Connect with us

Games

The Bold Experiment of ‘Flower, Sun, and Rain’

A look back at the stylish, niche DS adventure game.

Published

on

Flower, Sun, and Rain– for fans of Suda51, this name might ring a bell. Although for most others, it may be met with a level of confusion. This game was originally released by Grasshopper Manufacture on the PlayStation 2 in Japan in 2008, and was brought to the US for the Nintendo DS in 2009. It’s quite the mixed bag of an experience, to say the least. It serves as a semi-sequel/companion to The Silver Case, which interestingly wouldn’t get localized until nearly a decade later. It very well may be Suda51’s most under-the-radar US release. There is a reason for this- as a game, it’s difficult to get into. Though beneath the imposing exterior lies a uniquely written adventure game. Seeing as this game never saw much attention after its initial release, it’s worth looking back onto this fascinating piece of Grasshopper Manufacture history to see what it did right, and what it did wrong. As it turns out, it did quite a bit of both.

flower, sun, and rain

Where Flower, Sun, and Rain immediately shines is in its worldbuilding, helped considerably by a lengthy guidebook to the settings around the player, as well as plenty of quirky characters and a fascinating plot. Things start off simple: Sumio Mondo was called to Lospass Island to stop a terrorist from setting off a bomb within a plane, though things quickly take a turn strange when each day starts to seemingly repeat itself. Every day ends with a plane flying through the sky and blowing up, reminding Sumio that he has failed his task. Then he wakes up in the same hotel room, only to find the entire island around him seems to have “reset”. The player will experience a different version of the same day, endlessly repeating until they get to the bottom of the mystery of this island that seems to be stuck on repeat. Not only the plot, but the dialogue itself is always entertaining. It’s presented in a stream-of-consciousness style that Suda51 games do so well, and while you won’t always understand exactly what is going on, it’s hard not to be enthralled by the hilarious, anything-goes nature of the conversations. It’s a unique psychological mystery that goes to a wide number of unexpected places, and is certainly one of the best parts of a game that is balanced out with less-shining aspects.

The game itself consists of the player running around as Sumio, looking for the next puzzle to solve or character to talk to. That alone isn’t a bad thing- what’s bad is the fact that you’ll be running around for huge stretches of time. Getting from place to place can take an easy 5 minutes of pure running. There isn’t much to look at or do on the way there, either. It’s just you, the player, holding down buttons on the D-pad until you’ve reached your destination. It’s not even as simple as holding down the “forward” button, either- the camera is so wonky that players will have to constantly adjust the direction Sumio is running in order to prevent him from running into a wall. It’s slow and monotonous gameplay that will test even the most patient of players.

flower, sun, and rain

If that wasn’t enough, we haven’t even gotten started talking about the puzzles. Simply put: they’re insane. They often involve extremely obtuse clues that the player will need to use the in-game guidebook to find the answer to, use strange adventure-game logic, perform fairly complex algebraic equations, or any combination of the three. Furthermore, every puzzle answer takes the form of a number that needs to be entered into a specific object in the game world. It’s a novel concept, to be sure; though it’s safe to say that this is one of Suda’s many video game experiments that did not entirely pan out in an effective way. Points for originality, at the very least. Unfortunately, “original” does not always equate to “good”. And while Suda51 certainly has provided several original and effective gaming experiences, this system of puzzles may be his least-successful experiment. Strangely enough, the characters of the game will often break the fourth wall and acknowledge the fact that this game isn’t all that fun- Sumio himself will lament his boring job of finding random objects and entering numbers into them on more than one occasion. Even the game knows that it’s a bit of a painful experience to play, and it suffers alongside you. It is monotonous on purpose. And while this is intriguingly postmodern, it’s still not all that fun to actually play.

One of the FSR’s greatest strengths, and also one of its most unfortunate pitfalls, is its guidebook. There is an entire 49-page virtual guidebook that can be accessed anytime from the pause menu that details the various attractions and events of Lospass Island. The topic of these pages can range from a detailed description of a landmark, the menu of a restaurant, an interview with a local celebrity, or more. From a worldbuilding standpoint, this guidebook does wonders, as it makes the relatively bare-bone world around you feel completely alive. There’s a surprising amount of text to read through and it certainly makes the world of Lospass much more interesting to live in. However, the integration of the guidebook with the game’s puzzles leads to far too many obtuse conundrums that most players will not be able to solve without the use of some sort of walkthrough.

flower, sun, and rain

A peek inside one of the 49 pages inside the guidebook. Humorously, the image of the wedding couple was plagiarized by an artist at an ArtRabbit exhibition in 2017.

We’ve spent a good amount of time critiquing the game, and while there is much to critique, the sheer amount of good that this game accomplishes should not go unnoticed. Alongside its memorable characters and atmosphere, its music is also excellent, and is surely one of the best out of Grasshopper’s catalog. It features some catchy original tunes, and as well as many remixes of existing music. These remixes range from jazz such as the Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, to Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1”. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the updated keyboard-infused arrangements, and they definitely do justice to their source material. When Sumio is running around through the same bland environments, the soundtrack will always be there to put a pep in your step. Unfortunately, the sound quality of the original soundtrack was moved down considerably in the process of translating it to the DS, though the re-translated portable soundtrack is still a joy to listen to. Seriously, is this not the greatest?

flower, sun, and rain

Judging Flower, Sun, and Rain by the aspects of what traditionally make a game “good”- namely, by how much fun it is- it ranks pretty low. It basically requires a guide in order to solve the monumentally obtuse puzzles, there is a great deal of downtime spent simply walking, and there is often a lack of direction given to the player as to what their next objective should be. And yet, there’s an undeniable appeal to the game. In spite of these gameplay flaws and the fact that the graphics somehow manage to look N64-quality, there is a mystery here packed with personality that is just waiting to be uncovered. There’s even an incredibly cool shoutout to The Silver Case towards the end that puts the cherry on top of the whole experience. It features some of Suda51’s bravest experiments, and though not all of them may prove to be successful, it remains a thoughtful creation thanks to the sheer amount of detail in the world of Lospass Island. It’s a game that is dripping with style, and this is a rare case of style alone making up for substance. (Just make sure you have a walkthrough on hand for this one.)

Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Games

‘Earthbound,’ is one of the Weirdest, Most Surreal Video Games

25 Years later…

Published

on

Games that Changed Our Lives

The SNES is arguably home to some of the best Japanese role-playing games ever made, but even among such revered company, Earthbound (known as Mother 2 in Japan) stands out as a brilliant satire about growing up and our fears of conformity. It’s anarchy versus conformity, only conformity doesn’t stand a chance.

EarthBound has been often compared to Catcher in the Rye with its complex issues of identity, belonging, loss, connection, and alienation. Blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant, Earthbound is a one-two punch of social satire and a hilarious ride into the twisted recesses of a boy’s psyche. This often funny, always poignant coming of age tale, deeply embedded in suburban mores, centers around four kids, off to save the planet by collecting melodies while en route to defeating the evil alien force known as Giygas.

Earthbound
Earthbound
didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sure had fun twisting the usual JRPG tropes. There’s a princess you must rescue, not once, but twice, who’s really just a child prodigy, and there’s an arch nemesis who turns out to be your next-door neighbour. The game puts you in the shoes of a young boy named Ness as he investigates a nearby meteorite crash. There, he learns that Giygas, has enveloped the world in hatred and consequently turned animals, humans, and inanimate objects into dangerous creatures. A bee from the future instructs Ness to collect melodies in a Sound Stone to preemptively stop Giygas from destroying the planet. While visiting eight Sanctuaries, Ness partners with three other kids, a psychic girl (Paula), an eccentric inventor (Jeff), and the prince of the kingdom of Dalaam (Poo). Along the way are underlining themes of corrupt politicians, post-traumatic stress, corporate greed, depression, capitalism, police violence, terrorist attacks, homosexuality, religious cults, and xenophobia. Your adventures take you through modern cities, prehistoric villages, cold winter climates, a desert wasteland, monkey caves, swamps, dinosaur museums, and even a yellow submarine.

“Ness, you’ve stood on the eight power spots of the earth. From these, you created Magicant, the realm of your mind.”

A pivotal moment in the game comes after collecting all eight melodies with the Sound Stone. After Ness has taken control of his Sanctuaries, Ness visits, Magicant, a surreal location that exists only in his mind and contains his warmest memories and his worst fears – an allegory perhaps, for how the entire game allows us to see into the mind of the creator. There, Ness must face his dark side. A man tells him, “Magicant is a place where you must cleanse yourself of the evil hidden within your mind. Take the time to look around, it is your mind after all.”

EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game.


The tone of Earthbound is perhaps its most fascinating attribute, best exemplified by its most famous quote: “There are many difficult times ahead, but you must keep your sense of humor.” Earthbound skillfully surprises you with a reservoir of emotion and sentiment that happily counters the game’s trendy ironic veneer. Along the way, Ness visits the cultists of Happy Happy Village (based on a real-life Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984); their mission statement is to paint the town red by literally painting it blue. You’ll fight a watchful puddle of vomit and battle through the zombie-infested town of Threed. You’ll use a peculiar device called the Pencil Eraser to remove statues of pencils that block you from advancing through specific areas, and you’ll suffer through terrifying hallucinations of your family and friends, and be asked to dismember your arms and legs, or otherwise, lose your mind. In one of the game’s most memorable moments, Paula is kidnapped by the Department Store Spook, an unseen entity that resides in the town’s shopping mall. And after defeating Frank Fly and his evil creation Frankystein Mark II, you’ll be escorted to the back of a police precinct, only to be assaulted by four officers and Captain Strong, the chief of the Onett police force. Defeat the corrupt cops and you’ll gain access to the second town you’ll visit (named TWOson, so as not to be confused with Onett, Threed, and Fourside). And when entering a cave, you’ll battle five moles made up of members who each believe themselves to be the third-most powerful of their group. Then there is backwards city Moonside, a warped mirror image of Fourside, that hides a secret more terrifying than the town itself. Just walking around feels like something between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance, in which abstract art attacks you and the psychedelic imagery, lit by gaudy fluorescent neon-lights which contrasts the entire look and feel of what came before. It’s a city where yes means no and no means yes; a place where blond-haired business men teleport you across the city blocks and where an invisible man with a unibrow and a gold tooth gets you past the sketchy sailor hiding out in the back alley.


Throughout the game, Ness is repeatedly antagonized by his neighbor, Pokey, who resurfaces several times, and countless other enemies including Titanic Ant, professional thief Mr. Everdred, and a glorious evil statue Mani, Mani. But the real big bad of the game is the aforementioned Giygas, a.k.a. The “Embodiment of Evil” and the “Universal Cosmic Destroyer”, who intends to sentence all of reality to the horror of infinite darkness. Giygas borrows heavily from Stephen King’s It and was inspired by a murder scene from the black-and-white Japanese horror film The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beautya sequence which scarred creator Shigesato Itoi, when he accidentally watched the film as a child. Giygas is without question, the most disturbing, and strangest end-boss villain of any Super NES game – a character so deranged, there’s been hundreds of fan theories about what he really is.

