Ar Nosurge: Ode To An Unborn Star Review

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Being of the last JRPG’s to be released on the Playstation 3, Ar Nosurge is one of the many games that fell off the radar due to being released at the latter end of a console generation. To make matters worse, Ar Nosurge just happens to be part of the Ar Tonelico series despite not being named Ar Tonelico which could have also been part of the reason many forgot about its existence. While the Ar Tonelico series has a cult following, Ar Nosurge barely has a following at all, in fact it is actually the sequel to a game titled Ciel Nosurge, a game that was never released outside Japan which caused a lot of confusion over in the west upon its release… to those that bothered to look into it that is.

Those of you who have played the Ar Tonelico games before will likely find Ar Nosurge to be somewhat familiar, yet different. It feels like a spiritual successor in some ways as it carries over many of the gameplay elements of the Ar Tonelico series but it continues the story of Ciel Nosurge and brings back its established setting. As such from a narrative standpoint, Ar Nosurge doesn’t feel like an Ar Tonelico game at all. Despite this, it turns out that Ar Nosurge is actually a prequel to Ar Tonelico and takes place many years before the events of Melody Of Elemia which you would never have guessed if you hadn’t reached the latter end of the game’s story.

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The first thing that caught my eye about Ar Nosurge was its premise. After the destruction of the planet, people inhabited a space vessel known as the Soreil and have lived on it ever since in their journey to find a new world to call home. Over time however, people forgot about their search for a new world and transformed the ship into a huge colony in which two races battle for dominance over the vessel. Now if that isn’t an interesting premise, I don’t know what is. While the first Ar Tonelico also had a pretty ambitious narrative concept, it had a more conventional cyberpunk/fantasy setting whereas Ar Nosurge throws the fantasy out of the window and feels more like a sci-fi game which is ironic considering the fact that it is a prequel.

Upon hearing that Ar Nosurge has a sci-fi setting, you’re probably expecting lots of space travel and futuristic aesthetics. While there is plenty of the latter, space travel isn’t exactly the main focus of the game, rather the story focuses on the conflict between the two races. In addition, the environments in the game are pretty varied, offering the more traditional bright and colorful grassland in addition to the futuristic aesthetic of the ship’s interior. As for how grassland appears in a game that takes place predominantly on a space ship, Lets just say that you’ll have to willingly suspend your disbelief for most of the game.

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Unfortunately however, the level design itself is pretty bland for the most part. Each of the locations you visit are usually 1 or 2 screens large, even the dungeons/field areas (aside from a few pointless secret areas that are accessible later on). I personally believe that this was partially due to budget constraints but also due to the way the game is designed as each dungeon/field area serves no other purpose than to give players a place to fight enemies and considering the way Ar Nosurge handles random encounters, there would be little point in panning out the levels. Nevertheless I personally believe that many of the game’s design choices stem from budget constraints and that the developers goal was to do as much as they could with what little they had. This is the impression I got while playing through the game.

In terms of visual aesthetic, the levels look nice enough for what they are even if they seem a bit dated for 2014 standards. Yet another sign that the game was designed on a budget but nevertheless I didn’t find the visuals to be unappealing or bland, they were just ok. Like the Ar Tonelico games, towns are navigated via a menu which isn’t surprising but just like in Ar Tonelico, you do get to walk around in tiny areas inside each town but don’t expect too much. Ultimately if you’re looking for exploration, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed with this game and it definitely isn’t going to be for you. While Valkyrie Profile 2’s environments may have been limited by side scrolling, the game made up for it with its highly detailed aesthetic design which this game lacks. I strongly believe that Ar Nosurge would have been better suited as a side scroller rather than trying to have full 3D movement as the freedom to move in all directions doesn’t really add anything to the game.

Speaking of Valkyrie Profile, the combat in Ar Nosurge is similar to it in the sense that it is a turn based action RPG where each of the attacks are mapped to a face button. The similarities end there however as Ar Nosurge has a rather unusual battle system that can be pretty overwhelming at first but is actually pretty simple once you grasp the mechanics. Before I can talk about Ar Nosurge’s combat in more detail, I need to explain the game’s most distinguishable feature. One thing that has always bothered me in JRPG’s is the monotony of fighting one random encounter after another. Ar nosurge circumvents this issue by allowing you to use powered up song magic to defeat every single enemy in the dungeon at once, in fact the entire combat system revolves around this feature making it important to explain it in detail.

The way this works is that all the enemies in the dungeon are separated into waves. By defeating a single wave of enemies, the player is then introduced to a completely new wave of enemies to defeat. The player has a limited number of turns to defeat as many waves as possible. Turns are consumed each time the number of available attacks are reduced to zero. Now you are probably wondering how you manage to defeat 10 waves of enemies with so limited attacks. This is where breaking attacks come into play. By breaking/defeating all of the enemies that are preparing to attack on each turn, the number of attacks replenishes to maximum meaning that you essentially skip a turn but the enemies do not and thus some of the remaining enemies will prepare to attack in the next turn.

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This forces the player to think carefully as to how they approach battles as they have to not only consider the harmo gauge boost for chaining together attacks but they also want to consider which attacks they use and who they are targeting. Once the burst gauge reaches 100%, the player may activate a song to automatically end the battle, killing every single enemy in the dungeon, doing so rewards you with an experience multiplier which allows you to level up your characters insanely quickly should they manage to dispatch all enemies in a single battle by properly managing their turns and abilities. I love how the combat manages to keep players on their toes at all times with this system as it makes battles quick, yet exciting. This is something many JRPG’s need to learn from when it comes to fighting standard enemy encounters.

Of course there are some flaws to this system. For starters, I personally think that there aren’t enough enemies to fight in each dungeon. As such, while the idea is great and all, I find that it is a bit too easy to dispatch every single enemy in dungeons, at least on the lowest difficulty. This means that the game offers barely any combat at all when it comes to standard progression. Thankfully once you leave an area, enemies will respawn, this allows players to grind for as long as they desire but in doing so, it kinda diminishes the challenge of the game. This didn’t bother me though as I love power leveling in games, especially when I can do it quickly. If you’re the sort of person who is looking for a challenge however, playing on hard/veteran difficulty is an absolute must, fortunately they are available at the start so you do not need to unlock them.

