The Knights of Pemberton St

THE KNIGHTS OF PEMBERTON ST.
My take on Pearce Shea’s Monsterparts.
Obviously missing is anything about gear and specific Wrongness, because it’s all there in Monsterparts. All I did was change mechanical stuff — not as a negative comment on Monsterparts, but because of my own personal technical aesthetics.

I. INTRODUCTION
You are all children living on Pemberton St. You all know each other, but you didn�t necessarily spend time together or get along. But now you have all been brought and bound together, because Pemberton St. is going Wrong, and you�re the only ones that know it. The grownups can’t or won’t see it, and won’t or can’t listen, even as the Wrongness threatens the entire street. It’s up to you, the Knights of Pemberton St., to sneak out of your rooms at night and battle the forces of Wrong.

II. CHARACTER ARCHETYPES
No two players should choose the same archetype.

1. THE TOUGH KID

Attack rolls are +1 per level.

Saves vs. physical adversity are +1 per level. All other saves are +1 for every three levels.

You get these abilities:
- Choose one thing per level that you are good at using as a weapon. This weapon counts as Special for the purposes of attacks against Wrong things.
- Once per night, you can shrug off physical hurt when it is inflicted. Don’t even write it down; it’s like it never happened.

Choose one or more of your fellow Knights; you used to pick on them a lot. They Get Along -1 with you.

Choose one of your fellow Knights; you secretly respect them. You Get Along +1 with them.

2. THE SMART KID

Attack rolls are +1 for every three levels, except with Special weapons; in that case, +1 for every two levels.

Saves vs. mental adversity are +1 per level. All other saves are +1 for every three levels.

You get these abilities:
- 1 in 6 chance, +1 for every three levels to a max of 5 in 6, that you have read about any given Wrong, weird, or technical thing, or at least something like it. If so, ask the GM any yes/no question about it, and he must give you a true answer. You can try again until you fail, asking a new question for every successful roll, but if you fail then the GM will change things such that one of the facts you learned is not true (without telling you which one).
- if you have suitable materials, you get a 1 in 6 chance, +1 for every three levels to a max of 5 in 6, to fix something that is broken.
- when you have the chance to make maps at your leisure, you may make a mental save to receive verification of their accuracy and corrections from the GM. You choose what room/corridor to apply this to, and may continue to do this until you fail a save or until the other players get tired of waiting for you. Using this ability means that you don’t rest and recover during this leisure time.

Choose one or more of your fellow Knights; you secretly think they’re kind of dumb. You Get Along -1 with them.

3. THE BAD KID

Attack rolls are +1 for every two levels, unless you are in a position to sucker-punch an enemy; in that case, +1 per level.

Saves vs. grownups are +1 per level. All other saves are +1 for every two levels.

You get these abilities:
- 1 in 6 chance, +1 for every three levels to a max of 5 in 6, that you can bring something with you that belongs to your parents when you sneak out for the night.
- When you hide something from somebody, they won’t find it. Except grownups; they have a 1 in 10 chance of finding it by accident.
- once per night, when faced with adversity, you can become Spiteful. While Spiteful, you Get Along -3 with everyone (regardless of how well you normally would) but get +1 for every two levels to all saves and attack rolls. This lasts for 1d6 turns.

Choose one or more of your fellow Knights; you secretly envy them. You Get Along -1 with them.

Choose one or more of your fellow Knights; you think they look down on you. You Get Along -1 with them.

Choose one or more of your fellow Knights; you used to pick on them a lot. They Get Along -1 with you.

4. THE WEIRD KID

Attack rolls are +1 for every three levels, except with Special weapons; in that case, +1 per level.

Saves vs. weird and Wrong things are +1 per level. All other saves are +1 for every two levels.

You get this ability:
When you find something Special, you have a 1 in 6 (+1 for every three levels, to a max of 5 in 6) chance of intuitively knowing what it does and how to use it.

Choose one of your fellow Knights; they are the only one who really understands you. You Get Along +1 with them, and they Get Along +1 with you.

5. THE NICE KID

Attack rolls are +1 for every three levels.

Saves vs. emotional adversity are +1 per level. All other saves are +1 for every three levels.

You get these abilities:
- When you share food, it counts as a full meal for everyone, even if there’s not really enough to go around. You can do this a number of times each night equal to your level.
- When you provide encouragement to someone facing adversity, they get +1 to their rolls that turn. You can do this a number of times each night equal to your level.
- When you provide comfort and sympathy to someone who is hurt, they recover from one point of hurt. You can do this a number of times each night equal to your level.

