Video Game Review: Azur Lane

Details: Spent a couple days playing through the game. Official site is https://azurlane.yo-star.com

Score: 6/10

Azur Lane is one of the most popular mobile gacha games on the market. Accordingly, I decided to give it a try and see what all the fuss was about. What I found was a mostly derivative auto-battler that exceled in one main area: anime boobies.

Azur Lane takes place in a fictionalized world where famous warships have been anthropomorphized into cute, sexy, anime waifu’s. Like, literal battle ships from like World War 2 and beyond. It’s a weird concept that has taken nerds and weebs by storm. You play a commander of a fleet of these anime girl-warships and do battle with other fleets of anime girl-warships.

The biggest flaw in this game is the boring gameplay. While the presentation of battles is a little different from that of other auto-battler gacha games, it’s still pretty much the same. Teams of characters battle other characters. You don’t really have any control over your characters except that you can sluggishly move them around the screen in hopes of dodging projectiles. It’s not a very well implemented system and you will most likely just hit the convenient auto-play button and automate the whole process.

Other than the generic, automated battles, leveling and progressing your characters is also mostly the same as any other gacha auto-battler. You complete missions/battles, you get items and resources which you spend to make your fleet more powerful. There is a constant trickle of in game resource that you need to spend in order to participate in any activity. Spend your daily allotted resource and you can’t do anything else in the game. It’s all very uninspired.

The only thing that stands out in this game and which is also likely the reason why this game is so popular is the waifu’s. In other words, it’s the sexily or cutely drawn anime girls. When it comes to games where you collect characters, art is everything and the art in this game is very good. By very good, I mean very lewd.

To take things to the next level, Azur Lane has implemented Live2D for many of their characters. This is basically interactive 3D models of the anime girls that players can poke at. It’s not artificial intelligence, but it is a step up from the static images or slightly moving static images in all the other waifu collector games out there. Players that are desperate for female interaction and lack the ability to interact with real women in real life would probably appreciate this feature.

The gacha mechanics in this game are slightly different that in other gacha games. You don’t roll on a banner, but you build ships with an in-game resource. Those ships have a probability of being really powerful ships or less powerful ships. It’s a different skin for the same animal. In the end, it’s just a random gamble for an in-game character you may or may not want, not unlike any other gacha game.

Overall, this game is generic and boring in terms of gameplay, but exquisite in terms of collecting sexy anime girls and interacting with them and their Live2D models. If you are a desperate, lonely, weeaboo/nerd who gets their jollies from fake, cartoon girls, this game will probably make you really happy. Otherwise, it’s just another average, generic, auto-battling gacha game that offers nothing new in terms of gameplay.

Video Game Review: Guardian Tales

The above video is a joke anime trailer the developers made.

Details: I’ve been playing this game for the past few months. This is a mobile game available for Android and iOS. More information can be found at https://guardiantales.com/

Score: 7.5/10

Edit: Lowered the score by point five. There are some hard spikes in difficulty in later parts of the story mode (specifically chapter 10 and 11) that exist for no reason other than to push players to spend money for better characters and gear. The game is still mostly good, but this artificial barrier to seeing the ending is unnecessary and turns the endgame into a meaningless grind. There’s plenty of other places they could have made the content difficult, but the story mode was not a good place for that.

I’ve been playing a lot of gacha games during the pandemic. Some of them include Genshin Impact, Epic Seven, Exos Heroes, Arknights, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Princess Connect. In my opinion, Guardian Tales is better than all of them. Actually, Guadian Tales is the best gacha/mobile game I’ve ever played. Part of that is because of the charming and funny story. The other reasons is because this game truly has its own personality. You can feel that the developers of this game put their passion into this game before their greed, and that’s something that is not present in any other gacha game I’ve ever played.

This game takes place in a fictional world of very different nations. Some are magical, some are more science fiction. Aliens invade this world and it’s up to you, a soldier and guardian of one of the fictional countries in this world to find a way to defeat them. That means going on a grand adventure, exploring all of these very different nations and meeting a colorful cast of characters along the way.

