Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Dreamfall Chapters Book Two Review

Dreamfall Chapters continues from a solid start in book one into an engaging and truly satisfying experience in book two.

In book two, Zoe's story continues to entertain and the new characters she meets are all strange and interesting. I wasn't sold on Kian's story in the first book, but he's given a chance to shine here, and we're introduced to fantastic characters in his book as well. Both characters find themselves in the middle of a class war, with the government and corporations controlling the lives of the citizens in Stark and the militaristic Azadi forcing the magical folk out of the villages and into prison camps in Arcadia. Things soon get even grimmer, as both Zoe and Kian find themselves in the middle of conspiracies in their respective worlds.

The voice work is once again exceptional here, with the voice actors for both Zoe and Kian performing their roles admirably. The newly introduced characters are excellently written, but their voice performances are what truly make them memorable. This is especially true of the energetic, excitable young rebel named Eno and the tough, scarred rebel named Likho, the latter of whom had a troubled history with Kian before he changed sides and joined the rebels. The voice actor for the former gives her character a fast-talking yet cute persona, which reminded me a bit of the character of Six from the classic 90s American television sitcom, Blossom. Meanwhile, the voice actor for the latter provides his character with a gravitas that is matched only by his baritone voice, both of which are quite fitting for the battle-hardened warrior.

The music is also excellent, helping to give levity or amusement to the fantastically written story and working to help elevate the wonderful voice acting to even loftier heights.

The puzzles in this book are fantastic, especially the underground hatch puzzles that Zoe undertakes when she is directed toward a street gang by an enigmatic merchant who lives on a houseboat in the city's Asian district. The choices here don't seem to change much of the main story, but they do affect the way the characters react to you, much like the games by Telltale from The Walking Dead forward. This actually works quite well, as the story of the game is so emotional, and the characters are so well-written and acted, you can't help but feeling gut-punched when you make a choice that results in a negative reaction.

The city on the technologically-advanced Stark side is just as beautiful and fun to walk around as ever. On the Arcadia side, as it is themed akin to a medieval village, it's not quite as beautiful and it does get repetitive at times. However, the magical market, while quite a small part of the overall village, is quite lively and wonderfully designed. The same can't be said for the character models though, They are as stony-eyed as ever, encroaching on uncanny valley territory, and emotional moments are hampered a bit when characters go in for kiss, and their character models don't touch each other.

Book two has an excellent story, fantastic voice acting and music, a gorgeous art style in Stark, and fun engaging characters. It is only let down by the somewhat-repetitive art-style of Arcadia and the stiff character models and animation. However, any shortcomings are small in the grand scheme and don't hamper the overall enjoyment provided. Book two continues the threads created by book one, and strings them even deeper into an even more fantastic plot, leaving you wanting more.

Final verdict:
44½ out of 5

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Judgment Review

Judgment is an action-adventure game that is a spin-off of developer Ryū ga Gotoku Studio's Yakuza series. It has the fighting and open-world exploring of Yakuza as well as investigation and detective mechanics similar to Ace Attorney Investigations. Although it leans in very close to its Yakuza heritage, the investigation mechanics give it a feeling of freshness that's been lacking in the franchise since the first Yakuza game came out almost fifteen years ago. 

The game follows Takayuki Yagami, a former attorney who lives in Kamurocho, Ryo ga Gotaku Studio's fictionalized version of Tokyo's Kabukichō district. He was formerly his firm's golden boy, getting to handle almost all of the firm's clients after he got a man acquitted of murder charges in a country that has a conviction rate of over 99 percent. However, when the man kills his girlfriend and sets fire to her apartment, Yagami leaves his firm and becomes a private investigator. 

One of the investigation techniques he uses as a private investigator is called active search mode, which is used for investigating crime scenes, searching for evidence, or verifying information such as eyewitness sketches with the facial features and clothing of a suspect. Yagami also employs the tried and true method of tailing a suspect. While doing so, he sometimes has to hide behind items or blend in with a crowd to avoid being seen. It has to be said that this isn't realistic in the least, as the suspects turn straight around and begin craning their head and turning sharply left and right looking for someone who is trailing them. With these exaggerated head movements, there would not be ample time to hide in reality. However, in a franchise that is known for, and thrives on, exaggeration this actually fits right into the atmosphere of the game once you get used to it.

The most novel, and topical, of these investigation techniques is a flying drone named the pigeon. It is used to spy on targets below and those that are inside of buildings by looking in through the window. There is also a drone race mini-game that can be played, and the drone can be upgraded to better compete in these races.

