Thursday, February 6, 2020

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot (PS4, XB1, PC) Review

It's time to rock the dragon with a new review here on SuperPhillip Central. It's for a greatly anticipated game released in the middle of last month: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. The greatest thrill of all isn't finding that seventh ball for DBZ fans; it's playing this game. See why with the SPC review.

"Z" for yourself the best retelling of the DBZ saga in video game form

The Dragon Ball Z series has seen itself reinterpreted and retold more times than jokes about priests and rabbis walking into a bar. Okay, perhaps that's a touch hyperbolic, but the point is that it's been overly done, to put it mildly. However, Bandai Namco's latest retelling of the Dragon Ball Z series with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is something special--the best telling of Goku's story yet with regards to how complete and in depth it goes, how much it sticks to the high points of the show, and also how simply fantastic of a love letter it is to DBZ fans. While that's all well and good, does Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot have the gameplay to match, or will disappointed fans have to summon Shenron to make a wish for a better game?

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot retells the entire story of Dragon Ball Z from the initial Saiyan Saga all the way to the Buu Saga. Fortunately, it also takes the Dragon Ball Kai route by taking out lots of filler in the story, so there's no Fake Namek during the Frieza Saga or anything like that to plod through. Don't get me wrong, though, as there is plenty of non-saga related activities to partake in that could be defined as filler, and that generally happens between sagas in what the game calls "intermissions". And yes, you can bet that the developers kept a certain beloved "drivers' license" scenario in the game as part of that filler.

Relive the greatest moments of Dragon Ball Z... y'know, again.
Unlike what the subtitle of the game would have you expect, you're not entirely playing as Goku (Kakarot is his Saiyan birth name) for its entirety. In fact, a lot of the game you're playing as Gohan, and it's as much a story of Gohan's rise as a hero (and then push into mediocrity) as it is just Goku's tale being told. Kakarot is indeed a love letter to Dragon Ball Z fans, complete with the full voice cast from English dub reprising their roles with a copious amount of voice acting, high production values, saga previews that are concocted just like the episode previews of the show, and lots of extra content in the form of sub quests and seemingly "forgotten" characters making full appearances.

All of the story is just the window-dressing, however, as the general meat of DBZ as a show are the epic showdowns that showcase fast-paced, superpower-ed fighting, complete with intense energy blast exchanges and fists a-flying. After all, that's what keeps fans of the show coming back for more time and time again and getting them full of hype and excitement for the most part. That is exhibited in Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot quite well.

Gohan with the kick... and it's GOOD!
Encounters in Kakarot feature all of the flashy fighting and grand scale battles that one would expect from a Dragon Ball Z game. They have you fighting as Goku, Gohan, Piccolo, Vegeta, Gohan, Trunks, and his future self, in high octane confrontations where you and your opponents trade blows in the form of punches, kicks, Ki energy blasts, and special attacks. Melee attacks are assigned to the right face button while Ki attacks are assigned to the left face button. Ki is necessary to unleash regular blasts, special attacks, and fast movement, including a vanish attack that allows you, with proper timing, to teleport behind your opponent when your guard is up to essentially perform a counterattack on them. Thus, it's important to keep your Ki levels high by occasionally charging it by holding down the top face button.

When you're not fighting memorable foes like Frieza or Cell, you're contending
with lesser baddies like these Dragon Ball remnants.
Special attacks like Goku's Kamehameha, Gohan's Masenko, and Vegeta's Galick Gun, for instance, are performed by pressing a face button while holding down a specific shoulder button. You can only have four special attacks equipped to a character at once, but so many of the moves in the game for a character are just enhanced versions, such as a Super Kamehameha or a Guided Kamehameha, for example. Special attacks and character abilities can be upgraded via a skill tree for each character by spending Z orbs, found in abundance in the overworld and dropped by defeated foes after a battle's end. Of course, most of the skills in these trees are locked via progression in the story and by character level.

Vegeta sends a relentless flurry of concussive Ki blasts to his opponent Cui.
Combat itself is hectic, especially when you're taking on more than one foe at a time, but fortunately, switching between targets is as simple as flicking the right stick left or right. Additionally, red sight lines show where attacks are being aimed at, and special attack names appear on the screen when they're being prepared by an opponent (though in stupidly tiny font). This way you can do some preparing yourself to either bring up your guard or do your best to evade the attack the best you can.