The first and best thing about this game is the story, especially its dialogue. It’s very funny and I found myself cracking up constantly throughout this game. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious moments, because they do happen later on and they are well done. But for the most part, this is a very funny story.

What makes it especially funny is that the vast majority of this game pulls and parodies popular video games and movies. It constantly references things from nerd and weeb culture, but most surprisingly, American facing aspects of that. I would’ve sworn that this game was developed by Americans because of how American facing the references are. However, I recently watched a behind the scenes video from the developers and it seems that the nerds in Korea that developed this game are just as big of fans of the things that nerds in America are fans of. I guess some thing really do cross borders.

All this is to say that despite this being a Korean made game and that many foreign made games often translate poorly in the American market, Guardian Tales avoids all these pitfalls. As an American, I got all the video game, anime and movie references and that made the game even better.

Here’s a long list of some, but not all of the references I picked up on: Animal Crossing, Frozen, Bioshock, Kill Bill, Harry Potter, Mega Man, Doctor Who, Phoenix Wright, Shaolin Soccer, Full Metal Alchemist, Seinfeld, Dungeon Meshi, Final Fantasy II (or Final Fantasy IV in Japan), Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Monty Python and Holy Grail, Shaolin Soccer, and Dragon Ball Z.

You can tell by this list that the developers of this game have either done their research or are huge nerds/weebs. As a fairly nerdy person myself, the constant use of hilarious references to my favorite stories only increased my appreciation of this game.

Something else I love about this game is the look of it. It uses a very nostalgic 2D sprite style that long time gamers will be familiar with. It’s like something from the Super Nintendo. However, this is a modernized take on that style. Expect to see perspective changes, 3D models, and complex special effects that would never have been used back in the old days of video games. This style is a mishmash of old and new, resulting in a nostalgic, but contemporary visual style.

The music is also fantastic. Again, it uses the old synthesized style of old video games, but modernizes them with more complex, contemporary beats and synthesized sounds.

The same can again be said for the gameplay. You go through levels, beat bosses, and solve puzzles. It’s a top down style, action role playing game very reminiscent of games like The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past… except you can use Gatling guns. It takes that old visual style and adds speed to the gameplay as well as a greater amount of options. You can use swords, bows, guns, shields, magic etc. Again, the tone of this game is nostalgia of old video games combined with the contemporary gameplay developments of modern video games. It’s old and new.

With all that said, this is still a gacha game. Gacha games are heavily stigmatized and rightly so. Many siphon thousands of dollars from players lacking self control. Guardian Tales is certainly one of these offending games. However, I will say that Guardian Tales is far more generous of a gacha game than any gacha game I’ve played before. They give you a ton of gems throughout the game with which you can roll for new characters and weapons.

There is a still a hard wall or difficulty spike in gameplay which comes in chapter ten and again in chapter eleven. At the time of this review, there are only eleven chapters, so that increase in difficulty is very late in the game. This spike in difficulty is common for free to play gacha games. They increase the difficulty to tempt players into spending money to roll for more powerful characters and equipment in order to progress further in the game.

There is also a multiplayer component where players play other players. Like other gacha games, there is a metagame and doing well in multiplayers usually requires having the best characters and equipment, which usually means spending money. Doing well in multiplayer in gacha games is usually reserved for the whales who throw tons of money at the game and Guardian Tales is no exception.

Guardian Tales is guilty of this tactic, but I would say that it is less guilty than others. This is because the difficulty spike is based mostly on skill. No matter what character you obtain, it will still be extremely difficult to get past these gameplay barriers. Will some characters make it easier? Yes. However, it will still be difficulty for all and I think that helps lessen the greedy, money grubbing aspect of this gacha tactic in Guardian Tales. Personally, I really liked the higher difficulty because it forced me to get better at the game. On the other hand. I rolled a fairly powerful character that really helped me get through it… so your experience may vary.

Overall, Guardian Tales is my favorite gacha game I’ve yet to play. I like it more than Genshin Impact, Epic Seven, Arknights, all of those games. And that’s because it has personality. It has a funny, entertaining story. That’s something none of the above games have in my opinion. At the very least, it has a vastly superior story and dialogue compared to those games. That’s everything to me. Give me the constant pursuit of progression of a gacha game along with an immensely entertaining story and I’ll be a happy gamer. Guardian Tales gave me that.

