Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Bravely Second - Review

Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: 3DS

Bravely Default was a breath of fresh air for J-RPGs. When Square Enix were becoming increasingly cautious, and giving the impression that they had no idea what they were doing with the core Final Fantasy series. Silicon Studios showed that you could keep the tried and true old-school formula, and inject it with enough new ideas in a genre that was at risk of becoming of stale.

The original game hinted at a sequel and Bravely Second builds on that progress. Story-wise the game continues shortly after the events of the first game, with Agnes being kidnapped early on by the mysterious, and, to be frank, thinly sketched, Glanz Empire, led by Kaiser Oblivion. To cut a long story short, it's not long until newcomer Yew (heh), joins up with Edea and Tiz, and also Magnolia, a "Ba-al Buster" from the Moon, as the four of them set off on an adventure to rescue the princess.

Bravely Second has a bizarre relationship with its story. On the one hand it's a light-hearted tale that would seem to put only a modicum of focus on its plot, content as it is to focus on its addictive combat system and charming characters. Yet, whilst the story remains light-hearted there's hints of great writing going on here. For starters, the localization is easily one of the best in recent years, carrying all of the game's gags over without anything being lost in translation. This is a script that can be talking about fantasy lingo one moment, before seguing into a Star Wars reference to justify an abstract game mechanic the next.

The game isn't above making fun of itself, and that's what makes it so refreshing. Its (fully voiced) dialogue is fun to listen to, even if the writers occasionally seem to be padding out the run time. By far the most engaging moments are when it threatens to deconstruct the entire J-RPG genre. The original played around with this notion, pointing out the blind obedience that players adopt when it comes to carrying out the same quests over and over again in role-playing games. Bravely Default didn't handle this perfectly, and it led to a much-maligned penultimate chapter that was nothing but mindless repetition, but the ideas behind it were interesting nevertheless.

Likewise, Bravely Second skirts around and prods at the idea of deconstructing J-RPG conventions without ever fully committing. Its finale is bizarre and seems to be making itself up as it goes along, but its most enjoyable moments are when it throws everything to the wind and starts breaking the fourth wall. It's just a shame that to get there you have to suffer through some drawn out dialogue and some rather cheesy anime-style romance...

The game's combat remains essentially the same. Almost every game mechanic has made it through intact. The Brave and Default systems remain unchanged, with players having control over how many turns their characters take in advance. Defaulting offers a defensive stance that "banks" a future turn, whilst Braving allows a character to take multiple actions at once but at the cost of future turns.

By far the most expanded aspect of the combat system is the available jobs. I've heaped praise on the job system already, and there's a good reason why; it's a fantastic game mechanic, and Bravely Second builds upon in the simplest and best way possible: add more jobs.

One of the most interesting aspects comes early on. Rather than dole out the predictable classes at the game's outset, Bravely Second holds them until later on. No Knights, White Mages and Monks this time around, that'll come later. Instead you start off with a handful of new classes that, whilst clearly fitting similar roles, behave in different ways. Take the Charioteer, a strange combat class that's built around wielding three or even four weapons at a time at the cost of defensive power, or the Fencer a sort of inverse of the Pirate class, built around dealing damage and buffing itself with an array of stances.

Playing around with the available jobs is still the most fun thing to do in Bravely Second. It's not so hard of a game that it punishes you for trying something bizarre out, and it's not so easy that combat feels like it could be won with the simplest and blandest character configurations.

This is still a very set-up heavy game, too. Success in combat doesn't necessarily come from in-combat strategy but from how well you've wrung the job systems available combos dry. Silicon Studios seem to have learnt from the previous game and a few of the more broken abilities (cough, Hasten World, cough) have been neutered or outright removed so that some bosses can't be made too easy.

Speaking of difficulty, Bravely Second still has some of the smartest ideas when it comes to handling random battles. Like with the original, battles can be turned off entirely or their frequency increased whenever you want. The difficulty can be turned up and down at a moments notice, and a new addition allows you to save recordings of your commands in battle so that they're carried out automatically. Perfect for when you've found a specific mob of enemies to grind against. It's this ability to pick up any aspect of the game and mould it that makes it so accessible and perfect for portable play.

And it's perhaps the best to play Bravely Second in the small chunks that portable play allows. This is a very slight sequel in many ways because so little has been improved upon or explored further. Over half the dungeons and locations are lifted wholesale from the previous game and even then, most of the bosses you encounter are rehashed at least once by the second half of the game.

It makes for a slightly tiresome, grindy experience as you progress. Since so much of Bravely Second's battle system is front-loaded with job set-ups, actually playing out the battles can be a little bit of a bore. It's rare that bosses will force you into a radically different strategy, and, perhaps even less so than the first game, Braving and Defaulting are useful depending on your particular job configurations, but rarely will an encounter force you to engage with them in any deeper way than "Default before the enemy's big, super-strong attack".

It's Bravely Second's rampant recycling of game assets that make for the most irksome moments. Character models, dungeons and locations have all been seen before and make for a far less exciting adventure than the first game. It perhaps wouldn't be so bad had the developers not then felt the need to bulk up the game with constant back and forth trips to the same places, especially during the game's latter half.

The story too, seems to be written in a way that pads out the game's length as it progresses. Bravely Second's characters are fun to be around, but they insist on having the same drawn out conversations over and over again, whilst the overarching plot becomes slow paced and lacks any real drive or impetus. Had the game doubled down more on its comedy and self-reflexive humour this might have been more palatable, but the game never quite goes far enough in this regard, content to be a cute, light-hearted fantasy adventure, with only a few minor exceptions during the game's climax.

Bravely Second is a fun game, and for fans of the first instalment this is very much more of what you loved. That's also the problem here however, it's so similar that it's almost hard to call the game a true sequel. An expansion pack would perhaps be a better description, as harsh as that sounds.

Given the ending teaser, another game in the series is likely in the works. There's plenty to work with and Bravely Second is by no means a bad game, just one that's both needlessly padded, and lacking in new ideas. The next instalment will need to be a whole lot more daring if it's to recapture the fun of the first game.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Genius of the Job System

Tiz, one of the main characters in Bravely Second, is currently wielding two shields in my playthrough. As my designated party tank, I thought it made sense to focus on his defence. Screw weapons, he's happy lugging around two hunks of metal strapped to either arm. It looks ridiculous, but it's currently helping him pummel out as much damage as my dedicated physical attacker and defend all his companions. He's not just a tank, he's a battle tank. 

