Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ten Years of Kirby ~Reverie 14~ Kirby's Epic Yarn

Since the barren wasteland of 2008, everyone that hadn't jumped ship more or less came to terms with Nintendo's new direction. As 2009 would entail, new releases for Punch-Out!! and New Super Mario Bros. were accompanied by Wii Sports and Wii Fit. Despite the release of the DSi handheld upgrade and an ever-growing trove of third-party gems, this juxtaposition of "casual" and "core" offerings continued to incite controversy. "Nintendo's too kiddy" may've been a thing of the past, but "Nintendo has no games" echoed everywhere from message boards to comment sections. Of course, that wasn't quite true, but this stigma continued well into the next year.

Up until the buzz of next year, anyway. Springtime of 2010 brought with it an unexpected announcement: the 3DS. Heads were scratched at the prospect of yet another DS, especially since it was just days before the DSi XL model was set for American release. However, Nintendo made it abundantly clear this was not a new iteration, but a successor. After six years, the time seemed ripe for a handheld newcomer to enter the stage, but not even the euphoria of Super Mario Galaxy 2 kept analysts and players alike from wondering how it could top the cultural penetration of DS.

The explosion of news at that year's E3 put those thoughts on hold. Storming right out the gate with a new Zelda, Nintendo's conference tore all heads away from rivals Microsoft and Sony's takes on motion control. Retro Studios was reviving Donkey Kong Country. The first 3DS game revealed was a Kid Icarus sequel courtesy of Masahiro Sakurai. Animal Crossing was set for a big overhaul on the system, and remakes of beloved N64 titles were on the way.

At one moment, NOA president Reggie Fils-Aime sauntered onto the stage and briefly reflected on the past collaborations of Sakurai and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata; in particular, the cuddly softness of Kirby. "Somehow, he's managed to work his way into the hearts of a lot of hardened games," he said as he pointed to his chest, "they know Kirby's got game."

After seven years, Kirby would be returning to home consoles! But what would it be? Thoughts immediately turned to that of the long-lost GameCube title, but as Reggie launched into a tirade of fabric-themed metaphors, hope seemed to slip away...

Entitled Kirby's Epic Yarn, the game would be the first Kirby title not to be developed by series developer HAL Laboratory. Good Feel, the folks behind Wario Land: Shake It!--a 2D platformer released for Wii just two years before--were to helm the title independently of Kirby's creators. With the drastic new changes to gameplay involving yarn whips, bead collecting, and the inability to die, many Kirby fans couldn't help but doubt the title's potential to live up to series standards. Could a Kirby game devoid of Copy Abilities feel like a Kirby game?

My friends, you already know the answer.


Soon after Kirby's Epic Yarn released, I described the game as something of a "relaxation simulator". Kirby's yarn immortality was the key factor -- everything from the backgrounds to the music to the Meta-Mortex transformations installed a languid calm into the player, and while the game was framed within your typical 2D-sidescroller progression (alongside the bead collection), the game's variety in apartment design, furniture/wallpaper collection, and tenant mini-games introduced a new style of play for the series. A younger, more ambitious Anthony Pelone claimed Kirby's Epic Yarn forged a new road for sidescrollers as we knew them, and looked forward to where the series would take this leisurely direction.

Obviously, that didn't happen. We mustn't forget Kirby's Epic Yarn was handled by a different developer, and while they were certainly given HAL's blessing, Good-Feel's philosophies in gameplay weren't going to overrun those of the original (particularly when Kirby's Return to Dream Land was soon to see the light of day). And yet while I was wrong, I've found it's actually made Epic Yarn's niche even stronger.

Make no mistake: this is easily the biggest Kirby departure barring Mass Attack, with level design and attack mechanics completely different from the works of HAL Laboratory. No longer does Kirby rampage through levels in a sugar rush frenzy, as the game aims to be softer and cuddlier than Dream Land 3. It wishes to be more inspired, however, and as it deviated from the series formula just as Canvas Curse before it, it remains one of the very few Kirby games to capture the gaming public's attention.

There are Kirby fans out there who do not like this game, and they'll likely tell you it's because Epic Yarn is not really a Kirby game. This is a valid opinion; indeed, there's no denying the game is firmly stitched to outlandish outskirts. You're still in control of Kirby and will meet familiar characters, but there's no Copy Abilities or lives or health-restoring food lying around. An argument can certainly be made that the game achieves the "easy to play, tough to 100%" mantra of Kirby games (more on that later), but how it ultimately played was enough to turn those fans off.