Video Game Review: Exos Heroes

Details: Been playing the game for the last few months. Official site is https://global.exosheroes.com/

Score: 7.2/10

Exos Heroes is another turn based, auto-battler mobile game like Epic Seven. It has a distinctive art style which I really like. I also think it’s slightly better than Epic Seven simply because they have a sweep function and Epic Seven does not, which makes Epic Seven a far more disrespectful game to players’ time.

Exos Heroes takes place in a fantasy world of monsters and magic. I can’t tell you anything specific about the story because I mostly ignored it. It’s not very good. It’s told mostly through text and static images like a visual novel and that just turned me off. It did have a lot of very cool cut scenes that were full voiced and very well choreographed and animated. However, it’s mostly ignorable.

Gameplay is mostly identical to all other auto battlers like Epic Seven or RAID: Shadow Legends. There are some nuances like Signature Force, but this is mainly just another grindy auto battler. In other words, this is a turn based role playing game, except that there is a button in the top right that you can press that does all the fighting for you. What ends up happening is that you watch more of the game than actually play it because of this auto battle function.

One thing that I like about Exos Heroes is that it has a sweep system, something that many other gacha games do not have. What that means is that if your party of characters reaches a certain power level, you can just skip the battle and obtain the rewards. Most other gacha games require you to sit through an automated play through of the battle, which is just a waste of time. I appreciate that Exos Heroes recognizes that you are capable of smashing these enemies and simply lets you collect the rewards and save time.

Edit: Something I forgot to mention is how unique the stamina system is from other gacha games. The stamina in this game is used mostly for resource gathering only. Which means that unlike other gacha games, you can go through the entire story portion of the game without having to wait or pay real money. Most gacha games artificially restrict the amount of time and progress you can make in the game through an in-game resource that recharges over time. That usually means that you can only play a limited amount of the game each day. Exos Heroes just lets you play to your hearts content. There is still gameplay walls in the game that have extreme jumps in difficulty that require stronger characters. However, by not using a stamina system, Exos Heroes is undoubtedly superior to most gacha games, at least in this regard. For this reason alone, I raised the score up two tenths of a point. As a side note, Genshin Impact also does the same thing with its story portion. However, there is a decisive lack of story content in Genshin Impact at the moment and the amount of in game resource they give players is tiny compared to other gacha games. In other words, Exos Heroes does in-game stamina better.

What truly makes this game distinct from the other games is the art style. In role playing games, presentation is everything and this is one of the best looking games of this genre I’ve ever played. That alone has kept me playing the game.

In regards to the gacha mechanics, Exos Heroes is generally pretty generous. I have a bunch of top tier characters. I’m trying to level them and it’s obviously taking time and resources as it often does in gacha games. Even still, I’d say Exos Heroes is mostly more generous than most gacha games I’ve played. I’ve recently played Genshin Impact and Epic Seven and this game is definitely more generous with resources than those games.

Overall, this is a generic auto battler, but a great looking game and that’s enough. The presentation alone makes this game as good if not better than all of the other popular games in this genre.

Video Game Review: Epic Seven

Details: Played for at least a few dozen hours. This is a mobile game you can play on iOS or Android. More information can be found at https://epic7.smilegatemegaport.com/

Score: 7/10

Epic Seven is about as generic a gacha, role playing game can be, except that it has very stylistic visuals and character design. It’s a very Blazblue, two dimensional style (which is unsurprising since the two games actually did a collaboration a while back). I play this game mainly to look at pretty sprites attack each other. As always, this review is written from someone who has spent nothing on this game.

As said above, this is a gacha role playing game. Primarily, this is a turn based role playing game similar to traditional Japanese role playing games like old Final Fantasy games. As this is also gacha, you need to roll for the characters to fill your party in order to progress through the story.

As with most gacha games, the game gives you some characters up front to play with, but all the really good characters need to be rolled/summoned/wished for… which generally requires spending real money. When I started playing, it was during an event where they were giving out a ton of free rolls. Other than the event, this game is generally pretty cheap with giving free rolls. Making wishes/rolling is generally very expensive in comparison to other gacha games.

