This isn’t our first trip to Final Fantasy XIV’s Eorzea Cafe in Akihabara, but our last visit was five years ago. A lot has changed since then, for both the cafe and game, making us eager to revisit, especially with the new menu items crafted in the image of Shadowbringers. Since this was our second visit, we wanted to go all-out and order up quite an impressive feast, complete with drinks and dessert.
This first gallery showcases our feast in all its glory. We got everything from an Aramigo beef bowl to our very own potion drink.
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After eating, we got up and took in the atmosphere, which you get a glimpse of below. Yes, you can log into your Final Fantasy XIV account and play while there.
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To learn more about the cafe, you can visit the official site here.
Tokyo Game Show is upon us, and we’re currently in Japan to cover the show. As we do every year, it wouldn’t be a trip without showing you some of the cool gaming-related stuff around, which includes dedicated restaurants and cafes to some of the most popular Japanese gaming franchises. This year, we had the pleasure of visiting the Square Enix Cafe in Akihabara, which currently has a Final Fantasy XIV collaboration going on. The cafe is filled with memorabilia from all of Square’s franchises, such as Dragon Quest and Kingdom Hearts to even the niche SaGa and Octopath Traveler. Then there’s the food and drinks, which are all designed to showcase various characters and places from the games. Since it was Final Fantasy XIV’s time to shine, all the food we ordered represented that game. You can check out our extensive galleries below to get a sense of the atmosphere and food.
The first gallery showcases the locale and memorbillia on display
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This second gallery is all about the food and drinks AKA the presentation
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Want to learn more about the cafe or even visit yourself? You can do at the official site here.
Xbox One, PC
Monster Hunter World reached a wider audience than any other game in the franchise, mesmerizing new hunters and pleasing longtime veterans. World had its extreme challenges, but they were tucked away in late- and post-game content. You didn’t have to be an expert to succeed, which made it more newcomer-friendly. If you were waiting to have your skills truly tested, Iceborne scratches that itch; you have to fight hard for your victories, but you savor them when you finally slay a punishing beast. Iceborne gave me a larger adrenaline rush than I ever experienced in World’s base game, but it’s mirrored with just as many frustrating moments. Even so, Iceborne exemplifies what Monster Hunter is all about: You pull all the stops to overcome the nastiest foes, and those moments of triumph offset the soul-crushing defeats.
The main draw of this expansion is the new arctic area, Hoarfrost Reach. This enormous region is rife with dangers, such as unpredictable avalanches and deep snow. The monsters roaming this landscape fit well, such as the moose-like Banbaro, who uproots trees to slam into you. Hoarfrost Reach is great fun to explore the first few times, but it gets old fast, with around half the missions of the expansion taking place in it. Rather than having another new locale to explore, the other quests take place in the regions from the base game, such as The Ancient Forest and Coral Highlands. The familiarity of these environments ends up being a detriment because fights become predictable, despite the new monsters. More region variety would have gone a long way, especially since this is such a meaty expansion. You fight about 20 monsters – some brand new, and others are variants from World. Some of the variants feel like disappointing reskins with slight attack variations, but the different elements they have add some variety and surprises to fights, such as the Seething Bazelgeuse’s scales that burn hotter than normal for bigger explosions.
The new foes make for the best fights. Popular monster Tigrex, who has graced past games in many different forms, makes its return with a nightmarish and deadly charge; the window to dodge is narrow as it razes everything in its path. Learning monster patterns, tiring them out to unload damage, and using the environment to your advantage are all key. Destructible environments and turf wars are also back, with the latter continuing to be the pain that it was in the base game. Turf wars are grandiose, but they happen far too often and unnecessarily prolong fights. Some new combos and moves inject new life into battles, but my favorite new addition is the clutch claw. This grappling hook allows you to launch right onto the monster, and in the case of my light bowgun, I could plant a bomb and jump off for decent damage.
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As mentioned previously, this expansion is much more difficult than the base game’s campaign. You could get away with doing story quests solo there, but Iceborne isn’t as forgiving. Outside of a few missions, expect to depend on SOS flares and coordinating with other players to succeed. One big improvement in this area is that the difficulty scales depending on how many players are in a party at a given time, even when one drops from the battle. Iceborne also doesn’t ease you back into the mechanics. Right out of the gate, the monsters hit you like the bitter cold: hard and abrupt, which sets the tone for the expansion. Be warned, the difficulty is uneven. Some monsters absolutely crush you with nasty status effects and powerful attacks, while others seem like pushovers.
At times, I thrived on the challenge, knowing that if I got sloppy, I would walk away with nothing but lost time. It made me experiment much more with my chosen gear, upping my resistances, and equipping the right decorations for perks. My victories felt glorious when I finally downed a monster that I’d been at for a few days. That sense of achievement is hard to top, but the experience of fighting one of these nasty foes is tedious. These showdowns can take close to the 50-minute time limit, and defeat is devastating as you often come away with nothing but wasted items. Some incredibly difficult battles aren’t even fun, just maddening, as the odds are so stacked against you that any mistake spells defeat.
A lot of times you’re battling monsters in enclosed spaces where the environment can be just as deadly as their attacks, not giving you much room to avoid the deadly arsenal of combos and special attacks most monsters are equipped with. Throw in, extra hazards to avoid, such as smaller baddies, poisonous plants, or heavy snow that restricts your movement, and there’s plenty to keep you on your toes. You can also use the environment to your advantage by finding places to take cover behind or good jumping points to mount a monster. In the end, Iceborne gave me some of my most memorable victories, making me scream with glee when I survived the harder battles, and wearing the cool new gear with pride was all the more satisfying.
Stepping back into Monster Hunter World for Iceborne reminded me how much I adore this game, but it also exposes its flaws. Capcom didn’t improve much for the expansion, like once again having a boring tower defense story mission and making you separately watch scenes solo before you can join up in co-op. Even so, surviving together to get that jackpot of materials for better gear hasn’t lost its allure, and Iceborne challenges you to be a better player and teammate with its arduous fights. The return trip is worth it, just don’t expect many upgrades to the experience.