You Get Along +1 with all of your fellow Knights. Choose one; they are your best friend. You Get Along an extra +1 (for a total of +2) with them, and they Get Along +1 with you.

III. IMAGINARY FRIENDS
Research shows that 65% of kids have imaginary friends, so roll under 65 on a d% to see if you have one. If you do, describe what they look like. They have some special talent or ability; what is it?

Mechanically, imaginary friends function as Special things, except with a mind of their own. The GM roleplays your imaginary friends, and decides whether they do what you tell/ask them to do based on how well you treat them.

IV. FIGHTING
You can only fight things and people that have gone Wrong.

To fight something Wrong, you must make an attack roll. Roll a d20, add your attack roll bonus, and subtract any attack roll penalty that the Wrong thing may have. A result of 11 or higher is a hit.

What happens next depends on what weapon you are using:
- If you don’t have a weapon, the best a hit can do is keep the Wrong thing from hurting you or someone else (one person, by name).
- If you are using a normal thing as a weapon, a hit can prevent the Wrong thing from hurting you or someone else, keep it at bay, prevent it from entering a door/window/etc., or hold it in position.
- If you are using a normal but dangerous thing as a weapon, it can do any of the above, or can drive the Wrong thing away for now.
- If you are using a Special thing as a weapon, it can do any of the above, or can hurt the Wrong thing.

When a Wrong thing attacks, the GM doesn’t roll. Rather, its victim(s) must make a save vs. Wrongness to avoid being hurt. Some Wrong things might add penalties to these saves.

V. SAVES
Anything besides attack rolls that is in question is resolved by a save. If you try to climb a tree, and you might fall out, make a save to not fall out. If you try to pick something up, but it turns out it’s really heavy, make a save to not wimp out and drop it. The GM will have to apply his judgment to whether or not the special save bonuses (vs. physical adversity for the Tough Kid, vs. Wrong/weird stuff for the Weird Kid, etc.) apply, but it should be fairly obvious whether they do or not.

To save, roll a d20, add your save bonus, and subtract any save penalties that may be applied. A result of 11 or higher is a success. This means you avoid the badness that might have happened, or, if it was something that was impossible to avoid, you at least manage to mitigate it.

If you fail a save against something Wrong, you can use a Special thing to protect you. It loses its Specialness in the process, though, and either becomes just normal or is destroyed in some fashion.

VI. HURT
Hurt can be physical, mental, or emotional; it doesn’t matter, and the effect is the same. Hurt can be inflicted by Wrong things, grownups, accidents, and even your fellow Knights, but you can always to save to avoid or mitigate it. Use a track like the following to keep up with it:

Minor [] -> Grievous [] -> Serious [] -> Dead []; Rested? ()

Tick a box (in order) when you get hurt. Tick the circle when you get to rest and recover. When you get hurt again, clear the circle. If you get to rest and recover, and your circle is already ticked, clear one of the boxes.

Ticking the first box requires making a save, or else you suffer some momentary impairment (getting caught in a web, twisting your ankle, falling down, etc.).

Ticking the second one requires making a save, or else you suffer some lasting (until the danger passes) impairment or must become incapacitated (ranging from fainting, to falling into a magical sleep, to curling up in a ball and crying; whatever is appropriate in the moment) you can make the save (you may try again each turn) or the danger passes.

Ticking the third one requires making a save, or else you suffer some persistent (until you manage to do something to remove it) impairment or else must save not to die every turn until rested.

Ticking the fourth one means you are dead, or faded into nothing, or forever disappeared, or otherwise removed from the game in some appropriate and doubtless creepy fashion.

VII. RESTING AND RECOVERING
When you have leisure time — that is, time when you are not being pursued and harried by horrible things — you can rest. If you have some source of shared joy, you get to recover as well. The easiest source of joy is some decent food. Other possibilities include singing songs or telling stories.

VIII. GROWNUPS
You can’t fight or otherwise engage in direct conflict with grownups who haven’t gone Wrong. The best you can do is save to avoid/evade them. Naturally, being caught outside in the night by a grownup is something you want to avoid, because they will take you to your house and then you will be in trouble.