There’s pity (a mechanic where you are guaranteed a good character/item if you make a certain number of rolls), but it doesn’t transfer between banners, something that even the notoriously expensive Genshin Impact does have (Genshin Impact is still worse in terms of pricing and free rolls). In essence, if you want to guarantee obtaining an advertised banner character, you need to save or spend enough to make one hundred and twenty wishes. At about thirty dollars for ten wishes, that’s going to cost about three hundred and sixty dollars to guarantee and advertised character. That is a lot. There are also many other ways to summon/roll for characters, but all of them require resources that are hard to obtain unless you spend real money. The only redeeming factors to this stinginess is that the recent event which gave out a ton of summons and that you get one free summon per day… which is not encouraging.

In regards to the gameplay, Epic Seven is notorious for being one of the grindiest games among all gacha games or this type. Games like this are inherently grindy, meaning that you have to replay the same thing over and over again in hopes of obtaining an item or advancing a level. Luck is a big factor in whether you get equipment that will help you progress, meaning that the amount of time you spend grinding away at this game could go on infinitely.

Edit: What I forgot to mention is that this is mostly an auto battler. That means that most of your time will not be spent playing, but watching the game play itself. You simply start a battle, hit the auto-play button, and the game does everything for you. Later on, you get a pet that lets you repeat missions so you don’t even need to restart battles. This is both good and bad as it saves time, but gameplay is mostly passive. With such passive gameplay, why bother even playing the game? Are you even playing? It’s sad that the auto-battle type of gacha games are so popular due to the repetitive, grindy, uncreative nature of such games.

Edit 2: I shoud’ve also mentioned that unlike other games in this genre, there’s no sweep system. A sweep system is where you can instantly complete a level that you’ve beaten before, obtaining the rewards from that level without wasting time. Epic Seven does not have such a system. Even though to can set a level on auto battle, you still need to watch the level play out in real time. There is no fast forward option either. It’s annoying and disrespectful of players’ time.

Progression matters not only to get through the single player content, but there is also a very big multiplayer component. If you are a player who spend nothing however, don’t even try to make any meaningful progress in the player-versus-player multiplayer mode. The most proficient players are those who have spent the most money on this game, more colloquially known as the “whales.” This is common for this type of gacha game as the more money you spend, the more powerful a player you will be. If you want to be one of the best players, you’re going to need to outspend people who’ve spent thousands, if not tens of thousands, if not even more than that.

The single player mode is fun enough, but still grindy. You need to keep in mind that the goal of this game is simply to make your characters or your team of characters stronger. This leads to the multiplayer where, again, you’re trying to get stronger. Which leads to the ultimate conclusion that you need to spend money because that’s the only way you can make any meaningful progression. Again, this is normal for this type of gacha game and if you are not prepared to throw away thousands of dollars, just play the game casually and don’t take it too serious.

Additionally, there is also a Guild mode where you can join a guild and participate in guild wars. This… also encourages the spending of real money. In order to be useful to your guild, you need to have powerful characters, which means spending money… you get the idea. In case you are unaware, gacha games are known as some of the most degenerate games with some of the most degenerate players. The purpose of the game isn’t to have fun, but to get money out of you. Fun is just a by product of that goal and successful gacha games generally have to balance giving you fun things to do while annoying the hell out of you in order for you to pay them to stop annoying you.

Visually the game looks great. It uses a stylized, two dimensional sprite system that looks like it was hand drawn. I like the look. It looks like anime. There are in fact anime cut scenes throughout the plot.

The music is also pretty good. There’s voice acting in the game, but only for exclamation or battle cries, the kind of stuff you hear during a battle. The rest of the story is told through mostly silent text, like in a visual novel video game.

Because the story is told like in a visual novel, I found it mostly boring. I skipped most of it because I just didn’t care to read all the text and got tired looking at static images rather than hand drawn animations animations. I did watch the full animated cut scenes though because those were pretty cool.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with this game. I spent nothing and played through it very casually. I enjoyed all the free characters I got through the temporary event that just ended. I enjoyed the visuals and the art style of the game. The story was mostly ignorable. Most of all, I enjoyed the feelings of progression that I got while leveling my characters and seeing them get stronger, and that really is the primary driver in games like this. Even still, I felt ample pressure from the multiplayers aspects of this game to spend money to get stronger and that was annoying.

