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Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom Review - An Adventure Fit For A King

Game Spot Reviews - 9 hours 43 min ago

Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is ambitious. It's a character-driven RPG that doubles as a kingdom simulator and even occasionally becomes a real-time strategy game. Though these components don't always feel like parts of the same whole, Ni No Kuni 2 compels you to care and put your best foot forward. It's the whimsical setting; it's the demanding combat; it's the tangible feeling of growth that comes from being a well-rounded ruler. There's something worthwhile around every corner, and usually something pretty to admire along the way.

You can concisely summarize Ni No Kuni 2 as the wholesome story of Evan, a boy prince ousted by traitors on the day of his coronation who wishes to unite warring nations under a banner of peace. Rather than resort to revenge, he admirably believes that cooperation is a more important goal than domination and sets out to build a new, united kingdom. Evan's charge and passion for peace subsequently carries him from one dangerous doorstep to another. Armed with steadfast ideals, he repeatedly dismantles sinister adversaries because they, too, are actually good at heart; they've merely been corrupted by powerful, dark forces.

It's familiar fantasy fare and a bit safe at times, but Ni No Kuni 2 bears no shortage of interesting moments. For example, Evan's adult consul Roland is a dimension-tripping president from the modern day, cast into a strange time and place in the aftermath of a catastrophic military assault. While this intriguing origin story is rarely referenced after the fact, the kingdoms he and Evan visit offer up interesting qualities of their own. There's Goldpaw, a society that worships lady luck. Her divine power is channeled through a giant multi-armed statue that rolls a six-sided die to decide everything from criminal prosecution to raising or lowering taxes. You'll also have to navigate a kingdom where love in all forms is considered a criminal offense, and every interaction is monitored by an enormous, all-seeing eye. Ni No Kuni 2 dedicates itself to exploring these unusual societies, elevating the otherwise standard RPG tale to something far more interesting that you'd initially expect.

To do this, however, the game is forced to concede that even a king as peaceful as Evan will have to bear arms. And despite his small stature and cuddly kitten ears, Evan is a lion when backed into a corner. Considering his impassioned pleas for a world without war, the game's simple and infrequent RTS skirmishes--large scale, rock-paper-scissor battles that require basic resource management--feel notably contradictory, but standard battles are so flashy and exciting that you'll never think twice about the peace-loving king being in constant battle.

Ni No Kuni 2's traditional combat takes place entirely in real time apart from pausing to consume items, and despite the game's childish airs, fights are surprisingly demanding. Your party consists of three allies and four Higgledies--collectable miniature, goofy familiars that randomly offer buffs and attacks during battle. You only control a single person at a time, but that alone gives you three melee weapons to manage, a ranged weapon, magic skills to consider, and interlinked meters to monitor, on top of defensive concerns. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times in order to block or dodge incoming attacks--a far cry from the first Ni No Kuni's turn-based battles. Needless to say it can take a few hours to grow comfortable managing all of these systems at once, but you're rarely put at a disadvantage. Your AI-controlled allies are good at self-preservation and dishing out damage, and your Higgledy friends regularly offer up a burst of healing magic or a powerful attack to keep things moving.

Ni No Kuni 2 also does a great job of simplifying things around combat to let you focus on the action at hand. While you can use gear to influence an individual character's strengths and weaknesses, you also earn a secondary type of experience that gets funneled into the Tactics Tweaker, a tool that lets you adjust team-wide attributes and how the game rewards your victories. You have plenty of opportunities to take on quests under-leveled, and being able to slightly dial up your effectiveness against a particular element or enemy type is a valuable means of punching above your weight. When pushing yourself against an enemy 10 to 20 levels higher than you, eking out a victory through clever preparation and a masterful performance can feel downright incredible. The game also smartly limits your inventory during battle, which means you can't rely on spamming restorative items. Only skill (or a leveled-up party) can carry you through a fight.

Given that you can find ways to overcome seemingly impossible odds, you can actually get by without intentionally grinding for experience points. To that end, the game is also designed to keep you from dulling your enthusiasm in unnecessary battles while moving about the world. Enemies appear in plain sight before an encounter with a level marker overhead, and a color denoting their threat level helps you easily discern their relative strength. Red and white labelled enemies will attack you on sight, but low-level enemies will simply ignore you unless you run into them first. Knowing you can bypass trivial fights makes the prospect of exploring the world for elusive treasure and difficult "tainted" enemies more enticing as the story carries on, and ensures that you're only focused on things worthy of your attention.