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I also find that many of the game’s boss fights are pretty underwhelming due to the fact that the battle system is designed around fighting waves of enemies and since bosses are generally just a single wave, sometimes with only a single enemy, you will often find yourself repeating the same strategies against them making boss battles feel a bit tedious at times. That’s not to say that all the bosses are like this as some boss fights include multiple enemies which can spice things up a bit and can be pretty fun to fight. I think the issue ultimately lies in the wave based battle system as the combat is designed around killing waves of enemies as opposed to a single enemy.

In addition to this, I also found quite a few spikes in difficulty at times. This is likely due to the encounter system since fighting a single battle can level you up a ton, making certain boss fights a lot easier. That being said, if you didn’t fight any enemy encounters, you are going to have a very hard time against certain bosses, at least on the higher difficulties. This happened to me at the beginning of phase 2 where following the main story quickly threw me into a boss fight. This boss fight kicked my ass a ton of times but that was because I didn’t realize that there were new synthesis items available to craft at the beginning of phase 2 and as such I had to beat up more enemies to farm experience and items to do synthesis. Upon returning, I defeated the boss very easily.

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Thankfully farming experience isn’t such a chore, especially if you get a high score.

Equipment in Ar Nosurge is also a bit unusual as there aren’t any weapons or armor in the traditional sense. Your front line fighter can equip cathodes and your song mage can equip bios. Cathodes are used to modify the properties of the attack associated with the face button it is equipped to. Up to three cathodes can be equipped to each of the face buttons allowing for multiple modifiers to be applied to your attacks. Bios are used to enhance song magic at specific harmonics levels. Like cathodes you can equip up to 3 bios for each harmonics level.

Unfortunately there appears to be a bug associated with bios which renders the level 1 slots completely useless, this bug causes the bios to be triggered one harmonics level higher than the current harmonics level. As such at harmonics level 1, you will activate level 2 bios and at level 2 you will activate level 3 bios. Put simply it is impossible to trigger level 1 bios for this very reason and as such the level 1 slots should be ignored. Both characters can also equip RNAs which are used to increase base stats as well as offer additional effects.

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Now you’re probably thinking that you can purchase new equipment from shops but aside from the most basic of equipment, most of it is acquired through synthesis. On the surface, synthesis is just your typical crafting system, which it is. However, like in Ar Tonelico’s grathmelding, every new item that is created through synthesis triggers a conversation between characters. In Ar Tonelico, this was perfectly fine and all as the crafting materials were obtained through fighting multiple battles but since the battles in Ar Nosurge have you fight against every single enemy encounter in the dungeon simultaneously, you will likely have all the materials you need to synthesize a ton of items after a single battle, making synthesis a tedious ordeal to acquire new items for people who are uninterested in the conversations that revolve around each one, as a single enemy encounter can give you enough loot to make several synthesized items, usually to the point that you end up synthesizing all of the available items in one sitting.

As a result, synthesis feels somewhat tacked on and only serves to add more dialogue to the game. While the additional dialogue that comes with it isn’t necessarily terrible and can be comedic, it tends to take up a lot of the player’s time. If you aren’t content with reading large amounts of dialogue in bulk, I can safely say that synthesis is going to be one hell of an ordeal for you. Conversely, those who are looking for a more dialogue heavy experience can rejoice as Ar Nosurge inserts dialogue into every nook and cranny to the point that you are literally drowning in it. It’s pretty easy to tell what the developers were trying to do with this game as everything from the random encounter system, to the synthesis system and more is designed to get players out of the action and into the dialogue as quickly as possible. If you ask me, this is where Ar Nosurge takes focused game design a bit too far.

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Speaking of taking things too far, every time you create something, weeb shit happens… Thank god for the skip function at the bottom right.

Sure, there is an audience for what Ar Nosurge is attempting to cater to but the question is, is the material itself worth all the hassle of reading layers upon layers of incessant dialogue? That’s a good question. While Ar Nosurge’s world is a very ambitious concept, the story itself is actually quite straightforward for the most part, at least early on in the game. I think that while Ar Nosurge doesn’t have a terrible story, it does get a little bit ridiculous later on and whether or not you enjoy it will ultimately come down to how you handle the game’s plot twist because Ar Nosurge may have the craziest plot twist I have ever seen in a videogame.

Ultimately though, despite not having played Ciel Nosurge and not having any understanding on what went on in that game’s story, I personally found that the story of Ar Nosurge was decent. I wouldn’t say that it was groundbreaking but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was completely terrible. It definitely has its weird bits in there to help spice things up a little and I think the game handled its themes rather well. Still, as much as I don’t want to believe it, I think that most of the story was just an excuse to ship the characters which is a little sad but then again I could say the same about the first Ar Tonelico so it’s not like it’s all that surprising.

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In addition to the main storyline, the cosmospheres from Ar Tonelico return but this time they have been renamed to genometrics. Genometrics are a little different from the cosmospheres in Ar Tonelico as you are able to dive into multiple characters as opposed to just one. I also noticed that there are a lot more multiple choice branches in the genometrics which gives players an illusion of choice. Perhaps this is what the developers meant when they were calling their game an “A Deeply Immersive 7th dimension RPG” but I think that’s a load of bollocks to be honest. As I’ve mentioned before, immersion is about making meaningful choices and these choices are anything but meaningful. Sure some choices award you with crystals which can be used to… uh, I’ll get to that later but most options just eject you out of the dive session and force you to restart the dive all over again.

Thankfully all of the dialogue is skippable in genometrics which is a life saver because had I been forced to read all of the dialogue all over again due to picking the wrong choice, I wouldn’t even be writing this review right now, as I’d still be struggling through the ordeal of mashing the X button to skip through it all to this day. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little but I want that thought imprinted in your mind, because it certainly feels like an ordeal at times to get through the layers upon layers of dialogue just to unlock song magic. Speaking of which, there aren’t any support song magic to be found in this game, pretty much all of the song magic is used to nuke enemy waves, probably to befit the nature of the encounter system. As such you can only acquire one piece of song magic for completing a character’s genometrics as opposed to acquiring multiple songs within the cosmospheres themselves.

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Some choices require dive points to select them. Dive points are accumulated by winning battles and you will rarely be short on them. Regardless, it is recommended that you pick the cheapest possible choices first as it saves you from having to farm DP to access more events later on but be careful as some choices will eject you from the dive session.