While EarthBound’s overall gameplay feels like a traditional Japanese RPG of the era, the game is full of ingenious ideas that buck genre trends. EarthBound also makes no apologies for being very difficult to complete. It takes days to finish and is most challenging at the beginning when Ness travels alone and hasn’t yet powered-up. Inventory space remains incredibly limited since each character can only carry a certain amount of items and you can’t drop many of the items since they will come in handy later in the game. Boosting your XP is a must, otherwise, you won’t stand a chance in defeating any boss; and currency is also important when buying new weapons or visiting the hospital to attend to fatal injuries. Money must be withdrawn from the nearest ATM, deposited by your estranged father, and a bedtime snack from your loving mother sends you off to bed to recharge your stats. There are other refreshing deviations from RPG tropes, and every one of the four characters has a specific skill-set.

Earthbound is a strange game, themed around an idiosyncratic portrayal of American culture from a Japanese point of view. The game subverted popular role-playing game traditions by featuring a real-world setting while playing with various staples of the genre and adding a number of pop-culture references throughout. The Japanese title was inspired by the song of the same name by John Lennon – a song about growing up without a father for most of his life, and unsurprising, Ness’ dad is never once seen, and only communicates with his son via telephone. And that’s not the only Beatles reference you’ll see: EarthBound makes two additional nods to the world’s greatest band, along with allusions to Bugs Bunny, comedian Benny Hill, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the Blues Brothers, Monopoly (Monotoli), Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Rambo, Mr. T, and The Who, to name a few. Written, directed, and created by famous Japanese personality Shigesato Itoi; this is surely his love letter to 20th-century Americana.

Localizing Earthbound was a massive undertaking. Under directives from Nintendo, Marcus Lindblom worked with the Japanese artists and programmers to remove references to intellectual property, religion, and alcohol from the American release, such as the Coca-Cola logo and the red crosses on hospitals (due to issues with the Red Cross). Alcohol became coffee, Ness was no longer walking around nude in the Magicant area and the Happy Happyist blue cultists sprites were altered to look less like Ku Klux Klansmen. The Runaway Five members’ outfits were changed to make them look less like the Blues Brothers, and the “Sky Walker” was changed to the “Sky Runner” to avoid the Star Wars reference. Apollo Theater was changed to Topolla Theater, presumably to avoid issues with the real-life venue and the use of the word drug, seen on the various town maps was removed or changed. The list goes on and on…

Chock full of odd charm and humour in a genre that usually takes itself a little too serious, Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most surreal video games you’ll ever have fun playing.

earthbound

The game had a lengthy development spanning five years and involved a number of Japanese luminaries, including writer Shigesato Itoi, songwriter Keiichi Suzuki, sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka, and future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Released in a huge box-set that contained a strategy guide with scratch-and-sniff stickers, Earthbound came with a $2 million marketing campaign derived from the game’s unusual brand of humor. As part of Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” campaign, EarthBound’s tagline read, “this game stinks.” Earthbound was proud to one of the most bizarre RPGs – and it didn’t shy away from its offbeat premise. Unfortunately, the game was met with poor critical response and sales in the United States, but as the years went by, the game received wide acclaim and was deemed by many a timeless classic. It has since become one of the most sought-after games in the second-hand market, selling for upwards of $80 for the cartridge alone. Holding onto an incredibly dedicated cult following, the main character Ness became a featured character in the Super Smash Bros. series and in 2013, EarthBound was reissued and given a worldwide release for the Wii U Virtual Console following many years of fan lobbying.

EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game. There are two extremely popular fan-made sites dedicated to the game (Starmen.netEarthboundCentral), and dozens of other sites have devoted countless hours in translating the sequel for English-speaking audiences. Earthbound was ahead of its time when released and its influence continues to be felt, inspiring the likes of Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Majora’s Mask, Chibi Robo, Retro City Rampage, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

While Earthbound’s game mechanics stick to the traditional JRPG template, its surreal world, imaginative locals, and experimental soundtrack created a truly unique experience. Nothing stands out quite like its visual style – an 8-bit presentation powered by a 16-bit processor. The graphics might not be as advanced as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the SNES, but it is certainly among the most memorable. The SNES was home to some amazing soundtracks, but EarthBound’s soundtrack remains the best. Created by four composers, there’s enough music here to fill 8 of the 24 megabits on the cartridge – with direct musical quotations of classical tune and folk music, and a few samples culled from commercial pop and rock. It also contains one of the very best endings in any video game, a touching climax that captures the vulnerability and beauty of adolescence and the power of friendship. And the punctuation mark comes during the credits. Throughout the game, you’ll cross paths several times with a photographer who descends from the sky and snaps a photograph of your most recent achievement. These pictures will roll throughout the credits, serving as a makeshift montage of your time spent playing the game. And be sure to stay until the very end. To say more would be giving away the surprise.


I can’t think of another game as irreverently comic and deeply touching as Earthbound. Here is a game that resonates long after completion, and oozes originality in just about every frame. Ness may rock his sweet ball cap, handy backpack, telekinetic powers, and a trusty baseball bat, but even this hero needs to call his mom regularly, otherwise, he may suddenly find himself useless in battle. Earthbound stands, sweet and strong, outrageous and quirky, like its heroes — it’s about the loss of innocence as well as gaining wisdom – and is one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed. While it suffers from a slow start and stretched premise, the charm of its cast debunking an intergalactic conspiracy goes a long way. Of all the games I own on the Super NES, Earthbound is the game I treasure the most and the game that made me fall in love with the medium.

