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VIDEO GAME REVIEW
Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen
Sony PlayStation 4/PS Vita

VISUAL Novels (VN) aren’t often seen in Western markets, and for good reason. Most VNs are characterized by design choices that may well appear childish and cartoony to those otherwise predisposed to realism. Add to this often-cheesy stories from the more unimaginative offerings, and it’s easy to see why the genre hasn’t taken off as well as others outside of Japan. That said, a good number of VNs do manage to overcome their seeming fate in the dustbins of mediocrity. Such notable series as Phoenix Wright, Zero Escape, and Danganronpa distinguish themselves from competitors by injecting interesting gameplay elements alongside rich storylines.

From logic-heavy puzzles to action-oriented brawls, the better VNs are not just interesting to read; they likewise feature compelling gameplay. Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is one such example, distinguishing itself from dregs of the genre by presenting a turn-based strategy system alongside a deliberately textured plot. Certainly, it aims to grip players both ways, and, creditably, tries very hard to do so. Character sprites are done well, though they do tend to overly cater to fan service. Voices are performed admirably, and the story is written and told in such a distinguishing manner that even if the premise of an amnesiac protagonist seems shopworn and generic, it’s still enjoyable to read through.

As a remake of the first release in the trilogy, Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen stays faithful to its source material, save for the deliberate omission of the sex scenes found in the original Japan-only release. It starts with an utter absence of information: The lead character does not know who he is and why he is badly injured. He then strives to decipher his life with the help of kind-hearted characters who all have animal ears and tails, and who are all much stronger than him (thus underscoring his fish-out-of-water situation). How he adapts to his surroundings and subsequently becomes familiar with it form the crux of the game. As he travels around the village, he gets to interact with locals and enriches himself in the process enough to care about collective interests and invest in the progress of the place he now calls home.

To be sure, Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is an acquired taste. Those not normally predisposed to read pages upon pages of text in a game will find their patience tested. Only after long bouts of expository sequences will battles occur. And, even then, the turn-based sequences feel more like interruptions, however welcome. Make no mistake, though; the combat mechanics are well thought out, if on the easy side. Aesthetic upgrades likewise up the ante, providing ample return on the investment of time. And even as strategy remains crucial to success, it is now complemented by newly introduced elements that underscore the importance of timing in execution.

On the whole, though, Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen’s biggest come-on is its overarching narrative. It’s a VN, after all, and while players may feel empowered with the choices and decisions they make during the game, their actions aren’t weighted and ultimately don’t impact the story and how it proceeds. Interactions take a backseat to the epic tale it wants to tell. Which, understandably, will leave the uninitiated pondering on the purpose of using an interactive medium to embrace a fixed journey, especially during plodding moments.

The good news is that Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen sparkles from the get-go. It’s oozing with polish, with its brilliance shining throughout and evident in its wonderful artistic and stylistic choices. Its characters and settings generate — and, most importantly, keep — interest, and its ideas have merit, especially in the context of the world the game tries to craft. It runs well on the PlayStation 4 Pro, plays smoothly even on the Vita, and offers a captivating tale that, given its capacity for cross saving, can be started and then picked up from where it previously left off on either platform. In this regard, the reward for players doesn’t come when they reach their destination. Rather, it’s enjoyed throughout the journey.

THE GOOD:

  • Outstanding remake
  • Faithful to the source material, but superior in every way
  • Compelling storyline
  • Polished gameplay

THE BAD:

  • Tons of exposition
  • Text-heavy, making it an acquired taste
  • Combat on the easy side

RATING: 8.5/10

POSTSCRIPT: Cygames has a lot of experience under its belt. Though most of its work has been on the mobile front, the titles are not the typical garbage gamers would expect for on-the-go appreciation. They’ve been successful in their own right, possessing the worth and worthiness to claim a loyal base. As proven by, say, the online trading card game Shadowverse and the action-adventure role-playing game Dragalia Lost, it knows its target audience well and delivers exactly what’s wanted. Even collaborations on such popular series as Fire Emblem, Love Live and Fate/Stay Night have thrived. Among all their games though, one stands out.

