Clippings: The Old JRPGs and the New

While this blog tends to focus on strategy games, there is another genre I love just as much — the JRPG. Their sheer length means I tend to play them in parallel with other games, and I’m still making my way through two I started last year: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3 and Persona 4: Golden on PS Vita.  I have an… interesting response to Ni no Kuni; in so many ways it exemplifies the mediocre (and often bad) mechanics for which the genre is infamous, but its world and overall experience are so delightful that I keep coming back. I’m working on a piece about NNK‘s strengths; I hope to share it with you soon.

By contrast, Persona 4: Golden, one part dungeon crawler and one part social simulator, mechanically stands head and shoulders above its peers because it recognises the importance of interesting decisions. P4:G’s story runs to a strict schedule (one in-game year) and there is not enough time to do everything and befriend everyone, so it matters how you spend that time! Its predecessor, Persona 3, did something similar with great success; at the time I wrote that P3 was the most I’d ever roleplayed in a single-player RPG. Here is Jon Shafer’s (of Civilization V and At the Gates fame) take on Persona 4 and its genre; he makes the point that “interesting decisions” and “relaxing game” are not necessarily compatible.

More recently, I’ve tossed two more RPGs into the stew: Playstation-vintage Final Fantasy VIII and the more recent Wii release The Last Story. I used to be a huge FF8 fan — in fact, I’m sitting under a pair of FF8 posters as I type this. Its early 3D graphics have not aged well, but its world still brims with attention to ambient detail — the very thing I love about JRPGs. The Last Story, meanwhile, is from the creator of Final Fantasy but so far — I’m all of 30 minutes in — feels very different, with more action-oriented combat and an emphasis on coordinating with AI teammates. I look forwad to playing more!

Here are this week’s other links:

  1. The man who got Aeris’ theme (Final Fantasy VII) onto a classical music site. It’s a lovely song!
  2. Chrono Cross never came out in PAL territories, but this retrospective is tempting me to buy it from the US PSN store.
  3. If you played Final Fantasy VI, this piece of fanart should make you grin.
  4. Not JRPG-specific: the heaven and hell of video games. I posted this link years ago, not long after I started this site, but it’s so good I had to share it again.
  5. Not JRPG-related at all, but very cool: this is an absolutely gorgeous fan map of Midgard, a “Vikings conquer Europe” alternate timeline from the GURPS book I linked last month.

Hearts of Iron IV Q&A, with Dan Lind

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

HeartsofIronIV_logo_R_NormalI am a long-time fan of Hearts of Iron, a grand strategy series in which players control all aspects of a World War II nation, from armies and fleets to research, production, and diplomacy. So when developer Paradox Development Studio took the wraps off the upcoming Hearts of Iron IV, I was eager to find out more. Read on for my email Q&A with project lead Dan Lind, in which I ask about his vision for the project and how it will fit into the series:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello Dan — welcome to the site!

 

It’s been five years since Hearts of Iron III launched, and in your first developer diary, you talk about lessons learned from Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 4, and HOI3. What inspiration have you drawn from other sources — other games, books, etc.?

 

Foto: Oskar KullanderDan Lind, Project Lead: As you know, Hearts of Iron is, like most Paradox Development Studio titles, a grand strategy game in an open sandbox and victory is determined by the goals you set up for yourself during the WWII time-span. The Hearts of Iron series is all about taking control of your nation in the years around World War II and leading it to victory – a wargame where you have to look at the entire war and take decisions in a multiple of aspects to reach victory. So Hearts of Iron IV is at its core is not a pure old-fashioned wargame.

 

Therefore, to be frank, there are not a lot of other grand strategy wargames to look at unfortunately. But I’m personally fan of World of Tanks as well as War Thunder and I hope we can bring in more of their flavor and attention to detail. My team also really liked Unity of Command when we tried it since it is a pretty different game that shows how you can make a fun historical strategy game and still keep things easy to understand. When it comes to books, we have tried to have both a top-down and bottom-up approach. So we take a lot of inspiration from Winston Churchill’s books on WWII as well as writings by Otto Carius (a famous German tank commander) as well as memoirs of Russian artillerymen.

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Musical Monday: “We Will Not Be Forgotten” (The Banner Saga), composed by Austin Wintory

This week’s song (by Austin Wintory, of Journey fame) is The Banner Saga‘s main menu theme. It’s very short, just 45 seconds, but it’s lovely and does a great job of setting the emotional tone for the game. Enjoy!

 

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The Banner Saga: Concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series The Banner Saga
Start the game! Banner Saga has a gorgeous title screen.
Take a moment before starting the game — Banner Saga has a gorgeous title screen.

After finishing The Banner Saga, I thought I’d expand on the conclusions I reached last week. I’m still happy with the game and its tactical battles, which become deeper and richer with each new character introduced. I do want to revisit story, an area where Banner Saga is ambitious, inconsistent, but ultimately successful, notwithstanding flaws in its narrative structure – specifically, its use of two distinct stories told from two main points of view.