It's easy to imagine how Ni No Kuni 2 could get by on its quirky characters, engaging story, and real-time combat alone, but Evan isn't just trying to unite other nations; he's got a kingdom of his own to build. From a humble castle nestled between mountains and shore, your parcel of land will grow to contain dozens of buildings and facilities. You'll likely have smiths who craft weapons and armor, farmers that harvest meat, dairy, and produce, and institutions that develop techniques for being a more efficient ruler and a more effective fighter. If resource management and cooldown timers aren't your idea of fun, the good news is that there are only a few instances when the game forces you to reach certain architectural and population thresholds. And while not the most complex management sim out there, anyone who wants to push the limits of their kingdom can easily pour a dozen hours into forging new developments and reaping greater financial and practical rewards.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a robust game that offers ample ways to spend your time, and even if they aren't all up to the same level of quality, it's easy to appreciate how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture.

Everything in your kingdom takes money to fund and time to develop, but more than just investing in these services, you need to staff them with citizens from across the world. This means tackling a lot of sidequests, acquired either by mingling with the populace or by completing tasks for the taskmaster. By and large, sidequests are either a fetch quest or a kill-x-number-of-enemy bounty. These are common fare for RPGs, but nevertheless frustrating to see relied upon so heavily here. On the other hand, Ni No Kuni 2's humorous writing and endearing NPCs shine through, lending something worthwhile to even the most common interactions. They aren't all winners, to be certain, but the distinct accents and colloquialisms spread throughout the world play nicely into the visual variety on display.

In fact, many of the people you meet in passing are actually far more interesting than the four human characters that ultimately join Evan and Roland on the road: a sky-pirate father and his daughter, the former advisor to a queen, and an engineer from the one technologically advanced kingdom on the map. For whatever reason, very little time is spent developing their stories after they join your cause, but even if they offer little more than one-liners during most important events, they are at least invaluable allies in battle that introduce a wide range of skills.

Then there's the small creature Lofty, who while not a deep character, is the game's comic relief and an endless source of amusement. With yellow skin, a pointy head, and a red torso, he's what you might imagine Lisa Simpson looks like if someone described her but forgot to mention she's human. In almost every scene, be it serious or inconsequential, he often lingers just off-center with a dim-witted stare, mouth agape in blind amusement. And when he speaks, he cuts through scenes with wry wit, and even regularly calls out the team for repeatedly taking on errands and doing strangers favors. He is a massive benefit to the overall experience, even within battle. He primarily wanders aimlessly during a fight, but on rare occasions offers a ball of light that causes a character to enter a temporary state where magic can be used freely. Ni No Kuni 2 wouldn't feel the same without him.

Despite the fact that famed Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli isn't directly involved this time around, veteran artists from the studio have injected the sights and sounds of Ni No Kuni 2 with distinctly recognizable whimsy, of which Lofty is but one example. You see it in the characters and environments at large, and you hear it in the soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi, a veteran of numerous Ghibli films and the original Ni No Kuni. The feeling is often upheld by a clean and colorful cartoon aesthetic, but there are also plenty of times when Ni No Kuni 2 shifts into a different and far-less appealing style.

When exploring the world map, managing your kingdom, and diving into RTS skirmishes, the camera pulls back and everything is given a rough-hewn, super-deformed appearance. Though you can bend over backwards and call it a potentially necessary evil, that doesn't excuse the sinking feeling that there must have been a better way, one that doesn't require the game to hide its lovely, cel-shaded face. Near the end of your journey, this shift rears its head during a battle that's intended to feel epic and intimidating, but is ultimately deflated by the simple presentation and impersonal perspective; one last reminder that Ni No Kuni 2, despite its outstanding qualities, bears obvious flaws.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a robust game that offers ample ways to spend your time, and even if they aren't all up to the same level of quality, it's easy to appreciate how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture. It's chock full of excellent battles and surprising moments that make for a far more memorable experience than you initially expect and leaves you impressed by your own accomplishments. If you didn't play the first game, don't let this one pass you by too.

Attack on Titan 2 Review: Colossal Action

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 03/16/2018 - 23:31

Far from being a mere video game adaptation of the anime, Attack on Titan 2 stands strongly as a character-driven action-RPG in its own right, with rewarding combat that feels fluid and fast and a story that's equal parts charming and shocking. While it shares many similarities with the first game in the series, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, the sequel feels like a better package overall with a cleaner visual style and tighter combat. Despite its story taking some time to really dig its anchors in, it gets there and then some, entrancing you all the way until the closing of the final chapter.

