Of all the magic woven by storytellers, immersion has to be one of the most precious threads. How wonderful it is that we can pick up a book, or play a game, or sit in a cinema, and be transported into another world! The people who write bullet points for video game boxes know this, which is why “immersive” is one of their favourite buzzwords. So is “visceral”, which I find telling. To be immersive, it seems, a work should have us on the edge of our seats: tense, excited, ready to feel its characters’ pain as if it were our own. But there’s also another kind of immersion – think of the proverbial warm soak. An immersive world can be utterly relaxing, an invitation for us to kick back and lose ourselves for an hour or two. Nearly 20 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles, I can say it exemplifies the latter.
Xenoblade is an RPG for the Nintendo Wii – a platform exclusive, as a matter of fact. It’s a party-based JRPG that bears a striking similarity to 2006’s Final Fantasy XII, in that there are no random encounters and no distinction between an overworld, area maps, and combat screens. Rather, like a Western RPG, monsters are clearly visible – and combat takes place – in the field. Combat is real-time, and the player only controls one party member at a time, chosen before battle starts; the rest of the party is controlled by a generally competent AI. Since the chosen character will auto-attack enemies, the player’s job is to manage aggro, special abilities, and cooldowns. (Not items; there are no potions, stimpacks, antidotes, or the like in this game.) I’ve heard this compared to MMO gameplay, and it’s certainly different from what I’m used to.
(With apologies to every writer, director, and star of the Wild West)
EXT. THE MOJAVE DESERT
The one-horse town of Goodsprings bakes, silent, in the Nevada heat. One after the other, we see several POWDER GANG BANDITS approach, cradling baseball bats and crude firearms. The Powder Gangers are in high spirits, looking forward to the plunder of the town.
POWDER GANGER #1: Pardner, I do reckon that there town be as easy as liquor flowing at the saloon.
POWDER GANGER #2: Yee-haw!
The Powder Gangers laugh, twirl their moustaches. Suddenly, they hear a yell.
An armoured figure – not one of the townspeople, but our hero, THE COURIER – charges out from between two houses. The Courier winds back his arm and for a moment, time seems to freeze. When it flows again, something red and fizzing has landed at the Powder Gangers’ feet.
POWDER GANGER #1: … Is that… dynamite?
FADE TO WHITE.
I’m ten hours into Fallout: New Vegas, the most unique-feeling entry in the venerable Fallout line of RPGs. Its predecessors (#1 and #3 in particular) revelled in their post-apocalyptic setting: their mohawked raiders could have come straight out of a Mad Max movie, and their civilisation was a precarious, hardscrabble thing – ersatz Bartertowns scattered around the wastes, each surviving as best as it could.
Drox Operative is the latest title from Soldak Entertainment, an indie developer of action-RPGs (Depths of Peril, Din’s Curse) renowned for their dynamic worlds. Drox transports that concept from fantasy into space opera – its galaxy is filled with alien empires, who fight, intrigue, and negotiate amongst themselves. As one of the titular mercenaries, players accept quests from these empires, fight space monsters and rival empires, plant their patrons’ flags over unclaimed worlds – and try to make sure they’re on the winning side.
On paper, this is a wonderful concept, and it’s given me a couple of memorable moments. For example, at one point I wanted to explore a hazardous, monster-filled region of frontier space. To make my life easier, I took a quest to colonise a nearby planet, then stuck around to defend the new settlement. The result: now I had somewhere to repair, and the owner of the new colony was now both stronger and better disposed toward me. And there is a certain dark satisfaction in teaching recalcitrant alien empires why messing with a Drox operative is a bad idea! Unfortunately, these cool experiences have been the exception for me. As an overall package, Drox falls flat for me; while I can quibble with various “micro” aspects of the game’s execution (1), I think my ultimate problem lies with two key aspects of the game’s design:
For the last three days the Sydney Showground has played host to the EB Games Expo, and that was where I spent yesterday. There I met some folks from the industry, both publishers and indie developers; watched trailers and gameplay videos; observed live play; and last but not least, tried out a few titles for myself! Here are the highlights of what I saw (grouped by publisher):
Banner Saga, a Norse-themed tactical RPG trilogy from indie studio Stoic Games, was one of the early titles to ride to prominence on Kickstarter this year. Now Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted a monster three-part interview/preview, and it’s fascinating stuff — especially the third part, in which the developers explain how the single-player campaign will work (in summary, “it’s a bit like of King of Dragon Pass meets Oregon Trail. It’s King of Dragon Pass on the road.”) While not quite a full branching campaign a la The Witcher 2, the player’s choices will matter, both from a gameplay and a story perspective. Characters will join or leave the party based on their satisfaction with the player; the player will have to juggle the party’s endurance and morale against the need to stay ahead of an all-consuming wall of darkness (this actually put me in mind of FTL), and there will be multiple endings. If that sounds interesting, it’s well worth heading over to check out the full article.
Meanwhile, we’ll get our chance to evaluate the core gameplay next month when a spin-off F2P multiplayer game based around the battle system, Banner Saga: Factions, is due out. This is one project that I’ll keep an eye on.
The best way I can describe FTL: Faster than Light, the new indie title from Subset Games, is to say it lives up to the very simple promise on its Kickstarter page (emphasis mine):
FTL is a spaceship simulation roguelike-like. Its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy.
To get a sense of how the typical game of FTL plays out, I refer you to my Let’s Play series – linked at the top of this post. In summary, players start at one end of the galaxy, progress through seven increasingly dangerous sectors, and finally take on the final boss at the end of sector eight. Each sector comprises a randomised mix of encounters – shops, text-based, multiple-choice quests (think King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame, or maybe a much simpler Space Rangers 2), hazards such as asteroid fields, and most of all, hostile spaceships. Combat is a frenetic homage to movie and TV space battles, as you juggle power between shields and engines and weapons, order your crew to fix hull breaches and extinguish fires, target enemy subsystems, and oh god Mr Chekov will you knock out their missiles before they kill us all?! (Since the game only gives you one save slot, you cannot reload if you die unless you back up your save file, aka “savescumming”.) Afterwards, you use scrap from your enemies’ hulls to upgrade your ship and buy fuel and repairs. Ultimately, you escape to the next sector one step ahead of your foes, and begin the process again. The typical game takes about an hour or two to play, and for most of that time – specifically, for sectors one through seven – it is a delightful roller-coaster of excitement and panic and elation.
Where FTL falls down is its endgame, sector eight, which finally trips over the line between challenge and frustration. The end boss suffers from several related problems:
1) The boss isn’t merely more difficult than anything else in the game. It’s an order of magnitude more difficult.
2) The sheer length of the boss battle. Most battles are in the game are over in 2-3 minutes. However, the boss’ defences are so strong that all up, it took me something like 40 minutes to beat! The game’s combat system is built for short, sharp fights, and it bogs down when it takes that long to get through one opponent.
3) The need for luck to beat the boss. This manifests in two ways. First, since equipment, and shop catalogues are random, it’s possible for a player to reach the boss without the tools needed to win. Second, as my experience in part 4 of the Let’s Play showed, the length and difficulty of the boss fight increase the odds an unlucky hit will scupper all your work.
4) The inability to save/reload, which becomes a liability here. If things go wrong 80% of the way through the boss fight, get ready to replay aaaaaall the way from sector 1.
Net effect: I feel absolutely no shame over savescumming to beat the boss, and while I could replay the game (unlocking and then trying out different spaceships, attempting different builds, etc) – I don’t want to. There are players who feel motivated to defeat that final boss over, and over again. I am not one. And that is a real disincentive for me to spend any more time with FTL.
Still, while FTL lasted, it and I had a wonderful ride. As with 2010’s Recettear, FTL is short, sweet and clever. It’s not perfect, but the core mechanics for 80%-90% of the game are sufficiently strong to outweigh the annoyance and tedium of the remaining 10%-20%. Well worth checking out, and I look forward to seeing what its creators do next.
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Half-Minute Hero, a remarkably clever and fun Japanese indie indie-esque (correction: its imaginative concept, general feel, and price tag are all incredibly indie-ish, but I don’t think it meets the technical definition) game, has now landed on Steam!
I played the original Half-Minute Hero on the PSP last year; its conceit is that each level is an entire 8-bit RPG, boiled down to fit a 30-second time limit! In that time, you have to grind, buy better gear, recruit NPC allies, and leave enough time to make it to (and beat!) the boss. (In practice, you have a little longer than that, since you can buy increasingly expensive extensions from the Goddess of Time.)
The original game was a fast-paced, funny homage to the RPGs of yesteryear; I’m not familiar with what may have changed in the PC version apart from the title, which has expanded to Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy. That moniker should give you a clue as to the game’s mood! However, if the gameplay has remained the same, the Steam version will be well worth $10 (and especially worth the current discounted price of $9).
When we left off, I was debating which piece of equipment to leave behind in order to pick up a shiny new hull-smasher laser. In the end, I ditch my unused anti-ship drone. I have only limited power available for the drone control unit, and I want to focus on the life-saving defensive drone.
We make it to the end of Sector Seven without incident.
Sector Eight: The Last Stand
This is it, the cusp of the final showdown. This is what the sector looks like. The Rebel flagship is the ominous red shape just visible at the far left:
On the way to fight the flagship, we come to the rescue of a beleaguered Federation squadron under attack by the Rebel:
This time I remember to turn on the defence drone at the start! The Rebel does little damage as a result, and the grateful Federal survivors hand me some supplies. I back up my save again, and carry on. A second Rebel is just a speed bump, and then it’s onto the flagship.
Here we go.
The fight is long (my Dxtory recording comes to over 30 minutes!) and, to be frank, a bit tedious once I’ve destroyed most of the flagship’s weapons. At this point, I just have to wait for my weapons to do enough damage. However, the tipping point comes once I use my Mantis boarders to whittle down the flagship’s crew, at the same time I use the fire bomb I purchased back in sector 6 to set the flagship’s med bay alight. This prevents the crew from simply running away from the Mantes, healing up in the med bay, and running back to pick off my weakened boarders. Even then, it’s chancy – I lose my second crewmember this game, Mansvik the Mantis – but his sacrifice isn’t in vain. Eventually, most of the flagship’s crew is dead, save for one gunner in the forward compartment. Mopping up is easy after that.
At the end of the fight, the battered flagship jumps away. I back up my save yet again, and prepare to give chase.
… and die horribly when my cloaking device – the key to my survival! – gets knocked out by an unlucky hit. This is why I backed up the save, because I’m not starting this LP (or playing that half-hour flagship battle) again.
Let’s try that one again.
This time it goes much better. A quick barrage of firebombs, and Sem the surviving Mantis, take care of most of the flagship’s remaining weapons. I dust off my anti-boarder drone, and that takes care of the boarding drones the flagship sends my way. The cloaking device stays intact, and I can survive the worst the flagship throws at me. Soon the battle is over. I back up my save once more, spend the last of my scrap, and head off to fight the third and final phase of the flagship.
I have to reload twice – this time, the flagship carries Zoltan shields that prevent me from quickly disabling its most dangerous weapon, a triple missile launcher, with my boarders/firebombs. In the time it takes me to lase the shield down, the flagship pulverises me. Cloaking barely helps, as using the cloak against the missiles meant it wouldn’t be available against the flagship’s special attack, and vice-versa. But on my third attempt, I pull it off! Eventually I bring down the flagship’s shields, and soon after, the missile launcher. Once the launcher is out of commission, it’s smooth sailing.
The high score table looks like this. The duplicates are the result of my savescumming (somewhat disappointingly, winning the game doesn’t confer extra points; oh well):
And that’s it for this playthrough! For players who want to try saving the Federation again, beating the flagship unlocks a new ship type, the Federation Cruiser. (There are nine ships, plus variants, in the game – so there is room for completionism.) But for now, I think I can rest on my laurels and proclaim myself done with FTL. Thank you for following along, and I hope you had as much fun as I did!
The Kestrel’s exploration of Sector Four continues, with mixed results.
The good news: beefing up my weapons, and being willing to fire off a missile at the start of combat, have paid off. The next enemy I encounter goes down in flames.
The not quite so good news: the next shop I find is a re-run of the previous one. It has a drone control and crew teleporter for sale, but I don’t have enough scrap to buy anything without selling my spare equipment. This time I grit my teeth, sell a spare missile launcher, and buy the drone control unit. At least I can get some immediate use out of it. Hopefully I’ll find a crew teleporter – and some crew to actually teleport! – later in the game.
I make it to the exit with the Rebel hot on my heels, and head into Sector Five.
Sector Five: Rebel-Controlled Sector
The drone control unit promptly pays off, when I answer a distress beacon:
Sending in the drone leads to a little bit of hull damage, but I earn 42 scrap as a reward. At the next beacon, I take on a quest that requires me to travel to the far top-right corner of the sector:
Along the way, I deal with a Rebel scout before it can jump out to warn the fleet of my presence, fight off a boarding party with a big helping hand from my anti-boarder drone (good thing I bought that control unit!), and find a shop with both a crew teleporter and recruitable crew! I hawk an unused repair drone to pay for the teleporter and a Mantis of my own, name of Sem. Remember, Mantes are the hand-to-hand specialists of the game, so this should give me a big edge in boarding actions.
