A sad day for digital importers; JCB pulls out of the US.

For a little over a decade now, I’ve been carrying around a JCB (“Japan Credit Bureau”) credit card, and it has been an endless source of amusement when using it to pay for goods and services.  I’ve occasionally gotten to use the 1-2 punch of handing a cashier a card they don’t recognize, and then handing them a (British) passport when they ask for identification.

OK, I’M A BAD MAN.

But, apart from its use as a payment method that virtually nobody in this country recognizes, it’s had a much more useful trait – most companies in Japan recognize it as a domestic card and not a filthy American credit card.  Which means that, for the last decade or so, I’ve been able to buy off the Japanese PSN and iTunes stores without the bother of hunting down points cards from dodgy resellers, and I have bought a ton of PSOne classics and other games that never made it out of the country.

It’s also been very helpful on the occasions I visit Japan, because it’s instantly recognized everywhere.

Sadly, that ends in a few months.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked by this.  JCB only ever offered the card to people living in a few states (CA, OR, HI, maybe one or two more) and I’m pretty sure that it was just a status symbol for the company.  They sent me a Nintendo DS a few years ago for winning some sort of sweepstakes I didn’t even know I’d entered, and I’m pretty sure that wiped out any amount of interest they’ve made out of me over the years.

I’ve already gone and topped-up my PSN account to the maximum balance  (Y20000) which should last me a while.  So, really, this will only be a pain for iTunes on the occasion I want to buy songs from the Japanese store.  I don’t think there’s any way to preload your balance there.  Maybe the dodgy code resellers have gotten less dodgy over the years?

I’m just generally vexed about the whole thing.  I have rather enjoyed having my own version of Ford Prefect’s American Express card, and that’s being taken from me.  If you need me, I will be sitting in a corner and fuming.

(OK, maybe not so much with the fuming.)

Posted in Japan | Leave a comment

Press Y for Yuri: Nights of Azure 2

I didn’t exactly plan things this way, but for some reason the last year has seen me playing quite a few Koei Tecmo games.  Nioh, Blue Reflection, Nights of Azure, Fatal Frame III, even Metroid: Other M by a technicality.  I also have Warriors All-Stars sitting on the very short list of “up-next” games.

I’d never really paid attention to them outside of the Dead or Alive and Fatal Frame series, so I was kind of surprised to realize how much variety exists in the games they publish.

So, let’s have an awkward segue here and talk about Nights of Azure 2: Bride of the New Moon – or, rather, the original game because it’s hard to talk about a sequel without its predecessor.  I played Nights of Azure in November and thought it was an awfully pretty game with some amazing costume design, a combat system that felt a little too floaty to be satisfying, and way too many different systems to keep track in what was, after all, a fairly short action RPG.  I also got a little tired of my best friend constantly running off to try to sacrifice herself to the Nightlord.

Some great news, then, in that a lot of the “why is there a ship trading simulator in my action RPG again?” systems were dropped for the sequel, your best friend doesn’t dwell TOO much on running off to sacrifice herself to the Moon Queen, and combat is greatly improved.  The first game had you running around with up to four little demon familiar pals at any given time, and some of the fights had me feeling like my best option was to stay out of the way and let my pets do a lot of the work. Not so in the sequel – while you do still have a couple of pets, they don’t feel quite so center-stage.  The most important criteria in pet selection is that there are a few kinds of gates that close off optional areas with treasure chests, and each of these kinds of gates can only be opened by a certain pet.

In fact, combat in general has a feel to it that is greatly improved.  It’s always difficult to define “weight”, but NoA2 felt “weightier”.

It’s still a button-masher, though, make no mistake.  Some of your demon pals can transform into different weapons for you to use, at least, each with its own moveset, so there’s more variety in your mashing.  I didn’t play around with the alternate weapons too much, however, since I always wanted to have a couple of door-opening pets handy.