Playing through Bravely Second isn't like playing through a typical J-RPG. It's not necessarily because of anything the game does different, but rather through its the approach to character progression: the job system.

I was talking with a friend recently about the state of role-playing games and we both agreed, among character progression mechanics,  there's not many that beat the job system. When done right, you get some of the best role-playing games around; just take a look at Final Fantasy Tactics. Hell, even when it's not implemented in a mediocre way it still makes for an enjoyable game. Final Fantasy X-2 regularly gets written off for its Charlie's Angels tone and radical departure from its predecessor, but I think in many instances I'd much rather play X-2 than X because the job system makes for more creativity and strategy.

Final Fantasy as a series is a great way to look at the job system from a wider perspective, not only because it was the first to implement them (Final Fantasy III is the progenitor of the system if I'm not mistaken) but because various instalments of the series have used it over the years.  Final Fantasy III, V, X-2, the tactics spin-offs and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, along with Bravely Default and its sequel, all use this core mechanical system with their own unique elements. Hell, Final Fantasy XII even got a straight up enhanced release in Japan that introduced a pseudo-job system to the game, in an effort to diversify the cast and improve the game's combat mechanics. 

But what makes the job system so darn good? Flexibility. Because gameplay is interactive, it's fundamentally about choices. Therefore, when games produce interesting choices and decision points for the player they typically generate engaging gameplay

Play through any RPG, especially the more grindy Japanese variety, and you'll undoubtedly stick more with those that have a more dynamic and interesting level up system. And that's what the job system does so well; it avoids giving characters generic proscribed development paths; the player has to choose how their characters progress. 

Let's do a comparison. Take a look at Final Fantasy X, this is ideal given that its sequel actually shifted to the job system. I'd argue that Final Fantasy X has one of the most underwhelming character development mechanics in a core Final Fantasy game. Despite the complex appearance of the sphere grid, development of your characters is predetermined; Lulu will become a black mage and be specifically good at that one thing, Yuna will be a white mage and be good at that one thing, Auron will be only good at taking hits and smacking things with his sword. The game is essentially on auto-pilot when it comes to what your characters are good at.

There's no moment where you can experiment, creating interesting elements of cross-party synergy. Every character has a very rigid, strict class that dictates how they play. The only moment where some vague options come into play is way, way down the line when special spheres can teach characters other skills learned by their companions. Now Lulu can also cast white magic, hurray. 
That's the level of character customizability. 

Ironically, the one character who is given more freedom in regard to how you develop him is Kimhari, who starts out as a jack of all trades and is positioned in such a way on the sphere grid that he can progress in multiple ways. This only further establishes my point though, given that he's undoubtedly the worst character in the game and, at best, will spend most of his time playing like a watered down version of one of your other party members. Final Fantasy X's entire progression system fundamentally prevents experimentation, since it's built around each character having a very clear and defined role. It's incredibly static and almost seems to punish creativity. 

If you spend the mind-numbing amount of time it takes to max out each characters sphere grid progress, which isn't necessary during regular gameplay but is mandatory for the optional super bosses, they'll all play exactly the same with the only major difference being their limit break abilities. Essentially giving you a party of seven that are in touching distance of being carbon copies of each other. 

Now I don't want to sound like I'm throwing Final Fantasy X under the bus, that isn't the point of this post. There's plenty of elements of Final Fantasy X that I think try and compensate for the stilted progression system, that I'll be sure to write about some other time. Rather I wanted to point out how a dull, uninteresting level up system is typically a result of not giving the person playing enough options when it comes to how they develop their characters.

By contrast the job system allows the player to think about what they want from each character, with support abilities and class synergy requiring them to think about how each character develops, as well as how well they work in the wider context of your entire party. 

Final Fantasy Tactics has a host of off-beat combos and cute synergies that mean you have to think about what skills a character learns and how they interact with one another. An old favourite was combining Mana Walk, enabling a character to regenerate MP on movement, with Mana Shield, which means damage is first deducted from that character's MP pool instead of their health. But the final trick was sticking those on a combat character who had no need for his or her MP reserves, almost doubling their HP. The best part was that both of those skills were from magic-based classes, but the combo worked incredibly well, possibly even better, on close combat characters, who had no need for their MP reserves.

In other words, you had to work to see the best ways of expanding your party member's capabilities, and think outside the box. The job system, when done right, scratches the same itch that deck-building games do; they're about noticing synergies and the enjoyment that comes from creating interesting combos. 

Bravely Second expands on this idea with its abundance of different jobs and support abilities that can combined to make the perfect kind of character you want. It's far from flawless, but its execution of the job system is easily its biggest highlight. Playing Bravely Second on the 3DS isn't where I get the biggest amount of satisfaction. It's when I'm perusing the game's wiki page,  looking to see what new weird job I've acquired fits with my current skill set, drafting up new ideas to try out and see how far I can push each weird skill to breaking point. 

It almost breaks down into a meta-game at some point. The actual fun doesn't come from playing the game itself but from theory crafting, messing around with combinations and basically going “what if” when you read the description of a new ability. 

The job system rewards both creativity and experimentation, putting more control into the player's hands, demanding more of them in some cases but also opening up the strategy and depth that's potentially there. It's certainly not the only way to handle progression in an RPG, but as a game mechanic, it's arguably one of the best that Square Enix have used over the years. 

Games should provide interesting questions to the player and, most of all, give them options to make leave their own mark on the mechanics. The job system does that and then some, and it's why it remains one of the best game mechanics to ever grace Japanese RPGs. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Hyper Light Drifter - Review

Developer: Heart Machine
Publisher: Heart Machine
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4 

One of the most intriguing elements of Hyper Light Drifter is not its gameplay, although I'll get to that in a minute, but the way it slips between genres. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, Heart Machine's game plays around with all three throughout its run-time without ever feeling cluttered, or stuffed with too many ideas.

The game opens with a vague and ambiguous cut-scene that leaves you in control of a nameless blue-skinned warrior, before taking off the reins and leaving you to explore. Hyper Light Drifter's world is arguably its most fascinating component, filled with neon-infused forests and snow-capped cliffs. It's both the familiar fantasy images we're used to in gaming and something altogether more alien. The corpses of hulking, blood-stained colossus punctuate the game's otherwise beautiful landscapes, telling a story not through cut-scenes, dialogue or other forms of exposition, but rather through the simple act of exploration.

