Every month you can watch reviews and read our thoughts on the games we've been playing, old and new. We’ve got two video reviews this month: something new and something old!
Fire Emblem: Three HOuses
Last month, I went to the doctors because something didn’t feel right; I’d been anxious, distracted and a good night’s sleep was eluding me. After about a hundred questions and a battery of tests, the doctor looked me right in the eye and told me what was wrong.
I was diagnosed with the Fear of Missing Out, more commonly known as FOMO. Apparently, this condition is very common at this time of year when the traditional video game drought passes, and publishers remember that they love the taste of our money. You see, after telling everyone I knew that I wasn’t interested in buying and playing the latest entry in the Fire Emblem series, Three Houses, I was caught up in a whirlwind of lust and naked jealousy when the reviews came out.
Suddenly, everyone was talking about dispatch dates and preorder deals and even though I knew I had been burnt by the series before, my willpower was crushed like an apple in a horse’s mouth. Of course, I preordered it and, of course, I waited eagerly to play approximately 15 hours of the game and then abandon it like I have with every other Fire Emblem game. Well, it turns out that Nintendo pulled a mean, horrible trick with Fire Emblem: Three Houses: They made Fire Emblem one of the best games of the year.
But how did they do it? How did Nintendo take a series that I’ve always lost interest in and make it so addictive that I managed to put 45 hours into my first playthrough and I’m already a few hours into New Game+? They did it by adding tea parties. By adding fishing and gardening. By letting you do some cooking with your students. To play Three Houses properly and get the most out of the game, you need to turn your students into a reliable fighting force and the easiest way to do that is by becoming their friend.
That’s right; Three Houses should really be called Persona Emblem or maybe Fire Persona. Or possibly Persona: Fire Emblem: Three Persona Houses. Although you can spend your days fighting or developing your skills, the best use of your time is getting to know your students, spending time listening to their problems or giving them little gifts that help to lift their morale. The higher the morale, the more you can teach your students and the quicker your relationship can form. While you’ll have a pool of very talented students to guide and improve, you can also woo students from other houses over to your side as well, either by improving your stats or inviting them to dinner or tea.
It’s a sweet system, very Persona-lite, but it builds connections throughout the games huge cast list that can add a lot of pathos towards the end of the game.
For my first playthrough, I taught the Golden Deer house, lead by the mysterious and lush Claude. In terms of fighting classes, to begin with, it offers a mixture of archers, magic users and a few knights. As you teach your students, they’ll come and ask your advice about their current class and if you think another option might be more suitable, you can then choose to level up the relevant skills. Except for a few character specific classes, everyone is pretty flexible, although you tend to find that some characters are better overall in certain roles. Thankfully you’ll have plenty of time to try them out, because war is coming to the land of Fodlan.
Now, if I say the words “tactical role-play” and “turned-based battle”, it’s natural for some of you to get the kind of sweats that come from sneezing a lot of a busy train or when you drop your phone, but don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you might think. When you head out to battle, you can quickly scope out the map to see what kind of units will be best suited.
For me, I always used a lot of archers, magic users and sword fighters as their ranges tended to make the first few rounds of battle a little easier. Your units are actually student characters and a battalion of soldiers; these battalions can be used to fight or stun larger enemies, like the monsters who’ll crop up from time to time, or they can give you passive bonuses. You equip them just like weapons to your characters and you can win the loyalty of new battalions through side missions.
The fighting, at least to me, seems more straightforward compared to the last Fire Emblem game I played. You no longer have to worry about whether axe beats lance or sword beats bow, it’s all about your combat arts; powerful moves that, while reducing the durability of your weapons, can easily turn an encounter from a draw to an easy victory.
You can even equip new skills which mean that certain characters can get stat boosts against certain types of enemies, although skill slots are at a premium so you may want to use them to boost your HP or raise your chance at a critical attack.
If you play the game like I did, on normal mode with permadeath turned off, the only issue you might encounter with the later battles is that they can be a little on the easy side, as all your favourite units will be stronger than Kratos from God of War and twice as deadly. You can, of course, rotate through different units, to try and increase the difficulty, but there is something very satisfying about watching an archer with a terrible bowl cut take down a significant enemy with one hit.
