mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

Taking Tales to the Next Level with Tales of Arise

The Tales series has reliably produced solid JRPGs for a long time now. From the first entry I played, Symphonia (2004), to the list-topper Vesperia (2008), and more recent entries like Berseria (2016) there’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a JRPG fan and a new Tales game is announced. It won’t be the game you’re most excited about for the year but it’ll be a solid romp nonetheless. After blasting through Tales of Arise to 100% completion in two weeks because it was so good, I’m rethinking how excited I should be for future Tales games because Arise was a fantastic game through and through.

The Supreme Altar Boost Strike

Combat is fast! From start to finish most battles with trash mobs took between 30 and 60 seconds. This speed was achieved in large part with the Boost Strike mechanic that required breaking enemies by stringing together consecutive hits. Once an enemy is broken two characters would team up and deal a massive amount of damage. I’m not sure how damage works here but it seems like there was some AOE element to this strike because oftentimes battles would end right then even if there were multiple enemies. Boost Strikes were also fast only taking about 5 seconds each. The screenshot above is my favorite one. They look awesome and I was playing Arise on the weakest option (PS4) of the three platforms (PS4, PS5, PC) it’s available on. Following a battle most JRPGs show the rewards (e.g. experience, skill points, gold) you get on a victory screen but Arise just dumps you right back into the overworld and shows the rewards there. It’s the first time I’ve seen this and makes the traditional victory screen look like a waste of time although there were many times I leveled up and did not know it happened.

Looks somewhat like FFX's Sphere Grid but not quite

Growth and equipment mechanics are generally good too. Battles give you Skill Points (SP) which can be allocated on a Sphere Grid type structure to unlock new artes and permanent buffs (e.g. increase AG pool so you can use more artes in one go). The grid grows as you acquire more titles by either completing story events, bonding with party members, or cooking certain foods. Each panel has five thing to unlock and once you unlock them all your character gets a hefty stat boost like Attack +20. It works but there are so many things to unlock I stopped reading after a while and just marveled at the new things my party could do in battle afterwards. The equipment system is generally good. You equip a weapon, armor, and one accessory. You get weapons through a simple crafting system: find the materials and pay some gold and you’re good to go. Armor is found in chests or purchased at stores. The accessory system was a bit much though. You can find ores around the world and then use them to craft accessories. You can then use extra ore to level up your accessory and then you can have one accessory eat another accessory to take one of its abilities. I just made some accessories early game, leveled them up to max, and then never looked at the accessory crafting system again.

Elde Menancia

The world is beautiful and the story keeps you playing. Having the first arc on Dahna broken up into five regions each with a dominant type of astral energy makes the world varied and interesting. For example, you begin your journey in Calaglia where almost everything is on fire. Each region has its own problem that needs solving as well as a distinctive look to along with it. The story starts out strong - each region you visit has its own flavor of problems caused by the centuries-long oppression of Dahna by Rena. The second half of the game has a lot of questions to answer and it does come through in the end but a lot of this feels rushed as you get a lot of answers via a conversation with a new character introduced late in the game. It works but the pacing felt off and you are given so much new information it’s a bit hard to make sense of it all in the few huge servings you’re given. While the pacing at the end could use some tweaking unlike most Tales games that sometimes seem to drag on, Arise felt just right in terms of length.

NEWS! Go buy DLC please!

The DLC for this game follows the trend but treads new, unpleasant waters. There is plenty of DLC to purchase for Arise and much of it is stuff you can find for other JRPGs: costumes for your characters, packs of items to bootstrap your party, level up boosts, and new quests to take on. My thoughts on fast grinding have evolved since I first touched on them in 2013 but as a parent the option to level up more quickly is much more appealing now; time is limited these days so having something to help cut down on the grinding is helpful. For what it’s worth, Arise does allow you to set the difficulty to Very Easy which makes everything a cakewalk without grinding and without spending money. Arise treads new waters by advertising DLC on its title screen and when your party sets up camp. The latter feels particularly invasive and pretty annoying given I found no way to turn them off without disconnecting my PS4 from the Internet.

Tales of Star Ocean?

Overall, Arise is a fantastic game. It’s approachable enough I’d even recommend it as a good entry JRPG for those who want to check out the genre without going full JRPG. For what I would like to see next for Tales: even though the recently revealed Star Ocean The Divine Force looks like a step in the right direction, the Star Ocean series has not seen a high since the Second Story which was released in 1998! Seeing our party in Arise ride a starship to reach Rena got me hankering for a Tales game that does justice to the vision Star Ocean set out to reach but has failed to in its more recent entries. This would be a departure from the standard, more terrestrial, Tales formula but could open up exciting new stories to tell!

How Long Can the 2008 Mac Pro Go?

My journey to combat the planned obsolescence of my 2008 Mac Pro might have finally hit a wall. But before we cover the bad news let’s talk good news!