If you were to classify Hyper Light Drifter it's arguably best described as a Legend of Zelda-style adventure, or Metroidvania title. Both those descriptions don't quite do the game justice however, given that, unlike those titles, Hyper Light Drifter allows you to essentially explore wherever you want whenever you want, with progression not halted by item or skill requirements.

This makes the game surprisingly liberating, and then also weirdly daunting after an hour or so of play. Even Zelda titles will shuttle the player along the “correct” path with its gadget requirements; boomerang needed here, hookshot there. Instead, all you're given in Hyper Light Drifter is a vague quest to travel to the four corners of the globe and defeat four bosses. All these instructions are doled out in charming picture-form as you converse with various characters.

The exploration is tied together with a simple and effective combat system. A sword swipe is mapped to one button, whilst a teleport-cum-dodge is mapped to another. Combat is less about complexity and more about timing. Enemies all have different wind-ups and attack patterns, with clear openings found inbetween their attacks. There's a clear satisfying rhythm to even the simplest of encounters, slash, slash, dodge, dodge, wait a moment, slash again.

Each area comes with its own enemies to fit the theme. The mountainous north is home to various bird monsters, whilst the east has a swarm of shuriken-throwing ninja frogs to contend with. Later encounters slowly build up the complexity, with long-range critters opening fire whilst you contend with their close-combat counterparts. In its best moments, combat feels more like a rhythm puzzle than an action-adventure fight.

Just as the enemies improve as you delve deep into each area, your characters arsenal improves over time. New moves can be learnt and equipment upgraded back at the game's central hub. Your character starts with a simple pistol to complement his sword, but, over the course of the adventure, new guns are found, some simply by playing through the game and others by exploring off the beaten track.

And that's what Hyper Light Drifter veers back to; its exploration. Each area has a bevy of little navigational puzzles; how do you get to that upgrade box? What path do you need to take to acquire that key? Many of the game's more obscure trinkets are purely optional rather than mandatory for progression, which, again, emphasizes the game's greatest strength. It lets the player dictate the scope and pace of the adventure.

Of course, no game like this would be complete without a bevy of boss encounters. It's here where the game takes its cues from Dark Souls, building up its boss fights before they come. Speak to some of the friendly native creatures that dot each zone and you'll get a slideshow hinting at whatever big bad is waiting for you further down the road.

And Hearth Machine handle these fights really well. It's the visual designs that really deserve the most praise, with the fights themselves “merely” being really darn good. Hearth Machine infuse the horror into the fantasy once again, with many of the bosses having a degree of menace and an unsettling tone to underscore the super-fast action of the actual fight.

All of these creepy undertones are a result not only of the visuals but also of the impeccable score and style that the developers go for. Like with Hotline Miami, Hyper Light Drifter infuses each setting with a neon-filled retro-wave soundtrack. Whereas Hotline Miami wanted to feel more like a drug-fuelled disco, before the inevitable post-killing comedown, Hyper Light Drifter instead goes for an eerie, vivid sort of atmosphere, as if its soundtrack is more an element of the environment rather than an aspect of the game layered on top of the action.

If all that wasn't enough, the developers know when to call it quits too. Hyper Light Drifter is a svelte game, full of nick-nacks and do-dads to collect but also aware that it doesn't want to overstay its welcome. After the slower, more thoughtful pace of the first half, the final region cranks up the difficulty and pacing as you face multiple bosses in a short space of time, with more complex attack patterns and tougher enemy mobs, as you battle your way towards the endgame.

In fact, there's very little to complain about in Hyper Light Drifter. It doesn't hold your hand, but neither is it deliberately obscure in order to inflate its difficulty. Its combat is simple on the surface, but has a surprising level of depth for a game with so few actual mechanics. And it's all wrapped up in a sweeping visual style that has you, quite literally, travelling to the four corners of the earth. It taps into that epic adventurous spirit of the Legend of Zelda but with a darker, slightly malevolent atmosphere lurking beneath the surface, turning from a dream, to a nightmare, and back again, on the turn of a dime.

Friday, 17 June 2016

E3 2016 Summary

So, this year's E3 event has now come and gone, and, like every year, I'm left feeling rather tired. Don't get me wrong, I get rather excited when a particular game I'd been hoping for is announced, or we get to see some actual quality gameplay footage of an imminent game release, but the whole incessant clamouring that the show typically causes, with click-bait articles and word-salad market speech that the presenters talk in, means I'm not always that sad when it's all over.

Likewise, my biggest frustration goes to the amount of cheering that goes on during the press conferences. I'll remind you that the vast, vast majority of the people at these events are game “journalists” or “industry insiders”. Yet, practically every announcement is met with a hollering and whooping more akin to a sports game than a supposedly professional press conference. These are people that are supposedly doing their jobs, objectively reporting on video game news, but act more like hyper-active children after eating a box full of sweets on Christmas Eve. It makes me cringe.

Anyway, negativity aside, I was thinking what way best to cover the event for the site and figured a simple, calm summary and assessment of the conferences would be the best way to handle it. So, without further ado, here goes.

Bethesda kicked off the event when it came to the press conferences, and, overall, it was about what you'd expect: some games got announced, some trailers shown off, but the presentation was equally about bolstering the releases they'd already had; such as showing off some additions to Doom (which, if you haven't played it already, do, it's great), as well as a look at the first batch of premium DLC for the game.

The big show-off was undoubtedly a look at Dishonored 2. I'll be perfectly honest in that, as good as Dishonored was, it never quite impressed me as much as it did other people. Its world was fantastic, and the mechanics made it arguably the best spiritual successor to the Thief games, but the characters and dialogue were so utterly bland that it severely hampered the immersion for me. And I've never gotten round to playing through the game's expansions.

Dishonored 2 does look really damn interesting. Again, the opening cinematic just left me feeling nothing, with stilted, dry dialogue, but, once the gameplay got going, there's no denying there were plenty of new ideas. The powers alone looked substantially more fleshed out than the original, and, whilst they didn't outright say it, I imagine playing as either Corvo or Emily will alter your options slightly, be it powers or equipment, in some way. And once again, the world design looks utterly fantastic and is by far the most compelling element of this series, mixing sci-fi and fantasy in a way that I don't think any other game really has done.