This being the Yakuza universe, drone racing isn't the only way to pass the time. There are many other mini-games that can be played around Kamurocho. These include Sega arcade classics like Virtua Fighter 5, Fighting Vipers, and Puyo Puyo. There is also a unique Kamurocho-themed House of the Dead-style shooting game titled Kamurocho of the Dead. Throughout the city, there are also areas where you can play darts, western gambling games like poker and blackjack, and Japanese gambling games like koi-koi and oichu-kabu. Those who have played Yakuza 6 will find the layout of Kamurocho familiar, as it uses the same map, with some changes. The most obvious of these is that the bowling alley area now has a mini-game inside that is said to be a virtual reality board game of Kamurocho. Here, you roll dice and traverse around a game board. The spaces you land on could lead to several mini-games, from lockpicking or thumb turn bypass (using a thin wire to open a lock), fighting several enemies, or shooting using a drone. There are also spaces that add dice rolls or take them away, and spaces that simply give you a gift. Winning any of the minigames in these spaces will give you a prize, and they will be converted to cash upon successful completion of the board. Any extra dice at the end will also give you a cash prize. Because of this, it's one of the easiest ways to earn a lot of money, as long as you have enough game passes to play. These game passes can be found in gambling centers, or won from simply winning street fights when thugs around Kamurocho jump you.

The voice acting and motion capture in this game is excellent. The highlight is definitely Takuya Kimura as Takayuki Yagami. I enjoyed Yakuza's protagonist Kazama Kiryu as much as everyone else, but Kimura gave Yagami a much more emotional performance that was a nice change from the stoic performance of Takaya Kuroda as Kiryu. Another highlight was one of the game's main antagonists, Kyohei Hamura. There was a lot of press given to the fact that Pierre Taki was replaced in the role by Miou Tanaka after Taki was caught by police in possession of cocaine. Hamura's face was altered to no longer resemble Taki, but the motion performance is still there, and it is excellent. Throughout the story, Hamura almost becomes a sympathetic character, and a lot of that is down to the emotion given when the entire plot is revealed. That is a testament both to Tanaka's voice performance and Taki's motion-capture performance. In this game, unlike most games in the Yakuza universe, there is both a Japanese voice option and an English one. The excellent thing about this is that the English dub has an entirely new translation from the Japanese one. This makes it flow more naturally when spoken in English, preventing the game from having stilted dialogue as was the case with the Shenmue series or the original Yakuza on PlayStation 2. The English voice actors are equally as impressive, with the highlights once again being Yagami's voice actor Greg Chun and Fred Tatasciore as Hamura. Another standout in both English and Japanese versions is Yagami's best friend, former Yakuza Masaharu Kaito, performed by Shinshu Fuji in Japanese, and voiced by Crispin Freeman in English. I would love to see a game with Kaito as a playable character.

The game's art style is excellent, as is the case with all Yakuza titles. Kamurocho, the Yakuza universe's fictionalized version of the Kabukichō district of Tokyo, is almost a character all of its own. It is brimming with life, with recreations of famous Kabukichō landmarks and buildings as well as buildings unique to Kamurocho. The game pays tribute to Shenmue in many ways, more so than most Yakuza titles, with capsule toys that can be sold or displayed in Yagami's office, and quick-time event chase scenes. The quick-time events are never as punishing as Shenmue however, as you are given ample time to press the button, and failing to do so won't result in failure, just a reduction of the amount of time that Yagami has to catch the suspect. The latter is not a problem either, as Yagami is given ample time to catch up. Many of these scenes make the quick-time events worth it, as there are a lot of references to famous film action scenes, including everything from Jackie Chan films to Back to the Future.

The musical score is also top-notch, and while many themes should be familiar to fans of the Yakuza series, there are some standouts that are new to this game. There are also five vinyl records that can be collected throughout Kamurocho containing music that can be played in Yagami's office. These include everything from the traditional Irish tune "Londonderry Air" (commonly known with lyrics as "Danny Boy", although this game includes the song with no lyrics), to a song performed by one of Yagami's love interests in the game.

Judgment is an exceptional game. It has both Yakuza and Ace Attorney Investigations gameplay styles that work exceptionally well together, and the game's cast of characters are well voiced in both Japanese and English. The separate translation for the English dub is also a welcome change from previous efforts to translate games in the Yakuza franchise, resulting in dialogue that sounds natural when spoken in English. The game's fictionalized Tokyo district, Kamurocho, is bustling with life and energy, and there is much to do around the district as well. This game is one that I heartily recommend to anyone, whether you are a fan of the Yakuza series or not.

Final verdict:
5 out of 5