Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Tunic

I've had a hard time getting into indie games that are trying to be Zelda or Metroid, as even when they're well-made and pretty they tend to be missing a certain something (level design I suspect, they all come off like first draft levels). I can at least say that Tunic did not fall into the pit of me sighing and stopping after a few hours- I played it to the end. It evokes Zelda with the titular outfit of its protagonist, and I suppose it's not a completely inaccurate comparison. Just, like, replace Zelda's combat with something a bit slower (it's trying to be Souls given the in-game references to Dark Souls, but in practice you mostly just mash after seeing an opening- the enemy design is about as mundane as an Ubisoft game) and replace Zelda's eclectic variety of puzzles with one primary puzzle revolving around hiding things behind perspective (you know how old RPGs had you rubbing against walls to find secret doors? It's like that, but actually cool because there are visual cues). 

It also uses the experience of playing a video game in a language you can't read as an intentional mechanic. You see, there's an in-game manual that unlocks as you play. But it's made up of a mix of about 10% English and 90% fictional language. Most the the text in the game itself is also in this language that you can't read. As someone who has dabbled in Japanese-exclusive games it's, uh, pretty authentic (as they also feature confounding random instances of English). This aspect was the main thing that sold me on the game. And while it takes way longer to utilize it than I wanted, it does end up leveraging it to a satisfying degree.

(Minor spoilers for the rest of the review. Though personally I would have been happier with the game if someone told me about it ahead of time so. There's that.)

Like every other indie game on the planet, it does end up taking a bit of a genre shift to something akin to an adventure game. This part is in a lot of ways the best part of the game, but also kind of the worst. Without saying too much, the primary mechanic involved makes it hard to tell whether you executed the solution wrong or straight up had entirely the wrong solution. The execution is also lengthy enough that retrying it is quite annoying. I ended up basically referring to guides to see whether my answer was wrong or my input was wrong, and most of the time it was the input. It smoothed over the experience a lot, but also resulted in me spoiling things for myself at times. I... would probably still recommend doing so, as it's maddening otherwise. 

I somewhat question the shift itself too, since separating it from the rest of the game ends up leaving you with just one flavor of game at a time rather than how genuine Zelda mixes genres to create a balance. It also left me with a very strong longing for the game to do more with the manual gimmick for most of the game, only for it to suddenly become a lot more useful than just "where to go next" at the last moment. To  be fair, the split also allows the game to be way more convenient about traversal once it hits full-on adventure game time so I can't totally fault the structure.

So should you play Tunic? I dunno. I guess if you want an indie action adventure that's just pretty good. It has a some stand out moments, but also has quite a few average elements. Fact of the matter is that we've seen these ideas explored several times by now: Ni No Kuni 1 and Retro Game Challenge among others have explored the game manual renaissance, Fez explored deep secrets inside games, and genre shifting is practically its own genre at this point. Tunic takes some of these further than its peers, and one of the puzzles in it is probably one of the best times I've ever had taking notes in a game. But the good bits have flaws, and it's a tad average on the whole. So I'm left unsure of it, but I guess I'm glad I played it.


Friday, July 8, 2022

Elden Ring

In a few years when you look up Elden Ring in a dictionary it's just going to say "too much of a good thing". It's not even like Dark Souls where you can simply say the last chunk of the game is blatantly unfinished and that's why it's bad. Elden Ring's final dozens of hours are about as well made as the first. But they're also not particularly distinct from the rest of the game, either. So you simply end up tired and exhausted of the formula.

I wanted the introduction to be about how the long wait for a game that actually paid attention to 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was finally over (as every open world game since has simply ignored it- even games like Horizon: Forbidden West that doesn't even have the excuse of being in development before seeing it- its preceding game literally released along side Zelda. Most developers straight up don't seem to give a shit for whatever reason, or they get confused and think the climbing around was the rad part of Zelda). As sick of it as I am, it's still true. Elden Ring does a pretty good job cleaning up the open world genre's obsession with not letting the player discover anything for themselves by having fairly minimal information. While most landmarks can be identified by visually looking at the map (some of which you only learn to identify with time making even reading the map a bit of an adventure), the game still hides a plethora of secret items, dungeons, and world bosses. Heck, the original release didn't even put NPCs on your map (which I liked but also made the limit of 100 map markers far too harsh for me) and even the size of the world is hidden from you for most of the game. To find them you have to actually look at the actual world. Surprisingly closely at times, often only barely identifying a cave by a flame masked behind tree branches. It's pretty cool, though it dries up a bit near the end as areas start to feel more like palette swaps with few secrets.

The game more or less copies the systems of previous Souls games into an open world (even outside the systems, it also copies a lot of level concepts and monsters almost directly from them as well. There are downsides to this, but it's also really smart in terms of letting them have a higher amount of variety than most open world games by virtue of gluing together several old games. They do a passable job of covering it up with minor tweaks, too. The only problem is the game is still so long that even with gluing multiple games together it ends up with an excessive number of repeat bosses and other monsters). But these systems were built for 40-60 hour long dungeon crawlers. When you try copy them into a 200 hour open world behemoth, they start to crack. While getting a lot of equipment and spells that aren't relevant to your build is annoying in a traditional Souls, it becomes more deflating in Elden Ring when that's your reward for tackling an entire micro dungeon (as opposed to finding a hidden corner). Worse, they carry over the upgrade systems from those games which require using limited items to upgrade equipment. This makes it really hard to even try the new things you're finding. While systems do exist to eventually get infinite amounts of most upgrades, they lag behind in a way that disincentivizes you from ever breaking from what you already have. They mitigate it somewhat by also letting you find things to change your existing weapon's properties, but it still makes all the other stuff you're finding underwhelming. 

Then there are the game's quests. I was initially pretty excited about them, keeping a notepad and screenshot button handy, as warned by the Internet. They more or less directly copy the structure of other Souls game quests: find an NPC at a point and do what's required, then they move on to another point in the world (sometimes with dialog clues as to where), and so on until the end, with no map hints as to where they went. This works well enough in the other games because they have a relatively linear, tight structure (though even then I'd tend to miss some of them, but not so many that I felt like I was missing much). When you transport this into Elden Ring's massive world, with a structure that allows quite a few different orders, with almost no changes it doesn't go so well (to be fair- some quests have optional steps and they do have NPCs shout at you when near a step). They're even worse if you miss a quest step because you end up with a needle in a haystack situation for deriving where the next quest step is in the miles and miles of areas you've already cleared out.

I screwed up almost every quest in the game despite my best attempts at being meticulous. At the end of the game I did end up looking them up out of curiosity. Generally speaking, the bigger side quests were mostly just my own fault for missing hidden areas or not spending enough time roaming around gigantic, empty boss arenas. Some of the smaller side quests involve such a specific order in areas with numerous possible orders of visiting that uh. Yeah good luck with those. I dunno how I feel about it. I still think the quest pointers that dominate games are horrible for games about exploration. And I have friends who missed similar things as me, and I know friends who managed to complete quite a few quests without help, so I can't say they're outright impossible. All I know is that in a game that is so much more about exploration than others in the series, I found it so much more distressing to be missing them than I did in the other games. I don't know the solution to the problem, though. I'm glad they took a swing at doing things the hard way and I hope they find the solution in the future.

There's a lot more that could be talked about such as the nuanced differences in combat (I have forgotten them), boss design / spirit summoning system (bosses are hyper aggressive with a lot of variations in attack patterns such that they feel built to force you to use summons. I found the summon system pretty fun in figuring out the best ones to use against different types of bosses. Then you find the Broken Summon and almost never care again- I was lucky in that I didn't find it until the end of the game, but most people aren't. It's a real shame. The upgrade system also hurts the system by limiting viable ones to experiment with), and how introducing a guest writer for the background story changes the things (more than you might expect at first, but also not that much). I'm just exhausted of it.

