Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (PC)

 Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc PC Game Review

Review by Harvard L.

If the essence of drama is conflict, then the most dramatic of games will always revolve around the diametric opposition of two key ideals, and the supporters of those ideals rallied together on each side. We see this in games about war, games about revenge, games about politics and even games about relationships – whether through mechanics or cutscene philosophising, the conflict is always perceivable to the player. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, a visual novel by Spike Chunsoft, embodies this method of storytelling to a T, focusing on the opposition between hope and despair and charging the player character to defend optimism in the face of an ever mounting gauntlet of fear and distrust. It’s darkly humorous, compelling and often times offputting, with a rapid pace that keeps players feverishly advancing text until the truth is revealed. Also, the blood is bright neon pink. That last detail probably describes Danganronpa’s tone better than any other sentence I’ve written so far.

Related reading: For a second take on this game, check out Matt’s review of the original on PlayStation Vita.

The premise is that fifteen schoolchildren, each the absolute “ultimate” in their field, are invited to attend a prestigious Japanese boarding school known as Hope’s Peak. By gathering the best and brightest Japanese youths, the school board aims to revitalise hope in the next generation. Or at least, that’s the original idea: the fifteen students are knocked out when they first enter the school and wake to suddenly find themselves in Despair Academy, a school with no classes, bolted windows, constant surveillance and perhaps the most terrifying character ever written in a videogame, Monokuma. The children are instructed that they are trapped in the school forever and will be cared for, although all communication to the outside world is prohibited. The only way out is to murder a classmate and avoid taking blame for the crime.

Danganronpa takes a lot of inspiration from the “school aged children do terrible things to each other” tropes present in Japanese films such as Battle Royale and Confessions, in which we see how societal pressures to achieve and excel can drive out the human capacities for love and empathy. Danganronpa is a more hopeful game than one would expect though – Monokuma actually has quite a hard time convincing the kids to kill each other and the game subsequently becomes an exploration of the despair required for a person to reach their limit and lose all previous convictions against violence in order to take the life of another. The violence itself is sparse but when it strikes, it can be truly disturbing.

PC game review

The real killer in Danganronpa though, is paranoia. The belief that no character could be who they seem is driven home hard, and the writers go to lengths to make sure the player trusts nobody. This makes for a great plot with an unprecedented amount of twists and turns, and the narrative complements the gameplay excellently in this regard. Danganronpa is, in fact, very much like games in the Ace Attorney franchise. The player is first tasked with exploring, observing and investigating, and their knowledge of the details of a crime are then tested in a trial segment. At its worst, the trial can feel like a comprehension exercise where the culprit is obvious from the get go and you’re just waiting for the time when you can finally accuse the murderer. At its best, everybody is a suspect and you’re feverishly going through information and refuting arguments in order to save the lives of all the innocent students (because Monokuma’s rules state that if the kids blame the wrong person for the crime, that killer goes free, and all the other kids are executed).

This is helped along by sharp writing, voice acting and interface design to ramp the tension to a maximum. The cast of characters is well rounded but does utilise stereotypes for a while before it really gets off the ground. Each student is an “Ultimate”, such as the Ultimate Baseball Player or the Ultimate Programmer, but also some unexpected ones like Ultimate Biker Gang Leader and Ultimate Fanfiction Writer. The protagonist is the Ultimate Lucky Student, having received an invitation to the school for no other reason than winning a random selection. This means you’ll be playing the only “normal” person in a cast of powerful personalities, which does feel overwhelming at the start. This is intentional, by the way – the writers have a real skill for understanding audience expectations overturning them unexpectedly, and going into the game with as little information as possible achieves the best effect. The game does eventually lose its reliance on caricatures and stereotypes through effective writing which forms relationships between the characters, so keep at it if the dialogue seems a little dry to you at the start.

And then there is Monokuma, who deserves an entire paragraph to himself. The black and white bear who dominates all promotional material is the de-facto principal of Despair Academy and acts as a Big Brother of sorts, monitoring everyone and placing restrictions on students to tempt them into killing each other. In the trial segments Monokuma is also the judge, jury and executioner, with particular focus on the executioner part – he has in fact devised cruel and ironic deaths for each of the students should they be found guilty of murder. Monokuma is terrifying but he’s also charismatic and unpredictable, and a real breakout character for the series.

Visual novel game review

I’ve tried to be as spoiler free as I can so far in this review, but now would be a good time to mention that the series’ continuity is important, and later games assume you’ve played the earlier ones. Trigger Happy Havoc is the first in the series, and the ending is both incredibly unorthodox and immediately apparent in the subsequent titles, and everywhere, really. Proceed with caution please!
One should note that the story is completely linear, with absolutely no differences between playthroughs. There are a couple of different endings but there is a very clear Golden End which is possible to attain on the first playthrough – aside from that, the order of deaths is the exact same each time and the player has largely no influence on how the plot unfolds. Conventional things such as dialogue choices and event flags don’t exist here. You can have some choice in which characters you decide to hang out with in your free time (and thus, how much of that character’s backstory you experience), but that’s as much agency as you’ll ever get.

