Review: Pokemon X and Y: The series' first foray into 3D

It may be Pokemon's first foray into 3D, but that aspect hardly matters when compared with all of the other things Game Freak added to Pokemon X and Y. Other than a hiccup with a game-breaking bug in Lumiose City (which has since been fixed; if you haven't downloaded the patch yet, it's on the Nintendo eShop), the game is solid.

The game tried a few new things. Some worked fantastically, others didn't. First, the story is still pretty weak and predictable. I still find Black and White to have the most complex plot with the most interesting characters. The issue of handling Pokemon as captive tools meant for the equivalent of dog-fighting or rather their handling as a trainer's friends could have been handled in a black-or-white way. We find N and the player on different sides, and yet N changes -- and hopefully the player's outlook was also impacted by N's words.

But that's enough about Black and White. In X and Y, Team Flare (possibly a pun on "flair") couldn't be more black and white. Even before the player learns much of Team Flare's leader Lysandre, he talks about beauty and his worries for the world. He lacks complete subtlety, and it's hard to see how Professor Sycamore never saw his friend's betrayal coming. When the final confrontation with Lysandre comes, he boils his argument down to his belief that there is so much ugliness in the world, and in a world where people treat Pokemon as tools, all Pokemon must be destroyed to save them. There is no room to empathize with Lysandre because he is a flat character capable of no growth.

We do get introduced to a giant, however, who has had his own ancient morality struggle with Pokemon. The player sees very little of this man, and yet he receives more character growth than Lysandre could ever hope to have.

Game Freak took a different turn with the rival character in X and Y. In the past, Pokemon games have one rival. More recent games have added two characters you occasionally battle. Sometimes they're both rivals, sometimes they're also friends, sometimes one is a great battler while the other finds other ways of enjoying a journey with Pokemon. In X and Y, you travel with four other characters. One is clearly your rival and the next best at Pokemon battling. The second is a friendly girl who you spend a decent amount of time with journeying through forests and routes or keeping each other company while watching the fireworks. The third loves to dance and isn't so good at Pokemon battling. The fourth also isn't good at battling and has decided his goal is to fill the Pokedex, and he will challenge you to see who has more entries in the Pokedex. You both travel on your own and with these four characters, meaning you get to choose to move at your own pace and also battle some recurring characters a few times. The rival, named Calem if you chose the female protagonist and Serena if you chose the male protagonist, and Shauna are with you the most of other characters, and these two become a bit more complex as you learn more about their goals for their respective Pokemon journeys. However, these characters are still fairly simple-minded. Even if Pokemon is traditionally a game marketed to children, there is no need for such simplistic characters in a story. Before people come in and say, "But you don't play Pokemon for the story!" I want to say that people choose their own reasons for playing a game. The beauty of Pokemon is that it feels like your own story. My favorite part of starting a Pokemon game is starting the journey, picking my starter, and catching my first few Pokemon in a new region with new Pokemon. I also get to choose which Pokemon to use in my party, which strategies to employ in battles, and what to name my Pokemon (if I choose to name them). At the same time, the plot of Pokemon games is linear. You are guided to which towns to go to next, which gyms to fight next, and to pursue whichever nefarious team is trying to hurt people/the world/Pokemon. With six generations of Pokemon games out, it's time for more stories that challenge the way you think about Pokemon.

However, I suggest everyone who has already beaten the Elite Four to head to Lumiose City for some sidequests with Looker, an international police officer whom we first saw in Platinum. You meet Emma, a young girl involved with a gang in Lumiose. She ends up joining the bureau with Looker but gets caught up in some nasty experiments. Emma isn't a flat gang-style character. She has reasons for being in a gang, motivation for leaving, and it's easy to see why she chooses to do some stupid things for money. Emma's life revolves around not having enough money, and she feels guilty when Looker takes her in and doesn't ask her for anything in return. I know Pokemon "isn't about the story," but I would have loved to have more time with Emma. I learned more about her in five short sidequests than I did about any other character in the game. And this isn't even in the main plot.

Customization was one of the most fun additions of X and Y. I knew as soon as the clothing customization feature was announced, I would end up spending much more of my money in the game on clothes than on items actually useful in the game. Various styles are available, meaning girls can dress up in cute, frilly clothing or wear a t-shirt and shorts, or wear a combination of styles. However, I wish gender fluidity had been considered in this customization feature. Rather than restricting female protagonists to women's clothing and male protagonists to menswear, players should be able to choose what they want to wear regardless of gender intended for the clothing. And I don't mean "unisex" as in girls can wear the boys' clothing, but boys can also wear skirts and dresses, clothing traditionally considered only for women.