Based on the second season of the popular anime series, the story puts you at the center of the conflict between humanity and Titans--a race of giant, people-eating humanoids that one day appeared out of thin air, wiping out a large percentage of the population. Forced to seek a new life behind three huge walls built to keep the Titans out, humanity tried to rebuild, but the Titans managed to find a way through. Faced with extinction, it's up to you and the rest of the military to stop them.

After creating a character--who, if you choose a woman, will still be weirdly referred to as "our man" by the game's narrator--the game opens with you joining the military cadets and becoming a part of the 104th Cadet Corps. The first few hours cover the same ground as Wings of Freedom, putting you through military training and effectively re-living the events of the first game, albeit in a more condensed setting. Also, each character is voiced in Japanese, so you'll rely on subtitles to keep on top of things.

The plot closely follows the anime, so fans are already familiar with what's going on. But it's a story that will pull you in, hard, though not without its fair share of melodrama. While much of the early game feels a little dragged down by some excessive exposition, you come to appreciate those sequences later on, particularly as characters you grow to like face death in shocking ways. Not that the game is overly violent--although the Bloodborne-esque spatter from killing a Titan is pretty messy--it's more that the characters grow on you over time. Watching them struggle through the Titan invasion becomes less of a drudge and more an emotional rollercoaster.

The game is made up of numerous large combat areas and some smaller, peaceful hubs where you can go about your daily life: upgrading weapons, buying materials, and maintaining friendships that grant you different equippable skills that can upgrade your stats. While not all that interesting visually, the hub areas serve as a good bookend between each battle, as well as a chance to debrief with the other characters about the last mission and your next moves.

The larger, more-open combat zones, which vary from green valleys and large towns to snowy, abandoned villages and giant forests, are far more interesting to move through. A big part of what makes the movement so vital and exciting is your omni-directional mobility gear, or ODM for short. The ODM gear fires anchors into a distant object like a house, a tree or even a Titan, and with the help of two side-loaded gas canisters, thrusts you along the ground and up into the air. It can get a little janky; sometimes you’ll catch the underside of a roof or hit a cliff face that’ll halt your momentum. But more often than not, gliding through buildings or between giant trees feels effortlessly satisfying.

Similarly great is the combat, which manages to feel faster and better paced than it did in Wings of Freedom. Titans can only be taken down by slicing out the nape of their necks. You have to fire your anchors into any one of five spots on a Titan you can lock onto, circle around it in mid-air, and then launch at it, swinging your blades wildly. It can feel a little clumsy at first, but within an hour I was dodging attacks in the air and flinging between Titans like it was nothing. The rapid switching of targets and close calls while maneuvering between enemies during a fight never loses its allure, only getting more intense as the story builds.

The Titans themselves are the true stars here. With their ridiculous grins, ambling movements and saggy butts, they look amazingly creepy. On higher difficulty levels, the Titans become faster and more aggressive. Their limbs flail impishly as they freely counter your attacks, flick off ODM anchors like they're swatting flies, and pick fellow Scouts out of the air. Moments like this amp up the intensity tenfold, especially when you're caught between responding to an urgent request for help or going to the aid of someone who's been grabbed by a Titan. It's hard not to feel the pressure in the moment, and it's great.

Despite its slow start, Attack on Titan 2 offers exciting gameplay along with a deep and intriguing plot that, melodrama aside, tugs on the heart strings. It's well-paced and offers some impressive spaces to move through. The unique combination of the movement and combat mechanics combines with a gripping story to make Attack on Titan 2 one of the more surprising releases of the year.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 03/16/2018 - 11:15

Surviving Mars Review: Building The Final Frontier

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/15/2018 - 23:25

It's been said that city simulators are best thought of as a series of stocks and flows. You have essential buildings that supply resources, which are then distributed in a grand pattern etched by your design. Your success, then, depends on how artfully and effectively you've crafted your settlement. If that is the measure by which we are to judge city simulators, nowhere is that more beautifully or essentially or thematically distilled than in Surviving Mars.

Space is hard, and Mars isn't any more forgiving; your goal is to command a mission that can endure the punishing conditions of the Red Planet. You can take the reigns of an international consortium, a major private enterprise, or any number of real-world space-capable nations here on Earth. From there, you choose how to guide your Martian colony. Insofar as many simulators allow a degree of role-playing, your time on Mars is yours to do with how you will. But your progress is constantly evaluated by your sponsor country or organization, offering some very loose targets like "get colonists" and "keep them alive for a while." Beyond that, the direction is yours.

