The Legend of Heroes
Trails of Cold Steel
Feb 08
Posted by James at 16:00

Balancing the growing demands of ever larger and technically ambitious projects with good craftsmanship is never easy, particularly with a genre like the RPG, where worlds are often bulging in size to the point where individual locations sometimes see just minutes of screen time.

Here’s an example: Bandai Namco went big on scale with Tales of Zestiria. But it was scale for the sake of it, leading to a faux-open world which felt far less than the sum of its parts.

The development team seemed to lack the time, resources and sound management to fill out that game’s world with the kind of little details that the series arguably stood for in the first place.

On the other hand, we recently had Xenoblade X, which, despite its lofty ambitions, did manage to fit itself together quite nicely, likely in part due to ample development time and good project management.

So it’s also a good thing that Japanese developer Falcom, who have been around for a good 35 years, have maintained the right balance with Trails of Cold Steel, the first part in a new, modern series to succeed its predecessors (Legend of Heroes VI and VII) from the last decade.

Expectations have changed: despite Cold Steel sharing many of the same core underpinnings in game design, those detail rich environments now need to be rendered in 3D and animated, dialogue must be voiced – so the lengths and budget required to deliver such a project have grown considerably since the last duology of Legend of Heroes games on PSP.

Luckily Falcom have still been able to garnish Trails of Cold Steel with the usual design conscious details that they are known for, and it’s this that helps give the game a unique, appreciable flavour despite it being a largely traditional RPG at its core.

Indeed, battles are turn based, exploration is mostly decoupled from the combat itself, NPCs stay put until you speak to them. But classic design never grows old when it’s this good, and Falcom are still implementing battle systems and narratives that are the best of their class.

Take the battle system for example. The positioning of both characters and the Arts (magic) and Craft (skills) abilities that they unleash have just as much relevance as the statistical underpinnings of the attacks themselves, or any elemental weaknesses in play.

These extra mechanics, and the fine balance between them, lead you to think questions like: “Is there going to be much use in unleashing that mega space-elemental art if, by the time you’ve finished charging up the attack, my targeted foe has moved away from your pre-calculated line of fire?” or “Is it worth waiting a few turns until my foes huddle together so I can eliminate them in one fell swoop for a handsome EXP bonus, or should I eliminate the immediate threat?”

That’s the result of a battle system that keeps things fresh and engaging – you’ll rarely be able to coast through most encounters, but the core systems in play are intuitive and understandable enough that they never feel like work.

Battling monsters aside, the main draw in Trails of Cold Steel is the shift to a military academy setting, which, as you’d expect, involves spending ample time socialising with your fellow classmates, Persona style.

Just like in that game, this setup has its advantages – a moving school term, socialisation, an academy to call home – and the narrative can now primarily progress from a moving calendar rather than shifts in location.

Combine this set-up to Falcom’s usual attention to detail and you get something special. Characters you interact with always tend to bear some sort of relevance to the surrounding environment or plot, or even reveal their own little side stories that develop over time.

So when you intermittently return to Thors Military Academy every now and then, more often than not you’ll actually want to do the rounds and chat to each and every NPC again, because you’ll know that interesting developments will have happened. Likewise, the quests you undertake across each location all tend to serve some sort of purpose, subtle or otherwise.

From Vita to PS3, and back again
Trails of Cold Steel has been developed with both PS3 and PS Vita in mind, and playing the game across both platforms works well for the most part. Cloud saves are managed from a separate option in the game’s system menu, and the game is almost visually identical across both systems, save for a higher resolution and more advanced shadowing from characters and objects on PS3.

What doesn’t work so well is the game’s interface, which feels at home on the big screen on PS3 but, comically tiny at times on Vita. This leads to a slightly odd feeling where the game’s 3D visuals have been designed with Vita in mind, but the game’s menus and interface are clearly made for the big screen.
Sure, some of the quests may make you play the role of errand boy, but they tend to be designed that you’ll learn something along the way – even the most mundane, eye-rolling missions have the potential to feel fruitful here.

This careful, calculated, economical approach to design sets up the right kind of expectations early and encourages exploration and discovery – quite the feat when you consider how segmented the game’s worlds are, and how the narrative mostly unfolds in the background.