So should you play Elden Ring? Yeah probably, it's still one of the best open world games ever made (despite the dour tone of this review, the first 80 hours were incredible and I could not stop playing, and it's basically the RPG I've been yearning for all my life but never got because things like The Elder Scrolls have garbage combat I can't get into or The Witcher 3's non-existence balancing), but also in doing so you're cursing yourself with a game that outlives its welcome without giving you much reason to kick it out. It basically made me hate all video games for a month. I can't even say "oh just skip half the side content" (which is my typical strategy for open world games), because the game mixes in really cool stuff in secret places. That's its greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story

 The murder mystery game genre is one of those weird things that has been incredibly prolific in Japan starting with early PC games and the NES (even launching the creator of Dragon Quest's career), but ended up a virtually unknown, untranslated phenomenon in the west (though we certainly had our own equivalent PC adventure games involving murder). It's a tradition that persists to this day and finally came overseas with less serious, more anime flavored stuff like Danganronpa and Phoenix Wright. But those original games, introduced to me by watching Game Center CX (it's.. a Japanese let's play television show that's been running for 20 years...uh, just watch it, it rules), were deathly serious in nature. And it's that tradition that The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story, a full motion video murder mystery released in 2022, comes from. You play as a mystery writer tasked with figuring out why an unknown skeleton was buried in the Shijima family's estate, quickly spiraling into solving multiple murders spanning one hundred years- including the present day.

My main expectation for this game was mostly just to see some goofy low budget FMV game shenanigans, possibly with a good mystery jammed in there too. That's really most people's expectations for the genre, which exists in the beautifully awkward space of having game developers deal with a low-budget film production (which likely only some of the team has any experience with) while also having to slice things apart to make sense inside a game where dynamic things normally happen like objects moving around. Sometimes you hit a goldmine with games like Contradiction - Spot The Liar!, where the goofiness just enhances an enjoyable little adventure game. Most of the time you just get the goofs. The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is light on goofs, but surprisingly gave me an actual appreciation for the advantages of the FMV format inside a game for the first time (more on that later).

The game is roughly split into 3 phases for each chapter/mystery. First you watch a lengthy video of the case, leading up to and the immediate aftermath of a murder (occasionally pressing a button to collect clues). The second phase is the hypothesis phase where you place those clues into matching edges on a straight line hex grid. Once matched, the game plays a short 3d scene outlining a possible piece of logic (ie, the murderer had to be a man because of x, the murder weapon had to be y, the motive had to be z, etc). Since the game uses image patterns to match where these go, this phase is more about mulling over the clues and doing a matching minigame than anything else. Some of the pieces are so out of left field that it often adds more noise to solving the case than anything else, but I kind of enjoyed how stupid it was willing to go. The final phase goes back to playing video, but this time interrupted by having to pick the right answer to numerous questions about the mystery. Pick the wrong answer and you get a short scene explaining why you're wrong and also very dumb and get whisked back to the question to try again. A minor stroke of brilliance is that the game also gives you a rating at the end of the case, incentivizing the player to actually think about choices rather than bumbling your way through (though the ratings are purely fluff and easily cheated by replaying, they did end up making me care).

If you've ever watched a mystery show or movie, odds are you've found yourself commenting on who done it with those around you (something so common that tons of shows actively stop and prompt the viewers to pick). The brilliant part of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story, which I don't know how to feel about since I'm not sure the developers even intended it, is that it taps into that same energy. The majority of mystery games just aren't great for playing with other people, since they're heavily text based and varying reading speeds makes that all kinds of awkward. Even newer stuff with heavy voice acting and cutscenes still tend to be structured as classic inventory puzzles (yeah you can throw around "uhh try using the bone on the dog", but it's kind of weak), roaming between rooms, and conversation trees that are optimized for immersing a single person. But this game is perfectly made for playing with other people: everyone can watch a movie together, and the questions are streamlined so you can debate among yourselves, arguing for specific lines of logic as to which one is correct. You see I didn't actually play this game myself, I just watched it with a group of friends. Even so, arguing and coming to agreement about each piece of evidence basically made me feel like I was playing it. I don't feel like I missed anything, and I think the game was actually a far better experience for it.

The mysteries vary in quality (with one of the early ones going too hard on goofy lateral thinking), but are overall pretty good. Some feature so many gaps in knowledge that solving them tends to feel like taking the test without ever having went to class, but this ends up paying off in the epilogue chapter that hits you with a barrage of reveals, recontextualizations, and fills in every question we had in a satisfying manner. Yeah, there was no way you could have pieced together most of those clues, but they were present just enough to make you feel like you should have.

There's only really two big negatives with the game. One chapter features a hard genre shift into playing more like an adventure game with dopey traditional puzzles. It's awful. And the other issue is that some of the wrong answers have really unsatisfying explanations for why they're wrong (the worst being a character just flat out telling you "no I already checked, there aren't any." despite the hypothesis phase presenting 4 possibilities, some of them plausible, it doesn't go to the effort of explaining why they're wrong). And I suppose a bonus complaint is that I think mystery narratives should generally be entertaining to watch even outside of the mystery, but this thing is so dry that it was primarily just the mystery that I was there for (though some chapters have investigations prior to the main mystery of the chapter that lean into making this work, and the late game has enough stuff layered together that it also works).

So should you play The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story? If you have at least one other person to play it with, can get into murder mysteries, and are a giant weeb then yes absolutely.  I would highly recommend it so long as you know what you're getting into. (I'm deathly serious about playing it with someone else. I'm.. not sure it works otherwise.)

Thursday, December 30, 2021

DEATHLOOP

 DEATHLOOP is the latest entry in the recently burgeoning time loop "genre" of games (which apparently this blog is almost entirely dedicated to covering). It's pretty different from most by having an emphasis on removing the frustrations of the style, while retaining the fantasy. Rather than the typical time loop that operates in real time by having NPCs follow rigid schedules, DEATHLOOP opts for a simpler approach: there are 4 areas and 4 time periods within the loop's day (morning, afternoon, night, etc). Going to an area takes up that time period, but you can spend as much real time within it as you want- the game simply repeats the basic NPC patterns forever until you die or leave (with each time period changing up what's happening in each area). This eliminates a lot of the nuisance in terms of having to stalk a certain NPC for hours or wait around for the right event to start, but it also removes some of the magic that allows for more realized worlds. Whether they did it to streamline or because it was way easier for their existing engine to handle, I ended up liking the distinct approach (though I'd be disappointed if it were the first of its kind).

The game itself is one of those dreadfully diluted first person stealth amalgams: "you can sneak around, but you can also shoot people when that goes wrong!". I'm not a fan of the style because you usually just end up with two weak games, with one of them being the far easier path of least resistance. I also tend to just end up constantly reloading my way through a stealth only play through, cursing at how half my options are dedicated to something I have no plans of doing. In this regard I can give DEATHLOOP some credit: it doesn't let you quicksave at all, instead opting to give you 3 lives each level. For once I actually found myself playing the game as intended: mostly stealthing, but shotgunning my way out of bad situations when necessary. It wasn't bad. I'm actually really happy to see this style of game finally move away from the tension-destroying quicksave of PC gaming's past- even if 3 lives ends up being far too generous.

The game's inventory is also a streamlined time loop system of allowing you to spend a currency to permanently keep any weapon/upgrade/power across multiple loops. The amount you get is so generous that it's extremely unlikely you'll have to face needing to give anything you want up. Worse, the game makes it extremely easy to find good weapons such that you'll spend all of like 20 minutes with the crappy guns that jam. The end result is that after my first full loop, I had most of the same equipment I would take with me to the end of the game (I did get a few upgrades, learned to appreciate some later powers, but ultimately felt like I peaked within a few hours). This is basically the single biggest flaw of the game: it's built to have a progression, but immediately gives you everything. I actually waited a few months to write this review hoping that they'd release a hard mode patch that would fix this. They haven't.

The end goal is basically just Mega Man: kill all the bosses (stealing their powers along the way) in a single day to end the loop. Actually getting their schedules to line up for that requires doing a bunch of investigations and assassinations across multiple loops, resulting in a fairly standard game progression despite the loop structure. It's not bad, and each of the bosses has their own gimmick fight that breaks up the routine of stealthing your way through the grunts. Most of the story just consists of piecing together the boss's personalities, why they built a time loop, and recovering from the protagonist's amnesia. It's all pretty thin and shifting through tape recordings and notebooks is so cliched at this point that it's hard for me to take seriously, but... I did read everything I came across.