The key, then, is to approach it on its own terms. Maybe some couldn't do that, but if I have to raise any voice of objection, it's that I don't know how it's possible your heart cannot melt by the very first level. I daresay Epic Yarn is in possession of one of the best opening levels in 2D sidescrolling history: Fountain Gardens. Okay, maybe that's a little bold, but gosh, I can't express enough how happy it makes me! Be it watching your first enemy encounter (a Yarn Waddle Dee) stumble and fall in his tackle attempt, the bead-propelling waterspouts that have Kirby cheering in ecstasy, latching onto a tree button and having Kirby sway back and forth as a pendulum as he shakes off the tree's beads...

Because we've already done away with the cozy tutorial level, we're left to experiment with Kirby's new Yarn Whip and transformations in a level bursting with life, all accompanied by a wonderful, wonderful music piece courtesy of Tomoya Tomita. Good-Feel's composer helms most of the soundtrack and is a perfect fit for capturing the mellow side of Kirby, and as seen above he can fluctuate the score to a more active mood. It is as grand and joyous as you'd expect a yarn wonderland to be, and the effect it has on the level cannot be stated enough. Without fail, all of the level's set pieces immediately reduce the player into a childlike state of catharsis, and everything from stitching and stretching the landscape to watching Kirby weave his way into the background fabric all grant a genuine sense of wonder.

The tree shaking is the perfect example. Catching all the falling beads may be the only purpose, yet I'm always compelled to keep swinging long after the tree's run dry. Maybe it's the innocent smile Kirby holds all the while, or the feel of the swing being so satisfying all the while distorting his bell shape (look at how fat he gets!). Kirby turning into a giant yarn tank at the end is the level's showstopper, but this one moment captivates me above all else.

(Speaking of the irresistible, we cannot gloss over the game's one instance of openly embracing Kirby's dark side: Yarn Waddle Dees sleeping underneath a red bead-shaped heart, who are just begging to be squished under Kirby's weight pound. Rest assured, their romance always ends in tragedy under my watch)

Such moments keep building and building. Flower Fields' take on the gentle piano of the main theme sends me into nostalgic contemplation as I'm swinging on dandelions, swimming in the soft rain and abducting helpless yarn baddies as UFO Kirby. Rainbow Falls etches the biggest smile on my face with the most delightfully adorable music and having Kirby playing in rapids as a surfin' penguin. Big Bean Vine has me going up, up, and up as Yarn Waddle Dees sail on balloons to the chillest of songs.

So much of why Epic Yarn works isn't just because of the wonderful relationship between concept and music, but in that it's purely a joy to play. It wouldn't be as stretch to say the game has the best level design in Kirby history, as the absence of Copy Abilities means they have to flex their imaginative muscles; imagination, you understand, that has to prove these new mechanics have value. And they certainly do. There's the matter of beads, for instance. Since you can't die, the game has to rely on making this whole collection thing fun. Like how any good action platformer handle collectibles, beads are tantalizingly placed above pitfalls and near enemies and the like. By adhering to a medal system, Epic Yarn's difficulty lies in conserving your beads by the end of the level. It's not terribly hard, but it's a painful affront to our dignities when beads are dropped all over the place (especially the large star-shaped crystal beads, ouch!).

Yet it's hard to stay mad when the game's bursting with such imagination, with the Melody Town level being a perfect example in the relation between beads and level design. As the name implies, the level is strewn with instruments of all sorts, all of which reward beads through interactivity. Jumping on drums and cymbals unleashes beads in music notes, swinging on harp strings will nab the beads strewn across, and traveling through music staffs (played by trumpets!) requires careful precision to collect note beads.

It feels natural and organic; not once does the level feel forced in its gimmicks or unearned in its rewarding of beads, and it takes enough advantage of Kirby's yarn transformations (check out how the ground-embedded pianos react to Kirby's car dash). That and it's impossible not to smile with everything going on: Melody Town brims to life with Yarn Waddle Dees bouncing on cymbals, drums functioning as elevators, and the above music instilling nothing but joy.