I take the time to play around with the Kestrel’s loadout:
The weapon on the far right is a healing bomb, which I can deploy (at the cost of 1 missile ammo) to either my own ship or to an enemy ship to heal friendly crew in the vicinity. That means I can send over, say, Sem the Mantis and King the Rockman to slaughter the enemy crew, teleport in healing bombs as necessary to keep Sem and King alive, and then earn more scrap from capturing the enemy ships alive!
Completing the quest lets me offload some drone parts for scrap, and defeating another Rebel gives me enough scrap to return to the shop and hire an Engi crewman named Maradine:
On my way to the exit, I run into a Rebel who gives me a taste of my own planned medicine and boards me. Sem, King, and my drone deal with the boarders, then Sem and King head over for some payback.
The first try does not go as planned, thanks to a certain Captain forgetting to actually charge the healing bomb before sending Sem and King over. I quickly teleport the two almost-dead crewmen back, heal them up in the medbay, then send them back. The enemy ship has no medbay, and the enemy crew has had no chance to heal. The second trip goes much better. The scrap I earn from the intact, lifeless Rebel ship (60+) is about double what I’d have previously earned.
I make it to the exit, and onto Sector Six.
Sector Six: Rebel-Controlled Sector (another one)
The first few Rebel ships I encounter are AI-controlled, and hence pointless to board (as well as dangerous; they have no oxygen!). My luck turns when I run into a Rebel whom I can board. Killing the enemy crew (one of whom, I notice, is named Geryk) lets me liberate a Mantis prisoner named Monsvik, who joins my growing team. This is good – it lets me form a dedicated away team of two Mantes, while King the Rockman can stay back and man the Kestrel’s shields.
At the next shop I encounter, I pick up a fire bomb in preparation for a certain battle later in the game. I also sell my venerable heavy laser and pick up a level 1 burst laser instead – the heavy laser does 2 damage to hulls but only 1 to shields, whereas the burst laser fires twice, dealing 1 damage per shot and granting a second chance to hit. The Artemis missile launcher goes into storage:
The new configuration seems to work well, letting me chew through enemy shields while preserving precious missile/bomb ammo. With my newfound love for boarding actions, I upgrade my sensors so I’ll be able to map out the enemy crew. Sector Six ends without incident, as I again just barely beat the Rebel fleet to the exit. I’m getting better at this!
Sector Seven: Zoltan Homeworlds
We’re almost there. Just this, and then the gauntlet in Sector Eight. Stay on target. Stay on target…
Our first encounter is hostile, as a Zoltan ship shoots first and asks questions later. Luckily, its defences are poor. My pre-ignited lasers make short work of its shields and weapons, and injure the crew. Then, since Zoltan are lousy in boarding actions, my Mantes teleport over to finish the job. When the dust settles, I have more scrap than I’ve ever seen in one place. And luckily, there’s a shop right next door:
I refuel, and buy a level 1 defence – i.e. anti-missile –drone. Seeing another shop right after that, I head over… and see a level 2 defence drone. Oops. The level 2 requires more power, but is also more useful, meaning I wasted the scrap on the level 1 drone. Oh well. I trade it the level 1 and buy the level 2. I then promptly forget to upgrade my drone control unit, leaving me unable to use my new toy.
One battle later, it ceases to matter. After killing the enemy boarders, setting their spaceship on fire, and lasing the surviving crew to death, I’m swimming in scrap again (240 scrap). So much so that when I get the option to pick up a new augment, a “reverse ion field” that gives me a 20% chance to shrug off incoming ion fire, I ditch my scrap recovery arm (+10% to collected scrap). This close to the end, I want maximum survivability.
The next fight chews me up badly – the enemy is strongly shielded and armed to the teeth, with a missile launcher and assorted lasers. My defence drone II would have protected me– had I remembered about it. Eventually I do turn it on, resulting in a much easier fight… only for the enemy to flee before I can administer the coup de grace. No reward.
Crushing the next enemy, and harvesting plenty of scrap from a random distress beacon, provide some solace. One jump away from the exit to the final sector, I get into another tough scrap, but walk away with a new piece of loot: a level 2 hull smasher laser, a more powerful, less energy-efficient cousin to my starting burst laser. I’ll have to drop something to pick up the hull smasher laser, but what?
On that note, as I mull which piece of kit would be most useful against the final boss, it’s time for me to wrap up this instalment of the LP. And to hedge my bets, I finish by backing up my saved game (aka save-scumming). This goes against the intent of the designers – FTL only allows you a single, automatically overwritten save slot – but this close to the final boss, I’d like the ability to retry different tactics, and different loadouts, without starting again from scratch.
When we left off, the Kestrel was in good form: decently armed and shielded, with enough fuel and supplies and scrap to last a while. I decide to make the most of it by looking for trouble. It’s time to head into the nebula.
After steeling myself that way, the rest of Sector Two ends up as an anti-climax. I fight off two separate boarding parties in the nebula by the simple expedient of rushing my crew into the med-bay, where they heal faster than the boarders can hurt them. The only hostile ship I meet lacks the firepower to pierce my upgraded shield, resulting in a decidedly one-sided fight. Buying a scrap recovery arm (which gives me +10% to all future scrap income!) rounds off my time in the sector. With the Rebel hot on my heels, I briefly debate looking around a little more, but eventually decide to play it safe. Off to Sector Three we go!
Sector Three: Engi-Controlled Sector
The aptly named Engi are a race of sentient machines, lousy in hand-to-hand combat but great with repairs. They’re also friendly to the Federation, which makes Engi space that much more pleasant to traverse.
Right off the bat, I hit the jackpot. An Engi ship, thinking I’m a pirate, hastily offers up its cargo of scrap. I demur, telling them I’m friendly:
But the Engi go ahead and offer me the scrap anyway, to help me on my long voyage.
Thanks, Engi! And it’s a good thing, too – I’m perilously low on fuel. The red-highlighted “2” in the top-left means I only have enough fuel for two more jumps! One jump away there’s a shop… and there, I find a cloaking device for sale. I want that cloaking device, but buying it would consume most of my scrap, leaving precious little for fuel.
I roll the dice and buy the cloaking device anyway. And a couple of jumps later, my gamble pays off when I first hoover up some more scrap, then – just as I was about to run out of fuel – find another shop. The whole crew probably heard my sigh of relief!
The rest of the sector proceeds smoothly enough, with the Kestrel able to easily defeat foe after foe. It goes so smoothly, in fact, that I get a bit cocky and end up taking too much time to explore. When I finally make it to the exit, the Rebel is waiting for me. And for the first time during this playthrough, I run from a fight. The Artemis missile launcher comes into play just long enough to disable the Rebel’s weapons, and then once the jump drive is charged, it’s off to Sector Four.
Sector Four: Engi Homeworlds
On my first three runs, I spent scrap as fast as it came in to upgrade the Kestrel. This time I’ve been saving up, and now it pays off. Right off the bat, I find a shop, and this time I hit the jackpot. Specifically, the shop sells a weapon pre-igniter, which will allow me to begin a battle with fully charged weapons, and an ion blaster, which will allow me to efficiently disable enemy systems. Combined with my burst laser, I should be able to start a fight by taking down the enemy shields with my pre-ignited arsenal, then ripping apart the enemy’s weapons. After that, all I should have to do is mop up. Should.
Then the next few enemies I meet teach me about the dangers of assumption:
Specifically, “starting a fight by taking down the enemy shields with my pre-ignited arsenal” only works if I actually have the firepower to take down the enemy shields. But as of Sector Four, the enemy ships are all now sporting 2 points of shields – on a par with my own. With a burst laser 2, a heavy laser, and an ion blaster, I could punch through level 2 shields if I fired every weapon at once, and hit. But at first, I lack the power to actually fire all these weapons, and I can’t count on guaranteed hits! The bottom line: the enemies have more time to hurt me, often with newer and scarier weapons, before I can silence them.
By the time I make it to the next shop, several jumps later, the Kestrel looks like this:
Not only am I almost out of fuel again, but the “Hull” bar in the top-left is now yellow, less than half-full. If that reaches zero, it’s curtains for the Kestrel. That I owe to a Rebel with a missile launcher, which ignores my precious 2-point shields! It took my own last-ditch missile – not the starting Artemis, but a hulking breach launcher I picked up along the way – to save the day.
With the Kestrel in for some much needed refuelling and repair, this is a good time to ponder battle tactics. I have a whopping 25 missiles – perhaps I should actually use them, say as part of my pre-ignited opening salvo? Buying a couple of new missiles is cheaper, and safer, than fixing a hull that’s been turned into Swiss cheese.
The shop, welcome as it is, also poses its own frustrations. Specifically, I have 112 scrap available. My priorities are repairs (38 scrap) and fuel (I want to buy the station’s whole stock, which will cost 18 scrap), totalling 56 scrap. The shop also stocks a drone control (80 scrap), which would be nice but isn’t essential, and a crew teleporter (75 scrap), which I lack the manpower to use right now, but will be essential later on. I would love to buy the drone control, the teleporter, or both, but – I – don’t – have – the – scrap! I do have some spare equipment – a couple of different missile launchers, a presently unusable anti-boarder drone – I could sell, but I don’t know if I’ll need them in the future.
With a rueful sigh, I pay for the fuel and repairs. Since I don’t want to sell anything, that leaves me with 56 scrap, enough to upgrade my ship’s reactors in lieu of buying anything else at the shop. Maybe that “first strike” tactic will work if I can throw an even bigger first volley…
With the Kestrel ready to head into the unknown again, this is also probably a good time to wrap up this instalment of the LP. After the relative ease of the first few sectors, things are getting hairy for Han, Leia and King. Will they survive their journey?! Tune in to the next part of the LP to find out!
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships have overrun most of the Galactic Federation. During the battle, Federation spies managed to steal secret plans to the Rebel’s ultimate weapon, the REBEL FLAGSHIP, an armoured behemoth with enough power to obliterate an unwary player. Pursued by the Rebel armada, Captain Peter races home aboard his starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can bring victory in this game…
Captain’s log, starship Kestrel
Three times I’ve attempted this journey. Three times I’ve failed, the Kestrel – the game’s starting ship – turned into so much space junk. Now, by the grace of the alien artefact known as the “New Game” button, I can make a fourth attempt.
For this try, I’ll use the Kestrel again. There are other ships available in the game, and I’ve unlocked one (the Torus), but I want to try to see this through with the Kestrel first. The Kestrel packs a well-rounded punch, mounting a powerful burst laser and an ammo-chewing but potentially devastating missile launcher. Once I upgrade its energy shield, it should see me easily through the first few of the game’s eight sectors (each sector is progressively harder). Its starting crew of three is too small, especially when considering there are four systems (helm, engines, weapons, shields) to be manned, but c’est la vie.
After naming my initial crewmembers “Han”, “Luke”, and “Leia”, and ensuring the difficulty is set to “Easy”, it’s time to begin this journey.
Sector One: Civilian Space
The first sector begins uneventfully. The Kestrel skirts an asteroid field, buys fuel at a space station, and ignores a distress beacon (our mission comes first!). On our fourth jump, we meet our first Rebel.
Several barrages of the burst laser neutralise his weaponry before he can do too much harm, and when he tries to flee, another barrage does the same for his jump drive. Beaten, the Rebel tries to surrender. We refuse. We need the scrap metal from his hull: scrap is the game’s currency, used for purchasing weapons, upgrading components, recruiting crew, and paying for fuel and repairs. Upgrades are life. Scrap is life. And soon enough, we have more of it. The scrap quickly goes into upgrading our shielding system, and onto the next beacon we go.
This time it’s another Rebel, a small transport. I demand surrender. The Rebel refuses, and manages to flee in one piece. I growl, and jump away to the next beacon. Upon consulting the star map, I see the Rebel fleet has now arrived in sector! The Rebel main fleet begins each sector several jumps behind the player, and it’s not a wise idea to let it catch up – running into fleet forces a high-risk, practically zero-return battle. However, I’m still well ahead, giving me the luxury of exploring the sector a bit more. A hidden Federation outpost gives me a bit of scrap and a quest to rescue a Federation base in the next sector, but my luck doesn’t hold up at the next location.
While boarding a space station to look for survivors, Luke is struck down by a fatal illness. The measly scrap I pick up seems a lousy compensation for losing one of my scarce crew.
I roll the dice again. One more look around before I head off to the next sector… and what should I run into but an enemy, a Mantis fighter.
The Mantes are vicious if they can teleport over to your ship, but luckily for me, the fighter is too small to have a teleporter. I won’t have to worry about Mantes slaughtering my diminished crew in melee! Our first salvo takes out the Mantis weapon battery, our second hits the shields, and the third reduces the Mantis to scrap. I hightail it to the sector exit one step ahead of the Rebels.