Summary: This solid expansion provides plenty to keep you busy, from more challenging monsters to a frosty new area.
Concept: Give Monster Hunter fans more of what they love in an icy new environment
Graphics: Majestic creature designs still hold the most allure, and the new region capitalizes on its wintery backdrop, but you retread it (and areas from the base game) a lot
Sound: Ambient nature sounds and roaring monsters help with immersion, but the voice acting is still hit or miss
Playability: The basic controls are practically identical to Monster Hunter World’s. The new moves and slinger combos are easy to grasp and fun to use
Entertainment: Iceborne is a hefty expansion that provides a bigger, badder challenge. The fights can be both exhilarating and maddening, making it an experience of intense highs and lows
I’m enjoying playing competitive Overwatch again. I never thought I’d be back in this spot, but role queue has turned things around drastically. Look, I like everything behind competitive play: the bigger stakes, more experienced players, and slowly climbing into new skill tiers. Matches take on a whole new meaning when something is at risk and a higher level of competition means a bigger adrenaline rush when you come out on top. However, matches often felt a gamble, coming more down to luck about your teammates’ willingness to tank and heal rather than actual skill.
I was very heavy into playing competitive, but the last year or two I fell off completely, mainly focusing on Quick Play and Arcade modes. It got to the point where unless I could play with friends, I just wouldn’t touch it. It comes down to one fundamental reason: team composition. For some reason, this brings out the worst in people, from players dictating to others who they should play to nobody wanting to play a healer. I love stepping into matches knowing people, in the words of D.Va, are “playing to win,” but I hated having to tolerate the arguments or watching in disbelief as no one saw anything wrong with picking three snipers when we didn’t have another tank or healer. It’s hard walking into a match knowing your team has already put itself at a disadvantage. I’d often pick last and just fill whatever position was needed, which, let’s face it, often was the role of healer.
I won’t deny that this helped me get better and learn characters I probably wouldn’t have, but that doesn’t alleviate the unnecessary frustration that you had to prepare yourself for when entering a competitive match. Plus, why should someone have to put up with that just because they understand the importance of team composition? I felt like I often got the short end of the stick for being a good teammate, which is what you should be rewarded for in a cooperative game, and every time I’d try to just pick a damage hero I wanted to play, I would often feel my blood boil as people wouldn’t step up to play the roles the team needed. Very few times did that hollow voice and words of “Defeat” not pop up on the screen on these occasions, and when other teams lost due to their poor choices, it didn’t make me feel any better. We’ve all had those matches where we completely obliterate the other team, capturing the point in under a minute. I just never found that all the fun. I play to be challenged, not to have things handed to me.
It’s been a little over two weeks since role queue went public, and it’s made a world of difference. The agonizing and drawn-out process of selecting a team is no longer there and it’s restored balance to the game. I like fair fights. I like knowing I’m stepping into a match where people have all come into agreement about the role they want to play before it begins. It not only saves time, but it also helps people being forced into roles or heroes they’re not equipped for, or simply don’t want to play. I like having three different rankings and knowing where I stand in each role. It’s even made me want to improve on my weaker areas.
I know when role queue was first announced, some worried this would take away from creative team formations or changing up strategy on-the-fly, but I see it as the way Blizzard meant for the game to be played. Overwatch is the most fun when everything comes down to your skill and ability to work as a team. Obviously, not having roles pre-determined wasn’t working out, and I’ve already seen role queue diffuse a lot of the hostility that often accompanied team chat. Turns out, people are much more positive if they’re actually using the heroes they want to play and they’re not having to beg their team to rethink its comp. Imagine that!
Of course, this hasn’t fixed everything, as my colleague Andrew Reiner recently wrote, it doesn’t solve the problem of there being a far bigger ratio of players that want to play damage, often making you queue for much longer periods if you choose that role. Blizzard has tried to address this by offering loot boxes or credits for the other roles, but clearly that isn’t enough to sway people away from instalocking the Shimada Bros. But in the end, I’m willing to wait a few extra minutes if it means a more exciting match and knowing all roles will be accounted for once I get on the team select screen. Now if we could only get rid of Bastion and players’ over-reliance on him as a last-ditch effort to stop a team…
Shigenori Soejima is the artistic visionary behind some of Atlus’ biggest franchises. His mature and distinct art style has been used to showcase the fight against corruption with the Phantom Thieves in Persona 5 and capture the overt sexuality of a love triangle gone terribly wrong in Catherine. And that’s only a small sample of his work. To celebrate his efforts, Atlus recently held a big showcase exhibit devoted to Soejima’s Persona 5 and Catherine designs at Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, CA. With both games getting re-released in the near future via Persona 5 Royal and Catherine: Full Body, it was a wonderful look at two of Soejima’s most memorable contributions. We were on hand at the event to not only show you what was on display but also interview Soejima about his career and future projects. Here are some of the most interesting revelations.
He Thought Director Katsura Hashino Was Playing A Joke On Him With Catherine…
Designing for Catherine allowed Soejima to step out of his comfort zone and try something new, and he’s quick to note how different it was for him versus working on Persona where he mostly depicted Japanese high school students. “Catherine was sort of a challenge to myself to try to completely switch gears and create something new,” Soejima says. “The first main difference is obviously Catherine’s a lot more sensual and sexual, and so that design was definitely a departure from the Persona series.”
Catherine’s playful and seductive character design is what Soejima considers his “most challenging project.” It was so far from anything he had done before that he wasn’t even sure what to think when Hashino and the team presented their vision to him. “When they first approached me to design her, I really thought they were pulling my leg,” Soejima says laughing. “Hashino knows I like to draw characters and design them in a stylish sort of way, so I know that he just wanted me to do something I had never really done before. ”
He Feels The Pressure To Keep Raising The “Stylish” Bar
For many, Persona and the word stylish go hand-in-hand at this point, and Soejima thinks it’s amazing so many people think so. In his opinion, it took a while to get there. “When I look back at like maybe Persona 3, I don’t feel that it is that stylish,” he says. “We did introduce some graphic elements into it, but it’s not at that stylish level that we feel like everyone is talking about.”
