Nov 27
Posted by Ben at 17:43

I seem to be starting an increasing number of reviews with something along the lines of ďX is difficult to reviewĒ, usually because the game in question is free, short , or is one of those fabled Ďwalking simulatorsí, but Cherry Tree High: I! My! Girls! is an odd one to review. A visual novel, no gameplay, and the sequel to a game/Novel I havenít played/read.

Cherry Tree High is a high school in a small Japanese town with one thing remarkable about it, it's the hometown of the Grinmeisters, a comedy pair famous across all of Japan. In the first novel Mairu, a young comedy nerd set about starting a comedy club at the school to help realise her dream of following in the Grinmeisters' footsteps. She met resistance, which continues in I! My! Girls!

The story is really about Mairu's friends, how they interact and what's going on in their lives. Each chapter tells it's own story, even if it all serves the greater end of progress for the Comedy Club. The key story this time is the arrival of Ai, a famous pop idol who attends the school in secret so that she can join the comedy club.

The characters are all fairly well defined, to a point at least. I'm not sure the story needs as many characters as it has, they all have their own personalities but you spend so little time with most of them I wonder if they aren't just hang overs from the first visual novel. I guess the only important question is how good the writing is in I! My! Girls!, and if it's any measure I did laugh a couple of times. I don't think any of those laughs came from lines though, more reactions, still a laugh is a laugh. Conversely I can't think of too many moments I winced or cringed, there aren't any characters who are hatefully bad, although I also couldn't pick a favourite either.

The most obvious complaint is probably that there's no gameplay, but it's a visual novel, you watch simple 2d characters move about whilst reading text, that's what the game is and I'm not going to criticise I! My! Girls! for being what it set out to be. In fact I found the experience quite refreshing. That's not to say there's no problems, the music can get maddening, and the graphics options are limited to a small window or forcing full screen (alt enter) which messes with the resolution of everything behind it, a problem for anyone running a 2 monitor set up

My major complaint is how the story ends, in that it just sort of does. There's some character development resolution but nothing is really solved. The only real build up is to Mairu becoming a success but we never see that far, in fact the Comedy Club donít even command the focus for the final chapter. Itís a shame, because thereís clearly more there to explore, more time could have been spent with the characters, itís not like I! My! GIrls! suffers from being too long. Still though, it is fairly cheap, and I suspect fans of Visual Novels know what theyíre getting in to

I don't know, if you liked Cherry Tree High then stick a 10 at the end of this review, but Iím not sure I can actually recommend it. Iíve no idea if this is a good example of the genre, I just know that I neither hated it or loved I! My! Girls!. Itís got a good name though, and I wanted to like it, itís certainly not the worst thing Iíve ever played through
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Nov 25
Posted by Duane at 05:11

We're quite big fans of difficult games around these parts, I love the Dark Souls series as one example, whilst we also love something with a strategic element, see Ben's recent coverage of the PC release of Valkyria Chronicles, so NAtURAL DOCtRine (yes its spelt like that... I'm not entirely sure why all the T's are lower case) is definetly something that, on paper, sounds like it should be right up the street of the occupants of Bitparade towers, and it pretty much is.

As hinted at then, NAtURAL DOCtRINE sits within the SRPG genre, alongside titles such as Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea and Jeanne D'Arc, thats a tip top list of top quality games that all do something very similar but with a slight spin to make them stand out. Kodakawa Games seem to have looked at the opposition and decided to take a different turn and it makes for something a little interesting, even if they haven't been quite as succesful at intergrating their own system as they maybe could have been.

You see whilst other SRPG's focus on individual attacks (aside from Disgaea which encourages group attacks), NATuRAL DOCtRINE pushes you towards trying to link attacks together, so whilst the game is turn-based, the order can be switched around and the strength of your attacks improved by placing your party members in the correct places in order to link attacks together and defeat the enemy. So, as you give out your orders, different coloured lines appear all over the screen linking your party members to each other and showing their own potential moves, to a third party it looks incredibly confusing and to the person playing its not a whole lot clearer until you've had a hell of alot of practice and figured things out for yourself, mostly because the games tutorials tend to be a bit of an info dump which makes them difficult to follow.