The final element is that the game contains a Demon's Souls-style invasion system where another player can enter your single player game to try to stop you from killing a boss. It has a lot of flaws: the netcode doesn't always work well, the invader is at a huge disadvantage of having 1 life vs. 3 (much like the developers shaving the sharp edges off time loops, this is them shaving them off invasions), being the invader is often a very boring looking for a needle in a haystack, etc. Yet the game is definitely better off for having it. The added tension of knowing someone is somewhere just adds a lot, particularly when doing your final run of killing every boss and not wanting someone to stop you part way through. And when the stars align and you have a genuine cat-and-mouse game, it's kinda neat (but mostly you're going to have sniper wars).

So should you play DEATHLOOP? That's actually a difficult question. The completely broken progression system really hurts the game. And even outside that, the game is pretty bare bones for the genre- you don't have all that many options to interact with the world, just the standard throwing rocks and hacking turrets etc. But I did enjoy my time with it. The new style of time loop is fresh despite its simplicity, some of the boss fights are pretty cool (particularly doing them multiple times for upgrades and trying different approaches to mastery), the world is fun to comb through, and the protagonist/antagonist banter was solid enough. Grab it if you're into this kind of thing and can accept a whole lot of missed potential, I guess

Monday, October 18, 2021

Metroid Dread

 Metroid Dread is about the sequel to Metroid Fusion you'd have expected shortly after its release, albeit a decade or two late. Fusion had a heavier emphasis on difficult bosses, and so Dread doubles down on that with even harder bosses that are easily the best in the series. Fusion had a famous chase sequence, and so Dread doubles down on that by making chase sequences a standard mechanic instead of a one-off set piece. While Fusion went overboard on directing the player to avoid tedious backtracking, Dread has a generally more tasteful approach of directing the player primarily through clever level design and careful teleporters, while also giving some opportunities to wander around and get lost that Fusion completely omitted (though it still isn't above plot-locked doors and impossible jumps in its toolkit).

The surprising part is just how damn well executed it is. It's the kind of game where even if you don't love everything it does, it's just done too well to mind it. They added QTEs and an analogue of the much-overused dodge roll to Metroid, but I was ok with it (honestly the "dodge roll" is probably the best new powerup). Yeah, the chase sequences don't really achieve the same horror mood as Fusion because that's what happens when you turn something into a standard mechanic, but they're pretty fun platformer Pac-Man sequences in their own right. As much as I love slow clunky games, Dread's fast fluid movement feels great and also makes perfect sense as a necessity for the chases to function (a contrast to something like Nier Automata that made its combat faster just because it looks cooler and is more popular, but ended up making the bullet hell elements of the original game pointless in the process). 

Of course while it manages to dodge most of my would-be complaints, it does have a few genuine flaws: the music fails to live up to the series standards, the art design is a little generic, the control layout is a tad awkward and heavy on shoulder button modifiers (my old hands literally cannot handle playing this game in portable mode), the load times between areas are really long, and not all the upgrades get that much love. Whatever. None of them add up to much consequence, other than the music.

Let's talk about what does matter: the bosses.Their designs follow a few basic rules that result in really great bosses:

  • Invincibility windows are short and sparse, meaning you can almost always damage the boss.
  • Damage is rarely "hit this specific attack pattern twice", but trends towards "500 damage for this phase any way you can", meaning that you're always making the fight faster the better your offense is.
  • Boss damage tends to be extreme so that when you do get hit, it really hurts. But on the flip side, every attack is very avoidable. Meaning that finishing a fight near death is quite doable, rather than falling into "well this upcoming attack always hits me, so I'm just screwed now".

Of course most of what I just listed is pretty standard Metroid (aside from extreme damage didn't get introduced until Fusion). The bosses are just plain better designed, with more phases. Carefully done so that earlier parts of the boss often teach you about later parts. As you get upgrades, the bosses change in tandem so they never stagnate (the second half of bosses almost feel like a different game, and even a late game upgrade changes how you use missiles). The added mobility means you get to do a lot more evading, even beautifully weaving the space jump into a lot of fights. Even coming off Fusion, I just didn't expect to love the bosses so much.

So should you play Metroid Dread? If you have even the slightest taste for the genre, then absolutely. It's the kind of game that is so well crafted that it's hard not to enjoy it, and can proudly stand alongside Super Metroid and Metroid Prime 1 (though it'll take time to figure out where exactly next to them, probably underneath).

Monday, August 30, 2021

Dragon Quest IV

 Slightly below Dragon Quest V, this was the game I was most looking forward to getting to. I knew it featured a chapter system where you change protagonists throughout it, the highlight everyone mentions being "that chapter where you run a weapon store". Squaresoft produced a ton of SNES/PS1 era RPGs with the format of multiple protagonists, and they generally yielded some of the more interesting stories as a result of not being stuck with the stock teenage boy protagonist. So I was really curious to see the probable video game origin point of the style, and even more interested in seeing what it looked like when Dragon Quest was actually still innovating instead of its modern form of being unchanging video game comfort food. What I got wasn't entirely what I expected.

Right up there with sequels that start with you losing all your equipment from the previous game for in-universe explanations for mechanics.
Dragon Quest IV is rather different from those Squaresoft RPGs I mentioned in that it sticks to a linear sequence for shifting between protagonists. This results in telling a way more coherent narrative in between character vignettes that builds up a looming threat: Ragnar the town guard uncovers a sinister plot of monsters kidnapping children, tomboy princess Alena's rollicking adventures end in tragedy when the monster's plans advances, Taloon thrives as a weapon merchant in a world preparing for the worst, the fourth chapter is a head on revenge mission against the monsters, and finally ending with the chosen one Hero gathering everyone together to save the day. 

Dungeons are a lot more visually elaborate
The first four chapters are great. It's basically taking a hard look at the world of Dragon Quest and asking what goes on when someone isn't on a world saving adventure. What's life like for a town guard, princess, or a merchant? The chapters aren't just flavored by the story, either. The town guard actually has to investigate around town to solve a mystery (which is a staple for the series, but it integrates perfectly with the smaller scale). The merchant chapter is the most extravagant, as it basically functions like a precursor prototype of a life sim. Push the old man to church every day for gold, operate a bunch of boring menus to sell weapons to adventurers, and then go back home at night and do it all over again. It actually branches out quite a bit with a dungeon sequence, figuring out schemes to buy low and sell high, hiring people to escort you in harder dungeons, etc. It's pretty good, though in true NES fashion it leans a little too hard on grinding money at the end. It almost certainly inspired a few genres, and is kind of crazy to look at today considering how intentionally not experimental Dragon Quest ended up becoming.

I actually really dig how the Taloon chapter melds adventuring into it, and kind of makes me want to see a life sim with more world exploration (but still without combat).
The final chapter is where it's kind of a let down. After building up all these characters, they end up silent after they join your party. Disappointing since the structure makes you think they're going for something, but admittedly not unexpected for the time. It's also really freaking big and long. Like probably three or four times the length of the previous chapters combined? I sort of wish I hadn't skipped playing Dragon Quest III first as the two games are of similar size, but I suspect III works out far better without even playing it (just by knowing it's fairly non-linear out the gate). IV's final chapter is basically structured such that there's a mainline path that directs you to the next location after each step (and often unlocks more chunks of the world), but several parts of the main path also require solving branches that you may or may not have found/done earlier in the game. It's not a terrible structure in itself, but the size of the world makes figuring out some of the branches a real chore (made worse by the world map being huge, sparsely populated with towns/dungeons, and visually indistinct- making it easy to not realize there are certain patches you haven't explored yet. I ended up resorting to the included manual's map, but it felt cheap knowing the Japanese version didn't have a map).

Despite the size, the world is still using the same basic tiles everywhere which makes it pretty easy to miss corners.