The only other reason to do genometrics aside from experiencing a visual novel within a game is to acquire crystals and this is where the game gets weird. Once you have dived enough into your partner, you are able to perform purification. Now truth be told, I didn’t experience purification myself, mainly because the game makes it pretty obvious as to what I would be getting myself into should I end up experiencing it myself. Let’s put it this way, purification is cringeworthy to the point that I’m not going to go into too much detail on it. Put simply it’s just another excuse for the game to shove more dialogue down your throat as well as being able to equip crystals in an unusual manner. Talk topics are acquired though exploration but considering how simplistic the level design is, they are often very hard to miss.

Now with that aside, lets talk about the characters of the game. Considering the fact that Ar Nosurge prioritizes narrative above everything else, you’d expect to have a strong cast of characters. Well I’d argue that the characters are kind of a mixed bag in this game as while some have interesting personalities and are well-developed, others are just dumb anime stereotypes that get kind of annoying after a while. For starters I want to talk about Delta and Casty. These two characters are completely pointless and did not need to exist at all in the game. Not only do they barely have any connection to the plot but as Delta is pretty bog standard for a protagonist and Casty plays the generic tsundere role for the majority of the game, it’s difficult to see any value in these two characters. While these two characters aren’t exactly terrible, nor are they completely unlikable, they do not really offer much to the plot and are kinda just along for the ride.

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Conversely Ion and many of the NPC’s in the game are pretty well characterized and fit in really well with the plot. If they removed Delta and Casty from the story, literally nothing important would change. I can kind of see what they were trying to do though, they were trying to implement multiple perspectives into the game which I can praise them for trying, however I personally find that this doesn’t really add much to the game other than having to level up two sets of characters separately which can be a bit of a nuisance at times. Had Delta and Casty had a stronger connection to the plot and were more interesting, I probably would have appreciated this design choice more. It’s not as if it’s a major issue that the game tries to offer multiple perspectives and it is a cool idea, It’s just that it felt like a last-minute addition to the game, even if it wasn’t.

I’m not saying that the Delta and Casty added absolutely nothing to the story, there are sections where the two parties encounter one another and you can clearly see a strong contrast between the two, I just think that Delta’s side needed to be fleshed out more for me to care. One thing that I didn’t give Odin Sphere’s story enough credit for was that it had you rooting for pretty much every side. In Ar Nosurge I didn’t really give a shit about Delta’s side because they weren’t fleshed out enough and didn’t really have a big enough stake in what was going on. The thing is though, I get what they were trying to do and in theory it’s brilliant but in practice, not so much. If the main story was all there was, I’d argue that the plot clearly outweighs the characters in terms of value.

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In the genometrics however, things get a little bit more interesting as you are able to see the characters inner thoughts. While this appears to be a clever way to develop the characters, it can feel a bit disjointed from the main story at times, kind of like that feeling after you’re walking out of a cinema after seeing a movie where it’s hard to connect what you have just seen to reality because it is completely different and that’s kind of what genometrics is trying to be, it feels like a sub plot or a re-imagining of the characters rather than natural character development with loose connections to the plot. That isn’t to say that it is a re-imagining of the characters, rather it feels like it is because of how separated it is from the story.

I prefer natural character growth over simulated character growth personally and as such, I cannot ignore this point. Regardless, I get what the developers were trying to do, I really do. They were trying to make a point of illustrating how characters inner thoughts differ from their outer selves. I just don’t think that this is everybody’s cup of tea and as such I feel the need to bring it up. Nevertheless I think that the genometrics really brings out the best of the characters. Funnily enough, I found myself caring more about the NPC’s than the main cast as they really put a lot of effort into designing their genometrics, not to say that the main cast didn’t get the same treatment, I just found myself caring more about the other characters personally and it was a nice surprise to see them getting fleshed out instead of just having the main cast develop.

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It should be noted that while many of the characters are written well enough, It’s hard to take any of the writing seriously when the characters wear such ridiculous outfits. Just looking at these characters makes me wanna puke.

Perhaps the developers had planned to have multiple party members at one point but later scrapped it in favor of focusing on having one front line fighter and one song mage for each side, this is heavily implied by the game’s friend skill ability which allows you to summon friendly NPC’s to attack enemies with a one time super move to deal a lot of damage to enemies which can be handy in a pinch though nothing beats the power of song magic. Speaking of which, there is a harmoburst ability that can be acquired later on which is similar to Valkyrie Profile 2’s break mode in the sense that you can use your abilities freely within a time limit. Unlike break mode however, this attack comes with a super move at the end and you will automatically unleash your song magic afterwards making it the ultimate finishing move. This can only be used once you have fully maxed out your harmo gauge and as such you will need to do a lot of genometrics to unlock it.

I think that if you want to enjoy Ar Nosurge to its fullest, genometrics might as well be compulsory as it the only way to acquire new song magic and increase your harmo gauge. Conversely I never felt the need to equip the crystals I received from genometrics so purification isn’t really all that important and can be completely ignored should you wish to avoid it. As for whether you will enjoy genometrics or not, that depends on how much you care about videogame narrative. Regardless, most of it can be skipped anyways after seeing it for the first time but it must be viewed at least once. Bear that in mind if you aren’t looking to play a dialogue heavy game because this game has no shortage of text boxes to button mash your way through.

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Ar Nosurge takes every opportunity it can to insert more dialogue for players to read through. So much so that players can trigger skit-like conversations seamlessly as they walk around.

Had it been for the gameplay, story and visuals alone, I would have probably given Ar Nosurge a satisfactory rating as despite its shortcomings, there was some fun to be had here but it wasn’t a groundbreaking experience… well it wouldn’t have been had it not been for the game’s incredible soundtrack. The Ar Tonelico games have been known to have amazing soundtracks and Ar Nosurge is no exception. Electronic music makes up the bulk of the game’s soundtrack which is no surprise considering the game’s sci-fi setting but there’s also plenty of other genres on offer too.