We finally got the option to change skin tone at the beginning of the game, something Game Freak should have had in the games before, but I am grateful for the inclusion of not only PoC NPCs but also an option for the protagonist to be PoC. Thank you, Pokemon for this late but well-welcomed addition!

The other great feature is the online interaction with others. I have rarely connected to the internet in Pokemon in the past, usually only using it for the GTS occasionally, but for the first time I was trading and battling with strangers. The game even encourages you to interact with your friends and strangers playing Pokemon X or Y. You can use O-Powers to strengthen your Pokemon's stats or increase your capture rate, as well as many other things. However, they cost more to use on yourself than others. By using an O-Power repeatedly, its level will increase. Because they're cheaper to use on others, the game encourages you to help others out online. You can also trade with someone, battle with someone, connect to the GTS, or do a blind trade. All of this is easily accessible on the lower screen of the 3DS.

Two other additions can be found on the bottom screen. By pressing L or R, you can navigate away from the online capabilities of the Player Search System to Pokemon Amie and Super Training. Pokemon Amie lets you pet your Pokemon, feed your Pokemon, and play three mini-games with your Pokemon. You don't have to do this, and it's never forced on you, but some Pokemon need to have a high affection for you before evolving (this is partly how Eevee evolves into the new fairy-type Sylveon). The mini-games can take less than a minute, so they never take too much of your time. Super Training is not nearly as cute; instead its purpose is to give you some control over which stats you want your Pokemon to improve. By playing short mini-games in which you shoot soccer balls at targets while evading balls shot at you, you can choose which stat to increase. If you don't feel like spending too much time on it, your Pokemon can hit a punching back once a minute to increase stats.

Overall, Pokemon X and Y is just as addicting as any other game in the series, and with the inclusion of Red and Blue starter Pokemon and some subtle throwbacks to Red and Blue (including a sleeping Snorlax blocking your path and a building with arrow tiles that spin you around), X and Y are a great reentry into the series for anyone who hasn't felt like playing Pokemon since the golden days of old.

REVIEW: The World Ends With You

The World Ends With You.

I hadn't thought about what that meant before playing this game.

Neku Sakuraba is a teenaged boy living in Shibuya. He's standoffish and hates people. He loves only one thing: his favorite street artist. Waking up in the middle of Shibuya, Neku has no idea how he got there. With his partner -- a girl named Shiki whom Neku wishes he could get away from -- he has to fight to survive, fulfilling a mission each day for a week. But when Neku should be finished, he's flung into the game again and again, trapped inside under the Reapers' control.

I couldn't relate to Neku a whole lot at first, but what intrigued me the most about him is his character growth. It's well-written, gradual, and -- most importantly -- believable. The key to this change is the sentence, "The World Ends With You." You can be the only person in your own universe, or you can let others in and learn more about the world around you. In the end, that's up to you.

TWEWY has its own art style that fits perfectly with the setting of the game and Neku's fascination with street art. The outer lines are thicker, colors are vibrant, and characters have a distinct shape. There are certainly many styles of street art, but TWEWY has the same colorful, urban feel that I've seen in street art.

Fighting requires a team effort, and the Nintendo DS screens take care of this well. You control Neku on the bottom screen, running back and forth and using his pins to attack enemies via the stylus. You can also control your partner on the top screen with the directional pad. However, it is difficult to control both at the same time. Looking back and forth at each screen every couple seconds gets tiring, so if you don't control your partner for a short time, he/she will play on auto. You can play the majority of the game with your partner on auto, but it's easier to access special combo attacks when you control your partner. There are also a few times in boss fights when you need to play as your partner while making Neku avoid attacks.

Along with the art, the music also has its own urban appeal. I suggest you use headphones when playing the game just so that you can hear the music better.

This game wouldn't be what it is without the fantastic art, music, characters, and storyline. You're stuck in the mystery just like Neku is, and the only way to figure out how Neku got to the Reaper's Game, you'll just have to keep fighting your way to the truth. I haven't played an RPG like this one in a long time, and I haven't seen one like it. In a genre that feels stale at times, it's games like TWEWY that reinvent the genre and show that it's more than its tropes.

The World Ends With You was recently announced that it will be ported to the iOS.