– Ricky D

EarthboundGameManual

Continue Reading

Games

Indie World 2019: The Best Games From Nintendo’s Showcase

With a healthy mix of brand new titles and a few shocking ports, here’s all the best games announced at Nintendo’s Indie World showcase.

Published

on

Indie World

Whenever Nintendo announces another indie presentation, it’s impossible to know what to expect. One may be a fairly low-key event, while another might announce a brand new Zelda game. The latest “Indie World” presentation for Gamescom 2019 found itself somewhere in the middle. It didn’t feature quite as many earth shattering reveals as the previous presentation in March, but with a healthy mix of promising new titles, updates on previously announced games, and a few shocking ports, Indie World was a worthwhile showcase in its own right. Without further ado, here’s some of the very best game announcements from the presentation, arranged in order of their appearance.

Eastward

Indie World

I’m firmly of the belief that you can never have too many Zelda-likes in your life. For this reason alone, Eastward looks like it could be an exciting addition to the Switch’s indie lineup. Better yet, this latest Chuckelfish-published game looks like it has all the makings of a great entry in the genre.

It tells a simple story: a miner finds a young girl alone in a secret underground facility, and together, they go on to explore a post-apocalyptic land. Although this world has been apparently ravaged by a cataclysmic disaster, it still looks gorgeous thanks to its lush pixel art and fluid character animations. Pair this with your typical Zelda-like gameplay loop of overworld exploration and dungeon puzzle-solving, and Eastward looks like it will be a promising prospect when it releases next year.

The Touryst

Indie World

Shin’en Multimedia has long been known for making some of the best-looking titles on Nintendo consoles with visual stunners like the Fast Racing series. However, The Touryst is a departure from the games they’re known for. While it’s just as breathtaking as their previous work with its beautiful lighting and voxel-based design, it’ll be a much slower experience than Shin’en’s signature lightning-fast racing games.

As its name would suggest, it focuses on a tourist taking a relaxing tropical vacation, whiling away their time with activities like shopping, scuba diving, and visiting arcades. However, the trailer also hints of a greater mystery lurking beneath this laid-back surface. With Zelda-like dungeons to explore and puzzles to solve as well as a contemporary tropical setting, it seems like it could be considered a spiritual successor to the NES cult classic, StarTropics. It should definitely be one to keep an eye on when it launches this November.

Röki

Who’s the real monster here? Röki is a narrative-focused adventure game set in a world taken straight out of Scandinavian fairytales, featuring a snow-laden forest inhabited by fantastical creatures of Nordic mythology.  It puts players in control of a young woman exploring this mystical environment, with the goal of saving her family and interacting with these various monsters. Its visuals adopt a beautiful storybook style, and with its emphasis on accessible gameplay and telling a touching story, it looks like it could be a worthwhile purchase for anyone in search of a more poignant adventure when it hits Switch this winter.

SUPERHOT

Indie World

It’s not a true Nintendo presentation without a shadow drop or two, so SUPERHOT took it upon itself to be the first to fill that void during Indie World. It’s a striking shooter built upon one simple concept: time only moves when you do. This core idea creates a uniquely methodical approach to the genre, nearly turning SUPERHOT into more of a puzzler than a shooter. It’s already made quite an impact on other platforms, so it should fit right in on Nintendo’s hybrid wonder – and best of all, it’s available right now.

Hotline Miami Collection

Indie World

If it has style, action, and plenty of violence, it’s probably a Devolver Digital game. The boutique indie publisher has supported the Switch with plenty of quality games over the past few years, but the brutal series that launched the publisher into fame in the first place has been strangely absent. Thankfully, that changed today with the surprise release of the Hotline Miami Collection on the eShop.

Gathering both games in the iconic Hotline Miami top-down shooter series into a single package, this release brings all of their signature hardcore difficulty and neon style to a Nintendo platform for the first time. For anyone who’s enjoyed Devolver’s fantastic output thus far on the Switch but hasn’t yet experienced these famously bloody titles, it should be an excellent purchase.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Microsoft’s surreal love affair with Nintendo continues with the reveal that another Xbox One console exclusive will be making its way to Switch. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition is the ultimate version of the acclaimed artistic platformer. It will feature the same beautiful visuals, detailed world, and touching story that made the original release so special, along with all the additional areas, story, and improvements of the Definitive Edition.

For those concerned that the game’s incredible visuals will lose their luster on Nintendo’s under-powered device, there’s no need to worry: the developers have confirmed that the Switch version contains no compromises, running at a locked 60 frames per second at 1080p resolution while docked, with a native 720p resolution in handheld mode. It joins the ranks of Cuphead and Super Lucky’s Tale as yet another former Microsoft exclusive to appear on Nintendo’s console, and with its uncompromising conversion to Switch, it should be one of the most remarkable Switch ports yet when it releases on September 27.

Continue Reading

Game Reviews

‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review: Raising the New Generation to a High Standard

Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks a triumphant return to home console that puts in the effort to pull the player into its world.

Published

on

There are few comeback stories in the gaming industry as impressive as that of the Fire Emblem series. After very nearly going cold the grid-based, SRPG was single-handedly saved by 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening and has since gone on to prosper as one of Nintendo’s most well-recognized IP’s. Now, after more than a decade, the storied franchise makes its return to home consoles with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, an entry that takes bold steps forward in promoting it above and beyond anything the series has seen to date.