I find that many of the tracks were well thought out and befit their roles rather well. The music that plays during the synthesis dialogues is so relaxing to listen to that it makes reading all of the dialogue a lot less of an ordeal, same goes for the music that plays in the genometrics, as there’s some really underappreciated songs that play in there and it makes the experience so much more enjoyable as a result. Generally speaking, Ar Nosurge’s soundtrack builds a very relaxing atmosphere that when combined with the game’s overall design, ultimately makes for a very relaxing experience. I cannot stress just how relaxing this game is to play once you get into it, nothing ever feels too overbearing and the pacing is on point thanks to the game’s unique encounter system.

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Much like in Ar Tonelico, Ar Nosurge features a lot of hymnos music. Hymnos music is essentially vocalized music that is used to represent the song magic being sang by the characters in-game. I usually consider vocalized music in games to be the videogame equivalent of doping. It is a cheap way to get players to be in awe of your game’s soundtrack and these song usually get way more attention than they deserve, at least in my opinion. The Ar Tonelico series is the exception to this as the vocals fit in with very nature of the game due to their representation of song magic, the core of the series’ narrative, making the existence of vocalized music plausible.

The Ar Tonelico series has a pretty good track record when it comes to its vocalized music but does Ar Nosurge manage to live up to the series’ standards? Hell fucking yes! The vocalized music in Ar Nosurge is simply put phenomenal, so much so that it feels a tad awkward when accompanied with the game’s low-budget presentation. What makes Ar Nosurge’s vocalized music stand out from other game is its use of instruments and the overall composition. There’s also quite a lot of different genres too, of course you get your generic Jpop but there’s also some metal tracks in there too as well as some orchestral tracks. It often seems as if the instruments and the vocals are fighting a constant tug of war in each track in an attempt to dominate the listener’s attention. While there are some tracks that focus primarily on the vocals, most of the songs have a good mixture of instrumental and vocals in them.

 

“I cannot stress just how relaxing this game is to play once you get into it, nothing ever feels too overbearing and the pacing is on point thanks to the game’s unique encounter system”

 

One criticism I do have though is that some of the boss theme’s were a little too flamboyant to the point that the final boss theme felt disappointing in comparison, not that the song was bad or anything, rather the music that played in other battles would have fit the final battle a lot better. In any case, you’ll have a tough job finding a game that can match Ar Nosurge’s vocalized music and if you do manage to find one, chances are it’s an Ar Tonelico game.

Ar Nosurge likes to masquerade as a deep and immersive JRPG. Its unique battle system is brimming with inherent complexity and the narrative needlessly complicates itself in order to maintain this facade. While it may not appear to be a simple game at first glance, players will eventually realize that the game isn’t really as deep as it first appears. The game suffers from what appears to be a lack of budget and there are a few annoyances in the game as well as some really awkward moments that envelop you in cringe. That being said, Ar Nosurge manages to make up for all of its shortcomings with its spectacular soundtrack, quirky design choices and its steady pacing.

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Or we could just shoot our way through and avoid all these needless discussions.

I think there’s a lot that can be learned from Ar Nosurge, particularly the way it handles the issue of random encounters. I think more JRPG’s need to employ systems designed to circumvent this issue in order to better optimize pacing. I still enjoyed the game’s combat despite its lack of depth as I found that it synergized with the encounter system well enough to create a really unique and rewarding experience. As for the story, If you’re a fan of visual novels, I think you’ll probably appreciate it quite a lot. Conversely if you’re not a fan of visual novels, you’ll probably have a harder time getting into the story as most of the game’s characterization is found within genometrics. All in all, I think that this game definitely deserves more attention as it has quickly elevated its way to being one of my favorite JRPGs on the PS3 (exclusive to Sony consoles at least).


Plot/Story: Good

Visuals: Satisfactory

Gameplay: Good

Music: Exceptional

Lifespan: Decent Length

Difficulty: Easy

Would You Replay? No


Overall: Good


Value: £30.00

 

 

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Tales Of Symphonia Review

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I don’t talk enough about the Tales series, maybe because the series has burned me out. I’ve been seeing more and more Tales games get shoveled out every year and each time I see them I kinda get a bitter taste in my mouth. Ever since the release of Star Ocean 5 and Exist Archive, my interest in the Tales series started to dwindle to the point where I had just lost interest in it.

However there’s nothing like a great Tales game to satisfy one’s JRPG cravings and Tales Of Symphonia is the first game that comes to mind when It comes to playing a good old-fashioned run of the mill JRPG. You see, Tales Of Symphonia doesn’t present itself as anything new. At first sight it’s easy to be misled by the game’s slow pacing but I’d advise you not to judge a book by its cover. Tales Of Symphonia is definitely a must play for any JRPG fan, particularly those who enjoy action RPG’s over the conventional turned based.

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As and action RPG, Tales Of Symphonia is often seen as a benchmark and rightfully so.  It was the first 3D Japanese Action RPG to give us a deep and engaging combat system and ultimately served as the demise for the Star Ocean series as a whole. If it wasn’t for Tales Of Symphonia, I don’t think the Tales series would have lasted as long as it has. The series has had a pretty huge legacy and Tales Of Symphonia serves as the pillar that holds it all in place.

Tales Of Symphonia might not seem much at first glance but as a game released in 2003 it has aged magnificently… most of it that is. A lot of people question the popularity of Symphonia, often comparing it to other games in the series. While the Tales series has evolved considerably, there have been a lot of changes to the series that have improved on the formula set by Tales Of Symphonia. As good as this was, future games in the series failed to stand out from its predecessor. While I won’t deny that there were some solid Tales games released after Symphonia, Symphonia kinda feels different from those games.

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There is something about Symphonia that keeps me coming back to it and I think I’ve found out what that something is. For starters, one of the things that made Tales Of Symphonia so iconic is its diverse array of content. There’s no shortage of things to do in this game as the main story has a pretty sizable length and there are plenty of sidequests to experience as you progress through the story and many of them offer some great rewards, usually in the form of titles.

The title system allows players to collect special titles that will alter the character’s stat growth. These titles can be carried over in a new game plus which allows players to customize their character’s growth in future playthroughs. Knowing that nearly every sidequest you complete contributes towards each playthrough gives you more of an incentive to complete them, when it comes to rewarding players, Tales Of Symphonia has a lot to offer.

