Asterisk War: Phoenix Festa

Hime-senpai has arrived from the main animanga NOHK blog with my first video game post in this sub-blog.

I mentioned two things in my writer profile.

1.) My gaming platform of choice is the Playstation Vita.

2.) I am primarily an anime fan more than an actual gaming fan, hence my preference for the PSV and it’s huge library of JRPGs and tie-in games to niche anime.

Without further ado, let’s start off with a review of one such game that fits both criteria, one that’s recently released here in Asia – Asterisk War: Phoenix Festa, stylized as AW: Phoenix Festa in the actual cover for some reason. I guess game titles run on character limits.

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Looking at the cast, you’d kinda know what to expect

Gakusen Toshi Asterisk, known to the western world as Asterisk War, is a recently-aired anime that belonged to the “magical school harem” genre (yes, I believe it is a genre of its own at this point). This time, our hero is Kiri – Ayato Amagiri, who enters Seidoukan Academy in search of his disappeared sister.  Along the way, he encounters and makes friends with fellow students in the academy. Together, they aim to prepare for and join the Festa, a grand tournament that happens every three years, with the winning pair earning the ever-elusive prize of having their wish granted.

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Based A-1 Pictures

OP protagonist? Check. A cast made up of various archetypes of anime girls with different color schemes and powers? Check. Harem antics? Check. Magical school? Check. Tournament arc? Check.

Man, I’m pretty sure a lot of people are sick of this specific genre at this point. Nevertheless, it still has its moments and remains a pretty fun popcorn anime at its best.

In the end, it wasn’t an anime that really took the community by storm. It enjoyed little to moderate popularity, quite a lot of criticisms, and a mixed reaction at best from those that bothered to check it out.

That’s the reason why I’m surprised this show even got a game, never mind a localization. In the face of something like Sword Art Online, Digimon, One Piece, or Attack on Titan (the shows with localized Vita games), Asterisk War is a nobody, put it bluntly.

Anyway, being a fan of the series, the game was in my watchlist for quite a while, until the time I actually bought myself a copy the other day. So I went home, popped the game into my good old PS Vita, and began my trip into the world of Gakusen Toshi Asterisk.

The Review

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Two modes are available for this game

AW: Phoenix Festa features two game modes, a story mode and a battle mode. The modes are pretty much self-explanatory, the former takes you through a re-telling of the anime story, while the latter is the free battle option where players can battle AI or another player via ad-hoc connection. Nothing too different from what you typically see in these types of games.

I did mention that story mode takes you through the anime plot, but one thing of note is that you can actually play through the story as an original character of your choice. The story will mostly remain the same, still revolving around the premise of the main character preparing for the Phoenix Festa via training and finding his trusted female partner for the big event.

The only major difference between playing as Ayato and playing as an original character is that Ayato’s story begins around 2 weeks before the end of the registration period for the tournament. In exchange, he comes with high stats and relationship values at the start, making this an “easy mode” in a sense. The original character starts off really weak, but you will be given a lot more time to train yourself and build relationships.

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Of course, an anime game on the PSV is never complete without these CGs

That should be enough hints by now about the nature of the game. In the end, what we get as the core gameplay engine of Phoenix Festa is a hybrid between a 3D brawler and a visual novel dating sim. It might sound weird at first, but looking at the source material, I would say that’s one of the better ways of giving players the full Asterisk War feel.

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A glimpse of the main menu with an original character

The game runs on what I’d personally like to call the “Persona System” where the player characters gets presented a calendar and some marked dates for key events. During days without story events, players are given free reign to use their time in whatever way they see fit, whether it be training their character’s stats, earning money through combat-based jobs, shopping for items, looking for possible duels, or requesting a date with a girl of their choice.

All of these help the player character in different ways, but with only so much time until the start of the Phoenix Festa, players would have to brush up on their time management skills in order to make the most out of limited time. Will you take priority in building up your own skills, or will it be a relationship with a certain girl be of greater importance? With this unique gameplay system coupled with the multiple endings, AW: Phoenix Festa would seem like a nice tie-in that allows the players a glimpse of the everyday life of the main character in a magical school harem show.

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Expect to see this window A LOT

While I gave a lot of praise to this segment of the game, the dating sim elements can feel lacking and a bit raw. I really feel that the developers had a lot of missed opportunities with this specific element of the game.

You see, the one thing that I appreciate in the Asterisk War and other shows in the magical school harem genre is the fact that members of the main heroine ensemble for the shows remain varied in terms of background. Almost always, they form an ensemble that complement each other, both in personality and in powers, and what better way for that bright spot to be showcased than in the confines of a dating sim, where a player would be promised a different experience with each heroine? Surely it would be wonderful to be able to replay the game over and over again, getting more glimpses at what made each of our heroines what they are, may it be their past experiences or friendships, while allowing the player character to help steer their lives towards a certain future through interaction and shared experiences.

