Sunday, December 30, 2012

Style Savvy: Trendsetters (3DS)

OK, I'm obviously not the target audience for Style Savvy: Trendsetters, Nintendo's fashionista simulation for its current flagship handheld.

Aside from the title, that I'm not the target demographic is obvious -- not the least of which is my character constantly being referred to as "she", "her", and nothing but feminine pronouns and modifiers. It's also obvious in my lack of vocabulary for fashion stylings like "pop", or "feminine" stylings it would be easy for me to previously reduce to "styles females wear".

But Style Savvy is deeper than all that. It puts me in the role of a part-time assistant at a fashion boutique with a gift for collating ensembles for the shop's entrenched and want-to-be trendistas (copyright Adam Creighton). The game walks me through the terminology and logic of matching clothes to personalities, builds my client base as a value-add to my employing boutique, gradually opens up parts of the town for me to explore (café, supplier store, and so on), and has the requisite "my apartment" to decorate, re-arrange, change my own fashions, catch up on the day's events, and plan for the next).

And while the game helped me get in touch with my own inner tween girl (which only felt slightly less creepy than it probably sounds, if I'm being honest), I'm curious as to who target the audience for this game really is.

I think trend-savvy teen girls probably will find the game a bit young to hold their attention, and I think younger girls who will find the gameplay engaging are pre-conceit gamers for this title. And, arguably, building a style-collecting, must-match mentality of thousand-dollar-plus budgets is arguably not the best way on which to spend development fixation habits (I'd argue "the "Gotta Catch 'Em All" of Pokémon is fictionally abstracted enough (and actually has positive developmental effects), though some would argue that).

As far as the 3D implementation, I have by no means plumbed the depth of the game at this point, but I really don't see a need for 3D in this game. More than some games, this title requires a particular positioning of the head (relative horizontal and distance) that becomes distracting even with minor shifts in either axis. And since the game is stylus-only, it could just as easily be a tap-only mobile title.

But none of that is to take away from what I consider a solid, well-implemented, fairly deep genre title. Knowing what it is, I think folks can enjoy it independent of their demographic, and for me as a game developer, the title (because of it's non-matching target audience-to-conceit) actually made it easier for me to see the base mechanics underneath the genre, and how simply and well those are implemented.

It's a tough title to recommend, because it's so genre-specific, but knowing all that, I'd choose to play it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask (3DS)

What's the positive version of "More of the same"?

Seriously -- This is important. Because I'm pretty sure I always want a Layton game in my handheld, and getting one for the 3DS is pretty great. Especially one that holds on the good, and adapts to the platform.

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask carries forward all of the stuff the series is known for -- deceptively simple gameplay, elegant execution of the overall package, inclusion of fun characters, and tons of engaging puzzles.

The cut scenes are just pleasant, engaging little things, and until Ni No Kuni comes out (soooo soon!), this as close as I get to playing a Studio Ghibli game.

The shift of exploration to the top screen while keeping navigation on the bottom touch screen works well. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I don't notice it all, and think it makes exploration more engaging for the handheld.

I'm not a fan of the title's in-game polygonal cut scenes -- I prefer the animated ones. And I enjoy the voice acting, so when it's gone in some 2D character dialog transitions ... I miss it.

And the 3D? Well, aside from the polygonal cut scenes mentioned above (which don't stand up to the pre-rendered animated or static scenes even in 2D), things look pretty good in stereoscopic 3D. There a handful of graphical items where elements are in a layer that requires careful distance and angle positioning, but these are few and far between (and far less than other 3DS titles). And some of the puzzles actually benefit from the 3D (imagine!) -- Another feather in the cap over other 3DS titles.

Strong recommend for this title. Level 5 did a great, great job, and it's nice to have another Layton title taking up regular residence in my handheld.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy (3DS)

I've been playing a bunch o' Theatrhythm Final Fantasy for 3DS.

Really, this game should be a system seller for Nintendo's current handheld for those longtime fans of the Final Fantasy franchise.

It's cool to see an atypical entry in the FF franchise, which is typically exclusively role-playing (including some lackluster MMORPG attempts).

Theatrhythm is a deep rhythm genre game that lets you play through and enjoy songs from Final Fantasy's I through XIII, with lite RPG elements earned from and affecting gameplay, and fan-service unlockables galore -- virtual collectible trading-style cards, songs and videos from the game, play modes, and characters.

Core gameplay is purely stylus-driven. You tap, hold, or swipe to the beats of different songs from the FF games.

There are three main modes to the game:

  1. Music Play (the main gameplay mode)
  2. Museum (the collectibles vault)
  3. StreetPass (trade / swap the "ProfiCard" trading cards and "Dark Notes")
The core gameplay "Music Play" has three child modes -- Series (initially the only mode unlocked and available), Challenge, and Chaos Shrine.

After setting up your initial party of 4 (cutesy versions of iconic characters from each game), Series mode lets you play through each of the Final Fantasy(ies).

Series mode starts with an optional Opening Prelude, tap-only quick game (which does earn you in-game points), followed by "Field Music" (a traveling visual game set to the Main Theme from the game you're playing). Then "Battle Music", where the make up and equipping of your party really matters as your rhythm game does damage to a variety of enemies, and prevents damage to party members. "Event" sequence music plays the game's opening theme against a backdrop of gameplay (in earlier games), and FMVs (in the later games). Finally, there's another optional "End Theme" minigame, similar to the Opening Prelude.

