but if you spot it going for just short of £5, it’s worth the purchase.

I hate:
…having to buy items one at a time. Gaya’s mood doesn’t go down if you purchase things at a lower price than initially offered, and it doesn’t go down if you fail in negotiations… which isn’t random. So the lack of a mass-purchase option is odd, and annoying when you want to stock up on armour kits.
…the graphics. It’s not pretty. At  its best, Gaya looks like the ice dragon from Noggin the Nog. At its worst, it looks like Doom with medieval stylings. Funny that.

Finally have a copy of Trials and Tribulations, yay

So Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations was finally released in the UK yesterday, almost a full year after its release in the US.
I finally got my copy from Game, but I’ve had it on preorder since sometime around Christmas. Before I wised up and started ordering imports from Play-Asia where possible. Since I get reward points from Game, I’m not happy with cancelling orders once I’ve made them. So at least one friend of mine has had a copy of Trials and Tribulations for about half a year already.
At least he had the sense not to taunt me about it.

Moral of the story:
Get DS games on import. They’re even much cheaper on import at the momentl, anyway.

Etrian Odyssey, and Difficulty (written 30/6, revised 04/7)

So I beat the boss of Etrian Odyssey several days ago; saw the credit sequence. I’m not going to spoil it, but the fifth stratum was beautiful, and pretty much entirely unexpected, to boot.
However, it turns out the game isn’t done with me. Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard arrived today. I decided not to make the mistake I did with the first game; I ordered this one when it was released and easy to get, rather than waiting until a year later and then having to jump through hoops to find it from anyone who’d deliver it to the UK. But… I still can’t play it. See, it promises extras if you input a password the original Etrian Odyssey produces on completion, but… I haven’t beaten the game yet. Not really.

See, Etrian Odyssey has six strata, not five. Each stratum – each floor, really, but floors in a stratum are usually variations of the same problem – has a different trick or combination of tricks, and these usually aren’t replicated as the focus of a future floor. In essence, each floor, and therefore each stratum, has a different atmosphere to it.
The first stratum introduces you to the game’s elements, and as expected of an introduction area, isn’t difficult to navigate, or more difficult than usual to beat.
The second stratum forces you to walk long distances to simply reach the stairs to the next floor; you learn your time in the labyrinth is essentially very limited to the TP of your characters, barring a well-stocked inventory or a TP-restoring skill. It also has the first major non-boss FOE that is guaranteed death to encounter, at least until you gain 30 levels, and gives you little space to dodge if you screw up.
The third stratum is packed with winding, turning paths, pits behind doors, and FOEs that seem to revel in making existing fights worse.
The fourth stratum requires a lot of searching for secret passages, and careful mapping, before presenting a boss that’s more puzzle than any one encounter.
The fifth stratum has you following a winding path across four floors before you can make your way to the last floor; the one you think is final. Oh, and it doesn’t warn you when you’re on a path that eventually reaches a dead end.

Then there’s the sixth stratum, accessible only after beating the not-quite-final-after-all boss. The sixth stratum’s theme, or atmosphere, seems to be in encouraging frustration. Assuming you survive the enemies – tougher than the fifth stratum’s, of course, and pretty much requiring skills, and thus valuable TP, to defeat even at the highest possible level – your first problem is testing teleport points until you find the one – if any, that doesn’t set you back to the beginning. Then again, with secret passages. Again. Then again, choice of three. Any wrong choice means a lot of wading back to where you were, through enemies and FOEs (also worse). That’s the first of five floors.

At the time of writing, I was confused by B29F. One floor from the end. Well, one floor, and then the 30th floor’s hell of a single, winding, long path and three locked doors at the end.
B29F required all but 1 member to be at or around level 70 to survive; B30F killed you half the time if you had that but didn’t have a good stock of items in inventory, too.
I worried that my current party build was unsuitable, and that I’d have to train up one or more members from 60 again, after reallocating skill points. It was, and I had to defeat three very tough bosses outside of the sixth stratum, to boot.
But I still had two floors to solve.

