Banner Saga (Steam)
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS, Android, Linux, and OSX
Banner Saga is everything I want in a game. Seriously, I let it languish in my Steam library, fated to remain unplayed for far too long, until Colin said "Dude, this game is dope, you gotta play it. You'll love it." As is usually the case when Colin recommends stuff for me - Gundam, a rewatch of Deep Space Nine, Castlevania - he was absolutely right. This game is straight fire. While it's not quite "perfect," per se, it's definitely got my name written all over it.
Banner Saga is an SRPG, but not quite like any that I've played previously. It's extremely similar to a lot of others in a lot of ways, but it's just different enough to stand out as unique among the games I've experienced. Imagine, if you will, the game as a math equation. It roughly boils down to:
Fire Emblem + a Norse theme - permadeath + TellTale style choices + Oregon Trail = Banner Saga
It plays a LOT like Fire Emblem with the square-based grid, the turn based movement, etc. but with vikings and horned giants instead of a more central European medieval setting. It also lacks Fire Emblem iconic permadeath at least as far as combat is concerned. Your characters can and will still die for good through the choices you make and plot points, but if they fall in battle, they're simply "injured," not killed. Speaking of choices, the game is all about choice and consequence. Much of the game's dialogue provides you with multiple choices that affect the direction that the story takes. The Oregon Trail aspect comes into play with your caravan. For almost all of the game, you're moving towards one city or another as your quest progresses, and you have a small army with you in your caravan. You also have a finite amount of supplies and a constantly declining caravan morale. If you try to conserve supplies and not stop to rest unless the game forces you, your morale will decrease, putting you at a strategic disadvantage in battle. If you stop frequently to make sure that your morale stays high, you'll burn through supplies, and if you run out of supplies, your clansmen and troops will start to die every day. If you use your renown to promote your units, you may find yourself short on funds for much-needed supplies when you get to the next town's market; likewise, if you use all of your renown on supplies for your caravan, you may not be able to promote all of your units, leaving you with a weak and underleveled army against a far superior foe. Where do you strike your balance? That's part of the strategy of the game's decision making.
As far as visuals go, the game is done in an almost hand drawn cartoon style. While this particular art style is sometimes rather "hit or miss" for me, this is definitely an example of a "hit." The characters are beautifully drawn, the visuals are bright and colorful when they need to be while dark and foreboding when the situation calls for it, and the way the scenes unfold give the whole game a storybook-like feel as if you're being told an epic adventure tale as much as actually playing a game. That storybook feel is, in large part, thanks to the fantastic narration. Not only does the narrator himself do an excellent job with the delivery, but the amount of narration is perfect - enough to set the stage and advance the story at key points but infrequent enough so as not to break the player's immersion.
Difficulty in the game seems almost an afterthought, a factor placed on the backburner to focus on the story and its delivery. There are a few different difficulty settings to cater to the spectrum of player ability levels and desires for challenge, but since more of the game is spent on decision making and managing your caravan supplies and whatnot, the combat difficulty never felt to me like it took center stage the way it does in many other games of the genre. That's not to say that the difficult was unbalanced or poorly implemented - it definitely wasn't - but the focus of the game always stayed far more on the journey, the characters, and their experiences and tribulations than on challenging the player in battle unless, of course, you specifically seek that out by putting the game on the highest difficulty. It was honestly a breath of fresh air for me to have a fun and compelling strategy RPG but have it place the emphasis on story more than challenge. That aspect is certainly not going to be to everyone's liking, but it turned out to be everything I didn't know I wanted from the genre.
Banner Saga is the perfect type of SRPG in my opinion. Story and atmosphere always take priority over the combat challenge, and the art style, sound direction, and narration are done in such a way that brilliantly enhances that atmosphere. The only thing about the game that really didn't sit well with me was that the perspective switches between a couple different parties throughout the game before the parties (or remnants of them) meet up at the end. It certainly wasn't bad, but I tend to prefer having a consistent set of protagonists rather than switching back and forth between two groups. That aside, however, it's one of if not the most enjoyable indie games that I've ever played. It has the indie game hallmark bits and pieces that could have used a bit more polish or could have been expanded upon a bit, but even so, it's an absolutely remarkable game, and it absolutely deserved the Switch, PS4, and Xbox One releases that it and its two sequels got. With availability on all three home platforms, all three major computer OSs, and both major smartphone OSs, there's nary a gamer out there with no way to play. I absolutely and whole heartedly recommend this game for any who are fans of strategy or fans of a good Norse tale.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match is a tank combat game based on the anime film, but since my first time hearing about Girls und Panzer in general was when I impulse bought this on Play-Asia, so I'm going to ignore that for the most part. The story, unfortunately, is more or less completely incomprehensible if you're not familiar with the source material. It's told in a flashback sort of manner; there's some festival following a big tournament of some sorts that was depicted in a movie, and the girls who participated in the tournament are telling stories of their experiences, and those stories are told through the game's levels. After the third level, though, I gave up on having any idea what was going on other than "Cute anime girls blow each other up in tanks to learn how to be good women, wives, and mothers." But there is, at the end of the day, lots of cute anime girls blowing each other up in tanks, so do you really NEED to understand what's going on?
