Game Ramblings #147 – Tales of Arise

More Info from Bandai Namco

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Windows

The Tales of series has always been one where the combat has always trumped any other problem I’ve had with the individual titles, and this one really isn’t that different. The stories of the various titles have always been fine to good but generally fall into pretty typical anime cliches, and this one isn’t really different. The presentation aspects have always been a bit behind the AAA curve and as much as this one is a huge step forward for the series, it’s still distinctly AA. Where this one again greatly succeeds is that combat is a lot of fun – and for probably the first time in the series for me, I’ve found a defensive style to actually be extremely fun while still being practical to play.

Games like Berseria started really pushing the game away from the mana-heavy skill usage of prior Tales games, and this one definitely kept that going. Where it kind of differentiates from that title is that basic attacks are split into their own chain separate from Artes. Functionally though, it’s very similar to Berseria. You attack, you try to break the enemy’s defense, and if you can break them you get a big attack and go AOE ham on the field. From an attack perspective, it still has a great flow in terms of chaining attacks with your team to keep the enemy in a hit chain and increase the chance of stunning them. In general I was able to quickly fall into a nice rhythm to where I could get in my attacks while keeping an eye out for the enemy’s incoming volley, then get out of the way as it came through.

Where this game really separates itself from the past is that it finally feels like 3D navigation is here to stay. General in-combat movement is more typical of recent action RPGs, with left stick being independent movement and right stick being the camera. It’s a small change, but it makes the game flow less like the generally fixed in/out movement of even 3D Tales games. This one also felt like it really had the biggest mindset towards defensive maneuverability in the series to me. Past titles had side stepping and that sort of thing, but the feel of it is much more natural to me. A heavy focus on dodging became part of my default toolset, rather than being an oh shit button that I used on big fights. Avoiding incoming damage and not relying on healing was a big difference for me, and it really encouraged active participation in the fights, rather than simply being a button spam with little damage mitigation.

Healing in general also went through some big changes here. Where Berseria encouraged character swapping to let characters heal out-of-combat, this one is kind of a more typical experience. You’ve got characters that are fairly traditional healer mage types. However, healing is tied to a single resource pool for the entire party. Having two healers has choice benefits, but it doesn’t have resource benefits. What it ended up doing was allowing me to bring in a dual-healer approach on bosses while using a more damage-focused party for regular combat, without really being able to cheese the game with a double mana pool for healing.

It’s an interesting change that had some ramifications on overall item and resource balance. Your typical orange+ potions that refilled MP in past games are now tied to that new resource, and given the stack limits (still 15 like past Tales titles…), double healers can burn through the resources incredibly fast. This ties all back into the damage mitigation, where reducing the need for your healers to actually use the resource becomes incredibly important.

Unfortunately, some of the negative parts of combat have been carried over as well. Put simply, the AI are incredibly stupid. They will not reliably dodge incoming attacks, even if there’s a giant obvious laser line tell going right at them. The healers will not first get away from the enemies to start the healing, even if it’s clear that they are in danger range. They do not have good target prioritization, and the tools to manage AI decision making don’t really do a good job of exposing this functionality to the player. It ends up in a situation where combat works great against single targets, then falls into chaos as more targets enter the fray. Luckily, bosses are largely party vs 1 affairs, so it’s generally not a big issue.

Some of the power curve decisions are also interesting, but I’m not sure I particularly liked them. There’s typical weapon/armor/accessory slotting, but there’s also now skill points tied into title trees. As you earn titles for doing things (ex: finishing specific character-focused side quests, doing specific activities, etc) you’ll earn the series typical titles. However, they’re now tied to four additional skills that can be purchased with SP. Earning all skills for a title will then unlock a larger passive stat boost that sums to the character.

Compared to the mastery stats on gear that Berseria used, this felt oddly boring to me. It’s an effective system, but it didn’t really encourage me to do anything. I kind of found the most useful next stat, then bought the skills for it as I could. The titles are kind of naturally gained by just playing the game normally, and you really don’t have to go that out of the way to get them all. The mastery stats in Berseria, despite being similar in practice, felt a lot more influenced by player completion than this. In that system I was still effectively building SP to get a skill but I was only getting one per piece of gear, so I was spending more time focused on making sure that I had backup gear ready when I left towns, and spent more time trying to make sure I wasn’t missing any chests that might have more gear. It’s a subtle change, but the title skills just got rid of a small stress factor that I feel really let the system down in Arise.