My other gripe is with the game’s inconsistent tone, which flips between comic and deadly serious and back again often. Much of this can be attributed to Monokuma, whose sadistic enjoyment of carnage leads him to make bad puns in the worst of times, but Spike Chunsoft also seem intent on wedging in school-life segments into places where they really don’t belong. The free time sequences, where you’re left to explore the empty school, are entirely unnecessary as well, and I almost wish the game was just dialogue from beginning to end without tedious running and searching for gold coins in background details.

The graphics offer a pseudo 3D effect and 2D models for nearly all objects in the game. Danganronpa is a fantastic example of using visuals and sound to reinforce the game’s tone, with environments that are colourful in all the wrong ways and a soundtrack which isn’t memorable but lingers in your mind and haunts you every time you hear it.

Spike Chunsoft game review

Related reading: The sequel should be making its way to PC soon enough too. Check out Matt’s review of that here.

If you’re keen for one of the suspenseful thrillers manageable with just images and text, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc comes highly recommended. The story stands alongside any mystery film or novel, and the writing lets you understand and even befriend the characters before you’re forced to see them pushed to their psychological limit.

– Harvard L. 

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Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair coming to PC April 18

News by Lindsay M.

It’s currently the end of winter in Canada, and while it’s been a rather mild one I’ve still been dreaming of destination resorts, warm sand, clear oceans, palm trees… you get the idea. For those also craving some tropical flare in life, I bring you salvation: Jabberwock Island! All you need is a PC to get there. Oh, but you should know that murder is the only way to leave the island. That’s right: following the success of Danganronpa’s recent PC release, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is also coming to Steam.

Related reading: Matt’s review of Danganronpa 2 for its original Vita release.

In Danganronpa 2, you and your classmates have been trapped in a game of kill-or-be-killed on a tropical island. As your classmates start dropping like flies it’s up to you to solve each murder by searching for clues and interviewing those lucky (or is it unlucky?) enough to still be alive. There are new minigames where you go tête-à-tête with your classmates. If a student is unconvinced, though, you’ll find yourself being challenged to a one-on-one Rebuttal Showdown where you must defend your stance. Use timing- and reflex-based game systems to reveal the truth and escape from paradise with your life.

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair will be released for PC via Steam on April 18, with pre-orders starting April 4. Anyone who pre-orders will receive a bonus 11-track mini-soundtrack for free. Like its predecessor, it will run on Windows, Mac, and Linux system.

– Lindsay M.
News Editor

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Review: Samurai Warriors 4 Empires (Sony PlayStation 4)

Samurai Warriors 4 Empires review

Review by Matt S.

On the one hand, you have Samurai Warriors 4, which, as we all know, is an action-heavy take on Japan’s historic Sengoku period, a time in which many warlords clashed over ownership of Japan in some of the most famous battles of that country’s history. On the other hand is Nobunaga’s Ambition, which is a deeply strategic take on the same era. In Nobunaga’s Ambition players carefully develop their territories and armies before setting out on wars of conquest in carefully paced battles.

Related reading: You can check out Matt’s review of the Samurai Warriors 4 “base game” here.

And now there’s Samurai Warriors 4 Empires, which tries to find the middle ground between the two franchises. The Empires sub-series has always been Koei Tecmo’s most niche among its popular historical “simulations,” but it’s certainly a worthy franchise in its own right, and this latest edition is a good attempt at doing something a little different in the process.

At core the game remains a familiar blend between action and strategy that anyone who has played one of the previous Empires game will slip into comfortably. It’s broken up into two parts – there’s a turn-based layer where time is measured season to season, and players can select from a wide range of different actions, from developing the towns in the region (to provide more coin and food), to winning new generals to the side, training new troops, or improving relationships between the leaders so they fight more effectively on the battlefield.

This is the part where Empires finds its greatest innovations this time around. Rather than present the players with a dry and generally unnecessarily complex menu system, as we have seen in some games from the series in the past, this time around Koei Tecmo has opted to represent the information through a rendering of the player’s home castle. It looks a little like a doll’s house or diorama, opened in the middle, so you can see each of the rooms within, and the people currently in the building. Each of the rooms represent a key administrative role, such as military or town development. Into those rooms players can appoint generals to they key administrative roles, where they will offer advice on the next best course of action.

Related reading: On Samurai Warriors and historical authenticity; yes, the games are more authentic than most people give them credit for.