Oh, right, you also have a human/demihuman partner, or rather your choice of several different partners, and you get to do all sorts of pair attacks based on your buddy. As you spend more time with a given partner, you’ll unlock story events with them, and all of the characters turn out to have some pretty interesting backstory.  To be honest, the whole “saving the world from eternal night” kind of faded into the background and I found myself a lot more invested in learning more about the different characters.

Soooo, that leaves the bad parts of the game to talk about, and unfortunately there are quite a few.

If you played the first Nights of Azure and grew to know your way around its fairly large and interconnected maps, the biggest shock is likely going to be the drastic reduction in environmental variety.  The sequel has a total of seven areas (and a DLC area), and quests will have you revisiting each area over and over again until you are foaming at the mouth the next time you get sent to clear out the monsters in the Spirit Forest AGAIN.  The maps are also made up of very small segments, and it just feels like it was designed around devices with intense memory constraints.

That same feeling of being designed for last-generation devices extends to the monster variety, or lack thereof.  With the exception of a few bosses, you’ll see the same handful of creature designs in every zone – there’s no sense of place to them.

Finally, I really should not have bought the Switch version, because it’s a mess.  I talked myself into it because it had a downloadable Fatal Frame outfit and I thought that it’d be, you know, maybe a little bit of a downgrade but what the heck, right?

If you’re playing on the built-in Switch display, it’s… passable.  I actually wound up using the Switch in desktop mode for about two-thirds of my play sessions, and it’s much easier to overlook the criminally-low-resolution textures when you’re looking at a screen that size.  Blow it up to the 43″ set I use for most of my gaming, though, and it looks like something from the lower end of the PS3 library – and that may be stretching things.

Looking at the download size of the Switch version – 6.8 GB – compared to the 20GB PS4 version says a great deal about what happened here.  I suspect they squeezed the heck out of everything so they’d be able to ship it on an 8GB cartridge, and it absolutely shows.  I mean, you’ve got a mostly-fully-voiced game with a fair bit of dialog, some FMV cutscenes, and of course a typically-great Gust soundtrack… something had to go somewhere.

So, I guess what I’m leading up to is that my IDEAL Nights of Azure 3, should they eventually make one, would be the game systems of the second game combined with the world and visuals of the first game.

And I’ll probably get the PS4 version next time.

Posted in videogames, Switch | Leave a comment

Entirely Objective Commentary on the Quality of Star Wars: Battlefront II

I’m not a big multiplayer gamer, so I really can’t explain why I bought the 2015 “Star Wars: Battlefront”, an almost-entirely-multiplayer game.  I fell into the trap of “no, really, we added single-player content!” without realizing that the single-player content consisted of exactly one type of mission in a scant handful of settings AND didn’t actually contribute towards increasing your level or unlocking anything in the game.

That was bad enough, but then I bought it a second time because they marked down the “Ultimate Edition” to practically nothing during a PSN sale.

When the sequel was announced, with an honest-to-goodness campaign mode, I was all aflutter with anticipation… and then came the Great Lootbox Kerfluffle Of 2017, and I figured that I could be perfectly happy just waiting a couple of months and renting it.

So, I did that this weekend.  I am happy to report that there is a single-player campaign, it’s pretty decent now that they added the three missions they held back until after the release of The Last Jedi, and it is definitely worth the three dollars it will cost you at your local Redbox to play through.  If nothing else, the level where you play as Lando is absolutely hilarious.

But, after finishing the campaign, I realized that I still had the disc for a few hours and that it couldn’t hurt to try out the multiplayer.

Indulge me for a moment, here, while I rave about the indisputably-most-awesome ship to ever come out of the Star Wars movies, the BTL Y-Wing Starfighter, a vehicle my wife describes as “oh, the ugly one”.

It’s not an unfair description, really.

Basically, the Y-Wing is the A-10 of the Star Wars universe, a thing that looks like the designers slapped a few guns and a pair of oversized engines on to a cockpit, realized they were late for lunch, and figured they could just stop there and maybe come back later and make it pretty.

They never did.