Soejima discussed how fans’ high expectations became a driving force for the team and credits it for Persona 5 evolving to the level of style it did. “After that, working on Persona 4 and 5, there was more of a time gap between those titles, and just hearing everyone saying that it’s so stylish, kind of put pressure on the team,” he recalls. “I think just continuing to hear the voice of fans and that feedback and then the team responding to that and trying to just do our best and one-up that stylishness is what has made the Persona series what it is today.”
When Creating Designs Much Is Left Up To His Imagination
Every Persona character has its own distinct style and personality, but just how much of that is set in stone before Soejima creates his designs? Apparently not always all that much – the visuals often come first. “There are definitely characters where there are already certain specific characteristics that I need to design for, and that’s true more for the side characters,” he explains. “But for the main characters, in the case of Persona 5 for the Phantom Thieves, I actually started developing the visuals right when the director was saying that, ‘I’d like this story to center on these kids that are thieves.’ That was pretty much all the information that I had to go off of to start designing, and so the visuals kind of came first. Then I would talk amongst the writer, the director, and the designer to come up with a cool visual that makes sense for what is catchy for this type of group, and kind of mold the personality and character together.”
New Character Kasumi Was Inspired By A Classic Manga Archetype
For Persona 5 Royal, Soejima had to bring himself back into the world of the Phantom Thieves, while also adding some new life to it. “It’s always a challenge to actually bring in new elements to something that’s already loved by fans,” he says. “With Kasumi in particular, we wanted someone outside of the Phantom Thieves, [who is] viewing the situation from a whole different perspective. We also [wanted to] bring her close in standing to one of the main characters, kind of in the protagonist way, where fans will be able to see the story from a brand-new perspective and [have] a new character.”
As to how he came up with Kasumi’s design, Soejima looked to the manga he read growing up for inspiration. “I really wanted to create just a straight-forward heroine type of character,” he explains. “This might be a little bit different in the West, but in Japan, the manga I grew up reading, the main [female] characters always had a ponytail, and their club activity was gymnastics. I really wanted to just shoot for that – that female protagonist archetype. Maybe in the States or in the West, it’d be [comparable to] a cheerleader type of girl. With most of the characters in Persona 5, we really design them to have kind of a twist, kind of make them unique and different from what the standard character archetypes might be like, but with Kasumi, we wanted to just go straight for that heroine type of girl.”
The Upcoming Project Re Fantasy Is Unlike Anything He’s Ever Worked On
Hashino is once again encouraging Soejima to step outside of his comfort zone. This time it’s for a new IP called Project Re Fantasy. We haven’t heard much about the game outside it’s a fantasy RPG and currently in development. So far it looks ambitious, and when we took the opportunity to ask Soejima more about his experience working on it, he echoed that sentiment. “This is completely different from what I’ve worked on [previously],” he said. “I’ve always loved fantasy, but once I started working on it, it became, ‘Well, what exactly is fantasy and how can we bring a meaningful fantasy game into this world? What can we bring to this sort of genre and game?’ There’s a lot of trial and error and thinking about this whole genre and how to [create] the design and I feel like we are finally at a place where we have a direction and are moving forward with it. Hopefully, we’ll have something to show everyone in the not so distant future. We’re creating something only we can bring to the table – a very unique design. [It’s] something for fans to look forward to.”
For more on Shigenori Soejima, you can check out this interview we did a few years back, where he dishes about his creative process and which Persona characters are his favorite.
Nihon Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel is one of those series I wish got more love. Falcom has made a name for itself with its long-running Ys franchise, which helped pave the way for action/RPGs, but its equally-fantastic Trails series, part of The Legend of Heroes brand, has never received the same recognition. After Trails of the Sky hit North America in 2011, nearly seven years after it first launched in Japan, hardcore RPG fans realized they had been missing out something special. The game featured charming characters and an alluring and detailed world. It had a classic feel that reminded you of your favorite traditional RPGs of yesteryear, but it also wasn’t afraid to take chances and modernize the genre.
After the Sky trilogy was complete, Western fans were then treated to the Trails of Cold Steel series, which added a school backdrop, complete with social elements and improved turn-based combat. After two fantastic entries filled with surprising reveals and epic battles that had the students do everything from partaking in crazy mech duels to stopping a civil war, we’re about step into the third part of the four-game arc. I had the pleasure of playing the first five hours of the game and so far it’s shaping up nicely, full of callbacks and reunions with past cast members alongside new mechanics and locations to make the series feel fresh.
A New Class VII
Past entries have centered on Thors Military Academy and its special Class VII, with protagonist Rean Schwarzer leading the way while uncovering his own mysteries about what he thought was a seemingly normal life. For those who need a refresher, Rean’s class was the first to ever to not segregate noble and lowborn students, which is a big source of tension in the first game. The second game had our heroes working together to stop the Erebonian civil war, and Trails of Cold Steel III picks up about a year and a half after these events.
“After Trails of Cold Steel II, we see that [Chancellor Giliath] Osborne is alive and well, and now holds all the power,” says Nihon Falcom president and producer Toshihiro Kondo. “He is currently carrying out a campaign of invading foreign lands to increase the Empire’s territory. As for Rean, he is caught up in the events that happened at the end of II, and—as the Awakener of Valimar—is following Osborne’s orders. Internally, though Osborne has quieted the noble faction, their activities will be further examined throughout the events of III.”
Those are far from the only new developments: Rean and his peers have now graduated from Thors Military Academy, meaning they are taking their first big steps into adulthood and trying to figure out their lives. Part of the fun is seeing the different roads the characters we’ve come to know and love have traveled. Rean is still the protagonist you control, but he has a bit of a different role this time around: instructor at a new branch of Thors Academy. The new branch is populated with outcasts and misfits and Rean leads a new “Class VII” with only three members initially (you keep running into a few other characters that will most likely join up with you later).