You can ignore those suggestions if you’d like, of course, and forge your nation according to your own strategies, but the advice the administrators provide is typically sound, so for people that want to simply kick back and play, this system represents a far more accessible and streamlined way of moving through the strategic side of the game. You could call it “easy”, until you realise that to succeed on the higher difficulty levels, you are going to need to carefully consider what strategic options you take on; even if you are relying on the administrator’s advice, there are always more options for what you can do than you have capacity to do in any given month.

The other side to the coin is the combat. Where Nobunaga’s Ambition gives you control of entire armies, in Samurai Warriors 4 Empires you’re looking at vintage Warriors stuff; you’ll be in command of a single character, and you’ll be mowing through enemies hordes by the hundreds. The goal in each battle is to capture key points spread around the battlefield, on the way to target the enemy’s stronghold. You could in theory beeline straight to the stronghold, but until you’ve captured the satellite command posts, enemies within the stronghold will be overwhelmingly powered up. You’ll also need to frequently backtrack to grapple with enemy leaders that are targeting your captured territories in order to win them back.

Warriors PS4 review

There’s a good flow to the battles in Samurai Warriors 4 Empires, with the frantic need to move around the battlefield enough to keep you active without being overwhelming in pulling you in too many different directions at once. The strategies you come up with in the nation building help by providing you with stronger allies and conditions to fight within. While there’s a lot you’re able to achieve yourself (and as with most Warriors games, ultimately victory in a battle does rest on your own sword, with allies generally unable to take down an enemy general by themselves), you still need to be careful about going all-in with too many invasions of opposition territory; spread your forces too thinly, and a neighbour will take the opportunity to invade your own territories and roll through the weakened forces.

Related reading: An interview with the producer of Samurai Warriors 4 Empires.

I really liked how scenarios are structured, too. Though there’s no real narrative to speak of (and that’s a pity because the Sengoku period has some wonderful stories to tell of individual heroism, and it is indeed one of the real pulls behind the main Samurai Warriors series), in each scenario you’re tasked with a goal that the real-world warlord had. For example, Motochika Chōsokabe’s goal is not to capture all of Japan, but rather take control of just Shikoku island – a region of four states. Other warlords have loftier ambitions, however in most cases it’s possible to achieve the goal in just a couple of hours of play. At that point you can claim victory and the scenario ends, or you can play on to try and capture all of Japan. This is a great approach, as it means the more time limited of us can play a larger number of scenarios without having to commit to a single campaign that might take weeks, if not months, to complete.

The other key feature in this game is the ability to create your own generals and stick them in whatever role you might like in your nation. The character creation is as comprehensive as normal for Koei Tecmo, and it’s possible to have the character (Dee Dee, in my case) form relationships with the other heroes and become a powerful general in their (her) own right. Because none of the characters have a particularly strong personality in this game, created characters fit in far better than in other Warriors games, and they help you to take real ownership over what’s going on in the game in the process.

Warriors PlayStation 4 game review

The Warriors games do look good on the PlayStation 4, and Samurai Warriors 4 Empires is no different, especially with the lovely Japanese architecture and nature that’s on display. There’s nothing quite like fighting under cherry blossom trees. However, having come off the wide open, epic battlefields of Arslan, it’s a little dampening to find that most of the action in Samurai Warriors 4 Empires flows through corridors bordered by impassable terrain. It’s not something you’ll necessarily notice while playing, but away from the game the funnels built into the level design become something frustrating on reflection. Battlefields are at their most exciting when they take place across wide plains, and if there’s one thing I’d like to see the next generation of both Dynasty and Samurai Warriors games address it’s that the combat areas are becoming increasingly cramped.

Related reading: The Dynasty Warriors series also has an Empires sub-franchise. You can check out Matt’s review of Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires here.

Ultimately the success of Samurai Warriors 4 Empires rests on how well it has been able to merge action and strategy together, and while I feel this veers strongly on the side of action, compared with even the Dynasty Warriors Empires series, there’s still enough thinky stuff to do between battles to add nuance to the overall experience. For that, Samurai Warriors 4 Empires has become my preferred Samurai Warriors game, though I would strongly recommend people play one of the previous Samurai Warriors games to get a proper feel for the characters and setting before digging into the more abstract and cerebral experience on offer here.

As to the main question of whether this title manages to sit in the middle, between a Warriors title and Nobunaga’s Ambition, I’ve got to say that it does. Purists will prefer the titles on either end of this particular spectrum, but I am sure there is an audience out there for a game that offers a balance of strategy and action and subtly weaves them together to reward people that take the time to master both.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

Please consider backing me on Patreon. With your support I’ll be able to do even more writing and criticism!

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Introducing the new DDNet scoring system: The Value Matrix

For a while now at Digitally Downloaded, we’ve struggled to give games an accurate score, based on how we’ve reviewed them. There have been times that we’ve played games that have been wildly fun, but the lack of deeper meaning has meant we were not comfortable giving them really high scores – after all, we do try and treat games as works of art in our reviews, so a lack of artistry needed to be reflected in the score.

