Thursday, December 19, 2019

My favorite games of 2019: Lapis x Labyrinth and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

If you had told me this time last year that I'd declare Lapis x Labyrinth and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince my favorite games of 2019, I'd have laughed in your face.

Back then, these Nippon Ichi Software-made games were barely on my radar. I wasn't even sure I was going to buy the localized version of Lapis x Labyrinth. And though I'd already placed a pre-order for The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince by that point, I had a sinking feeling I wouldn't enjoy it.

All those fears flew out the window within minutes of starting The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince, and within a few hours of doing the same with Lapis x Labyrinth.

Warming up to and falling in love with The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince was easy. Everything from the start screen, to the opening cinematic, to the introductory tutorial, to the music that accompanied them set the perfect tone for what was to come.

So, what was to come? About five hours of blissful platforming and puzzle-solving.

Actually, it isn't the platforming and puzzle-solving in The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince that's blissful. It's the whole package.

On their own, neither of the above-mentioned components are overly impressive. The platforming in this game pales in comparison to that of CelesteHollow Knight, or even Super Mario Bros. The same can be said of its puzzle-solving elements and those of that sub-genre's stand-outs.

These shortcomings are easy to excuse when they're combined with The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince's story, characters, and atmosphere, though. In that context, they feel like two important-but-far-from-vital parts of a charmingly interactive fairy tale.

Still not seeing why I consider The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince to be one of my two favorite games of 2019? How about this: I can't stop thinking about it. Even after finishing it twice.

Also, I've spent more time thinking about The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince this year than I've spent thinking about Ghost Trick, Last Window, or Mother 3. If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

Lapis x Labyrinth hasn't had the same long-term impact on my psyche, but it sure affected me while I raced through it this past summer.

That's chiefly because this side-scroller is one of the most visceral--or maybe I should say instinctual--titles I've ever experienced. In fact, once I came to grips with Lapis x Labyrinth's controls and gameplay loop, I made it through the remainder of its frantic, frenetic adventure almost on auto-pilot.

A case in point: after a surprisingly short getting-to-know-you period, whenever "ENCOUNTER!!!" flashed on the screen to alert me of yet another enemy swarm (spoiler: this happens a lot), my fingers basically took over and did what was needed to rid the stage of them.

To be totally honest, I'm not used to feeling so skillful or powerful while playing a game. I usually feel like an oaf--particularly during side-scrolling action titles (a category that aptly describes Lapis x Labyrinth) that require perfect jumps or precise timing.

As such, you might think Lapis x Labyrinth's stressful, stay-on-your-toes action would've worn me out after a while. It didn't. On the contrary, I loved it. So much so that I stuck with it long enough to see its credit roll and put nearly 30 hours into it along the way.

It just hit me that what I've said so far may help you understand why I named Lapis x Labyrinth one of my favorite games of 2019, but it doesn't really help you understand what it's all about or even how it plays.

I'll try to tackle that in an upcoming post. For now, though, hopefully the following description will do the trick. In my mind, Lapis x Labyrinth is one part Etrian Odyssey, one part Muramasa: The Demon Blade, one part Mystery Dungeon "monster house," and one part slot machine.

Actually, I could toss in a couple more games here, like World of Final Fantasy, but I figure that would make things more confusing.

Honestly, it's too bad NIS America didn't put a Lapis x Labyrinth demo on the PlayStation Store, the Switch eShop, or even Steam. Telling people it's an exhilarating, side-scrolling, treasure-collecting dungeon-crawler only goes so far with most folks.

Still, if what I've said here, or what you see here, piques your interest at all, you could do a whole lot worse than take a chance on Lapis x Labyrinth at some point in the new year.

See also: 'Black Bird and Sushi Striker, my favorite games of 2018'

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Mini-reviews of the 19 games I finished in 2019, part two

My last post featured mini-reviews of 10 of the 19 games I finished this year. Here are some similarly succinct write-ups for the remaining nine titles I completed in 2019.