Three Houses, Three Countries, One Path

Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on the continent of Fodlan and consists of three major countries. At the center of the three territories is the Garreg Mach Monastery which simultaneously houses the Military Officer’s Academy as well as The Church of Seiros, the land’s primary religion. The game picks up with your self-named protagonist being appointed a professor at the Monastery after protecting some of its students from a bandit attack. At the same time, an enigmatic young girl named Sothis begins appearing in your dreams who alludes to ominous events to come.

Sothis
Sothis will aid the player character throughout their journey

The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be split into two categories — The traditional turn-based grid combat familiar from past titles and the teaching and guidance of students at the monastery. Teaching and school life are brand new to the franchise and are the foundation on which the entire game is built upon.

In the early goings of the game, you are asked to choose between the three classes, or houses, to instruct and guide in your time as a professor. These three houses — The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer — each correspond to one of the three countries of Fodlan and consists of students from those territories. Your selection of which house to lead will have ramifications that permeate practically every aspect of the game including the story, units available in combat, and interactions within the school; this lends the decision a weight that goes beyond choosing who has the prettiest faces.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses House Leaders
Claude, Dimitiri, and Edelgard are the heads of their respective houses and will play pivotal roles in the game if you choose them

The school year is divided into months with school activities taking up the bulk of the time that culminates with an assigned battle at the end. As a professor, you are tasked with teaching your students the art of war and this is accomplished primarily in the classroom. 

Each week begins with establishing a lesson plan for your class. You can work with students one-on-one to develop specific skills of various weapon types, assign them to group tasks to forge bonds and other proficiencies, and help them establish goals that they will work towards on their own time. Doing so allows them to equip better weapons and, most importantly, acquire new class types through certification exams. 

Small events such as students asking questions on subject matter or seeking advice on their goal paths are evocative or actually being a teacher. It’s easy to grow attached to your students as you guide them from a lowly Commoner class to something as grand as a War Master over the course of the game. While Three Houses does a good job of easing the player into these intricacies, there is an Auto-Instruct option available as well for those who find it daunting or don’t care for perfect optimization.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Teaching

The end of each week features a free day that can be spent in one of three different ways. You can host a seminar with another faculty member that provides a large amount of skill experience or embark on battles for quest rewards and character-specific paralogues that help flesh out their backstories. The option to explore the monastery, however, is the most interesting and involved of the three as it gives you free rein to roam about the campus in a fully 3D environment.

All In a Day’s Work 

Garreg Mach Monastery is sprawling, with numerous buildings explore, courtyards to walk through, and facilities to take advantage of. While the graphics of Three Houses aren’t necessarily something to write home about from a technical perspective — there are even moments of noticeable slowdown in particularly populated areas — the vibrant art style and eye-catching medieval architecture give the monastery a beauty that makes it a pleasure to wonder about it.  Small details such as pegasus knights flying in the sky and messenger owls flitting about between buildings breath life into the campus and lend credence that this is an academy in a fantasy world.

There are a plethora of activities to do while roaming the premises and Three Houses does an admirable job of easing you into each of them. Tasks such as gardening various crops and fishing for the biggest catch not only provide valuable resources but also go towards increasing your professor level which increases your maximum Activity Points you can spend in a day.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Monastery

Meanwhile, sharing meals with students in the dining hall, inviting them out to tea parties, and returning lost items all serve to build bonds between pupils and increase their motivation for further studies. Interacting with them in such ways or even just talking to them on the school grounds also offers insight into their thoughts and feelings on current events in the world, which goes a long way towards developing their character in addition to Fire Emblem’s long-established support conversations. 

As characters spend time together in the monastery and fight together on the battlefield their support levels will rise, granting various bonuses in battle such as increased hit rate and evasion. These supports are accompanied by conversations that flesh out each character’s personality and provide valuable backstories not found in the main story.

In typical Fire Emblem fashion, the cast of Three Houses is unique and distinct with multiple layers of complexity over initial arch-typical natures. Peeling back these layers over the course of the game serves as some of the most satisfying intrinsic rewards it has to offer, with macho, good guy Raphael and self-doubting Marianne being particular standouts in my play session. This is accentuated even more since every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor, is fully voiced, a rarity for JRPG’s. The English acting ranges from good to exceptional, but the Japanese voices are also available for those who prefer it.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Sylvain
Support conversations range from comical, to serious, to heart-warming — but they are always engaging.

It’s a shame the same level of polish can’t be said about the main story, however. The plot is rather straightforward and doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of expectations outside a mix-up here and there. Many scene transitions are nonexistent and jarring and the stilted movements of CG scenes reserved for important moments detract more than they add. That said, the stellar character and world-building that take place within the monastery more than makeup for the lukewarm story-telling and give ample reason to become invested. Not to mention the curiosity of seeing the story from the other houses’ perspectives encourages subsequent playthroughs.

Bonding and interacting with students outside of your class is worthwhile as well as it’s possible to recruit them into your own house. Convincing a student to join your class takes a large amount of effort over a long course of time, making the moment they finally give the “Ok” feel much more earned than recruitment has in past Fire Emblems. This not only gives you another unit to use on the battlefield but also avoids potentially seeing them as an enemy down the line when things aren’t quite so peaceful in Fodlan anymore.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Dining

It’s easy to fall into a routine when going about the monastery in Three Houses. The constant loop of every action taken feeding into accomplishing another is positively addicting. It encourages you to make the most out of each day while also emphasizing the steady march of time. For a game that places such importance on the passage of time, however, it is slightly off-putting how the seasons in the monastery never change from its default bright, sunny day, especially with talk of snow and colder weather abound in later months.

