Friday, 8 November 2019

Disgaea 4 Complete + Review (Switch)

We are big fans of the Disgaea series at Retro 101 and have been more than happy to dive into the ‘complete’ versions of the games as they arrive on the Switch. Disgaea 4 always had a lot of personality so we were excited to have a reason to return to it once more.

This time around the plot revolves around a Prinny trainer by the name of Valvatorez, a once powerful tyrant who has renounced much of his power based on a promise he made many centuries ago. A noble demon, he never breaks a promise and when a group of Prinnies are taken away by the government for execution he leaps into action to save them. Why you ask? Because he promised them some sardines for tea and they were taken before they could eat them. Yes. Really.

Of course as things progress it gets much more complex than that and before you know it you’re on a mission to overthrow the powers that be with a bunch of rag tag companions, failed demons and several Prinnies. It’s possibly the maddest plot yet and it’s beautifully written and funny throughout with a lot of fourth wall breaking, several of the characters believing they are the main hero and one thinking they are the end of game boss.

Imortanly, the game is easy to see on the Switch screen. Graphics are smooth and while that removes the pixel style of previous games it certainly helps out with knowing what is going on. You can also pan and zoom around the battlefield easily which gives you all the angles you need.

The standard systems are still in place so if you’ve played Disgaea before you’ll know what to expect. There were new systems introduced here as well such as tower combat given more flexibility and monsters being able to morph together to create bigger monsters or turn into special weapons for human characters. You can also place special buildings on a game board then place characters around them to gain special effects such as gaining experience from the head of that building. The more levels you complete the bigger the board gets and the more buildings you can place (after senate approval of course).

While it’s not too tricky to pick up for fans of the series it’s not massively newcomer friendly. With a fair few systems added to what was already there it means there is a huge wealth of stuff to take in. There is a very short tutorial section but you’ll have to do a lot of playing around to see how things work if you want to really get into the meat of the game.

The levels don’t exactly ease you in gently either. While enemies are generally of a manageable level the layout and design of stages is somewhat advanced. Very early on we were taking on intricate patterns of Geo Symbols which in previous games haven’t appeared until quite some way into the game. By world three we were already facing strings of snipers and archers placed out of reach on panels that allowed double shots and health recovery.

There are certainly very few levels where you just rock up with your squad and hit the enemy until they disappear. This isn’t of course a bad thing but we can certainly see how it might be too much for newcomers. While we’re on the subject there really needs to be a colour blind filter implemented in some way as well. Having so many different Geo Symbol colours is fine but it’s impossible to identify what panel is what when it gets so crowded with different colours and characters.

Small issues aside this is a highlight of the Disgaea series. It has the more flexible difficulty curve of Disgaea 2 while having a sense of humour and quality characters that rival the original game. If number crunching, levelling and bizarre characters are your thing then there isn’t anything out there better than this. It’s certainly going to last a very long time as well with all the additional content included. If you aren’t shouting SARDINES! Within a week of play we’ll be amazed.

Overall 9/10

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince Review (Switch)

Although we found Trine 3 to be a lot of fun it didn’t reach the heights of the first two games in the series. The 3D design allowed for some fun set pieces but nothing really held together as tightly as in the series 2.5D roots. With this in mind we were pleased to see Frozenbyte return Trine 4 to the 2.5D style and venture forth once more into a world of fiendish puzzle design and beautiful landscapes.

The plot of the Trine series have never really been the main highlight but it still helps to set up the fantasy world and characters that move within it. This time our three heroes are on the trail of a prince who is having nightmares that are taking form in reality and threatening to cast the world into shadow. Ok then.

In order to save the world, Amadeus the wizard, Pontius the knight and Zora the thief must solve puzzles, engage in some platforming and fight off some shadowy apparitions that seem to mainly take the form of big wolves. The puzzles are excellent throughout and will stretch both new and returning. As you progress each of the characters is granted new skills which are then filtered into the puzzle design. For instance, at one point Pontius gains the ability to set up a sort of magical second shield that can be used to deflect light beams and water. This technique is then heavily required for the following few levels. The adding of the new elements keeps things fresh and always keeps players on their toes.