For now, there’s Kurt Vander, a determined young man who excels with twin blades, Juna Crawford, a gunner who formerly worked at the Crossbell police academy and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and Altina Orion, a mysterious girl created in a laboratory that we met last entry and can manipulate a black combat shell. “The new Class VII has students whose pasts diverge beyond the distinction of class, including some who were formerly involved with Ouroboros—the villains—like Altina, and a noble who is hiding from his former responsibilities,” Kondo explains. “In various ways, these students have more ‘complicated’ backgrounds.”
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Cold Steel III’s opening hours showed an interesting dichotomy between the three classmates. Growing up in a lab and being treated like a weapon means Altina struggles with human interaction and rarely considers options outside the most logical avenue. Kurt and Juna have a relationship very similar to Rean and Alisa in previous games, as both are trying to prove themselves and run into a few misunderstandings along the way. Throughout the first chapter, there’s plenty of funny moments between the cast as Rean tries his best to play professor and has reunions with members of the previous Class VII. “While the main characters of this tale are Rean and his students, you might remember that at the end of II, the former members of Class VII made a promise to each other,” Kondo says. “They are all now working in various parts of the empire, doing their best to fulfill their ends of that promise. As Rean and his students begin to travel across the empire, they will run into familiar faces, and we’ll see what they are up to.”
In many ways, there’s a weird déjà vu with Trails of Cold Steel III. The game is filled with callbacks and appearances from characters throughout the Trails series history. It feels like a big class reunion; many times I’d recognize a character then jog my memory for their role in the story that has unfolded so far. Let’s just say there’s great reward for longtime fans beyond Trails in the Sky’s Tita Russell and Agate Crosner appearing. In addition to many surprise cameos, you also often stumble upon people, places, and things from previous games that bring new revelations and twists. Trista Radio, anyone?
The parallels to the first Cold Steel entry where Rean was stepping onto campus for the first time and brushing shoulders with his new classmates are ever-present, right down to Kurt and Juna bumping into each other in a similar way to how Rean and Alisa did. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, and if you ever need a refresher, there’s a handy backstory option on the opening screen to lookup certain characters and events.
New School, New Town, New Challenges
While it follows a similar format to previous entries, Cold Steel III also has some new locales and situations bringing a different tone and feel. “In the previous games, we mainly explored the Eastern part of the empire,” Kondo explains. “This time, we will be exploring the Western side, and visiting places that have only been mentioned up until now. There are also new areas to explore in existing locations.”
Leeves is the new town housing Thors Branch Academy, and it’s a quaint little spot. It has similar areas to what we saw in Trista, with a chapel, an opportune fishing spot, and a slew of shops. Yes, you can expect the typical clothing and pawn shops, but there are also some new additions. My favorite was Carnegie Books and Games, which has its shelves stocked with tabletop games. This is also where you can go to play the latest popular card game called Vantage Masters.
Previous entries featured the Blade card minigame, where you’d do your best to one-up your opponent by using your mirror and blast cards at the best moments to destroy their progress. Trails of Cold Steel III is all about Vantage Masters. It definitely plays off the popular trading card game scene, where you build your own deck to battle other players to earn stronger cards. From what I played, it looked like a delicate balance between using your attack cards with elemental attributes and special abilities, while activating your magic cards to cause various effects on the field. You only have so much mana and every card has a cost, so you need to use it wisely, but you also restore mana each turn. The more turns that pass, the more you restore, meaning: Plan ahead. Your goal is to get your opponent’s HP to zero. You can get the gist by watching a portion of my match in the video below.
Thors Branch Academy is obviously the main attraction of Leeves, and you’ll spend a great deal of time walking its halls to either socialize with students or run your own errands. The social system is similar to previous games, where you want to use your free time to improve your relationships, as it not only provides cool scenes but will increase your teammates’ ability to help you on the battlefield. I saw some fun sequences, spanning from Altina trying to figure out which club to join and realizing she’s a natural at swimming to helping Juna with her tennis by being none other than “ball picker-upper.” You can see some of the early interactions in the video below. There’s also a bathhouse in the dormitory, which allows you to hang out with other instructors in your spare time and usually get a free item for doing so.
Cold Steel III has a slew of new characters to get to know, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be spending your bonding points on your favorites from previous games. Kondo wanted to set the record straight on that: “I’ll also preemptively address another concern that was brought up in Japan before the game came out, ‘What about those characters who we could previously bond with?’ Please don’t worry about that, as you will be able to bond with returning characters, as well.”
Stepping Into Battle
Remember that familiar-but-slightly-different feel I was talking about earlier for Cold Steel III? That extends to combat, which remains turn-based and still centers on positioning, linking teammates for improved tactics, and using their special attacks and magic spells judiciously. Trails of Cold Steel III’s gameplay expands on the series’ already-complex battle mechanics with a break system (straight out of the Ys series) to weaken enemy defenses and Juna being able to change her battle style. Juna’s gunner position is great for ranged attacks and hitting groups of enemies, but if you swap her to the striker, it increases her speed, defense, and attack power on close-ranged foes, best used on one target.
Also new is Brave Order, which allows you to enact tide-changing perks in battle. Every character has their own and they can do everything from reducing damage to cutting the cost of magic. You can only use one of these at a time, but they are key to winning boss battles. For instance, in one of my fights against a giant ogre, the creature used a howl attack that had a nasty side effect of reducing my characters’ defense. The only way to offset it was to use a brave order to reduce incoming damage. Kondo proves my theory true about them being essential to winning the bigger bouts in the game: “If you don’t utilize this system, you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage, particularly in regards to long boss battles, where skillful use of this system will make a huge difference,” he says. You can watch me learn this the hard way in the video below of the intense ogre fight.
Cold Steel II introduced mech – aka Divine Knight – battles and those return here. They function similarly to previous entries, where you must block and use your special attacks while targeting specific body parts in order to unbalance them. Brave Points also apply to these battles, and building them up gives you new options to consider. You can get a taste of what they entail in the video below. Yes, in true Falcom fashion, except some flashy over-the-top specials to really sell the experience of piloting one of these big hunks of metal.