The Y-Wing does not get a ton of respect, especially when set next to the more famous X-Wing and the annoyingly-twee A-Wing, a starfighter best known for its practical use as a kaiten during the Battle of Endor.  It’s possibly best-known on screen for flying directly down a trench and getting blown up, though it was shown in a little more respectful light during its appearance in Rogue One.

But, I love the thing, warts and all, and I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t been flyable in any Star Wars video games made this century.  So, you may imagine that I was very gleeful to see THIS in Battlefront II:

I pretty much spent the next several hours sucked blissfully into the multiplayer, and wound up driving the disc back to the rental kiosk with scant minutes to spare.

Now, blissful fun times aside, I’m not fond of the way that Battlefront II pushes its loot boxes on the player – particularly as the game shows you all of the AWESOME GEAR the guy who just killed you had equipped at the point where he killed you, with a not-at-all-subtle-hint that if YOU just had the awesome gear, YOU would be the triumphant victor.  EA fully deserves all of the bad press and push-back they got when they decided to tack loot boxes on to a full-price retail game.

Anyway, after I got back from returning the disc, I decided that I’d had a lot of fun with the multiplayer in Battlefront II and maybe I’d take a go at the game I actually owned.  People had to still be playing it, right?

Get used to this screen.  It turns out that, no, people mostly aren’t still playing it.

Also the ship selection is terrible:

…so, as much as I may grumble about it, I will probably give EA some money for Battlefront II: The You Can Fly A Goddamned Y-Wing And It’s Amazing Edition.

You know, when it’s on sale.

 

Posted in videogames, Xbox One | 2 Comments

RiME

Video game enthusiasts love creating words to describe genres by taking a couple of game titles and mashing them together, it’s the sort of practice that has given us “Metroidvania” and “Soulsborne”, and it’s very useful as shorthand for knowing what you’re getting yourself into when you put your hard-earned cash on the counter.  There isn’t, however, any term for games that try very hard to evoke the sense of playing an Ueda Fumito game, so I would humbly like to suggest “Icolossus” as something that is both confusing to pronounce and drives auto-correct barking mad.

RiME, then, would be an Icolossus.  It’s got the haunting music, the stark visuals, the strong use of environmental storytelling, and the overall sense of isolation.  Your character wakes up on the beach of a gorgeous sunny island, without much sense of how you got there, and you quickly make a cute fox friend and go on a puzzle-solving adventure.

It really IS a pretty game, and the trailer does a good job of showing off several of the environments you will be running and clambering through:

Anyway, on this island, you do a lot of climbing around and finding keys and pushing boxes and feeding fruit to cute happy pigs and the sky is blue and the sun is shining and there’s absolutely no sense of the massive tonal shift that awaits you about five hours later.

At this point, I will say that I won’t spoil too much of the ending, but I will warn any prospective player that the last sequences of the game seem crafted to punch you right in the stomach, repeatedly, until the end credits blissfully roll.

The only other game I’ve played from Tequila Works was “Deadlight”, which has some similarities to RiME – both are fairly short affairs with very distinctive visual styles, both involve traversing the ruins of a once-majestic civilization (we will, for the moment, consider Seattle “majestic”), and both go right for the feels.  On the other hand, while “Deadlight” could be tooth-grindingly-difficult at times (Goddamned helicopter level, I am looking at YOU), RiME is a relaxed, almost casual affair, with very few things that try to kill you.  One of the levels has you darting between patches cover to avoid the attentions of a hungry, roc-like bird, but it never gets terribly tense and I actually wound up feeling a little sorry for the bird at the end.

RiME launched at thirty bucks for both major consoles and PC, and has been discounted on several occasions since. My retail copy was all of $16, and I’d call it a bargain at that price. You probably won’t spend more than an afternoon with it, but I suspect the experience will linger for quite some time.

Posted in PS4, videogames | 2 Comments

The Moppets Take Manhattan

OK, confession time: the only reason I’m writing this is because the post title stuck in my head about ten minutes into watching Love Live! The School Idol Movie, and until I put it down on the page it wasn’t going to let me forget it.

But, that’s done.  Moving on.