However, while the game’s primary emphasis on fleshing out its characters and environments is more than enough to engage anyone playing out of curiosity, there is one caveat – it’s fairly easy to get lost amongst all the world building, which often relates back to lore and political events from the previous Legend of Heroes trilogy and duology.

So if some of those games aren't fresh in your mind then you might struggle to keep up with some of the political developments that link back to the events, lore and locations from those previous games.

This is compounded by how the main plot has a tendency to move along at a snail’s pace for the first forty hours. There’s a bigger barrier to entry to get the most from the game’s plot than most titles, then, but there’s also enough here that anyone with no prior knowledge will still feel mostly engaged, just a little lost at times.

Trails of Cold Steel may not break new ground, but it carries with it a design-led approach to almost everything it accomplishes. There's a lot to appreciate here, which has become rare in a genre that's very much been commoditised at this point.
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Posted by Ben at 10:07
I'm going to stress that I don't actually know what Aegis of Earth: Protonovus Assault is. I know that's a name, no one can accuse it of not being that, but the descriptor 'dynamic tower defence' doesn't really answer the question

However, I really liked Deathtrap and Anomaly Warzone Earth, so I'm interested in a game that does something a bit different with the tower defence formula

There's no exact release date for Aegis of Earth: Protonovus Assault yet, other than Q1, but it's coming to the PS4, PS3 and Vita, and it might just be worth a look
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Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Gameplay Video
Feb 07
Posted by Ben at 09:40

Captured using a smartphone and the stand from that game I still can't remember the name of, because we at bitparade don't have a means to capture 3DS games directly. So, sorry about the quality of our Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 video, washed out colour, dull sound, and a bit of shaking that I'm hoping Youtube's editing software will fix and all

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2 The Fafnir Knight, to give it its full title, is a remake of the original Etrian Odyssey sequel, with an added story mode and a few new features. The video takes a quick look at some of them, including the level up system, plus gets in to a few fights, even taking down a FOE

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Posted by Duane at 15:33
Whoops, this was supposed to go up yesterday, life kind of got in the way
My playtime has been a little scattered over the past 7 days. I've sunk a little time into two titles that I have for review (Legends of Legacy and LEGO Marvels Avengers), competing in Time Trial Challenges on Driveclub and then the meat of my play time has seen me return to Star Wars Battlefront after it's recent patch.

I'm still enjoying that immensely and the recent addition of daily challenges has added to the experience, encouraging me to visit game modes I'd not played quite so much of, I know plenty of other games already do this but it strikes me as such a simple idea that I don't understand why DICE didn't include it sooner, especially as theres already challenges to earn more XP already I'm there.
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Street Fighter 5
Gameplay Video
Feb 02
Posted by Ben at 02:05

Granted, we here at aren't exactly fighting game masters, but I played some Street Fighter 5 over the weekend and managed to capture a few fights.

I lost a lot, an awful lot, but thanks to the wonders of editing I am the greatest Street Fighter V player OF ALL TIME

This video mainly takes a look at how the game handles the online component, but it also takes a quick look at some of the new characters. You'll see a bit of Karin, some Charlie, and me carefully picking out my wins with Rashid!

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Posted by Ben at 17:22
While the gap between indie games and full releases has closed immensely over the last few years it’s still easy to find an excuse to miss them off your game of the year list (cue link to ours). Not that this is a “best indie games of the year list”, more some that we played, that most people maybe didn’t, and we think do something interesting. They’re not intended to be perfect, only interesting, although some of them are in there because we really enjoyed them. Because of the stipulation that you, ‘average gamer’, might have missed them, there’s no Rocket League, no Undertale, but there’s also probably a load of indie games you loved that we never even touched, so just take this as our chance to give a shout to some stuff we enjoyed, or ‘enjoyed’ depending on the game

I'm amazed that Deathtrap didn't get more coverage. Not just because it's a good game, and Deathtrap was a good game, but because of how it played. A cross between Diablo and a tower defence game, with maybe a touch of DOTA, it's exactly the sort of game that should have found favour on the kind of sites that specialise in video content should have lapped up. There's no revolutionary plot in Deathtrap, but it's fun, and quite polished in a simple kind of a way

David Szymanski appeared on our list last year, and put out a couple of games this year (3 if you count the Steam release of Fingerbones). A Wolf in Autumn was thematically very interesting but it was short, and a little clumsy. The Music Machine though is much greater in scope. It's hardly Witcher 3, but there's an ambition to the narrative, a bigger picture, that builds over the game's length.