Taking A Dramatic Turn
We’ve seen some crazy things happen across the Trails series and the Cold Steel arc has certainly brought its twists. This third entry should follow suit, but Kondo also said “the series will take a very dramatic turn from here on out,” making me even more curious and excited for what’s to come.
While we start approaching Cold Steel’s ultimate finale (there’s still one more game after III), Kondo also made it clear that Falcom is far from done with the Trails series. “While it is true that the Cold Steel portion of the story has come to a finish with IV, there are still many things hinted at in the Trails in the Sky, Zero, Ao, and Cold Steel games that have yet to be revealed,” he teases. “We want to tell these stories, and the fans want to hear them, so we are thinking about the best way to do that in a game.”
Kondo also confirmed the team is working on an “entirely new tale in an entirely new part of the world not seen yet in a Trails game,” and said there would be more information soon. For now, all we can do is wait until October 22 when The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III launches on PlayStation 4. Get ready to be reunited with old faces and also meet some new ones in the process.
Now that Fire Emblem: Three Houses has been out for almost a week, I can finally talk about it in detail with you all, which has me over the moon. My review pretty much sums up my thoughts, but here’s the short version: This game got its hooks in me and still hasn’t let go. One of the things that most impressed me about Three Houses is just how much I cared about my combatants and how much being put in the role of a professor enhances the experience. I’ve talked before about the importance of making RPGs more personal and how party bonding matters so much in a genre that has us spending so much time with characters. When an RPG does something well, it’s worth discussing, so let’s break down what Three Houses does to connect you with students to make battles take on a new level of intensity.
Giving You A Personal Stake
Fire Emblem has always had a personal touch by putting some extra accountability on you as a player with character permadeath. Most fans will tell you that the tension of knowing you could lose a combatant permanently is integral to the experience. I can’t tell you how many times my heart raced as I watched enemies close in on an injured character, putting me on the edge of my seat to see if they could withstand the hit. More recent entries, including Three Houses, have made this optional, but letting someone die on the battlefield still stings (you can’t have them rack up any extra experience). Even so, knowing your actions have grave consequences has made the series feel like you’re doing more than merely pressing buttons when instructing units on the battlefield. Three Houses has only built more on this, making you connect with your characters in a more intimate way than ever before.
It starts with a single decision that shapes the entire journey: Your house choice. Selecting the Black Eagles, Blue Lions, or Yellow Deer comes very early without much information. You get a line or two about each student and only know the leaders from a previous interaction. Something I tell everyone before making the choice is that every house is pretty balanced with characters you will absolutely be drawn to, while some will take time to warm up towards. I’m sure you already have your favorites who you couldn’t bear to lose. What’s great about making this a choice early on is that you spend a lot of time with the house you pick, so the decision feels daunting. However, as soon as you make it, there’s this unshakable loyalty and competitive desire to prove why you made the right choice. After all, you picked this group to mold, it’s partly on you if they don’t succeed. Losing a student can make you feel like a failure as an instructor.
This is why being cast in the mentor role of a professor works so well. You shape how your students grow as valuable combatants, and most importantly, as people. One minute you’re watching them hone their skills and helping them pass their certification exams, the next you’re getting to know them by spending time with them outside of class, participating in activities like eating meals or drinking tea together. One of your main goals is to constantly motivate your students to get better. Being cast in the role of educator bestows the heavy responsibility of preparing your students for the worst of war. It adds a new level of accountability that goes well beyond permadeath.
Every Character Has Their Own Fleshed-Out Backstory
Through the years, I’ve played my share of RPGs that have let you recruit characters, like Radiata Stories and Chrono Cross. One of my favorite series for this is Suikoden. Building up my headquarters and watching it grow as I gathered my 108 Stars of Destiny always felt so satisfying. That being said, the amount of these faces that I actually got to know and care about were very slim. Suikoden was always more about the main characters and the blindsiding betrayals they had to endure. In any RPG with an expansive cast you can recruit, there’s the challenge of making them all stand out, and most importantly, making you connect and care about every member of your party. Most games have a hard time achieving this.
Three Houses has a very large cast, especially if you factor in the members of each house, but to its strength, every student has their unique problems and explanations for why they are the way they are. For instance, learning about why Bernadetta has become a recluse and then slowly getting her to acknowledge the issue and try to overcome it helps form an unshakeable bond with the character and connect with her on a deeper level. Even characters who seemingly start off as uninteresting like ladies man Sylvain grow beyond their archetype with arcs that allow you to understand the characters’ actions and see them a bit differently over time. I liked that Three Houses brings some levity to the students as well. As an example, Hilda, who became one of my favorites, just seems lazy and uninspired at first, but give it some time and you actually realize the brilliance of her strategy for getting by at the academy. Oh, and that there’s much more to her than being a spoiled noble who’s into fashion.
Support conversations continue to add depth to the relationship system, giving you a personal story to connect with. In the case of Three Houses, as a professor, you’re often helping your students either learn something about themselves or overcome some challenge in their lives. It’s very hard to get to that final battle without having some affinity for your students and feeling like you know them on some level. While this certainly takes a cue from Persona’s social links, it’s worth noting that Intelligent Systems has continued to expand these conversations into more memorable and meaningful interactions, and it’s all for the better.
Building The Bond Through Time
We don’t develop relationships overnight. It takes time to truly get to know someone. While you can argue that being on the battlefield together would accelerate this, you can’t take away the power of time and how your effort level plays into the state of a relationship. Having a calendar consistently in front of you to see the passage of time makes the experience feel more authentic. You see the days pass, and naturally, you see your conversations start to get more meaningful. If you burned through the support levels quickly, you wouldn’t feel the satisfaction of watching your investment develop. Going from saying a few words to each other to having more nuanced and complex conversations is fulfilling and makes it feel like the time you spent mattered.