Conversely, we’ve given games that aren’t a great deal of fun to play very high scores because we’ve felt they were important, meaningful games. And this has confused some readers, who were really just looking for a fun game to play.

That’s why today we’re introducing what we call a Value Matrix to all of our reviews going forward. The Value Matrix will be used in addition to the 5-star scoring system, and looks a little like this:

As you can see, we’ve split two axes into four quadrants. On one axis we’ve got “Entertaining vs. Thoughtful”. On the other “Classical vs. Innovative.” With each review, we will position the game based on how it plays and the message it tells into one of those quadrants.

So, for example, if we were to look at a game like Three Fourths Home, which plays completely uniquely and is more interested in telling a story than being filled with action and excitement, then we would place it on the Value Matrix as such:

Meanwhile, a game like Call of Duty, which aims to be a blockbuster of an experience with a gameplay structure that is finely honed and typical for the genre, it would be placed on the Value Matrix as so:

And of course it’s possible for a game to sit in the middle of a category. A good example of that would be a game like Nier, which is certainly innovative in the way it plays and the story it tells, but it also seeks to straddle the middle ground between something entertaining to play, and something that has a message to share. A game like Nier would look like this:

With the Value Matrix, when we then give a score out of five, we score it in relation to the category that we’ve placed it in on the Matrix. In other words, when we score Call of Duty, we score it by comparison to all the other games that are in the Entertaining-Classical category. That means we can score it based on being a piece of blockbuster entertainment. When we score Three Fourths Home, we score it as a Thoughtful-Innovative game. It’s not trying to be a blockbuster, so it doesn’t need to be rated that way.

The purpose of the Value Matrix is to help give all readers a quick view sense of what kind of experience a game provides, and then highlight at a glance what kind of experience we’ve scored. It’s designed to be a more granular scoring system than having a standards stars system, and we hope it’s of use to you in deciding if a game would be of interest to you or not!

Let us know if you have any questions, but we think this system will be self explanatory and helpful once you see it in action!

– Matt and the DDNet team.

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Frozen Synapse 2s new trailer and details

News by Dylan C.

A new gameplay trailer and a handful of details for the recently announced Frozen Synapse 2 have surfaced.

The sequel to Mode 7 Games’ turn-based tactics combat simulator will be set in a procedurally generated city where players are given the freedom to infiltrate any building on the map. Inspired by XCOM: Apocalypse, the player’s initial role is to investigate a series of incursions by a powerful force. There will also be a number of distinct factions that the player will have to deal with. Each of these different factions will take unique approaches to the conflict, depending on their own ideology.

The developer promises that the city they have built is a living, breathing system, with factions determining their own goals independently. You can pick up contracts from the different factions, steal from them or play them off against each other – it’s up to you.
Everything in the game is on the map, from money and supplies to VIPs, hostages and even the player’s own in-game avatar. If a faction is transporting their stolen gear back from a raid, the player can ambush them and take the bounty for themselves. However, if the player’s base is raided and they are killed, it’s game over.

As well as the new map system, Mode 7 will be adding a litany of tweaks to the Frozen Synapse formula. There will be a significant number of new unit classes and more detailed individual perks. The more advanced AI now has some new stealth tactics: if a guard spots your squad, he will then activate the building’s security system, placing defensive teams on high alert. There will also be more curved level geometry and new objects like trees, rocks and cars that will help create more realistic, natural level designs. Like in its predecessor, Frozen Synapse 2 will be fully analogue rather than grid-based, so you can adapt your plans perfectly to fit the level.

Related reading: Matt’s review of the original Frozen Synapse for PC.

The game will also feature new multiplayer modes and an “Advanced Tactics” system for high-level players. This will be optional for high-level players and will allow the creation of elaborate conditional plans. More on multiplayer will be announced at a later date!

Frozen Synapse 2 is currently in pre-alpha and will enter beta later this year for PC. Mode 7 hopes to release the game on other platforms, but will announce more details later this year.

– Dylan C.

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Catch-up coffee Monday: March 14

News by Lindsay M.

Welcome to Digitally Downloaded’s weekly news feature, Catch-up coffee Monday. Each Monday we will bring you the best news from the previous week that you may have missed. Grab the biggest mug you’ve got, fill it with your favourite brew, and catch up with us (and our newest news anchor, Dee Dee)!

New Pokemon mobile game coming to Japan

Fingers crossed that this one is released worldwide rapidly, because I don’t want to be left out of this one! Pokemon Co-Master was announced via the above trailer and has an expected release date of later this year. It is a free-to-play title. Co-Master is developed by Heroz, a company that specializes in creating AI. So what can we expect from Pokemon Co-Master? It’s a little hard to tell, but I’d bet on capturing, battling, and strategising. It isn’t Nintendo’s only mobile app being released this year, with Miitomo and Pokemon Go both also expected.