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These dialogue options could have been fun… if the game stopped recycling the same conversation options over and over again and they actually lead somewhere instead of simply earning relationship values.

Alas, that’s not the experience with the game. Instead, the dating sim segments are riddled with repetition and recycled dialogue. Unless the cutscene or event is directly plot-related, each heroine approaches the player character in a similar way with little variation in their lines. As a result, each sparring session and each date, whether it be on school or downtown, feels the same. Instead of a way to further present the hidden depths of the show’s heroine ensemble, the dating sim elements of the game at times felt more like a redundant slog through the same question and answer options. Sure, each heroine has different motivations and wishes heading into the Festa, and they do have their individual endings, but it’s not a good sign for a game when the fun only begins when the arc story’s about to be finished.

The concept is there, and idea is refreshing, but the execution sadly felt quite rough and lackluster.

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W-w-what are you talking about?!

Combat, unfortunately, falls into the same dilemma. The game plays like a 3D brawler, where fights are held in an simply-designed open space where a team of 1 or 2 characters take on another in a free-for-all battle. Characters all come with a life bar and a prana bar that works as a regenerating stamina bar that drains with each continuous attack or block. The game also provides an alternative win condition in the form of breaking school badges, so even if a player is playing from behind in terms of HP, it is still very possible to steal a win given enough skill in timing attacks and reading the opponent’s movements.

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OC vs Kirin, with the #1 rank in Seidoukan at stake!

Fighting itself is simple enough. Each character can jump, dash, and freely maneuver around the battlefield while striking the enemy with light or heavy attacks. Character movesets do vary. Being the typical light novel hero, Ayato surges around the battlefield with his energy sword, the Ser=Veresta, and while Julis does have a sword of her own, our lead girl would prefer a long-range battle where she’ll be free to overwhelm the opposition with an onslaught of fire spells. A series like Asterisk War has a knack for giving varied combat abilities for their characters, and there’s only one way to give players the full experience, and it is in a fighting game of sorts.

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The models and cut-ins look decent for the system

The shortcomings of the battle system come in the form of limited movesets and the level of difficulty in storyline battles. I praised the game’s variance in terms of powers, but most of the time, it’s not given a chance to truly shine. It’s a fault of both the overly simple battle mechanics and the easy AI. Characters have a grand total of around 5 attacks, and an ultimate attack that can be performed when low in HP. Yes, the characters do have their unique abilities, but more often than not, a battle just comes down to you mashing square and performing your special attacks. It doesn’t help than in an effort to stay true to its source material, Ayato starts out with stats and equipment above everyone else. It seems that the only true way to create a challenge in this game’s story mode is to start off with the original character story, which will leave you at a disadvantage due to the hilariously low starting stats. The fact that you have to intentionally handicap yourself in order to provide a challenge speaks volumes about the game balance.

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One thumb up at least

As for the sound, there’s nothing much to say. The opening is Brilliant Star by Shiena Nishizawa, the singer of the two opening themes for the anime series. The song’s not too bad, but failed to capture neither the excitement and hype that The Asterisk War (the song, not the anime title) evokes, nor the feeling of stepping into a bright adventure that comes from Brand New World. The rest of the soundtrack is completely unremarkable. The voice actors return for the game, and while they do their jobs well, there’s not too much voiced dialogue, despite this being a sort-of visual novel, where voice acting really plays a large part in creating an atmosphere or bringing the characters to life.

Final Thoughts

In the end, what we get is a game that has a slew of cool and innovative ideas, but ultimately falls short and rough on the edges. The concept of putting the player into the shoes of the “mundane everyday life” angle of a protagonist having to juggle his limited time between responsibilities gets two thumbs up from me. I also liked the decision to combine that with a 3D brawler and a dating sim, which I think is the best way to produce a game centered around the Asterisk War’s colorful cast of characters. I can’t help but feel that if Bandai Namco just took more time to polish the game, add extra content, work on the dating sim dialogues and routes, and add variation and balance to the combat system, this would have been a really great anime game that could serve as an entry point to the franchise for those who would pick up the game without knowing the source material.

Personally, I was able to appreciate the game, (already spent close to 10 hours with it in 3 days or so) but those mentioned flaws truly hold it back from being a game I’d gladly recommend to anyone and everyone. If you’re a fan of the novels or anime, or you enjoy the ideas that the game tries to bring out, you’d love AW: Phoenix Festa. Still, I can’t help but feel sad that the game could have been so much better and not the product that we got that felt like a work in progress, full of ideas but all fall just a bit short in execution.

Internet Fail

Better luck next time

It’s something typical for games like these though. Madoka Magica Portable was pretty meh. SAO Infinity Moment sucked, but the developers began finding their footing in Hollow Fragment and Lost Song. The first Hyperdimension Neptunia game sucked, but the Re;Birth series was created to fix it. While the chances and odds are extremely slim, here’s to hoping we get another game for Asterisk War that continues to build on what this game’s ideas and takes them a step further.

Final score: 6/10

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