You want to see the impact you’ve had on someone’s life, and it feels much more real if you’re able to associate it with time. Think about how much you care about characters when you start an RPG versus the end. The hours you spend with them amount to something, whether it’s familiarity or a deeper appreciation for the people by your side. In Three Houses, having the scheduled school year helps entrench you in the academic setting, but it also works as a way to track your growth. It’s no wonder we’ve seen many popular RPGs with social systems, such as Persona and Trails of Cold Steel, also use the academic calendar to help cement the changes throughout the course of the journey. Something about having the calendar pop up often in Three Houses made me even more aware of the amount of time I was spending on these characters. It helped build on the fantasy that we had already been through so much together.
With big branching paths and plenty of systems to explore, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a massive game. As a professor, you’ll need to prepare your students for success on and off the battlefield, especially as conflict heats up and things inch toward war. After reviewing the game and logging time well into my second playthrough, I’ve become a well of knowledge in how to best use your time and what you need to keep in mind to put your best foot forward. Here are some tips to make the big journey less daunting.
Choose Your House Wisely, But Don’t Fret Too Much Over It
Here’s what it really comes down to: You will be spending a lot of time with the members of your selected house, especially the leader. Keep this in mind as you make your selection. There is no right or wrong choice, but the game is heavily focused on the members of your house. You can recruit and get to know characters from other houses, but it takes a little more work as you must impress them with your skill level as a professor. From what I’ve experienced, all the houses seem pretty balanced, with their share of interesting characters and challenges you need to help them overcome to grow.
The leaders of each house have a more prominent role in the story and how the events unfold, so make sure to pay attention to their leadership style and political views. Dmitri is more power hungry and by the books. Claude’s strategy is to stay neutral and ease people with his laid-back demeanor. Edelgard is determined and always looking toward progress. No matter your choice, interesting conundrums will come your way and you will have to take sides as tensions brew. Just know the game is meant to be played through more than once to see all sides to the story, and paths can be very different depending on your choices.
For more, check out our feature that gives more insight into the members of each house to help you decide.
Get The Most Out Of Your Students
The routine of a school schedule means it’s easy to plan your time on the calendar each week. Your weeks are spent instructing students with lessons, answering their questions, and then choosing on your free day whether to build relationships on the monastery grounds, take them into auxiliary battles to level up, send them to seminars, or let them rest. The latter I used as rarely as possible, but beware that your students’ motivation will dip (meaning you can’t build their skills with private lessons) if you don’t let them rest or pile on the social time or gifts.
Every week, you see if there are special events, such as bigger boosts from dining with students or special monster hunts that distribute great experience and rewards. You can only pick one thing to do on a free day each week: explore, battle, seminar, or rest, so you need to keep this in mind. You want to get a good mix of all of these throughout the calendar month. Always explore after a big story mission and be sure to put your students into extra battles, so you can raise their levels and obtain new skills. Seminars can be very useful for also improving the skills of students, but you need to really assess if they’re worth your while. Every professor has a level and two areas of expertise. Students who go to seminars are pre-chosen, usually based on their area of study. However, many times a few sneak in that feel like a waste to send. Honestly, I felt doing battles helped much more in terms of advancing their skills and levels, but there were a few times I did seminars when it benefited multiple students in areas I wanted to advance to unlock specific classes.
Invest In The Right Skills For The Class You Desire
Fire Emblem: Three Houses gives you a lot of flexibility over how you build your characters. You have control over their classes and the weapons they wield. First off, having students proficient in multiple weapons is a good idea; the more options you have at your disposal on the battlefield, the better. I loved having combatants who could wield both swords and bows, giving me up-close and ranged attack options. You can always see what rank you need in certain areas to make your students eligible to take their exam for a specific class. I suggest after you pass each certification to advance class types; you decide ahead of time what you’d like for the next level for each character. This allows you to use your lessons, seminars, battles to build those skill requirements, without wasting your time in the wrong areas.
Explore and Talk To Everyone In The Monastery After Main Missions
After every mission, new dialogue and side quests open up if you choose to explore the monastery. Do this immediately. It allows you to gather up all the side quests (some are limited-time) and decide when in the coming weeks you want to do them. Socializing is important, and new dialogue options often come up that can boost your relationship levels (if you pick the right one). Exploring also gives you the chance to sit down to meals, have tea, garden, and fish, which all help in various ways. Improving relationships, investing in saint statues for faster growth, and harvesting seeds that often produce valuable gifts like flowers are just some of the opportunities that come with exploring the monastery.
The monastery also has tons of hidden goodies found by searching the premises. You can discover stuff like books and lost items; the former can raise your professor level, while the latter gives you a way to boost your relationships if you return them to their owners. Also, you should be constantly giving students gifts to increase your relationship. Not only does raising their relationship level benefit you in battle with them more likely to help out, but it also rewards you with some cool scenes in terms of character development.
Take On Extra Missions To Level Up And Open New Shops
Mentioned previously, side quests often open up after main missions. Some are simple fetch-quests that give you extra items, but others (usually those that require you to step onto the battlefield) unlock great bonuses, such as new battalion options and new shops. The extra shops can be really valuable, selling materials for weapon upgrades and repairs alongside gifts that give large boosts if you give them to the right person. Which reminds me: Pay close attention to the characters’ personalities and their interests, so you can get the most out of your gifts.
The other benefit to doing extra quests is being able to level up your combatants quickly. I used these opportunities to play some of my lower-leveled characters to ensure they’d be ready in case I needed to adjust my strategy or lost one to permadeath. Also, as a bonus, paralogues unlock some scenes between the students that lend more to their backstory and host some interesting battles.
Visit The Blacksmith Often
If you’ve played other Fire Emblem entries, you know the value of the smithy. Weapon durability is alive and well in Three Houses, and you always want to be crafting better weapons. The material your weapons are made out of can factor into how much damage certain enemies take. With the classic weapon triangle gone, it’s more about the enemy type you’re facing, and some are more susceptible to certain elements than others, meaning it’s in your best interest carry both an iron and steel sword. Keep an eye on how many uses are left on each weapon before heading into battle. Nothing is worse than having a weapon break and feeling the sting in your lessened attack power.