To genre veterans it will come as no surprise to hear that NAtURAL DOCtRINE is incredibly stat heavy, which combined with the aforementioned battle mechanics, makes the entire game feel overwhelming. It also feels rather contradictory as the battle system should really lend itself well to applying your own style and tactics in order to succeed, as should the games levelling up element where you can add points you earn to any particular satistic or action on a character or take them away and truly customise your party around how you'd like to approach a battle. Unfortunately whilst all these systems are in place, you often feel like the game is trying to force you along one particular route, Kodakawa Games seem to have tried to allow the player to have their own unique experience and playing style when building the games tools but then thrown those plans out of the window when they've begun developing the scenario's that you are asked to play through.

This is a huge shame as those systems and tools really do feel refreshing and interesting, the plots nothing to really write home about which also lets the game down somewhat, but its that element of being forced down a narrow path that ultimately dissappoints sa you never really feel like you're applying strategy during each skirmish, instead you just feel like your checking off a list of actions to get to a certain point and are never really in proper control. However, this is a pretty damn good starting point and I really do hope that Kodakawa Games explore these systems and this genre further in the future as there's the groundwork to offer something really rather different.
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Posted by Ben at 02:00
Very few details as of yet, with only speculation about the platform, but Atlus have revealed Etrian Odyssey V is on the way.

So far all we've got is a trailer with no in-game graphics, just concept art, talking and music, but that's no reason not to get excited

Show/hide video

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Nov 24
Posted by Duane at 07:27

So another month and, seemingly, what feels like another Compile Heart RPG has been released on a PlayStation format. Thankfully they've all had something about them to enjoy even if they haven't been ground breaking entries to the genre and all pander to the standard tropes and stereotypes that one associates with the genre. Fairy Fencer F is really no different in either of those elements.

So stop me if you've heard all of this before, Fairy Fencer F focuses on an old tale of a battle between two gods, cunningly named "The Goddess" and "Vile God", who have managed to Tie their bout like two equal opponents may do in a Street Fighter match-up, these two enetites become bound up in magical swords (here they're called Furies, which I originally misread as "Furries") that also contain beings, which happen to be the titular Fairies. The swords then become scattered across the lands and anyone who locates and wields a Fury is then able to conjure the Fairy from within the Fury, with the Fairy then taking on a similar role to the Genie of the Lamp by offering to grant the wielder a wish if they manage to release whichever deity the Fairy is alligned to.

So, ancient battle, gods within weapons, other beings within weapons, a protagonist who isn't really that interested in the quest initially but gradualy wants to achieve the ultimate goal all tied into fairly typical JRPG/anime/manga visuals. Fairy Fencer F really does go out of its way to tick all of the boxes in a rather uninspired manner. Admittedly, its a little unfair to just point the finger at Fairy Fencer F for all of the above, but it has begun to feel like Compile Heart have been working from a checklist for their past few releases.

Thankfully then, the battle system on offer here isn't all bad. Again its not likely to make any massive changes within the genre. A large part of the system at play here is in the positioning of your party members. Each character can move within a specific radius before unleashing their attack, as actions are performers a bar is filled, once it is filled you become more powerful and can unleash more devastating actions. Its an entertaining little system which, thankfully , makes the battle sequences the most enjoyable part of Fairy Fencer F. Unfortunately, as is the case with alot of these (sort of) middle budget JRPG's the interactions between characters goes on for far too long and is written and performed in a barely entertaining manner.

