Liberation Maiden

I can safely say I had pretty much no idea what I was doing or what was going on for about 90% of my playthrough of Liberation Maiden, making reviewing it a slightly intimidating prospect. The game was developed by Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51; the man responsible for classics such as No More Heroes and Killer7. Maybe because of this, Liberation Maiden is the most successful entry of the GUILD series, being the only one to spawn a sequel (confusingly a PSVita Visual Novel), and get an iOS port.

Unlike the past two games in the GUILD series I’ve looked at, Liberation Maiden is decidedly not story heavy, but instead a sort of on-rails shooter, which makes the fact that it has exceedingly well-animated anime cutscenes by Studio Bones (Space Dandy; Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood etc.) a slightly confusing choice. Although there are bonus story details included in the options menu, all you need to know is that some time in the future a new nation called ‘The Dominion’ (there’s some nominative determinism if I’ve ever seen it) has taken over Japan, and in a state of military emergency, the Japanese Diet has decided the only reasonable course of action is to put the former Prime Minister’s daughter into a mech suit and send her to fight the invading army forces. This sort of wacky premise is perhaps what you’d expect from a man who refers to himself as a punk game designer, but sadly the rest of the game’s design elements fall much more on the generic than the ‘punk’ side of the spectrum.

I’m not necessarily talking about gameplay right now, but about visual design. Unlike with the super-stylised and super-stylish character and visual design of Suda’s previous games, Liberation Maiden’s characters fall pretty squarely on the ‘generic anime’ side of the equation. Her mech is perhaps a bit sleeker than your average Gundam, but it’s nothing I’ve never seen before in passing. The enemies suffer the biggest fate in terms of visuals. Because they’re never depicted in the cutscenes it’s hard to get a grasp on what they really look like, but most of their tech is either dark grey tanks, dark grey spikes jutting out of the ground, or occasionally dark grey submarines and trains, all equipped with beautiful glowing pink weak spots. The weak spots are needed, however, because of how the game is presented. Your character floats above the ground, but aside from the enemy’s proclivity for heat seeking missiles, all of the other enemy weaponry remains on the ground. The 3DS, while a nifty bit of kit, isn’t quite strong enough to handle the draw distance this game demands, leaving most of the enemies as pretty difficult to parse.[1] This isn’t helped by the sheer amount of visual noise that clutters every frame of the game, leading it to chug at the most demanding moments. It’s a real shame that a game directed by Suda51 is so visually lifeless – the only real visual spark is the mini news bulletins that pop up after completing a mission. The music is enough to add some pizzazz to the proceedings, but not good enough to carry the game’s aesthetic fully on its shoulders.

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I should probably start talking about the gameplay. I described it above as an on-rails shooter, but that’s not quite true. While you are somewhat shepherded from one shooting gallery to the next, you mainly have pretty full control of your mech during these sections. It might instead be that I called this game a on-rails shooter because I think it would have worked a lot better as one. Controlling your mech is a little clunky, as is controlling the camera. The camera isn’t locked behind you unless you press the L button, but doing that also locks your control of movement to being only side to side. If you want free movement, you’ll mainly have to just trust the camera, which works most of the time until the game throws a surprise stealth mission at you in the third level. Here, unable to see the enemies you have to avoid without moving your character, a minor annoyance becomes a lot more frustrating. What’s more, when near a target, your mech will automatically start moving towards it if you aren’t controlling it yourself, one of the most baffling design decisions of the game, making it seem more often than not like you’re wrestling with the controls. Much like Kid Icarus: Uprising, controlling your aim is done through the touch screen. You lock onto enemies using the touch screen aim, then fire. However, given that the L button is already taken for putting you into strafe mode, you have to release your stylus in order for your weapon to fire. This is much easier to forget to do than it seems, especially in the heat of the moment.

By around the 4th level, I had finally gotten to grips with the control scheme, and at times, in the thick of the action, it can reach the heights of Kid Icarus. It can even occasionally exceed the depths of that game’s shooting mechanics, as Liberation Maiden includes a fun risk/reward system, wherein the nodes that orbit your mech are used for both attack and defence, meaning that firing too many off will put you in greater danger, forcing you to wait for some to return. Annoyingly, however, the game could have used this to test you on your dodging skills when you’re out of ammo, but the abundance of heat-seeking missiles mean sometimes damage is pretty inevitable.