Invest In The Saint Statues
After the game’s introductory segment, you unlock saint statues. Completing quests and doing extra battles nets you renown, which can then be spent to restore four different statues. Doing this gives you various bonuses to your unit’s growth. For instance, all students might get +1 to their bow skills, or gain 10 percent more experience in battle. You can even increase the number of times you can rewind time during a stage. The point is, this is very valuable to invest in, but also easy to forget about. The statues are located in the cathedral on the far right side. Visit and invest in them every so often to make your life easier.
Don’t Forget About Battalions
As I discussed in my review, battalions are one of my favorite additions because they are lifesavers when you’re up against larger, deadly foes. Use them! For each combatant, you can hire and level up these groups of soldiers. They all focus on different classes, from support to archery. Some cause status effects, such as poisoning or staggering foes, but others can provide healing and defensive support. They greatly improve your odds against tougher threats because you don’t risk a counterattack. Many times they were how I polished off enemies without sustaining damage. They are often the answer to getting the most out of your turn. Remember though, if you take too much damage your battalions will retreat and you will be unable to call on them for help.
Keep Multiple Saves
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has its share of branching paths that go well beyond your house choice. Thankfully, the game lets you know when you’re making a decision that will drastically change the outcome of the story. Keeping saves at these points is a good idea if you’ll want to go back later and see how things would have turned off differently. It will keep you from always wondering what might have been, and they’re good to have in the off chance you regret your actions. Once you complete one playthrough, you gain access to New Game Plus, where you keep your renown and hired battalions. You can also unlock support levels and combat skills that you had in your previous game. Point is, it’s great to have an extra save just in case you decide you don’t like how you spent your day, or even for seemingly minor decisions like if and who you romance.
Turn Back The Hands Of Time
I’m just going to say it. Fire Emblem: Three Houses brings a new intensity to permadeath. After all, nothing says you’re a failed teacher quite like letting your student die on the battlefield. Even with the combat forecast and danger radius, sometimes you just miscalculate your actions or luck isn’t on your side. Even with permadeath turned off, if you lost a unit early in battle, it means they can’t level up as much. Instead of having to reload to change your fate, you have a get-out-of-jail-free card in the Divine Pulse. This feature lets you reverse time and change the course of your actions. Beware though, it’s limited in how many times you can use it each battle, although you have some options as the game goes on to increase this number. Trust me, you’ll want to use this instead of pressing the reset button since some fights can go on for upwards of an hour.
Fire Emblem has always been about going to war and managing comrades along the way. Making the necessary sacrifices on the battlefield while minimizing these losses is the series’ heart and soul, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses goes even further, providing the ability to shape and mentor allies. You play as a professor trying to guide and prepare students for the cruelty of the world; their successes and failures hit hard, and you hope you’ve imparted the right wisdom and focused your students in the right areas of study. This is how Three Houses entrenches you in the role of a mentor, inserting you directly into student life, which enhances the experience in a memorable way.
Everything feels personal in Three Houses, from selecting a house to deciding what side you favor in the unfolding political war. Your house choice shapes the experience, much like the allegiances in the Harry Potter series. Every house has a unique roster of students who represent the noble and commoner classes alike, and your guidance can help them grow in their social interactions and in battle. These students have their own backgrounds that have shaped who they are, and watching them grow is a highlight, but it can also be downright devastating. After all, you can only provide wisdom, and sometimes they need to make their own mistakes.
The three houses also have very disparate leaders, from The Yellow Deer’s laid back Claude to The Blue Lions’ by-the-book Dmitri. Then there’s The Black Eagles’ Edelgard, who seeks to challenge the status quo. All three play an intriguing role in the world of Fódlan’s future. The threads for these characters keep you engaged, especially seeing what brings them together… or tears them apart.
The school lifestyle plays an equally important role in your investment with the characters. You become immersed in all aspects of your students’ lives. You pair up which students you want to bond on and off the battlefield by doing things like sharing a meal, giving them gifts, or inviting them to tea (my least favorite thanks to an observe feature that makes it feel like you’re ogling your students). You even have control over their lessons for the skills and classes you want to foster. The only time the game strikes out with this aspect is when it gives you the option to romance your students, which feels creepy. I preferred when my students would build their bonds in combat and it more naturally turned intimate between them.
When you’re not teaching or hanging around the school, you’re on the battlefield helping your students grow their skills so they can take their exam to advance their chosen class. Fire Emblem is still a strategy/RPG through and through, which means every character has a limited movement radius and you must pick the best placement for them each turn. The biggest change is Three Houses’ removal of the classic-but-strict weapon triangle. Weapon choice is still important, but damage is determined by the enemy type you’re facing (such as heavy armor or flying) and what material they’re most susceptible to, rather than a basic rock-paper-scissors setup. For instance, sometimes a steel bow and arrow will pack a greater punch than an iron bow and arrow on certain enemies.
I like this system because it encourages you to constantly weigh your options. Some weapons and skills are better suited for certain situations and a wrong move could be costly, especially if you have permadeath enabled. I also appreciate other new elements that help avoid frustrating deaths, like a limited-use ability to rewind time that reverses mistakes without reloading.
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Other new tools also keep things fresh. For each combatant, you can hire and level up battalions, which are a group of soldiers that block damage, while providing special abilities and attack power. These deadly assaults are comprised of different classes, such as mages and archery, and can cause status effects, such as poisoning or staggering foes. Battalions quickly became one of my favorite mechanics due to how they improve your odds against tougher threats like beasts and dragons. While they’re risky because of their reduced accuracy, they are equally valuable because you’re not risking a counter-attack. They became essential to my strategy as the battles progressed.
Combat arts, special attacks that take more weapon durability, also add some variety to your battle options, though I felt they lost their value as your power grew through your class type. They were one of my least favorite additions.