IX. GETTING ALONG
When creating your character, you ended up with some Get Along modifiers with various other characters. Write these down. If more than one applied to the same person, total them (so if you Get Along -1 with a kid for one reason, but also Get Along +1 with that kid for another reason, you Get Along +0 with that kid). There is a difference between how well you Get Along with a kid and how well they Get Along with you; you only need to write down how well you Get Along with the other kids.

When you try to come to the aid of one of the other kids, roll a d10 and add your Get Along bonus/penalty with them. A result of 6 or better is a success. When successful, you can do one of the following:
- suffer hurt/danger in their place
- hand/toss/slip them an item at a crucial moment
- allow them to re-roll a roll they just made

X. EXPERIENCE
When you confront Wrongness and resolve the situation to your benefit or advantage, you gain 1 XP. When you permanently defeat/end/banish/destroy something Wrong, you gain 10 XP. The XP it takes to level up is equal to your current level times 10. So you need 10 XP to make level 2, then 20 more to make level 3, then thirty more to make level 4, and so on.

This is the D&D that I want.

.we were low on food, so the hobo started foraging. He came upon some strawberries, but upon eating them we discovered that he had botched his skill check and these were, in point of fact, stabberries. Everyone took d6 damage, and the luchador failed his gastric save, leaving him vomiting and incapacitated for 6d10 minutes. In this moment of weakness, we were ambushed by Curvy Cats, but the brave toaster managed to hold them off until the wizard managed to conjure a stack of giant pancakes in the air that flattened the cats like… well, pancakes. From there we hit the treasure table and came away with a roll of pennies, some candy corn, a birdcage, and a squishy pig.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

This is the first article-type-thing in a possible series about flawed but daring video games. FBDs are some of my favorite games, usually second only to flawless and daring games (such as Pikmin). While a few of them manage to become hits (No More Heroes, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), most of them go pretty largely ignored. That’s certainly the case for Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (DCOTE from here on out); outside of the official forums, I haven’t spoken to a single person who has heard of it, let alone played it [until I posted this article on G+ -MB].

DCOTE is a first-person survival horror game based on the Cthulhu Mythos, and while it’s not the only one out there, I’m pretty sure it’s the only one endorsed by Chaosium to use the CoC brand (the game itself also borrows heavily from the Escape from Innsmouth module, or so I’m given to understand). It was published by Bethesda, but developed by Headfirst, who unfortunately collapsed almost immediately after publication (they continued to make the PC port even though they couldn’t pay themselves for the work). It’s available for the xbox and PC, but get the xbox version; the PC version is buggier, and the xbox controller contributes very well to the experience.

One of the first things you’ll notice about this game is that there is no HUD, and as far as I know, they beat the first-person world to that (Mirror’s Edge and that space zombie game do it too now). Everything about the state of your character is communicated through other cues – danger through increased heart rate, loss of health through fading vision, available ammo through… uh… nothing, actually. You have to count your shots, which here is awesome. I can count on one hand the number of things that are scarier than being charged by a Deep One and pulling the trigger only to hear your rifle go click, and several of those things are also in this game.

The game starts with a simple, non-hazardous investigation. Your character, Jack, is a policeman investigating the aftermath of a Yith cult. This sequence serves not only to introduce the controls and several bits of foreshadowing, but also two of the central mechanics of the game. One: Jack’s an investigator, so click on everything that looks halfway interesting to hear Jack’s thoughts on it (which is crucial for many puzzles later on). Two: sanity loss.

Oh man. Here’s the basics of it: when you look directly at horrifying crap, your SAN takes a hit. Like everything else, this isn’t indicated by numbers. Instead, Jack starts flipping out to some degree. It starts with accelerated heartbeat and breathing, then moves on into head-swimming panic (with blurred vision) and Jack talking to himself and maybe hearing some voices. The panic gets worse by degrees until you reach a total game-ending breakdown (if he’s armed, Jack will shoot himself at this point, so that’s fun). You’ll calm down over time if you can stay away from freaky shit, and killing enemies also keeps the breakdown at bay (at certain points, the game pretty much becomes a matter of shooting Deep Ones faster than they can drive you crazy, not to mention kill you).

And let me get back to that heartbeat for a second. You know that controllers vibrate these days, right? Just checking, since it’s entirely possible that you forgot, given how pointless and unimaginative most implementations of the feature are. In this case, though, HOLY CRAP. The controller vibrates from one side to the other in a very convincing ba-bump that matches the heartbeat sounds coming out of the speakers. Not only do you hear Jack’s racing heart, but you feel it too. This combination leads very quickly to your own heart locking step with Jack’s.