For this sector, I had a choice of heading into either pirate or rebel space. The pirates seemed like easier foes, so off that way I went!
Along the way, I stop off to rescue the Federation base I heard about in the last sector. The Rebel ship attacking the base turns out to be just a scout – no match for the Kestrel – and soon I have not only more scrap, but a quest reward! After saving the base, I acquire a new crewman – a Rockman alien named King – and a new weapon, a heavy laser. The laser doesn’t seem too shabby, but the really big prize is the Rockman. Not only was I dangerously short-handed with only Han and Leia left, but Rockmen are great in their own right. They’re tough and immune to fire, which makes them perfect for repairing burning compartments or fighting hand-to-hand.
Soon enough, I deal with another Rebel – this one lurking inside an asteroid field – and pour some scrap into upgrading the ship’s power supply, so I can actually use the new laser. Then I investigate another distress beacon, and this time things go my way. It turns out to be a burning space station, and the Rockman promptly earns his pay:
The grateful scientists on board the station give me a new long-range sensor, and I scope out the sector:
As with Sector One, I have some time before the Rebel (the red line at the left) reaches me, so I should make the most of it. I’m in a decent position: I have an adequately armed and shielded (for the early game) ship, and a nice pool of scrap to play with. Where to next? With the sensor, I can see that the yellow triangles represent spaceships. Jumping to those locations will likely lead to battle, but the rewards (read: scrap) could be worth it. On the other hand, I could simply head into the nebula (the pink blob to the right). In the nebula my sensors would be blinded – carrying its own dangers – but the Rebel’s pursuit would also be slowed. In either case, things could go south in a hurry – or I could stumble across a remarkable find that would turn the Kestrel into a killing machine.
There is a lot of luck in this game, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing . That chanciness helps create a sense of exploration, a sense that I really am a starship captain racing through the unknown. And it often throws up interesting decisions – even if they’re as simple as, “do I roll the dice?” (see: the asteroid belt and space station back in Sector One).
But for now, I’ll have to leave those decisions for another day. “Get out while you’re ahead,” they say, and it looks like a pretty good time for me to close this episode of the LP. Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of the Kestrel, and I’ll see you next time!
Now that I’ve finished Jeanne d’Arc (PSP, 2007), I can give my verdict!
This post is really an addendum to Monday’s discussion of Jeanne’s gameplay. There’s not much more I can say on that subject! It’s “lighter” – easier, less complex, less time-consuming and grindy – than the typical tactical RPG, but that’s an observation rather than a criticism. From a mechanical perspective, Jeanne is well-designed and largely well-executed (although it does seem a bit laggy compared to its peers), and that forms its main draw.
I do want to talk a bit about story, which is what so often elevates tactical RPGs from “good” to “great”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do that for Jeanne. The plot is a mishmash of competing and often incoherent plot elements, populated by characters who wander on- and off-stage with little rhyme or reason. What partly redeems it is that, after a slow start, some bits of that mishmash become much better than others. There are some clever twists on history, some very striking individual moments, and one subplot steals the show with its character development (both in the sense that the characters involved change over time, and in the sense that they make painful decisions that reveal their true selves). The net effect is that while the story as a whole is not good, enough of it was for me to stay interested.
At the end of the day, then, Jeanne is a good game rather than a great one. It doesn’t quite match the genre’s two pinnacles, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, which coupled great gameplay with powerful, meaningful stories. But its gameplay riffs effectively off the greats, and there are enough worthwhile ideas buried in the story to offer a nice bonus on top of that. A worthy “honourable mention” in genre history.
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I often praise the PSP as a mecca for turn-based tactical RPGs – Disgaea! Final Fantasy Tactics! Tactics Ogre! – and over the past few months, I’ve pencilled another name onto that list: Jeanne d’Arc, a 2007 title from Level 5 (very!) loosely inspired by the historical Saint Joan. It starts off rather generically, but now that I’m close to the end, I’m glad I gave it a second chance.
By way of introduction, Jeanne plays out like a cross between Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. You command a squad of characters, each of whom belongs to a set class and has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Notably, characters cannot permanently die! Between missions, you assign equipment and special skills (the two work a bit alike; a finite number of skills are available at any one time, and you acquire new skills via crafting and enemy drops). Some skills are class-specific, while others can be assigned at will. For example, Jeanne and her friend Liane both wield swords, so they have access to the same pool of class-specific skills. However, Liane trades off durability in exchange for stronger magic, suggesting players should assign melee boosters to Jeanne and magic spells to Liane. Combat plays out similarly to other tactical RPGs: park sturdier sorts at the front and mages/archers at the back, advance methodically, and heal as needed. So long as the party is adequately levelled, the game is reasonably easy, and since it’s also not very grindy, that’s not a hard condition to meet.
Jeanne’s appeal stems largely from how it gets the basics right.. The levels are creative, both in their layout (the maps are a nice mix of wide, narrow, flat, and steep) and in their objectives: most are simple sweeps, but some require you to make it to an escape point, or defend a key location. One, notably, is an imaginative riff on a certain infamous boss battle from FFT. The pacing is just right: combatants hit hard enough to keep the pace brisk, but (a single annoying escort mission aside) not so hard that the game turns into an exercise in luck-driven one-hit KOs. And while it’s easy in the sense that I’ve rarely seen the game over screen, that doesn’t mean it’s boring: I still reach for the grey matter in every battle.
This by itself would be enough to make me recommend Jeanne to genre fans in need of a fix, but on top of that, Jeanne adds several interesting little gameplay mechanics. While they aren’t hugely significant, they do keep the game feeling fresh. One is positioning: keeping characters next to each other gives them a defensive bonus, and the bigger the clump, the bigger the bonus. Striking an enemy will “power up” the tile on the victim’s other side (visible in the above screenshot – note the glowy yellow rings at the upper left and at the far right), but someone standing on the powered-up tile might be away from the group and hence vulnerable. (One tactic I like: run a hard-to-hit character, say the nimble thief Colet, around the back of the enemy line to power up a tile on the front. My slow-moving characters approach the front in a clump, and one stands on the powered-up tile; Colet, meanwhile, can happily look after himself.)
The game’s signature mechanic, however, is that Jeanne and several of her allies wear magic armlets that let them temporarily transform into super-soldiers – and if they kill an enemy while transformed, they get another turn. If they score another kill, they get another turn. And another. And another. The video below (starting at about 1:15) shows this in action:
This has a couple of implications. It changes the ideal tactics: while most games encourage players to focus fire so as to completely eliminate enemies and reduce incoming damage, in Jeanne it’s often preferable to bring a whole host of enemies down to low health (leaving them vulnerable to a single transformation rampage) instead. As with positioning, this isn’t a revolutionary feature in and of itself, but it is a nice point of differentiation relative to Jeanne’s peers.
More importantly, it helps give Jeanne a particular kind of fun. The joy of strategy games lies in reading the situation, crafting a plan, and finally seeing it come together (and generally, the deeper the game, the more profound the delight – anyone who’s played Dominions 3 will know what I mean). The drawback is that it can take a lot of time and effort for that plan to pay off! Puzzle games compress that into a single “aha!” moment and are quicker to play, but typically just have One True Solution. The transformation mechanic gives Jeanne a bit of the best of both worlds. Working out how to bring down a mass of enemies down to low health, then actually doing so, is quick and relatively simple – far simpler than orchestrating victory in Civilization or Dominions! But the basic skills – analysis of a fluid situation, thinking ahead, allocation of scarce resources – are the same. And the moment of triumph, when Jeanne carves her way through four or five enemies in one round, is real.
That, in fact, is almost a metaphor for the gameplay as a whole. By genre standards, Jeanne is relatively short (I’m at 38 hours and could probably finish before 40), simple, and easy. But that doesn’t make it mindless – either on the developers’ part, or on the player’s – or boring. Jeanne’s designers clearly put love and thought into their work, and it shows. This is one title genre fans should check out.
What can you do when you desperately want to talk about a game, yet cannot do so without spoiling most of what made it such a memorable experience? I have been attempting to find an answer to that question for weeks now. Game of Thrones the RPG is that rare thing: a game with a story which would genuinely be lessened if, when starting, you knew what lay ahead. There are moments of genuine surprise, moments of emotion, moments where the pieces snap together and where I was left in admiration of the storytelling. As much as I would love to link to a youtube video of my favourite speech in the game, I cannot. As much as I’d love to discuss the interplay during a certain rainy scene, I cannot. As much as I am dying to discuss the way a specific relationship is developed, I cannot!
There came a point where, with a good deal of surprise, I realised that I wished I had not read the books by George R R Martin because they were spoiling the game’s plot. Honestly. Hand on heart. When the game laid out certain facts, my mind feverishly examined them, twisted them about to fit them into the ever-expanding plot — and then I realised I knew the rough direction certain aspects must take because of what is — and is not — present in the books. If I hadn’t possessed that book-based knowledge, then particular aspects of the plot would have been all the more effective — but I cannot elaborate without risking indirect spoilers.
For reader reference, I am not a big fan of the Ice & Fire series. I have read all of the main series, along with two of the Dunk & Egg novellas. I started reading back when book 3 was released in paperback. Whilst I really enjoyed the first three books, I found Feast for the Crows and Dance with Dragons to be deeply disappointing. The novellas were OK, the first being superior to the second in my opinion. Series 1 of the HBO adaptation was generally excellent, but I haven’t yet seen series 2. Thus, I would say you do not need to be a fan in order to enjoy the game. You only need to have the right gaming tastes. Make no mistake: however much I liked it, I do not recommend Game of Thrones the RPG to any but a specific sub-set of gamers. More on that later. First I shall attempt to pick my way through the minefield and explain why I enjoyed the story so much.
To begin with, the game alternates between two protagonists, Mors and Alester. You play chapter 1 as Mors, chapter 2 as Alester, and so on, back and forth, until eventually they meet. At the outset the two stories feel completely disassociated. Mors is up at the Wall doing his duty as a brother of the Night’s Watch; Alester is down south taking up the reins in his family home. Alester’s story begins months prior to Mors’; you’re playing the recent past. Gradually, a tentative link appears between the two strands. It’s at this point the game begins to get interesting. Yes, the game suffers from a slow beginning. I found Mors’ story reasonable from the first, if nothing special or particularly engaging. Alester had some interesting moments, but it took several of his chapters before his half of the tale began to engage me.
When that tentative link appears, Mors’ story started to take a rapid uphill climb. His relationship with a certain character began to develop from typical videogame material to something better, something portrayed with a certain touch of sensitivity — this lent it a humanity frequently lacking from similar relationships in other games. It’s at this point Mors’ voice actor began to improve, as though he’d realised there was more to this script than the typical fantasy game guff. I began to look forward to scenes featuring the two characters, and equally to desire answers to questions which were beginning to form.
Then, Things Happen(TM). Well golly! Yes, I’d seen some of that coming but execution certainly kept my attention riveted — and immediately, freshly hungry for answers, we are snatched away to Alester’s next chapter. It’s a lengthy chapter and slowly, slowly a few pieces of the jigsaw are doled out, fitted together. Right around the point where I felt the chapter was over-long, More Things Happened(TM). And did not stop happening. For the rest of the game. Twists, turns, revelations, shocks, neat snatches of dialogue, and always that hunger to find out what happens next — the story hit its stride and did not falter. Suddenly, those slow opening chapters made a lot more sense when viewed as part of an overall story. They established the cast of characters and the world they inhabit: the type of detailed set-up material so common in books and rare in games. Mors and Alester, in particular, had more to them than typical game characters. Added dimensions and familiarity upped the impact of those aforementioned Things Happening(TM). Events I would have watched dispassionately in another game — have watched dispassionately in other games! — hit me in the gut this time around. Things which feel cheesy or silly in other game plots worked smoothly in this one because the time had been taken to set them up, embroider them into the fabric of the universe. Character motivations made sense as human motivations rather than plot devices. Mors and Alester developed shades of grey, revealing themselves as gloriously human characters. Predictable events often had unpredictable spins to them, happening at the ‘wrong’ time, or with added aspects which were not expected. At the end, the very end, after one final roller-coaster of emotion, I found myself in the happy position of not being able to say which of two conflicting viewpoints was the right one. Honour or duty? A vital, thematic question. The very last scene of the game was one resulting from my choices; it reflected the decisions I had made and left me with a mixture of sorrow, hope, pride, and worry. I believed I had done the right thing by my favourite character, yet I wondered if perhaps the cost would, in the end, prove too high.
The game has five different endings. There’s a major choice at the clearly flagged point of no return. This determines which ‘side’ of the ending you will play out. After that, you make another choice on which direction you want the ending to take. The fifth ending is for dying during a certain battle. I reloaded to watch the others — I needed to know! The first ending I saw, the one I regard as my ‘true’ ending, was the most fitting for the path I had taken through the story and I’m glad I arrived at that one naturally.