We also heard about a new Prey title, which means that the alien bounty-hunter sequel that was hinted at a few years ago is now 100%, unequivocally, dead. No gameplay was on show, unfortunately, but the trailer would seem to suggest a new survival horror slant for this reboot. Something along the lines of Dead Space in first-person, perhaps?

Fallout 4 continues its transformation into a creator's tool kit rather than an RPG, with the showcase of some new content. In all honesty, I think this is Bethesda playing to their strengths, Fallout 4, as with Fallout 3 and Skyrim, are more interesting when other people craft things with the tools that Bethesda gives them, than they are great games in their own right. When you have a studio that's far more skilled at crafting a proper role-playing game with those tools, you get Fallout: New Vegas.

Speaking of Skyrim, PS4 and Xbox One are also getting an overhauled version of the game, complete with mod support. Whilst I'm generally ambivalent about remastered games, giving console players mod support is definitely a nice idea, since it'll fix the flaws that the base game had, namely those dreadfully bland perk trees.

EA's conference was less about games and more about what they wanted to do as a brand. This meant Andrew Wilson and Peter Moore talking plenty of corporate waffle, and speaking lines that sounded like bad motivational posters.

It was a safe talk by EA all in all. Sports, shooters and Star Wars were the three pillars they focused on. Titanfall 2 was the big game that got shown off, and this sequel is also coming with a single player campaign this time around. I actually rather enjoyed the first Titanfall more than I typically do multiplayer shooters. Hopefully the single player will give the overall game a bit more substance  that the original was lacking. Oh, and its bound for the PS4 as well.

Titanfall 2 also dovetailed with the biggest focus of EA at their conference: eSports. They spent, I'd wager a majority, bigging up their dedication to competitive gaming. On the whole, competitive gaming isn't a major draw for me, but if it can bolster and support various strategy, shooting and fighting games, and help them last, then I'm all for it playing a bigger role. It's clear eSports are having a significant influence on gaming as a whole, you only have to look at Street Fighter V to see how publishers are releasing their titles with their competitive nature in mind.

Lastly, Star Wars. We got the tiniest, tinny tiniest, glimpse of the Amy Hennig-helmed Star Wars game that's coming sometime in the (quite far off) future. It was easily the game I'm most interested in. The Legacy of Kain series means a hell of a lot to me and that's largely thanks to Amy Hennig's work those games. Likewise, she made Uncharted what it was, so I have high hopes for this new Star Wars title.

EA's conference was fairly underwhelming overall, though. A token throw to indie games was the closest we got to seeing the publisher taking big risks, with no quirky or interesting ideas getting the big money push that saw Dead Space and Mirror's Edge take the spotlight in the late 2000s. Instead they doubled down on what works; shooters and licensed series. I'd complain, but this is EA we're talking about, and they're not going to abandon their money makers in favour of more risky concepts without good reason.

Microsoft's showing was a whole lot of everything, and I'm not 100% sure what to make of it all, but I'll give it a shot.

There biggest push was the new “Play Anywhere” initiative, which sees all the company's exclusives being playable across both Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. It came with something rather consumer-friendly too, with games purchased on one platform being available for free on the other. This, naturally, comes with a catch and seems to only apply to digital purchases, but it's a nice addition nonetheless, and sees Microsoft try and wipe away that nasty, anti-consumer nonsense they were peddling a few years ago in regards to pre-owned games.

Everything about the talk seem to suggest that Microsoft are drawing their games library into something akin to a platform, emphasizing the fact that you can play on a multitude of hardware rather than being limited to one simple console. We're already seen this hinted at with the last minute ports of Xbox One exclusives like Quantum Break, so this seems like the new model for Microsoft in the years to come.

Xbox One is getting a slim model, the Xbox One S. Again, simple but smart move. The Xbox One has a ridiculously large footprint, especially compared to the PS4 and Wii U. Hell, even the 360 and hulking great PS3 are smaller by comparison. Shrinking consoles down over their lifetime is par the course during each generation to try and draw people in as the prices come down. The Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 all had different iterations after their initial releases so this was to be expected.

The big news, and the one that's got the internet jabbering incessantly, was the announcement of Project Scorpio; a new console that's due out late next year. Microsoft were keen to stress it was “the most powerful console ever” and said the word “pixels” god knows how many times during Project Scorpio's trailer. The main issue is that despite vaguely mentioning it, presumably to build up hype, they weren't clear what exactly the machine was. Is it a straight new console, an upgraded Xbox One, or a PC in a box?

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and I'll stress this is informed speculation at best, but makes sense if you think things through. Project Scorpio is NOT a new console, this I'm fairly certain of. Given that the vast bulk of Microsoft's talk was about bringing the console and PC experience together it would seem ridiculous to then pull them straight apart again in around 18 months time. It'd be impossible for Microsoft to justify a new console and not go and release any exclusive titles for it. Likewise, Microsoft have repeatedly stated that the Xbox One would have a longer lifespan than a mere four to five years that it will have had at around the time of Scorpio's release.

Now, you could make the case that Microsoft are jumping to a new console earlier than expected because of how much more successful the PS4 has been. People point to how they jump-started the seventh console generation with the early release of the Xbox 360.

However, it's easy for gaming fans to forget that a broad range of people buy games consoles. Sure, a gaming fan would likely pick up a new console earlier if it had some good new exclusives and features. On the other hand, are the people who buy a console to play annual shooters and FIFA really going to stump for a new piece of hardware so soon? I don't think so.

My money is on Project Scorpio being more of a rival to Valve's Steam Machines; encasing PC-level hardware in a more consumer-friendly console case. I suppose Microsoft's target are that middle niche of players that care about graphics, hardware and what have you (which the Xbox One doesn't fare well at when compared to the PS4) but don't want the complexity of putting together a high-end gaming PC. I'm sceptical whether that middle-ground is big enough to support Scorpio financially, and a lot hinges on what price the console will launch at. We'll still have to wait a while longer for more details.

In terms of games, Microsoft were keen to point out the number of exclusives that were coming to their platform(s) and, admittedly there were definitely a few to get excited about. Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 were safe sequels that were expected, and we've already had plenty of information trickling in for a while now about the new Gears game.

For me, ReCore was the game that had me most interested. Microsoft has always struggled to get away from the shooters, shooters and more shooters when it comes to their exclusives, and this genuinely looks like something new and fresh.