Two upcoming games take Neptunia in a new direction

Idea Factory is apparently trying to expand the Neptunia universe at an alarming rapid pace, with two games set to launch within the next two months. First up is Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed (above), a graphically updated version of the hack-n-slash game now for PC. We already have a review up of this new version, because we love you that much. However, if you’re more interested in the original Vita game we’ve got you covered here. The game allows you to choose your team before battling through massive hordes of enemies. Unfortunately (or is it?), when a character takes too many its their clothes will end up shredded.Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed is coming to Steam on March 21. The second upcoming game is MegaTagmention Blanc + Neptune Vs. Zombies, another hack-n-slash fighter with an online multiplayer mode that supports up to four players. There are several new playable characters that are completely customizable with clothing and accessories. The game is set to launch on PlayStation Vita on April 26 in North America and April 29 in Europe.

Everything is playable in Everything

Is anyone else heading “Everything Is Awesome” from the Lego Movie in their heads? Okay, I’m sure that’s just me, so moving on. Everything is David OReilly’s next game — the same OReilly behind the video game sequences in 2013’s Her. The idea behind Everything sounds downright insane: everything in the universe is a playable character. If you can see it, you can most certainly be it. “This very simple idea has involved years of research and development, as virtually all game engines expect a lot of things to be static and non interactive,” writes OReilly. Everything will be a PlayStation 4 exclusive, and I am already enamoured with it so expect to hear more in the future!

Désiré trailer shows a melancholy boy in a colourless world

Prepare your box of tissues before you watch this trailer, because it will most certainly tug at your heartstrings. Désiré is a young boy, colourblind from birth. He is most quite joyless, and as the trailer states, “colours to him are as abstract as faith to an atheist.” He meets several characters along the way the elicit emotion and alter his vision… so perhaps colour isn’t out of his reach? Not only is the game beautiful in its bleakness, it seems to have a deep theme that touches on life today: the developer, Seccia, describes the game as “a critique of the modern world and of the perverting nature of a consumer, profit-obsessed society.” Désiré will be released on Steam, iOS, Android, and Windows Store on May 10.

Does any of this news tickle your fancy or make you steaming mad? Let us know in the comments! And meet us again next week for a new edition of Catch-up coffee Monday.

– Lindsay M.
News Editor

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Check out more characters from Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force

News by Lindsay M.

Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force is being re-released for the PlayStation 4, and that means we get lots of wonderful new character art to ogle at! Depending on which story route you choose, party members who were once your enemies may fight alongside you. Let’s take a look at a whopping six more characters from the Idea Factory game we gave 4.5 stars upon its original release.

Galdo (above) is a hot-blooded Fencer employed by the Dorfa corporation. He wields a scythe-shaped fairy weapon. Waldo’s fairy partner is Marissa, a motherly personality who compliments the rowdy personality of “her Galdy-kins.”

Paiga is one of Dorfa’s Four Heavenly Czars. He is technically a Fencer, but he isn’t the best when it comes to combat and much prefers to take a supervisory position during battles. He is accompanied by his fairy partner Vivan, who is often teased for her choice of a scantily-clad outfit and mouse ears.

Marianna is another of Dorfa’s Four Heavenly Czars. She works diligently to collect Furies to strengthen Dorfa’s influence, but this Fencer shows a softer side by volunteering at orphanages in her spare time. Her fairy partner is Khalara, who looks like a bouncy stuffed animal but is actually far too foul-mouthed to be around children.

As previously discussed, Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force adds three new story paths to the original. Also new to Advent Dark Force is the ability to have up to six characters on the battlefield at a time, as opposed to three. There are also three new difficulty settings to help balance gameplay (Easy, Normal, Hard).

– Lindsay M.
News Editor

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The Friday Ten: The ten finest games to bear the Final Fantasy name

List by Matt S. 

It’s one of the most iconic names in the games industry. Square Enix needs only slap “Final Fantasy” on the box to almost guarantee to generate a fever hype behind the game.

And Square Enix knows that all too well, which is why there is an almost endless stream of games with “Final Fantasy” on the box landing on our shelves these days. Not that I’m complaining, as they generally make for a good time, but, yeah, there are a lot of them.

So this week for our Friday Ten we’re going to list the ten finest games with Final Fantasy on the box (to date). Usual disclaimers: this is a list of personal favourites so if you don’t agree, great, let us know what your favourites are, but no need to be nasty.

With that out of the way, enjoy! And if you haven’t had the chance to play any of these games yet, for any reason, make sure you remedy it as soon as you can!

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon

On a purely sentimental level, this has got to be my favourite Final Fantasy game of all time. Some quick backstory – after going to university and leaving home, I spent the first couple of years of my career in a share house, which meant I didn’t really have room for game consoles. When I moved into my own place, one of the first things I bought was a Wii, as it was cheap and within my budget and I really badly missed having a game console.