However, as soon as the game started for me, it was all over. The game only includes 5 levels, with the last only containing a boss fight. Confusingly, the game teases a surprise final boss fight after the fifth stage, but ends after showing the enemy. The first 4 levels are also all structured identically; first find 3 small spikes sticking out of the ground and destroy those, then destroy a final large spike. Past the second level, then, when a new laser weapon is introduced,[2] the gameplay has pretty much finished evolving, without all that much variation. It’s a game that is content to be short but sweet, which I normally appreciate, but the complexity of the mechanics and inefficient tutorials meant that I spent most of the game lost. It was only with a second playthrough that I was able to have more fun with it, but by that point the surprise of what was coming next was lost.

Liberation Maiden is a perfectly fine action game, but it’s not the kind of game I expect from the GUILD series, or Suda51. In a way, its oddity is that, despite coming from an experimental director and an experimental series of games, it seems amazingly risk-averse. I can’t say I didn’t ever enjoy my time with Liberation Maiden, but while I’d rather play it over The Starship Damrey, a part of me would rather see a bold failure than a dull semi-success.

[1] The game should have really taken a page from Kid Icarus: Uprising, which came out a month before and has stunningly better visual design that this game.

[2] Introduced, but sadly never explained. I had to look up a separate review of the game after playing to work out how the laser recharged and how damage was calculated using it. I ended up ignoring it most of my playthrough because of that. It requires manual aim rather than auto lock-on, and it’s not well telegraphed as to how long it lasts.

 

The Best Games on the 3DS

I wasn’t expecting this to be the post for this month, but Persona 5 has ended up taking much longer than I expected to play through and gather my notes on, so this will have to serve to tide me over until then. Despite the success of Nintendo’s most recent portable console, the Switch, I find myself still being drawn to my 3DS. This might be because of the lack of games on the Switch now that I’ve finished saving Hyrule, but it’s also because of the remarkable staying power of the 3DS, which might be the greatest portable console ever made. So, to reflect on the 3DS’ remarkable lifespan, here is a short list of my favourite exclusive games for the console, in no particular order.

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Attack of the Friday Monsters

You might never have heard of this game, and that’s a damn shame, but probably completely reasonable. Released as part of a compilation of experimental games on the e-shop by Level 5, Attack of the Friday Monsters puts you in the shoes of the young boy Sohta, who lives in a small Japanese town. There, every Friday, giant monsters battle it out while the residents look on. Or do they? The game never deigns to answer this question, because it doesn’t matter. It provides a variety of interpretations to its titular question, but never wants to distract you too much from the meat of the game. This is a day in the life of Sohta, running errands throughout the Ghibli-esque town, meeting its residents and solving their various problems. It’s a game fuelled by Sohta’s childlike imagination, which makes him a somewhat unreliable narrator, but allowing yourself to get swept into his world creates the sort of nostalgic feelings for someone else’s childhood that only a few rare games and films manage to achieve. There’s also some vague tacked on gameplay in the form of a clever little card game, but it never outstays it’s welcome. The same cannot be said for the game itself, which could really do with a bit more meat on its bones. It humbly finishes up its story within a few hours, but it needn’t. The amount of times I’ve replayed this game speaks volumes to the amount of time that we could have spent in Sohta’s world.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV

The contrast between the tone of AotFM and SMTIV couldn’t be starker. AotFM plays out in a small, idyllic Japanese suburb. SMTIV spends half of its time in the feudal land of Mikado, controlled by a strange religious leader and populated by subjugated masses who long for their slim chance to join the upper classes. The other half takes place in the somehow even more depressing post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where most of the population has moved underground in order to escape a ravenous demon horde who are only partly controlled by a faction of the Yakuza. You play as a Samurai of Mikado, a warrior trained to battle demons, but your quest to find the mysterious ‘Black Samurai’, who is corrupting the minds of the Mikado peasants leads you to some unfortunate realisations about the world you live in. Like other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the story splits into three routes; Law, Chaos and Neutral, and none of them here have much of an uplifting ending. But SMTIV remains engaging despite this, although the plot is only half the fun.

I’ve seen some people criticise the ‘shallow’ characters of SMTIV, but I don’t think that gives them enough credit. I wasn’t ever blown away by the writing, but it has a certain subtlety to it (at least as subtle as SMT can get), and the plot itself, while slow paced, has enough intrigue in it to carry you through. What makes SMT games really stand out, however, is the turn based battle system. SMTIII pioneered the ‘press-turn’ system, which Persona players will be familiar with, which allows you to exploit enemy weaknesses for an extra turn in battle. Of course, enemies can exploit this as well, which can turn battles into either satisfying chains of attacks that don’t allow the enemy to get a move in edgeways, or frustratingly watching as you watch your team get decimated by a threatening boss. The enemies you fight in SMT are demons, who you can collect Pokemon style through an annoyingly obtuse and random negotiation system, and fuse together to make stronger demons. SMTIV offers the best fusing method of the series, giving you helpful recommendations while still allowing customization.