Moreover, we got a look at some Scalebound gameplay. If I was to compare it to anything, I'd say it looks most like Monster Hunter but with a dash of Platinum's usual style thrown in there. This is definitely a game that I'm more interested in because of the developer than anything else. Platinum know how to make damn good action games, so while the gameplay didn't show off anything too mind-boggling, the developer pedigree is enough to keep me intrigued.

The dance number to Queen's “Don't Stop Me Now” that opened Ubisoft's conference summed it all up; loud, convoluted, slightly obnoxious and a bit all over the place.

Watch Dogs 2 got shown off alongside a look at Ghost Recon: Wildlands. There was an awkward bit of deja vu at one point as characters in both games both stopped to deploy a drone to scout out a particular area, as if the games were indivisible from one another. Most of Ubisoft's output has melded into this bland open-world soup in the past six years and these latest outings don't (initially, at least) look set to change that.

In all fairness Ghost Recon: Wildlands doesn't seem completely forgettable, seeming to play around with some of the more open-ended strategy elements that were in Metal Gear Solid V. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter was a solid tactical squad shooter, so there is at least a precedent for something good here. Likewise, the setting of Watch Dogs 2, a sun-kissed San Francisco helps alleviate some of the drab blandness that made Watch Dogs not all that memorable. Similarly the new protagonist being part of a hacker gang helps leverage the game's cyberpunk, anti-authority themes better than the original title did.

Ubisoft spent some time focusing on VR halfway through their conference and it only made me more convinced that the technology is going to primarily be a gimmick when it comes to video games. The two VR games on show were a bird football game Eagle Flight (just watch the footage, it'll make more sense than me trying to explain) and a Star Trek simulation game. Neither were all that impressive and the give away was the Star Trek game. When new tech has to leverage itself by playing off of pre-existing love for other mediums/franchises I think its applications are limited. Remember the creatively named Harry Potter for Kinect, anyone?

A few other titles were shown off, including the all-new Steep, a sort of more “realistic” SSX game that has you snowboarding, skiing and gliding across the French Alps. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but it's nice to see Ubisoft using their open-world games for something a little more novel and original.

Sony's conference was almost the opposite of Ubisoft's; simple and to the point, sticking up trailer after trailer and video after video, rather than have someone keep interrupting the flow by talking.

A new God of War sequel was the first big announcement, and despite being a sequel would also appear to be a quasi-reboot for the series. Kratos is now much older and training his son for what we can only assume is some new, violent clash with mythological creatures. There was a The Last of Us vibe to the father-and-son duo creeping through the snow-covered woods hunting a deer. Part of me likes this touch, making Kratos more human and likeable. Yet, part of me also had to laugh because this is meant to be the same muscle-bound, hate-filled hulk that spent the last five-odd games killing everything that moved. Regardless, it was nice to see a proper gameplay clip rather than simply a trailer and it was refreshing to seem them take the series in a new direction.

We did get plenty of those, mind. David Cage's new game, Detroit, got a new trailer, and I dare say it looks interesting. I'm being slightly sceptical here however, both Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain also looked great from a premise point of view, but failed when it come to the interaction and the writing. So, whilst this got me slightly more interested, and still not sure it's going to be as good as the trailer would attempt to make out.

We also saw some footage of Horizon Zero Dawn. No, there's no colon in that title and I feel like there should be. It's nice to see Guerilla Games being able to work on something other than endless Killzone sequels and there's no denying that the whole thing looked gorgeous, with the robot creatures having some terrific designs. My only worry is that this could be another bland open-world scrounge-a-thon with a few robot-based gimmicks thrown in.

There were a few more big surprises though. First, a new The Last Guardian trailer, which not only showed off a little more of the game but also announced that it was being released later this year. Then, there was a cryptic trailer for Hideo Kojima's new game, the bizarrely named Dead Stranding, that's also starring Norman Reedus. How much of this is built from the corpse of Silent Hills we have yet to find out, but from the trailer it seems that it's still some sort of horror game with perhaps a science fiction element to it as well. Given all the whale, fish and crab corpses that are washed up on the beach, something tells me it's got something to do with global warming in the same way that Metal Gear Solid was about the nuclear arms race.

Whilst The Last Guardian and Dead Stranding were both surprising, they were surprises that we sort of knew could come up, even if we didn't know what form they'd take. The one that could me off-guard was the gameplay clip for Resident Evil 7, which we were also informed would be playable from beginning to end in VR. The clip that we got looked less like Resident Evil and more like Capcom's take on P.T.; with the nameless protagonist skulking around a small, abandoned house in first-person.

If this is some kind of reboot for the series, I'll be sad to see the B-movie charms of Jill, Chris and Leon go. Part of what's made the series so enjoyable over the years is Capcom's staunch refusal to give it a hard reset. Various people on the interwebs have been poo-pooing the game for being a stark departure for the series, but I'd rather Capcom experiment than keep shovelling out the same tired old ideas. Being frightened of trying something new gave us Resident Evil 5 & 6. Being brave enough to experiment and take risks gave us Resident Evil 2 & 4. Go figure.

Sony did take some time to talk up VR, as well as announce that their VR headset is set to release in early October this year. If anything is to come of VR, I think it's going to be the way Sony is managing it. Whereas the Ubisoft games felt like gimmicks, Sony's conference showed off Resident Evil 7, which is fully VR playable, as well Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. I think the best way that VR will work is as an optional visual enhancement to other games, similar to how 4K gaming will likely start out. A tacked on novelty for those that want it, and something that can be ignored for the rest.

There was no talk of the long rumoured upgraded PS4, or PlayStation Neo. Again, like with Microsoft, I don't think Sony is in any state right now to go and announce a completely new console. More than Microsoft, they have an even bigger financial incentive to keep this console generation going for a good number of years with the PS4's hefty install base. The PS4K. or whatever it ends up being called. will likely be another console upgrade for those that have expensive TVs and the money to burn, but nothing as drastic as a brand new console with a unique line-up.

Nintendo don't really do proper press conferences at E3 any more, but their Nintendo Treehouse stream is always a nice palette-cleanser after the exhausting bluster and rigmarole of the rest of E3. There's something calming and a touch more genuine about Reggie Fils-Aime talking directly to the camera, which is so much more endearing than the awkward, buzz word corporate garble than comes from a lot of the other conferences. My body was ready and I was relaxed.

Nintendo only focused on two games during their stream, and most of that was taken up by just one of those: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. From the gameplay footage it definitely looks substantially more non-linear, and bigger, than Skyward Sword. It was interesting to note that the game's presentation was running on a Wii U rather than the NX, which the game has also been slated to be released for.