The worst part is just that all of your characters (except the protagonist) become locked into being AI controlled. Of course every remake changes this, but I was so deathly curious I had to try it for myself. The result was: it's really boring and hurts the game a lot. There's actually an interview with the developers around the time of release that is a fascinating read. The quotes pretty much straight up admit it was a bit of a failure: "I think we didn’t quite capture that feeling of being a “general” and strategically directing the combat", "The other thing I felt was lacking, was the wagon. You can have up to 10 characters in the wagon, but unfortunately, the game never really requires you to swap them out in any strategic way.", etc. The nicest thing I can say is that I pretty much just held down the fast forward button and mashed attack through every battle and either the AI was good enough to handle it, or the game was easy enough it didn't matter (I did catch it trying to use an instant death spell on the final boss, so...). And while the AI system is far less advanced than something like Final Fantasy XII, it still ends up being the better game just because the dungeons still have distinct tricks, there are overworld discoveries to make, resources still have to be managed (albeit tediously with single target healing), etc- while XII's world is pretty much just empty space. Years later Final Fantasy XIII would end up successfully bringing the "general" battle concept to life, while Dragon Quest pretty much just gave up on it.

The early chapters trick you into thinking you can control everyone, which I guess would be a cool surprise if the AI feature was actually fun.

 Despite all that complaining, the final chapter isn't a total wash. The chosen one premise works better than most thanks to the build-up of the prior chapters (plus having the player enter their name at the start of the game and then not show up for hours and hours is.. beautiful), gathering up all your party members and understanding how each chunk of their adventures actually fits together in a world feels great, seeing how various NPC's lives changed since earlier chapters is great (those lovebirds you saved are married and having a kid, etc- that kind of thing is actually more impactful with less work than something like Final Fantasy II smashing villages left and right), there's actually a fair amount of plot with the main antagonist who ends up as a tragic figure who just wants to bring humanity to extinction because they're jerks (he's not wrong), and it's still pretty good at the general Dragon Quest formula of feeling like a genius when the clues finally start to click together or you figure out the missing piece.

The dungeons feature a variety of gimmicks like dodging boulders, but thankfully never go too far where they become annoying.

So should you play Dragon Quest IV? I dunno, I guess if you want? Certainly not the original version. The high points aren't particularly high any more, other games have since done them better. In other words, it's so close to later entries in the genre that it isn't particularly distinct. It's also bloated as these things usually are, though it thankfully still has tight, compact dungeon design. But in the end it's just... another RPG. With some cool bits that are a fraction of the run time.

They were really stoked they could fit that many NPCs on screen.
 

 (I don't know where to fit this in the greater review, but I'd also like to note how in love with moving NPCs this game is? They were clearly extremely psyched when they finally had the storage to start including NPC move patterns. They have a bit with an old man who tries to follow you but can't keep up, merchants moving from their wife to the store front, merchants running 4 shops at once, priests tending to their gardens before helping you, meeting other adventuring parties in towns and dungeons, etc. It's neat to see since a ton of later RPGs generally aren't this elaborate with it)

Monsters hate open borders.

Bonus: Series Stuff

On the other hand I feel like this game was a real motherload in terms of like... establishing series stuff? The villain is using "The Secret of Evolution" to make all the monsters and some animals in the world smarter, enough to start talking. I could be wrong, but I don't remember any monsters talking in the earlier games (the Internet is useless at "when did DQ monsters start talking" trivia apparently), but it becomes a series staple from this point forward so it's kind of cool that maybe there's actually a lore reason for talking monsters? Albeit it also creates a Tolkien orc conundrum of it now being way more morally questionable to slay thousands of them, but it's still a cool revelation for someone who's played a fair amount of other Dragon Quest stuff.

Careful what you wish for.

Cities in the sky and bird people are also a bit of a series staple, but later games introduce them so nonchalantly that I always found it weird? It's a common fantasy thing sure, but the rest of Dragon Quest's village style is so intentionally bland that I always found them out of place and kind of sudden. IV is the first introduction of these things, and it at least does it with an appropriate amount of build up- the sky city and its ruler are slowly foreshadowed for a ridiculously long time before you finally meet them. They also form a lot of little backstory for certain parts of the plot. So for the first time they actually feel like they fit in the world to me? Just one of those things where people who grew up with a franchise end up slapping in cameos so casually that they never stop to think about the details?

Seems familiar..

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Forgotten City

 The Forgotten City is a timeloop.. adventure.. game? Starting life out as a Skyrim mod it's a little hard to identify an exact genre for it. While I haven't played the original mod yet, the game is littered with sparsely used mechanics exactly the way a mod might be constructed, used because the original game provided them for nearly free. The premise is that you find yourself thrown back in time to a small underground settlement in Rome, where the inhabitants are under a curse by the gods: if anyone sins, everyone is turned into golden statues. Fortunately you're also stuck in a time loop that lets you repeat the same day as many times as it takes to prevent anyone from breaking it. The ambiguities and loopholes of such a law are the main focus of the story, and I was pretty much hooked by it out the gate. If listening to NPCs talk about the philosophical problems of morality sounds like a good time, then this is the game for you.

That premise might make it sound like a mystery game- figuring out how people are going to sin and stopping them, in practice the game doesn't require much active sleuthing from you. As long as you exhaust everyone's dialog trees, and explore the right corners of the city you will pretty much inevitably solve every mystery. Occasionally dialog choices will have consequences of making characters refuse to speak to you or outright attack, but you can simply repeat the timeloop or load a quicksave to correct. In general it has the most streamlined timeloop mechanics I've ever seen: you keep all items and money between loops- so you only have to find any given key item once, a friendly character at the start of the game can be used to repeat any quests on your behalf beyond that, while characters do have some simple daily routines stalking them isn't really required for anything (even the one time-critical event in the game can be pushed up if you ask, and quest pointers direct you to the few characters that move around), and every NPC in the game even responds positively to you telling them to shut up you already did this conversation. It's basically what it would look like if a high budget studio approached the timeloop concept, and as a result it has a smooth flow to it that lets you appreciate the narrative implications of a timeloop without dealing with the inconveniences of it.

It's also rather open. I'm pretty sure you can reach most of the endings (though probably not the best) by simply murdering everyone in the game, stealing their key items, and then dashing back to the portal for another loop. Even outside of murder I ended up solving a couple character's quests by simply exploring the city, so I have no clue what their stories even are. That sounds cool on paper, but the reality is that exploration and murder are both extremely easy to pull off and are therefore pretty unsatisfying ways to solve quests. While talking your way through things is also pretty easy, it's still the meatiest thing since it has a story to it- I kind of just felt like I missed out by solving things in these alternative ways (though I suppose hatching the perfect speed run or one loop run would end up being an interesting puzzle on its own, something the game acknowledges with having achievements for them). 

In short, while the game has a buffet of mechanics the reality is that the main thing is just listening to conversations and watching the mysteries unfold. So it's a damn good thing that the story is actually a lot of fun if you're into characters pontificating about morality and uncovering mysteries about the setting. I found myself compelled the whole way through, even if you can see a number of the revelations coming a mile away and some of the philosophical conclusions are a little iffy. And while I gripe about how shallow the individual elements are, I think they provide wonderful pacing breaks between the conversational meat of the game- I'm generally very hit or miss with adventure games due to the tendency towards repetition. Would I recommend playing The Forgotten City? So long as you're ok with the price tag for an ~8hr game and the premise appeals to you, absolutely. Strongly recommended.

(Also, like. I love historical settings in games, but practically nothing uses them except bad games like Assassin's Creed. So really heavy bonus points for letting me explore Roman culture in a good game for once, even if parts of it feel a little bit like someone cramming every bit of pop trivia they found on the internet into every nook and cranny and explained it with a text box like a tour guide).

Monday, July 26, 2021

Metroid Fusion

 I never actually played Metroid Fusion when it came out in 2002. The idea of an extremely directed Metroid that told you where to go at all times was really unappealing, especially when Metroid Prime came out at the same time. Over the years I heard a number of people have high praise for certain parts of the game so it slowly made its way to "yeah I guess I'll play that eventually" status, and I finally got around to actually playing it with the announcement of Metroid Dread as a direct sequel. While waiting 19 years gave me time to accept how different Metroid Fusion's structure is, it also made it kind of weird to play in a different way.