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This alone would be a mere novelty. What truly makes Tales Of Symphonia a memorable experience lies in its gameplay and story. While the story of Tales Of Symphonia might appear quite generic at first glance, it manages to stay fresh with its strong themes. The characters themselves are very much the same, on the surface they are cardboard cut outs but each of them has their own place in the game’s story and play their role well enough. Rather than focusing on the characters individually, the game uses them as a means to portray the strong themes the game’s story revolves around. I don’t want to go into too much detail on these themes for fear of spoilers.

I’m not going to lie, Tales Of Symphonia’s story isn’t going to blow you away, it’s pretty bog standard for today’s standards but it was executed well enough to create a memorable experience. So long as you don’t set your expectations too high, you might be pleasantly surprised by the game’s story. If you do want to get the most out of the game’s story though, you’ll want to engage in some of the game’s many side quests as a lot of the story is hidden behind them. There are also skits which can help shed a light on some of the characters too.

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What makes this game truly stand out from other games in the series is its affection system. Tales Of Symphonia steals borrows this idea from the Star Ocean series which allowed you to partake in special events known as private actions which allowed certain scenarios to influence variables. These variables would affect the ending the player would obtain and each character would have their own adjustable variable value. As such the player may opt to avoid certain scenario’s or backtrack for specific scenarios in order to build up their desired variable.

In Tales Of Symphonia the way you interact with characters is different from the Star Ocean series. While lot of the choices you make throughout the game will affect the amount of affection each character has for the main character Lloyd, the actual process of acquiring these affection points is a lot more streamlined for the most part often forcing choices onto the player as they make progress though the game’s story. That’s not to say that there aren’t any optional interactions. Many of the sidequests can also affect a particular character’s affection for Lloyd. There are also optional skit points where you can engage in a skit conversations with other characters in which the player’s choices affect the character’s affection for Lloyd.

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Sadly this feature never made it into any of the future Tales games which is a shame. Unlike the Star Ocean series however, the affection system doesn’t affect the game’s ending, rather it changes up many of the game’s cut scenes. Once you reach a certain point in the main story, the characters with the highest affection will be able to partake in a cut scene with Lloyd, this scene will solidify that character as the one with the highest affection for Lloyd, essentially replacing the multiple character endings the Star Ocean series has. As a fan of the Star Ocean series I really enjoyed the inclusion of this feature as it allowed me to get more invested in the story and characters. Plus it allowed me to personalize my experience more which is always a good thing.

The Tales series is known for its fast paced real-time action battle systems and Tales Of Symphonia is no exception. Even today, Tales Of Symphonia holds up well despite it being rather basic. If you’ve played any other Tales game then you’ll know what to expect here. Tales Of Symphonia uses a side scrolling battle system in a 3D battle arena. This means that by changing targets you are able to spread your party out. So despite the fact that it is a side scrolling action RPG, it really feels like a free moving combat system.

Tales Of Symphonia was the first game in the series to offer serious competition to the Star Ocean games and for good reason. Rather than simply having players barrage foes with attacks, Tales Of Symphonia focuses on chaining hits to build up combos. While the ability to combo was somewhat prominent it still felt rather unrefined. Tales Of Symphonia’s combat offers a more refined combo system allowing players to chain up to 3 techs and alternate between 6 different techs per character at a time. This was a big deal back then as ARPG’s often lacked variety back in their early years. Tales Of Symphonia was one of the first ARPG’s that added a considerable amount of depth making it capable enough to rival that of a turned based RPG.

The combat focuses on synchronizing your attacks with the AI (or other players) in order to build up a combo. This idea would later be used in other games such as Valkyrie Profile 2 which allowed players to take control over all four characters in battle, managing them all simultaneously. Tales Of Symphonia was one of the first to focus primarily on combo focused gameplay and offers a wide variety of options in battle.

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Unfortunately like in all real-time action RPG’s with AI controlled party members, the combat suffers from having a lack of control over multiple characters. This is a problem that is not exclusive to Tales Of Symphonia but is worth bringing up considering the fact that Tales Of Symphonia is one of the pioneers that established the more modern style of real time action RPG’s and as such it is important to keep in mind that relying on the AI is essentially a big part of the gameplay.

For this reason, playing the game with a friend is probably going to be a far better experience than playing alone. Much like Secret of Mana was a more co-op orientated game, Tales Of Symphonia appears to be very similar. However players managed to enjoy playing Tales Of Symphonia as a single player game so it’s not impossible to enjoy playing it alone, rather there are some flaws to be aware of in terms of the AI. I will say though that for the most part, the AI aren’t all that bad in Tales Of Symphonia and if you can learn the AI’s patterns, you can really build up some awesome combo’s.

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Still, my philosophy on these type of games is that they were actually built with co-op in mind originally but the early games in the series along with all of the Star Ocean games seem to have forgotten this. Regardless, I judge these types of games in four different categories: flexibility, intuition, smoothness and AI behavior and considering the time this game was released, Tales Of Symphonia is above average in all four of these categories making for a very well-rounded combat system. Like I said before, you have 6 attacks at your disposal and they can all be mixed up in any order you choose as well as several regular attacks to mix things up more. While that may not sound like much today, back in 2003 this was a pretty big deal in terms of flexibility.

Now I never had the chance to play the original Gamecube release (which is quite ironic since the Gamecube is my favourite console) but based on the PS3 release, the controls are very simple and easy to use. You can guard and dodge using the square button, use normal attacks with X and artes using O. Comboing is simple enough, using a combination of normal attacks and artes as well as the AI’s attacks you can build up some crazy combos which are still really fun to pull off today and it’s easy to build up those hits, you never feel like you have to do too much busy work to pull them off like in Star Ocean Till The End Of Time which required the player to constantly swap characters in order to juggle their enemies.

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To add to all this you also have unison attacks. This was cool because you got to stop the enemy in their tracks while you get to perform any move of your choosing. Performing certain moves allows you use a compound special attacks which were a combination of two different artes with two different characters. It was a flashy and cool way to finish off enemies. I really liked the unison attack system and building the unison gauge was never too much of a hassle. It just gives you more control over battles and adds some extra flashiness to the combo’s.