In case it’s not clear, the overall effect of the sanity mechanic is that when Jack starts freaking out, odds are pretty good that you do too. This is the central challenge of the game, to which shooting and puzzle-solving are secondary: keeping your damn calm.

The next best thing is the shooting, but before I get to that let’s talk about all the times you won’t be shooting anything. There are three extended sequences of danger during which you are unarmed and must sneak and run like hell in order to survive. You don’t even get a gun until at least thirty minutes into the game, and probably much longer given the difficulty of surviving that first setpiece unarmed. The developers even deliberately omitted any sort of punching mechanic, because it would send the wrong message: that you can succeed by punching out the hybrids pursuing you, which you can’t. You’re supposed to run. Some critics decried the lack of punching, but it’s simply game design.

So, yeah, shooting. There isn’t much that I hate more than a shooty game that fails to make me feel like I’m not just a collision box running around firing vectors at other collision boxes (offenders include Quake, Unreal, Killzone, and Medal of Honor). DCOTE succeeds remarkably in this regard, and has overall the most realistic shooting I’ve ever seen in one of these games, which is pretty important because this game’s key word is immersion. Let’s start with the fact that the gun fires in the actual direction it’s pointing when you pull the trigger. Which means, when you draw a gun, if you panic and fire before Jack has leveled the gun, you shoot the floor. Good job there, buddy. When people get shot, they feel it – of course, they feel it less than you, since even in a best-case scenario they’re no more than half human. The guns kick, the reloading animations are true-to-life (which is too bad for you in the case of the Springfield rifle especially), and the shotgun even has an almost realistic spread.

There’s no aiming reticle either, and the normal stance has a huge amount of waver (especially while moving), so if you want to be accurate at all, you need to pull the left trigger to make Jack hold the gun in a proper shooting position so you can use the iron sights. The further you depress the left trigger, the tighter (and slower) the aiming becomes. However, maintain this position too long and Jack’s arms get tired, leaving you wavering all over the place again (and let’s not forget that it’s probable Jack is freaking out throughout this process). And may Cthulhu have mercy on your soul if one of your arms is broken.

You heard me. Damage is location-based, with death caused by sufficient damage to the head or torso, or by sufficient blood loss should you fail to treat your wounds in time. If an arm gets broken, you can kiss your ability to shoot straight goodbye. And you will never, ever forget the sickening sensation that comes with trying to run with a broken leg. You deal with this by using appropriate items – splints for broken legs, bandages to stop your wounds from bleeding, sutures to close serious wounds. Applying these takes time, though, and that’s where it gets tricky. In a pinch, you can shoot up some morphine, which is instantaneous and allows you to ignore all your wounds long enough to get to safety, in exchange for some serious perceptual impairment that’s bound to put a damper on your reaction times.

Something has to be said about the setpieces, too, because they’re pretty damn good. Especially the first one if you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s stories, because you realize that you’re basically reenacting The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and that it’s leading up to the hotel escape scene (which, as far as I can remember, matches the story exactly). Then it turns out that it’s only the first step to getting out if Innsmouth, which is a rather harrowing affair culminating with you in the bed of a truck with hybrids shooting at you from all directions. If you’re feeling gutsy, it’s possible to kill them all, but it’s much easier and just as valid to duck and hide, shooting only at the fishy bastards who can actually hit you. That’s the kind of game this is. I’d tell you about some of the other great setpieces, but, y’know, spoilers.

The game also boasts some modest replay value by scoring you when you complete it. The score is based on factors like time, number of saves, accuracy, overall sanity loss, how many times you use the morphine, and how many people you save from being shredded by Deep Ones in a particular scene. If you achieve a grade of A, you get treated to an alternate ending that reveals some extra details about stuff. But if you’re like me, then “D?! I made a D after all that? That’s it, I’ll show this game” is incentive enough.

I’m not forgetting about the flaws here, though. First off, the controls for everything but shooting are pretty bad. Sneaking and sprinting, both of which you’ll be doing a lot of, are pretty hard to control, and you’ll often end up moving too fast when you want to sneak, or trying to take off running only to find that you’re crouched down. One of the most important actions that you’ll need to do repeatedly throughout the game – sliding barrel bolts on doors – is extremely difficult to get the hang of. And don’t even get me started about the jumping. These issues combined with the use of save points make for an extremely frustrating experience at times.