Samus is not afraid of a vaccine.
 The short of it is that Metroid Fusion is a game about set pieces- unique or sparsely-used mechanics that diverge from the standard formula of a game for a moment. The most notable one is an invincible clone of the protagonist that hunts you down throughout the game, but it dabbles in a few other gimmicks as well. This is a technique that would become incredibly trendy around this time period, though it certainly had plenty of prior examples. This makes coming to it late kind of really weird, having seen so many games use it so heavily since it came out. The moments it has are done well, and would probably be extremely novel or even innovative in 2002, but they also feel pretty sparse by 2021 standards? A big reason I even played the game was because previews of its sequel, Metroid Dread, heavily showcase similar sequences, and I found them novel enough that I wanted to see their inspiration. In the end, playing Fusion's sparse version of those just kind of makes me more excited for the sequel to really lean into it more than anything? (though realistically I expect turning them into routine mechanics will make them much less appealing to fans of Fusion).

There's nothing scarier than yourself.
 I have a real axe to grind on modern metroidvanias leaning heavily towards convenient world structures rather than organic ones. As much as I expected that to bother me, in practice the game is so direct about its structure that I was actually pretty OK with it. It doesn't dress up its hub world, it just shows you a bunch of elevators right out of the gate. This is a linear series of dungeons with a linear plot, and the game isn't trying to make you think otherwise- even the artificial setting of a space station puts that up front. While Metroid has a genre named after it, Nintendo clearly feels no pressure to always exist within that genre's walls. I respect it. My main complaint about it is just that the game is still littered with hidden upgrades all over, but every time I wanted to go to an older area to find things with my new upgrades, I was always met with plot doors sealing me away- even in the save point before the end of the game. The game is loaded to the brim with difficult boss fights that left me wanting to go back and look for more health, but the game always denied me a chance. It's a little too at odds with itself.

With the streamlined exploration, most of your time is spent on bosses.
 Despite the straightforward structure, I actually found myself stuck surprisingly often (probably 6 times total?). A hidden wall here, an impossible enemy you need to figure out how to defeat there, etc. The game locks you into areas so frequently that it's somewhat less frustrating than other Metroid games to do the "bomb everywhere" dance because it doesn't even give you the option of backtracking to the wrong place looking for answers. I really didn't expect this from a game that directly points you to objectives (and a lot of modern metroidvanias don't go anywhere near this kind of thing), so I was pretty pleasantly surprised by it. Sometimes also very frustrated, but none of my stuck points lasted much longer than 15mins or so (or the next day). 

A lot of things get broken in this game.
 So should you play Metroid Fusion? Probably, if you're interested in it. It crams a ton of neat little bits into one short package (areas transform over time alluding to future encounters, Samus turning into a metroid allows a lot of cute moments that let you think about how it must have felt to be a metroid in the other games (plus people who confuse the game title for the protagonist are now technically correct), the game is chock full of terrifying scifi concepts that it treats completely nonchalantly, the premise is a fun commentary on humanity dicking with ecosystems, and it probably inspired a whole lot of other games). Not quite a must play, but pretty good. Perhaps a little sad to think that it is likely the last Metroid Nintendo will produce in-house, since it's also one of the least derivative.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Subnautica

Subnautica is a survival game that puts you in the place of a stranded space traveler on an ocean planet. Survival is a somewhat controversial genre that a whole lot of people despise or just don't give a damn about, so you may have just knee jerked into closing this review. I'd love to tell you: "Hey wait a minute and listen to me, Subnautica is barely the kind of survival game you're thinking of!". I desperately want to tell you: "What if you had Metroid's level of atmosphere, but underwater?". I would actually say it's almost closer to a walking (swimming?) simulator with survival chores tacked onto it more than anything (which is not an insult, walking simulators are really cool). It certainly wants to be that kind of minimal survival game. But I'd be a damned liar if I said that.

The Game

 The survival elements are rather light on the surface, and it features minimal combat (beautifully excused by your corporate overlords disabling weapon production on all 3d printers after a massacre in a similar survival situation). Gaining resources is primarily a matter of picking things up (as opposed to more elaborate mining systems or combat challenges the genre trends towards), getting new technology is a matter of finding or scanning things you find in the environment. A few other survival elements also exist (needing to eat/drink, repairing equipment after use with batteries, powering your base to operate equipment, etc) but most of them quickly fade away into minor chores after upgrades. 

 The real core loop of Subnautica is just about going to new places, finding upgrades in them, creating those upgrades with gathering you did along the way, and then using those upgrades to go to even more new places (your traversal mechanics getting shook up slightly along the way). The only real omnipresent survival element is that the places you explore will almost always be on a time limit of your oxygen supply, but it's really more of a flavor timer than anything since resupplying at a safe point is rather trivial.

 The terrible, terrible problem of Subnautica is just that it didn't cut down the survival genre enough. In particular, the dreaded scourge of the genre is in full force: inventory management. If you're unfamiliar with it, Minecraft basically established that inventories have to be terrible chores where you have to move items into chests between runs. Lots and lots of chests. It's a genre staple that has stuck around for good reason because it gives purpose to player's bases (if you can carry everything then why have a base, other than for crafting stations). Even more importantly, the need to organize things (ie, put the gold and silver in their own chest) is a facsimile of how people organize their actual homes in real life, creating a sense of place. While annoying, plenty of games have done a good job minimizing the annoyance while maximizing the flavor it creates.

 Subnautica does the opposite and maximizes the annoyance instead. Specifically, it defies genre standards by not letting you stack items of any kind. While it's very generous with the number of slots in your inventory and chests to compensate for it, it makes transferring items between chests an enormous chore. The first problem this creates is just that the game will ask you to transfer your main storage multiple times: first because you built your base in a really stupid shallow spot where your vehicles can't easily get into. Then because you only start out with being able to build small tubes, so when you finally find the recipe to make a big room you end up with a big chore of hauling things around. Then the game will do this again when it introduces a mobile base where you can store everything if you choose to do so (of course said mobile base has a number of limitations where you will occasionally still need a normal base to do certain things anyway). I didn't actually exercise most these options, opting to store my crap in the tiny annoying tube base rather than moving it over and over again (and using the mobile base as a secondary base instead of a primary). So that's a real hassle.

The second problem not having stacking creates is just that it makes it hard to stockpile things (until very late in the game where you get said mobile base, then it just becomes a nightmare to transfer your stockpile without taking multiple trips). Unless you go back to base every single time you hit your inventory limit, you will constantly be leaving resources behind. Sometimes I left things behind just because my chest for that thing was full and I didn't have a great place to put another chest of those things in my tiny tube base. This limitation was almost certainly a design choice, because the result is that you will constantly be be running out of things and going "ugh I'm out of this, time to go back to that biome that has them". And sometimes this design choice worked out really well with me discovering something I missed the last time, or a new area along the way. But mostly it created a certain chafing annoyance every time I thought about starting the game up again. The apex of this is the final thing you have to build in the game: it only tells you the resources you need for each stage of building it, so it's impossible to create a shopping list ahead of time. The end result is that I had to go back and forth (a several minute trip of just heading forward) to the endgame area like 5 or 6 times to build the final thing since I would inevitably have not brought enough for the next stage of building. While some of this can be mitigated with smart base positioning (or just obsessive gathering even if you don't think you'll need something again), it's easy to screw it up without foreknowledge.

And let me be clear here. I think Wind Waker's sailing (the thing everyone complains about as being too slow) has the best sense of adventure a game has ever accomplished. I thought the treasure map quest in Wind Waker was a good time and I hated that subsequent re-releases cut it down (I almost tried playing the Japanese version to see the longer version of it!). I think Death Stranding, a game about walking back and forth to places delivering packages, was the best game released in 2019. So when I say that Subnautica is filled with way too much tedious back and forth travel caused by a crummy inventory system, I really mean it. 

The World

The actual appeal of the game is the world. Underwater settings are woefully underrepresented (likely due to early 3d attempts at swimming controls ending in tragedy), but Subnautica completely nails the feeling of exploring an alien ocean in isolation. It's not even that the art design dazzles you with exotic glowing plants and alien one-eyed fish, contrasted by the player's sleek futuristic vessels. It's that in the same way that Red Dead Redemption had exactly the right "wood creaking under cowboy boots" sounds that movies have trained us to expect, Subnautica has all the right creaks and groans of an underwater base, and the creepy moans of giant things we definitely don't want to encounter. The deeply atmospheric soundtrack that kicks in sparingly takes you the rest of the way to traveling to this alien planet.