Video Game Review: Fire Emblem Heroes

Details: This is a mobile game for smartphones. I’ve played at least a couple dozen hours. More information can be found at https://fire-emblem-heroes.com/

Score: 6.7/10

Fire Emblem Heroes is a mobile gacha game that mostly uses the same strategy role playing game system used in the mainline franchise. I decided to give it a try because Genshin Impact is mostly out of content and I needed something else to scratch that gacha itch. Despite the reputation of gacha games to extract hundreds if not thousands of dollars from players who lack self control, I am a player who generally spends zero dollars on these types of games. This review is written from that perspective.

Fire Emblem Heroes basically takes all the characters from the entire decades long franchise and slams them all into one game. The story takes place in a kingdom where the royalty have the ability to open gateways into other worlds. These other worlds are basically the fictional worlds of all the other Fire Emblem video game. The protagonists are original and so are some of the antagonists, but every one else is from past Fire Emblem games.

Because of the nature of this story and all the characters, this game is primarily meant for long time Fire Emblem fans. If you are not a fan, you will mostly be lost by the huge number of characters that show up and will lack the satisfaction of seeing old, fan favorite characters again.

Something I really like about this game is that they reuse music and voice lines from old Fire Emblem games. Voice lines were only used since the Nintendo DS Fire Emblem games were released, but I think they rerecorded some lines for the older characters. This is all great and helps with the nostalgic satisfaction long time fans will get with this game.

The gameplay is a simplified version of the Fire Emblem tactical role playing game gameplay. Unfortunately, I already found the franchise’s gameplay fairly boring. In Three Houses, the most recent mainline Fire Emblem game, the gameplay was already feeling a bit stale and needed some reinvention. Unfortunately, the gameplay in this mobile game is far simpler and thus, far worse. It’s still fun for the first few hours, but it get stale fast.

There’s tons of multiplayer modes. Because of the nature of mobile gaming and Nintendo’s lack of expertise in online multiplayer, don’t expect real time multiplayer battles. What you get instead is that you play against a snapshotted team composition of another player’s which is then controlled by the game’s computer. So you’re always playing against the computer. I didn’t mind this very much and still found it somewhat fun.

This is a gacha game so something needs to be said about the gacha mechanics. Generally, I found this game fairly generous in terms of what they give new players. As with most gacha games, new players are given lots of in game currency and characters in order to hook them, after which they are expected to spend money on the gacha. There’s a decently sized story mode that you can easily get through without rolling for more characters.

Gacha games basically utilize an in game slot machine mechanic to randomly roll for characters that you need to use in order to progress through the game. You generally spend real money to buy in game money, which you then use to gamble on these characters (like casino chips, it’s meant to disassociate players from the actual loss of spending real money). While there are some unique quirks here, the gacha mechanics work pretty much like any other gacha game.

New players get two guaranteed five star units (the highest tier of units you can roll for). Each of the quests and in game tasks give a decent amount of rewards which can be used to strengthen or roll for new characters. There are literally hundreds of characters, not counting different versions of existing characters (for instance, there are bathing suit version of existing characters to appeal to players’ prurient interests). This is both good and bad in that there are lots of potential characters to attract players’ interests, but there are so many characters in the pool that it makes it difficult to get the character you want.

Visually, the game uses a cute or “chibi” style, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a game running on mobile devices. Mobile phones are not graphically intensive platforms. The visuals are satisfactory, but they don’t rise to the level of games like Epic Seven. The hand drawn portraits for the characters look nice, but these are static images. You’re going to spend most of your time looking at chibi versions of the characters.

Overall, this was a fun game, but I got bored with it really fast. The core gameplay just isn’t that much fun nor is it at least visually appealing the way games like Epic Seven are. They really need to throw in more twists and innovation to the Fire Emblem gameplay that has been around for decades. Fire Emblem Heroes just does the bare minimum in terms of gameplay.