Up until recently my boot drive was a Crucial M4 connected over SATA. Occasionally my computer would slow down and hang for several seconds at a time. SSDs are fast but they have gotten faster since 2013 when the M4 debuted. I figured a 2013 SSD must be the slowest thing in my computer so I picked up a Samsung 870 EVO. According to UserBenchmark I should expect a 77% performance increase going from the M4 to the 870 EVO! To ensure I was not losing any of those gains over SATA I picked up an OWC Acelsior S which plugs into a PCE slot and can provide double the bandwidth compared to SATA. So did it work?

Crucial M4 / SATA (left) vs. 870 EVO / PCE (right)

I think it worked! Write speeds are 8x faster and read speeds are 1.7x faster. It may be the placebo effect but I haven’t noticed any slow downs or hangs since this upgrade. Installation of the Acelsior S was also very simple: it actually was plug-and-play.

Now the bad news. I was previously able to install High Sierra using the macOS patchers dosdude1 created and things have been working swimmingly well given I’m running High Sierra on “unsupported” hardware. Turns out the 2008 Mac Pro can also install Mojave and even Catalina! I installed Catalina but then ran into the wall: Nvidia has not released macOS drivers for any version after High Sierra and my setup sports a GTX 970. There is a workaround available that force installs the drivers on unsupported macOS versions but I ran into a lot of visual glitches on my setup. Some internet sleuthing later I found out that this workaround does not support hardware acceleration so these glitches are expected. This wall isn’t unsurmountable but it would involve buying a weaker graphics card (e.g. GTX 680 or ATI Radeon 4890) and flashing it so it works natively with macOS but at this point I’d be so off the beaten path I’m not sure Catalina would work well. You win, Tim Apple.

So long as the software I use on this machine continues to support High Sierra I’ll be able to squeeze some more years out of it. It’s impressive 13+ years later this machine works really well but the end is nigh.

Thoughts on Bravely Default II

As new year activities at work have settled down and my son is getting slightly better at sleeping through the night I found some time to play some more video games. Bravely Default II (BD2) came out in late February and I’ve been eyeing this one for a while. My experience with past Bravely Default games isn’t perfect but it does have an oldschool JRPG charm that appeals to logic-defying nostalgia. I enjoyed the first entry on the 3DS although the repetitive latter half of the game certainly marred the experience. I played the sequel, End Layer, and put it down because it felt too repetitive: visit new town, beat up folks wearing fancy clothes and take their Asterisk, solve problem, go to new town, rinse and repeat. So how does BD2 stack up?

A grindfest

The Good: Like previous entries the job system in BD2 is fun and carries the game. Getting new jobs (by obtaining crystals called Asterisks) is exciting and leveling them up to unlock all the abilities takes the grind out of grinding. Similar to End Layer the game does feel formulaic and the dungeons are very repetitive without many distinguishing characteristics from one to another. The boss battles are hard, even if you grind a bunch in each area, and oftentimes require changing up your job setup to capitalize on a boss’ weakness. This can be a pain if you have not invested in the job classes du jour but this is a JRPG so some grinding isn’t unexpected. With strong abilities like the Freelancer’s Body Slam it’s easy to dispatch trash mobs but bosses require a more well-thought out plan that doesn’t rely on you winning in a single turn. The story is just okay: it’s largely rote and uninspiring for the most part. At the end they start tacking on romance and explore the concept of personal sacrifice for the broader good. The towns you will visit during your journey are absolutely gorgeous, unique, and a highlight of the game. After skipping composing End Layer, Revo returns to compose the BD2 soundtrack and as expected the music is also great.

Towns are beautiful

The Bad: That said BD2 feels unpolished. Loading times for the skit-based Party Chats were uncomfortably high. As a console gamer my entire life I’m usually impervious to FPS and FPS drops but noticed this game struggled at times to keep up even though the chibi-style graphics and pre-rendered towns should not stress the Switch’s relative paltry hardware. Then there are complete misses like having every quest being numbered (e.g. Quest 001, Quest 002) but having no way to see which quests you completed or to easily see which areas have quests you have not started. I ended up using the Switch’s screenshot feature to capture every quest I completed and then reviewed that to ensure I didn’t miss any. #Completionist When changing jobs there is no easy way to see in the list of available jobs which jobs were mastered, requiring scrolling through the entire list to find which jobs still need to grinding. It seems like BD2 also wanted to do music transitions from pre-boss music to boss music a la Octopath Traveler (e.g. transition at 0:58 for Tressa’s theme and 0:47 for Olberic’s theme) but it just wasn’t executed well.

My screenshots folder is filled with these 😢

Sidebar on the Demo: The demo for BD2 also felt like a huge waste of time. I am a huge fan of demos that let you play the beginning of the game and carry over your save file to the full game. This gives you an opportunity to check out the game and bootstrap your playthrough if you purchase the full game. Dragon Quest XI (DQ11) did this and I loved it. The demo for BD2 lets you play for up to 5 hours but skips the Prologue and throws you into Chapter 1. Any progress you make in this demo can’t be carried over to the full game. Compared to the 10+ hours I put into the DQ11 demo I only played the BD2 demo for 30 minutes as I don’t have time to waste these days!

The story can get pretty heavy

While BD2 feels like a complete JRPG package and was enjoyable to play it certainly lacks polish across the board which is disappointing given it mars an otherwise great game. That said, of the three Bravely Default games this one easily stands above the rest. If you are a fan of JRPGs this one is easy to recommend but just be aware there are some papercuts here.

