First impressions: Empire of Angels IV

Softstar may be keen on churning out Xian Jian and Xuan Yuan Jian games as fast as is humanly possible but one of their other DOS-birthed series, Empire of Angels, has remained a perennial outsider with just five games released over the past twenty three years – and this most recent one only came out a few weeks ago!

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When I started taking notes for this blog post it was only meant to be a quick little thing collecting together a few thoughts on the beginning of the game; just something to get a bit of English-language coverage out there and to stop me feeling guilty for not having the time to drop everything and play it through to completion. But time flies when you’re having fun, and as it turns out over the past few days I’ve accidentally played through over half the game in a caffeine-induced blur without even realising it. Never mind eh?

The most immediate appeal, apart from the obvious allure of a game filled with beautiful women fighting other beautiful women in their best battle bikinis, has to be the gloriously colourful and chunky low-poly graphics that instantly reminded me of Falcom’s excellent Zwei 2 - a style that’s as welcome as it is surprising from a country that seems hell-bent on making their modern PC games as polygon-hungry as possible, optimisation be damned. Character designs are overwhelmingly cute with huge expressive faces, and neat little touches like archers firing plungers rather than arrows and allies cheering when they’re healed really crank the adorable-factor right up to eleven sneezing baby pandas out of ten.

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In keeping with the charming graphics the storytelling is skewed towards the ‘mild peril’ end of the RPG scale, with our band of plucky heroines charging across the land fending off spiders, medusa-alikes and the general forces of evil as they go. It makes for a pleasant change from the typical Softstar RPG tale, which generally involves people who love each other very very much being forced to spend an eternity apart thanks to fate/death/duty/evil/all of the above.

As all storytelling occurs in set event scenes and the map uses a point-to-point style location system the battles are where you end up spending most of your time, and they also adhere to the ‘simple but polished’ rule used as the basis for every other design decision in the game.  The scuffles aren’t going to stretch anyone on their knees begging for another Thracia, but everyone else should find plenty of fun things in here to keep them entertained.

I want to start by talking about something that’s not normally worth more than a quick check over to make sure it works – the UI (unless we’re talking about Vagrant Story, that is). The witchcraft on display here is so wonderful that everyone looking to make a game in the same genre really needs to rip this off (sorry, ‘be inspired by’) right now. Everything’s beautifully streamlined – characters start with their range grid visible and ready to move, and any enemies in range of a standard attack from any particular position are automatically highlighted when you place the mouse over the movement square. All that information right at your fingertips, and you haven’t pushed a single button. After moving the game brings up the character’s attack icons for you – fine details are a mere mouseover away and a single click on a target brings up all the relevant ally and enemy stats you need to see before an attack, including to-hit percentages and the likelihood of a counterattack. I’m sure this looks like I’m making a big fuss over a minor detail because I have a weird fixation with RPG UIs, but when you’re having to perform these simple commands hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of a game it makes a real difference when they’ve been organised in a way that is this convenient and really feels like it respects your precious free time.

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Tactically the battles are pretty straightforward on the surface – kill the leader, reach this point on the map, survive so many turns – but these vanilla victory conditions are always supplemented by a range of optional tasks such as rescuing NPCs in awkward spots or clearing the stage under a certain number of turns, with the promise of bonus gold and XP for your team if you can pull these challenges off.

Other interesting little wrinkles come in a wide range of forms - poisonous swamps and locked jail cells that can only be counteracted by a particular character, or enemies that can be cured of their evil-ness and turned into temporary allies. There’s a lot of variety in Empire of Angel IV’s bite-sized rumbles and while they’re rarely taxing they always a joy to play just because you honestly never know what’ll be expected of you next. Heck, even if you do find the regular story battles to simplistic you’re allowed to wander off and take on additional challenges if you like, potentially earning new summonable familiars as well as further gold and XP boosts. You don’t need to do these as the main story route is definitely balanced in a ‘If you cleared the last one then you’re tough enough for the next’ sort of way, but if you’re craving an extra cute-but-deadly challenge then the option’s there for the taking.

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Assuming there are no drastic changes in the final three chapters of the game (and from what I’ve read, there aren’t) Empire of Angels IV is a wonderful ‘coffee break’ style SRPG stuffed to the gills with clever ideas and creative flourishes, even if it is light on challenge. It’s not the sort of game you pick up because you want to prove how intelligent or skilled you are, it’s the sort of game you play because you have an hour free and would like to spend it doing something fun. I can’t honestly say it’s worth the trouble of tracking down on import (although you can buy it if you’re feeling brave) if you’re just a bit Chinese RPG-curious, but should the game ever pop up on the likes of Steam (stranger things have happened) I’m sure most people would find it a beautiful and entertaining purchase.