Review: Eternal Sonata: The blue-haired poet of the piano

Years ago, before I had seen a bunch of weird games, if you had told me there was an RPG in a dream world of Frederic Francois Chopin, I would have called bullshit. I'm not so surprised about it anymore. So after a couple years of seeing cosplays from the game and noticing that fellow RPG fans had played it, I figured it was about time to learn about Chopin and his unrealistically blue hair.

All joking aside, Eternal Sonata taught me as much as a video game can about music history. But more than that, it inspired me to find parallels between the game and Chopin's life. It's amazing how video games can inspire you to learn more about a subject.

As you can see from the game's cover, this is a Namco game, and the English localized game has a lot of voice actors commonly found in another Namco franchise, the Tales series. I highly recommend this game to all Tales fans, especially ones who are interested in music. The game cover is also for the PlayStation 3 version; the game came out for the Xbox 360 first one year before the PS3 version. Eternal Sonata on the PS3 has additional content, a more fleshed out story (and apparently a more fleshed out Allegretto, one of the main characters), and a costume for each Allegretto, Beat, and Polka that you can find in-game. The PS3 cover features an angry Frederic Chopin and the other characters ready for battle whereas the Xbox 360 version's cover should prepare you more for the cheesiness of Eternal Sonata.

But even with the amount of friendship and happy themes, it's not a happy game overall. After all, this game reflects Chopin's life. Each chapter has a period of exposition where one of Chopin's pieces will play in the background as the narration informs you of when this piece was written, what it means, and how it may have spoken to Chopin. Thanks to Eternal Sonata, I learned about Chopin's Polish background, his relationship with George Sand, and why he couldn't return to his home in Poland all the while getting a crash course on the same pieces my sister was studying in her music classes!

The world in Eternal Sonata largely takes place within Chopin's dream as this is happening on his death bed. When he meets a young girl named Polka who reminds him of his deceased sister Emilia, he confesses to her that this is all his dream. She doesn't seem bothered by it, and we're led to believe that it's rather strange that her life and everyone else living in that world would be a product of his imagination.

This theory of escapism for Frederic makes sense at first, but as he becomes more attached to the characters -- primarily Polka -- and involved in saving their world from the stereotypically evil Count Waltz, it becomes harder to tell what's real and what's a dream. The ending of the game, unfortunately, does not wrap this up well. Instead of a well-written build-up to Chopin's decision to stay in this world or pass away, we get a sudden final fight and a character's suicide, except just kidding there's some weird time thing going on, so that character doesn't end up dying to save the world because that's no longer necessary. However, the final song, Heaven's Mirror, is a beautiful song -- and it's an original composition. If only the conclusion of the game had been less out of nowhere.

Eternal Sonata looks like it has a stereotypical world. It's got the trope of a young girl needing to sacrifice herself, magic, and an evil ruler trying to take over the world. It's a clear cut good vs. evil kind of game. However, the addition of magic was written into the most interesting use of magic I've seen so far. Only characters who are near death are able to use magic, so being able to use those powers is terrifying. More and more people are near death from the side effects of mineral powder, the only medicine Count Waltz allows his people to use. This powder has severe health and environmental problems, whereas the floral powder Polka tries to sell does not.

The majority of the characters meet up as a result of the different problems of mineral powder as they are united by their wish to speak to Count Waltz and appeal to his better nature. They'll soon find out that he has no better nature. He's not an interesting antagonist with few complexities, but Liam O'Brien gives him a fantastically nasty character in a great show of his voice acting. The voice acting is excellent. As I mentioned before, most of these voices will not sound strange to any JRPG fans. And here's a huge shout out to Cam Clarke for his role of Prince Crescendo! It has been far too long since I've heard his voice in an RPG.

Eternal Sonata is both a turn-based fighting game, but it also demands your full attention. Characters' turns occur depending on their speed stat. In the beginning of the game, you have tactical time, giving you a few seconds to figure out what you're going to do with your turn. You then have a few seconds to run around the field, attack, or use items. By attacking, you build up echoes, and once you have at least 24, you can use a powered up special attack. During the enemy's turn, you can guard when attacked. Guarding is essential for your survival, but you can't just hold down O and expect to take little damage. For your guard to be effective, you must do it at a precise time. A second too soon or too late, and you won't reduce any damage. Like playing music, you must be precise and on time.

And because this is a game about Chopin and music -- complete with musical terms and styles used for characters and dungeons -- this game just wouldn't be what it was if it weren't for the fantastic score by Motoi Sakuraba. As much as I love his work for Tales and Golden Sun, I don't think there's any game that's expressed his creativity more beautifully than Eternal Sonata.