To make things even crazier, the PS3 version (based on the Japanese PS2 version) adds mystic artes which are an alternate finisher that allow specific characters to pull off a unique special attack much like the purify weird soul attacks in Valkyrie Profile. These are used as finishers but unlike Unison Attacks they are pretty hard to pull off and can sometimes be completely forgotten about. This is due to the fact that the overlimit gauge didn’t exist yet and overlimits were built up over time much like trance in Final Fantasy IX in the sense that you cannot trigger it at will. Since most mystic artes required the character be in overlimit or at low hp, they were difficult to pull off.

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Regardless I can easily say that Tales Of Symphonia’s battle system stands the test of time, while other games in the series may be better in some areas, few games come close to the polished smoothness of Tales Of Symphonia’s combat. It is one of those combat systems that keeps you coming back for more due to how simple yet polished it is. To put it more accurately Tales Of Symphonia’s battle system is the benchmark of any real-time action JRPG combat and is what all real time action JRPG’s should aspire to be.

Aside from combat you do get a little bit of character management here, while not as deep as it is in the Star Ocean series, Tales Of Symphonia offers the player a few choices in regards to character management in the form of EX skills. These skills alter several different properties of each character giving them special passive abilities or allowing them to be played in a unique way. Sadly in future games such as Tales Of The Abyss, EX skills were learned in a more linear fashion and rather than picking and choosing, you get given all the EX skills over the course of the game which ruined the whole point of having EX skills. Regardless this was a great addition which adds a little bit of experimentation to the game.

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Other than that however, character management is very basic, learning new artes can be quite complicated as there are two different combat styles to learn: strike and technical. Each style has its own set of artes and is influenced by the player’s EX skills. Strike artes are mostly powerful attacks which focus on knockback. Technical artes focus more on delivering more hits and are usually a lot flashier than strike artes. Then you have magic which is completely different depending on the character. For example, you could have Raine be a strong party healer and teach her technical moves like Revitalize. On the other hand you could teach her stronger single target healing abilities and the ability to give your characters an auto-revive buff.

You can mix between strike and technical artes by changing your EX skills to favor the opposite style just before you learn a new move, you can also forget certain moves and swap them for their alternate move should you wish. Or you could just stick with either style and see what you get. This makes the game more interesting as there are so many different combinations of moves you can have at your disposal, some may see it as limiting but that’s kinda the point, by limiting the player, you are making them choose between two variants of moves based on which they prefer.

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Do they want to focus on dealing raw damage and knockbacks or so they want to focus on building up more hits? By limiting your game for the sake of choices, you’re actually providing a more rewarding experience since the choice the player makes equates to that of rewarding players with personalization. This is what many of the other Tales games failed to realize, by breaking these limits and just giving all the abilities away to the player, they are essentially removing that element of choice which made Tales Of Symphonia feel so rewarding… at least in terms of personalization.

So Tales Of Symphonia does a lot of things right with its gameplay and while the story starts off quite slow, it picks up later on. In theory this alone should provide a highly engaging experience and it does… for the most part. You see Tales Of Symphonia may be the series’ benchmark but it isn’t without its flaws. For starters, the dungeons of Tales Of Symphonia tend to really bog the game down in monotony as there are plenty of dungeons in the game that just flat-out suck. Why is this you ask? That’s simple, puzzles and when I say puzzles I mean hours upon hours of tedium.

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The puzzles in Tales Of Symphonia are quite possibly some of the most irritating puzzles I have ever seen in an RPG. While the first few dungeons have very simple, yet boring puzzles, later puzzles can become quite tedious and annoying to do. One puzzle in particular literally has you moving blocks of garbage and dropping it off a catwalk for no other reason than to pan out game time. To make things worse you have the sorcerers ring with its many functions. I absolutely loathe the inclusion of this feature because there are times where you have to switch between ring modes to accomplish certain tasks the game gives you to do like shooting braziers and shooting a bomb to blow up a rock.

Maybe this is just a personal issue but I honestly do not see how anyone can enjoy slogging through such horrendous dungeons. The most infamous of dungeons require you to guide several blobs to a certain position. These blobs will follow you but it is a nightmare to keep them all together. All you do is run around the area aimlessly pushing switches, trying to find all the blobs and trying to keep them all together. To make things worse, pushing in certain switches pushes other switches out. It’s a nightmare for people like me who want to get straight to the action. Even if I were to like puzzles, I cannot see myself not getting frustrated in that horrendous place.

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The dungeons are the biggest problem with this game and they are one of the few things that hinder the game’s replay value. However there is also another problem that many games released back in 2003 suffered from, unskippable cutscenes. That’s right, one of the most irritating parts of replaying a JRPG is to have to press X/A to keep the text moving so that you can get back to the action. I wish that players could just skip the cutscenes and move on. Why this isn’t a thing in the PS3 port I cannot fathom.

Despite all this, I managed to slog through another playthrough and while it did have its annoying parts, the amount of rewarding content this game offered convinced me to play through it again and once I reached the second half of the game, my engagement levels rose a ton. Tales Of Symphonia offers a new game plus feature. By spending grade you are able to unlock certain perks which you can carry over to each playthrough. After unlocking the combo’s perk the game felt extremely rewarding to play in terms of growth as it rewards you with experience based on the highest combo you perform in the fight. This made every boss fight feel different and added an extra layer of depth to the game.

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It was this second playthrough that convinced me to review this game as I felt that being able to play through a game such as this a second time alone is something worth noting since I don’t normally do such things in videogames. I will say though that the second playthrough did have its annoying moments, particularly in the dungeons but I believe if you are truly willing to give the game another shot, by all means do so.

This game has a lot of replay value to balance out the horror of having to slog through those painful dungeons again and as someone who dislikes replaying videogames in general, I can confirm that there is some value to be had in doing so, it just takes a bit of patience because Tales Of Symphonia is quite a lengthy ordeal as it can take around 40 – 50 hours to finish the story. I assure you, once you endure the first half of the game, the game opens up fairly quickly and you feel like you’re playing through a whole new experience entirely. There are still the painful moments but if you are willing to endure some of that pain, it’s definitely worth playing through this game multiple times.

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As far as music is concerned, the game’s soundtrack does a reasonable job of keeping players engaged in the experience but doesn’t go the extra mile to deliver something particularly noteworthy. There are some good tracks here and there, ironically the best tracks tend to play in some of the most tedious dungeons, kinda fitting considering the fact that you’ll be spending a lot of your time in these places. Some tracks are better than others but for the most part I’d say that the soundtrack does its job reasonably well.