The healing system is poorly implemented in a way that just makes it a gimmick. There’s not much of a threat of running out of materials, and you never really have to make a choice between splinting your arm or your leg, so the only meaningful thing here is the time it takes to apply the stuff – meaning that it’s functionally the same as the healing system found in Halo and dozens of other games since. Perhaps a better way would be to require you to improvise first aid materials from your surroundings rather than running around with an ambulance in your pocket, but that of course would require additional time that the developers didn’t have, and might also have been a little too Die Hard in tone for a Cthulhu game.

The game is also quite buggy by console standards (and the PC port is even worse). I mentioned save points, right? Yeah. Save points + bugs = fuuuuuck.

I would say something about dated graphics at this point, except I’m not a total asshat. I play Dwarf Fortress, dude; count all the fucks I give.

Overall, yes, this is a game that will occasionally make you want to punch your TV and rage-quit, but it’s also one of the most daring and immersive survival-horror games ever. I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of it, but I’m also pretty sure there is no valid reason whatsoever that you should not play it. Besides, I want to talk about how scary it was running from the [SPOILER] and how cool it was to shoot [SPOILER] with a cannon and how rewarding it was when you found the [SPOILER] and started frying enemies with it. So get on it, people. Sheesh.

Quandary

I’ve got a bit of a quandary.

Ok, so most of you probably are aware of MADcorp, my dungeoncrawling game that’s in beta right now. I’ve also been experimenting with using the same system to play a sandboxy campaign that’s not so limited to dungeons — in other words, there’s a world with a bunch of things going on, and the players can choose to involve themselves in these things (in order to try to leverage them to personal gain) or not.

Here’s the thing. A game-unit of MADcorp is one dungeon. short-term success means getting a bunch of valuable shit and getting out with it alive. Long-term success means doing that continually and leveling up the company. When you get to level 20, you win.

With this other idea, a game-unit is resolving a situation (for the moment) into which you’ve inserted yourself. Short-term success means resolving that situation in a manner that nets you some gain (gains come in the form of wealth, fame, infamy, and/or recognizance of deeds by political powers). Long-term success means using those gains to enhance your position in life and the world. When you achieve the position you want (whether that means being able to retire to a private island for the rest of your life, or becoming the King of Kansas, or whatever), you win.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Idea #2 has a much better reward system (leveling the company up to level 20 is not nearly as satisfying an end goal as retiring to your own private island forever), which would make it more rewarding, which would make it a better game.

The question is, do I continue with the nearly-done MADcorp and publish it? It’s nearly-done, and this second idea is going to require a lot more work yet (hammering out how wealth, fame, infamy, and deeds work exactly). But the second idea otherwise uses the same system, and is a better game. Do I sell people the not-as-good (but still good) game only to release a better game that not only uses the same system but in fact can encapsulate all the gameplay that could occur in MADcorp?

Maybe MADcorp is a sort of “red box.” Maybe it’s a rip-off. I can’t figure it out.

MADcorp beta testing: get your dungeon on with a baseball bat

The MADcorp beta version is up and running. Anybody who wants in on testing, lemme know.For those of you not familiar with MADcorp, it’s the game of corporate dungeoncrawling horror in a world gone weird. That is, you work for a corporation that delves into abandoned buildings looking for valuable crap. It’s the kind of dungeoncrawling where the dungeon is an environment you can go around in any order you want (i.e. magician’s choices and pallette swapping are cheating), not the kind where a dungeon is a linear/branching sequence of encounters that you’re supposed to “get to the end of.” It’s “horror” in the sense that it’s about horrible things, and tension, and trepidation, rather than being about hack ‘n slash (although there’s plenty of violence). It’s a world gone weird in that there’s magic and ghosts and monsters and shit, and dungeons sometimes don’t follow the laws of geometry or physics, and dungeoneering like this is a viable and legal avenue for business (as far as the law is concerned, what happens in the dungeon stays in the dungeon). The player characters are all pretty much psychotic but also badass, and the game simultaneously celebrates and makes fun of them. It’s very funny, cavalier, and grungy. Overall, it’s a bit like kill puppies for satan meets Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.

If you wanna know more, please ask here. Also consider searching Story Games (http://www.story-games.com/forums)  for threads with “MADcorp” in the title.