Yes, “path through the game” and “choices”. Whilst the characters are pre-written and are confined by the limitations of the plot, there’s a reasonable bit of wriggle-room for the player to shape their own versions of Mors and Alester. My Mors was an honourable, upstanding, occasionally downright scary fellow. He could have been a blood-thirsty psychopath, or an unbending, harsh veteran. My Alester tried to strike a balance between the demands of family, honour, religion and crown. In another playthrough he could have been a religious zealot, an oppressor of his people, or a wannabe-liberator. When Mors and Alester unite, the player retains control over both. Conversations will frequently have the option of a response from each character. This ensures there are few personality swerves, and that neither character is relegated to subordinate place. Mors and Alester are equals throughout. The story is theirs: it belongs to both and is told by both. Sub-events can be influenced as well, and the choices you make will often come back in later chapters. To give a spoiler-free example, if you save a certain person in one chapter you can meet him again later and could talk him into assisting you.
Interestingly, Mors and Alester are both older men. Mors is completely grey, Alester heading that way. One could pithily sum this up with “Mature characters for a mature story”. Life imparts experience, and both characters are richer for having decades of life behind them. They reference, and draw upon, this experience throughout the game.
So why wouldn’t I recommend the game to all RPG gamers? It’s very simple: the gameplay and the production values. This is a game which relies very heavily on its plot, and so gamers who prize gameplay above all else will struggle to see much attraction.
In terms of production values, Game of Thrones the RPG is clearly not a triple-A title with a many-millions budget; it is unfair to demand it match a Bioware or Bethesda game in that department. The game cannot compete on those grounds and there is no point in trying to claim otherwise.
Game of Thrones the RPG is not a pretty game. I’d say that it’s not as ugly as some critics have made out; it’s about on a par with Dragon Age: Origins’ console versions. If Dragon Age has occasionally better texture work, Game of Thrones has better character models with nary a spindly-twig-arm in sight. Locations are easy to recognise by sight, and character models have a good range of variety. Whilst there’s plenty of unrealistic fantasy armour, there’s also a higher than typical amount of armour based on real historical designs. Generally, I felt that the common foot soldiers had the best ‘outfits’. The game’s major set-back in presentation occurs in larger areas, King’s Landing in particular. The game engine (and doubtless budget) cannot host large, complex areas filled with plenty of active NPCs. Thus, the two bustling urban areas felt decidedly boxy and emptier than they aught. There’s also a strange obsession with closing off the easiest route from A to B in King’s Landing, meaning that the player is forced to take the long route around outside of specific set-pieces which temporarily open up the doors. Castle Black fares better due to being a quieter and more straightforward location; however, the sense of scale is missing from the wall. It’s the old graphics versus gameplay versus experience debate – some people are better able to overlook shortcomings like this, others find they unacceptably damage the atmosphere of the game. That’s a decision best made by the individual gamer.
The game fares similarly in the audio department. The TV series’ theme music is used for the title screen. Other than that, the music is original, and unfortunately quite forgettable. The sound effect selection does the job, although without a huge range of variety. I did find that the howl of wind added a lot of atmosphere to the chapters taking place at the Wall, and contributed more to the feeling of chill than the snow and ice effects. The voice acting is a very mixed affair. Mors improves as the game progresses, starting as a gruff, growly half-hearted sort, and ending the game as a gruff, growly fellow who produced lines with such emotion I was mesmerised through a certain scene. Alester, by contrast, is voiced with consistency throughout, though sadly he never reaches the same highs even if he does avoid the initial lows. The two main characters have a lot of dialogue between them, and fortunately, even at their worst, I never found them to be less than tolerable. All of the characters who appear in the HBO series are voiced by their respective actors, including Lord Mormont, Varys and Cersei. The remainder of the cast range from acceptable to “Is something wrong with her nose?”
Some gamers associate mid-budget games with bugs and technical failings, sometimes with good reason. Game of Thrones the RPG has few such issues, at least in its Xbox 360 incarnation. The frame rate was stable and fluid, and I only encountered two bugs in my entire 30+ hour playthrough. Both were in the final chapter, and both necessitated reversion to an earlier save as they made progress impossible. In one instance I could not initiate conversation with a critical NPC, in the other I could not walk through a doorway due to an invisible wall. That’s actually fewer bugs per hour than I’ve encountered in some recent triple-A RPG titles :cough Mass Effect 3, Skyrim :cough: but it was still immensely aggravating, and cast a cloud over the game’s final hour. The standard RPG maxim should be followed: save early, save often, and save in multiple slots!
Gameplay is roughly a 40/40/20 split between conversation/plot, exploration/travel, and combat. Yes, combat is very much in the minority! Battles are less frequent than is the genre norm, and the stakes are much higher. Active player participation is required — there is no mashing X to win in this game. Difficulty is adjustable at any time, yet, as in Witcher 2, easy mode is more comparable to most games’ normal mode. You must use your characters’ skills wisely, both to set enemies up for extra damage and to prevent them from using their own skills. Using a skill costs stamina; a character can temporarily go into guard mode to catch their breath and restore most of their stamina gauge. There is a cooldown on this, however, so it cannot be spammed. Characters can apply poisons and wildfire to their weapons for extra effects, and can drink potions for bonuses. During tough battles, both will be essential. Each level gained feels precious, each upgrade to your equipment significant, because an extra 10 points of damage have a tangible effect in combat. Personally, I preferred this approach. Combat quality over combat quantity. Orders are issued in real-time and combat cannot be paused. Instead, you pull up a skill wheel and the game goes into slow motion. Queue up your commands, swap between characters and targets as necessary, then close the skill window. The game will resume normal speed and the actions play out. While there’s an element of pressure, I never felt overly harassed by the inability to pause, and I confess to being something of a pause-baby in any RPG which will let me. Conversation, exploration and travel all function as you’d expect, following genre conventions like dialogue choices and fast travel.
The game does feature the occasional stealth section. Mors is a skinchanger and can take command of his dog. Mors being Mors, the dog is called Dog and looks about as grizzled as his master. These sections are short and quite widely interspersed throughout the game. Dog will not give Solid Snake any competition-based fears as his stealth is markedly simpler than that of the serpent. You control Dog from a first-person viewpoint. You walk up behind guards and pounce on them, tearing their throat out with the aid of a simple button-bashing minigame. Done, you abandon the corpse and skulk off to locate the next hapless fellow. If the guards spot you then they will attempt to kick Dog. Should they land a blow, Mors is jolted out of Dog’s mind. It’s a mild penalty; you can immediately dive right back in and run back to the guard who foiled you to try again.
I’m hesitant to call this a review. I don’t want to write a review, although that’s what it has ended up being. I want to discuss the rain scene, and the ending, and the relationships, and all those other spoilerific aspects. I want to talk about why this story would make a decent book — note decent, not great literature or throw-away pulp reading. I want to compare it to the other games and talk about why the story worked for me where others fell flat. It is a repeat of my Divinity II dilemma. You see, I loved the original ending of Divinity II. I can’t tell anyone why without ruining the ending and thus robbing my audience of the necessary experience to fully enjoy it. Some things require a build-up, context, and immersion in order to work.
If you are interested in strong characters and plotting in video games, then you probably aught to play this game. It manages to get so many things right in those areas! Wait for a sale if you feel more comfortable with lower expenditure and hence, lower risk. Play until you reach the scene in the rain around the halfway mark. If you aren’t caught by that point, then I doubt you ever will be. Just remember: it’s a slow starter.
The basis of my … gibbering:
Time spent with the game: Somewhere around 35 hours. The storyline was completed, as were all side quests and achievements. I also saw three different endings.
The review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. It was purchased by myself.
The images used in this piece all come from the official website at http://www.gameofthrones-rpg.com.
Criminal lords who control everything not controlled by the ultra-rich;
Police whose only principle of operation is maintenance of the status quo;
Hordes of poor people starving in the streets;
Absolutely no middle class whatsoever.
Nonetheless, the society manages to remain at a high technological level.
– The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés
At first glance, one might think that Deus Ex: Human Revolution, last year’s cyberpunk action-RPG from Square Enix, falls into the above trap. A walk around its first hub area (which I’ve just completed), the Detroit of 2027, appears to tick every box. The game’s first act takes place over a single evening, so the sky is black and forbidding. The streets are filthy. Graffiti is everywhere. The beat cops all wear riot gear. The outside world appears no better: newspapers refer to an ongoing “Australian civil war”. At times, the exaggerated dystopia shades into silliness: why are middle-class characters living in the same garbage-ridden slum as the local arms dealer?
But dig deeper, and you’ll find more to Human Revolution than Generic Science-Fiction Dystopia. This is a world defined, above all, by one social issue, one conflict – transhumanism, in the form of cybernetic augmentation. This raises several questions. First, there’s the usual debate about the morality of humans “playing God”, evident in conversations with other characters, in product blurbs from cybernetics manufacturer Sarif Industries and in radio broadcasts from anti-augmentation terrorists Purity First. It’s done well, it’s done plausibly – the pro/anti-augmentation slogans would fit right into today’s culture wars – but it’s also what we’d expect from a work that tackles the topic. In other words, well-executed but par for the course. If you are already familiar with this debate, from other works of science fiction, then Human Revolution won’t do much to sway your mind.
The game’s real strength isn’t what it has to say about transhumanism in general – it’s what it has to say about transhumanism in this particular world, with this particular technology and set of trade-offs. The advantages to cybernetic augmentation are obvious – you get to play with them. Want to jump like an Olympian’s dream, fling dumpsters and vending machines as if they were tissue-paper, see through walls, turn yourself temporarily invisible? These are merely some of the enhancements available to hero Adam Jensen, and making use of them is what Human Revolution’s gameplay is all about. More prosaically, cybernetics also fill the role of real-world prosthetics – allowing people who’ve been injured or maimed to live better lives. These positives are real.
But there is a heavy price. Cyborgs don’t lose their souls. They don’t become evil or insane or deranged. They don’t go on homicidal rampages. The game is not so crude as that. They do become dependent on an expensive drug, “neuropozyne”, to prevent tissue rejection and eventual agonising death. What happens when a cyborg runs out of neuropozyne, from the hints we’re given (and from this live-action trailer, in the form of a Purity First propaganda video) is not pretty – and there are “people” in Human Revolution, such as pimps looking for leverage over their girls, who’ll take advantage of that. This trade-off isn’t metaphysical, or moral, or airy-fairy and abstracted. This trade-off is grimly practical. Would you make it? Human Revolution’s appeal lies in its ability to make us ponder that question – and sympathise with those characters who didn’t get a choice.
Perhaps my single favourite visual in Human Revolution is a billboard advertising a new opera, “Il Metamorfoso” (see the bottom-left of the screenshot below). The game conveys so much meaning with that one simple little image. What is the “metamorphosis”? We don’t know, but given context and the curved, circuitry-like lines just visible in the ad, we can guess it’s augmentation. What is the opera’s take on it? The “Metamorfoso’s” demonic leer, and the way his hair flows into the sinister red background of the ad, speak volumes. Augmentation, the ad seems to tell us, is a deal with the devil. Revel in its power, but know it has consequences.
It’s that kind of clever touch that draws me to Human Revolution. This is no exercise in mindless nihilism. It’s a game whose creators put real thought into its bleak future, into art and aesthetic and concept – and then, as good science fiction writers should do, extrapolated the resulting possibilities, vile or otherwise. It’s a game that respects my intelligence, and I look forward to playing more.
This is a good time to be a fan – as Iam – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Timefor PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).
The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.
Type 1: the “squad-based strategy game with RPG elements”
Typified by the Jagged Alliance series and the first three X-Com games, this subgenre is largely PC-based (notwithstanding the odd console port) and driven by Western developers. These games share two overarching attributes. First, they emphasise the “strategy” part of “strategy/RPG”, and second, they’re closer to the “realistic” than to the “cinematic” end of the spectrum (at least compared to the other categories!). These manifest in a few ways:
There isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. Different troopers have different statistics – marksmanship, strength, etc – and, in Jagged Alliance 2, different passive bonuses (e.g. night operations or automatic weapons). However, soldiers lack RPG-style active abilities, and they usually don’t have classes – they certainly don’t in X-Com and JA. What does distinguish soldiers is their equipment (which, in the absence of classes, can usually be freely assigned). You won’t mistake a rifleman, a machine gunner, and an anti-tank specialist!
The same applies to the enemies you fight. In JA2, a black-shirted commando will be both better armed and a better shot than a yellow-shirted militiaman, but actual boss enemies and special abilities (with the exception of a handful in X-Com – psionics and Chrysalids) are rare.
In the absence of “gamey” levels of health, life is cheap. X-Com, where the most heavily armoured veteran could die to a single unlucky shot, took this to extremes – but even in JA2, a single turn’s volley fire could be lethal. Conversely, the lack of character customisation means that losing one trooper is not the end of the world – especially not in X-Com, with its never-ending pool of recruits! (I seem to recall JA2 was a bit harsher on this front – not only were there finite mercenaries available, but losing too many would make it hard to recruit more. As such, X-Com was best played without reloading, but I doubt JA2 would be so amenable.)
In the defining games of the genre, there is no scripted campaign – in X-Com and Jagged Alliance, you choose where and when to take the field. This fits with the conceit of these games – you’re the overall commander, in charge of far more than just battle tactics.