The story has a pretty minimal approach, primarily driven by distress signals you get on your radio, and cliche voice logs of the other survivors you find scattered about. What makes it work is that it twists and goes past your expectations just enough to excite your imagination. Looking back on it after finishing it, it isn't that impressive from a distance, but in the moment it's exciting. Scanning the fauna and learning about the planet's ecosystem is also delightful, though I wish the game paused your oxygen counter while reading.

Topping it off is the game's brilliant way of handling exploration. Rather than uncovering a map, you get beacons you can place that the game will point you towards at all times. This is a perfect balance of letting you find your way back to important places while still making it easy to get lost in the world. It's also sized tastefully enough that every point of interest in the game is generally at least a little unique, and traversing the entire map isn't too exhausting. The only real mark against it is that the game uses distress signals too heavily, directing you to most of the important locations in the game ahead of time, which can rob you of a sense of discovery. It's also a minor technical mess with tons of world pop-in, fish flying into rocks and clipping through things, getting warped into a rock by an attacker, etc. These things are understandable given the scope of the game relative to the team's size, but it does hurt the game's strongest assets.

As much as I spent most of this review complaining about the survival mechanics, they also add a certain something to the pacing of discovering the world. A certain something to the sense of danger to the world. Excitement when you finally find what you need to go deeper, but also irritation when you feel like you're looking for a needle in a haystack. So would I recommend that you play Subnautica? Yes, especially if you're into atmospheric games about exploring things. But with a very heavy caveat that you need a stomach for terrible inventory systems and other such nuisances. I generally like survival games and backtracking, but this game was too much for me several times (so much so that I quit playing it the first time and only came back to it later. And frankly, I'm not sure it was worth going back to finish it.). It's a world worth exploring, even if you don't see all of it.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Final Fantasy II

There's one phenomenon of the NES era that I find most interesting: the black sheep sequel. For whatever reason the second game in a lot of series tended to be radically different. Castlevania II turned a straightforward action platformer into an open world adventure (albeit inspired by Castlevania's parallel MSX version- so II might have been seen as letting the NES "catch up" in complexity), Zelda 2 turned an overhead action adventure into a side scrolling action adventure with an RPG overworld, etc. Upon release, the drastic genre shifts generally weren't received well by their fans and the next sequel tended to be a return to form (though opinions have shifted over the years).

Final Fantasy II, at least from a western perspective, falls firmly into this category even though it didn't change genres. Going into it for the first time (ignoring previous 5 minute dismissals), all I really knew was "it's that game where you hit your own party members to increase their HP instead of getting experience to level up". Which is true, but what I didn't expect was a shocking emphasis on story for the time (most discussions I've read about the game usually write it off as, "I guess it establishes taking down evil empires in Final Fantasy"). I would probably go so far as to say that if Dragon Quest is the grandmother of Japanese RPGs, then Final Fantasy II is the mother- and it honestly establishes more of the formula as we think of it today than Dragon Quest does.

This guy is my favorite NPC in the game. He blames you for every bad event in the game.

The Story

It starts you off as a group of now-orphaned teens trying to run away as the Empire conquers their home town. The escape fails, but they end up rescued by the rebellion. After proving themselves capable, they end up recruited by them and the rest of the plot revolves entirely around overthrowing the empire. While the means of taking the Empire down technically boils down to fetch quests, the first half actually does a very good job of feeling like you're taking part in a conflict. Finding the mythril for new weapons actually spawns new NPCs that sell those weapons to you, you have to go back to the central castle to receive new orders each step of the way, and plans often go awry resulting in towns getting partially destroyed in the crossfire (albeit in very limited fashion of just having some NPCs disappear). There's even a part late in the game where liberating your conquered home town actually turns a dungeon into a new town (plausibly the inspiration for Suikoden). It's all incredibly cool for 1988 on a Famicom, and I really didn't expect to see this kind of stuff until Dragon Quest IV in the 90's.

 

A lot of people die in this game. It's pretty rad.
 

Unfortunately for as directed as the plot is for the first half, the second half turns into more of a literal fetch quest for a spell to defeat the Empire with. The plot loses all of its momentum for the sake of turning into a more typical free roam RPG, where you basically just have to conquer several dungeons in a row. This section probably wouldn't stick out as much if the game part of the game were actually good, but we'll get to that later. On the plus side, the plot focus of the first half of the game does eventually make its return, and it features some of the best moments as well which makes the slog to get to it somewhat worthwhile.

The sex scene was probably too hot for the game to come to America.
 

What makes the plot stand out for the time isn't just that the world changes in response to it (or that it exists at all), but its execution is surprisingly good. Partially because the game actually features cutscenes of NPCs moving around, heroically sacrificing themselves on boulders for you- even going so far as to have a sad piece of music for the numerous deaths in the game (maybe the first usage of matching music to emotional tone?). But more importantly, it's relatively intricate: At the start of the game you'll meet an optional NPC in town, a cowardly prince who refuses to take the throne to wage war against the Empire, leaving his sister to do it in his stead. You'll meet his brother on his death bed, but he still he won't fight. Several hours later he'll end up joining your party for a time. Even later on, he ends up leaving your party, finally inspired by the protagonists to fight. From then on he becomes a major player in the story, even though he started out as an NPC you could easily walk past. The same structure applies throughout the game: NPCs you rescue at the start of the game later become guiding party members or daring rescuers near the end of the game. It's all really cool, even if not everything works (a late game character reveal doesn't have the emotional weight nor the surprise to work, the late game plot dissolves into just killing the bad guy, the protagonists themselves have virtually no characterization, and completely sidelining the princess who does all the actual work in running the rebellion is pretty lame).

Even the world map features cutscenes, like this airship chase.

The Manual

Try as I might, I cannot actually find an English translation of the original Final Fantasy II manual (remakes that received translations aren't really substitutes since they generally omit detail that has been added to the game itself). This makes evaluating the game somewhat difficult. There's a good chance things like arcane progression systems, or different armors having different spell casting penalties may have been cleanly stated instead of aggravatingly obscure. There's just as good of a chance that the manual didn't explain anything. For my own play through, I ended up referring to an online database that included a lot of opinions about spell/item utility and warnings about numerous bugged elements (the manual definitely wouldn't have included bugs). It made for a much smoother play than I would have had totally blind, but just how different from the intended experience is impossible to say (I suspect the manual would include spell penalties at least). Just something to keep in mind, a lot of complaints against the game could either be very minor if the manual explained them or game destroying flaws if it didn't and I have no idea which it is- I only have my own distorted experience.

Not every world transforming event is handled very well, probably due to cart limitations.

The Game

Let's get the easy part out of the way first: Final Fantasy I had pretty great dungeons. Most of them had distinct themes (sometimes with the layout, sometimes with the battles themselves having a theme, sometimes with minor puzzles or damage tiles, etc), and they were tightly sized so their pacing generally wasn't too exhausting. Combined with a  more-full-of-stuff battle system (featuring elemental damage, tons of spells to buy, and unique equipment to find), Final Fantasy I was basically a really good dungeon crawler to Dragon Quest I practically being an adventure game with its reliance on dialog clues (something Final Fantasy merely dabbled with for variety). Dragon Quest II had more stuff, but was still ultimately outclassed as a dungeon crawler. Which then makes it utterly baffling that Final Fantasy II pretty much jettisons everything its predecessor did with dungeons.

Get used to seeing this room.

Almost every dungeon in Final Fantasy II has only one main gimmick: doors that mostly lead to the same empty room, so you have to figure out which one is the way forward. Things like fake walls you can walk through and damage tiles technically exist, but are used sparingly, and are largely irrelevant or impossible to find. Even though the new spell system lets the game reward the player with new spells now, treasure chests are heavily slanted towards only giving you garbage (yet still contain unique items just often enough that you're forced to check them anyway). Battles aren't particularly themed around each dungeon either, as you'll fight similar monster patterns with different palettes throughout most of the game, and most don't have very distinct gimmicks outside of basic elemental weaknesses or status effects. Gold basically becomes irrelevant 1/4th into the game outside of healing items, making finding it completely unsatisfying. Topping it all off, pretty much every boss is a cakewalk compared to the difficulty of reaching them (outside of the occasional trapped treasure chest)- though this complaint is perhaps a blessing.

