Sunday 31 July 2016

Phantom Brave PC Review

While Disgaea has gone from strength to strength in terms of releases, Phantom Brave has remained fairly dormant aside from a PSP and Japanese only Wii release since it first arrived on the PS2 back in 2004. With Nippon Ichi looking to test its franchises in the PC market the game has been given another lease of life and if anything it’s even more complex and hardcore than Disgaea. 

It follows the story of a 13 year old girl named Marona who is protected by a phantom named Ash after losing both her parents to an evil spirit some years before. Marona is a young Chroma – a sort of sword for hire, and your initial goal is for her to earn enough money to buy the island she lives on. 

The humour and art style is very much in keeping with other Nippon Ichi games though it is perhaps a little less full on than when Etna appears in Disgaea. This is a PS2 game at heart and there is little chance of disguising that. There is a blurring filter and the menus now look lovely and HD but you are still going to be stretching and scaling the picture with effects to fit modern displays rather than the game being rebuilt from the ground up. Level textures look decidedly muddy, Sprites are pixelated and it is hardly a graphical tour de force. 

The interface is also clunky. If you’re not using a controller there is a quite counter initiative mouse and keyboard system in place. You may be able to move characters with the mouse but you can’t for instance then use a scroll wheel to cycle through options. It took a while to get used to. Save yourself the hassle and just use a controller.

Clunkyiness aside there is a really good game here and the depth of the thing begins to come to light quite early on. It shares a fair bit with Disgaea in terms of it being a turn based RPG and in terms of classes and skills levelling but there are key differences that the game is built around. The most obvious is the fact that you no longer have the grid system and instead everything is done with range circles. This really took us some time to get used to and to be honest it seems an odd design decision that doesn’t really add anything. 

A more significant and important difference is the summoning system which is the games whole ‘thing’. Instead of lining up characters to take into battle your game will revolve around Marona summoning phantoms to aid her. Marona confines phantoms to objects which then come to life for a set period of time. For instance, if you want a tough fighter then confine them to a rock to give them strength and defence bonuses. Mages are best confined to plants as that boosts their magic ability. The options are long, complex and incredibly deep. The catch is that after a set number of turns the phantom will turn back into the original object and not be summonable again. This means that if you aren’t careful you won’t be strong enough to down the enemies and complete the level.

The range of classes you can summon is huge and then you can give them all sorts of weapons and objects as well. You can also give phantoms bonuses by confining them to objects which are receiving environmental bonuses. There’s the whole being able to pick up and throw things off the map as well but we suspect your head is already spinning enough.

Overall, Phantom Brave is showing a bit of age in its presentation and its mechanics in terms of controls are a little clunky. That aside this has got to be one of the deepest and most rewarding games out there. It’s a massive level grinding dream which is easy enough to get into but will take hundreds of hours to master. There is also a stupid amount of secrets in here and if you had this and Disgaea PC you’ll probably not have time to play anything else in your lifetime (You get all the PSP and Wii content as well so get ready for the long haul). Even if a lifetime of grinding doesn’t sound like you it’s well worth giving this a try as it remains unique and how many games can say that?

Overall 9/10

Thursday 28 July 2016

Lumo Review (PS4)

Written by Bradley Marsh

Back in my early days, I had a ZX Spectrum, both the 48k rubber key and 128k at different times. I loved those machines, I had great times with them. One game that stuck in the old memory banks was Head Over Heels.

This was a game that had an isometric view and was split across different rooms, which you had to solve to progress, using a lot of logical thinking. It also didn’t hold your hand much, leaving you to work it out yourself, which in fairness, I remember a lot of games doing back then.

It is a game that I have always wanted to see make a comeback, but over the 29 years since its original release I have yet to see anything, bar being able to play it on emulators.

I want to go back a few months though, when I saw Lumo for the very first time. I watched the footage and immediately my memory was taken back to Head Over Heels and whilst there is one fundamental difference I could see a Head Over Heels for a new generation.

Lumo looks in every way to be a re-imagining of that wonderful game, using the isometric single room puzzle style and basically dumping you in the world and leaving you to your own devices.

Nostalgia made me interested in Lumo, yet everything about the game itself kept me involved.

You start the game in an empty room with nothing but a door, no instructions, no tutorial and no guide. The game just asks you to start exploring, it doesn’t use any kind of narrator to fill you in on backstory, nor does it give you any clear indication as to what you are expected to do to progress.

So there I go, heading towards this door into discovery, wandering around the map, room by room, blindly, working out what I am to do and what is to come next. There are a few indicators that make it clear I will need to seek some kind of upgrade to reach new areas, but no real indication as to what these are or where to find them.

This isn’t a Dark Souls style learn as you go, where you will die many, many times and adapt, this is a slow meticulous game, where you stop and take stock of the situation. You look over a room and work out the best approach to get through.

I clearly cannot get to this part, as I cannot jump high enough, but this box over there doesn’t seem to fit with layouts I have seen in previous rooms. What happens if I approach it? Oh it moves! I can move it to here and use it to reach this higher area.

It is a simple logic, but knowing you have worked that out for yourself is very satisfying, you then build on that discovery to move forward even further. Eventually guiding you to a new powerup that allows you to reach previously inaccessible areas.

There isn’t a map for you to follow either, you need to remember where you have been and plot it yourself, until such a point you find a room that has a map in it. Which is great, but by then you have already covered a lot of the area already, this should be annoying, but it serves as a really nice reward for your exploration.

Whilst most of the rooms you encounter are pure logic based, there are some that require timing, such as using moving platforms to navigate to the right part of the room to find the exit. The one part that for me at least doesn’t sit well are rooms with giant boulders that you must jump on and move by walking on them.

There is on specific room fairly early on, where you must move across the room on the boulder, but only on a very thin ledge, before jumping from the boulder to a platform and then to safety. This would be fine, but the isometric viewpoint and the controls make this very fiddly, to the point where it just doesn’t feel like it belongs with the spirit of the game.

I won’t lie, I very nearly gave up at this specific room, because it went from simply using logic and exploration to solve, to something very different indeed and unfairly so.

Thankfully this kind of thing is very few and far between, seeing the rest of the game sticking to the formula that makes it as satisfying as it is. For me this is the only real blip on an otherwise flawless game.

The game itself looks stunning too, with some amazing lighting effects that really show off the game’s beautifully crafted world. That is mixed with a score that whilst not in your face, does a wonderful job of drawing you in and immersing you.

The main game may well be about making your way through this amazing world and you are fine to do just that. However, there are also a ton of collectables dotted around. Some are easy to spot, such as the rubber ducks, though they may not always be easy to get. But others are cleverly hidden away for you to discover.

This again shows how well thought out every inch of Lumo is. Shelves, for example aren’t just there for decoration, if you can reach it, then it may well be the window to a hidden room. There are tons of tiny visual clues that highlight where you may be able to reach, but they aren’t signposted, you really do need to take in the environment and remember what you have already learned.

It is the game’s ability to grow with you that keeps it feeling fresh from start to the very end. Yet it doesn’t do this in clear moments, it does it in a subtle way that feels organic and it works wonderfully.

Had it not been for one or two puzzle elements that felt out of place, this would be getting a perfect score. But don’t let that stop you from picking up and enjoying one of the best and freshest indie titles in quite some time.