The battlefields themselves get repetitive, and I was disappointed to see the creativity in terms of terrain diminish as the game goes on. Even so, the thrill of watching your students get stronger and obtain new skills is hard to top, especially as you see the rate of their criticals rise. A memorable final battle gives you a place to prove your combat prowess as it pulls out all the stops, from traps to heaps of enemies filling your screen, giving you a fun opportunity to overcome the odds.
Three Houses has plenty of mysteries to uncover, and despite some predictable twists, you get big payoffs from the relationships you build. The story has shades of gray that pervade branching story paths, and the consequences of your choices are rarely clear-cut. I kept multiple save files and experimented with two of the houses, and while I only played Edelgard’s arc to completion, I saw a lot of variation between the houses and narrative branches. I was surprised at how quickly I wanted to load up a new game after completing the 55-hour main campaign, and was impressed at how different each experience feels.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is ambitious, and takes more chances than previous entries in the series. The way it lets your role as professor play into both the narrative and gameplay is nothing short of fantastic. This is the most I’ve ever cared about my Fire Emblem characters, and that’s incredibly high praise.
Summary: Ambitious risk-taking makes Fire Emblem: Three Houses a must-play.
Concept: Pick a group of students to lead through political turmoil while solving mysteries about your hero’s origin
Graphics: The anime art style and beautifully illustrated cutscenes look fantastic. Just don’t expect the environments to pack the same punch
Sound: Great voice acting and a solid soundtrack both help enhance moments, but some of the music gets repetitive
Playability: Smooth controls and easy-to-grasp mechanics provide a low barrier to entry for newcomers. Features like an ability to turn back time in case you make a bad move with a turn help, too
Entertainment: Fire Emblem: Three Houses combines fun social elements and tense strategy combat wonderfully, making it hard to put down
After seeing Cyberpunk 2077’s shooting elements and having The Witcher 3 work to appeal to a more general audience, many fans weren’t sure what to make of Cyberpunk 2077. Would the changes to combat mean it would have more light RPG elements? How deep would the character building with the upgrade system go? Today, we saw a 50-minute demo at E3 that clarified some of this. Here’s what we discovered.
Stats Drive Your Abilities And Gear
RPG fans love to tinker with numbers and maximize their character’s potential by distributing these efficiently. Cyberpunk 2077 puts a lot in your hands in terms of how you build your character. “What was very important to us was to build a game in the way that you can play it as you would like to play it,” says lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz.
To achieve this, CD Projekt Red gives you many options to consider when it comes to your attributes and skills. Doing missions levels up attributes, which can be anything from strength to intelligence. “Those basically set for you the limit of how far can you draw on a specific skill set,” Tomaszkiewicz explains. For instance, heavy weapons will require a lot of strength and guns will require more agility. The more you use something like melee or hacking, the more you level up the skill in that specific area.
You also have access to augmentations by putting them into slots in your body, such as your legs, torso, nervous system. You can then upgrade these as well. “Say you replace your legs with an augmentation for double jump, which will give you access to different places in the missions, but then you want to upgrade that to be better itself. So, you add this extra layer of augmentation to your legs, which basically gives you like quiet walk or run,” Tomaszkiewicz used as an example.
You also aren’t confined to one class or playstyle and can pull from multiple skill trees. “There are a lot of different combinations,” Tomaszkiewicz says. “The system is built in the way that you can pick and choose. You don’t have to specialize in one skill; you can be a hacker and you can also use the katana, or you can use heavy guns but also be a techie.” You can respec your character, but be forewarned that you weapon prowess won’t be high, as you must level up your new weapon of choice.
Gear also plays into the stat game as it isn’t purely cosmetic. Loot lovers can scour the world to find the best of the best (you can also purchase these at shops), and really improve your chances of withstanding a tough battle.
A Fleshed Out Story Complete With Strong Supporting Characters
Story is usually king in role-playing games, having a large impact on the experience. Unlike in The Witcher 3 where you played as Geralt, Cyberpunk 2077 allows you to customize and play as your own character named V. Just because the setting is great and the world is so vast, don’t think the game is skimping on narrative. CD Projekt Red is committed to bringing its rich storytelling into Cyberpunk 2077, and this extends to the characters.
Not only did it enlist a cool side character in Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand (more on that here), but he’s not the only unique face you’ll be brushing shoulders with and getting to know. “Strong characters were always a big part of our games. This time around, it’s no different because we have a cast of very interesting characters [where] each of them has something unique and special about them,” Tomaszkiewicz says.
Tomaszkiewicz gave the example of a character who specializes in technology that allows you to live someone else’s memories. “It’s like this next step from the television,” Tomaszkiewicz says. Apparently, the character is quite nerdy about it as it requires definitions and specific expertise to use. Another character Tomaszkiewicz also talked about was an impulsive musician who has his share of problems and you can choose to help him and see more of this storyline.
You meet these supporting characters in both the main storyline and side quests, and they may even join you on missions. As you develop your relationship, it can also turn romantic. Tomaszkiewicz didn’t want to put a number on the romance options yet, as things are still in flux. There will be plenty of bonding moments to help you grow these relationships, but you also will have your share of tough decisions as your actions may or may not be favorable to those all around you, affecting said relationships. “I would say that relationships are not super easy in the world of Cyberpunk because of the story we are doing. We’re trying to go into this direction of noir,” Tomaszkiewicz explains. This means the prospect of happy endings aren’t great, so you need to navigate your relationships carefully to get the outcome you want. “There are sweet moments and there are bitter moments to balance it out,” he adds.
This E3 was the first time we also saw more to the story than V just being a mercenary in this dystopian world. V isn’t your typical mercenary and we find out a chip has been implanted into their head and part of the journey is finding out more about it and what this means.
The end of the E3 demo shows off our first look at cyberspace. “There is much more going on with the biochip than there seems,” says lead designer Miles Toast, hinting that this is a big mystery throughout the game. “To solve this puzzle, it will be up to you and your cyberpunk,” he says. Another big plot point? In cyberspace, a black wall exists where few have gone to the other side and returned. The demo ends with it saying you will be the first.
For more on Cyberpunk 2077, check out our interview about the scope or the world.