The game's different stages have different objectives. Some levels require you to destroy all of the enemy tanks, some will require you to reach a certain area, some will require you to survive for a certain amount of time, etc. Between the varying objectives and the variety of tanks that you're made to use, the levels are different enough from one another to keep from becoming stale. Unfortunately, while the game doesn't become stale per se, it never really "grips" you, or at the very least, it never really gripped me. The gameplay is fun enough, but because familiarity with the source material is so important to understanding what's going on, it's hard to get into the game.
The visuals and sound design are about what you'd expect from a run of the mill weeb anime game - decent. They're not great. They're not terrible. They're just decent. The graphics push the PS4's capabilities in no way, shape, or form, but the models are smooth with nice animations. The voice acting is good, and the soundtrack is fine. That's the problem, though - nothing about the game's presentation ever surpasses "fine." It's entirely dependent on the concept of cute anime girls blowing each other up with tanks. Which, in fairness, is exactly why I bought the game, so job well done at hooking your target demographic, but actual overall quality of the game? Eh. It's fine.
With my affinity for games revolving entirely around anime girls, I really want to love this game. I want to say that it pushes the envelope of what thirsty neckbeard gaming can be. I want to be able to recommend it not just to forever-alone types like but to gamers in general. Unfortunately, I can't do that. The gameplay itself is fun enough, but I can't say that it's fun enough to recommend. Given that the only English language release is an Asian import, it's not exactly a bargain bin game, and the game's overall quality is solidly bargain bin. It's on the high end of bargain bin, sure, but it's still bargain bin. Truthfully, I wouldn't pay more than $15 for this game, and I doubt we'll see the price drop that much. Unless you're already a fan of Girls und Panzer, I just can't recommend this game. If you are a fan, then maybe there's something here for you, but for newcomers to the IP like me? Pass.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)
Mario Tennis is my absolute favorite of the various Mario sports series, and of the sports that have been Mario-fied, tennis is the one I find the most entertaining to watch. With the exception of hockey, tennis games are just generally my favorite sports games. It's because of that that left me SO disappointed with Wii U's Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. It was just...okay... That's it. And that's coming off the heels of the INCREDIBLE Mario Power Tennis for Gamecube and revised for Wii with motion controls. Thankfully Nintendo decided to make up for the lackluster Ultra Smash and gave Switch owners what may well be the best Mario Tennis game to date (although Power Tennis is a DAMN hard game to beat).
One of my favorite aspects of Mario Tennis Aces which, if I remember correctly, is a first for the Mario Tennis series, is the inclusion of an actual story mode. It's not a gripping tale with deep character development, but it does have an actual story. There's this evil tennis racket that possesses anyone who holds it and seeks to collect five power gems to restore its full power to take over the world. By beating people in tennis. Like I said, not a thrilling narrative, but it's good enough. In addition to standard tennis matches against opponents, the story mode also includes various training/challenges as well as legit boss battles. As you progress through the story mode, you'll unlock new characters to play as (although you're always Mario in the story mode), new rackets to use, and new courts to play on.
Nintendo seems to be adding more characters over time as there are two currently on the roster that the game says you can unlock early by participating in online tournaments, one in October (that one unlocked Birdo) and one in November (not sure what character that is). I don't know for certain if more characters will continue to be added over time, but it wouldn't come as a surprise to me. Speaking of the online play, I haven't done this extensively, but the few matches I have played worked brilliantly. I found matches quickly, and there was absolutely no lag whatsoever; it felt as if I were playing a match against a CPU.