The End of Saga - Trails of Cold Steel 4

Trails of Cold Steel 4 (TOCS4) is more than just the fourth game and closing act of the Cold Steel tetralogy. It is the 9th game in the Trails series and caps off the stories that started in the first three Cold Steel games, the three games from Trails in the Sky, and the two games from Trails from Zero. The world building Nihon Falcom pulled off in all these games shines in this entry as stories and characters from all three series come together to close out the grand Erebonia arc covered in Cold Steel.

So many characters!

The thing I wanted most from TOCS4 was closure. The first three entries opened so many threads and after investing nearly 200 hours in the Cold Steel series I was ready to wrap this thing up. In my review of Cold Steel 3 I touch on how it took two whole games for us to finally understand what the central conflict - the Phantasmal Blaze Plan - is and how that game ends on a immorally massive cliffhanger. Fortunately, TOCS4 delivers on my wishes and wraps up the Erebonia arc relatively cleanly. Why relatively? Because the Trails series is not over! The big bads, Ouroborous, have been working on the Orpheus Final Plan over these nine games and there is still at least one known sub-plan left: the Eternal Recurrence Plan.

It's not over!

So I did get some closure but there’s still some more juice to squeeze out of the Trails lemon. The most painful part now is waiting for localization as it has taken the North American publisher of the Trails series about 2-3 years to localize these titles. And they still haven’t even localized all of the nine games I mentioned previously; the two Trails from Zero games I mentioned above were released in 2010 and 2011 in Japan but will only come stateside in 2022 and 2023! While the epilogue to Cold Steel (Trails into Reverie) came out in Japan in 2020 we will have to wait until 2023 to get this game in English. Kuro no Kiseki which opens the next arc of the Trails series in Calvard (the country Erebonia went to war with in Cold Steel) came out in September 2021 in Japan but there is no word yet of if and when this game will be available globally. For games available on PC like Reverie there are fan-translations out there and programs to make those translations more accessible but I’m not really interested in the work involved in getting that going.

The Rean Harem continues to shine in this entry.

Closure aside, TOCS4 is a fantastic ending to a fantastic series. Playing without the series staple, Rean, for the first arc of the game felt weird but TOCS3 did such a great job bootstrapping the new Class VII that it made the eventual rescue of Rean that much more satisfying. The battle system is fun as always but Brave Orders were balanced in this entry to make them less broken and enemies were also given this capability which puts debuffs on your party. Trash mobs were rarely ever a challenge and bosses presented more of a challenge with some adding unique conditions to get extra points. The arc following Rean’s rescue is a bit of a drag as you revisit many times previously visited locations to rebuild Rean’s Harem but overall the game had me hooked from start to finish. Most epically in the true final battle (it’s a JRPG, of course there are multiple endings) you get to assemble three separate teams of 8 people each from a total roster of 39!

Step aside Marvel - this is the greatest crossover event!

It’s certainly a big time investment but I cannot recommend the Cold Steel series enough. I will lose some JRPG nerd points here but I didn’t actually play the Sky or Zero series but did watch awesome story summaries by the YouTuber LadyVirgilia following completing the Cold Steel series. There was a lot of background and context I missed during my playthrough of Cold Steel that I picked up doing so. The Sky and Zero series are very well regarded so if you’re looking to play them in the right order go Sky, Zero, Cold Steel. Anyhow, glad I now have a small break from Trails games with some sense of closure but 2023 will be here before we know it!

Thoughts on Trails of Cold Steel 3

After successfully ending the Erebonian Civil War in Trails of Cold Steel 2 the war hero, Rean Schwarzer, is now an instructor at a new branch campus of his former alma mater. Things start slow in the third entry of the Erebonia arc. So slow in fact that I had to motivate myself to keep playing through some yawnfests early on. But I had plenty of faith in this series to deliver and after the first 20 hours this game kicked it into high gear.

After two whole games, we finally learn what it is!

As expected, the game is fantastic. It has an engrossing, intricate story that has been built up over the last two entries and now includes some crossover from other arcs in The Legend of Heroes series. The cast of characters - old and new - is solid. I wasn’t expecting to like the new Class VII so much but I did. And I was worried I was going to suffer from “too many characters” fatigue but the game does a good job of rotating people in and out so you never have too many to pick from. And while I enjoyed the soundtrack for the second entry more, the music in the third entry is still great. The battle system remains largely the same but the addition of Brave Orders added some freshness and an opportunity to break the game. If you’re a JRPG fan, you cannot sleep on this series.

Again!?

Trails of Cold Steel 3 ends on an immorally massive cliffhanger. Even the first entry that ends with, “Oh yeah, there’s a civil war starting right now” doesn’t compare. Fortunately, similar to my impeccable timing on playing the first entry and having the sequel come out a few weeks later, I don’t have to wait long for the end of the Erebonia arc. Trails of Cold Steel 4 comes to the PS4 on October 27th. It’s slated to come to the Switch in 2021 but I honestly can’t wait that long to finish this story. I’m dusting off the PS4!