So, if you really must have another JRPG in your collection and have exhausted most other options, then pick up Fairy Fencer F. Its not really that it doesn anything particularly wrong, its just that its doing absolutely nothing thats new.
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Nov 23
Posted by Ben at 16:30

Some background on Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), itís a game made with members of the Inupiat people, native Alaskans, who contributed to the story and art of the game. The aim isnít to just make a token nod to the culture, using it to mark the game out from all the other indie games out there, itís woven in to the fabric of the game. Or at least is thatís the intention

On the surface Never Aloneís story is a familiar child and animal friend story, but the backing to it does feel like a tribal folk story, with lessons, nature and culture being sewn in. It feels traditional and meaningful, unusual and of its culture. The original language narration helps set the tone, and manages not to feel too try-hard. A very nice touch are the interviews and videos with the native-Alaskans, available in surprisingly high quality, at least on pc, which are both informative and interesting. Theyíre worth watching, although perhaps not breaking in to the gameplay for.

Itís all helped by how the game looks, both in game and in cutscenes. Thereís an in-engine cutscene early on that is so utterly charming you start to route for the game. The actual levels look suitably cold and stark, and commendably the level design is mixed up every 20 minutes or so, with a decent contrast between areas. The most interesting aspects of the art for me are when the tribal art is brought in to the game. The cutscenes bring character, grounding the story, but I wish this traditional art was used more in-game than it is. Thereís a section in the first hour where the abstract-folk art is represented by some fish swimming in the foreground, itís a cool moment, something that the game really should have done more of.

So thereís a lot to like about Never Alone, however itís not the game it initially seems like itís going to be. Some of these criticisms may get a bit esoteric but here goes. My biggest complaint with Never Alone isn't the controls, it isn't the save wiping bug, it's a lack of identity. It should have a very clear identity, it's the only game I've ever encountered that's been made with Native Alaskans, and while it does pull from that culture it doesn't take it as far as it should. You spend too much time plodding through simple platforming, moving to the right and being chased by a larger foe. Put simply it feels like this year's edition of "that" indie game

Things do improve, you end up having to quickly switch characters to progress, using their attributes to traverse the environment. It's at this point that the tribal art becomes more prevalent, acting as platforms. It's a shame the art isn't used in more incidental areas too, but it's nice that it becomes a key feature. The final sections become more involved, the sedate platforming and simple puzzles kick on, you start having to think, move quickly, it becomes something resembling a challenge.

It's a shame then that the controls start to become an issue. Early on I had a few issues with the fox, correcting his position on platforms was twitchier than I'd like, but not something I'd mention in a review. However towards the end of the game, when precise and responsive control becomes more necessary, it becomes a noteworthy problem. I also ran in to an issue where the game wasn't reading my save, meaning that every time I turned the game off I'd lose all my progress. Since starting to write this review Never Alone has had a patch that has fixed this issue, so while it may have affected my game, it's a little harsh to knock the game for a problem it no longer has.

Thereís so much to like about Never Alone that I still recommend it, itís so charming and likeable early on, and the concept so commendable, and relatively well realised that Never Alone is still worth playing. I wish it would was a little more involved in the early stages, that there was a bit more of it and that the controls were more reliable, but when it hits the mark Never Alone is easy to fall for
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Posted by Ben at 18:42
I never played the original Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, but I heard from people that did that it was a very likeable little thing, it certainly seemed to kick start a bit of interest in visual novels

Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls! is a visual novel, there's a trailer below, and it's priced at the not unreasonable £2.79

Nyu Media have also announced that the original Cherry Tree High Comedy Club has been updated to a 'dewesternised' version, with a Japanese setting, names and place names, which is a nice touch for fans of the original

Show/hide video

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Nov 21
Posted by Ben at 02:13

I finished Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) last night, so there will be a review in the next day or so. It's good, and the use of the Native Alaskan stories and art is great, it brings some character and identityto the game.

There's a bit of a spoiler warning for the video below, while it's fairly early in the game, it does kind of show the solution to the first boss fight. I give a warning, but just stop before the end if you don't want to see it

Show/hide video

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Posted by Ben at 01:59
We took a look at 0rbitalis a few months back, it's a gravity puzzler, not unlike Osmos, and from what I played it's not too bad at all.