All time spent at school is ultimately in preparation for combat, though, and Three Houses presents some of the finest and most refined form of it the Fire Emblem series has ever seen.

Applying Theory to Practice

The fundamentals of combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are the same as all of its predecessors but numerous additions and changes cast it in a whole new light. Encounters take place on grid-based maps and you move each individual character to attack enemies, assist allies, and position them for counter-attacks, among other things. Once all of your units have moved the enemy gets their turn to retaliate and the process repeats.

Before initiating combat a combat forecast appears that tells you the damage each side will inflict, the chance of landing that attack, and the chance of dealing a triple damage critical hit. Utilizing this forecast to calculate risk vs reward of various engagements becomes routine as deaths of characters are permanent when playing in Classic mode, although Casual mode makes its return that brings back lost units after the mission as well. The fight then plays out automatically with characters fluidly moving in unique and organic ways depending on how the battle plays out. While you have no control during these segments, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing someone like burly Raphael deftly dodge an attack and roundhouse kick the enemy to the face in retaliation.

Battle

The weapon triangle — a series mainstay that gave rock-paper-scissors qualities to weapon types — has been done away with in Three Houses, requiring players to think beyond simply matching enemies with their direct counters. In its place come Combat Arts, a system that’s been taken from 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. These special skills are obtained by gaining proficiency in weapon types through teaching sessions and combat and grant each character different ways to approach combat.

The set of Combat Arts learned are unique to each character. For example, Claude and Bernadetta are both proficient with bows but only the latter learns the far-reaching snipe art “Deadeye,” while only the former learns the blessed imbued “Monster Blast”. This applies to magic as well, with every character learning a different set of spells as they grow more proficient. While there is some overlap in spells and arts learned between characters, they nonetheless make them feel more distinct from one another as opposed to simply using the ones with the best stats, minimizing the problem previous entries have of “dead weight characters”.

Another wrinkle to combat is the addition of battalions and Gambits. Battalions are a unit of generic soldiers that can be assigned to each character to confer various stat bonuses. Each battalion grants the use of their special Gambit, powerful abilities that typically hit multiple enemies in an area, thus weakening their stats and preventing movement for a turn. Support type gambits exist as well, such as letting allies sustain a lethal hit once or making it so they take and deal only one damage for a turn. Not only do Gambits open up new strategic possibilities by introducing a form of crowd control to the series, but they are also pivotal in taking down Three Houses’ new enemy type: Monsters.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Combat
Battalions also add more life to the battlefields by showing more than just your unit and the enemy facing off one-on-one

Monsters have been in Fire Emblem games before, but never in this form. Monsters are gargantuan beasts that take up four squares on the grid, sometimes more. They have multiple health bars to drain, devastating area sweeping attacks, and barriers that diminish damage taken and prevent critical hits. The key to slaying these beasts is to utilize battalion Gambits to attack multiple parts of the monsters at once and systematically whittle down their barriers.

Unlike regular enemy and boss types that can usually be taken down by one reasonably powerful unit, monsters require the brunt of your military force to slay. Contending with both monsters and regular enemies as they barrel towards your army provides for some of the tensest moments in the game that then result in blissful satisfaction for overcoming them; all the more emphasized by Three Houses’ phenomenal soundtrack that amplifies feelings of triumph to remarkable heights.

Map designs, on the other hand, leave something to be desired as many take place in large, open areas where strategy ultimately boils down to careful positioning of units on defensive tiles. Even maps with branching paths feel like little more than an excuse to give your units an opportunity to equally distribute experience gained from combat. The lack of gimmicks and terrain variety leads to missions sometimes blending together, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every victory objective is either “Route the enemy” or “Defeat the commander.” It’s never so dull as to become mind-numbing, but having more variety in the 60-80 hour long campaign would go a long way towards solidifying what is otherwise an incredibly tight combat experience. 

Lessons Learned, Experience Showing

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a grand culmination that takes a deep, introspective look into what makes the series so great and evolving it in meaningful and impactful ways.

The monastery and professor role not only fit right at home in such a character-driven game but also breath fresh life into the school setting that has long been regarded as “the graveyard of creativity.” The main story may not be the most engrossing but never has it been easier to grow intimately attached to such a large and varied cast of characters. Those attachments manifest in battles as a drive to persevere and the various tools the game gives you, old and new, give the power to do so. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is no doubt, the triumphant return to home consoles that fans have been waiting over a decade for and a sterling lesson that for a game series, class is always in session.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Rhea
Continue Reading

Games

Why Does the ‘Control’ Northlight Engine Matter?

Published

on

With less than a month to go until the release of Control on Xbox One and Playstation 4, the hype surrounding the game is reaching its peak. We recently called Remedy’s upcoming title “the best game playable at E3 2019” and deemed it the “highlight of our experience at the conference,” but few details have been released about the title since the controversial Electronic Entertainment Expo. Remedy Entertainment, best known for their Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break releases, has a track record of delivering storytelling experiences like no other, but they have an important secret to their recent successes that might aid their upcoming survival horror/action-adventure release. To better understand Control, let’s take a look at its in-game engine, Northlight, and explore why it enables Remedy to craft such gripping narratives.

What is Northlight?

For all of its titles, Remedy Entertainment has relied on the unique strengths of their self-created in-game engines to allow their storytelling experiences to thrive. Many of their previous successes have utilized in-house engines specially designed to deliver cinematic experiences and create games that keep the characters in focus, and Northlight was created to further advance upon their previous technology. Initially built for the Microsoft title Quantum Break, the new engine was created to allow for better interactive narrative experiences that could establish greater depth and realism in a digital world.