I’ve been slowly working my way through the Love Live! series, and just got around to the movie tonight.  I didn’t quite know what to expect going in, because my history with movies that are spin-offs of anime series has taught me that they fall in to one of three categories.  You have the “one more adventure!” kind of movie, like the Dirty Pair or Strike Witches movies, you have the “retell the plot of the TV show in 120 minutes” movies, like the Macross Frontier movies, and you have the “seriously, we were just on really heavy drugs” movies, like the Utena movie.

Wait, I’m leaving out the “OK, this movie is a sequel to the TV series, but it’s not really a DIRECT sequel, you need to have played this game / read this manga / watched these OVAs that never got translated, so good luck!” movies.  Those are fortunately pretty rare, but I am STILL bitter about the Martian Successor Nadesico movie.

Anyway, since I know you’re just on the edge of your seat with suspense, the Love Live! movie is fortunately squarely in the “one more adventure!” category, and picks up roughly 2 seconds after the end of the TV show.  Really, it’s enough of a continuation that it may as well just be an extremely long 27th episode, so if you’ve watched the preceding 26 and want to spend another hundred minutes with your favorite waifu and her eight best friends, there’s no reason not to watch it.

It does have a little different tone from the series, in that it’s much more of a musical than a show about producing shows.  Characters randomly burst into song and have little dance numbers right in the middle of the plot, which is a bit surreal to watch considering how grounded most of the TV series was.  They had to fill out the soundtrack album, is my theory.

There’s also a plot thread involving Honoka waffling about the future of the group and being advised by a street performer who may or may not actually be there.  I spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to decide whether she was just a figment of Honoka’s imagination, and I’m still working on it.

Oh, and μ’s goes to New York, ostensibly to perform for an American news program but really just to show us that Kotori can and will eat an entire cheesecake in one sitting.  This actually didn’t strike me as too odd – I’ve never personally been to New York, myself, but I am confident that if you walk into a restaurant and just order a cheesecake and a fork they will probably put it on a plate for you without blinking.

Anyway, it felt like a good send-off for the original nine idols and sets me up to start on Love Live! Sunshine!!, which I swear to God has those extra exclamation marks right in the title and I am not making them up.  I’m looking forward to it.

 

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Nico-Nico-NG

A few days ago, I mentioned that I was playing through the Love Live! School Idol Paradise games for the Vita, and at the time I was fairly positive about them, especially as I’d picked them all up for surprisingly cheap in Japan on my last visit.

It turns out, there’s a reason they were cheap.

After I finished the story mode in one, quite happy with myself for getting the “good ending”, I realized that I had barely unlocked half of the songs – and there aren’t that many songs to unlock, either, each of the three games has less than 20 songs and only five of those are unique to each version.

It turns out that some of the songs have really weird unlock requirements, and some of the endings require you to play so poorly that you are only ever likely to see them if you are brand new to the rhythm genre.  The “good ending” is actually the most common one, and getting the “bad ending” is most easily done by simply playing through the story segments and putting the Vita down and walking away while the rhythm bits happen.  There are walkthroughs available on psnprofiles.net, and I strongly recommend following one if you want to see everything in a reasonable amount of time.

The one nice thing is that, once you have unlocked the trickier songs to unlock in one version, the unlocks carry over to the other two games.  So you only need to go through the “live mission” mode (which has things like “finish this song with the number 25 somewhere in the score” or “get x points on a song, playing with the controls reversed”) once, which is something of a relief.

I will admit that the live mission mode was fun in a way I’m not used to seeing in a rhythm game.  Usually the genre is just focused on scoring as high as you can and missing as few notes as possible, so I liked having some different sorts of challenges.

So… there aren’t many songs in the games, and going through the story modes to get all the endings is annoying, and there’s really not much incentive to keep playing once you’ve gotten an Excellent on all of the songs as there aren’t any outfits to unlock or anything, but the rhythm game is fun enough and it has the majority of the songs from the first two seasons of the TV show.  I think a couple of the songs – including “Snow Halation” – were made available as free DLC, but I wasn’t able to download them as I was playing on a US account.  If you have a Japanese PSN account and can switch your Vita to that region, I’d recommend doing that.