Combat typically requires you to kill/capture every enemy present. However, the battlefields are large, what you can see is limited to your soldiers’ line of sight, and the enemy could be anywhere. As such, battles tend to unfold as a sweep of the map.
This subgenre has never regained its 1990s glory days (hence PC gamers lamenting the “death” of squad-based strategy/RPGs), notwithstanding the odd 2000s release such as Silent Storm. However, signs of life remain. As a largely faithful remake of X-Com, Xenonauts falls squarely in this category, and if it lives up to its promising alpha build, that would deliver a welcome breath of air.
Type 2: the “tactics game with RPG elements”
Fire Emblem (various Nintendo platforms) and Valkyria Chronicles (PS3 for the original game, PSP for the sequels) form a second subgenre, console-based and driven by Japanese developers. (I suspect Jeanne d’Arc for PSP would also fall into this category, but I haven’t played enough to be sure.) What sets these aside from Type 1 games is that they’re a little more stylised, a little more “game-y”, a little more RPG-like. Specifically:
As with Type 1 games, there still isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. However, in RPG fashion, realism now plays second fiddle to game logic. FE/VC characters are much more distinct than X-Com troopers, and their abilities and weapons are delineated by class. A “shock trooper” in Valkyria Chronicles will always use a submachine gun rather than a rifle, an engineer will never be able to use a grenade launcher, and so on. Fire Emblem even cheerfully throws in a rock/paper/scissors dynamic between axe-, sword-, and spear-wielding classes.
Meanwhile, much like trash mobs in an RPG, individual enemies in Type 2 games tend to be clearly weaker than the player’s squad members. However, watch out for bosses!
In Fire Emblem, characters can still die easily in the hands of a careless player. However, as with Type 1 games, the lack of character customisation means that the loss of one character is not the show-stopper it might otherwise be. (Valkyria Chronicles is a little more forgiving – it gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic.)
Gameplay consists entirely of a scripted campaign with set battles – no strategic metagame here.
Battles still revolve around sweeping a large map, but this plays out slightly differently. Your objectives are different – most levels require you to capture a specified piece of turf, rather than just clearing out the enemy. However, since enemies typically don’t “wake up” until you move close enough, this encourages you (especially in Fire Emblem) to play slowly and carefully, so as not to trigger an overwhelming enemy response. The result, in Fire Emblem, was precise, meticulous gameplay as I checked enemy characters’ movement ranges, lined up the party in safe areas, and then quickly moved in for the kill. (Valkyria Chronicles was a little different in that its scoring system worked by speed, so it was often “optimal” to run past enemy soldiers and beeline for the objective, but I tended to only play this way when I knew a map very well.)
This genre is doing a bit better than Type 1. Valkyria Chronicles never saw a PS3 sequel (2 and 3 came out for PSP, and 3 never made it to the West), but Fire Emblem: Awakening has been announced for 3DS. With luck, we’ll see more of these games in the future.
Type 3: the “role-playing game with tactical elements”
A third subgenre, also primarily console/Japanese, includes Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX/PSP), Tactics Ogre (originally SNES/PSX, but I’m mainly thinking of the PSP remake), Front Mission (various), and Disgaea (various). The dividing line between this and Type 2 can be a little blurry, but in general, the key feature of these games is that they emphasise the “RPG” part of “tactical RPG”.
By this, I mean Type 3 games share traditional RPGs’ emphasis on character development. Out of battle, there’s plenty of time spent on allocating skill points, navigating often-baroque class trees (this class guide for FFT says it all), and building a super-team. In battle, where a Type 1 or Type 2 character would be limited to moving, attacking, and maybe unlocking doors, Type 3 characters constantly fire off special attacks and unique abilities. This also extends to enemies – regular enemies, not just bosses, frequently have their own nasty abilities.
Conversely, while some of these games do allow for permanent death (FFT, Tactics Ogre), building up characters takes so much time and effort that I think players would have to be crazy not to reload in the event of their characters dying. (Other games, such as Disgaea, sidestep this problem by not having perma-death in the first place.)
As with RPGs and Type 2 games, there is a scripted campaign with a set storyline and battles to play through.
The “tactical” part is still present: battles are played out on strategy-style grid maps and positioning remains a consideration (for example, Tactics Ogre, which encouraged you to use terrain and heavily armoured knights’ special abilities to wall off squishy mages and archers). However, the maps are typically smaller than in Types 1-2, and enemies are typically more aggressive about coming out to meet you. As such, there’s no more “sweeping the battlefield” dynamic.
Out of the three subgenres, this one is probably doing the best. While the broader JRPG genre largely disappeared during the HD console era, this subgenre never went away. The PSP in particular is a mecca (FFT, Tactics Ogre, ports of Disgaea 1 and 2…), and new/ported Disgaea games continue to appear (e.g. Disgaea 4 came out for PS3 last year, and Disgaea 3 has made it to Vita). I look forward to seeing, and playing, many more in the future.
Within these categories, different games have added their own unique twists. For example, the genius of Valkyria Chronicles lay in its control scheme. You didn’t move soldiers by clicking squares on a grid – you took direct control of the selected soldier, using the PS3’s analogue stick to run him or her behind sandbags, into trenches, out of cover and into the open. The camera wasn’t locked isometric – it followed each soldier from a third-person perspective. You didn’t choose targets by selecting them from a list or highlighting their square – you hit a button to bring up a pair of crosshairs, then swung the crosshairs over a selected foe, and finally “pulled” the trigger. Now, VC was still a strategy game, not a shooter – once you lined up a shot, whether it hit was determined by the soldier’s class, equipment and special abilities, not by player skill. Yet, by bringing the immediacy and excitement of an action game, the control scheme contributed tremendously to the overall experience.
For another example, consider Disgaea, which relies heavily on terrain and movement. Many battles contain “geo panels” that give a special modifier to anyone standing on them – for example, automatic healing (or automatic damage!) every turn, a bonus to attack, an all-around bonus to enemies, and so on. These special effects are generated by geo symbols, pyramid-shaped objects that also appear on the map. And not only are the geo symbols destructible, but party members can pick other characters (friends and foes) and geo symbols up, then throw them around the map. Many levels rely on this! For example, if 90% of a map is coated in red panels, and two geo symbols placed on the red panels give enemies on red a 6x bonus, trying to play as if the game were FFT would be suicide. The solution: line up a daisy chain of, say, six characters. Have #5 lift #6, have #4 lift #5 (who is still carrying #6), and so on. Eventually, #1 throws #2, who throws #3… all the way to the point where #6 can reach and destroy a “3x enemy boost” geo symbol in one turn, before the computer gets to use those nasty bonuses. Does this make story levels puzzle-like? Probably. But it is an interesting mechanic in its own right, and it does distinguish the game from the rest of the genre.
This takes us back to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which stands out because of the way it blends multiple games and subgenres. The way it breaks down soldiers into classes, with their own equipment loadouts and special abilities, is straight out of Type 3 games. So is the ability to unlock additional, more advanced classes later on. But its frequent use of an action game-style camera reminds me of nothing so much as the intent behind Valkyria Chronicles’ control scheme (or perhaps the Gallop brothers’ cancelled Dreamland Chronicles, which was to have used similar controls), and the frequency of character death is a (key) holdover from the original X-Com. As such, I don’t think it’s possible to draw apples-and-apples comparisons between Firaxis’ XCOM and the originals, or between XCOM and Xenonauts – but this doesn’t bother me in the least. While Firaxis is diverging significantly from the originals’ design, it also seems to be cross-pollinating several excellent strains of squad-level gameplay. We’ll see in a few months’ time how well this works out, but for now I am eager to see what Firaxis can do.
And if I had to conclude on one thought, that would be it: eagerness. Whether these games fall into one big genre or three related ones, at their best they combine the strengths of strategy games and RPGs. They offer the satisfaction of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring an opponent; intricate plots – and a focus on named, persistent characters. Just as great characters make great fiction, the stories that arise through gameplay become all the richer when they star characters whom we have nurtured, whom we can identify and remember. I remember the almost-dead warrior in FFT who ended one of the toughest boss fights in the game with one last desperate jump. I could almost feel the desperation in Valkyria Chronicles when three soldiers tried to hold off an enemy tank, and when I got control of my own tank and sent it to their relief, I certainly felt the power. And I remember the fallen heroes of X-Com and Fire Emblem, including veterans who had been with me since the start of the game and who finally gave their lives near the end. I remember these and more.
At the end of the day, it’s no coincidence so many of my favourites fall into the categories described above – PC and console, Western and Japanese. I look forward to seeing more of all these in the future, and I hope that if you’re a pure PC or pure console gamer, if you’re familiar with some but not all of the above games, I’ll have piqued your interest in the rest
2006 was a big year for video games. That year, two of the current generation of consoles launched: the Playstation 3 and the Wii. The rival Xbox 360 launched the previous year, but 2006 saw the debut of one of its signature franchises, Gears of War. And the king of the previous generation, the Playstation 2, was at its zenith. In 2006, Capcom released the stunning (and superb) Okami; Square Enix gave us Final Fantasy XII… and in Japan, Atlus released Persona 3, the latest instalment in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. When Persona 3 made its way to the West in 2007, it received a glowing reception; when I finally played the game, last year, I expected the world of it. It did not disappoint.
To be sure, Persona 3 received a few coats of paint in between 2007 and 2011. An enhanced PS2 version, Persona 3: FES, added an epilogue and tweaked the core game; the PSP port I played, Persona 3: Portable, added an alternate, female protagonist and imported some of Persona 4’s gameplay enhancements (though it also had to replace in-engine cutscenes with still art and “talking heads”). But the core of the game has been the same throughout. You guide a modern-day high schooler through one year of his (or her) life, allocating precious time slots between studying, shopping, socialising with one of ~20 people – school buddies, an elderly couple, a little kid, and more – and, uniquely for a teenager, dungeon crawling. The “social simulator” and “dungeon crawler” halves of the game are linked: the main character derives his/her combat abilities from guardian spirits called Personas. Each Persona, and each possible character relationship, is assigned to a given “arcana”, and the stronger a friendship, the stronger a newly created Persona of that arcana will be.
This design has several implications:
First, it brings Persona 3’s gameplay in line with its subject. Regardless of story, the gameplay in most RPGs (Japanese or Western) usually skews towards combat – but with its social simulation, its evenings spent doing homework, and its bites grabbed on the way home from school, Persona 3 conveys how its teenaged hero actually lives.
Second, the need to manage time weaves interesting choice into the fabric of gameplay. Do I hang out with character A, because I want a Persona of the relevant arcana to clear this stretch of the game? Do I push him to Tuesday so I can see character B instead? Should I spend my evening dungeon-crawling, or should I hit the books instead?
Third, more subtly, it fosters roleplaying. In a video game, we roleplay by making choices: Do I back this side in a dispute, or that side? Do I obey my lord, or follow my own conscience? These choices are typically discrete: the end of a quest might offer multiple solutions, or the main plot might branch off at specified points. In Persona 3’s case, the plot might be linear, but the constant stream of choices allows players the same opportunity. Yes, you can approach it as an exercise in powergaming… but it was far more rewarding for me to decide “as my character would”, spending time with NPCs I liked, and behaving consistently with the personality I imagined him to have.
None of the game’s elements is perfect. As a dungeon crawler, it suffers from some overly long and tedious late-game boss fights. As a social simulator, it loses a bit of interesting tension once you max out the main character’s stats around the halfway mark. And its main plot suffers from several flaws. Gameplay and story segregation create occasional plot holes; the plot is weakened by a reliance on in-universe logic (think “Captain, we have to replace the dilithium crystals!”) rather than character conflict; and it labours under a fundamental contradiction: it takes itself very seriously at the same time that it revolves around superpowered teenagers.
But ultimately, those flaws are minor compared to what Persona 3 does right. It’s a very good dungeon crawler, a very good social simulator/time management game, and most of all, it delivers the most precious attribute in an RPG: it made me care.It made me care about its world, the world I explored every time I sent the main character through town in search of a friend or a coffee. And through great dialogue and voice acting, it made me care about its characters. Their story arcs more than made up for my complaints about the main plot: not all were great, but some were hilarious, others moving. From the first hour of gameplay, I laughed at their antics; when the story turned sombre, I felt for them. And through their unfolding stories, the game was able to convey some surprisingly meaningful themes.
Evidently, a lot of players agreed with me. Not every game enjoys the recognition that it deserves, but this saga has a happy ending. The Persona franchise has gone from strength to strength: a PS2 sequel, Persona 4, came out in 2008, and in the limited time I’ve spent with it, it addresses every complaint I have about Persona 3. A PS Vita port, Persona 4: Golden, and a PS3 fighting game, Persona Arena,are both due out later this year. And most recently, Persona 3: FES has been re-released as a Playstation Network download for PS3. For anyone with a Sony platform, these games are easily accessible.