The game is still in early access and was updated last night with a host of new features, including a 'Daily Challenge' mode

As well as a few more details, the developer posted on the Steam page

I've been talking about this feature for a long time: I'm very happy it has been included and I really need your help to make it better. When a level is procedurally generated, there is always a chance it won't be very ...desirable. With a gravity-based game like 0RBITALIS, avoiding this is a very challenging task. For this reason, the current update includes only four different types of systems which can be generated. I'll collect your feedbacks during these weeks and tweak them accordingly. When happy, more type of systems will be available. I'd love to use this feature to generate bizarre, crazy levels like Tesla or Soundself...

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Nov 17
Posted by Duane at 07:11

Very few games could be considered as something of a cultural institution. Admitedly, some franchises are absolutely huge, Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty for example, but very few are so engrained within an element of a nations population that they can spark intense discussion over various intricacies. Football Manager, however, is one of those titles. I'd imagine if you got into a discussion with any male from the age of about 14 to 35 they'd have a tale to tell that involved Football Manager, even those who aren't football fans will probably tell you the story of a friend who sacrificed their social life, or indeed almost sacrificed their real world career, to the so-callled "interactive spreadsheet".

Why is this? It's hard to deny the fact that football is the nations number one sport, and whilst FIFA sells in ridiculous amounts its never felt quite as attatched to our own personal development quite like Football Manager. Nor does there ever seem to be that emotional attachment that Sports Interactive's behemoth evokes in people where their eyes gloss over and they tell you about the time they scouted some young Bolivian kid who went on to lead them to repeated glory as they climbed up the leagues and became the "Champions of Europe" (although that doesn't seem to relate to any of my own personal games where I seem to be a bit of a Ian Holloway/Neil Warnock character...). And now its that time of year again where SEGA and Sports Interactive release their latest version with the latest squads, leagues and stats. Has anything major been changed? Well, not really, but then one could argue that "if its not broken, you don't fix it".

From this point onwards I will point out that I've been playing my FM15 career on the "Full" career mode rather than the more streamlined "Classic" mode that Sports Interactive introduced a few years back. I'd love to have covered both, but to be frank I only have enough time to sink into one career and just felt like absorbing as much as I possibly could.

As usual, every aspect of trying to make the club succesful is placed under your control, from training regimes, hiring and firing of staff and players, to squad formations and tactics. You can deligate as much as you want to too, with the coaching staff giving you regular updates on who they think should be sold, how training a player in a particular way will benefit you or even what formation they feel will work with the players you have at your disposal. This you can take on board and apply, test the waters and tweak where you think its needed, or you can ignore entirely, again, its all upto you especially as its your neck on the line if it all goes tits up.

The long and short of this years instalment is that, once again, Sports Interactive have put alot of effort into the more visibly interactive elements of the game, there are more options when talking to players, talking about opponents or interacting with the media. However the game engine still feels like its a few years too old, couple this with a 3D Match Engine that doesn't really show how everything is playing quite as accurately as it maybe should be doing and the entire experience feels a little disjointed unless you switch to Text Only matches, which kind of defies the whole point of the 3D match engine being there in the first place.

However, this is Football Manager, it does exactly what it says on the tin, its as ridiculously addictive as ever and a few issues aside, its pretty much at the same standard its been for the past few years. Purchase at your peril, especially you students!
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Nov 17
Posted by Ben at 04:43

Valkyria Chronicles is a game far more people will have heard of than ever seen running. Itís the obscure SRPG from the early days of the PS3, a game thatís gushed over by the small number of people that played it. It deserved the praise too, thereís certainly few games that play quite like it.