The combat though fails to reach the same sort of heights. Most of time fighting comes down to being enclosed in an arena which fills with monsters. It’s then a mad scramble to get Pontius around to kill things quickly enough before he is taken out. The other two characters aren’t much use in the tight arena setting and it feels samey and repetitive quickly. This is something that was never an issue in previous games so it is somewhat disappointing to see such unimaginative action sections appear here. It’s also not helped by the fact that playing undocked makes everything so small that you can’t really tell what’s happening close up (something again not helped by the dreamy aura that surrounds enemies).

Though the combat is disappointing, most of the time you will be trying to overcome traps and obstacles in creative ways. Most things you come up against have multiple solutions so it allows the player to deal with things in whichever way they see fit. For example, getting over spikes might be achievable by summoning blocks but you could also get across them by having Pontius dash or by Zora swinging.

The difficulty has also been knocked down a touch as characters that die can now be brought back to life more easily. In previous games players had to make it through a checkpoint to restore lost companions but now they will pop back up after a small amount of time has passed. If you want to play the game in the classic way you still can (and good luck to you if you try it).

The levels themselves are of an exceptional overall quality and look stunning throughout the five acts. They are also long but never outstay their welcome due to the ingenuity and variety present throughout. It’s also worth noting we didn’t hit any type of technical issue when playing undocked.

Overall, Trine 4 is a well-crafted, creative and fun addition to the Trine franchise. The puzzles are exceptional and the game is consistently jaw dropping in terms of visuals. It’s not quite up to the near perfection of Trine 2 but it’s a substantial and enjoyable adventure and shows that there is still life in both the franchise and the 2.5D format if Frozenbyte decide to keep the game going in this direction.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening Review (Switch)

Released on the Game Boy two years after the Super Nintendo masterpiece that was ‘A Link to the past’, ‘Link's Awakening’ was the first time our intrepid hero had dared to cross onto the handheld games scene. With the Game Boy not being able to able to handle anything the size of ‘A Link to Past’ Nintendo set Link in a whole new world, far away from Hyrule.

The story goes that while Link is sailing back to Hyrule from a far off land his ship encounters a huge storm. During the storm Link is thrown overboard, awakening on the beach of Koholint island. He soon learns he must find the eight instruments of the ‘Sirens’ in order to wake up the legendary ‘Wind Fish’ in order to return to his homeland. Well, it was obvious wasn’t it!

Surprisingly enough these eight instruments are located around the island in eight dungeons, all of which must be searched and explored to succeed in your task. Then once the eight instruments have been collected they must be played in front of a big spotted egg on a hill where the ‘Wind Fish’ resides in order to wake it. The dungeon featured in the Gameboy Colour version of the game is also included for completeness and there is also a dungeon designer included for added longevity. The designer allows any rooms visited from the various dungeons to be collected and used to create custom maps. It’s a nice idea and a welcome addition.

Graphically the game has changed a lot from its routes. Now everything is bright and cartoony and the characters have an almost toy-like appearance. It’s something that we never really got used to when playing as it seems a bit out of place when looking back at the original design. A lot of the little touches and details seem to be glossed over with the new approach and as such it does lose some of the character that made the original such an impressive achievement. When you consider how good the Wind Waker remake was a keeping the original games style it’s a little surprising to see something so different in the transition from Gameboy to Switch.

Like all Zelda games though the gameplay is where the game really shines. As always the dungeons are excellently laid out needing clever thinking and good swordsmanship to complete. Also two things have been added since ‘A Link to the Past’, the ‘Roc’s feather’ and a new way of using the shield in order to block attacks. This shows that while the game couldn’t hope to match the scale of its Super Nintendo counterpart there is still some progression and development in terms of gameplay.

If there was one problem apparent with the original it’s the difficulty of the game. This has been toned down dramatically in the remake. Save points are more generous and the fact many items are now assigned to specific buttons makes enemies at lot more straight forward to deal with. Some puzzles remain truly bizarre but at least there are helpful hints on hand in terms of phone rooms spread around the map. As a result the game becomes a much faster paced and breezy affair.