That’s a good thing. This is one game that every RPG aficionado should play, even those who normally don’t enjoy Japanese RPGs. With its marriage of a great concept and good execution, Persona 3: Portable wasn’t just one of the best games I played last year – it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Highly recommended.
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After a heyday spanning the Playstation and Playstation 2 eras, Japanese RPGs (at least, those translated into English) have retreated from home consoles: the Playstation 3 offers nowhere near the riches that its predecessors did. To some extent, portable consoles such as the PSP have picked up the slack with excellent tactical RPGs such as Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as pure JRPGs such as Persona 3: Portable. How does another contestant in the PSP camp, pure RPG The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (Falcom 2006, released in the US by Xseed in 2011), measure up?
The answer is, “It’s a trick question.” From its roots up, I found Trails to be a very different beast to many other RPGs, including those I named above. This is not because it’s groundbreaking. It’s not: the story is linear and combat is turn/party/menu-based. Rather, where other games are built to challenge – for example, P3:P offers challenging gameplay, while FFT and Tactics Ogre also challenge the genre’s storytelling conventions – Trails seems built for relaxation.
For example, Trails’ story and characters are a mishmash of familiar archetypes. Its young heroes – a cheerful hothead and her calmer brother – rove the land Fighting Evil and Righting Wrongs. The plot twists are guessable, the other party members out of central casting. But it works. The heroes are likeable, and their dialogue often witty – witty enough to make me laugh out loud a couple of times. The villains are dastardly, but never disturbing. The music is cheery, the towns and landscapes detailed. The net effect: a mood that’s nice and pleasant, and a world conducive to wandering around and seeing the sights.
(A quick story aside: Trails is the first game in a trilogy, and also the only one, so far, to be officially released in English. However, its plot mostly stands alone – there is a sequel hook, but it feels like the first act of a new story rather than a loose end. As such, this shouldn’t be an obstacle for potential buyers.)
Trails’ gameplay produces a similar effect. For starters, it avoids the single most annoying genre convention: random battles. Instead, you can dodge monsters a la Chrono Trigger and Persona, which saves a lot of aggravation. And there’s precious little need to grind – I did almost every sidequest in the game and that was plenty. Character management is reasonably complex: I had to put some thought into juggling different party members’ specialties, and mixing and matching the “orbments” that determine available magic spells. But I found the actual battles pretty easy: most enemies, and even most bosses, just didn’t hit hard enough to be dangerous. True, combat needed some mental involvement – I couldn’t just mash X to attack. But once I equipped a sensible choice of orbments, I’d just bring out the appropriate elemental spells, then heal as needed. The outcome was rarely in doubt: I could count on the fingers of one hand all the times I Game Overed. (Even when I did, no big deal; you can instantly replay a lost battle, and the game allows saving anywhere.) No hair-tearing moments here, just an agreeable way to while away time.
And that is how I’d sum up my Trails experience: “an agreeable way to while away time”. If you’re not already a JRPG fan, I don’t think this will bring you on board – it adds nothing radically new to the recipe. But if you do enjoy JRPGs, Trails is like comfort food: low-stress and easygoing. For genre buffs in the mood for old-fashioned home cooking, Trails might just be worth a look.
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A key part of a story’s appeal — whether it be a book, a game, or a movie — is its ability to transport me to a world of wonder, and almost as fascinating is peering behind the curtain to see how the creator pulled it off. In the following guest post, Matt Bowyer breaks out the magnifying glass for a look at Final Fantasy XII (2006, Square Enix). Enjoy!
“Where is this taking place, again?”
“I can picture your characters and their actions very well, but I have no idea what this area is like.”
“Make these backgrounds interactive versus static.”
“This is quite the featureless white room your characters are in.”
I feel like I do a pretty good job in building the world of my attempted novels. A lot of time and effort goes into figuring out why this country grew up around the church while this neighboring country is almost agnostic, and what conflicts would have arisen between these two lands as time passed. I regularly add to a document, filling in bits of legend and mythology alongside the evolution of trade routes and what racial slurs are used among less refined city-dwellers. And then I let my characters run all over it and forget to use that worldbuilding for anything more than a backdrop. I can get away with this if I want; a story is only as good as its characters as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where most of my focus in writing goes. It’s not something that’s acceptable in video games, though, and that’s why I have this soapbox here.
Final Fantasy XII is one of the best games ever made, and absolutely the best of the Final Fantasy series. One of its strongest qualities is its worldbuilding; the bustling desert capital Rabanastre is full of people at all times, a constant buzz of activity on every screen. It’s the most alive city I’ve seen in an RPG. The entire game is full of these incredible locales; the thick heat of the Golmore Jungle, the floating majesty that is the Skycity of Bhujerba, the quiet power at the sacred site of Mt. Bur-Omisace.
Final Fantasy XII’s bestiary adds to this deep world — kill one enemy and you are treated to a beautiful painting plus a page or so of detail about it, the migratory patterns of rotund cockatrices or the hunting habits of sand-dwelling crocodiles. But if you kill another 5-10 of that creature, you get a bit of Sage Knowledge about the world of Ivalice. It may be a legend about a specific item that drops from that creature, it may be a passage from a holy book, it may be why magick power has flourished while electricity did not, it may be a bit of sell copy for a nearby shop. It’s fantastic stuff, and I found myself drastically lowering the local lizard population so I could learn more about their teeth. But that’s not enough. A deep bestiary and a great deal of supplemental in-game writing is wonderful, but anyone can do that with enough time and a decent writer supporting their worldbuilding efforts. It’s much harder, but I feel much more important, to build that world identity in-game, in a way that engages your players more deeply than words on a screen.
Final Fantasy XII excels at this. The Skycity of Bhujerba is a set of floating islands built around a magicite mining colony founded by moogles, the earliest airship builders and pilots. Bhujerba is valuable because of the skystone magicite produced in its mines — those stones are what allow the islands to float high above the ground, and they give that same power to the many airships that sail the skies of Ivalice. The Arcadian Empire’s recent expansionism has increased the pressure on Bhujerba, and now the Skycity is officially allied to Archades – but though the city grants the Empire access to its magicite mines, anti-Imperial tension boils within.
The most important visual aspect of Bhujerba is the fact that it is a series of floating islands. Most fantasy games don’t have much need to explain this — a wizard did it, are we ordering out for lunch? — but Final Fantasy XII builds the reason for this into the plot itself, and your first trip to the city deals with its most important aspect. Your first visit to Bhujerba takes you inside the mines, where you meet a character who talks of the Empire’s interest in the skystone. The end of the excursion in the mines gives the party a particular kind of magicite which breaks the rules, placing more importance and emphasis on the role magicite plays in the game, and further underlines Bhujerba’s importance to the Empire. The player does not just read this in a document three menus deep, he learns it while exploring the mine behind the political drama. The player learns of the power of magicite when the player acquires some, and the player learns of the boundaries of the world so when those boundaries are pushed later on, that change actually means something.
One of the first things you are told upon entering Bhujerba and talking to everyone that you can — the only acceptable action in a new town in an RPG — is that no one has died falling off of the city into the water below. A bit of flavor lets you know why people live here, why they apparently have no qualms about sitting on the side of a wall inches from freefall, and also offers a bit of knowledge that will help the player solve a side quest later in the game. You will also hear rumors about mutated creatures, ghosts haunting the mines, and other bits of background flavor that lead into eventual side quests later on — again, informing the player through action, not just reading. It’s not just worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, it directly involves the player. It makes the world more than just a backdrop, it makes it a place.
There are more examples of this throughout the game. The three-tiered caste structure in Archades, a city built from the ground up to the sky: the party has to navigate the politics of the city’s elite to make it to that lofty status themselves. Giza Plains: the game tells you early on about the torrential rains that wash through every season, then buries you under those rains hours later when you return, opening up new areas and closing off old ones. The Mosphoran Highwaste, full of ancient shrines to forgotten gods: later those shrines open up pathways to new, previously unreachable areas.
Nearly every area in Final Fantasy XII was built with the player in mind. The developers considered how their design of Ivalice would impact the player. Even the weather changes make a difference; blistering heat in the desert brings out fire elementals who drift lazily in the sunlight, but are quick to react to magic cast in their vicinity. The Nabreus Deadlands feature a fog that obscures enemies until they are already upon you; that fog is a result of the Mist pouring out of ravaged Nabudis, and inside Nabudis are unspeakable horrors twisted by the incredible energy unleashed upon that city before the game began. That event is also referenced by an important NPC later on in the game, another way the game involves the player in what happened.
Compare this to the more recent Final Fantasy XIII, which has incredibly beautiful locations with stunning music supporting them, and which have no more impact on your gameplay than wallpaper. Lake Bresha is a gorgeous frozen lake that Lightning and the other protagonists land in after a boss encounter, but you do nothing but run from Point A to Point B — nothing here makes any impact on your gameplay experience. There is no difference in navigating the Fifth Ark versus navigating the Gapra Whitewood — your location does nothing but change the color of the enemies you fight. For all the importance these areas have in your gameplay experience, you might as well be playing in a featureless white room.
That might work in a book, where the strength of the characters and the story can overcome ignoring the world. That will not work in a game, because there is no story in games worth telling that ignores the player.
Matt Bowyer is an aspiring author living in Kansas City who spends too much time playing video games and playing armchair designer. He can be found at www.mattwbowyer.com in between chapters and loading screens.
(Note: this article contains moderate spoilers for the game.)
Elaborate backstories are part and parcel of speculative fiction. Fantasy’s defining work, Lord of the Rings, is above all a work of worldbuilding, while science fiction authors have long created detailed “future histories” to tie their works together. Given the extent to which RPGs grew out of this literary genre, it’s no surprise that RPG designers followed suit – a trend at its most visible in the lore codices of recent titles such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. But in my opinion, few games have done it as well as a little-known 2006 Playstation 2 JRPG, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix).
Very, very, very loosely inspired by Norse mythology, VP2 followed the adventures of Alicia, an exiled princess sharing a body with the valkyrie Silmeria*. The game offered a lengthy plot featuring wrathful gods, magic MacGuffins, swordsmen and sorcerers – but if the plot were all VP2 had, I would not be writing this post. It simply wasn’t that great for the first two-thirds of the game, though it did pick up sharply towards the end. Rather more satisfying was VP2’s character growth: Alicia went from a frightened girl dependent on Silmeria (this wallpaper says it all) to a mature, confident heroine, complete with new voice clips in battle. But while this was rewarding, it was still anything but groundbreaking – after all, character growth is the bread and butter of fiction.
Where VP2 uniquely shone was the way it brought its world, past and present, to life. Part of this was a combination of art design and music. The soundtrack was serene as you traversed the sunlit idyll of the Kythena Plains; ponderous in a dark, haunted forest and lilting in a magical one; chirpy in the metropolis of Villnore and ethereal as you crossed Bifrost, the breathtakingly spectacular bridge to the heavens. Even ruins, the stock setting of fantasy RPGs, were distinct: when Alicia journeyed through a half-submerged temple, the pensive music echoed the lost splendour around her – very different from the conventionally heroic theme that accompanied a trip through an ancient volcano.
And the wonders of VP2’s world were more than skin deep. While your party included plenty of storyline characters, you could also recruit up to 20 einherjar – the spirits of long-dead warriors, chosen by Silmeria to fight for the gods – randomly chosen from a pool of 40. The storyline characters (who appeared in the game’s plentiful cut-scenes) were far more fleshed-out than any one einherjar (who had only a few lines of dialogue apiece**). But as a group, I think the einherjar received by far the better deal. That was because each character, storyline or einherjar, had backstory in the form of a character profile accessed from the party screen – and the einherjar backstories, spread over a thousand years of in-game history, were extensively woven together. They interwove with the towns you visited in-game (your party might include a given location’s mythical founders), but more importantly, they interwove with each other. If you read the profiles of two or three einherjar, you might find that they’d journeyed together in their youth; split up to take opposite sides in a war; and met their separate ends after that. A kingdom home to four or five einherjar in one generation might disappear a hundred years later, brought down by an einherjar from a rival land; that conqueror in turn might die ignominiously to a poisoned arrow.
This would have been impressive enough on its own. But there was also a second, deeper layer: the profiles weren’t always true. For instance, this is what the game had to say about Woltar the sorcerer, who joined in one of the earliest dungeons:
A ruthless alchemist who kidnapped the Queen of Crell Monferaigne in 746 C.C. Hiding out in the hinterland of Salerno, Woltar was rumoured to have spent his days and nights engrossed in horrifying experiments. However, in 752 C.C. he was found and punished by officers from Crell Monferaigne. A month after the queen was rescued from her prison, she took her own life by throwing herself from atop the castle wall.
The mental images are horrific – but false. Here’s what really happened: Woltar and the queen eloped. They lived happily and even had a daughter together, before the king’s men found Woltar, killed him, and brought the queen back, only for her to kill herself out of grief for her lover. Their daughter’s ending was no happier, as you found out if you recruited her: she was murdered years later on the orders of her stepbrother, the prince.