Now, this doesn't seem like a fair fight... for Cell, that is.
I found myself struggling at first with battles in Kakarot, as like with other parts of the game there's certainly a learning curve on display here. That said, eventually I grasped the basics of battle, was able to purchase plenty of healing items for mid-battle health restoration, and proceeded to pulverize opponents more easily. It helps that at the start of the game you don't nearly have enough options for battle and ways to level up as you do later.

When you're not battling baddies and fighting other foes in Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, you're given a multitude of other tasks to partake in. The main one is moving about the expansive open world areas of the game, albeit disconnected from one another. Instead, they're connected by a world map, and you simply select the area you wish to move towards. Familiar areas abound in Kakarot, including Goku's house in the mountains, West City, Capsule Corp, Planet Namek, the Gizard Wastelands where Goku and Vegeta first fought, Kame House and the surrounding seaside islands, Kami's Lookout, and many, many more. Basically, if you saw the setting for more than a few token episodes in Dragon Ball Z, you can explore it in this game.

The open world areas can be explored by land and by air. You can even eventually earn the ability to pilot vehicles like a hovercar and robo-walker courtesy of Capsule Corp. Controlling characters on foot is decidedly much easier than taking to the air, which has quite a bit of a learning curve. The right shoulder buttons are designated to your altitude. Hold one of them down to move up and hold down the other to fly downward. Pressing in the left stick causes your character to gain a heavy boost of speed, which can be a little unwieldy at first. It took me about ten hours into my playthrough of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot to come completely to grips with the flight controls, but your mileage may vary. They just came across as quite cumbersome at first and not very intuitive to me.

West City is but one of the plentiful places to be found in Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot.
Exploring the areas of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot has its own rewards. You'll find a plethora of resources and materials to use to make health-restoring and stat-increasing cuisine, to sell at shops to make money, to fulfill specific quests, and for other means as well. Eventually you gain access to Dragon Ball hunts, which allow you to summon Shenron for wishes like more money, rare items, and returning already beaten villains to participate in character-specific, non-story-related sub quests.

There are myriad sub quests that further expand upon and flesh out the lore and characters of the series and the game, as well as present some hilarious and sometimes heartwarming interactions between said characters. One such has Emperor Pilaf's gang plotting once again to take down their nemesis Goku by having him acquire a killer robot for them. However, not only is Goku in Super Saiyan form during this quest (which Pilaf merely thinks Goku dyed his hair because he was feeling depressed, rebellious, and misunderstood in life), but Goku is eager and easily able to take down the robotic opponent, much to the Pilaf Gang's annoyance.

You can team with up to two AI characters in certain scenarios.
Now, if you're not a big fan of Dragon Ball or its various incarnations, you may not find these side quests too interesting. That's fair, as many of these amount to fetch quests and plenty of times feature a combination of multiple cutscenes sandwiched between multiple load times. But, for fans of the show and source material, the unlikely interactions between some characters and the humor on display are more than worth checking them out. Plus, you get some pretty cool rewards in the form of rare items and experience for doing so.

Some side quests earn you soul emblems, which are essentially tokens with characters on them. These emblems can be placed on one of six character boards, which serve as ways to provide beneficial boosts to players in the game. These range from melee and/or Ki attack and defense increases to bonus experience earned after each battle. It's just a shame that these boards and their implementation in-game are so poorly explained. While things like boosts are revealed as well as placing certain soul emblems next to one another for special bonuses, things like leveling up soul emblems through giving the right gifts to them are either explained in a confusing way, buried deep in tutorial menus, or not touched upon at all.

Speaking of sub quests, current issue with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is that many of the sub quests have time limits to them. You can only complete them during sometimes incredibly tight windows, and if you fail to do so, you miss your chance of completing them entirely. There is no way yet of going back to complete missed sub quests, but a future patch intends on correcting this. As is, you can miss out on a lot of rewards and a lot of fun character side stories via missed sub quests.

Sure, he doesn't need a car, but would it make sense for Goku to listen to
"Lean Mean Driving" while flying? I rest my case.
Continuing with the problems of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is that the game is rather unpolished. On many occasions characters wouldn't spawn where they were supposed to, the camera would get caught on scenery during battles and just become like it was caught in a hurricane at times, and I've even had it where I would talk to characters, but only their faces would materialize. Quite creepy in context of the game, but otherwise hilarious in reality.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is a lengthy game. It took me just over 40 hours to get the Platinum trophy and complete most of the sub quests that I could. Between all of the story missions, the sub missions, the massive amount of leveling up that one can do, time attack races, material finding, Dragon Ball hunting, optional enemy fighting, and so much more, you will have quite a good deal of content to get through. Nevertheless, while I think Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is a great Dragon Ball Z game, it's only just a good game in general. Some gameplay systems are too basic or work against one another, and battles can really test one's patience early on, especially with the sometimes wonky camera. Most outside players less familiar with the source material will probably not find as much to love about the game as a fan would. That notwithstanding, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is a game built for the fans first and foremost, and here, it certainly serves them well.