Really, I can't express enough how much I love the Yarn Whip. The lasso doesn't reach the destructive thrills of the Copy Ability, but it doesn't try to be; it instead chooses to innovate and wow us. With the Yarn Whip controlling the very fabric of Patch Land, Kirby can do anything from fixing up crying teddy bears (who, in return, kindly let the pink ball use their outlines as platforms) to quell raging bead-spewing volcanoes.

And for those seeking Kirby's destructive prowess and aren't satisfied with untangling yarn enemies and throwing yarn drills (although I find much sick pleasure in doing so), you may find your wish in the Metamortex transformations. But while I do rather love the Tankbot and the UFO, my personal favorite lies in the Dolphin. Any concerns regarding swimming controls should be dispelled, for it swims like a dream and twirls with a surging force that rips through enemies (and hoops!) like butter.

This is all just a long way of saying by golly, how much do I love the overall presentation? Saying the yarn aesthetic is beautiful goes without saying, but the real triumph is how it weaves itself into the actual template of gameplay. Take the winter stretches of the Snow Land world: Snowy Fields, the opening level, portrays snowballs big and small as overstuffed balls of wool, and we cannot help but delight in not just how Kirby can ride on top of them, but at his misfortune at getting swallowed up in their paths (particularly at his already-minimalist shape is reduced to his facial features struggling to remove himself).


I am also quite fond of the hidden Evergreen Lift, which revolves around a Christmas tree elevator of sorts that Kirby has to constantly spin and maintain while dashing for Christmas-themed beads and collectibles and is under attack from wintry foes. It is not at all easy, yet we are too under the spell of the accompanying track to notice. Shared by the aforementioned Snowy Fields level, it is absolutely the most heartfelt song in the entire soundtrack and will prod at every one of your pleasant Christmas memories into a swirling vertigo of warm sentimentality. (Let us dismiss any similarities to the dismal Yoshi's Island DS theme as an uncanny coincidence).

In that sense, Epic Yarn's other area of success is how it siphons the number one creed of Kirby games: that they make you so goddamn happy just by playing them. That the fuzzy graphics recall just as much gooey nostalgia as Kirby's HAL best is merely a bonus; it's a game that wants to bend the rules of Kirby all the while recalling that creed for the purpose of relaxing the player (and with how a certain world (correctly!) takes inspiration from Kirby Super Star's godly aesthetic, you know Good-Feel had the series's best interests in mind).

And by "bend the rules", I'm especially referring to how this is a Kirby game with honest-to-god voiced cutscenes. No, none of the grating 4Kids accents from the anime dub are present, for the story is presented as a gentle storybook tale told by a warm grandfatherly voice. I'm told the Japanese version is performed by a young woman, but I cannot imagine it any other way, what with the English narrator performing deliberate intonations for all the characters involved (his take on King Dedede being a particular highlight). Regardless, even when the story focused on the idyllic mischief of Kirby and Prince Yarn, I enjoyed the sweet tale all the way to the end.

By the way, Kirby lives in an apartment in this game, one you can decorate with furniture and wallpaper and carpets and the like that you can purchase with beads. Upon first glance, it's a wholly pointless feature until you realize the game grants free reign over object placement and you can have Kirby snooze on any bed of your choosing. Oh, and there's pancakes. Needless to say, anyone who's sunk time into Animal Crossing will undoubtedly unleash their inner Feng Shui here. Be it guitars or rock gardens or dinosaur slides or sci-fi walls, anything and everything goes here alongside a bare minimum of interactivity (my room always features some sort of strumming guitar). I often find myself leaning towards cloud-based motifs, but in my last playthrough I attempted a sky pirate ship of sorts. What about you?

I may or may not have publicly expressed my desire for a similar feature in future Kirby title, a wish that did not come true. Kirby games have always been meaty in their accompanying sub-games and whatnot, but here we have a fun distraction that runs parallel to the main game. You could dismiss it as a worthless distraction, yet there's the presence of Kirby's flatmates, who require the presence of specific furniture for them to move in; that, and they visit Kirby's apartment and challenge him to various mini-games. All of these games are great, and I was surprised at not just how many there were, but how brutal they could get.