The tragic tale of Woltar and family was just the tip of the iceberg. The einherjar backstories were packed with sorrow: the woman who, believing false accusations, arranged for her sister’s death – and who killed herself upon discovering the truth; friends who met on the battlefield after supporting rival kings; the loyal sorcerer whose suspicious liege abandoned him to torture and death. And while the game played fast and loose with its Norse inspiration, this was one area where it felt absolutely true to my knowledge of myths from round the world – look at how few of the ancientGreekheroesmadeit to a happy ending.
But the einherjar backstories weren’t just about sorrow, containing as they did other emotions that we should feel in the presence of epics. These were warriors brave enough to be chosen as the champions of the gods, and thus, heroism – and triumph even in death – were prominent: the friends whose sacrifice saved their home from conquest; the trio who sealed off the gateway to the netherworld, something which could probably have made a story in its own right. There was even poetic justice: the sorcerer responsible for the deaths of four other einherjar never got to enjoy his triumph, courtesy of an arrow through the heart. His assassin? None other than another einherjar.
Unfortunately, despite all the above, rock-solid gameplay*** and praise from the critics, VP2 never achieved even the cult-classic status of its predecessor. Sales (according to VGchartz’ estimates) were measly, and even within the JRPG genre, it seems to have ended up little more than an obscure footnote. But it left its impression on me. Long after details of gameplay and plot faded from my mind, I remember the game’s locations, beautiful, diverse, and filled with character. I remember the game’s spiderweb of einherjar relationships, complex and deep enough to do any novelist proud. I remember how enthralled I was to see the pitiless history of VP2’s world played out through the lives and deaths of the einherjar; and I remember the emotions their stories provoked. True, this is not a method that could be used by many games, given how the valkyrie/einherjar conceit tied in with the game’s lore – but VP2 made the most of it. To this day, I’m glad to have experienced VP2’s storytelling, and it remains one of my favourite games.
* An invention of the game, not an actual mythological figure.
** Unlike the first game, where every character you recruited was an einherjar, each of whom received an introductory cut-scene of his/her own.
*** To be fair, sometimes it was a bit too rock-solid – the game was rather hard.
After circa 25 hours in Demon’s Souls, it was time to take a break. I could have played something easier, brighter, more cheerful… but instead, I started its successor, Dark Souls. And no regrets: six or seven hours in, I’m having a good time. Early thoughts below:
Play style: This time, I opted for a build that was the opposite of the first game. In Demon’s Souls, I played a royal, a lightly armoured magic-user for whom melee was almost always the last resort. In Dark Souls, I’m playing a knight: lumbering (by default), heavily armoured, and reliant on melee. While he does carry a cheapo bow and a painstakingly restocked arsenal of firebombs, most of his work is done up close, with sword and halberd. That has redoubled my appreciation of just how well the Souls games do hand-to-hand combat: even against trash mobs, it is a joy to dance past a zombie swinging his axe, cut him down from behind, and turn just in time to face a swordsman. Larger foes too: duck back from a knight’s enormous hammer and catch him while he recovers, hack away at a stone giant before it can awaken, dodge the whip-branch of an animated tree…
Level design: I think Dark Souls has the edge here. Three of the five worlds in Demon’s Souls, at least at the points where I was, felt like typical video game/fantasy environs: the pseudo-medieval castle; the prison/torture chamber; the ruined shrine. They were well-done, to be sure, but typical all the same. Dark Souls, in contrast, has given me a street battle through a pseudo-medieval town, followed by a dark, lush forest, both of which feel far fresher. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find it easier to suspend disbelief in the second game*.
Difficulty: Not being able to blow away weaker enemies with the wave of a wand should make my Dark Souls run harder, but so far, with one exception, it doesn’t feel that way. I can think of several reasons: (1) most of the time, Demon’s Souls limits the player to 50% or 75% of maximum health, a restriction missing from Dark Souls; (2) I think my knight’s armour does make a difference; and (3) I now have more practice at the combat system – probably the most important factor, judging by anecdotes from new players who are stuck on the first area. The exception relates to boss fights: in Demon’s Souls magic was the easy way to deal with most bosses, and I suspect that’s still the case. The most recent boss I fought was almost wholly ranged, though luckily, the designers provided a magic-using NPC to assist in the fight. At other times, I rely on the next point…
Multiplayer: This has been the source of some of my grandest moments. Co-op is still a blast – my favourite visual image from the game, so far, is three warriors, male and female, differently armed and attired, advancing across a rooftop to meet a boss. And after regularly dying to PVP invaders in the first game, it was a glorious moment when in co-op, I tag-teamed an invading griefer, shrugged off multiple blows from his hammer in a battle lasting minutes, and finally knocked him to his death off a ledge.
Overall first impression: A more polished version of the same, but that’s not a bad thing! If anybody out there enjoyed the first game but hasn’t picked this up yet, this seems well worth checking out.
* Though to be fair, I wonder if my reduced use of walkthroughs/maps in Dark Souls has something to do with this.
Here’s a thought experiment to chew on. In each case, the alternatives are mathematically identical:
Scenario A. You can win a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either winning $2 or winning nothing. Which do you choose?
Scenario B. You can lose a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either losing $2 or losing nothing. Which do you choose?
You would expect these answers to be consistent – someone who chooses the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario A should also choose the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario B. However, this isn’t the case. On average, people will choose the certain gain in Scenario A, but run the risk of the double-sized loss in Scenario B. Why? Because, according to behavioural finance researchers, a loss is felt more acutely than an equally-sized gain (a phenomenon known as loss aversion*), hence the willingness to take the chance of an even greater loss just to avoid the agony of the small one.
Extrapolated to video games, loss aversion could probably explain a lot of player behaviour – abusing save/reload, anyone? It surely must explain why we feel death penalties so keenly, and since death penalties are so inescapable a part of Demon’s Souls, it helps explain why the game’s difficulty is often exaggerated.
Yes, I said “exaggerated”. This does not mean it’s easy; far from it. Even playing an easy class, using a walkthrough, and looking at a map, I died twice in PVE today, while PVP invaders routinely slaughter me. It does mean that the death penalty, loss of unspent souls if you fail to pull off a corpse run, is nowhere near as fearsome as it sounds. Souls might be easily lost, but they’re also easily acquired – co-op is the safest and best way, but even for a low-level character, it is not that hard to farm them. However, loss aversion would exacerbate the harshness that players perceive.
In my case, while having to replay a level does frustrate me, I don’t especially mind the death penalty. While I am very careful on corpse runs, I can shrug off failing and losing my souls for good. Partly, this is because I know, and thus can control for, the game’s mind tricks. Partly, this is because I’ve never lost a truly whopping number of souls – I’m always careful to return to safety and spend my souls whenever I have enough saved up. Appropriately, there’s another technical term relevant to that…
* If you’re interested, you can read more e.g. here and here.
In a game as unforgiving as Demon’s Souls, I have no pride. To me, there is no such thing as a “cheap” or a “cheesy” tactic in Demon’s Souls – either it works or it doesn’t. And in a game this unforgiving, there is no such thing as a “spoiler”. In search of advice, I will watch videos; read forums, walkthroughs, and wikis; gladly bypass trial and error.
It was those forum threads that led me to the Shrine of Storms, a ruined cliffside stronghold, in search of its fabled loot. I wasn’t too worried about the opposition – until then, I’d never met a trash mob I couldn’t handle with my starting spell, Soul Arrow. Sure, I’d be in trouble if tough foes survived the first couple of Soul Arrows and closed into melee range, but they were slow enough for that not to happen very often. The player character’s strength is his/her agility, and I was grateful for it.
The Shrine of Storms loaded up. I advanced. A skeleton sprang to its feet. I lobbed a Soul Arrow. And to my horror, the skeleton rolled at me – as nimbly as I could roll. “YOU HAVE DIED,” the game told me soon afterwards.
Bad enough that the skeletons were strong enough to survive a couple of Soul Arrows, and fast enough to close the distance. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) Bad enough that my rapier was about as effective as poking them with a cotton bud. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) The icing on the cake was that my reliance on magic meant I’d never properly learned the game’s melee combat system, and thus, I had a tendency to panic and button-mash when foes got too close. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says Dune, and in Demon’s Souls, that makes it a player-killer as well. As such, I soon grew used to the aggravation of watching the skeletons turn and swagger away*while “YOU HAVE DIED” burned on my screen.
But I was having too much fun to give up. I practiced my swordplay against the skeletons, ran the level again and again as a blue phantom, discovered to my joy that the Shrine of Storms is in fact a great place for newbies to farm souls. Once, as a blue phantom, I even made it as far as the boss room; the host and I took down 75% of the boss’s life bar, before I discovered the hard way that the boss could hit the ledge where I was standing.
I decided I’d clear out the boss later. I retrieved the sword for which I had originally come, then travelled to other levels. I killed the dragon who had previously tormented me, then took down another boss (via Soul Arrow, which turned the fight into a piece of cake; I understand that boss is a lot more difficult in melee…).
Beating that other boss restored me to body form and allowed me to bring in blue phantoms. And with that, I was ready to return to the Shrine of Storms. Two blue phantoms and I overpowered the early skeletons, made short work of the level’s sub-boss, pressed on. About halfway through, I lost my first blue phantom to a booby trap; it was me who set off the pressure plate, but the resulting volley of arrows impaled him instead. There was a hairy moment after that, a point-blank fight on a dangerously narrow cliffside path, but with the help of my remaining blue phantom, I made it through. We fought our way to the boss room…
… and promptly died. After seeing how much health I lost to the boss’s first blow, I ran around like a headless chicken and ended up trapped in a corner. On my next two attempts to reach the boss, I didn’t even get that far – both times, I died right before the boss room. The first time, the boss’s “doorman” one-shotted me; the second time, I almost won the swordfight, but “almost” wasn’t good enough.
I think that is the game’s way of telling me I need to try another approach. A buff spell, one that significantly reduces physical damage taken, would be a huge help in the Shrine… and as it happens, I’ve fulfilled one of the two conditions to unlock that spell. I know which level I need to visit to meet the other condition (thanks, Demon’s Souls wiki!), so it’s probably farewell to the Shrine of Storms for now. But I will return. And when I do, stronger and quicker and better prepared, the boss had better watch out.
* I’m sure it was just their usual walking animation, but at that moment, it felt like a gloating, troll-faced swagger.
Last weekend, flush with victory over the first boss of Demon’s Souls, I cheerfully declared, “Much less difficult than I was expecting!” I suspected I’d have to eat those words sooner or later, but hey, they were true at the time.
This weekend, Demon’s Souls fulfilled my expectations. Over the course of a circa two-hour play session, I was repeatedly BBQed by a dragon; made it past the dragon only to be carved to bits by a waiting knight; poisoned; ambushed from behind; and blew most of my precious healing items. What kept this fun rather than frustrating was that for most of this time, I was playing co-op.
While every game is better in co-op, this is doubly so in Demon’s Souls. This is partly due to the usual “many hands make light work” effect, partly because of what a relief it is to see friendly faces, but also partly because the game’s penalty for dying doesn’t always apply in co-op. For background, in Demon’s Souls, you can exist either in “body” or “soul” form. Dying in body form will send you into soul form, and dying in either form will make you drop all your accumulated souls, the game’s titular substitute for currency/EXP. If you die again before retrieving your souls via a corpse run, they’re gone forever.
Co-op works when a “soul” player leaves a marker indicating his/her availability to be summoned by a host, “body” player. The visiting soul will then drop into the host’s world as a blue phantom – and the beauty of playing a blue phantom is that in this form, you don’t lose souls from PvE deaths, making this a great, lower-stress way to explore a new level while building up a nest egg. If you die as a blue phantom, or the host dies (which results in all blue phantoms being booted), no problem – just lay down your marker again and wait for another player in body form to wander past. (I wasn’t the only one to do this, as I ran into the same blue phantom twice.)
I largely played my first few hours (single-player) cautiously, methodically, keeping an eye out for sudden death, and as such, they felt like hours. In contrast, those two hours of co-op flew past, laden as they were with memorable moments.
There were moments of endearing etiquette, when blue phantoms or the host would bow upon arrival.
There were moments bordering on farce, as three “mighty” warriors huddled together, cowering just out of reach of the dragon’s flame, before sprinting for their lives. (As such, this is the most realistic dragon encounter simulator I have played. You can in fact kill the dragon with enough patience, but evidently none of us had a bow with sufficient arrows.)
There were moments of wordless teamwork. Once, our way was blocked by a row of boulder-flinging monsters. The warrior next to me hesitated. And I realised this was a job for my spellcaster: I stepped forward, raised my silver catalyst, and began blasting away to clear our path – just as the third player present emerged from behind the boulder-tossers and caught them between hammer and anvil. This worked both ways – as a weedy spellslinging princeling, I loved having beefy, armoured knights around who could wade into melee and draw fire from me.