The first game I picked up for it was Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Dungeon, because I love Final Fantasy, and I was hooked from the moment I first started playing. Chocobo was cute, I love roguelikes, and it was great having a home console again. I honestly wonder why Square hasn’t tapped this franchise again – as a downloadable game on mobile or console, a new Chocobo Dungeon would be awesome.

Final Fantasy Type-0

I really love this game for two key reasons:

1) It’s a PlayStation 4 game, with an overworld map that is reminiscent of the old PlayStation One Final Fantasy games. It’s actually important. It’s good to see that Square Enix still has confidence in its franchise that it can greenlight Final Fantasy games on the strength of their narrative and theming.

2) It’s actually quite dark for a Final Fantasy game. I’m not a fan of chocobos being slaughtered because it’s grim (see above for reasons why I a firmly against cruelty to chocobos), but elsewhere I am a fan of the mature anti-war subtext to the game. It’s good to see Square Enix get genuinely serious from time to time.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Oh I just know I’m going to get hate mail for including this, but I really love Lightning Returns. Not only is it my pick of the three in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, but it’s one of my favourite Final Fantasy games ever.

I know that the gameplay didn’t gel well with everyone, and the real time time limit could be stressful at times, but where others found the narrative to be confused and even incomprehensible, what I got out of Lightning Returns was like a philosophy textbook in game form, and the philosophy nerd in me just loved that about it.

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X was the first game I purchased when I finally got a PlayStation 2, and that console instantly became my favourite at the time. With classical turn-based combat and a great mix of characters, this is one of the best balanced and proficient games the series has ever produced.

While the voice acting feels laboured now – to the point of being cringeworthy – it was also a real step forward at the time in terms of production values, to have so much voice acting. And the characterisation was so strong I forgave Tidus and Yuna’s little laughing session anyway. By the time they “took a swim together” (and you just know that was a bit of metaphor on Square’s part) I was in tears anyway.

Final Fantasy XII

While Final Fantasy XII wasn’t quite the emotional experience that FFX was (we tend to forget about FFXI, because that was an MMO, so for those of us that like the single player story, FFXII felt like the next in the line after FFX), it had many redeeming features of its own. A really good cast, for a start. Balthier is dreamy, even today, and Ashe is the princess of my dreams.

Final Fantasy XII is the only Final Fantasy that hasn’t been modernised for a modern platform. C’mon, Square, you know we want it, so it’s time to announce that HD remaster, damn it.

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

One of the strengths of the Final Fantasy series – even with those games within it that have not been so popular – has traditionally been its music. Sure you might dislike Final Fantasy XIII, but that score is incredible.

With hundreds of tracks taken from the entire history of Final Fantasy, Theatrhythm only needed to get the rhythm game component kinda-sorta there to have an essential game. It did more than that. This is an exceptional rhythm game, backed by all the weight of the Final Fantasy music. A truly winning combination.

Dissidia 012[duodecim] Final Fantasy

I wasn’t sure how I’d get along with a Final Fantasy fighting game, but I was pleasantly surprised; Dissidia 012 has proven to be one of my favourite fighting games of all time, and one that I still play to this day.

Boasting a massive cast and plenty of fanservice, I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish for some other playable characters (Rikku and Vanille, specifically), but the action is so rich and balanced that in the end I can’t complain too much. There are rumours that there will be a PlayStation 4 Dissidia down the track… that will be special indeed.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I know most people prefer the original Final Fantasy Tactics, but I’ve got to admit I have a real soft spot for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which I dumped a lot of time into.

I found the rich variety of characters and job classes, coupled with plenty of scenarios to play through, to be really addictive, and a perfect fit for the handheld format – which I have always preferred for my tactics games. Balancing out armies so that they had the right mix of skills to take on the often significant difficulty spikes had me playing for hundreds of hours back in the day.

Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes Of Light

One of the least well known Final Fantasy games is also one of the best. The Four Heroes Of Light was a clear forerunner to Bravely Default and its sequel, offering a similar kind of character aesthetic, a combat system that also focused on taking risks with all-out attacks, or carefully biding time towards unleashing a big one, and a similar focus on a very classical Final Fantasy narrative.

Four Heroes of Light had an identity all of its own though. It had gorgeous watercolour-like environments (which, sadly, look terrible on the modern big 3DS screens), and some light puzzle elements that helped balance out the combat. As a curiosity in the long Final Fantasy franchise, this one is essential.

FFXIV: A Realm Reborn

I never thought I’d get into an MMO, but I really, really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIV. Though it had MMO elements, it also had so many throwbacks to classic Final Fantasy lore – from the chocobo mounts to the enemies, the crystals, and the music itself is divine.