Your first forays on the planet are drone-based; RC rovers and semi-autonomous bots are your essential tools. They help you probe the surface of Mars and get your basics going. You have a bevy of options for obtaining vital resources--with each creating a slightly different relationship between your settlement and the planet. That's because everything here degrades. Ground down by the perpetual dust storms, punishing cold, and meteor strikes, nothing lasts and everything comes with a cost. Whether it's by extracting from rock, or sucking what little can be from the scant Martian atmosphere, even something as basic as how you obtain water influences countless other decisions down the line.

Choose the extractor, and then you need to design your outpost around the fact that it'll kick up far more corrosive dust into the air (among a half-dozen other considerations). The extractor's cousin, the vaporator, is a more environmentally friendly option...but at the cost of comparably low output, and requiring broad spacing between structures to be effective. The brilliance of Surviving Mars, then, is in forcing you to think systemically. Each choice is a commitment, a statement of how you think it best to run humanity's excursion to the new frontier.

Surviving Mars gets a lot of narrative mileage from this. As you progress, you're always fighting the exaggerated elements and forces of nature. Your structures are always degrading, and help of any sort is often months away--meaning that you either have strong supply lines for the necessary materials, or you're prepared to work around the long delays in resupply missions from Earth. Because your colony's development is connected to these choices, it also creates a powerful emergent narrative throughout, not unlike ones found in The Sims, for instance.

Those decisions might feel like setting up a trap down the line, but Surviving Mars' other stroke of genius is how permissive it can be. Instead of locking you into a given play style, the emphasis is on consequences and teaching you how to manage them. Your colony, at its most basic level, is governed by a set of rules. If you have X building, every so often you'll need Y resource to maintain it, and that resource comes from Z building, and so on.

The brilliance here is that all of these systems work and are responsive to how you play. Every choice matters, but none rule your destiny. Even if you can't get what you need from a Martian mine just yet, you can order it from Earth. Each of those choices, too, have consequences, though. And that means that at some point, you either fail to meet a condition and the system starts falling apart, or you keep going and surviving.

What helps here is that Surviving Mars may be delicate, but it isn't punishing. Sure, the in-game consequences of failure are...a little extreme (like watching your colonists suffocate, should you fail to keep oxygen flowing). But you'll often have plenty of time to fix them, and a series of warnings that encourage you to change course. How you do so, again, comes down to which consequences you want to take on, and how long you can keep paying those costs--at least, at the most basic level. At times, Surviving Mars may underemphasize some key parts--namely just how important supply chain management is--but it's delightful and elegant, tasking you with just enough management and planning to keep your role engaging. As you progress, drones can take on more, leaving you to handle larger-scale plans for the settlement.

That allows you to graduate to managing the lives of the colonists, your relationship with Earth, the fineries of your supply chains, and new expansions and additions to your colony (which follow their own systems and sets of rules). What makes all of this work is precisely that it is so scalably complex, gives generally great feedback on how well your choices are working, and giving you progressively larger goals to chip away at. It's a strong set of basic ideas that keep the game consistently engaging, and allows you to open up new fronts and address new challenges--like getting another adjacent settlement going--as you build the confidence to work through them.

Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul.

A more traditional, optional narrative is available as well. Each time you play, you'll eventually discover some sort of mystery, be it colonists with weird visions, disturbing black cubes, or legit aliens. These will nudge your colony in more specific directions, if you decide that it's something you want to explore. Often, these mysteries require you to do something specific, like construct a special building to start a sequence of narrative vignettes. While the core play of "maintain and survive against all odds on the Martian surface" should be a big enough hook for many players, it's nice to have an optional story that addresses the mythology of the planet throughout our real-world history and pop culture.

And that's just it. Mars is more than a planet--it's the next big goal for a healthy portion of people here on Earth. Surviving Mars nods to that with a pursuit of real-world influences and designs, plus as many plausible technologies as it can pack in. While the game definitely takes some liberties, most of the structures, ships, and technologies will be familiar to fans of spaceflight. The basic supply and passenger ships, for instance, are modeled after SpaceX's forthcoming BFR ships.

Surviving Mars, above else, is about hope. So many strategy games hold to their gameplay, eschewing any overarching themes or messages. But, as corny as it sounds, for those who believe in the majesty of spaceflight, for those who are keen to marvel at how pernicious our plucky little species can be, Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul. It shows the challenges that come along with planetary migration, but it also shows that they are solvable. With the right planning, drive, and ingenuity, we can do great things together.


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