The game's graphics are beautiful as well. They're sometimes hard to see as the camera is often zoomed out, but on close shots like the one above, it's easy to see how much detail went into the graphics. I wish there was an adjustable camera because I would have loved to see more of the world.

Eternal Sonata sparked my interest in a historical figure, plays beautiful and original music, and has a battle system I had not experienced before. (I became well-acquainted with that O button.) For that, I have to love it. The story was good, but could have been much better near the end, but the music is what made it a beautiful game. I wouldn't expect less from a great game loosely about Frederic Chopin.

A budding market for otome games in North America?

Aksys takes many chances on niche markets, which is one of the many reasons I love them. Now they're taking on Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, a game in a series from Japan in which you play as a woman among many men during the Edo period.

An otome game, in the most simplistic way I can think to describe it, is a reverse harem. There was a hint of this to Persona 3 Portable from the female protagonist's perspective, as well as in western RPGs such as Dragon Age, but there's very little of that available here.

But this game isn't only about romance. Because it's about the Shinsengumi, there's quite a bit of violence (a part of the reason why the game is rated M).

Chizuru Yukimura is the protagonist. In her quest to find her father, she'll meet many attractive samurai vying for her attention. With a game that blends action with romance, and caters toward a female market, Aksys can count me in on this game. But I don't think men should shy away from playing this either. As someone who's romanced plenty of fictional women in games, it's a different, and still enjoyable, experience. More often than not, it's just hilarious.

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom releases in NA for the PSP on February 14. I know I wouldn't mind getting this for Valentine's Day...

(In reality, I hate paying for shipping to the UK, so I'll wait until I'm back home to play this. And believe me when I say that I WILL buy this game.)

A Lesson in Macro-Management

(My apologies for the late post. Anime Boston had me very busy and then I had the delight of finals right after that and then moving back home.)

About a year ago I walked into Gamestop and started browsing. I have a natural bias for RPGs and anime-style graphics, so I tend to take those games off of the shelf to get a closer look. I found Atelier Annie for the Nintendo DS during this trip and--on a whim--I bought it. I had never heard of the Atelier games before and wasn't even sure what kind of alchemy I would be doing (Fullmetal Alchemist changed my perspective on alchemy).

And then fast forward a year to the present when my finals are over. I'm bored in my dorm room with most of my things packed and most of my games finished. I pulled out Atelier Annie and decided I'd give it a chance.

Annie is the lazy granddaughter of a skilled and famous alchemist. One night when her grandfather is sick of her shenanigans, he ships her off--in her sleep--to a remote island to learn alchemy from a fairy. Before long, she finds herself a contestant in a alchemy contest that will span three years. She has no interest until the king mentions that whoever wins the contest will marry his son or daughter. Cue Annie's love for handsome boys and an even greater love for rich, handsome boys. With her new motivation, she sets out to become the greatest alchemist of Sera Island.

 Ladies and gentleman, our protagonist.

This game may span three years of Annie's life, but time passes quickly. It unfortunately does not take very long to finish, but the quick passing of days keeps you on your toes as you have several deadlines to meet. Your ultimate goal in addition to creating items for the competition is to create a fabulous resort for the island, including building and improving attractions such as a park, bakery, or beach. You also have your own shop's reputation to keep in mind. By taking on requests and jobs, you increase your alchemy skill and can improve your fame.

Fighting is also a feature in Atelier Annie. Two more people can join your party to protect you from monsters as you go out to places to gather materials for synthesis. The fighting is simple and straightforward, but could use a few tweaks to make it more challenging.

You'll also be fighting monsters that resemble a colorful Japanese dessert.

This game is more about management than leveling up and fighting monsters--and that's a good thing. You can blindly pick up a game from the shelf and chances are that you'll be spending a great amount of time focusing on fighting. And then several other games that stray away from fighting monsters are either childish or have a different aim entirely (Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, puzzle games, etc.). Atelier Annie challenges you to multi-task: collecting materials for several tasks at once, planning your travels so that you don't waste time, knowing which requests to ignore and which ones to take. Everything you do is an element of both time and money, both of which do not grow on trees.

The dialogue is all in the original Japanese, but it was translated for the localization. You meet several characters who just make Annie's life more frustrating, but they're definitely...characters. Love them or hate them, they make Atelier Annie funny. Sometimes their dialogue becomes pointless and only made me forget what I was about to do, but you can skip the unnecessary parts by pressing the Y button.

Atelier Annie isn't a fantastic game, but it's better than you would expect. If you like games that force you to think--and if you're into economics and management--you should give it or the other Atelier games a try.