Last Window: The Secret of Cape West (DS)--I first played and finished Hotel Dusk: Room 215 back in 2015. I wish I could give you a good reason as to why it took me until 2019 to play and finish this follow-up, which released in 2010. The best I can come up with is I wanted to savor the experience and felt like I couldn't do so until this year. At any rate, I loved Last Window--much like I loved Hotel Dusk. Although these two point-and-click murder-mystery titles are strikingly similar, they're just different enough to be equally enthralling. There's no question in my mind that I'll replay both--many times over--in the coming years.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)--Given my love of the GameBoy, it probably seems strange that I didn't play Link’s Awakening back when the original version released in 1993. I did download the GameBoy Color DX version from the 3DS eShop a few years ago, but I only put a couple of hours into it before walking away for some reason I can't remember. So, what did I think of this Switch remake? I liked it. I wouldn't say I loved it, though. That's mainly because I regularly had to refer to a guide to figure out what to do or where to go next. I also found the game a bit disjointed. All in all, it was far from a turd, but it also didn't live up to my expectations--or to my previous, more positive experiences with the series' first release, A Link to the Past, or even A Link Between Worlds.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince (Switch)--I did more than finish this Nippon Ichi Software-made game once; I finished it twice. That's how much I enjoyed The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. What was it about it this darkly cute puzzler-platformer that prompted such adoration? Its touching, fairy-tale-esque story was the chief culprit, though its unique gameplay, soothing tunes, and eye-catching art style played key roles, too. By the way, I'm far from done with this title, which also can be played on the PS4 and Vita (though the latter was a Japan-only release). In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if I beat it a couple more times in 2020.

Luigi's Mansion 3 (Switch)--I developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the 3DS port of the original Luigi's Mansion when I played through it last year. Did the same thing happen when I played through Luigi's Mansion 3 this year? I'm sad to say it sort of did. On the love side, there are the Pixar-worthy graphics, the beautifully varied floor themes, and the surprisingly creative puzzles. On the hate side, there are the frustrating controls and the occasional lack of direction. In the end, I'm glad I bought, played, and finished Luigi's Mansion 3, but I'm not sure I'll ever return to it.

Mother 3 (GameBoy Advance)--Those of you who've known me for at least a little while should be well aware of the fact that I'm a late bloomer when it comes to Nintendo's  deservedly ballyhooed Mother series. I didn't play through its second entry, called EarthBound in my neck of the woods, until 2014. And I waited all the way until 2017 to do the same with the original Mother. I adored both titles, so I approached Mother 3 with the highest of expectations. Although I can't say it disappointed me, I can say I didn't like it as much as I thought I would. The chapter structure kind of turned me off, plus I thought it felt a tad padded. That said, I have every intention of replaying it at some point down the road--after I've replayed the first two Mother games, of course.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Switch)--I hate to admit this, but sometimes the hype surrounding a game turns me off to the point that I stubbornly ignore it. That's what kept me from playing classics like EarthBound and Undertale for so long, and it's what kept me from diving into the Ace Attorney series, too. As was the case with those aforementioned titles, I'm now hitting myself for my stupidity. I can honestly say I loved nearly every minute of the 20-ish hours I put into the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Switch port this spring. If I had known its characters, soundtrack, and writing were so brilliant, I would've raced through it when the DS port made it way stateside back in 2005.

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure (DS)--I avoided this DS port of Nippon Ichi's PlayStation RPG from 2000 for ages because the word on the street was that it was filled with game-killing glitches and bugs. I finally threw caution to the wind and picked up a copy this summer, though--in part because my curiosity got the best of me, and in part because I desperately wanted to play a short game for a change. Well, guess what? The risk paid off. I had a blast with Rhapsody. Its colorful cast of characters--the fiendish Etoile, in particular--was the highlight for me, but I also got a kick out of its puppet-focused battles and its Easter-egg aesthetic.

Touch Detective (DS)--Despite my years-long fascination with developer BeeWorks' Funghi mascot, I didn't play the game that birthed it until early 2019. My thoughts after putting over seven hours into said DS title (which was just enough to reach its end credits)? Touch Detective is the definition of "mixed bag," though for me its positives outweighed its negatives. As for its bright spots: those would be its marvelously weird aesthetic, characters, and mysteries. Admittedly, that last component confounded me more than I'd usually like, but it didn't annoy me here as it often does in similar situations.

Unou no Tatsujin: Soukai! Machigai Museum (DS)--This game was renamed QuickSpot when Namco released it in North America. I bought a copy of the Japanese version--hey, it's got the better cover illustration--after some folks on Twitter recommended it. A few bucks and about a week later, I was done with it. Don't take that as complaint. I was done with it because I'd gone through all of its spot-the-difference stages (or whatever you call such things). Yes, this is a digital, dual-screened photo-hunt game. Sounds like I real snooze, I know, but it's actually quite nice--thanks in large part to all the lovely art packed inside it.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mini-reviews of the 19 games I finished in 2019, part one

Back when I was a teenager, I finished a ton of games each year. These days, I'm lucky if I can beat even a handful.

Well, except for the last two years. In 2018, I finished 15 games. And I've finished 19 games so far in 2019.

I enjoyed every single one one of those games, so I thought I'd share mini-reviews of them in a pair of blog posts. Here's the first batch; look for the second in a few days.