Pokemon Sun & Moon also got a look in, and we saw a little more of the world that the two games will take place in. As always, there's little new to say about Pokemon. It's more Pokemon. But the new Hawaiian-themed setting looks like an interesting visual change.

Going back to the NX, it was conspicuously absent from Nintendo's stream, which was surprising given its fairly imminent release date. Nintendo consoles have typically been showcased by now before they make their debut, so it was odd not to see it in action yet and get a sense of what it actually is. Thanks to Ubisoft's conference, we do know that Ghost Recon: Wildlands is slated to come out on the console, possibly as a launch title I imagine, given their respective release dates.

If I were to speculate what the NX actually is, I'd wager it's something of a console/portable hybrid. Nintendo have continually stated that the console is radically different than what's come before it and, given the 3DS launched in 2011, it would make the time frame about right for a new portable console launch.

Whilst Nintendo has done really well, financially, with the 3DS, the portable console market is being more and more tenuous. As people play games on their phones and tablets it becomes harder to sell them a piece of kit that's solely designed to play games on the go. By releasing a console/portable hybrid, Nintendo are able to kill two birds with one stone; release a new portable machine that's not exclusively portable, and shore up their suffering home console brand by replacing the Wii U. What they might do is ensure that the NX still has some compatibility with the Wii U controller, in order to soothe those Nintendo fans that picked up a Wii U after its launch.

Many Nintendo first party games like Zelda, Mario and so forth typically have one foot in consoles and one foot in portable devices anyway, so bridging that gap would be made easier. It'd also explain the company's decision to start putting some of their games on Android and iOS in order to further capitalize on the portability of many of their franchises.

Phew, that's it, my summary of E3 2016. This article has ran on way longer than I expected, so I'll be quick summing things up. Overall, it was a reasonable E3 with a few surprises, a handful of things to get excited about, and nothing too awkward to roll your eyes at.

Now I'm going to take a lie down, as well as try and ignore all those asinine articles telling me which company “won” E3.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Doom - Review

Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

Doom wastes no time establishing what kind of game it is. Its opening has the Doom Slayer literally punching the story out of the way so you can begin shooting the bejeezus out of a bunch of Hell's minions. A sly nod at the wayward creative decisions of Doom 3? Perhaps, and an appropriate introduction to the rest of the campaign.

Doom (or DOOM, I suppose, if we're differentiating from the original), is overwhelmingly intended as a reboot of the series. All of the classic elements have returned; a health and armour system that doesn't regenerate but instead requires items to be picked up, a weapon wheel that, by the end of the lengthy single player campaign, contains all of the 1993's classic weapons. And, perhaps most importantly, there's hundreds upon hundreds of Hell's monsters to kill.

What's most impressive about Doom is that it isn't a lazy release hoping to tap into early '90s nostalgia. It has those elements certainly, but id Software have created a game that's genuinely an update to the original rather than simply pandering to it. Its visual style soaks each level in an atmosphere that's part Alien; steam laden corridors and claustrophobic vents, and the Hell-meets-Sci-fi designs of Event Horizon. But, more so than the misguided Doom 3, Doom knows that it's an action game first and foremost, rather than survival horror, with ammo aplenty and a grinding, guitar-riddled soundtrack to underscore each combat encounter.

And nothing is more satisfying that the hefty, gritty “closeness” of that combat. The first weapon you acquire in Doom is the shotgun, and, for the early levels, it's practically the only weapon you'll have besides a pistol side-arm. It sums up the new combat system perfectly too, with a fast movement speed, a jump button (yes, you can jump, double jump, in fact) and a melee attack that rewards close combat kills with a fountain of gore and health pick-ups. This is a game that, quite emphatically, doesn't want you hunkering around trading gunfire whilst ducking behind cover.

Instead, many of the combat encounters are more akin to mini time-trials, as you weave through the hordes of Hell, splatting monster after monster, switching weapons on the fly to suit the foe. Doom is primarily concerned with the simple violent glee of lining up a gooey headshot, but that doesn't mean it has to be dumb about it.

No, in fact there's a surprising amount of tactical awareness and smart design elements that go into the various levels that comprise the single player campaign. And, as retro as it (intentionally) is, that doesn't mean the game ignores the developments that have been made in the FPS genre for the last two decades.

Upgrades comprise a major factor of the weapon system. Each firearm in Doom comes with two different upgrades. The upgrades can, in some cases, radically alter how a weapon functions, such as the decision to attach a tactical scope or a mini rocket launcher to your assault rifle. Meanwhile each upgrade can be subsequently improved with the bevy of weapon points you acquire from level to level, by killing enemies or finding secrets.

Likewise, armour bonuses can be unlocked using similar tokens found on various corpses hidden about each level. These RPG-lite aspects are nothing new to modern shooters but they're especially helpful for Doom, turning what would otherwise be a good but nonetheless complete reliance on shooter-twitch into something slightly deeper. How you approach each encounter, especially earlier on, can sometimes depend on the upgrades you have and your particular playstyle.

The enemies you face operate on a similar clever “rules” system, with each foe requiring different strategies/weapons to take down. Early on its simply lining up those satisfying shotgun blasts on a horde of fire-slinging Imps. Later on, it's zipping from Hell Guard to Hell Guard, pummelling them with assault rifle fire, before back-pedalling like a maniac as a Hell Knight comes barrelling along towards you.  By the time the campaign reaches its climax, each fight is a hectic juggle of strafing, jumping and rapid-weapon switching as you juggle everything from Cacodemons to Barons of Hell.

It's all enhanced by a solid sense of pacing on the developer's part. New elements are drip-fed into the campaign level by level, be it a new weapon or new monster type, to prevent player overload.
And it's refreshing to find an FPS that actually needs a map screen, rather than simply being funnelled down a narrow corridor disguised by a few explosions. There's multiple paths, not to mention verticality, to many of Doom's levels that reward exploration (each level boasts a handful of secrets) and even a bit of platforming courtesy of that double jump. As far as modern games go, Doom isn't a particularly easy game either, with its later levels being a hefty enough challenge even on regular difficulty, especially when boss monsters start cropping up toward the tail end of the campaign.

Even the multiplayer, which has come under fire from some quarters for being underwhelming, arguably is more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the game. It's a mutliplayer that feels like an actual multiplayer mode, complete with humble  Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag variants, rather than a cash cow to laden DLC after DLC upon.