A rare dungeon secret. Savor it, for there are few.
 

Now having bland dungeons isn't necessarily a show stopper for an RPG. Sometimes a dungeon just needs to be about pacing out the story and being a place for battles. If anything, bland can often be better than when a game tries too hard with unique gimmicks such that they just end up becoming annoying (hello Persona 5). The real problem with Final Fantasy II's dungeons is just that they're ridiculously long to get to the end of. Not just a few dungeons, but almost every dungeon in the game is just too damn long. The final dungeon's whopping 15 floors being the worst example of it (though at that point you at least have the tools to easily manage your MP. Earlier dungeons often require warping out early, not because the battles are too hard, but because you ran out of MP are actually far worse). In short, the dungeons are awful. 

It turns out Final Fantasy recycles a lot of ideas.

That said, I should give the dungeon design some credit. While horribly bland, their shapes are actually distinct enough that when you do your second or third run, they'll be dramatically faster since it's fairly easy to remember the "correct" path. Maze dungeons that you have to write down, these are not. I got through them just fine without writing anything down or looking up any maps.

Although the protagonists are undeveloped, they do talk throughout the game. A big step up from Dragon Quest II, at least.

If you haven't noticed, I've been avoiding getting to the battle system. The basic idea of it is pretty simple: if you hit things with a sword, you get better at using a sword and gain more strength (but lose intelligence). Cast a spell, you get better at that spell and gain intelligence (but lose strength). Get hurt a lot, gain more HP. It's a system that pops up in various games, but rarely sticks around because it tends to promote boring, grinding behavior. In the case of Final Fantasy II, the flaws are so many and so varied that the only way I can describe them is by giving up and writing a list:

I tried to keep Maria's HP low all game so I could use the swap hp spell on the final boss, but it ended up being unnecessary.

  • The way MP gain is triggered requires unnatural behavior. Most magic spells can destroy monsters in 1-2 turns, but gaining MP requires using 25-50% of your MP pool in a single battle. This means that you'll basically never gain MP by playing naturally, which results in brutal situations where you'll never have enough MP to survive a dungeon. You have to grind it, and grinding requires sitting in one battle spamming spells without killing monsters- which is something you can't really do while progressing through a dungeon, where the goal is to conserve MP. This is assuming you read a guide that tells you how leveling MP works, a completely blind player is in for a miserable experience until they figure out the trick. (Similarly, using spells in a menu doesn't count so your white mage ends up in the awkward position of being better off healing in battle)
  • Leveling spells is also unintuitive. While you might expect casting the same spell over and over in the same battle to be ideal, what you actually want to do is cast it once per battle (as there is a first time cast bonus each battle). Once you realize this, it's technically a somewhat interesting system that forces you to use a variety of spells every battle if you want to avoid a more direct grind later on. But I had no clue until I absolutely had to level up a critical spell and ended up looking it up in desperation.
  • This one is as much of a positive as it is a negative: There are a ton of spells in the game, leveling them up takes forever. The end result is that it's impossible (without an absurd amount of grinding) to try everything. This is positive in that it means everyone will likely end up with a somewhat unique party, but it's also a negative in that it's also very easy to lose the spell lottery and end up having wasted your time on junk. I have to imagine discussing the best spells was popular on Japanese playgrounds.

(Not Pictured) One of the cool things the game does is have the first guest character have all the white magic spells in the game, so you get to mess with them ages before you get them for yourself. None of the other guests are that cool.

  • In the case of curing status effects, it also meant I had to stop in my tracks and grind Esuna for like an hour in order for it to heal the petrification that a dungeon was full of (buying items wasn't an option because you can't stack items in this game even though the first game let you, and key items and unique equipment will end up clogging your inventory). Grinding isn't unexpected for a NES game, but having to grind a status effect cure sure is something.

It doesn't take long before Gil has no meaning.

  • Progression just feels mushy and ambiguous. A traditional leveling system combined with purchasable equipment throughout a game makes it relatively easy to feel "on target" for a dungeon- once you have bought/found the nearby gear and random encounters are easy enough, you know it's time to reach the boss. Final Fantasy II barely having purchased equipment, MP being the main hindrance for clearing a dungeon, and random encounters often not feeling much easier even on my third dungeon run due to not having leveled the right spell or whatever made it very hard for me to tell if I was "ready" to tackle a dungeon boss (until several dungeons into the game where it became very clear that all the bosses were easy. Whether that's because I overleveled by accident or they're just easy... I'm still not sure)
  • The game features a rotating cast of guest characters that join your party. While this is great for the plot, it goes entirely against the battle system wanting you to grind spells for hours on end (as only one guest comes with their own spells). Guest characters end up as a rotating kind-of-crappy physical character. It makes the game feel like it's at odds with itself.

In a regression from the first game, you can't stack items and key items take up inventory space such that you get less inventory space the longer the game goes on. It is a nightmare of constantly tossing unique elemental equipment in the trash because you can't carry it.

There's probably more I could complain about or point out (despite the main power of the system being that anyone can learn any spell, numerous systems work against letting you do this, you can hit yourself to reach 9999 hp if you want and people call this a "flaw" but I got to merely 3000 hp naturally and it wasn't a problem anyway and I suspect the healing MP drain wouldn't be worth it anyway, etc). If you squint really hard, it's easy to imagine that the designer's intent was to create a "self-balancing" RPG given the way HP/MP gains operate off percent lost in a single battle- that is, if a player is having a hard time and losing too much HP then the system swoops in and gives them more HP until they're ready. But in practice it works about the same as a normal leveling system, just with convoluted methods to level.

One of the few nods to the first game (aside from recycled art) is a tasteful village of black mages.

Still, while people mainly complain about the oddball battle system, I don't think it's actually what makes Final Fantasy II miserable to play so much as it is the dungeons and other fringe design choices. The sometimes rewarding party customization likely would have made up for the jagged edges of the system if everything around it wasn't so bad. 

One of the coolest areas in the game is a town inside a sea monster, because everyone keeps falling for the same trapped "rare" quest item that causes it to eat their ships. This review has way too many screenshots because I'd rather gush about the cool story stuff than talk about the game.

So should you play Final Fantasy II? No. Almost certainly not. The story is really cool, but only if you're so into video games (or the series) that you can appreciate it from a historical perspective. But everything else just completely overshadows it by so much that I can't really recommend it to anyone. I half regret playing it myself (but the other half of me is like: holy crap so many characters died in this, dang multiple towns got blown up, wow I didn't know dragoons were introduced this early in the series, wondering how many story bits in Final Fantasy XIV were actually nods to this game all along, etc)

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Yakuza 7

Yakuza 7 is probably the ballsiest genre shift I have ever heard of. The previous games in the series were largely beat 'em up action RPGs. 7 is a turn based RPG. I'm not sure any franchise has done that with a mainline entry. Certainly not in recent memory, where the majority of RPG franchises have been steadily either dying off or turning into Action RPGs (even Final Fantasy starting with XV, and Dragon Quest nearly did so with IX were it not for fan backlash). The pressure to sell more copies to the largest possible audience has pushed developers into turning every game into an action game. So it's absolutely bonkers Yakuza would go the opposite direction, even considering its target audience in Japan being more receptive to it. To top it off is the actual premise of why it's turn based: the protagonist is so obsessed with Dragon Quest that he sees real life like an RPG. I couldn't not play this game. I didn't have time to play the rest of the series (of which I've only seen/played like 2.5 games prior), but I still had to play this game.