I’m not a huge fan of all the social elements of the game – I prefer to play it as a straight JRPG as much as possible (mostly because the idiots run through the cutscenes in dungeons and leave me behind), but that alone means days and days of content, and if this game turns out to be anything like Square Enix’s MMO predecessor, Final Fantasy XI, then we have many years of content to look forward to yet.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Issue #2 of the DDNet magazine now live: Its all about the fanservice!

The second issue of the DDNet e-magazine is now live. Continuing our theme of focusing on one specific topic each month, this time around we’ve taken a close look at the ever-controversial theme of fanservice.

Related reading: You can catch up on the first issue of the magazine here.

Ah yes, fanservice. What so many immediately assume to mean “girls in their underwear,” doesn’t need to mean that at all. Certainly, sexualisation is a one way fanservice can go, but it’s not the only direction. Smash Bros. is fanservice in a pure forum, but it’s completely sexualisation-free, after all.

But even when it is the sexualised kind of fanservice, why do so many people dismiss a fanservicey game out of mind the moment they find out about its content? Fanservice can be implemented in an intelligent and meaningful manner into games, and used to make a point, or to enhance a person’s connection to the game, or even reward the most dedicated of fans for their years of faithful support.

With this issue of the magazine, we’ve taken a serious look at the various facets of fanservice, talking about it in relation to games and themes such as:

  • Hatsune Miku
  • Final Fantasy XIV
  • Senran Kagura
  • Dead or Alive
  • Sonic & Sega All Stars: Racing Transformed
And, based on your feedback from the first magazine, we’re happy to say you can download this one now to take it with you on the go (and we’ve updated the first magazine so you can download that too, if you’d like). 
Oh, and finally, we’ve got some very fanservicey art work of the DDNet mascot, Dee Dee, in there. Some of which are exclusive to the magazine!
So enjoy, and look forward to next month, where we tackle the issue of “Non-games”. Intriguing, no?

Oh, and if you do enjoy this magazine, please do consider backing myself and the magazine’s editor, Pete, on Patreon. As much as this is a passion project for us both, it would be that much easier to do more and bigger if we were able to support ourselves along the way:
Thank you for your support, and we hope you’re enjoying the DDNet magazine!
– Matt S. and the DDNet team

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD (Nintendo Wii U)

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD review

Review by Matt S. 

I’m so glad that Nintendo decided to remake The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and bring it to the Wii U. While it’s one of the more polarising entries in the series, I’ve always found it to be a fascinating, grand epic, of a game. And for someone like me, who does take their fantasy adventures seriously, the more mature tone of this game, and its deeper sense of lore and meaning, has always made it a personal favourite.

Related reading: Of all Zelda titles, Majora’s Mask is the most thematically similar to Twilight Princess. Matt’s full review of the 3DS re-release here.

Aside from Majora’s Mask, this is one of the darkest and most unrelenting visions that the franchise has thrown up. And perhaps that is, in part at least, why it has been so polarising; it’s not the exciting, charming, adventure that Skyward Sword or Wind Waker is. It’s not as groundbreaking as Ocarina of Time, and the gameplay itself isn’t as innovative as Majora’s Mask. Twilight Princess is a classical Zelda game, only aged and more artful with its thematic depth, and that’s something that I can fully appreciate wouldn’t sit as well with some of the more traditional Zelda fans.

As I started to play Twilight Princess again, one of my immediate thoughts, upon first entering the Twilight Realm and witnessing the dark and decrepit, near-gothic world, was “here I am in The Legend of Zelda: Souls Edition.” Which is of course silly; the original Twilight Princess came before the Souls games, and in no way does it play like From Software’s games, but the more I sat and thought about it, the more I realised that in some ways the themes really were quite similar.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD Nintendo Wii U

Both games are quite melancholic in their delivery, for example. Dark Souls has an angry edge to it, which Twilight Princess lacks, but nevertheless the opening to Link’s should leave you with no illusions that this game is quite poetic in its melancholia:

“Tell me… do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls?

They say it’s the only time that our world interacts with theirs.

… The only time we can feel the lingering regrets of spirits who have left our world.

That is why loneliness always pervades the hour of twilight.”

As we quickly see after that, the twilight has become weaponised and turned into a corrupting force that begins seeping through the land. Link’s first task is to delve into the dusk and put a halt to its spread. It’s a story that from the very outset forces players to grapple with overwhelming loneliness and the misery that brings, and that is very much a part of the Souls experience, too.

Wii U Zelda Game review

It gets darker from there, too. Though I don’t want to give away spoilers (despite the age of the game there are indeed people who haven’t played it, and shouldn’t have it spoiled on them), this is a tale that has no issue with delving into emotionally complex issues; you’d never expect to see a Zelda game deal with mortal sacrifice, for example, but it’s a central motif of this one.

Related reading: The Gamecube Zelda, Wind Waker, is also available on the Wii U. Clark’s full review of that port/ remaster.