Speaking of DLC, you practically have a boatload of it already waiting thanks to the map editor. Snapmap is the meat of Doom's online modes. It's a simple to grasp but surprisingly complex map editor, that has you stitching together your own levels from pre-built tile sets. If you've ever sunk hours into Timesplitters 2's level creator you know exactly what to expect from here. Already the community has conjured up modern versions of the original Doom's levels, next to Resident Evil homages and even a Dark Souls-style dungeon crawler with a rudimentary level-up system using experience points.

Doom is a tightly made game. It doesn't waste players' time and instead packs each level with more than enough new ideas. It's a throwback to older shooters but with plenty of new ideas that make it feel more than just a glossy-eyed nostalgia-fest. This isn't an old game dug up from the past but rather a new title that incorporates a lot of the best ideas that modern first-person shooters have brought to the table.

Doom isn't just a fitting tribute to the series, it's a downright great game in its own right. Its campaign is lengthy without being poorly paced, and a solid challenge without resorting to lazy gimmicks. Meanwhile, its level editor alone promises untold hours sunk into player-generated maps. It's an excellent game and, like Wolftenstein: The New Order before it, shows that the founding fathers of the FPS genre can still entertain a new generation.

Welcome back Doom, we've missed you.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Review

Developer: Naughty Dog 
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4

More than anything else, Uncharted 4 provides a satisfying conclusion to one of gaming's most likeable Everyman. When most games have you playing as roided up space marines or growling hunks of murder muscle, Uncharted has the temerity to simply have you play as a guy. An unbelievably lucky and incredibly skilled guy, but an ordinary man nevertheless.

A Thief's End starts with a fitting and somewhat subversive sequence that goes on to underline the entire game. The player controls Drake, clad in scuba diving gear, as he begins to dredge up a huge cargo container from the bottom of the ocean. Several minutes later however, we find that the cargo isn't some priceless treasure from some lost civilization but rather junk salvaged from the bottom of the New Jersey river.

It's a stark opening. We find Drake completely out of his element. He's left to work a humdrum nine 'til five job before going home to his wife Elena and engaging in polite dinner conversation. It's the exact opposite of everything that the previous games have built Drake up as. It's Indiana Jones: The Off Days; deliberately unexciting but also strangely fascinating, and not just because it ends with Drake sat playing Crash Bandicoot on an original PlayStation.

It's a testament to Naughty Dog's confidence that they're willing to have a sequence like this so early on. Above all else the game understands its characters and it's something that's permeated every instalment of this series. This final instalment is no different.

Likewise, each game in turn has focused on a different character. If the first game was about establishing Drake's personality and character, then each sequel has shone the spotlight on the different people around him. For Uncharted 2 that was Elena, in Uncharted 3 it was Sully, and for this game it's Drake's brother, Sam.

Yes, it turns out that Drake has a long lost brother who he thought had been dead for years. Sam however, voiced by Troy Baker, is very much alive and kicking and on the hunt for Captain Avery's legendary pirate treasure. It doesn't take long for Drake to get dragged along for the ride, and so the two brothers are off on a great big treasure hunt.

In terms of the minute to minute gameplay, Uncharted 4 tries to avoid adding anything too new to the tried and tested formula. Just as each of the previous three games had a primary environment to play around with; sea, snow and sand respectively, Uncharted 4 goes one step further by incorporating all three into its grand globe-trotting adventure, as the game takes you to the Scottish Highlands, Panama and Madagascar, amongst other locations, through its fairly hefty runtime.

Naughty Dog also take advantage of the PS4 to expand upon their “wide linear” approach. Rarely is there just one way through an area, as paths fork off in different directions, or roads take multiple paths to the same location. Uncharted 4 is 100% a linear adventure but Naughty Dog do their best to make sure it doesn't feel like quite the A to B corridor chute that it actually is.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vehicle segments. At several points throughout the story Drake is able to drive a car to navigate larger environments. It's a nice change of pace, and opens up the already substantial locations even more. The collectibles page is proof of how wider this game is, I found less than half of the game's little treasures and nick-nacks during my first playthrough, significantly less than I picked up in previous instalments.

Combat, likewise, has undergone minor alterations rather than a dramatic overhaul. Drake seems softer to gunfire now, shockingly so in fact. Just a few moments out of cover and you'll have the screen sapped of colour and soon be out cold. Stealth seems less of a strategic option now and more of a necessity, if only to take down some of the enemies numbers before the bullets start flying.

This is perhaps intentional considering the stealth mechanics have undergone the most substantial changes. It's now much clearer to work out whether or not enemies have detected Drake, with a simple white, yellow, red detection ring indicating how soon you're about to be spotted. Likewise, the larger combat areas mean that enemies can spot you, only to lose you again if you run away far enough and dive into some foliage or behind a wall.

The game seems keen to ensure that fights aren't simply you and the enemy hunkered behind cover trading shots like you're in the trenches. For starters, the AI is much more aggressive now, shotgun-toting baddies will have no qualms about charging straight into fire if it means taking a few shots at you, whilst their friends scurry around the flanks. Meanwhile, almost all foes seem to be packing an arsenal of grenades should you spend more than a few moments behind the same piece of cover.

It makes for a lively, multi-dimensional feel to third-person cover combat, with multiple avenues and heights to attack and defend from. Which is just as well. Combat, as solid as it is, still seems like the weakest element in Uncharted 4, not because its bad, but because there's so much else going on and there's the sense that the developers don't want to devote too much attention to it. There's only a handful of enemy types to battle throughout the game, all from the (rather bland) Shoreline Private Military Company, and after several hours of battling them, there's the sense that there's nothing new being done here.

In fact, antagonists in general are Uncharted 4's biggest weakness. The villains this time are snotty billionaire Rafe Adler and Nadine Ross, a cool and collected mercenary leader. By the game's end, both characters are thinly sketched and lacking in motivation, Nadine Ross in particular. Granted, there is some attempt to contrast Adler's wealthy upbringing with the Drake brothers humble start in an orphanage, but it doesn't change the fact that he's a lame villain of the month. This is always an element that the Uncharted series has struggled with; it's so focused on developing its main characters successfully that those that oppose them pale by comparison, but it's still disappointing that this final instalment comes coupled with possibly the weakest villains.