However, there are a few issues we can’t ignore. The game often drops its frame rate when the screen gets busy which is simply bizarre. We’re all for mimicking older systems but slowdown is really something we can do without and hopefully it’ll be patched out in the future. The focus effect on Link is also odd. Link moves as if under a magnifying class with the areas on the periphery of the screen blurry. This seems to us like a way to mimic the idea of having to move between screens (like with the original game), but it can be really annoying when you are trying to see what’s ahead of you. Also, not having an on screen map that’s easily accessible is an oversight.

When all is said and done though it’s clear to see ‘Link's Awakening’ can still stand up as an quest worth undertaking. There are some obscure puzzles but on the whole it’s an excellent and consistent adventure that makes clever use of a limited number of ‘screens’. It’s also a little bit of a shame that the Gameboy and Colour version of the game weren’t included to give a ‘complete’ feel to the package. That said, the dungeon design is strong throughout and it serves as a great introduction to new players, a nostalgia trip for long term fans and an example of how remakes can be done in creative ways to fit new systems.

Overall 8/10

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Trine 3: The Artifacts of Power Review (Switch)

It’s no secret that we are big fans of the Trine series at Retro 101. We’ve covered both the original games across numerous formats and rated them very highly. Indeed, there’s just something about them that fills the Lost Vikings sized hole in our lives. Frozenbyte promised to try something different with Trine 3 and now the 3D experiment has made its way to the Switch.

As always with the series, Trine 3 looks jaw-dropingly gorgeous. The environments leap into life with colour and flourishes of detail that you just don’t find in many games. If you have the ability to play the game in 3D then things get even more beautiful as well. It’s simply stunning how good this looks and playing anything else afterwards is a real comedown in the visual department.

The big change is that now the game is in 3D. You can run into and out of the screen and the levels now scroll into the play field as well as left and right. This allows for some nice sections with the three heroes floating and swinging along but also brings with it some changes that not everyone will be happy with.

The main issue is that levels feel less focused than in the previous 2D outings. Puzzle solving is less complex and there is more emphasis on general combat and platforming. Using the wizard has become a bit of a pain as well as moving his objects around in the 3D landscape never really feels as natural as it should. There’s also an issue with depth and it can be hard to tell if you are going to land where you think you are. It’s kind of like an N64 platformer with the most beautiful graphics ever.

The characters have now lost the ability to upgrade their skills as well (though they are given selected skills to start). The Knight can stomp, charge, deflect and float with his shield while the thief can now tie her grappling hooks to things to hold them in place. The wizard is more limited with his abilities and now restricted to the summoning of a single box.

The new approach to skills is made use of well though and you will need everything to progress. The fact the heroes start with their skills also allows the game to throw things at you right from the off and get you thinking. It’s good the game does throw you in quickly because it is somewhat shorter than other games in the series. Starting out with a level to introduce each character you then get five main levels to fight through. Upon completion you are faced with a cliff hanger ending which hints at more to come. What form that will take will remain to be seen.

There are a host of shorter levels to unlock as well which focus on an individual character and as such effectively give you one life to complete them. These are tougher and designed to fit skill sets of the respective characters. Though brief they are fun to play and never out stay their welcome.

Both main story and side levels are unlocked by collecting glowing triangles. We don’t really like things like this as it can work as an artificial game lengthening device that forces players to go back to levels and hunt around for the missing twenty or thirty they need to progress. We didn’t have much trouble with getting the requisite amounts but it’s something we’d like to see removed in any future games.

Overall, while there has been a lot of a change in mechanics and progression the game never stops being fun. It’s certainly a more knock-about kind of fun than before but it remains humorous and throws up enough adventure to keep you interested until the end. When the 3D works in the games favour you can see exactly what the team were going for and there are some solid foundations here for future forays into it. It may not be up there with the near perfection of the 2D games but it has bucket load of potential if the team ever decide to revisit the idea.

Overall 7/10