I don’t think SMTIV is a perfect experience, but the benefits of it being on a handheld, combined with an engaging story and refined battle system make it my favourite SMT game that I’ve played (although Persona 5 is certainly edging closer), and I thoroughly recommend it as a starting point for the series.

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Spirit of Justice/DGS

I’m a huge fan of the Ace Attorney franchise, and while I would love to put the amazing Ace Attorney Trilogy on this list (which is better than both of these games), it’s not a 3DS exclusive, and I have standards while making these lists (I can only assume). I’ve written full reviews of both Spirit of Justice and Dai Gyakuten Saiban, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will provide a brief spoiler free rundown of what to expect. Ace Attorney is a series about crime solving lawyers, and Spirit of Justice is simply the sixth game in the series, this one involving the spikey haired protagonist Phoenix Wright travelling to the mysterious land of Khura’in for more crime solving adventures. I would recommend playing the previous 5 games in the series before this one, and I’m sure you’ll not regret playing four of them.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban has much less baggage to it, but at the moment is sadly only available in Japanese. This spin-off title takes place in Victorian London, and is notably written by the author of the original trilogy. Most people will have to wait for the upcoming fan translation to get a taste of this one, but for those who speak Japanese, or don’t mind watching a subtitled play through on Youtube, those options are also available.

Basically this entry was a cheat to tell you to play the Ace Attorney Trilogy on 3DS/DS, but my over-reliance on arbitrary rules that I imposed on myself prevents me from doing that.

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A Link Between Worlds

This and the next entry are the only two non-eshop exclusive titles on this list, although what this says about my taste in games you’ll have to work out for myself. Link Between Worlds is one of the best Zelda games out there, and certainly the best top down Zelda there is. Purists might argue in favour of the original Link to the Past, but those that do are clearly stuck in said past. A Link Between Worlds revisits the Hyrule of A Link to the Past, but adds an extremely clever new puzzle solving mechanic in wall merging. The way this changes up the game is staggering – it allows for so much free form exploration and puzzle solving that it’s almost comparable to the introduction of climbing in Breath of the Wild.

The other way in which this game influenced Breath of the Wild is in its non-linearity. Where A Link to the Past gave you numbered checklists of dungeons to visit, Link Between Worlds lets you rent out items to access specific dungeons and tackle them in whatever order you want, while still being able to stagger the difficulty through splitting up the dungeons into sets. It’s also a lot faster paced than any 3D Zelda, and perhaps any 2D Zelda, with item swapping on the fly thanks to the 3DS touchscreen, combat and exploration are all seamless and feels natural. Think of this as the proto-Breath of the Wild for those who want a top-down Zelda experience.

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Kid Icarus Uprising

 Remember how maligned the controls in this game were when it first released? Sakurai himself clearly had so little faith in them that he had to include a stand with boxed copies of the game. I really hope that didn’t put anyone off Kid Icarus Uprising, because it’s such a joy to play that it’d be a real shame to miss. Freed from the shackles of Smash Bros, game director Sakurai was able to create a game that’s half incredibly entertaining on-rails shooter and half slightly less entertaining but still fun 3rd Person Action Adventure game. What bolsters the game past simply entertaining is a quality story with great voice acting and writing, and a fuck ton of content.

The writing present in KI:U is surprisingly good. It has the annoying traits of being self-aware, but never reaches the actual point of annoyance by carefully treading the line. Some characters are obvious stand-outs, such as Hades, but the core cast is an enjoyable group of people to have whisper sweet one-liners into your ear while you play. Much like Smash Bros, Sakurai has stuffed the game to the brim with optional extra modes, some of which are pointless, yet amusing (such as a mode where you pay money to have a character walk slowly towards you), and some are extremely complex, such as the weapon fusing system. The game also employs one of the cleverest approaches to difficulty I’ve ever seen; asking you to gamble more currency on higher difficulties for the chance of greater rewards and treasure. One of the stand outs of the 3DS’ early library that continues to stand tall.

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Box Boy

I don’t really have much to say about BoxBoy, the small title from Hal Laboratory, creators of Kirby. It’s extremely simple; you are a Box, who can produce more boxes from his body. You then have to use those boxes to solve simple puzzles. It’s sort of like if you crossed a standard 2D platformer with Tetris, and it’s absolutely genius. It’s one of those rare games that I feel will be used to teach the basics of good game design for years to come. An extremely simple mechanic pushed to its limits during the course of the campaign, and then pushed even further in bonus levels, some of which become properly difficult to solve. Two sequels would add on a few extra boxes and mechanics, but the original remains a brilliant example of pure game design at its best.