If you’d like to poke around the official Taiwanese website you should head on over here - http://eoa.softstargames.com.tw/zh-tw/home/index?#!post/14/234

Assault Suit Leynos 2

You need a fair few consoles if you want to keep up with Masaya’s Assault Suit series: There’s Leynos on Mega Drive, Valken on Super Famicom, Leynos 2 on Saturn, Valken 2 on Playstation, a decent-enough remake of Valken on Playstation 2, and finally the most recent of all, another remake on Playstation 4 of the original Leynos.

Is the series worth all that effort? Sometimes. And luckily for me this is one them.

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Leynos 2 is a return in spirit to the over-the-top mech action of giant cannons and lasers and screen-filling explosions that everybody remembers the series so fondly for (and by series, we all know I really mean Valken), while also bringing in two fresh ideas of its own – deep, deep, assault suit customisation and a really strong focus on score/ranking.

Let’s start with the customisation. On a fresh save you start with a mere handful of parts and just two different assault suits to use them on, giving you the chance to become familiar with the system without drowning under more options than you know what to do with. After successfully completing a mission you’ll more than likely be granted a few new bits and pieces to play with, opening up all new strategies or giving you the chance to augment a current favourite. In total there are eight different assault suits, seventy-six weapons and shields, forty different devices (these grant passive boosts to stats, extra weapon slots, enemy analysers – that sort of thing), and ten types of armour to keep you busy – although you won’t unlock anything close to all of them in a single run through the game. Leynos 2 has been designed more like a traditional score-based shmup than anything - a game to be played over and over until it’s mastered; unlocking new parts and tweaking your favourite weaponry until everything’s exactly how you want it.

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You see Masaya weren’t content with just throwing an army’s worth of equipment at you and calling it a day, they also gave players the opportunity to tweak things like your suit’s basic statistics, deck yourself in whatever attachments you like best even if they aren’t practical (want to dive into battle with nothing but a variety of shields to your name? Go for it!), and then add on a few devices that can enhance your speed, reload time, cut energy consumption… if it’s in the game, you can fiddle with it. Heck, this is a game that offers two modes of manual aiming and three different auto-aim options! Want to prioritise weaklings or incoming missiles over whatever’s close by? Leynos 2 has no problem in letting you decides what’s best for you. The only minor fly in the ointment here is that with all the potential it has for creating some really exotic builds I can’t help but wonder how much further players could have taken it if only there’d been a co-op mode. Not being able to build a ‘tank’ to cover a friend’s ‘glass cannon’ or a cooperative short/long range team feels like something of a wasted opportunity in my opinion, but in the grand scheme of things that really would have been nothing more than a juicy cherry on top of a an already delicious cake.

What was the other special thing I said Leynos 2 brought to the table? Oh yes, scoring! Playing for score in an action game isn’t anything new or unique, but there’s a special penalty system, time-based multiplier and even dynamic difficulty levels used here that makes for a game as keen to knock you down as it is to encourage you to come back for more.

In fact Leynos 2 is so tough that at first you’ll do well to score anything at all as it takes a while to adjust to a system that not only awards points for making things explode but will also take them from you based on the amount of damage you’ve received. This leads to a great two-tier style system where gamers only interested in playing for survival can use the brilliant automatic health replenishment feature as much as they like, players who start to take an interest in their end-of-mission rank will want to play with more skill and dodge or use a shield to block damage instead of simply absorbing it and waiting for your health to refill.

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Leynos 2 is seven short yet very distinct stages of intense action that really show off just how effortless great 2D was on the Saturn – just watch as the view zooms out to give room for an enormous articulated boss to stroll on in at the end of the first mission, it’s a spectacle that’s rarely been matched, let alone beaten. It’s all go right from the start, with what feels like an endless supply of enemy dropships and flame-throwing tanks trying to turn your assault suit and the rest of the 12th Special Force into scrap metal. It’s certainly not in any danger of being Alien Soldier hard, but it’s definitely in ‘Pay attention or die quickly’ territory.

If you dream of nerding out over tech-specs but would also like to play a solid action game where your gaming skills matter just as much as your equipment – this is the game you need. Unlocking new parts and testing them out in battle is always a pleasure, opening up new strategies as well as an granting obvious reward for your continued efforts. It looks like Masaya may have invented the score attack mech action genre entirely by accident but, like NiGHTS, if you can take the time to get into the right frame of mind you’ll find a game that’s just getting warmed up after you see the credits roll for the first time.

Need a hand understanding the status bar and customisation menus? Try this! http://shinjuforest.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/assault-suits-leynos-2-customisation.html

Assault Suit Leynos 2 customisation menu help

The customisation found in Assault Suit Leynos 2 is a feast of giant lasers and assault rifles to jam onto your favourite stompy battle machine, but to say the pre-mission load-out menus are a riot of numbers and gauges is something of an understatement. This is my little attempt to free a bit of the basic information locked away in the manual and pass it on to anyone who might need some help.