I’ll be totally honest, there’s really very little to criticise here; the story isn’t spectacular, but it’s fun and has some unexpectant twists; maybe some of the activities, like fishing or planting, lack depth, but there’s plenty of other distractions to keep you entertained.
So, if we circle back around to my tortured introduction around 900 word ago, this is one of the few times that getting swept up in the hype around a game has actually paid off. It’s also a testament to how well Nintendo are pitching their releases where even their most difficult to sell games are being refined for wider audiences without sacrificing their core appeal. As for me, I’m off to grab some anti-biotics from the chemists before Astral Chain comes out, just to be safe.
The first time I saw a Virtua Racing cabinet - the only time as far as I can remember - I knew I was looking at something special. I was on the ferry to France on a family holiday, and in true Merrick fashion, I wasn't given any money to put in and actually play the game; I just sat in the chair and spun the steering wheel back and forth, marvelling at what was on the screen. It was like gazing into another world - the trees, the bridges, the pit crew! I don't think any other racing game had such an effect on my young imagination, but sadly, apart from a good-but-not-quite-right PS2 version, I've never actually played it.
Now I can take this classic racing game everywhere with me, on the wondrous little machine that could, the Switch.
I'm going to top load this review - Virtua Racing is the best racing game on the Switch. It only has three tracks and one car, but it's so perfectly designed that it doesn't need anything else. These three tracks haven't quite the same legendary status as their counterparts in Daytona USA, but they're no less great.
Big Forest is a simple speed circuit with one tricky hairpin that'll catch out anyone who dares to take it flat out. Acropolis is a technical marathon that demands absolute concentration. Finally, Bay Bridge is as devious a track I've ever raced, with blind turns, compound corners and tight, claustrophobic walls. It may be the intermediate course but I think it's the most difficult of the three to master.
And you'll want to master them.
The key to Virtua Racing is in the tight handling and responsive acceleration; do yourself a favour and set the handling to arcade and the throttle to the right stick for full analogue control. This might be an arcade game but it's all about simulation; you're punished for not braking when you need to, for turning too forcefully or for accelerating to wildly. I have no doubt that a lot of people will be frustrated when they play for the first time. This isn't a Ridge Racer or a Daytona USA; it's an arcade racer inspired and informed by simulation. It harks back to an era when arcade games were all about making you feel like you were doing the thing they were simulating, and Virtua Racing feels like you're in the driving seat of a real formula one car.
Once you run a few laps you'll learn. You'll learn to tease the throttle, to find the racing line, to gently turn the wheel to avoid lockout, to shift down for the tight turns - I play on manual because I'm a prick by the way. Those lap times will go down, and you might even get a podium finish and witness the greatest credits sequence in racing history.
Maybe you'll even venture into the options and try your hand at Grand Prix mode, replacing the five lap arcade hit of standard mode with a gruelling twenty lap ordeal, complete with tyre degradation. How many arcade games have you played where you have to pit? In fact, there's another reason Bay Bridge is the hardest track in the game: there is no pit!
Look, I'm one of those arseholes who watches F1 when it's on council telly, and the drivers are always talking about conserving tyres. I've played about a million racing sims, but this game right here, this decades old, flat-shaded polygonal relic from a bygone age has beaten every single one of them at capturing that feeling of being at one with the car and driving it as fast as possible without wearing the tyres. It's a game that teaches you how to race.
Sadly, you might not want to take those skills online. The leaderboards are a great addition, and downloading ghosts is always a nice touch, but actually racing other people online is patchy at best. I've had one online race that wasn't complete pish, but most of the time the lag makes the game unplayable.
Luckily a solid split-screen mode, complete with eight-player support, will mean you can race your pals. You know, your real pals.
Have you bought Virtua Racing yet? Have I convinced you? Look at it this way: I have about 50 games installed on my Switch, many unfinished, and yet every commute to work since I got Virtua Racing has been all about beating Grand Prix mode, or improving my lap times, or finally making it round Bay Bridge without making another damn mistake.
This game is perfect. Your Switch needs it.
Dragon Quest XI demo
A ten hour demo?! That’s about two and a half Vanquish’s long.
Smash Bros. Ultimate
Hero from Dragon Quest is an excellent addition to the roster, OP or not!
Genuinely impressive, zero chance of me making anything beyond the most basic of basic levels.