I found that in both instances of my post-game play, much of my time surrounded around the apartment building. You could say that's to be expected in achieving 100% completion, and yet both times I found myself completely absorbed in this trivial feature. Not that I didn't have fun revisiting and fully completing the game's levels, mind, but it became something of a pattern: start up the game, spend time rearranging my apartment, go earn beads in levels and whatever collectibles I missed, splurge on my earnings and then rearrange some more. (Actually, thanks to Kirby's dash animation turning him into a Yarn Car, I always pretend he's going off to work to earn beads.)

When analyzing the fruits of my fabric-inspired labor, it's hard for me to handwave the apartment business as a simple distraction. It's an organic component of a game I can already lose myself in by itself, and I find it an adorable fit for the series. I'm not exactly sure how it could work within the main Copy Ability template, but my goodness, there is potential here for HAL to mine. 

Much as I've sung the game's praises, I cannot label Epic Yarn as a complete masterpiece. As inventive as the boss battles are, they're the one instance where the inability to die comes across as rather jarring. Yes, the "don't get hit" objective has its challenge, yet that Kirby is placed in direct conflict with oversized enemies undermines his immortal status (barring the magician Squashini, whose clever magic tricks are enough to distract me). There are other missteps, like how the Train Metamortex attempts to channel Canvas Curse's draw direction, but ends up being a frustrating chore to control.

But such niggles hardly weigh down Epic Yarn's direction. To me, the game's crowning achievement lies in how much it channels and even celebrates the beating heart of what makes Kirby "Kirby" while trying not to be Kirby, and somehow we ended up with the best Kirby game that doesn't have the words "Adventure" or "Super Star" in its name. That this was accomplished by an outside developer that wasn't HAL only renders Epic Yarn even more magical in its status as one of the best Wii games.

On the title screen, I still see my childhood hero waving to me. Just as it was back in 2010, I'm transported without fail into another era; one far more innocent and defined by self-aware nostalgia. But now, there's another time mixed in, where I had to face one of the hardest tragedies imaginable, and didn't know where life would take me from then on. He was there ready to pick me back up soon after, and he's since never let go.

And he will always do so forevermore.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 33 ~Pallet Town~ (Pokemon Red and Blue)


Origin: Pokemon Red and Blue
Plays In: Pallet Town
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Junichi Masuda

Where it all began.

Pokemon was an overnight success in America, and I was certainly no exception to its clutches. I followed its Nintendo Power previews with some mild interest, watched as it absorbed the lives of my cousins, and eventually received my own copy of Pokemon Red not too long after it initially came out.

As someone with a strong memory, it's spotty in certain places for this game. I was naturally inclined towards Charmander, but Brock''s Rock-types were a harsh counter, so I found myself drifting towards Squirtle. Other than those two, I can't tell you who else I used in my party. I had one of my cousins play through the game for me after getting stuck at Lt. Surge's puzzle, but I vaguely recall playing through it myself more than once; in fact, I remember one time being shocked I skipped a route after completing the game, full of trainers waiting to fight me. I captured a Golduck in Seafoam Islands. I abused the hell out of the Rare Candy trick, among other glitches (fishing in statues!). I taught my Blastoise Earthquake, which always felled Gary's Venasaur. I always named the main character after my best friend in 1st Grade. There are many other scattered memories...but hardly any connect to a single thread.

Childhood memories are chock-full of gaping holes like that, but I've found that's part of the appeal. They're puzzles that'll never be solved, but each has their own involved story. The Golduck one, for instance; my Mom and I were just driving into an OT session, and I pumped my fist at the thrill of obtaining a Golduck for the first time. The big mystery, of course, is why I hadn't bothered raising a Psyduck into evolving one beforehand, but that aforementioned thrill is the only memory I have of capturing a rare Pokemon. You don't need logic to understand that.

Now that I think about it, I realize the Pokemon phenomenon was bigger to me than the game. I still loved playing it, of course, but my life was practically captivated by everything Pokemon. I watched the cartoon religiously every morning and after school. I rocked out to the full version of the opening theme on CD. I had a behemoth collection of Pokemon cards, courtesy of my mother buying them for me as a reward for being good at school. I obtained practically every Pokemon book and magazine out there--the first issues of Pojo and Beckett, various manga published by Viz, the excellent Versus Book guides, and both editions of the Official Pokemon Handbook. I ate the cereal. I counted down the days to the movie, which was originally scheduled to come out on my birthday. I fell for that fake secret in Expert Gamer about capturing a Yoshi. I had the plushies, the Burger King toys, the pinball game, the Pokedex replicas, everything.