[SPC Says: B]

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Most Improved Video Game Sequels - Part Two

Too often we see video game sequels that don't quite live up to their predecessors... but we already have an article series dedicated to those games. Instead, let's take a look at those video game sequels that not only live up to their predecessors but greatly surpass them in quality. It's time to bring back The Most Improved Video Game Sequels (you can read part one here) to check out these sensational sequels that delivered and did so in a deliciously delightful manner.

Grand Theft Auto III (PS2)

We begin this second edition of The Most Improved Video Game Sequels with a franchise that is synonymous with open world gaming. It's Grand Theft Auto, and its third iteration was a marked improvement over its predecessors, not just upping the presentation values considerably, but ushering in open-world gaming's immense popularity. It's the type of popularity that continues to this day, and saw many developers attempt to dethrone GTA at its own game with titles like True Crime, Saints Row, among countless others. Grand Theft Auto III took its series from the now-rudimentary top-down overhead cities of the first two games and revolutionized the gaming world with an open 3D metropolis in Liberty City to explore and wreak havoc in. Though future games in the series would further refine the foundations and fundamentals in world-building and gameplay that Grand Theft Auto III introduced, there's no doubt how much greater GTA III is as a game and cultural phenomenon when compared to its predecessors.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

The original Uncharted was a remarkable romp that introduced the world to the charming, quick-witted master of quips, treasure hunter Nathan Drake in an adventure that felt like a cross between the globe-trotting adventures of Indiana Jones and the gameplay of Tomb Raider. However, the game suffered from some gameplay issues that make repeated play-throughs a bit of a slog, such as a seemingly never-ending supply of bullet sponge enemies to contend with and poorly conceived vehicle segments. Don't get me wrong, though--Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was an excellent game. It's just that its sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, took the formula and foundation that its predecessor laid down and improved on it to such a delightful degree. Everything was bigger and better--the story had greater stakes, the set pieces were lavish and jaw-dropping, the pacing was phenomenal, and the addition of multiplayer was a fantastic one. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is considered one of the best games of its generation for good reason. It's an action-packed romp reminiscent of an entertaining interactive motion picture.

Monster Hunter: World (PS4, XB1, PC)

The Monster Hunter series long languished as a series with not too many revolutionary changes to its formula due to being stuck on weaker hardware. (That's not to say the games weren't still highly enjoyable, though.) The series also struggled to reel in heavy amounts of players outside of its native home of Japan. All this changed with the release of Monster Hunter: World, offering a game on powerful enough hardware to eliminate the need for the disconnected areas and lands that were found in previous games, and the loading times that came with them. The titular monsters in the game were smarter and more vicious, thanks to the greater processing power of the platforms World was put on. Multiplayer was less of a hassle to get together with friends and randoms alike to go out on the hunt with. Not related to the improved technology provided by the game's targeted hardware platforms but an improvement all the same, the tutorials were more intelligently designed, allowing more players than ever before to have a greater "jumping in" point to the Monster Hunter series. While other games in the series were evolutions of the series to various degrees, Monster Hunter: World was a complete and welcome revolution.

Luigi's Mansion 3 (NSW)

The first Luigi's Mansion was a short and sweet diversion, but it was more of tech demo turned game to show off Nintendo's then-newest platform, the GameCube. The much awaited sequel, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, then arrived on the Nintendo 3DS many "moons" later, and it offered more mansions and more hours to the adventure. However, its mission-based structure haunted a good deal of players. Luigi's Mansion 3 for the Nintendo Switch not only improved upon both games (one mansion but with plenty of floors to explore without feeling disconnected in a mission format, a lengthy journey, and insane production values), but it's one of the Switch system's greatest games in general. Smarter puzzles, better bosses, ingenious floor designs that keep players continually guessing what is going to come next, and clever co-op and multiplayer made for a sequel in Luigi's Mansion 3 that wasn't just good--it was scary good.