In terms of art direction, Tales Of Symphonia takes a very vivid approach depicting a bright, colorful cel-shaded world. While some may find this kind of contradictory to many of the game’s themes I feel that it serves to make the world more likable and makes the locations more memorable due to this distinct art style. After all, sometimes you want a break from the more darker styled games and you want something bright and colorful as a refreshment. As such I feel that the art design fits this game rather well, it really fools you into believing that the game is very plain and simple at first but when things start to get more interesting as the story clashes with other themes, the art direction really stands out.

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When it comes to choosing whether or not to play Tales Of Symphonia, ask yourself what exactly you are looking for in a JRPG at this point? While I do believe that every JRPG fan should give this game a shot at some point, I don’t think this is a game people should rush towards for the sake of it. If you’re going to play Tales Of Symphonia then you want to be in the right mood for it.

If you’re tired of the more conventional RPG and want something different, Tales Of Symphonia can be quite difficult to get into. On the other hand if you’re looking to escape from more modern, avant-garde JRPG experiences then you should definitely give Tales Of Symphonia a go. I do think that the game starts off quite slow and it can be an arduous task to get to the meaty stuff but when you do I believe that you will enjoy what you see.


Story/Plot: Good
Visuals: Good
Music: Satisfactory
Gameplay: Great
Lifespan: Quite Long
Difficulty: Medium
Would you replay? Yes

Overall: Great

Value: £40.00

 

Mafia 2 Review

Mafia 2 was kind of hit or miss for me personally, it’s a game that tries really hard to create a realistic setting and story line but it is held back by several issues that pushed the game into mediocrity.

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So much fun!!!

First of all, I’d like to get the bad bits out of the way so lets talk about the game play of Mafia 2. There are two different sections to play, driving and shooting sections, even a few stealth sections here and there. First of all lets talk about the shooting sections.

Now Mafia 2 is a third person shooter and I don’t have a lot of good things to say about this genre other than it has never appealed to me in the slightest for many reasons and believe me, this game made damn well sure to expose those issues. As expected, I was quite skeptical about the TPS sections and rightfully so.

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For starters, the cover system. I can’t stand cover systems and this game really brings the worst out of them. Seriously there is this one mission where a boss throws seemingly endless molotovs at you which can hit you through cover so you have to leave cover only to be shot by everyone in order to get to the next cover only to be burned again. It was infuriating and after doing some research, it seems I wasn’t the only one who had trouble with this part.

Put simply (consider this a mini rant), I am sick and tired of seeing cover systems in video games. They do nothing but piss me off, they are just awful and for good reasons too. Cover systems are basically just popping in and out and firing random potshots hoping to hit the enemy as opposed to FPS games like Painkiller where you are constantly moving and avoiding enemy attacks.

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The thing that gets me the most is that cover systems aren’t even realistic (unless you count Dishonored or Wolfenstein The New Order which are both games I personally disliked). The biggest issue with cover systems is that you’re in third person. If you want to make the game play feel realistic then do it in first person so that we can only peek in and out of cover to see where our enemies are (like in the two games I mentioned).

If you can see everything around you, whilst being in cover, it defeats the purpose of cover systems in general as it is completely unrealistic that you can see beyond cover on your screen so you know where the enemies are and the only reason why cover exists in games is because it’s realistic, otherwise we’d be running around and dodging bullets like Duke Nukem.

So all in all cover systems in third person shooters are stupid. What they should do instead is remove the stupid hitscan enemies and remove the cover and have you strafe to avoid enemy attacks. Look at the Serious Sam games for example, as much as I ridicule them for their unforgiving and frustrating difficulty, at least they made third person perspective playable and are the only game to do so (Warhammer 40k Space Marine came close but failed simply due to how slow you move).

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Basically the game play goes like this, you watch a cut scene and are thrust straight into a fight, you have to run to cover quickly and mash the left trigger to constantly go in and out of cover and shoot estimated potshots at enemies and keep going in and out until the enemy decides to pop out then shoot them, rinse and repeat. This wouldn’t be so bad if enemies didn’t stay in cover for insanely long periods of time so you’re usually playing the waiting game. This can become quite tedious, especially when you die and have to restart it all over again which brings me to my next problem.

The stupid checkpoint/save system is absolutely awful. I swear, half the game was spent replaying annoying TPS sections just because I got killed by some random blind spot (I’ll get to that in a minute) and brought back all the way to the start of the gunfight so I have to do all of those annoying TPS sections all over again!

I swear, the checkpoints are so spaced out, it’s ridiculous, you’d think that after completing one section that you’d get a checkpoint… but no, instead you get a checkpoint after 2 or sometimes even 3 sections and each section can take ridiculously long due to the horrible cover system. So basically you clear out a room of enemies, go to the next room and get killed by a blind spot.

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This brings me to the biggest problem with the shooting sections, the enemy placement. Mafia 2 pays homage to Red Faction in this regard as the enemies are placed in positions specifically to take you by surprise… or as I like to call, campy AI. I swear there are so many moments where you walk down a hallway and BAM! You get 1 shotted by a dude with a shotgun who was hiding in the room. The biggest issue with this is simply the minimap, it is dreadful. The minimap only displays enemies right when you’ve seen them and by the time the red triangles appear on the map, you are gunned down almost immediately.

There are so many points in this game where I reached the next section only to be one shotted by a group of enemies who appeared out of seemingly nowhere but half way through the game I noticed that this was due to the enemy placement.

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There is this one section where you’re walking down the stairs and there is an enemy waiting for you right at the bottom and they can see you as you are walking down and kill you before you even notice them. There was also a part where I opened a door and was greeted by a shotgun blast to the face.

Put simply, the enemy placement is designed to aggravate the player, just like in Red Faction, only difference is that because Mafia 2 is a cover based TPS, it makes things twice as bad due to the fact that you need to be in cover to survive gunfights, if you’re out of cover, you’re not going to last two seconds and since you cannot see where the enemies are, you get ambushed in every single encounter before you can get to cover. Either that or you hug every single wall you come across… but then the enemies could hit you from another direction.