I'm not particularly into any of that anymore (barring my shrine of ancient Pokemon cards), but I remember what was most important of all: there was a time when Pokemon ruled the world. And at the beating heart of that nostalgia is where it all began for every Pokemon fan: the theme of Pallet Town. It's that rare beginning theme that etches every moment of context into a young gamer's heart: the protagonist's SNES console, the Stand by Me reference on his TV, the fat guy marveling at technology in front of Prof. Oak's laboratory., being stopped by the professor himself and receiving your very first Pokemon. The first of many fated battles with your rival, who you've known since you were babies.

It's a mirror of tear-inducing nostalgia in and out of itself, and many cannot listen to it without crying. I still haven't yet, but listening to the orchestrated version at Symphonic Evolutions made me come close. Actually, writing this now is almost pushing me off the edge.

But nostalgia is nostalgia, and memories are memories. What's most important of all is that twenty years later, Pokemon is still around. New fans are still cropping up everywhere, and have their own Pallet Towns in Littleroot and Vaniville. And now, thanks to Red, Blue, and Yellow finally releasing on the 3DS Virtual Console, they can finally experience what defined our lives eighteen, perhaps twenty years ago. That the monochrome corners of Pallet Town will give birth to new childhoods excites me more than anything else

Here's to twenty, forty, and an eternity of more Pokemon. It truly deserves it.

Final Thoughts: Man, does anyone else hate those official "echo" versions of the R/B/Y soundtrack? Totally ruins the feel for me.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Worldly Weekend: Tales of Zestiria (PS3)

The gradual decline of Tales over the past decade has been heavily disputed, with its journey into HD at the heart of the matter. Any potential brought forward by Vesperia was quickly snuffed in favor of rushed products and randomly adapting to AAA-standards. Namco clearly didn't have the budget to elevate Tales to Final Fantasy production values, and it showed in the mediocrity that were the Xillia games, what with the banal fields that stretched on forever and various cut corners (not the least of which were the limitless assets reuse; how many identical, music-less port towns were in the game, again?). Aimless stories and Motoi Sakuraba's homogenized score only cemented the notion that Tales games had grown creatively bankrupt.

When I reviewed Tales of Xillia 2, I dismissed the game as being the latest in a series of JRPG junk food because, really, that's what the series had become: an assembly line of fast food that barely scratch that RPG itch. That analogy is inapplicable as of Tales of Zestiria, a complete failure in everything from level design, pacing and progression, modern graphical standards and proper storytelling. I can't claim to have played every Tales game of the past nine years, but I remain confident in stating it's the absolute worst since the abominable Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (and what a coincidence that they're from the same series; I can't think of any game I've hated as much since).

I mean, Jesus Christ. I knew during pre-release the game was likely to continue the series stagnation, as the previews showed little evidence of Namco learning from Xillia's missteps. It's not that I believed such a tone-deaf game would reinvigorate the series (not to mention the controversy surrounding the Alisha character, which signaled alarm bells rivaling that of Xillia 2's debt system), so I walked into Zestiria thinking it'd be the latest batch of sub-par takeout that I'd maybe write about.

Boy, oh boy, was I not ready. I wish I could say the game's return to swords and sorcery was as base as its overall presentation; in particular, the latter is just a stunning display of laziness and inadequacy. I mean, where do I even begin? The inconsistent character framerate? The empty dungeon design? The terrible facial animation? The pathetic pop-in and draw distance? The pixelated tree shadows? The sound glitches that plagued the PC release? That one scene where two characters not only talked over each other when they were clearly not supposed to, but the dialogue didn't even match the subtitles? How some of the anime cutscenes output sound with all the glory of a 240p stream video, including the very first one you see?

Needless to say, I'm beyond shocked production values have fallen below even that of the Xillia games. The framerate particularly caught my attention; it's not like Zestiria looks even that different from those games, but apparently Namco spent a couple years developing a new graphics engine that can't produce 60 FPS for an overworld monster unless you're standing less than five feet away from it. With how ghastly their movements carry even into battle, I wonder if 30 FPS would be pushing it.