And it’s arguably Nintendo’s most progressive game in how it handles gender. The way it works within the established Zelda formula to turn it into an allegory for the patriarchy… and then makes a criticism out of it, is as refreshing to see now as it was back then, given it comes from a company that still loves to have Bowser holding a princess hostage in every Mario platformer. Though Twilight Princess is ultimately a save-the-princess story, it is interesting in the way it handles gender politics for two key reasons:

1) The key women in the game have incredible personal strength and political influence within the duel realms of Twilight and Hyrule that you’ll explore through the game. They are in the position of being heroes in their own right, except that…

Nintendo Wii U game review

2) They’re also reduced to mere puppets at the hands of the game’s villains. To the point of control through possession.

It’s a clear allegory to the way that women continue to be powerful but only on the terms of men. With it being International Women’s Day this week I found this theme especially poignant, because the experience that Princess Zelda et al go through in the game is mirrored in what female leaders and CEOs too often need to cope with.

That’s my reading of it, anyway. Yours will almost certainly be different. As with Majora’s Mask, when a Zelda game decides to be serious, it tends to be constructed with a keen eye towards artistry… and that means a lot of it is deliberately left open ended. What each person sees, experiences, and interprets in the game will differ, and in another comparison to the Souls series, the triumph of Twilight Princess’ narrative has as much to do with what is not said as what is. The explicit narrative is really quite straightforward and simple, but those underlying themes take some unpacking, and for a game that is as large, and meticulous in detail, as this one, that’s a lot of unpacking you’ll have to do.

Zelda game review

So I come back to the art style, which I find to be so particularly striking. The pseudo-gothic architecture and design of the monsters really benefits from the work that has been done to bring the game into the HD era. Though the game suffers from the standard issues with HD remasters – a relatively low polygon count in characters giving them sharper features than we see in genuinely modern games, and relatively flat and empty environments – the team at Straight Right, who previously brought Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, have done a really great job in enhancing the tone and atmosphere that the art direction was originally aiming for. There are moments where the Wii U hardware can’t quite handle the complexity and scale of some of the larger environments at this resolution, but for the most part this is a visually vibrant and complex game, despite its age.

What I’m less sold on is the actual work that’s been done in taking advantage of the Wii U hardware. I love Straight Right because it makes games that use the Wii U technology to offer an experience that is superior in every way to what is available on other consoles. I can’t play Mass Effect 3 on any other platform, for example, because I need that map on the gamepad and the ability to make tactical commands on it on the fly.

Unfortunately Straight Right has shot rather straight with Twilight Princess. The gamepad’s screen is handy as a map of the environment, useful as the item screen (saving you from pausing the action on the main screen every time you want to swap the tool that you’re using), and the ability to play the game on the gamepad is great for people who have to share the TV with other people. And, realistically, I don’t know what else could be done with it, but it’s nevertheless a very vanilla implementation and I’m used to seeing Straight Right add a completely different gameplay experience into the mix when it ports a game to Wii U.

Twilight Princess review

But that bellyache aside, Twilight Princess does control beautifully on the Wii U, and there are some nice little amiibo additions in there for people who want to add some extra challenge to the game. In particular, I’d suggest that the unlock that the Twilight Wolf amiibo provides – a full bonus dungeon that means the figurine almost behaves like physical DLC – is essential.

Perhaps the greatest let down with Twilight Princess is that, for a game that really does take risks with the Zelda formula in the way it tells a story, the actual design of the game is almost painfully safe. Nintendo has never quite managed to break away from the gameplay loop that Ocarina of Time really perfected the first time around for 3D Zelda games – you’ll go into a dungeon, solve some puzzles until you collect an item, which you’ll use to defeat the boss of that dungeon. From that point you’ll be pointed to the next dungeon and away you go. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a workable formula, and even an enjoyable one. Thought there’s a point where each player will find that the puzzles in Zelda games become too easy because they’re variations or even straight-out copies of puzzles they’ve experienced in Zelda games they’ve played previously, they never stop being entertaining. But it is difficult to shake the feeling that Nintendo does need to try something very different with this series. It’s not fair to expect a port of a previous game to bring that innovation, of course, but it’s a legacy issue of the series that I’m slowly losing patience for.

Nintendo game review

Related reading: And for a very different Zelda experience, check out Hyrule Warriors. Brad’s full review here.

It’s quite clear that Nintendo intended this remaster of Twilight Princess to fill in a Wii U release schedule that is looking less and less likely to include a new Zelda title before the NX launches. I don’t have an issue with that in the slightest. It was a great game back when it was new. It’s a great game still. Strong narratives don’t age, and this one has a strong story to tell. Throw in quality port work that gives the art direction the detail and clarity that it really deserves, and Twilight Princess is a classic that has scrubbed up well enough to be a worthy Wii U title in its own right.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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