According to an interview with writer and creative director Sam Lake, Northlight pushes the envelope by allowing for “Mo-cap with full faces, with surface capture, and 4D scanning, and how to get that into an engine and make it really, really good. It focuses on character lighting, lighting overall, obviously pushing it to the next-gen.” These features all work in tandem to create photorealistic environments and characters that look, sound, and feel real to enthralling players and captivate viewers. In short, Northlight allows Remedy to create Hollywood-quality cinematic experiences within a digital platform.

Control Northlight

Supporting Ray Tracing

A big part of Northlight’s success as an engine is due to its support of ray tracing technology, offering dynamic ambient light that sets the scene and creates engaging landscapes. For those unaware, ray tracing is a modern rendering technique that allows for more realistic shadows and lighting than previous digital rendering software, although often times it is prerendered, slow, and incredibly data-intensive. Thanks to advancements by Nvidia, ray tracing is finally possible to be rendered in real-time inside of in-game engines, making it more accessible to game studios.

Northlight’s game engine pushes the limits by incorporating these advancements into its software, making it possible for players to have the future of in-game lighting, provided that they have the right graphics card. This allows Remedy to truly bring scenes to life within their titles, dynamically lighting environments to create intense emotional moments and the biggest spectacles.

Motion Capture

Although motion capture has been an integral part of narrative video games for a number of years, Northlight uses the Dimensional Imaging’s top of the line 4D technology to capture facial performances and accurately model emotions. According to Dimensional Imaging, this software utilizes “nine standard video cameras” to capture footage “without using markers, makeup or special illumination.” In turn, this allows for every nuance of an actor’s performance to be articulated in the game engine, giving greater realism and deeper emotional experiences.

In addition to this technology, Northlight utilizes traditional motion capture technology to create realistic clones of actor’s bodies. This was most notably seen when Remedy’s motion capture team’s picture of a dog in mo-cap gear went viral.

Control Northlight

Hollywood Quality Picture and Sound

Because of its emphasis on delivering narrative experiences unlike any other in gaming, Northlight’s software has built-in timeline editors that provide greater creative freedom than conventional game engines. By offering the ability to analyze and adjust lighting, physics, and movement in real-time, Northlight ensures that every scene is picture perfect and rooted in realism.

 Similarly, sound is also an integral focus of the built-in editing software in Northlight. According to their site, developers can “freeze and rewind sound, analyze it and even use it to drive visual effects and animations in perfect sync with the soundscapes.”  With audio and visuals working in tandem, Remedy can create a dynamic game environment that looks and feels as real as any conventional narrative on television or film.

Northlight and Control’s Release

With Northlight, Remedy will be able to make the most immersive and story-driven world possible by delivering top of the line graphics and performances, both of which will play a huge role in Control’s success. Unlike Quantum Break, Control will take place outside of the conventional linear style game and work as a Metroidvania style title, making setting the scene and developing a dynamic and photorealistic environment an important part of propelling players through the game world and an integral piece of the experience.

At e3, Control’s featured demo was primarily centered around demonstrating the title’s gunplay and physics -which absolutely blew us away- so combining this positive experience with top-notch acting and cutscenes will surely create one of the better experiences of the year. With all of the unique possibilities offered by Northlight, Respawn is sure to make a massive mark on the industry and encourage other developers to push the envelope of available technology. Look for Control when it releases on PC, Playstation, and Xbox One on August 27th.

Continue Reading

Games

‘Super Mario Land’: The Game That Legitimized the Game Boy

Published

on

By 1989, Nintendo had very carefully crafted an image for themselves within the retail stratosphere. The Nintendo Entertainment System wasn’t a toy — it was a video game console. It wasn’t a fad gift, but an accessory that could become a legitimate part of the household; an NES could be as intimate as a TV. And so, it was only a matter of time before Nintendo set their sights for the handheld market. Gaming may still have been in its technological youth, but Nintendo knew to strike while the iron was hot. The Game Boy, an under-powered piece of hardware that could never compare to the NES, would ensure Nintendomination continued for years to come. But it wouldn’t do it alone; the Game Boy needed legitimizing. It needed Mario. 

Although Gunpei Yokoi envisioned the Game Boy as a successor to the Game & Watch, Nintendo didn’t want to treat the handheld system like a toy. The Game Boy needed to have a proper catalogue à la the NES — complete, cohesive video games that went beyond the Game & Watch’s often trivial gameplay scenarios. Super Mario Bros. had established itself as a powerhouse brand internationally by 1989; Japan had three full Mario games on the Famicom, and westerners had two distinct, well-designed platformers to chew on. Nintendo simply needed to develop a Super Mario Bros. title for the Game Boy. 

Logic would seemingly dictate that the Game Boy’s launch title would resemble the original Super Mario Bros. as much as possible; after all, Nintendo wanted the Game Boy to sell the idea that handheld gaming wasn’t any less valid an expression of the medium. A recognizable Super Mario game would realistically move units and maintain the company’s reputation. With series creator Shigeru Miyamoto actively preparing Super Mario World for the Super Famicom’s launch, it would naturally be the safest decision as well. However, this was a time in the company’s history where Nintendo seldom played it safe. 

Super Mario Land would end up being more than just recognizable — it would be its own beast entirely. Mario would be the only familiar icon taken from the series, as Peach, Luigi, Bowser, Toads, and the Mushroom Kingdom wouldn’t so much as warrant a reference. Even enemies were slightly altered so that Super Mario Land wouldn’t fall into the same gameplay loop as Super Mario Bros. Something as simple as shells blowing up instead of moving across the screen manages to affect the pace at which Super Mario Land is played. 

Visually, Super Mario Land couldn’t exactly mimic the franchise aesthetic. Where NES games were entirely in color, Game Boy games were relegated to black and white, so even if Nintendo wanted it to, Super Mario Land wouldn’t be able to accurately emulate even the first Super Mario Bros. Instead, Land plays to its strengths. Keeping with its unique identity, the game’s levels take influence from real world cultures. World 1 is based Egypt, World 2 is based on the lost continent of Mu, World 3 is based on Easter Island, and World 4 is based on Ancient. 

Perhaps more importantly, all four worlds place emphasis on mythology and the supernatural. Multiple Sphinx appear near the end of World 1, channeling their depiction in Oedipus Rex; World 2 has Mario entering the stage via a UFO; Moai statues attack Mario in World 3; and World 4 features Jiangshi — Chinese vampires — as enemies, while also ending with Mario fighting against an alien. Super Mario Land grounds itself in some semblance of reality, then twists it further than the other Super Mario Bros. games ever did. Super Mario Land knows it’s a weird game, and seems to revel in it. 

By 2-3, it’s made quite clear that Super Mario Land is not trying to emulate the original Super Mario Bros. formula. As Mario pilots a submarine in a shoot-’em-up stage, Super Mario Land drops all pretense. The Game Boy wasn’t the mini-NES; it was the Game Boy, and it had its own distinct style, Mario included. That said, while the shoot-’em-up elements certainly helped solidify Super Mario Land’s style, it was also the biggest risk Nintendo took with the game. Redefining Mario’s image is one thing, but his gameplay? 

The shoot-’em-up stages more or less serve as Land’s water stage equivalent, albeit with a key distinction. Where water stages were meant to be pace breakers, the shoot-’em-up sections are just as involved as traditional platforming stages. Since both also double as boss stages, the difficulty curve can’t afford to dip downwards to make up for the new gimmick. On paper, this is a disaster waiting to happen; in execution, 2-3 and 4-3 stand out as some of the best levels in the game. 

Land may try to stray the course when it comes to presentation, but the level design is right on par in terms of quality with the previous Super Mario Bros. games, if not better than both renditions of Super Mario Bros. 2. The developers clearly didn’t see the shorter play time as a weakness. Super Mario Land is only home to 12 levels, but they’re all tightly designed around Mario’s new control scheme. In the shift to the Game Boy, Mario’s mobility had been limited. 

No longer could he jump as fluidly; he comes to hard stops, and has an almost sharp slide to his traction when landing. However, though controlling Mario was going to be fundamentally different between consoles, it didn’t need to be a problem. Rather than simply accepting Mario’s stiffer movement and hoping for the best, Nintendo R&D1 understood the need to alter the series’ level design conventions towards Super Mario Land’s gameplay strengths. Platforms in Land are closer together than they’ve ever been, but they’re structured as such out of necessity. 

More importantly, the closer platforms allow stages to move at a brisker, more dynamic pace. Even with the Game Boy’s small screen, the tight platforms keep everything important visible on screen at all times. Mario is constantly running and jumping, often needing to hop ever so slightly to navigate stages properly and quickly. Multiple stages also make use of in-level branching paths — a relative rarity for the series at the time. This not only keeps the replay value high, but gives stages an added level of depth that some fans might not have expected from a handheld title at the time. 

Of course, being an early Game Boy game, Super Mario Land is victim to the limitations of early Game Boy development, particularly when it comes to length. Even with its new game plus hard mode, Super Mario Land is a very short game, and needlessly so at that; it would have benefited from one or two more worlds. By the time the game is over, it feels as though the experience has just begun. 

Which in a way it has. Super Mario Land’s length is going to be a disappointment the first time around, but it’s a game that demands replayability and mastery. Levels aren’t particularly long, and the shoot-’em-up stages actually do help the game from becoming repetitive. It’s an easy game to pick up, play a few stages, and then put down. All the while, players are familiarizing themselves with the game, gradually getting better. It’s very arcade-like in a sense, and that’s ultimately what the Game Boy was going for with its launch titles. 

Game Boy games weren’t meant to be played just once and then be put down. The Game Boy was a system that players should want to come back to. Super Mario Land’s short length ensures that players will want to come back, if only to get a little bit of Mario in. Super Mario Land would be immediately outclassed by its direct sequel, but it’s still a Mario game worth playing today, and an important piece of the series’ legacy. It was the first Mario title developed without Shigeru Miyamoto’s involvement, and took the series in an incredibly unique direction. Where Nintendo could have played it safe with the Game Boy’s launch, Super Mario Land stands out as a testament to the benefits of taking an established property in an unconventional directional. 

It’s also important in and of itself that Super Mario Land wasn’t developed by the series’ creator. This was the first chance for the Mario formula to be looked at with truly fresh eyes. Nintendo R&D1 could have attempted for an exact recreation, and given how successfully they pulled off Super Mario Land, it might just have worked, but it would have resulted in a blander game. The Game Boy didn’t need an NES Mario — it needed a Game Boy Mario. It’s not ideal that Super Mario Land is so stiff and short, but it’s not a weakness of the game either. 

Not only would Super Mario Land 2 improve upon its predecessor, but it would better conform itself to the series’ mechanical norms. While this was absolutely the right direction to go in, it doesn’t invalidate Super Mario Land or make it lesser. Super Mario Land had more at stake — it was a game built on new, limited hardware — but it was just the launch title the Game Boy needed on April 21, 1989.

Continue Reading
Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

Advertisement

Trending

Share
Tweet
Reddit
Pin