Not even the in-game cutscenes are exempt from this, as it's not rare for characters to fluctuate in frame animation and slowdown from the most minor of movement. On top of how the rocky character animation itself, you can hardly take them seriously regardless of context. Above is an example of the blank facial animation: here, the character is supposed to be shellshocked at a betrayal, but the way her mouth morphs into a near-smile renders the scene almost comical. Oh, and just to clarify, that GIF is from the Playstation 4 version. Let that sink in for a moment.

To top it off even further, Xillia's dry color scheme and static field designs are alive and well. I mean, the former was at least kinda acceptable before considering the new setting, but there's just no excuse for the latter anymore. The Tales team is clearly ill-equipped in adapting the series to an "open-world" environment and it shows in everything from the needlessly broad overworld maps to the boring mazes. It's gotten to the point where I have to ask what's the point in suddenly pretending Tales an AAA effort when all the obvious cut corners immediately dispel such fantasy.

The dungeons are the perfect example here. No matter how bombastic Go Shiina's music may be, the level design never lives up to any such standard no matter how much the context wills it to be. Rooms are designed with bare minimum effort, devoid of any aesthetic value or interesting features besides enemy/treasure chest placement and whatever half-baked gimmick each respective dungeon decides to throw at you (the most torturous of all being the water dungeon, a convoluted maze which zaps you back to the entrance whenever you come across a sentry's line of sight.)

So how on earth did Zestiria end up being this cheap? With the Tales Studio being laid-off/absorbed into Namco and other huge internal projects developed within the same timeframe (notably Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, which borrowed a portion of Tales staff), Namco had no choice but to rely on heavy outsourcing; more than any Tales game before, in fact. While it's unfair to say outsourcing is solely for conserving money, that the game required such a ridiculous extent and still looked this terrible proves just how limited the game's budget was (the convoluted web of external assets likely contributed to the mess).

And what was it all for, really? It only serves as a detriment to the actual gameplay, as already seen in the worthless dungeon and field design, but what about the combat? For the first time in Tales, Zestiria opts for seguing battles into the overworld rather than transitioning to specialized battlefields. See, there's a neat idea for evolving the series...had the overworld been competently designed and the characters/battle camera didn't get stuck behind walls and pillars (seriously, just watch this).

It's actually pretty funny how much it falls into the pitfalls as Xillia 2. Just like Xillia 2, the impact of attacking monsters feels as dull as pounding on a wet paper bag. And just like Xillia 2, it's only worth using the characters gifted with super cool awesome Plot Powers (in this case, Sorey and Rose's Armatization, where they combine with one of their element-coded Seraph friends). And hey, just like Xillia 2, they try to make you work for those via combos, but unlike Xillia 2, there's no limit or penalty to how long you can use Armatization. Consequently, battles just boil down to pounding down on enemy weaknesses, and the inclusion of Graces' CC combo system does little to ease the tedium.

The second point is particularly interesting, considering how just like Xillia 2, the whole game is a vehicle for a plot not worth a damn. Of course, that's how JRPGs work, but everything from the overworld to the combat just renders Zestiria a slow, terrible slog to wade through, one that not even the fast travel option can fix (something you actually have to pay Gald for!). That, and...well, JUST LIKE XILLIA 2, it decides to piss me off with horrible, horrible padding. I was not at all happy to discover I was being gated off from continuing at one point until I gathered all the Iris Gems, which magically project the disposable backstory of the generic villain.

Rare is the Tales game that actually has a well-rounded story (that would be Tales of the Abyss), but it's especially bad here since in recent years, Tales has fallen into a bad rut with goody two-shoes protagonists and characters who join your party just because. Not once am I given a reason to care about Sorey (who falls squarely into the "Chosen One" trope right down to pulling the generic sword from the generic stone) and his band of Seraphs and squires, as Zestiria frequently screws around with natural foreshadowing and player expectations.

Just take the character Edna. The diminutive, snarky Seraph only joins Sorey's gang in the faint hopes of reverting her brother back from being a dragon, yet apparently the developers had the bright idea of relegating that subplot to a sidequest. As far as the main plot is concerned, not once do Sorey's idealistic dreams of curing dragons from malevolence ever become important, and not once does Edna ever embark on a character arc, remaining static in her snarky ways of harassing party members. Other party members fall in similar traps, but she's the most striking example.