 

Now, I should stress that the problem is not with multiple storylines or multiple POVs. The idea itself is great, one I’d like more RPGs to adopt – it works in other media, it works in books and TV, it works in the handful of other games to use it. The problem is Banner Saga’s implementation: one is clearly the main story, with the other being a sideshow. The former is a video game example of an epic, a term wonderfully defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:

 

An epic is a long narrative poem which tells large tales, often incorporating a mixture of legend, myth and folk history, and featuring heroes whose acts have a significance transcending their own individual happiness or woe. The classic epic tells the story of the founding or triumph of a folk or nation…

 

This gives the main story a purpose, escalating tension, an arc. The side story lacks these, and isn’t even well integrated into the larger tale. From a mechanical perspective, I like the side story – it was there that I got the hang of the battle system. But it drags on narrative pacing, and should have been either plotted better or else cut down to brief interludes.

 

As for the main story itself, it’s good. It is clearly part 1 of an intended trilogy, all but screaming TO BE CONTINUED, and suffers from several niggles. At times, characters will say something jarringly modern (1), or Abruptly Drop Proper Nouns. The characters themselves are tersely introduced, with the non-plot characters only receiving a single conversation to flesh them out. But Banner Saga redeems itself with moments of emotional power – desperate, heroic, poignantly beautiful.

 

It’s those moments that stick in my mind as I write, moments that made me breathe “wow”, and “this is awesome”, and “that was perfect”, and my complaints pale next to that. Taken together with the very good battle system, The Banner Saga is an impressive outing by Stoic Studio, and I look forward to the next in the series.

 

The basis of my comments: I finished the game after 17 hours, per Steam.

Clippings: Strategy Preview Edition

For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching the Kickstarter campaign for Unsung Story: Tales of the Guardians, a collaboration between mobile developer Playdek and tactical RPG legend Yasumi Matsuno. Imagine if Brian Reynolds were to announce a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri; that’s how much I’d like to see Matsuno follow up Final Fantasy Tactics. But dig deeper, and I have several reservations.  The game will only come to my platform of choice, Vita, if the Kickstarter hits a distant stretch goal. Three of Matsuno’s regular collaborators have been tapped for the campaign (artist Akihiko Yoshida; composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, whose work I’ve featured on this site; and localiser Alexander O Smith), but only Yoshida will be involved at the base level — the other two are also remote stretch goals. And, at least until this update, detail about game mechanics has been scant — I can’t help but feel this campaign would have done better had the project been further along. I’ve reached out to Playdek for an interview; in the meantime, here are good articles by Rock, Paper, Shotgun (h/t Matt Bowyer) and USGamer.

In other news:

  1. Previews are now out for Paradox’s latest announcements. For Hearts of Iron IV, check out Strategy Informer and PCGamesN; for CK2: Rajas of India, I like the articles from PC Gamer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. There’s less detail on Runemaster and EU4: Wealth of Nations, but IncGamers has a little bit about the latter.
  2. And speaking of Paradox, I laughed at some of the bizarre screenshots in this compilation.
  3. Lastly, PCGMedia has a good preview of Wargame: Red Dragon. The changes to the campaign system sound great!

Musical Monday: Reader’s Choice Edition

It’s time to round up the suggestions I received for Musical Monday! There are ten altogether below the cut; some were listed in the comments beneath my initial post, while others were the subject of a write-in. Above each song, I’ve added my own thoughts; the actual videos are embedded inside spoiler tags, to avoid crashing/lagging browsers. There’s some good and varied music here, so happy listening, and thank you all for taking part!

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The Banner Saga: Turn-based tactics with a twist

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Banner Saga

“The gods are dead.”

 

So opens Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga, a low-fantasy tactical RPG with a cool and unique combat system. It’s so different as to be divisive; but the more I play it, the more I like it.

 

By way of overview, Banner Saga follows two separate groups as they trek across a land ravaged by shadowy, armoured monsters called dredge (second from the right). Between battles, the current group’s caravan rolls through the countryside (see below), banner streaming behind, and gameplay consists of text events: how do you respond to stubborn villagers, or a troublemaking drunk, or a fire in the distance? These choices affect caravan morale and hence stats in combat, but more importantly, party members can join, leave, or permanently die in these events. And clearly, the developers meant decisions to have consequences, a la XCOM ironman – there is only one quicksave slot, and save ‘checkpoints’ are widely spaced. This is perhaps too effective: I’ve started looking up guides after discovering that I neither enjoy character loss, nor have the time or patience to reload.  The actual writing is clunky at first (why are quasi-Vikings saying “OK”?), but picks up steam. As at the 60% mark, I find the story interesting, albeit not the main draw.

 

The Banner Saga's lovely overworld.
The Banner Saga’s lovely overworld.

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