Yet, despite this, because it's so focused on its main character, Uncharted 4 does give Drake a well deserved, and genuinely affectionate, send-off. Tonally the game suffers from a few issues, its darker and more portentous elements are interesting, especially when they seem to be peeling back Drake's motivations. Yet, occasionally, it's as if the game is at risk of becoming a nod more to The Last of Us than it is its own series, losing some of the pulpy carefree attitude of the earlier titles. There are some pacing issues here. Uncharted 4 is something of a slow game, which is fine, but some of its weaker moments would have benefited from a sharper bit of editing. It might seem outrageous to say, but Uncharted 4 could have done with being a little shorter, in order for its later action beats to carry a bit more impact.

Make no mistake, Uncharted 4 won't change sceptic minds. For those that feel the series is barely a step above an interactive movie, this final part of the series makes no attempt to rectify that view. It's a solid and safe sequel, and one that's more concerned with giving a fond farewell to its leading man. And on balance that's enough, just. It's a well designed, carefully crafted final part to Drake's story that, even if it's slightly underwhelming, gets by on its strong performances and attention to character writing, even if the gameplay is a slight disappointment by comparison.

Now bring on that Crash Bandicoot reboot. We all know it's coming.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Bravely Default - Review

Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Nintendo 
Platform: 3DS

[Another older review that I thought would be good to post up here, especially considering the sequel came out a few months ago]

In the weird world of J-RPGs, spin-offs are usually an bizarre thing. Games like Final Fantasy IX, arguably the most underrated instalment in Final Fantasy's core series, began life as a side- story that harkened back to the older titles. Similarly, the Shin Megami Tensei series struck gold when it released Persona 3, breathing life into a genre of games that is notorious for recycling clich├ęs and rehashing the same old stories and tropes. At the same time, for every hit there's plenty of misses, as anyone who sat through Final Fantasy: Dirge of Cerberus will attest to.

In steps Bravely Default, Square Enix's latest attempt at a portable RPG adventure. Originally conceived as a sequel or spiritual successor to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Bravely Default has instead been developed into its own self-contained world.

That world is Luxendarc, a traditional fantasy world filled with magic, monsters and the ever present crystals. The task is the usual one, lead a band of jolly adventurers on a quest to restore the four crystals and return order to the world.

After a relatively brief set-up, the game provides you with a party of four characters and then leaves you to do with them whatever you please. This is by far one of Bravely Default's greatest strengths; it understands, especially as a portable title, that getting the player to the meat of the game quickly is important, and then proceeds to allow you total freedom to develop you characters however you want.

Using a job system that has been around since Final Fantasy V, each character can become any class, be it White Mage, Black Mage, all the way to the more oddball types such as Performers and Chemists. Bravely Default rewards player creativity by allowing you to simply experiment and work out interesting synergies by yourself. It's a stark contrast from the tiresome handholding and dull linearity that was prevalent throughout Final Fantasy XIII and shows that Square Enix just might be realizing what made their earlier titles so good in the first place.

The combat itself is also a combination of old and new. The Brave and Default mechanics allow you your character's turns, in the form of BP, in advance, or store them for later and adopt a defensive posture. Typically this will mean Defaulting whenever a boss is preparing for their signature move and then Braving and going all in on the attack the following turn. It does set up some interesting risk versus reward moments, where expending multiple turns immediately might leave you vulnerable if things don't go as planned. It's not the most exciting tweak to the RPG fighting structure, but it does create some additional strategic complications that you have to consider, especially in the game's more difficult fights.

In fact, what Bravely Default does best is getting the balance of nostalgia and new mechanics right. It knows when to use game elements that players are familiar with and when to throw out the weaker parts to make way for some innovation and modern design. Take the random battles; perhaps the aspect of RPGs that has aged the worst, and something that developers have never been able to properly deal with. Rather than abolish them completely, Bravely Default has them but allows you to switch them off entirely, or alter the frequency whenever you feel like it. The game understands that as a player your time might be precious and so acts accordingly.

This, in turn, strengthens the portable quality, meaning you don't have to worry whether or not you'll have enough time to explore another floor of a dungeon during your lunch break or complete a side quest on your commute home from work. It's not that Bravely Default is over-simplified or easier for making these concessions to modern game design, just that it allows the game to fit better around your time and enhance your overall experience.

The story though, remains something of a weak point. For the vast majority of the game, it plays like every other J-RPG has before it: free the crystals, save the world. Your party are a bunch of stock characters for the most part: Tiz is the typical dull straight-man who doesn't put a toe out of line, and Angnes is the usual pure, virginal, princess character whose job it is to save the world with her powers. Ringabel, is a little more interesting as a slightly camp Han Solo type as is Edea, a haughty soldier, and daughter of the one of the antagonists.

By far the biggest problem is that, despite a hefty amount of (fully voiced) dialogue, most of it is uninteresting. On the whole it's exposition heavy and rather disappointing too, considering the solid skills of the voice cast. A plot twist near the game's climax threatens to improve the story but, without going into spoilers, the whole point of the plot twist just provides a bigger excuse for rehashing the unoriginal plot and stereotypical characters. There's definitely potential here, and it does seem like an earnest attempt by the developers to comment on how predictable the genre is as a whole, but it still misses the mark somewhat.

There's also the problem that, for a good portion of the game at least, there's not all that much of a challenge. Its difficulty curve is relatively tame, and, despite a brief spike towards the end, there aren't too many bosses that really test your mettle and can usually be dismantled with similar strategies.

The side content though, does provide you with a little more to sink your teeth into. Following on from a plot point early on in the game, you're tasked with restoring the village of Norende. It isn't just an idle time sink either, rebuilding various shops gives you access to better items and in many cases, unique ones that cannot be accessed from elsewhere. Restoring the village involves tasking the inhabitants to work on rebuilding different areas. By connecting with friends, or with strangers over Wi-Fi, you'll be given additional workers which will cut down on the amount of time required to upgrade shops or unlock new locations. More importantly, doing so also triggers the abundance of optional bosses that invade your game and certainly require a bit more strategy in order to bring down.

Overall, Bravely Default is a breath of fresh air for what has become an incredibly stagnant genre. Some of its elements feel a little tacked on at times, and give the impression of throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks, but it does show that Silicon Studio are committed to experimenting with what the genre can do. With work already progressing on the sequel, this is one series that will hopefully pave the way for some more innovation for J-RPGs and bring about a memorable series in its own right.

This is certainly a promising start.