Red Steel 2 (Wii)

The original Red Steel succeeded commercially on the Wii by virtue of being the first revealed third party game for the system, but unfortunately, the beautiful screenshots that led the game's marketing charge weren't exactly the most honest. And doubly unfortunate was that the overall game lacked precision, polish, and just wasn't that enjoyable to play. The promise of proper motion-controlled swordplay in Red Steel was unfulfilled, but its sequel, which completely retooled and reworked the franchise, would finally make good on the promise. Red Steel 2 was a remarkably stellar and solid first-person shooter with swordplay elements that made players feel like an honest to goodness bad-ass in a way that the original Red Steel promised but failed to live up towards. The cel-shaded art style was a major improvement over the original's muddy mess, and it worked well with the Wii's obviously weak (when compared to its competitors) hardware. Red Steel 2 may have had any potential for success destroyed by its predecessor and due to its requirement for the Wii MotionPlus accessory, but that doesn't stop it from being a terrific and quite improved sequel.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (PS1)

We conclude with the second Naughty Dog title to appear on this volume of Most Improved Video Game Sequels, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. This game was bigger and better than the original Crash Bandicoot in pretty much every way. The first improvement was the refined difficulty, while still challenging, it was nowhere near as punishing as the original. Levels offered multiple paths to explore, rather than being as linear in their design like the game's predecessor. The graphics were also more astounding, offering greater visual effects such as the ability to see character and object reflections in ice. Perhaps the only lacking quality, and one that remained equal to the original Crash Bandicoot, was Crash 2's boring and basic boss battles, which did less than challenge most players. Still, with the second game in the Crash Bandicoot trilogy, it was more than Cortex who struck back; it was Naughty Dog as well.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition (NSW) Review

With January's month of reviews all over and done with (and you can see all of those reviews conveniently listed in the Review Round-Up), let's make haste to our first review for the month of February, Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch.

Light up the darkness in one captivating, heartfelt tale

It seems like the gaming world has gone a bit insane recently. Up is down, left is right, Nintendo's The Wonderful 101 is bound for other platforms, Sony is rumored to put Horizon: Zero Dawn on PC, and Microsoft now has Ori and the Blind Forest: Definition Edition available on the Nintendo Switch. What else is on its way? At any rate, I'm pleased as well as amazed beyond belief to see the award-winning game arrive on the Switch with everything intact and looking as gorgeous as ever. Of course, beauty is only skin deep, but fortunately, Moon Studios' game has more than enough substance with its strong gameplay and hard-hitting story to back up its phenomenal good looks.

Without a doubt, Ori and the Blind Forest is a superbly crafted experience in its presentation. The hauntingly beautiful and gorgeous world of Ori and the Blind Forest is accompanied and by an oftentimes understated soundtrack. This soundtrack's subdued nature makes it so when the music does swell up during particularly emotional moments in the story, the effect is even more profound.

You'd need to have a heart of stone to not to feel anything during this opening.
Speaking of the story, it features many muted moments where on several occasions there is little to no dialogue to speak of, only that of an omniscient narrator. Mostly though, the story is told through the environment and through text-less scenes, such as the roller coaster highs and lows that are the opening scenes. These show off a mother/child-like relationship that ends with Ori winding up as an orphan when a storm makes all of the plant-life and vegetation within the forest of Nibel wither and decay, starving their one true friend. All alone and without much power to their name, Ori goes off on a mystical journey to revive the forest alongside a helper character named Sein, who not only serves as a beacon to provide the player with helpful quest information but grants Ori unique abilities as well.

Ori and the Blind Forest has a Metroid-like structure to it, offering a wide open world to explore, though most of it is locked away from the player at first. As the player and Ori gain new abilities from remnant trees throughout the world, gained through a linear path, more and more of the forest of Nibel opens up and becomes accessible. The abilities Ori learns and obtains have both offensive and mobility purposes to them. For instance, the Charge Flame can not only attack enemies with a concussive blast, but it can also detonate and blow open specific walls. Then, there's the Bash that allows Ori to launch themselves off enemy projectiles, launching them back into enemies with proper aiming, as well as also to gain altitude to reach otherwise inaccessible places.

One of the earliest new moves Ori becomes bestowed with, the Wall Jump.
Though this leads into one of the lesser parts of Ori and the Blind Forest, and that's the game's combat. While there are plenty of moves to utilize to thwart enemies eventually, starting off in Ori's journey, the best means to dispatch foes is to just jam on the Spirit Flame button to launch fiery shots that home in direction on enemies to slowly but surely take them out.