The Music Machine starts as a simple wander around a deserted island, but every step of the way there's something clever. You control a vengeful ghost, killed by the father of a young girl whose advances he'd spurned, who is now controlling her body, seeking the perfect way to kill her. The Music Machine is abstract and then fantastically on point, it really is too good a narrative to miss.

Gunman Clive 2 split the site this year. I, correctly, rate it as one of the best games of the year, others are less enthused. It's on the list, partly because I'm in charge of the list, but also because I wanted something console based here. Gunman Clive 2 is a tough little retro platformer with a fantastic aesthetic. It's also a step up on the first game, more varied with tighter platforming.

Weirdly the WiiU release of Gunman Clive HD Collection showed that the series works best on the 3ds, not that it's bad on the home console, but the loss of 3D does take something from the game in a way I didn't expect

While not exactly a massively unknown game, the principled stance its developer, Thomas Happ, took meant Axiom Verge didn't find itself in any Steam sales or Humble Bundles until Christmas, which meant that it will have bypassed a lot of people.

This is a shame, as a better love letter to the Metroidvania genre (the former half of that in particular) you will struggle to find, as this game manages to pay tribute to its forebears without falling too far, as many faux-retro indie games can, into deference or pastiche.

With this having spent five years in development, Happ's next game can probably be considered to be some distance away, giving you plenty of time to explore every inch of Axiom Verge's world.

Lisa was actually released right at the end of last year, and who knows, maybe releasing in the barren month of December helped it find an audience, but I feel like no one's talked about it this year. Not unlike Undertale Lisa is an Earthbound inspired rpg, where the humour belies a darker story. And that's the thing that most struck me about Lisa, I picked it up because it looked funny, but it's actually one of the darker games I played this year.

Be prepared though, it's a difficult game. So difficult the developer added an easy mode but then hid it, which is pretty in keeping with the spirit if the game. What I will say though is that Lisa's difficulty is what stopped me playing more of the game. I liked it, wanted to play it more, but after being wiped out again it was time to stop. If only I could have found that easy mode... assuming there actually is one.

I'm a bit unsure about including Yatagarasu: Attack on Cataclysm in this list, we were sent a code by its publisher PQube, and if it has a publisher then it's not an indie game. However Yatagarasu is very much an indie game, with Nyu Media picking up a series of Japanese indie games and getting them on to Steam. It's another example of the term 'indie' getting muddied, Grow Home, Ori and the Blind Forrest, Amplitude, they're all games with an "indie" appeal produced by big publishers, Yatagarasu is different, and so I think it gets a pass.

To explain what Yatagarasu is, well, it's a fighting game. That didn't take long. Yatagarasu is a beautifully refined fighting game, it brings to mind Garou Mark of the Wolves in that regard. It's uncomplicated, more Street Fighter 4 than Blazblue. In a year that included some fantastic fighting games, not least the aforementioned Blazblue and Arcana Heart Love Max!!, Yatagarasu held its own, were it a bit more feature packed and with better net code I think it may well have been my pick of 2015's fighters.

Home Is Where One Starts is a game I was a little, not sniffy about exactly, but at the time it didn't catch me the way I hoped. I felt it was a little unexplored conceptually, there was nothing wrong with the story, and nothing wrong with the execution on its key points, but it was underdeveloped. You play as a young girl from a tragic home, a lot is left unsaid, but it's clear that her father is no good for her. You explore the nearby environment, finding hints and memories about events in her life. That I wanted more from Home is Where One Starts is a back-handed criticism, and despite my initial instincts it stayed with me. It's cheap too, very short, nice looking and well acted, I actually do recommend you try it out.