Visually, Mario Tennis Aces probably isn't pushing the Switch quite to its limits, but it does look extremely nice, especially when playing as a handheld. Motion is fluid, frame rate drops are either non-existent or so negligible that the average person likely wouldn't notice, and the colors really "pop" on screen. The soundtrack also really excels for a sports game. The various themes - forest, desert, tundra, Boo house, etc - are all varied and fitting. The sound effects are also fitting, although honestly, there are only so many sound effects you need a tennis game. The real start of the audio show is, obviously, the soundtrack, and there's nothing left to be desired here in that regard.
All in all, Mario Tennis Aces is the game that Mario Tennis fans deserved after the slap to face that was Ultra Smash. Everything wrong about Ultra Smash is fixed in Tennis Aces. What little was right about Ultra Smash is improved in Tennis Aces. The online play works fabulously, the game controls smoothly, the soundtrack is superb, and the visuals look beautiful. I'm not going to go as far as to say that Mario Tennis Aces is a perfect game, but it is definitely a high point for the Mario sports games, and I would call it a must-play for Switch owners.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Valkyria Chronicles 4 (Switch)
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows
I have been waiting for Valkyria Chronicles 4 for years. The first game was absolutely incredible, but the second game was good but disappointing, the third game never got released in North America, and Valkyria Revolution was....not what I was wanting. Finally, though, Sega has graced me with a true successor to the series, and not only that, but in a first for the series, it saw a release on a Nintendo platform.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 takes place during the Second Europan War along side the events of Valkyria Chronicles and Valkyria Chronicles 3 and two years before Valkyria Chronicles II. What makes Valkyria Chronicles 4 different, however, is where in Europa the game is set; whereas the first three main series games (Revolution was set in a completely different fictional universe) cast the player as a soldier fighting for the small kingdom of Gallia against the autocratic East Europan Imperial Alliance (basically Russia), Valkyria Chronicles 4 has one assume the role of a group of soldiers fighting for the Atlantic Federation, a seemingly confederation-type of alliance of democratic nations in western Europa (basically NATO). I guess that makes Gallia kind of like Yugoslavia if we're going with a Cold War analogy (although Yugoslavia tended to get along a little bit better with the Warsaw Pact than with NATO...eh, an imperfect analogy, but whatever). It's worth noting , though, that most of the game's main characters are Gallian-born and joined the Federation army to protect Gallia from the Empire before Gallia was invaded.
Following Squad E of the Federation army's elite Ranger Corps, you fight your way east as you try to repel the imperial invaders and, eventually, attempt to push to the imperial capital and bring the war to a close. Of course, being a Valkyria Chronicles game, the focus is always more on the individual characters than the overarching war itself, and that's part of the reason I love the series so much. That's not to say that the war itself is just glossed over; the game's story reveals a lot about the context of EWII and expands a lot of the lore that the first game provided. The way the story is told, however, always has the player caring more about the soldiers' individual struggles, triumphs, and relationships than the Federation vs Empire war, especially once the Federation's dirty secrets start to come to light.
While I've only played the game on Switch and, therefore, can only speak from first hand experience about that version, I have seen several side by side comparison videos that have me feeling confident when I say that the graphical differences between the Switch version and the PS4/XB1 versions are negligible. There's some shadow and lighting effects that are diminished on Switch, and there's a tiny bit more detail on the PS4 and XB1 versions, but given the watercolor art style used in the game, I doubt anyone would b e able to tell one version from another without a direct side-by-side comparison. Frame rate is usually where I would expect to see some major differences given the art style chosen, but Sega seems to have locked it to 30 FPS on all versions (not sure about PC; that can probably be unlocked). With a common frame rate across the board and visual differences that are negligible at best, it seemed pretty clear to me that the portability and cartridge load times of the Switch version made it a pretty easy choice which platform to go with, and I have no regrets whatsoever. This is probably the best third party experience I've had on the Switch to date.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 is an exceptional strategy game that continues the series' brilliant blend of turn based strategy with real time combat. It allows carries on the series' tradition of putting character development above all else, propelling the game to an experience that is virtually impossible to put down once you get started. There's a lot of exposition between each battle - that takes at least as long as the battles themselves if you don't skip anything - but very rarely does it ever feel superficial. The story has a few plot twists, and while few of them came as unexpected, the delivery is such that even if it's expected, it still retains impact because of how it happens more than what's happening. The game's sound designed - especially its soundtrack - are stellar, but the real star of the show here is the visual design. The watercolor art style is truly phenomenal and reaches a level of artistic beauty that I've only seen from Okami and Muramasa. I cannot recommend this game enough especially on Switch. It showcases spectacularly the system's ability to delivery beautiful and engaging home consoles experience right along side the big boys of the industry. It is, in my opinion, the best of the series.