We’ll start with the status bar found at the top of the screen as you play-

score

Blue crescent on the left: Your energy level. Energy is consumed when firing B-type weapons (plasma rifles and lasers) and when replenishing lost health.

200/green bar at the top-left: Your health, represented as both a number and a bar

Missile Alert: This box displays various emergency warning messages

GL: Game level. This is the current game difficulty. This value can alter in real-time.

EP: Enemy Points. Current number of points you will be awarded based on enemies shot.

DP: Damage Points. Penalty points accrued for receiving damage.

Mission Time: Time elapsed

The six boxes on the right are the weapons you currently have equipped, laid out in a way that corresponds with the Saturn’s six face buttons. The numbers represent the number of magazines left in the weapon, and the number of rounds left in the current magazine. So (12) 4 on the SG-V20 means there are 12 magazines left, and 4 shots left in the current one before you need to reload.

Auto (1) means you’re currently using auto-targeting mode 1 to aim – this can be changed at any time in the pause menu. Some weapons are manual-aim only (a warning will be shown in English in the weapon equip menu). The three different auto-aiming behaviours are:

1) Target whatever’s closest

2) Prioritise incoming missiles

3) Prioritise whatever has the lowest health

Now we’re on to the main customisation menu:

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I’ll break it down into smaller sections to try and make the assault on your eyeballs a little easier to bear, starting with the weapons section at the top-right.

Weapons:

weapon layout

The top six boxes show the weapons you’ll start the mission equipped with, including the position of your jump/boost and auto/manual aiming switch. The bottom three show the reserve weapons you’re taking into battle but can only use if you switch out something in a main slot while paused during a mission (‘Set Weapon’ option). The third slot is blanked out in the screenshot as you need to equip a particular Device (Extra Weapon Bay 1) to unlock it.

Weapon equip menu:

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You’ll find yourself here after selecting Weapon>Equip from the main customisation menu. The top-left box is a list of all your currently available weapons, organised by type.

The mid-right box shows your current power setting (you can only alter this by selecting ‘Power’ from the main menu), how many weapon power points this piece of equipment needs, and how many points you have remaining.

Which brings us on to the most important area of all, the stat box in the bottom-left. This gives a detailed overview of the selected weapon’s abilities.

Attack type: One of either A, B, or C as described in the ‘Armour’ section directly below

Attack range: The bigger the number, the longer the range

Attack power: Most weapon’s power decreases over distance. This blue graph shows how it performs over short/medium/long range.

90/90: This is the gun’s maximum up/down aiming angle when pointing in any given direction.

SP: reload speed

 

Armour:

Armour

Level: The level you’ve currently set your armour to (explanation with the next image)

All weapons ultimately fall into one of three categories: A, B, or C – so if you have armour with a high defence performance against A type weapons but a low C rating you’ll shrug off enemy machinegun fire but take a lot of damage from homing missiles and similar heavy weaponry.

A: Standard physical weaponry – machineguns, shotguns, punches

B: Energy weapons – plasma rifle, lasers

C: Explosive rounds – missiles, bazooka, napalm

We’re now going to take a quick detour from the main customisation menu here to look at the armour sub-menu.

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The only things you need to worry about here are selecting your armour from the list in the top-right box (selected by pressing up and down on the d-pad) and the Defence Performance readout on the bottom-right. Pressing left or right on the d-pad while on this screen will raise or lower your chosen armour’s level, with the graph showing how each defence type performs at each point. Why would you ever want to lower your armour’s level? Because the lower the level, the lighter it is, easing the strain on your maximum load and allowing you to equip bigger, heavier, weapons.

So as you can see, the Hybryx Pro 800 armour has pretty rubbish A and B type defence but the C doesn’t drop off significantly until about the halfway point, giving you lots of wiggle-room if your next mission’s mostly missiles (say that three times fast!).

Weight:

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This is shown on most sub-menus and updates in real time so you can see how you’re distributing equipment weight. The game doesn’t prevent you going over your weight limit even though you can’t deploy in an over-limit state, so make sure you’ve always got a little bit showing in the ‘Left’ row.

Power:

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Your suit’s basic statistics. You’re free redistribute your yellow power points however you like, but you can’t remove red points – these are your suit’s baseline stats.

Mobility: General movement speed as well as your suit’s maximum weight allowance

Weapon: Weapon power. Also used to determine which weapons you can equip, as some require more weapon power than others.

Repair: Speed at which your suit recovers from damage

 

Right, I think that’s all the not-obvious stuff covered! Let me know if anything’s unclear and I’ll try to improve this page further, OK?