I got to feel more than a little hipstery back when The Stanley Parable came out. I'd played the original mod, even recorded a video for another site, so being ahead of the curve, being able to push people towards it was cool. That said the re-used ideas made the game feel a little too familiar Things that would have made me laugh were jokes I already knew the punchline to, twists had already been spoiled, but it was still a game I had a lot of time for. The Beginner's Guide suffered from a kind of residual familiarity, I was still too burned out by The Stanley Parable and left The Beginner's Guide until the end of the year. I'm glad I waited to give it some space because it's a special thing.

The Beginner's Guide is a collection of not even half-finished games cobbled together by a narrator. I won't spoil what the narrative is, but it's an exploration of game design and of intent. The problem The Beginner's Guide has is that the games themselves aren't very good, which is kind of the point, but it does mean that the game isn't especially fun. It's a hell of an experience though, a hard sell compared to The Stanley Parable, but well worth the work.

The Old City: Leviathan is a game I played right at the end of the year to get ready for this feature. There’s still a handful of games I’ve not got around to, and The Old City: Leviathan was supposed to be towards the bottom of that list, maybe that’s part of why I wasn’t feeling it initially. If you check out the video I put up, it moves at a glacial pace to begin with, I was waiting for it to reveal itself, and by the end of the video it still hadn’t really, I even start talking about what it’s missing, why it’s not engaging me. So what happened after I hit stop on the capture software?

The Old City: Leviathan turns in to a stark dreamscape, both nihilistic and obsessed with theology. The world has ended and the new world is doomed to repeat itself. You go in search of a truth but begin to doubt that you’re even capable of recognising the truth if you saw it. There’s a vein of existentialism running through the game, and while it is slow going, having you reading literal pages of text, it does pay off, and it explores theology in a way I can’t recall any other game doing. If that sounds like your sort of thing, and granted, it’s an acquired taste, track it down and stick with it.
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The Delusions of Von
Sottendorff and His Square Mind
Jan 29
Posted by Mark at 08:28

In a sort of bizarre rotation of the traditional First Play/Review/What We're Playing chronology, I've covered pretty much the size of Von Sottendorff already. It'd be like I was making some clever joke on the slide puzzle element of the game, had I not only just thought of it.

We will, however, quickly recap: Baron Von Sottendorff has gone a little bit cuckoo and retreated into his own mind. Said mind seems to be limited to imagining small worlds made of cubic rooms, most of which can be manipulated around one another in a manner similar to a slide puzzle. In order to escape his own imagination, he must re-arrange those rooms to make it easier to traverse them, collecting together various mementos- and presumably, his marbles- as he goes.

Like the inside of the Baron's bonce, the game is made up of a handful of small compartments, not all of which sit entirely comfortably next to one another.

Let's start with the core, puzzle element- this is nicely done. The sliding rooms need to be shifted around so that the doors at their edges match up and can be passed through, reaching otherwise inaccessible ledges. This is expanded upon with platforms which are invisible until triggered by- of all things- a quick blast on a horn, hatches on the floors and ceilings, and later more complex structural puzzles.

Of course, where there are platforms, there is platforming. As a mechanic, this lives and dies, as James has taught us when discussing Umihara Kawase, its physics. Von Sottendorff struggles with this. It's frequently difficult to judge exactly how far a jump will take you.

This rubs up awkwardly, as mentioned back in the WWP, against the game's mostly-fixed camera, and the level furniture's stubborn refusal to get out of its way, leaving you often not knowing where you are or where you're going. Coupled with the physics, this can often mean missing the generally small platforms. Missing a platform means manoeuvring all the rooms to get out of where you've fallen, in order to be able to re-manoeuvre them to get to where you'd fallen from. Or just giving up.

Another game which shares these three elements, also a 3DS eShop favourite, is Pullblox- while it also gets the physics a bit less wrong, the ability to rewind gameplay a short way helps to take the focus off the platforming and put it back onto the puzzling- meaning that when the game does risk frustrating, it frustrates for the right reasons.