On top of out-of-whack story beats and base "twists", there is no reason for investment in anything that goes on. A character turns into a monster? That other one betrays me? Someone dies? I don't care because the game won't let me care, because it refuses to properly foreshadow, engage in proper pacing or, y'know, develop its characters. As to why, a good chunk of this can be chalked up to the elephant in the room: a shift in party members so nonsensical in concept I'm beyond baffled it was actually executed.

I'm talking, of course, about the Alisha bait-and-switch. Yes, we can bring up her gradual absence in pre-release material or producer Hideo Baba claiming they never said she was the heroine despite her being the very first female character they introduced, but how it happens in-game is ultimately what's important. There's just no getting around how jarring it is, as the character is the catalyst for Sorey leaving his village of Seraphim and fulfilling his destiny of becoming The Shepard. While there's nothing particularly nuanced about her character, her role as Sorey's squire sets one of the game's few fathomable themes in stone: two people with entirely separate backgrounds helping the world in ways the other cannot (in this case, an idealistic country orphan and a troubled princess knight).

That is, until said role randomly causes Sorey to temporarily grow blind and she decides to up and leave six, maybe seven hours in. It's as random as it sounds, and what makes it even worse is that her replacement (Rose) is later thrust into the role despite being casually introduced as a NPC (some have defended this saying it plays into the revelation of her spoiler-related job, but, well, she's right on the box. Every other Tales party member has had an elaborate introduction).

I'll refrain from citing any of the vague *conspiracy theories regarding the situation, but regardless, it's just so easy to frame the contextual reason as "well, Alisha wasn't working out for whatever reason, so here's another character that works better just because!" It's not even as if Rose brings anything to the party that Alisha couldn't aside from having a foul mouth and her relationship with Dezel, a Seraph whose endearing traits are being reclusive and getting pissed off at everybody. (This isn't even getting into how poorly Rose takes over Alisha's role; heck, her fellow guildmates don't even acknowledge her absence!)

In attempting to have Alisha take care of Zestiria's events by holding the fort back at her kingdom, all it does is invalidate her character. Rather than sharing a dual role, any appearances from then on are fleeting, and she possesses absolutely zero involvement with the climax. As it is, it's the biggest screw-up in an indecisive tale right down to the context of the "surprised" GIF: a delayed reaction to a twist we already knew and don't care about since she's become superfluous; at that point, we've gotten so used to Rose cementing over her role that Alisha may as well have been that background character.

Can I say anything positive about Zestiria? It has a solid localization with solid voice acting (despite that aforementioned "speaking over each other" goof-up), and there's some sidequest meat to chew on. Sidequests I chose not to partake, but they exist in case you enjoy the contemptible thing. Oh, and being able to customize flair and costumes for characters. Having Sorey wearing giant sunglasses and Mikleo being stalked by a floating Yuri Lowell doll was the only thing that dulled my pain (aside from South Park episodes playing on my tablet. "Suck my b-b-balls, PC Principal!").

Is that it? I don't know, and honestly, I don't care anymore. Between this, the fiasco that was the Tales of Symphonia Steam port (and to a lesser extent, its PS3 "remaster"), a separate Namco development team being unable to tell who Zestiria's main heroine is (look up the controversy surrounding the Tales of Asteria mobile game), and the upcoming Tales of Berseria being a prequel to this game, I've given up hope Namco and the Tales team can provide a quality experience for the series in this age. They're clearly unable to manage quality control across the board, and so any aspirations for evolving a niche RPG series remain futile.

The days of relatable characters and fun battle systems are over. Tales is dead.

*Which reminds me, there's nothing in the main plot that even remotely hints at a homosexual relationship between Sorey and his BFF Mikleo. Sorry,!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Evaluating "Tone Deafness": Metroid Prime: Federation Forces and Paper Mario: Color Splash (Nintendojo)

Funny how quickly I wrote this despite being a tough subject. Did my point come across clearly here? While I certainly agree there's some qualities of tone-deafness in these games, I think the worst part is how they were ultimately announced. Did you notice how there was no fanfare for their respective revelations?  

Anyway, sorry things have been a bit slow here. To make up for it, we'll have some fun content this weekend and the coming week. By the way, rumor has it that exciting news I mentioned a few months ago might finally be announced within the coming weeks...