Overall though, this was a fantastically fun game to play. I could sit here and nitpick the story and make notes about how it was pretty cliche, but frankly I don’t play these games expecting a great story. I jump into them because I want JRPG math combined with an action-focused combat system and I got a heavy dose of that. 50 hours later, I was still enjoying jumping into battles, and if that’s the only thing I have to say coming out of a game, that’s a pretty good indication that they did it right.

Game Ramblings #145 – NEO: The World Ends With You

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: PC, Switch

I really liked the first game, both the original DS version and the Switch remake. For the sequel, it moved to full 3D. This did mean that combat had to change, but interestingly enough it still had a lot of the same rhythm of combat, so it still felt entirely familiar. This is definitely not a game without its faults, which I’ll get into a bit, but it surprised me how well they converted a uniquely touch experience into something decidedly gamepad-focused.

Combat had a unique rhythm in the original, particularly in the remake. In that one, you’d be trying to switch between using different pins to build up the sync meter, allowing you to throw down a large group attack and heal back up to full health. NEO follows a lot of the same pattern. The terminology has changed a bit, but the core system is the same. What has changed is the inputs to do so.

Rather than screen holds and swipes and taps, you have button hold auras and butt hold charges and taps. In practice it has the same feel and build out – find pins that allow you to get in a rhythm to both maximize opportunities to build up your groove meter, as well as minimizing the times when you have all pins on cooldown – but it’s all on the gamepad, and it’s surprising how easily I fell back into the rhythm of the game.

In a lot of ways, this does open up the first weakness of this game though, it takes a long time to not be incredibly easy. This one follows the same three week structure as the first game, and I’d say it took until about the mid to end of week two before the game, even on hard, didn’t feel like a pushover. The game definitely felt like it was expecting players to have a hard time grokking the combo system, and most of the enemies end up being somewhat pushovers as a result. There are ways for the player to sort of steer their personal difficulty – doing long fight chains without healing, reducing their party level, not buying gear, etc – but ultimately there isn’t a ton of combat challenge in the game until it introduces a few specific enemies types, the shark, the chameleon, and the rhinos. However, the game can generally be beaten via button spam once the player has become comfortable with the combo system and starts taking advantage of filling out the groove meter.

Even then the fights feel less like higher difficulty and more just lower bar for error. Missing the attacks that those types do just pushes a lot of damage on the party, so I had a tendency to slow down a bit more and actively avoid damage. The enemies themselves that are “harder” are more just annoying in mechanics, rather than being traditionally hard. The shark swims through the ground and can’t be attacked, the chameleon goes invisible and can’t be attacked, the rhino has front armor and has to be attacked from behind. It’s less hard and more slower, again causing be to slow down and avoid damage instead. Ya, my rewards weren’t as good, but it generally didn’t matter enough. Because you can sort of guess the enemy type from their overworld icons, you can also actively avoid those fights in order to more efficiently grind. To some extent it is nice that the player can kind of build their difficulty curve in these ways, but I’d have preferred seeing harder mechanics that were still fast paced.

In good news, the bosses don’t really fall into these problems. On hard they feel appropriately hard, and they tend to have more interesting mechanics in terms of the player having to avoid damage. The biggest thing that the bosses felt they did correctly is that there was simply parts where the player simply had to avoid damage, which was a bit change from trash fights where damage is generally shrugged off. This was sometimes achieved through world effects, sometimes through big enemy tells, sometimes through the enemy just being damage immune. However, it always came about as a way to force the player to not attack, which gave a bit of a seesaw feel between big damage pushes and big defense pushes. By the end of the game I was finding myself blazing through the game on normal just to speed things up, then pushing the difficulty up for boss segments and enjoying the difficulty there. That pattern was really rewarding and actually fit a pattern I enjoyed a lot more once I had my late game pin set kind of set for the party.

Narratively it’s also a bit of hit and miss. From an overall perspective, I really did enjoy the game. It plays a pretty good balance of nostalgia for the original and pushing new story content. You have a bunch of new characters and a bunch of returning characters, and the fact that they interact doesn’t feel forced. The gameplay being teams instead of pairs feels well explained. The new Reapers in charge of the current game feels well explained.

On the other hand, there’s a general turn back time mechanic that while important to the end of the story, feels poorly implemented. Going back in time restricts you to single zones and is pretty clearly a bunch of linear paths, so it feels like a forced restriction of exploration. Rather than letting the game continue as normal in these areas, I generally went into a no combat situation so I could see the story unfold as quickly as possible and get back to the more loose structure of general exploration that main segments had.