As gamers who haven’t lived under a rock all this time know only too well, Granblue Fantasy is a release that can be played on both the mobile phone and the personal computer. Though its gacha monetization system echoes that of loot box titles, it has proven to be a robust, well-made, and addictive online RPG. It has done exceedingly well, and not just because it features a colorful cast of weird, diverse, and interesting characters. Renowned Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu had a hand in its creation, with Squaresoft veteran Hideo Minaba providing art direction.

Considering the success of Granblue Fantasy, Cygames has not surprisingly moved to expand the franchise. Enter Granblue Fantasy Versus, a fighting game starring the beloved characters of its predecessor. Needless to say, there is no reinvention of the wheel; mechanics found in other two-dimensional fighters carry over, and those used to the genre will welcome its utter lack of a learning curve. Playing it is as easy as finding an opponent, mashing buttons, and then moving on.

Granblue Fantasy Versus has a very simple gameplay loop, but one that can prove addictive due to the speedy — make that extremely speedy — nature of its combat. At its heart, it encourages players to experiment with combos, air juggles, and special moves, thus lending the game one of its biggest strengths; the pace never really drags. In fact, fights may sometimes feel a little too fast. Thankfully, crisp gameplay is far from its only plus. Taking cues from its parent franchise, it likewise strives to look good. Characters are drawn very well and blend seamlessly with elegant backgrounds. Animations are likewise top notch, smooth, and free of stutter. In an obvious nod to its source material, everything just oozes quality.

To be sure, Granblue Fantasy Versus isn’t flawless. For instance, issues in network connectivity pop up on occasion. Then again, online battles are invariably problematic; as the multiplayer mode of countless other fighters have shown, even the slightest lag can have a huge impact on gameplay experience. This won’t be a problem for those interested only in its single-player component, of course, but offerings in the fighting genre are best enjoyed by competitive souls who want their competence challenged without regard for geographical limitations.

Roster size is also a fairly telling issue for Granblue Fantasy Versus. Launching with just 11 characters, it lacks the robustness veterans of the genre are accustomed to seeing. True, said characters are fleshed out in terms of combo list and personality. On the other hand, the restrictions in choice — at least until additional fighters are introduced as downloadable content — may wear down on those who expect a larger playable cast.

The aforesaid issues aside, Granblue Fantasy Versus promises hours upon hours of fun taken in bits and pieces. It might not reinvent the genre, but it’s nonetheless one of the most polished fighting games out in the market. Highly recommended.

THE GOOD:

  • Colorful cast of characters
  • Accessible to newcomers but with plenty of depth for longtime veterans
  • Well polished

THE BAD:

  • Roster size might turn away those looking for a larger cast
  • Online experience dependent on network connectivity

RATING: 9.5/10

Make War, from independent publisher No Gravity Games, is exactly what its title says. Its gameplay is based on, well, making war, but with a twist. Players, counted as part of an alien species, are thrust in the middle of markedly bloody battles across the history of mankind. Tasked to meet a specific objective (kill, or, as the case may be, keep alive a certain number of protagonists from one side, for instance) at a time, they are provided the opportunity to place units and advanced weaponry and traps on the fields of combat, and then watch as their plans unfold. Success will bring about another objective. Failure will necessitate a do-over. Rinse and repeat until all goals for the particular theater of skirmish are met. And then it’s on to the next.

Make War’s sandbox setup, presented in pixel art and oddly appropriate heavy-metal music, makes for interesting dynamics. Tactics are required, as not everything — and almost nothing at the start — goes according to plan. Trial and error is a necessity, but rewards come with ample investment of time. More future-tech playthings become available with every achievement, thus expanding options. As anything unfamiliar becomes the first target of either side, alien units can even be used to influence action; dropped at a certain area, they become bait to ensure compliance from would-be victims. Meanwhile, experience makes for a good teacher; soon enough, players are able to make optimal use of the tools at hand.

Make War does its best in wanting things to stay interesting throughout, and, in this regard, the variations help. Up to 45 weapons and 35 units are on tap to keep players engrossed through 160 missions. At some point, the battles progress to a cyberpunk future where even more unknowns await. Before then, though, players will have to stay involved while putting up with technical issues. And while accepting instructions and goals in grammatically incorrect English is one thing, trying to implement plans using a challenging interface is quite another.