There were moments of high adventure: the host player and I made it past the boulder-throwers and eventually came across the level’s boss, a giant, flame-lobbing spider who blocked the far end of a tunnel. (We lost the other blue phantom somewhere along the way – did he lose sight of us and disconnect in frustration? Did an unseen demon do him in? Did he fall to his death?) It was wonderful to watch the host player at work, shooting arrow after arrow at the boss, rolling left and right to avoid fireballs, taking the odd hit but always managing to heal in time. (As far as I could tell, the host was the one doing the dangerous part of the work – my contribution was limited to lobbing Soul Arrows from the back of the tunnel and hiding whenever a fireball came near me.)
And there was a moment of triumph, when the giant spider finally fell. “THE DEMON WAS DESTROYED” took over my screen, and souls flooded into my possession. I gave the other player the highest possible rating (I hope he/she reciprocated!), and back in my own world, took great pleasure in spending my newly acquired souls on a shield and some skill points. I didn’t push my luck after that in single-player – with that, I logged off for the night.
All in all, I had a great time playing Demon’s Souls co-op. And my advice to anyone scared by the thought of visiting the Kingdom of Boletaria: try it with a group! Safety in numbers might be a relative term in this game, but you’ll also enjoy camaraderie and the spectacle of seeing other brave souls in action. See you on the other side of the fog!
Here are some of the games I started recently in lieu of pressing on with The Witcher 2…
Demon’s Souls (PS3) – The infamously difficult action-RPG. As at the end of the first level, it’s actually much less difficult than I was expecting – it’s certainly less frustrating than the opening sections of God Hand or The Witcher 2. It helps that I’m using a walkthrough and playing as the easiest starting class, whose ranged magic attack can OHKO most of the first level’s enemies. This doesn’t mean it’s easy. My magic takes time to lock on and cast, which leaves me vulnerable to being swarmed in close quarters; if you let attacks get past your shield or fail to dodge, you can die in a few solid hits; and if that happens, there’s the loss of time from having to replay swathes of a stage*. The one boss fight that I did was actually really cool: I ran from cover to cover taking pot shots, realised my approach wasn’t working, then pulled my sword and CHARGED! – what a thrill that was. The online aspects of the game are also nifty – you can see ghostly outlines of other players, which once alerted me to an ambush (the ghost ran past a corner, then raised its sword to attack a foe I hadn’t seen), and touching bloodstains will let you see others’ last moments. I’m not sure how much more time I can spare for this game, but the first few hours were worth it.
* You can unlock shortcuts that allow you to bypass chunks of a level if you have to restart; however, there will still be some need to clear out respawned foes.
Bastion (PC) – Indie isometric action-RPG. I estimate I’m around halfway through, and so far, I’d consider this good but unspectacular. The game’s world is imaginative, colourfully drawn and fleshed out by omnipresent narration. Each stage feels distinct, both from an art and a gameplay perspective – some will involve a fairly long Macguffin hunt, in some you’ll find your Macguffin early but then have to flee a gauntlet of foes, and others steadily ramp up to boss battles. The combat feels fluid, as you alternate use of your shield, your various weapons, and manoeuvre. The difficulty level feels right – the mandatory stages start out reasonably easy (you can up the difficulty if you choose – I haven’t done so) while the optional stages are geared towards players who want a challenge. Yet, and this is very subjective, nothing so far has stood out enough for to consider the game “great”. I’m probably going to reserve this for when I’m too tired to play more involved titles.
Half-Minute Hero (PSP) – Now this is a clever concept. The flagship gameplay mode, “Hero 30”, is an 8-bit RPG boiled down into 30-second stages – level up, shop for better gear, recruit NPC allies, and then head for the boss’s lair! In practice, you’ll need more time than that, which is where one of the game’s key mechanics, paying the Goddess of Time to reset the clock, comes into play. As such, the challenge in each stage revolves around finding the right balance (on the fly!) between grinding, tackling the stage-specific challenges, allocating money between the Goddess, equipment, or other NPCs, and leaving enough time to reach the boss. A few hours in, I like its fast pace, I like its sense of humour, and just as with Recettear and Frozen Synapse, I like its original premise, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel (coming to Europe in October).
I’ve now played a bit more of The Witcher 2 – I’m now up to early Act 2 – and I can elaborate on when it works best for me… and when it doesn’t.
My starting point is the familiar argument about whether games should focus on scripted storytelling or open-world gameplay. As an argument, this is silly – the only correct answer can be, “It depends” – but it provides a useful framework for thinking about the experience Witcher 2 offers, because the game’s strongest suit is its story. I like talking to NPCs, I like watching the more compelling NPCs in action, and I like finding out what happens next.
As such, the game’s prologue, steep learning curve aside, made a great first impression on me because it had such a high ratio of (quality) storytelling to gameplay: plenty of cutscenes, plenty of NPC interaction, and because it was so heavily scripted, every minute of gameplay pushed the story forward by directly advancing Geralt towards his goals.
In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Act 1 as much as I did the prologue because it reduced that storytelling : gameplay ratio. It did this in a couple of ways – first, the game opened up, but as a result, I spent much more time running around a town and surrounding environment that I didn’t care much for, and much less time actually progressing the story. In some games, such as Fallout 3, just wandering about in the open is a pleasure, but for me, Act 1 of The Witcher 2, with its narrow paths, was not. And crucially, the pacing of the story quests themselves sagged – while I disagree with Edge’s review of the game*, I do agree that much of Act 1 felt like a diversion. I realise these are very subjective complaints, and they carry a big disclaimer – I missed most of the side quests in Act 1, so quite possibly I made things worse for myself.
However, I will stand by my other bone of contention with Act 1: its difficulty spikes. By the middle of the chapter I could comfortably handle most battles, but the exceptions were still jarring. Even leaving aside boss fights, one sequence required me to fight a whole squad of guards in a little corridor – wide enough for them to swarm me, but not wide enough to take advantage of Geralt’s superior mobility. I reloaded again… and again… and again… and again… and this is where I’ll reiterate my comment from last week that the game needs a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal, for action-challenged players like me. Outside of boss fights and other scripted sequences, it’s almost impossible to die on Easy (seriously, in that corridor fight I mentioned, on Easy Geralt could stand in the middle of five guys swinging their swords and still survive), and that reduces potentially epic moments to anticlimactic clickfests. On the other hand, on Normal, non-stop wiping at that same point wasn’t just annoying. It again negated potentially epic moments (instead of “oh, cool”, my reaction became “just get it over with!”), and it was immersion-breaking, which hurt a story-driven game such as this.
Now that I’m up to Act 2, I’m happy to report that the game has picked up again. Without spoiling anything, the scripted sequences that open the act are strong and even after getting past those, the story density remains high – I can find, and solve, a bunch of quests all in the main hub. Some of the side quests lead into cool fights that, while minor, help flesh out Geralt as a character (the fights became extremely easy once I realised how to cheese them, but that’s a story for another day). And I really like how Act 2 actually tries to justify the usual RPG “run around a new town, helping a bunch of complete strangers” trope. The Witcher 2 has returned to form, and I hope to play more soon.
* I consider the score too harsh based on what I’ve seen of the game; at least as of the latest patch, the combat system is much, much better than described; I actually like the prologue “fights and QTEs” that the reviewer pans; etc etc.
I picked up The Witcher 2 when it went on sale a couple of weekends ago, and so far, I’m a little way through the game – I’ve finished the prologue and I can’t be far off from the end of Act 1. My first impressions: “Everything you’ve heard about this game contains a grain of truth.” Specifically:
Not needing to play the first game: I’ve barely touched the original game, but I’m managing well. There is a huge qualification here, though – I’ve read the stories on which the games are based, so I already know the major characters and a bit about the world.
Storytelling: So far, I like it, starting with the prologue, which captured a “cinematic” feel through a combination of cutscenes, QTEs and gameplay. It dragged a bit through Chapter 1 when I had to do more running around the map with fewer cutscenes to reward me, but now it seems to have picked up again. I also like TW2’s characters, starting with protagonist Geralt, who shows how to pull off the “lethal-but-principled deadpan badass” archetype. This extends to the NPCs: the king feels like a leader should, larger-than-life, sometimes generous, sometimes ruthless. As for the world, the obvious comparison is Dragon Age (disclaimer: I never got that far into DA), another brutal take on the traditional elves-and-dwarves high fantasy world. There seem to be precious few heroes in TW2; corrupt lawmen grow fat from shaking down merchants, while elves and dwarves repay human oppression with nasty insurgency. I think if you’re interested in that kind of setting, you’ll like its depiction in TW2.
An imposing learning curve/difficulty level: I agree with the reviewer (Todd Brakke at Gameshark) who commented that this game could do with a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal. As a general rule, outside of boss fights, Easy feels like god mode while Normal feels like God Hand. Enemies hit hard, especially when they attack from behind! Sure, Geralt is tough enough to take any trash mob one-on-one in a fair fight – but three, or four, or five trash mobs are a completely different story. (I was completely unsurprised to learn that Demon’s Souls was one of the inspirations for the combat.) So the trick is using the tools at your disposal – stun bombs, throwing knives, buffs, crowd-control magic, and more – to ensure that 1 vs many fights aren’t fair. This is why the game’s prologue has such a steep learning curve – it hurls the player into the deep end without properly explaining those tools. Eventually I did get the hang of things, and combat is starting to become more enjoyable. On the other hand, I find boss fights perilously close to being frustrating* rather than fun, so hopefully this will improve later on.
Hefty system requirements: This game is indeed a beast. I have a reasonably powerful machine (i7 7200M processor, Mobility Radeon HD 5730, 4GB RAM) and I still had to turn down the settings to Low.
Dialogue: Yes, the characters say “ploughing” and “witcha” a lot…
So far, early impressions are promising, hair-pulling boss fights aside, and I look forward to uncovering more of the game’s story. I’ll keep you posted on The Witcher 2!
* Days later, I can still recall, “Trap it with the Yrden!” and, “Why are you hounding me?!”
Over the weekend, I finally finished Persona 3 Portable (not long after I finished my Conan the Barbarian post, in fact). In the coming weeks, watch this space for a spoiler-free review, and possibly a “Storytelling in Games” analysis piece. For now, I can say, wow, it was a very good game, maybe even a great game (I’ve yet to make up my mind). Very brief, and very spoileriffic, first thoughts on the game’s ending below the cut:
As you can see above, most of my previous discussion of Persona 3: Portable has focused on one half of the gameplay: the social/high school life simulation. But what about the other half of the game, the dungeon crawl?
You’ll tackle Tartarus, the game’s dungeon, one randomly generated floor at a time. Each floor may contain chests or a portal out. It will contain the staircase leading to the next — and it will almost certainly contain groups of monsters, depicted as black blobs that wander about the dungeon floor. Bumping into these blobs will trigger a battle (no annoying random battles here, thank heavens!). They’ll chase you if you come within their sight, and if they run into you, odds are the monsters will get the first turn in the resulting battle… but strike a blob with your weapon, which is easier if you sneak up from behind, and you’ll move first.
Once combat begins, it looks like your typical menu-driven, turn-based JRPG: each party member* can attack, defend, use the special powers conferred by his/her inner spirit, the titular Persona, etc. Unique in the party, the main character can switch between different Personas, each with different strengths, weaknesses and powers; other party members are stuck with just the one set of abilities.
The twist to this system is the critical importance of targeting vulnerabilities. Attacks in the game are divided into nine types — Pierce, Slash, Fire, Electricity, Light, etc — and different party members, and different enemies, are weak against different types of attack. If a combatant is struck by an attack that targets his/her weakness, the resulting critical hit will knock him/her/it flat. And every time a foe is knocked down, the attacker will get an extra turn. Finally, if all monsters are knocked down, the party can launch a devastating “all-out attack”.
The significance of this is that the game encourages you to chain multiple critical hits in the same turn, culminating in an all-out attack. So if you get in the first move — remember, by striking monsters with your weapon on the dungeon map — and the party has the right damage types at its disposal, you can go through trash mobs like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, where he could pull his gun and mow down three bandits before they even blinked. Conversely, if the monsters move first and they’re especially powerful, or you’re especially unlucky, it’s possible to wipe in a single volley of queued critical hits (luckily, monsters can’t launch all-out attacks…).
For most fights, this system works very well. It pushes you to prepare for battle by using a well-balanced party and keeping a varied selection of Personas on hand. It means there’s a bit of tension on the dungeon map, as you take care to sneak up on monsters, or conversely run like blazes to avoid having the monsters run into you. And given the number of trash mobs you’ll fight, it keeps ordinary battles moving at a good, brisk pace.
Where this system doesn’t work so well is in boss battles. It takes a long time to defeat the typical boss monster, and a simple, elegant system built for speed is not well suited for protracted pounding matches. My boss fights tend to turn into repetition of the same pattern of moves over and over – A attacks, B buffs then attacks, C debuffs then attacks, D heals. And as a result, I am often all too glad when boss fights are over.
Still, on the whole, I like Persona 3: Portable’s battle system. It’s not every boss fight that stretches on for too long. And even those that do are outweighed by the fun I have as I tear through the game’s ordinary encounters.
* This is a change from the PS2 version, in which you only directly controlled the main character — your party members had their own AI.