For the uninitiated, Valkyria Chronicles is a 3D strategy rpg, not a million miles from the likes of XCOM. You have a set number of turns per phase, and including certain members in your party will get you more, with each character having a certain amount of movement available to them. What this means is you can you could pull someone from cover to get them a better shot at the enemy but need to make sure you leave them with enough movement to get back behind cover, otherwise theyíll be left out in the open. You donít have to move every character, in fact depending how you spend your turns you might not have enough of them to move everyone anyway, and you can instead move a character more than once per phase, although each time you move them their available movement is diminished.

Elsewhere Valkyria Chronicles echoes the likes of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. You can spend a turn on an Ďorderí, a stat boost given to a specific character or the team, that may increase defence, accuracy, attack power, evasion etc. Depending on the distance between you and your target, and what type of unit they are (snipers and launchers only act on their turn) when you take a shot at an enemy, they get a go back, meaning risky attacks, particularly if youíre out of cover, can cost you big.

Thereís no escaping that the graphics were one of the talking points surrounding Valkyria Chronicles when it first released, and itís no different here. I was actually surprised how well the water colour style holds up, thereís more detail there than I remembered. It also scales really well on PC, the port is better than just sticking a 720p 30fps game on the pc, it runs well, matching the refresh rate of your monitor, and at the very least hitting 1080p without any sort of modding

While Valkyria Chronicleís graphics might be the show stopper, its story is deserving of credit. Within the first few minutes innocents are gunned down in the street, shot in the back. Not long after than analogues with the treatment of the Jews during WWII start to creep in, and by the half-way point itís right on the nose. Itís hardly the first anime-themed media to take war seriously, Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies are heart-breaking, and the excellent ĎNow and Then, Here and Thereí is a fairly stark series about child soldiers. Valkyria Chronicles never gets that heavy, but itís commendable that the more fantasy elements of the story arenít always front and centre

One of the striking things about Valkyria Chronicles is how open a lot of the missions are, often in strategy rpgs if a battle is themed then thereís very much a right way to do approach it. Valkyria Chronicles has that too, particularly early on, but mostly your squad build, unit placement, and approach to the mission are all open to interpretation. It means you can be quite open with the systems, for example, you donít have to spread your moves throughout your entire team, if unloading with your snipers or launchers is the best solution to a problem then do it. Itís a lesson you have to learn, and one that the better players, those that will get the high ranks have had drilled in to them.

However thereís a downside to the openness of the maps. Take for example a map midway through the game, you need to take out a tank without using explosive weapons. The map is a huge criss-cross of city streets, and youíre advised to use your tank to block some of the streets. However, thereís so many routes through the map, with the enemy bringing in new units after a few turns, that the openness becomes a source of frustration. The ability to quickly restart missions would be a huge plus. It can be very apparent very early that youíve messed up a mission, and I took to exiting the game through task manager rather than wait for my key characters to get killed to restart, itís a shame the port didnít add a way around this

I had an issue where the game would start to run at half-speed, not dropping frames, in fact itís more a case of the opposite happening. It seems Iím not the only one to experience this, it may be a v-sync issue, and it seems to be more prevalent if I had a video open on my desktop. Alt-tabbing out and back in to the game seemed to fix the problem, and itís anomalous to what is otherwise a well done port. The only other issues I can think of are with the mouse controls, the game doesnít quite make full use of them in menus and the like, and the mouse can be a sluggish on its default settings, but you can fix that in the options, and I wouldnít be surprised if a patch solved it completely.

Valkyria Chronicles was a superb game back when it was first released, and time has done very little to diminish that. Itís still a unique experience, managing to move the likes of Advance Wars and Fire Emblem in to 3D. While chance and character stats all play a part in combat, that things, including bullets and shells, take up a physical place in the world adds to the strategy, making cover and movement hugely important. The story is intriguing, managing to strike a balance between the grounding of real war and anime fantasy. Despite its age Valkyria Chronicles is more than worth your time, and really itís hard to think of a contemporary parallel on PC or any other platform.
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