The Battle System

So how does a game from genre newcomers (who allegedly slammed the new battle system into the game in like a year, which is absurd and I'm not sure I believe) actually play? The fundamentals are really strong. The main gimmick here is that while actions are turn based, enemies and players move around on the battlefield in real time while you decide your turn. It's a simple enough twist, but it has a lot of really cool elements that fall out from it: objects in the world get turned into extra damage attacks if a character touches them on their way to an enemy, area of effect attacks are a constantly shifting factor so you need to be fast before enemies scatter, allies will throw in free bonus attacks if they're nearby a knocked down enemy, and most interestingly enemies tend to attack the character nearest to them- so if you used a ranged ability, you'll tend to get attacked less while using a melee attack will put you in harms way. To play into the real time element there are also cases where some moves knock enemies down, giving you a few seconds to decide whether to follow it up with a souped-up regular attack or not. Rounding out the action elements, they include Super Mario RPG-esque attack and guard boosts with good timing (albeit presented as button prompts, rather than the more natural animation timing). What I dig about the system conceptually is that it allows the battle system to have the depth of positional choices, without slowing it down with full movement that turns tactics RPGs into slogs.

I only said that the fundamentals are strong. In practice, most battles involve you spending the first two turns using area of effect attacks and then focus firing remaining enemies because the previous attacks will have hopelessly spread out the enemies such that you will never get them in an area again. Things like knockdown attacks are OK for conserving MP on trash battles, but against bosses you will pretty much just spend every turn spamming whatever your highest damage attack is. Clever ideas like knocking an enemy down near your mage so they do a follow-up attack to regain MP without spending a turn don't actually matter in practice, since MP costs are sky high. About the only positional element that gets much play is keeping damaged allies away from bosses with ranged attacks, but healing is prolific enough that even that doesn't get much play. Basically, all the neat ideas don't actually matter that much.

Even so, I would still say the first half of the game is a perfectly good chill out RPG. It's a game about hanging out and talking with your party members in a bar, and helping naked strangers replace their lost clothing by clearing a path- battles don't need to be everything. They're smooth and fast paced enough with just enough action timing flavor and basic depth. Except the second half of the game makes it a lot harder to say they're fine. The short description is just that the game's approach to increasing difficulty is to just give more and more HP to every boss enemy. Actually, I'm not sure it's necessarily their HP so much as giving near-blanket elemental resistances while also having a very restrictive class system that makes it really hard/impossible to have elemental coverage on every party member while still having so much HP that having just one party member exploiting a weakness generally still takes forever? Even attack/defense buffs/debuffs didn't seem to help much. It's kind of odd, honestly. It mostly makes me feel like I was playing it wrong (particularly with odd cases where an enemy was weak to magic lightning attacks, but not my lightning-element weapon- and the game being inconsistent at displaying whether something is weak before using an ability) despite doing every side quest, beating the arena, experimenting with several jobs, and doing a significant amount of weapon upgrading. But I think just...maybe that's how the game is? Trying to create long-boss fight RPG tension, but failing because the enemies only have very basic gimmicks and only really change patterns once per fight, and often just to deal a little more damage. I wouldn't say it ruins the game, but it's kind of a bummer that I almost started to miss the old beat em up style by the end.

The Story

I played Yakuza 1 to completion somewhere around when Yakuza 4 came out and people were starting to praise the series as coming into its own (previously just dismissing it as a bad Shenmue clone). I only barely finished it after taking several months to beat a rather short game. The primary problem was just random encounters combined with PlayStation 2 load times, but I also found the story pretty unremarkable (made more interesting by the sequels always being direct, and involving characters aging over time- but I didn't get that far). The attempt at crime drama/mystery was admirable, but I wasn't that into it. I mention all this just to say: god damn did they get way better at writing stories since then. It's still a deathly serious crime drama with soap opera level absurd coincidences (side quests meanwhile completely contrasting it with silly comedy and sudden heartwarming endings), but a lot of the drama actually lands and it's usually compelling. It's one of those games with a 4 hour opening story setup where you barely play it, but you're OK with it because it's good. And also one of those games with hour long exposition that gives you 3 breaks to save. You're uh. You're less OK with that.

Game stories have progressively gotten more and more streamlined. Partially because games have gotten really expensive, which cuts down on the number of characters and locations you can have at full quality (consider how many original Final Fantasy VII scenes were probably done in under a week by a couple dudes, while the remake had to have full teams to create the equivalent scene). Partially because direction has shifted towards streamlined movie-like narratives over traditional RPG narratives that gravitate more towards a sprawling series of short stories connected by a main thread. It's in this regard that I kind of really appreciate Yakuza 7's frankly meandering plot. 

It basically spends 4 hours setting up the main Yakuza family story, before taking a hard turn into spending a significant chunk of the run time on the trials and tribulations of the 40-something protagonists working their way out of homelessness. It just keeps going from there with numerous subplots along the way, and by the end of it I felt like I had played through 3 games worth of plot. Somehow, it even manages to connect most of it together into a cohesive theme. Kind of- your party members are probably the weakest link, with a few of them not making that much sense to be hanging with you for the entire game and hardly even showing up in scenes. Likely the result of radical shifts mid-development, but it doesn't hurt much. Still, I really appreciated how they managed to pull off such a sprawling plot these days (admittedly mostly achieved by having such a limited setting of "the city" and "some office buildings", while something like Dragon Quest XI's globe trotting ambitions are more obviously cramped by budget).

What Is a Yakuza Game Anyway

Yakuza 7 basically just takes the existing formula and replaces the battle system. Structurally the games are kind of an odd duck to begin with. You might be tempted to call them open world: run around a city that unlocks over time, do side quests, shop, run into random encounters, do minigames for rewards in the rest of the game, etc. But the city is tiny. You don't have a car. The battles are siloed off from the world, so it isn't really an open world game. There's one single linear main plot. I don't know what to call it, and it's even weirder when you slap a traditional RPG battle system into it- effectively stripping the globe trotting formula out and replacing it with a sequence of events and a tiny overworld. 

I will say that 7 (and probably other recent incarnations) is a big step over 1's version of the formula (and not just because the load times aren't terrible). The sidequests are entertaining, and create a vague sense of a living city if you let yourself bump into them between tasks rather than beelining to them. The business minigame is great until you learn it, then the only joy is watching numbers go up. The can collecting one would be a legitimately great arcade game if it was played purely overhead. Picking up itemsin the world is baseline satisfying. So it's not necessarily terrible.

Yet I still don't know what to make of the structure when I let my brain ponder over it. I actually felt similarly "huh" about the beat em up version of it. I kind of hate it. The random encounters don't really add anything in a world where a restaraunt to heal at is always just down the street? Really it may be the main thing that makes me dread playing the rest of the series, even though it sometimes works.

Conclusion

I should probably take the time to mention that the personality of this game is actually really great. The reason I haven't is because by the end of a 60hr game, that kind of thing ends up forgotten. But it's great. Summoning works by using an app on your phone, and they all have delightfully lengthy animations. You get everything from a lobster pinching the enemy's nose to calling down an orbital laser. The game explains that a party member is resistant to cold because they're homeless. There is a tasteful amount of the protagonist comparing everything to Dragon Quest. A side quest tasks you with distinguishing a public urinator from a line up of suspects such as a really energetic fisherman. Mimics are just dudes jumping out of safes. This list is but a sample. 

Even outside of the quirky comedic elements, it also nails a comfy atmosphere with quietly chatting with your party members at your bar in between karaoke rhythm minigame sessions. The only real downside of it all is that the goofy combat animations diminish the serious "two shirtless men fighting about serious drama" boss battles that the previous games pulled off so well. I honestly think they might need to separate them into a different battle system in the sequels? But it doesn't hurt the game too much as-is.

So should you play Yakuza 7? If you can stomach occasional damage sponge RPG boss battles, possibly being forced to do side activities to power up, relatively bland battles, and slow paced storytelling then absolutely. I came close to quitting during my four month long play through, but I always came back. And I'm glad I did. (Even though I grew to loathe the battles, I still prefer them to the even worse beat em up style. It certainly took a lot longer for me to hate fighting.)

Bonus

I wanted to make a slick comment that Yakuza was smart enough to avoid doing a party-based game until going turn based, contrasting it with how Final Fantasy XV's action focus actually hurts its attempted themes of friendship because having dopey AI team mates running into walls is far worse at presenting comradery than a turn based game where working as a team is baked into the systems. But Yakuza 7 is still full of AI path finding running into things in the field and in battle so I can't honestly make that statement. And I haven't actually played enough Yakuza games to be certain there isn't a party based one (but I am under the impression they expanded by having multiple protagonists rather than parties, outside of temporary battle allies).