BONUS PRO! The game teaches you valuable life lessons about consent.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Advance Wars (Game Boy Advance)
Also available on Wii U via Virtual Console
Advance Wars seems like the first in the series to those of us in the West, but it's actually an entry in a long running series called Famicom Wars; this is just the first entry that got localized. It's a turn based strategy game, but don't confuse with a SRPG like Fire emblem because Advance Wars has none of the traditional RPG mechanics such as levels or experience or changeable weapons. It's much closer to a 4X strategy game; you take control of cities and factories, manage your resources, and build up your units while balancing power and cost.
One of the big differences between Advance Wars and most strategy games like it is the tone of the story. It's story is inherently fairly silly. The nations involved are Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, and Green Earth. The COs are all unique and have their goof eccentricities, but none of them really give off a "serious" realistic vibe you would expect from an army general. While it's obviously understood, the concept of death is never mentioned explicitly; your units just fly off screen during the battle animations, and when a unit is defeat, it just explodes and disappears. No blood, no gore, no remains. It's about as non-offensive a presentation as war could possibly have.
The basic story is that you play as Orange Star fighting off an invasion from Blue Moon. As you're pushing back Blue Moon's advance and retaking Orange Star territory, you end up a couple of skirmishes with Green Earth. Eventually, you find yourself fighting Yellow Comet, too, and start to realize that something's off about the whole situation. That's as far as I'll go into the story, but it's a pretty decent story despite being fairly silly all around. The characters are likable, and the frivolous world minimizes the importance of lore. While I personally consider that to be a negative, it does allow one to jump straight into the action without worrying about each nation's background or anything.
Advance Wars is a fun, fairly light hearted strategy game. It starts off extremely easy, but the last three or four missions will provide some legitimate challenge (especially the last one, dear god). It's not a gritty, serious war story, so if that's what you're wanting, look elsewhere, but the strategy gameplay is solid, and it's definitely a lot of fun to play. You can also save in the middle of battles, so it's perfect for short bursts (or save scumming if you're like me and suck at games). Given the ease of access on Wii U, I'd definitely recommend a playthrough for folks who enjoy strategy games especially if you're also a general fan of Nintendo.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Panzer Dragoon Mini (Game Gear)
One of the great things about my Everdrive GBA is that someone made a Game Gear emulator for it. I have a Game Gear as well as the Master System/Master System card/Game Gear adapter for my Retron 5, but what I don't have is the ability to acquire some of the prohibitively and out of reach Game Gear imports - Panzer Dragoon Mini, for example, a Japan-only Game Gear exclusive that seems to fetch prices around $300 and up on eBay these days.
Panzer Dragoon Mini plays almost exactly like its Saturn counterparts just scaled down to fit the capabilities of Sega's handheld. I'd heard all sorts of gloom and doom about how bad it is online, but having played through, I can't imagine why. It's not a masterpiece or anything, but it's quite a competent game for the system, and I had a lot of fun playing through it. It's broken into five stages each of which is composed of random enemies that attack you, usually a mini boss with some more enemies following, and then an end boss. The final stage is largely a boss rush with an extremely brief interlude and a handful of enemies before the next boss.
I'll be the first to admit that my experience with the Game Gear isn't particularly extensive, but of the Game Gear games that I have played, this is definitely one of the better looking ones. The sprites are fairly simple as are the backgrounds, but the scaling gives a nice impression of a three dimensional environment, and the colors and animations are all well done. I was playing this one in public without headphones, so I can't speak to the sound effects or music, but as far as the visuals and gameplay go, it's a great game. The criticism it frequently gets online is totally bizarre to me.
Panzer Dragoon Mini is a seriously good handheld game to play if you have an hour or two to kill. My playthrough took just a bit over an hour - maybe 70 or 75 minutes if I had to guess. The visuals are nice and colorful, and while the artstyle does takes a super deformed approach to the dragons, it fits with the handheld and looks totally fine. It plays well and controls fine, and with a password after each stage and three difficulty settings, it's a very accessible game for players of varying skill levels. Given the hefty price tag, most folks won't get to experience this one, but if you're open to emulation or Everdrives, then I strongly suggest playing this one if you're a fan of on rails shooters. For me, at least, Panzer Dragoon Mini did not disappoint.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.