It also made for an easy set of trophies, so if you like the platinum hunt it shouldn’t take you terribly long to add this to your display case:

…but, still, pick these up cheap is my advice.

Posted in videogames, vita | 1 Comment

Rightsizing

PC gaming can be a tremendously frustrating hobby at times, but one of the joys that it has to offer is the occasional excuse to pick up a screwdriver, clear off the crud that seems to accumulate on my workbench whenever I’m not looking, and get up to my elbows in the guts of my computer.

Today’s project was kind of a weird one.  I have been using a Phanteks Enthoo Pro case for a while now, and it is a REALLY good case if you want a full tower with lots of room for hard drives and optical drives and with plenty of room to work in.  It’s also got superb cable management and a power supply shroud thing that makes everything look very neat inside.

Lousy photo aside, I hope you will agree that it is a beautiful beast.

On the other hand, it weighs THIRTY POUNDS empty and is, quite honestly, a bear to move around.  Since I have moved to using m.2 SSDs and rarely use an optical drive for anything, it’s kind of overkill.

Also, while it has front panel ports for headphones and USB, they’re behind a little flip-up door and the Bluetooth adapter I always have plugged in for an Xbox One controller means that the little door is never closed and this drives me MAD, DO YOU HEAR ME, MAD.

Ahem.

Enter the NZXT S340, a somewhat more modest hunk of steel and plastic.

The S340 is… well, it’s a mid-priced case and is definitely not in the same class as the Phanteks as far as construction quality and ease of work go.  It’s also fifteen pounds lighter and fits under my desk a lot more easily.  It CAN hold 2 2.5″ SSDs and a 3.5″ HD, but don’t even suggest an optical drive.

Having said that, it easily swallowed my GTX980 and had plenty of headroom for the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO CPU fan I have installed.  It’s not cramped.

…well, the motherboard screw at the top left of the case, that was not easy to get in.  I eventually wound up resting the screw on top of its hole with a pair of needle-nose pliers, then carefully reached in with a screwdriver to get it seated.  Also putting in a power supply is a little weird, there’s a back plate that you detach from the case and screw to your power supply before sliding the whole thing back in.  Look, there are a few compromises to make here is the point I’m trying to make.

Anyway, when your storage is mounted directly to the motherboard and you only have to install a graphics card, it takes very little time to swap cases.  It took maybe an hour before it was ready for its inaugural powering-on test, and I was confident enough that I hadn’t screwed anything up that I even put the case sides on before doing that.

The case fans are always-on and not controlled by the motherboard, so I’d recommend having it under a desk to cut down on some of the hum if fan noise bothers you.  You can mount PWM-controlled fans of your own, of course, but the ones that came built-in seem to blow cool air pretty nicely so I will deal with the hum.

Once it was up and tested, the last step was to add a logo.  Computer cases USED to always have a little square indent for PC builders to put a sticker in, but that’s a trend that seems to have gone away.

So mostly I just find a flat spot to stick this on.  It came off an Atari 800, has been stuck on every PC I’ve built, and somehow the 40-year-old adhesive is still strong enough for it to stay in one place.

All assembled, it is a lovely black monolith.  Sadly this angle shows that my cable management, which WAS doing quite nicely only a few months ago, has kind of slipped and I really need to get things tucked up again.

So, a weird project in some ways – the Phanteks case is decidedly higher-end, so this is a downgrade from some perspectives – but a good project overall.  Moving my PC from my office to, say, the living room for some big-screen gaming was a SERIOUSLY non-trivial event at its previous size and weight, and this one will lug around a lot more easily.

It also feels like a much more modern case.  I’m going to be using the Phanteks to re-home my video encoding system, which needs lots of room for spinny hard drives, but a gaming PC can get by with much more modest storage demands.

Also the USB ports are not behind a door so there is nothing to make me twitch when I look at the front of the case. I swear that’s not the only reason I did this.  Honest.

 

 

 

 

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