I think a lot of people will have problems getting into this one, but the original had similar problems. It takes a long time to get into full mechanics and full difficulty. It’s really easy to get into so much combat that you drastically out-level the game. The story assumes you know too much about the previous game and doesn’t really explain some really complicated shit to new users. However, despite all that I really enjoyed the game. Combat – once fully dolled out to the player – has a great rhythm that very few games today have, and when it all comes together in late game boss fights it’s super satisfying. It’s just unfortunate that the game trips a lot to get there, though again I would say the exact same thing about the original.

Game Ramblings #144 – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Released On: Wii

Playing remakes is usually a bit weird. They’re typically a mix of nostalgia with enough of a new platform benefit to make replaying worthwhile. Skyward Sword isn’t necessarily different in that regard, although I think a lot of people’s opinion of the original was not great. This one on the other hand benefits from some core things being reimagined – because the Pro Controller is a thing, there’s now a control scheme for this game that isn’t simply motion waggling. While that was a big change that benefited the game a lot, it was interesting seeing where other parts of the game have aged better than others.

The input changes are the obvious focus of this remake, so it’s also the obvious place to start. Waggle sword has been replaced with right analog sword, and in isolation its an interesting and powerful change. The game was able to keep some of the direction based mechanics in an easy to use form factor (ex: scorpion boss requiring specific direction claw strikes). It still has spots where it felt like the responsiveness wasn’t quite there if I didn’t flick at the right speed, but it was a marked improvement over the Wii Remote input system. Nunchuck thrust shield bash has been replaced by a simple click of the left stick. Not having to lift off the movement controls or swing my arms around was a huge boon to shield bashing, and led to me using it to a far greater effect than the original game, despite the fact that my timing still sucks.

On the other hand, having two sticks dedicated to movement and combat means that the camera system is the odd man out. On the one hand, having to hold a button to use the right stick as a camera is still a significant improvement over the original game and other single-analog Zelda experiences. On the other hand, I’m not really entirely sure why they didn’t have an option for a simple L/R camera rotation system. With ZL target locking, having vertical camera movement isn’t super important. Not being able to move the camera at the same time as swinging was definitely a hazard during boss fights to the point where the camera button was frustrating in those situations. It felt like a weird way of trying to blend modern camera systems with a game clearly not built for them when there was likely better intermediate solutions.

On the general gameplay front, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the overall meta game. In my original playthrough, I remember being frustrated that there was so much re-traversal of areas that you’d already been to. Compared to previous Zelda games, it felt like a cop out to minimize content production. I don’t know if it’s because Breath of the Wild was so fundamentally different, or that I’ve been playing a whole hell of a lot more Metroidvanias in the last decade, but this go around I really enjoyed it.

Part of this playthrough for me was that I was a lot more intentionally completionist than I typically would be. I was making mental notes of areas that I couldn’t get to, treasures I didn’t have the right tool for, paths I couldn’t make my way through, etc. Because of this, I also had a checklist of new things to do when revisiting an area. Sure there was always a cool new section of the regions to visit, but I also had other things to do – grab heart pieces, grab rupies, grab bugs, get those item upgrades – so revisiting an area never felt like a chore. I think ultimately it comes down to me just playing games differently now than I did at the first release of this game, and the overall meta game setup just hit better for me this go around.

What didn’t hit so well with me was The Imprisoned trilogy of boss fights. The amount of times this thing fell just right to completely block the path, or fell just right to knock me off a cliff DURING ITS OWN CUTSCENE to my doom was obnoxious. I actually died in the second fight because I flippantly started it at low health already, got knocked off the cliff all three times when it collapsed, and died. These fights just didn’t age well, and it was entirely down to bugs.

The other bosses generally worked much better. Some of my frustration with them stemmed from odd camera difficulties that existed in the original game, so in a lot of cases it was expected frustration. I ended up dying my first go around in the final fight against Demise because my shield bash timing was quite frankly that bad. Some of the Ghirahim stuff was mechanically weird in ways I didn’t remember (ex: hold sword to the left as a distraction then QUICKLY do a swipe from the right to damage him?????). By and large though the fights are generally as good as other 3D Zelda games, even if they have the same typically three phase pattern in all of them.

The thing I think I’ve got out of this is that I can recommend Skyward Sword a lot easier than I could before. I always really adored the original game, but I was cognizant of the fact that it was a hard recommendation. The controls were just too inconsistent. However, that’s mostly gone away and the rest of the game has aged well enough that I think it’s worth playing. It’s an interesting transition point between Twilight and Breath where it’s still got the linear dungeon path, but starting to move into some open worldish stuff and upgrade systems, and despite the odd controls it’s a lot of fun to run through. It being readily available on a very popular system also isn’t going to hurt its case. If you’re looking for that classic 3D Zelda itch, you probably won’t do better any time soon.

Also, the cat dog bird thing is a jerk.