Danger? Danger is Ori's middle name. Though, Ori would need to have a last name
 to have a middle name to begin with. Technicalities and all that.
Moving around as Ori feels wonderfully fluid, offering a great degree of control and a simultaneous lightness and tightness. Though Ori has a limited selection of moves when it pertains to mobility at the beginning of the game, they're quickly given new means to move around areas, including a wall jump and double jump. Both of these are invaluable for getting around the expansive forest of Nibel, and as you can expect, they set up more taxing and enjoyable platforming challenges. The aforementioned Bash attack also brings even more set pieces of platforming goodness into the mix as well. New abilities are introduced at a steady enough pace that you're not bored with Ori's current arsenal of abilities, nor are you overwhelmed by all of the different buttons to use them. That's because you get plenty of time to grow accustomed to new abilities before new ones are introduced.

An example of Ori using the Bash attack to launch themself over these prickly thorns.
The environments in Ori and the Blind Forest are abundant with details and full of unique sights. Each zone is drastically different from one another, lush, dense, full of bountiful beauty and exquisite nature, and offers mazes of pathways and rooms to get lost in. Thankfully, a helpful and easy-to-read map system clearly marks Ori's location and the location of quests showing where Ori needs to go to next. Through finding map markers and placing them in specific statues, pieces of the map reveal themselves automatically. It helps to get a better grasp of Ori's surroundings and how to reach certain destinations in this interconnected wonderland. Perhaps my only issue with the environmental and level design in Ori and the Blind Forest is how the environments could mask what is safe terrain to land on and what isn't, occasionally resulting in taking damage or worse, death at times.

Even still, death isn't too much of a drawback in Ori and the Blind Forest, thanks to a smart save system. Not only are there specific points on the map where Ori can warp and save your data, but Ori can summon save points--one at a time--called "soul links", as long as they have enough energy cells, one of the major collectibles in the game. Soul links not only require spending energy cells, but they also can't be summoned immediately one after the other. It takes a little while for a soul link to charge up so a new one can be summoned again. Generally, like I imagine most players will do or have done, I summoned a soul link before and after a particularly harrowing platforming challenge or section of area so I wouldn't have to redo too much of my progress if (and let's face it--when) I died again.

As a Metroid game in structure, Ori and the Blind Forest has a multitude of optional collectibles to hunt that greatly assist in completing the game. These range from health-increasing orbs, energy cells, and ability orbs, which can be used in a basic but effective skill tree to increase Ori's effectiveness in combat, in exploring, in mobility, and in just staying alive.

Enemies, puzzles, and hazards await Ori in their grand adventure to revitalize the forest of Nibel.
And there are times when staying alive is indeed a challenge, as you'll die a lot in your initial run through the game. This is especially so during chase sequences, where Ori must outrun some form of environmental danger before it overtakes them. This results in some breakneck, fast, and frenetic platforming, but it also results in a lot of trial and error. Deaths come often from not being aware a platforming hazard was coming before it's too late. Still, the game's ample checkpoints and makeshift save points ensure that you won't be replaying lengthy stretches of the game, so it never feels overly cheap or frustrating.

Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition on the Nintendo Switch includes several difficulties to choose from. I played on the Normal difficulty and felt challenged enough, but there are Easy, Hard, and the *gulp* one-life modes to try out. Achievements are available both in-game and via linking your Microsoft Account, and these add to the 8-10 hour initial run-through you'll have with the game.

I don't think there are enough to synonyms for "beautiful" to describe this game.
Now, Nintendo Switch owners without an Xbox can see for themselves what the gaming world has known for over four years now: that Ori and the Blind Forest is a breathtaking game, most definitely worthy of playing. Seriously, you owe it to yourself if you have any semblance of a fandom for platformers or Metroid-style games to check Moon Studios' stellar outing out. What it lacks in super-satisfying combat, Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition more than makes up for in basically everything else--sensational, jaw-dropping visuals; a muted, ambient soundtrack that knows when to pack a punch when it's absolutely necessary; a heart-tugging, emotional journey; and immensely rewarding and great-feeling gameplay.

[SPC Says: B+]

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NSW) "Nintendo Switch My Way" Commercial

Continuing Nintendo of America's "Nintendo Switch My Way" marketing campaign, a new commercial for Animal Crossing: New Horizons has released ahead of its March 20, 2020 release date. Enter into your tropical paradise anytime and anywhere with the Nintendo Switch and Animal Crossing's much awaited arrival on the system.