Throughout these modes, you gain skill points, level up your team, and get loot drops that you can equip per round.

Play enough Series mode, and you'll unlock Challenge mode, where you can try to perfect songs from Series mode, using either "Basic" or "Expert" score baselines. Where Series mode was fun (and challenging) for me,  Challenge mode stressed me out, but that's balanced with increased RPG leveling, and the score being weighted (what feels like) appropriately for the Expert scale.

Playing enough Series mode will also unlock "Chaos Shrine" mode, which has solo and multiplayer facets. Like Challenge mode, I found this a little less fun than the core Series mode, other than it really leverages -- and rewards -- the lite RPG elements in the game (which I really enjoy). Even cooler, "Dark Notes" are unknown songs (in the context of the game), so you're "defeating" (unlocking) new franchise tunes and composer information as you play through the game.

The Museum mode is solid in the context of the game itself, but even cooler for franchise fans. Here, you can view your play records, the cards you collect, listen to and favorite unlocked songs and videos from the franchise, really rewarding fans.

Packaging-wise, the Menus are pretty phenomenal (other than the music and video players). Each menu clearly defines where you are in the flow, and offers multiple selection to go to sub-modes, or tapping "Play" or "Select" after selecting the mode or level.

Along the same lines, the timeline portrayal in Series mode feeding my inner geek -- It's a slick, scrollable lower screen presentation of the Final Fantasy title and its year of release, and an upper screen showing a screenshot from the selected game, and any score you may have earned.

Score recaps are very nicely done (an art in and of themselves), and the visual FX are a step above many 3DS titles.

As far as the 3D itself, while it's fun to see franchise assets in 3D for the first time, and the Prelude and End Theme optional sequences arguably look better in 3D, ultimately the 3D is really unnecessary.

Which brings us to the one downside of this title. Since the 3D isn't needed and it's a purely tap game that requires no discreet button presses, it's totally unnecessary as a handheld game, and could find strong footing on phones and tablets in instead.

There is an iOS version of the game, which removed several of the key gameplay modes, so it may be the other reason the title makes sense on discreet handheld is to support the wealth of content in and unlockable from the game.

That said, this title is unique on the 3DS in that it's a differentiated expression of the franchise -- holding onto core elements (RPG and characterization), and giving a unique focus to one of the biggest facets of Final Fantasy (the music). It's slickly packaged, and has a lot of replay-ability. I think it was also the first 3DS title to support DLC of additional content the team couldn't fit on the original game. I like that kind of business innovation, but I have no numbers that show how this worked out for gamers or Square.

Overall, a strong recommend if you're a fan of solidly packaged handheld games, rhythm titles, lite RPGs, and/or the Final Fantasy franchise.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] (3DS)

I've been playing Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] on Nintendo's 3DS handheld, and I'm really enjoying it.

Typical of many Square Enix games, the production values are high, pre-rendered 3D cutscenes look almost  "current gen console", the voice work is robust and pretty comprehensive, and the gameplay is really, really diverse.

Design-wise, the game does a good job of dropping you in, and offering you dismiss-able tutorials. Even better (design-wise), it follows up tutorials with you repeating mechanics shortly after you've learned them with a second character. It's not overt, and it's a slick way to re-inforce the mechanics.

Which is good, because there is a lot (a lot a lot) going on here. Shoving a full-on RPG into a handheld, with real-time combat, minigames, leveling, companion creature mixing and training, etc. -- Can be a bit much. I think if I were playing just this title, I'd do fine, but I'm finding as I bounce back and forth between a few dozen  3DS, PS Vita, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and SNES games in the same two weeks, I get lost every time I come back Kingdom Hearts. (Not bragging about the titles / platforms I'm hitting; it's work.)

That said, the game is really good. Like "warm hug from an old PS2 friend who moved into the now" good. It's a little typical teen angsty, but in a fun, non-whiny way.

And Square Enix does a good job making the core Disney characters in the game feel weighty and important and cool -- And they're not even the owning company, so it's even more impressive.

And there are nice touches -- like language that positions tutorials as "mementos", the use of a slick conceit that makes the game accessible to both new and longtime players in the context of this game's (and the franchise's) fiction, etc.

So far, I could do without the 3D in this game. While the 3D functionality in the handheld is scalable from "off" to "full", if it's on at all, I have to be at the perfect angle to make it work. The game's mechanics require pushing both of the shoulder buttons (which pulls the handheld inside my set distance for enjoying the 3D), or the L or R shoulder button (pivoting the console and shifting / "bouncing" the image).

I was turning on the 3D during cut scenes and off during gameplay, but stopped doing that.

Personal-bias-wise, I don't like switching contexts in games (x is sometimes jump and sometimes interact and sometimes julienne fries), but I like it even less in the real world. Needing to interrupt gaming to adjust the 3D, or keep a stylus out and grab it in menus but not use it in gameplay detracts from the overall experience.

But it doesn't detract by much, and it no way takes away from giving a strong recommendation for playing Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance].