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Kid Icarus: Uprising Review

As posted in ProjectCOE.com.

A lot can change in 25 years. Kid Icarus is back and better than ever! I would say something cheesy like, ”throw everything you know and love about the franchise out the window because this reboot is a different beast,” but that doesn’t accurately describe the situation. By playing Kid Icarus Uprising, throw away everything you know about the two classic entries, but hold onto everything you love about their history. That sounds like a better tagline. It’ll make sense as you read on.

Parent Talk: The ever-ambiguous E10+ ESRB rating has been bestowed upon Kid Icarus: Uprising for Fantasy Violence, Comic Mischief, and Mild Suggestive Themes. As with most games that are E10+, it’s actually a relatively harmless experience for children of all ages despite the ESRB’s pointless labeling. As I will elaborate on later, the plot, characters and setting are heavily inspired by Greek mythology yet play out like a Saturday morning cartoon, i.e. lighthearted humor and action which never takes itself seriously. Some jokes may fly over the kids’ heads (and hence immediately picked up by teens or adults) but they’re contained within the caliber of the intended audience. These adult-oriented pop-culture jabs are not uncommon or harmful as most animated movies and shows have adhered to this practice in order to go beyond the targeted demographic…even My Little Pony recently pulled its adult strings with much success. In terms of gameplay, Kid Icarus also manages to grab the attention of casual and seasoned veterans alike by applying a difficulty scale (from 0 to 10) to each of its levels. Narrowing it down to 0 is perfect for young children who just want to have fun. A scale of 5 or more is basically the backyard of hardcore gamers.

Review Basis: completed all 25 chapters and dabbled with both online modes. According to the in-game stats, I played a total of 26 times, 51 hours total game time, 28 hours and 26 minutes devoted to campaign play time and 1 hour and 28 minutes for online multiplayer. I’ve also been turned into an eggplant 21 times. But hey, as long as I got a total of 472 weapons and 489986 hearts, it’s all good.

Plays Like: hoo-boy, bear with me as I take a deep breath. Put shoot ’em ups, action, and RPG in a blender and you’ve got Kid Icarus Uprising in a nutshell. Allow me to paint a better picture for you. It’s half Sin & Punishment and half God of War, with simplified, touch-screen oriented Smash Brothers-like controls. The RPG elements apply to game’s equip-able spoils and deep weapon fusion system, which is extremely similar to and just as addicting as Vagrant Story’s own weapon crafting. I must’ve spent around 20 hours of my game time experimenting with fusing weapons, no lie. Note that gameplay elements of the classic Kid Icarus entries only serve as reference points to this revival. Simply put, Uprising plays nothing like its 2D predecessors nor it is a traditional 3D update of NES gameplay.

Looks Like: a CGI version of Hercules, Disney’s own hand-drawn, animated take on Greek mythology. It fully utilizes the power of the handheld as the quality and variety of locales and enemies are staggering. It’s one of those ’throw in everything including the kitchen sink’ types of games. Even though the backdrop is Greek Mythology, don’t be surprised to witness sci-fi influences from time to time.

Tells a Story Like: Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs. The strong voice cast’s back-and-forth bantering is full of wittiness, self-referential humor, pop culture jabs, cheesy one-liners, jokes that break the forth wall, and adult-oriented humor that has gotten past the censors for being too subtle. Every time I compare Kid Icarus to Disney’s Hercules, the former comes on top because it handles the humor elegantly and tells a better story. While it’s not taken seriously most of the time, the latter half of the campaign contains some grim moments and interesting twists to the battle between the underworld army and the heavens. When it’s all said and done, Uprising is without a doubt Nintendo of America’s best localization work ever and it proves that they can easily assemble a team of experienced voice actors to strengthen their games’ production values. Ali Hillis, who voices Lady Palutena here, is also responsible for Lightning’s pipes in Final Fantasy XIII. If that’s not good enough to impress you, I don’t know what is. I now fully trust NOA with a fully-voiced Zelda game should it ever happen. Who would’ve thought that a 3DS handheld game based on a forgotten IP would be their true leap into the next generation? Furthermore, unlike animated movies, TV shows, and some games, Kid Icarus is unique since most of its exposition isn’t told through cut-scenes. Instead, it’s fed to you in chunks during gameplay, which is a plus as your session won’t be interrupted by long-winded dialogue. Imagine Star Fox’s own exposition multiplied by a hundred–that’s Kid Icarus for you. Cut-scenes are mostly reserved for Boss Battle encounters, but there’s one unique chapter during the climax which surprised the heck out of me as it truly represents the superb blend between story and gameplay.

Sounds Like: a symphony orchestra movement with some light jazz, flamenco, and rock thrown into the mix. As evident by the star-studded soundtrack of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mr. Sakurai has a lot of ties in the videogame music industry, so he pulled some strings for his latest project and assembled the best of the best under one roof: Motoi Sakuraba (Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile), Yuzo Kushiro (ActRaiser), Noriyuki Iwadre (Lunar, Radiata Stories), Yasuroni Mitsuda (Chrono Series, Xenogears), and Masafumi Takada (No More Heroes). Their styles compliment each other well when utilizing the underlying symphonic theme of the soundtrack. Leitmotif is heavily used here too…fans will love it when they hear parts of the classic NES tracks enveloped within the orchestra, which has a lot of live instrument usages intertwined with high quality sampled sounds. I have personally fallen in love with the flamenco-style acoustic guitar music of Dark Pit and Dog’s Themes, composed by none other than Sakuraba himself. Rest assured though, you’ll find a lot to love in Uprising’s music, arguably one of the best-produced soundtracks coming out of Nintendo recently. I’m happy to put it in the same pedestal with Skyward Sword, Mario Galaxies 1 & 2, and F-Zero GX.

Best Thing About It: lots of gameplay and high replay-ability, never feeling repetitive in the process. The latter half of the campaign’s chapters last from 20 to 30 minutes, so that alone will keep you busy for awhile. While each of Uprising’s chapters are divided into Air Battles (shoot ’em up), Land Battles (3D Action), and unique Boss Battles, gameplay never feels stale as each chapter manages to implement unique mechanics. Whether you’re given certain vehicles to use, multiple branching paths to discover, encountering bosses in the middle of the stage — gameplay doesn’t adhere to a simple cycle because the narrative plays a major role in dictating your progress. In addition, the difficulty meter is a long-overdue feature which should be utilized in more games. Instead of the archaic and simplified ’Easy, Medium, Hard’ choice in the beginning of your campaign, each chapter starts you off with a scale from 0 to 9, from easy to hard, going by decimal fractions (i.e. 3.2, 3.3, etc). The higher you go, the more of your currency (hearts) you’ll bet, and completing a chapter on set difficulty will net a higher heart return. Losing will halve your obtained hearts and drop you down by 1 scale so you can complete the chapter in an easier fashion. Higher difficulty numbers will also open up branching paths and increase your chance to obtain better weapons. This feature alone is the sole reason why I kept replaying older chapters multiple times. I like how the game feels different in higher difficulties. It’s not just the AI patterns which are heightened. The new enemy placements and types, new attacks, increased damage input and output — it always feels refreshing jumping up a point or two in older chapters. Air Battles turn into bullet hell if you dare to go above 7. On top of all this chunky gameplay, you’re given three 12 X 10 grids worth of achievements to unlock — that’s 360 squares in total. It took me 30 hours to finish the game and I only unlocked half of those. How’s that for replay value?

Most Polarizing Feature: the controls. Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room. Uprising’s controls have been bashed to bits since day 1, so conspiracies need to be put to rest. They’re not broken or complex, and they don’t require three hands to work (the stand accessory is not mandatory). They’re uncomfortable to deal with at first and have a very high learning curve as only a few games in the DS family enforce a dual pad/touchscreen setup. Uprising is similar to FPS games on the DS, only you’re put in a behind-the-back TPS backdrop instead. That alone deserves some props as no other action game has used this control scheme before. By default, you move with the circle pad, fire with the L button, and aim with the touch screen. In essence, you’re lifting the 3DS up with your left hand as your right is busy with the touch screen. Two issues arise: a) your left hand or forearm may cramp with extended use, and b) Land Battles are ’slippery’ as both reticle aiming and camera control (by flicking) are assigned to the touch screen. Two problems, one solution: fully customizable controls! Hate the touch screen? You can enable dual analog-like controls by assigning the face buttons for aiming, which are functional but not as tactile as the touch screen. Is cramping an issue? You can enable auto-fire, reassign the fire button down to the control pad, use the stand for maximum comfort, or even use your thumb/index finger instead of the stylus to aim. Don’t like imprecise aiming and camera controls? You can fully customize your reticle speed vertically and horizontally and how far the camera spins when flicking the stylus for Land Battles. The only negatives you’re left with are twofold: some lefties are left with a less precise scheme unless they buy a Circle Pad Pro, and maintaining a functional 3D effect is hard unless you’re using the stand. All in all, the controls aren’t perfect, but once you get past the high learning curve and customize them to your liking, you’ll appreciate their uniqueness. Similar to the Super Smash Bros. series, Kid Icarus is easy to learn but hard to master…so it’s a rewarding process to eliminate your frustrations the more you play.

Least Favorite Feature: Online multiplayer. It reminds me of Kirby Air Ride’s City Trials mode as battles are fun & frantic. But there’s little incentive to keep playing because it doesn’t have a separate progress setup ala Call of Duty. Instead, multiplayer is directly tied to your single-player progress as unlocked weapons and abilities are shared within both modes, and therefore solo veterans will have the upper hand online. What’s even more baffling is that you can’t filter your opponents or balance teams based on weapon power, so you’ll constantly fight against overwhelming odds. Uprising tries to balance it out a bit in team-based play since defeating opponents with higher weapon power serves as a disadvantage, but the odds almost always favor players with the highest weapon power or better abilities. Moreover, there are only two modes and a few stages to pick from, with no way to vote for which stage to play in or customize match logistics such as length, random drops, etc.

The Lowdown: if you’re expecting a faithful 2D to 3D conversion of Kid Icarus that emulates the feel of Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you’re living an unrealistic dream. Despite being an existing IP in Nintendo’s library, Kid Icarus wasn’t even considered a franchise until Mr. Sakurai made Pit a playable character in Smash Bros. Brawl a few years ago. Two installments 25 years ago doesn’t make a franchise and there’s no playbook on what makes a Kid Icarus entry retain its rightful features like Mario and Zelda. However, despite the radical reboot in gameplay (which is nicely designed and full of replay value by the way), Uprising successfully retains the spirit of the franchise and expands upon it excellently. This is how you make reboots of dormant IPs. From the excellent visual presentation to the hilarious voice cast which smartly weave the foundations of Kid Icarus with original content, Uprising is a technical achievement by Nintendo and Project Sora. It’s a handheld title which veers towards console-like qualities, control issues and simplistic online play notwithstanding.

Average Score Scale: 8 +/- 1 out of 10

Personal Final Score: 9/10 (Inflated)

Reasons: for +1 Inflation: Chunky gameplay and replay-ability. Excellent presentation with great graphics, a symphonic soundtrack, and a strong voice cast with over-the-top humor.

Reasons for -1 Deflation: steep learning curve for controls. Shallow online multiplayer.

Xenoblade Chronicles KiloByte-Sized Review

Xenoblade finally reaches North American shores after about a year-long’s worth of advertising from the likes of Operation Rainfall, a fan group dedicated to seeing a trio of swansong Wii RPGs localized in the west. One down, two to go. After spending 70 hours with the UK release, it’s about time to critique this bad boy. Does it sink or swim? Is it the most important JRPG of this generation? What does it sound like, play like, or look like? What does it taste like? Read on for more details.

Parent Talk: Xenoblade Chronicles is a role-playing game set in a vast fantasy land inhabited by humans, animals, mythical creatures, and robots. As you’ve probably deduced, the Teen rating by the ESRB is mostly due to fantasy violence. In essence, children older than 10 years old may also play it providing that parents do not mind sporadic use of minor curse words (damn), skimpy outfits, and alcohol/tobacco references in dialogue of townsfolk (a.k.a non-playable characters). The vibe Xenoblade aims for is similar to fantasy films like the The Chronicles of Narnia which isn’t afraid to throw in adult-oriented quirks from time to time. Since this is a role-playing game known for longevity and massive replay value, its narrative and gameplay may seem too complex for children under 10 years old. However, nicely implemented tutorials and the low difficulty curve may ease parents into experiencing it with their kids. Trust me; there is something for everyone in Xenoblade Chronicles, and once the whole family starts playing, be prepared to be hauled in for the long run as this isn’t a casual game to turn on half an hour per day.

Review Basis: 70 hours with 1/3 of the main plot left. My play-through has mostly focused on completing missions and side-quests that NPCs ask of me. That’s a lot of content packed in one game, eh?

Plays Like: Final Fantasy XII and the dothack series for the PS2, the White Knight Chronicles series for the PS3. In layman’s terms, it’s an offline RPG trying to be a massively multiplayer online one. Much to my surprise, Xenoblade is a sequel only in name as it plays nothing like its predecessors Xenogears and Xenosaga. Its battle system is action-oriented as it takes the real-time route rather than turn-based. It’s a deep system with a huge emphasis on micromanaging your party and upgrading the right set of skills to earn victory. It’s as overwhelming and fun as Star Ocean, yet not quite up to Disgaea levels of detail and ridiculousness. While each character levels up uniquely, what sets Xenoblade apart from the pack is its innovative use of the Monado, the mystical blade with powers to look into the future and damage mechons (robots), among other uses. Xenoblade smartly integrates canonical plot events into its battle system for strategic use. At first, your blade has the simple power to damage mechon so all you need to do is manage its wielder (Shulk) in your party. However, as you progress through the plot you start gaining unique abilities which will force you to look before leaping into action. The coolest one is premonition; if an enemy is planning a devastating attack which will probably kill your party, a 5 second clip will play out that future event, giving you the choice to prevent/avoid it. It’s a one-of-a-kind use of a time-based mechanic in an RPG that I don’t see often.

Looks Like: someone throwing in the robot designs of the Transformers’ films and Real Steel into the Lord of the Rings’ sets of lush fields, disgusting marshes, towering forests, and dark looming castles. The second half of Xenoblade moves away from that look and adapts futuristic and tribal locales instead. From medieval sturdy armor to the casual fashion of today–characters like to mix and match attire even if it doesn’t fit the time period conveyed. If you’ve watched John Hancock then you’ll know what I mean. All in all, Xenoblade’s world is a strong blend of aesthetics and influences. Nothing looks out of place despite as it blends medieval and technology perfectly, similar to how Lost Odyssey’s attempt a few years ago.

Sounds Like: have you caught on the trend that bands and popular artists sometimes follow; making a multi-disc album with each side adapting a different style/genre of music? Xenoblade’s soundtrack walks that road as well. My closest comparison is the work of The Early November’s “The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path”, a triple-disc album released in 2006 with various sub-genres of rock enveloping each one. The first disc contains in-your-face rock ‘n roll, the second disc mellows out into acoustic instruments and orchestrated material, and the third disc contains experimental spoken vocals backed by very abstract instruments. Xenoblade follows the first two discs to a T, while branching out into Celtic music in its experimental third act. It even occasionally manages to combine these three styles into single tracks. Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) takes charge with her signature blend of classical and celtic styles, while a new band of composers collectively called ACE+ get down and dirty with the rockin’ battle themes and chillin’ acoustic arrangements of some of Yoko’s work. At the end of the day, it’s a bulky soundtrack which contains some of my favorite game music of this generation. It channels the spirit of Motoi Sakuraba’s work on Baten Kaitos, another one of Monolith’s niche RPGs.

Best Thing About It: a living, breathing world. Not a lot of JRPGs mesmerize me when it comes to world design. Three gripes tend to stand in the way: 1) the overworld may be too small or tedious, 2) it’s not interactive enough, 3) constant lack of immersion when moving between towns and dungeons. The latter is practically a staple in most RPGs as towns are peaceful places populated by NPCs, weapon shops, and inns; and in contrast dungeons are monster-filled, gloomy areas with hidden treasure chests and boss fights, not to mention the sole purpose of the overworld which is simply connecting between the two. Xenoblade’s greatest triumph is breaking these three cardinal faults and aiming for full immersion in a large playground. The clear lines between towns, overworld and dungeons are constantly challenged and shaded within this JRPG; you can encounter actual people in “dungeon areas”, the overworld itself has a lot of secret mini-dungeons and refugee camps, and cities can be invaded as part of the narrative and subsequently transform into dungeons in an instant. Moreover, Xenoblade’s scope aims for the sky. The developers were so confident in their creation that they included two perks from the get-go: fast-travel to cut down on repetition and time manipulation to fully explore areas as their inhabitants change from dusk till dawn. Being the perfectionist I am, I found myself opting to explore every nook and cranny and talk to every NPC, in turn avoiding fast travel unless neccessary. Yes, you read that right; talking to NPCs matters in Xenoblade as most of them have actual lives, curfews, ambitions and problems. Taking cues from Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade is armed with an affinity chart that tracks important NPCs in each region. The more you talk to, the clearer the relationship between each of them is. For example, conversing with one’s sibling lists him/her as such in the chart, followed by a certain status represented by smiley face expressions. If these siblings are not in good terms, you’ll eventually get a series of side-quests which may grant an opportunity to rekindle their bond. Imagine this example expanding to the whole family, friends, and even acquaintances who may live in different regions/countries…and you’ve got Xenoblade’s chart in a nutshell. Eventually, I got to a point where I cared for the countries I was saving because I knew their citizens inside and out.

Most Polarizing Feature: its graphical presentation. From the open fields and high mountains to the tropical forests and high-tech futuristic castles, Xenoblade’s locales look absolutely stunning even by Wii standards. My friends had to do a double take when they watched me play, assuming that this was a PS3/Xbox 360 title. Upon closer inspection, however, the character models have stiff animation, bad lip-syncing and clipping which may easily categorize the presentation as PS2-like. The development team tried to hide those blemishes with customizable attire and well-directed, excellently-choreographed cut-scenes, but sadly due to the nature of the Wii’s capabilities they couldn’t achieve everything. Compare that to their previous works embodied by Xenosaga and Baten Kaitos which went toe-to-toe with the big dogs of last generation.

Worst Thing About It: the main narrative and cast of characters are serviceable, yet not as memorable as Xenogears and Baten Kaitos. It’s not bad by JRPG standards, but I was more into the NPC’s stories than the main plot. The solid British voice acting attempts to inject emotion and good humor, but I always knew what to expect around the next corner. The ending sequence may contain a surprise or two as usual, but it will never live up to the likes of Monolith’s past works. The introduction and concept are really gripping; the world you traverse is slowly revealed as two bodies of huge robots forever frozen in combat stance, yet unfortunately 2/3rds of the main quest doesn’t take that premise to the next level. Instead, it opts to focus on an orphan boy with a mysterious past who comes across a mystical blade only he can wield for some unknown reason…all of which will eventually be explained via deus ex machina.

The Lowdown: despite its somewhat formulaic plot and band of protagonists, Xenoblade Chronicles single-handedly rekindled my love for JRPGs…which was ironically blown out by the series which got me into the genre in the first place. Forget Final Fantasy XIII. Heck, I’ll even step on more toes and proudly state that this is what Final Fantasy XII should’ve been like. Monolith Soft successfully included the best of MMO elements in an offline RPG, all the while developing a world full of life and a level of immersion which will be remembered for decades to come. That’s what I call keeping the Japanese flavor in check despite heavy westernization. It’s like taking a bite off a classic American cheese burger which is coated with teriyaki sauce and has wasabi instead of mustard. Mmm, that concoction is making me drool. Will somebody make it happen?

Average Review Scores: 8.5 +/- 1 out of 10

Personal Final Score: 9.5/10

+1 Inflation: if you love huge worlds with a lot to do outside the main quest. If interaction and immersion similar to Skyrim are appealing factors.

-1 Deflation: if strong narrative and cast are the most important aspects of your RPG experience. If you can’t play graphically underpowered games with 480p resolution.

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