I like Etrian Odyssey, because unlike some (more popular?) RPGs, it’s difficult to simply overlevel to solve a floor’s enemies – weaknesses need to be noticed and exploited in ‘fair combat’ to survive, sometimes, and it’s difficult simply getting enough experience to gain a single level, let alone get to the point where one stratum’s enemies aren’t a problem before the last floor of the area. The different floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth are all puzzles, too, as are quests; solutions to either may be hinted at, if you’re lucky or observant, but for the most part the whole game just lets you discover things for yourself. The FINAL final boss is painful like that; that’s how far they take it.
Difficulty throughout the game is carefully calculated, however; it ramps gradually, such that you don’t notice except when travelling to a new stratum, and you’re always at best struggling against a stratum’s enemies until the final floor, when you’re fully equipped with what the stratum can provide. Maps grow more complex and difficult to navigate, different status elements crop up, FOEs and bosses possess more intricate and fatal combinations of attacks, skills, resistances.

I prefer a calculated challenge; I’d rather spend an hour attempting to solve B29F (and I did – much more than an hour) than fighting through encounters with ShinRa guards, mutants and robots in Midgar and watching long FMVs. La-Mulana sits in a similar spot for explorational platformers – in the end, I’ll play it rather than Cave Story, as it has a balanced, ramping difficulty, whislt Cave Story in comparison has erratic spikes of difficulty, ridiculously easy in places and insanely difficult in others. Remember that cat-tank boss? Lots of people I know complained about that one being difficult. (Personally, I hate Omega – that jumping robot in the Sand Zone. The cat-tank is easy, but I died tens of times to Omega’s feet.)
It doesn’t help that I have the plots of FF7 and Cave Story memorised. Without discovery – of story, of environment, of nuances in difficulty – to drive me on, those games have little to offer me beyond the sudden odd urge to beat them again every year or so. Knowledge, in those cases, defeats the game. However, knowing everything – or as much as I’ll ever know – of a game like La Mulana or Etrian Odyssey does not eliminate the draw of the game; the difficulty remains unchanged, though I may be better prepared.

Death and Shiren the Wanderer

Once released in 1995 in Japan for the SNES, Shiren the Wanderer is one of a long line of console roguelikes; unlike ‘normal’ roguelikes, as console roguelikes actually need to be appealing to mainstream gamers, these roguelikes give the players a break, occasionally.

The latest break players get is the ability to be rescued if they die, in the most recent Mystery Dungeon games appearing on the DS (and GBA). Players, once they die, can choose to hand out a four-line password, or use the DS’ wireless capabilities to sidestep having to type or write all that out and have someone else input the sequence in their copy. Alternatively, they could hop online* and put in a request there. Wireless and online methods even allow the rescued player to send a gift back to their rescuer.

Shiren is pretty fun, but my inability to get a Nintendo WiFi widget to play nicely with any computer I use is pretty annoying. Whenever I die, I have to type out the password; four lines of fourteen characters each. Well, I don’t HAVE to do that; I could always accept death and lose my +40~ sword and shield with shiny and/or rare bits attached. I don’t really care about the progress I made that trip (50F, up from… 1F). I just don’t want to lose those two pieces of kit. Replacing them would require finding a suitable weapon, raising the cash for the guaranteed two blacksmith visits possible per trip, and ALSO hunting down various other pieces of gear that can be melded into the chosen pieces for additional qualities, like dealing extra damage to ghosts, flying things, or dragons**.

I don’t really have an amusing death tale to tell this time, unlike the last I needed rescuing. I went down the stairs, it was a monster house, something sent me to sleep and I didn’t wake up as the Tainted Soldier*** wailed on me.

* …provided you have wireless internet access lying around somewhere, or can get the Nintendo widget to not screw with your computer.
** …so that’s 1000G per blacksmith visit. Getting a new weapon to around the level of the one I just lost would take 40000G, if I have absolutely no luck and don’t pick up one with a few plusses naturally, or find a few Air Bless Scrolls, which do the same as a blacksmith for cheaper, and sometimes do better. Replacing qualities is much more expensive, as the Melding Pot – necessary for merging weapon or shields – costs around 6000G to 7000G each, and to even do anything with that you need other weapons or shields with nice qualities; they’re all more rare than common.
*** Tainted Soldier – a bug-like monster that covers either 6 or 9 tiles, looking pretty identical to the main dungeon’s final boss. I haven’t felt like testing its exact size as my +37 Armorward shield brings its damage down to around 36 points per hit, when I have around 160 maximum. I’ve only ever seen two, and both times in whole-floor giant rooms full of monsters. Not good places to mess around.