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So all in all, this game is about trial and error, once you know the enemy placements, know how to react to the blind spots, you’ll beat it easily. Still I hate it when games give you cheap game over screens and make you replay a section you already did 10 minutes ago. That is what Mafia 2 does a lot.

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The stealth sections are decent at best, you can drag bodies and perform sneak take downs and stuff but nothing too fancy. I personally found the stealth sections to be underused and it annoyed me that they usually ended with a huge gunfight essentially making it impossible to stealth your way through a level which was a shame. Also some of the enemy placements can make it a pain as they never seem to want to move. Put simply, Mafia 2 is definitely not a great stealth game.

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Now the driving sections aren’t as bad but can still be frustrating at times simply due to the checkpoint system. There is one mission where you have to escape from the Feds and the police are on your tail immediately, you are also a wanted man. So you have to escape from the police whilst Joe deals with the Feds, sounds easy doesn’t it? Well it is… until Joe tells you to take him to Kingston in which you will have to navigate the map without getting any attention from the cops as you are a wanted man. In Mafia 2, being Wanted means that any cop who sees you will chase you down and that every area is locked down.

The problem is that because there is no checkpoint after killing off the feds, if the cops catch you or your vehicle gets smashed up, you have to restart the entire mission all over again! Seriously couldn’t you at least have given me a checkpoint after killing the Feds and escaping the cops?

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On the other hand, cop chases aren’t all that bad, they never feel completely one-sided (like GTA 5’s cop chases) but never feel too easy. Cop cars are slow in Mafia 2 so you can outrun them with speed, additionally, you can kill the cops yourself to make things easier and since the guns work really well and unlike GTA 5, 4 star cop chases aren’t too hard as long as you have the right guns, if you can time it right, you can kill both cops and take their car. Alternatively you can change your clothes/licence plate when you have escaped the cops to lose your wanted status.

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In any case, thankfully the driving works quite well in the game. Once thing I did enjoy was the speed limiter which allowed you to drive slowly, obeying the laws of the road. This allows you to role play a little which helps immerse you into the world instead of just driving like a complete lunatic all the time like in most open world games.

Speaking of Open World. Don’t go into Mafia 2 expecting an open world experience, sure there is a city to explore but the game is all mission based and the city serves as an extra. Think of it more like Halo 3 ODST’s New Mombasa in the sense that you have a city to explore but there isn’t much to do in it and it’s all broken up into missions. The city kinda acts as a hub between missions rather than a free roaming component as you will always find yourself in the middle of a mission. With that being said, there is nothing stopping you from exploring should you wish to do so.

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Missions are split into chapters which can be loaded at any time from the menu screen

There are cars to steal, shops to buy from and wanted posters to find so there’s something at least. Just don’t think of it as deep as games like GTA, Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs as it’s nothing like them (though it’s probably closest to Sleeping Dogs).

Speaking of collectibles, you can also pick up Playboy magazines in between levels which rewards your keen eye with erotic imagery, coincidence much?

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The game also adds hand to hand combat which feels like a glorified rock paper scissors game. I personally found it to be mediocre as it’s all about reading enemy patterns which can sometimes be quite unpredictable. A lot of it is just rinse and repeat dodge and counter until you see the opportunity for a finisher. That being said, these sections do manage to break things up a bit and add something different though they didn’t get as much use as I would have liked. Sparring against a Mob boss would have been far more satisfying than just capping them in the head as this game shows. On the other hand, the combat isn’t quite on the same level of depth as Sleeping Dogs so I’ll probably take back that statement.

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Mafia 2 isn’t all bad though and it does offer something of worth for those who are patient enough to put up with its issues. For starters, the world itself is very immersive. Seriously I have yet to play an open world third person shooter quite as immersive as Mafia 2. It seriously feels like taking a step back to the 50’s. The city itself is very well designed. The weather change is also brilliant. It feels like the entire city changes when you move on to the next time period. You start in what I presume to be the mid 1940’s around winter time and later on find yourself in the 1950’s mid summer. Heck even the cars change.

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You can also listen to the radio when you’re driving. Sure it’s not a completely new concept and the music isn’t anything incredible (it’s not video game music) but it really gets you immersed in the time period with songs like Dean Martin’s “Let it snow” playing in the background when you first arrive in Empire Bay. In addition, the radio likes to make many references to modern culture claiming that such ideas are ridiculous. There is even a stealth section where I overheard the guards saying “you know what would be cool? If we had a TV program which we could interact with, we could use a controller to move around, it would be so cool” and the other guard makes a snarky remark insisting that it will never happen.

Another great feature is the ability to own and customize vehicles, it’s a nice little bonus which you will almost never make practical use of as missions usually provide you with a car and even if they don’t, you can easily just steal one. Nevertheless it’s still a cool feature and it’s always nice to have a little bit of personalized touches to your ride. Of course it’s not as deep as it could be but at least it had it. GTA 4 didn’t. The vehicles all look very nice too, some great classic looking cars to steal and drive around in. Put simply, the vehicle customization is a good distraction and gives you something to spend your money on (when you’re not buying new suits or guns).

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The story in Mafia 2 is also done quite well though I would have liked to have seen more of it as the game is quite short. The story is presented in a rather gritty approach, particularly near the end, though there are a few comical sections here and there. For the most part it is a serious story though and can get quite dark too (as you would expect from a Mafia game).

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There are all sorts of really interesting scenarios like being thrown into jail for 10 years and experiencing prison life which I thought was a cool addition considering most games tend to skip those parts, it helped me get all the more immersed into the game and opened my eyes to the harshness of 1950’s prison life. Something I really appreciated.

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The characters are hit and miss, some are forgettable, some are pretty interesting. I found Vito, Joe, Henry and Leo to be the most notable characters, they kept the story strong for me, everyone else was quite forgettable (except Marty who was somewhat irritating).

Overall, Mafia 2 is a mixed bag, it’s an interesting experience for those who want an insight on Mafia life and it offers and engaging story and setting. On the other hand, the game play is pretty rusty and often frustrating, especially due to the annoying checkpoint system. Overall, Mafia 2 is not a bad game but it’s not really a good game.

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Story/Plot: Good
Visuals: Good
Game play: Mediocre
Music: Good
Lifespan: Very Short
Difficulty: Medium
Would You Replay? No
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Overall: Mediocre

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Value: £7.50