Indeed, Make War falters in the translation to the Nintendo Switch. Developer Deqaf Studio ported it over from its outstanding personal computer version with command over the cursor merely transferred to the analog stick of the left Joy-Con — good in theory but serviceable at best in practice. The stilted movement makes for exceedingly slow placement of troops and items. And while touchscreen controls are present, they register only for specific actions. In other words, a neither-here-nor-there setup that requires no small measure of patience is in place.

Thankfully, Make War has enough going for it for players to stay immersed for hours on end. They shouldn’t expect any overarching narrative to tie their efforts together, however. The game is best appreciated in bits and pieces, with each skirmish disjointed from the previous and next ones. For a strategy title bent on underscoring the there and then, the need to focus on the here and now may be a paradox. Outside of that, and, yes, of the technical hurdles, it proves to be worth its $9.99 price tag.

THE GOOD:

  • Unique presentation
  • Compelling gameplay
  • Long on tactics and puzzle solving

THE BAD:

  • Broken text
  • No overarching narrative
  • Technical issues abound

RATING: 7/10

THE LAST WORD: It’s a reflection of the lack of good helicopter flight simulators in the market that Comanche 4 continues to get significant love in this day and age. NovaLogic released it to great fanfare way back in 2001, and, even then, it wasn’t a graphical marvel that projected staying power in an industry where looks can be just as important as feel. Yet, it remains a highly recommended title, and — outside of its inclusion in a Machines of War bundle that gives ample bang for the buck — continues to be offered at full price. That said, age has caught up with it, and publisher THQ Nordic has thankfully taken steps to address the need for a suitable successor.

Enter Comanche, which promises to reinvigorate the franchise with better controls and modern aesthetics designed to meet the demands of a new generation. The involvement of NUKKLEAR, known for its experience in developing networked and connected gaming systems, is a dead giveaway in where it wants to go and what it aims to achieve. And, as an early-access title, it shows ample potential. Its graphics border on the cutting edge; regardless of game mode, players are in for a visual treat. Certainly, painstaking care and effort went into making the game look good, with its three-dimensional models and the various helicopter skins and textures slated to satisfy even the most demanding of palates.

Significantly, Comanche goes well beyond looks. While, as a helicopter sim, it does have a learning curve, it somehow manages to convey a pretty natural feel. It may not be as easy from the get-go as one would expect modern games to be, but it nonetheless presents a control scheme that’s still fairly intuitive. Given enough time, even newcomers to the series will find themselves at home behind the keyboard, zipping through the skies with relative ease. Which, in a nutshell, is half the battle won for a release bent on presenting a realistic facsimile of rotary-wing movement.

If Comanche so far sounds like a neat little package, that’s because it is — with “little” being the operative word. Its tinges of greatness cannot be denied, but its current offerings, while fun to experience, remain modest at best even as it has stayed on course with its latest update. With its single-player mode still a work in progress, it continues to hinge its replay value on networked gameplay. And make no mistake; it’s undoubtedly a fun multiplayer experience. Unfortunately, matchmaking remains iffy at best; depending on region and timezone, the wait can seem too long for comfort, and figures to remain so until it’s released on retail and the number of players online reasonably increases.

The good news is that Comanche’s single-player component continues to be improved. Periodic updates in this regard are pledged; for instance, the latest patch includes a brand-new scenario. Along the way, early adopters will need no small measure of patience and understanding. The potential is there; there can be no denying its polish and the painstaking care put into its development. However, the relative lack of content and absence of a meaningful online population aren’t likely to hold gamers’ attention for more than a few hours at a time. For now, it’s a promise that looks ready to be kept. When is the question.

THE GOOD:

  • Handles extremely well
  • An enjoyable experience, especially for those into flight simulators
  • Developers remain willing to listen to the game’s player base

THE BAD:

  • Lacking in single-player content
  • Multiplayer mode hampered by relative lack of online population
  • Not a real sim
  • Incorporates arcade elements

RATING: 7.5/10





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