A Witch’s Tale (DS)--I approached playing this role-playing game with the lowest of expectations thanks to the fairly terrible word of mouth that surrounds it. It didn't take me long to develop my own, far more positive opinion of A Witch's Tale, though. I'd never call this touch-heavy offering a classic, don't-miss DS RPG, mind you, but I think it's both unique and fun enough to warrant a playthrough or two if you still own (and use) one of Nintendo's dual-screened systems.

Another Code (DS)--You may have heard that this point-and-click adventure, known as Trace Memory in North America, is on the short side. Well, it is. In fact, it took me less than five hours to reach Another Code's end credits. That said, it packs a lot of intrigue, not to mention interesting puzzles, into the brief, coming-of-age journey of its heroine, Ashley Robbins. One thing I would recommend to folks who've yet to play any of now-defunct developer CiNG's DS games: start with this one, then move on to the far superior Hotel Dusk and The Last Window at a later date.

Crimson Shroud (3DS)--Although I bought this Yasumi Matsuno-helmed RPG the day it hit the 3DS eShop back in late 2012, I barely put more than a few minutes into it until early this year. I guess all the talk about it being inspired by tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons intimidated me a bit? I needn't have worried. In the end, I found Crimson Shroud to be a thrilling change of pace. OK, so a few battles near the end aggravated me, but not so much they caused me to walk away in a huff. I did feel a bit, well, huffy after watching the game's initial ending sequence, but even that didn't ruin the otherwise-lovely experience for me.

Ever Oasis (3DS)--This 2017 release was made, in part, by Koichi Ishii, who also had a hand in such gems as Secret of Mana, that game's sequel (Seiken Densetsu 3), and one of my all-time favorite RPGs, SaGa Frontier. Ever Oasis resembles the first of those titles, but it's far from a copycat. Unlike that 16-bit classic, this overlooked 3DS gem includes town-building, material-gathering, and quest-fulfilling components. To learn more about those and other aspects of this game, check out the blog post I published a few months ago, "A whole lot of thoughts on Ever Oasis for the Nintendo 3DS."

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (DS)--Here's another DS title I long avoided because of the negative word of mouth that surrounds it. Now that I've played it, I'm baffled as to why so many others pooh-pooh A2. Sure, its vibe is decidedly different from that of the original Final Fantasy Tactics, and it's quest-based rather than story-focused, but I found those changes refreshing rather than off-putting. Actually, the only issue I had with Final Fantasy Tactics A2 was its annoying final boss--and that's a complaint I could level at most Square Enix RPGs I've bothered to finish.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS)--People have been begging me to play this Shu Takumi-directed adventure game from 2011 for ages. Now that I've done so, I can understand their passionate pleas. For whatever reason, I always assumed Ghost Trick was just Ace Attorney with a different coat of paint. Instead, it's more of a puzzler. With an amazing art style. And an impressive soundtrack. And a surprisingly touching story. What I'm trying to say here is: if you've yet to play it yourself, do so as soon as possible.

Katamari Damacy Encore (Switch)--As much as I love the original PS2 release of Katamari Damacy, I rarely pull that system out of the closet these days. I play my Switch all the time, though, so you know I jumped all over this port--especially since it's portable. (I pretty much only play portable systems at the moment.) The eight hours I spent with it were among my most joyous of the year, as far as the time I spent with games were concerned. As a result, I sincerely hope Bandai Namco gives us a Switch port of We Love Katamari in 2020.

Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn (3DS)--I know a lot of people reacted to the announcement of this barely enhanced portable port of Kirby’s Epic Yarn with a shrug or a sigh (if not worse), but my own response was far more positive. Granted, I adore both the original Wii game and the 3DS system, so the idea of playing through the former on the latter sounded like a dream come true. And you know what? That's basically what it was for me. The only way I could've loved it more would've been if it had included new stages or been playable in 3D.

Kirby Triple Deluxe (3DS)--Despite my love of cute games, I've never been the biggest Kirby fan. I had such a good time with Epic Yarn, Return to Dream Land, and Planet Robobot, though, that I broke down and bought a copy of Triple Deluxe early this year. I didn't find it as thrilling as I found Epic Yarn or Planet Robobot, but I still had a blast with it. It felt like a portable Return to Dream Land, and that was more than fine with me.

Lapis x Labyrinth (Switch)--I hemmed and hawed a lot before buying this Nippon Ichi Software title. Why? The main reason was preview trailers made me think Lapis x Labyrinth's gameplay might not be my cup of tea. My reticence seems silly now. I loved nearly every second of the 30-ish hours I put into this frantic, side-scrolling dungeon-looter. I get the distinct feeling it's one of those "not for everyone" titles, but it definitely was for me.

See also: 'Mini-reviews of the 19 games I finished in 2019, part two'