The Delusions of Von Sottendorff and His Square Mind comes recommended, but with the above caveat. This is a good concept, well pitched for handheld, it's just that everything can come crashing down far too easily.
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Sebastien Loeb
Rally Evo
Jan 28
Posted by Duane at 04:12

I've not paid attention to the world of Rally driving for a fair old while, actually not since Richard Burns sadly passed away have I actually followed it, thats probably more to do with its television rights issues than anything else. Still, the class has always made for excellent videogames of varying approaches, from the infamous SEGA Rally through to Codemasters more recent efforts and many more besides. Also, despite not following the discipline for a long while, I'm still aware of a few of its personalities, highest of which is definitely Sebastien Loeb, so it comes as no surprise that he's got this particular game attached to his name.

First off, Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo isn't particularly light on content, racers will find they have over 300km of track available to them over 8 different rally locations plus 5 Rallycross tracks plus the most famous Time Trial event of them all, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Theres also around 50 cars from various power categories and era's at your disposal, all of which have their own handling attributes. It's a decent specification list for a racing game thats only really focused on one discipline, there's also a couple of different game modes, including a career mode that has you working your way up to becoming the number 1 driver in the world as the titular Loeb's protégé and a mode that both introduces you to Sebastien's own career and challenges you with taking on the same events he partook in to get to where he has, minus a few elements that don't fit in with the games discipline such as his involvement with the LeMans 24 Hours or World Touring Car Championship.

Whilst content is important, its nothing if a racing game is a pain in the arse to play. This is where things get muddy as Rally Evo's handling model is incredibly off putting at first, its incredibly twitchy and feels far too responsive when at speed, it also feels far too easy to clip a bit of scenery and roll the car causing you to lose an incredible amount of time. Fortunately this can be undone by the games inclusion of a rewind mode, for which you get 6 tokens per race. Back to the games handling model, yet its twitchy, incredibly so initially, but I found the best approach was to use the bumper camera and make lots and lots of tiny constant adjustments on the steering, acceleration and even the braking, it feels much like you'd imagine from any in-car footage you'd find on YouTube. It takes some getting used to too, but once you do, the feeling of speed is exhilarating, and in actual fact the way in which the cars are so twitchy and the environments deadly reminds me of the original V-Rally and how challenging that was to handle back in the day but again, how rewarding it was as a speed freak once it all began to click.

Even once you've gotten used to the handling model, Rally Evo is still a challenge, obviously different cars with different set ups will require different approaches to this technique, this mostly comes down to the games various stages with different terrain also providing you with a challenge. Its much more difficult to throw the car around hairpin bends sideways, for example, on tarmac than in almost any other driving game that I recall playing, whilst the twitchiness is exaggerated further by the snow covered events. Getting the start right is also key in some of these events as you can find yourself spinning up the tyres for too long at the start if you apply too many revs.

Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo isn't a must-have racing game, its certainly not either platforms strongest driving experience either, but it is rather enjoyable and really gets the adrenaline pumping as you throw your car around desert courses, kicking up sand behind you and launching all four wheels off a bump in the road before trying desperately to slow down for a 2 Right Hairpin Turn.
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Posted by Ben at 11:05
I had some mixed feelings about the WiiU exclusive Typoman. It's undoubtedly a very good idea, a game I wished I liked more, but ultimately it had a few too many niggles and frustrations

Good news then, there's an update for the game that promises to address some of the hiccups in performance plus make some improvements to the gameplay

In an ideal world I'd get to take another look at the game to see if it has addressed some of my issues, but I'm not sure it's realistically going to happen. However, if you want to give Typoman a go yourself there'll be a demo up on the WiiU eShop on Thursday the 4th February
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Posted by Ben at 15:29
Basically this is just a declaration that I'm going to buy Detective Pikachu. Nintendo aren't going to send it to us for review, and I'm not going to not play it, so, assuming Detective Pikachu gets a European release it's getting bought

I don't actually know what the game is, other than a 3DS eshop title due in the next week, I just like subversions of established franchises.

Granted I can't see detective Pikachu having a drinking problem, estranged from his wife after their child went missing, a case he's never solved, but just having a normal man's voice while all the other pikachus don't is enough for me tbh

There's a trailer below is you want to see what's dividing the gaming side of the internet

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