If you want in, please email me at marksman45[at]gmail, and put “MADcorp” in the subject somewhere. Please don’t ask for the materials if you aren’t serious about planning to give me feedback. If you’ve got some experience with the alpha version, please try to approach this one fresh: most of the differences are crucial but very subtle, and you might miss them if you don’t put the old stuff out of your mind.

Furthermore, you are free to view, print, download, and distribute the Employee Handbooks whether you playtest or not.

Also: a thing I forgot to address in the “ATTN: Playtesters” part of the text, because I’m a moron. The primary thing (not only, just primary) that needs development at this time is Referee techniques and advice. Which is a big part of why I need other people to get involved, so that I can say, “No, no, you’re doing it wrong, the correct approach is this,” and you can say, “Well maybe you should put that in the book, dipshit,” and I can say, “Huh, I should probably put that in the book, yeah?”

THE RUSTBELT PRE-ORDERS

I’m taking pre-orders for the first edition of The Rustbelt. It’s finally coming out!

Here’s the back cover text:

Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. The Rust slowly eats everything away. It wears a man down. Corrodes him. Changes him. Makes him do things he wouldn’t think himself capable of. If you had to, wouldn’t you?become?

It’s a hard world, and you gotta pay for what you want. Sometimes the price is so hideous it makes you think twice, but it might be your only chance. The Rust whispers in your ear, “C’mon, do the math.”

So, how much are you willing to pay? What are you willing to do? What are you willing to

You gotta go a long way in the ‘Belt to find a good man.

THE RUSTBELT is a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game featuring:
- The Blood, Sweat, & Tears Engine: a flexible and easy-to-use resolution system in which your resolve matters more than your abilities.
- The Psyche System: personality mechanics that keep the characters psychologically and emotionally realistic and compelling – no matter how inhuman they turn out to be – without taking away the player’s control.
- Player-authored stories: your characters will be pushed against the wall until they’ve revealed all their most monstrous and most admirable qualities, but the decisions are always yours to make, and the prices yours to pay. The end result is a gritty, desperate tale in the vein of The Stand, The Road, or Mad Max.
- Customization support: full guidelines for adapting the game to other settings, as well as three examples to get you started.

“THE RUSTBELT is lean and mean. The laissez-faire, non-balanced character creation is excellent and totally appropriate; with the right Psyche traits, a one-legged stable boy could be the most dangerous guy in town. Fights are desperate, horrible affairs. I look forward to playing again.”
- Ron Edwards, designer of Sorcerer, Spione, and S/Lay w/Me

“The Psyche System is the most elegant model for human behavior I’ve ever seen in an RPG. And I have a master’s degree in psych.”
- Jonathan Davis

“Psyche did a really good job of fleshing out all the characters even during chargen. One character started off as ‘the Hulk as a mercenary in a Western’ and turned into an immigrant who tries to buy acceptance, without sacrificing any of the player’s original concept.”
- Josh W

And here’s some sample pages:

It costs $24 plus $2.77 shipping. You can purchase it at my primitive online store over here: http://www.angelfire.com/indie/btw/store.html

CPRG Musings: Legend of Mana

I’ve been a fan of the Mana series (or Seiken Densetsu, if you want to impress your local otaku) since Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu II) came out on the SNES. They are hands-down one of the prettiest, most charming series out there. In addition to Secret of Mana, I’ve played Seiken Densetsu (released as Final Fantasy Adventure on the Gameboy in the US), a translated ROM of Seiken Densetsu III, and Legend of Mana for the Playstation. That last one is my pick for the prettiest and most charming of the litter.

I originally bought it years ago and kept it for a few years before selling it. I remember being very satisfied with it. Recently I reacquired it and started playing again. It’s every bit as pretty and charming as I remembered, and sports a wonderfully colorful cast of characters in a colorful, quirky world. I’m particularly fond of the pirate penguins, who are proud to be pirates but are really just playing at being pirates (I love that they have to talk their walrus captain into threatening them, “I’ll kill ye all!” and then cheer when he does so). I like the school of magic, where one of the professors was trapped inside his own magic circle and now looks like a floating stained-glass window – and I like how he’s annoying and obstructive to the other professors, but they can’t do anything about it really ‘cause he’s apparently got tenure or something. I still get a smile when the principal of the magic school, who is apparently a demon, steals an ancient grimoire with intent to use a spell in it for “creating and controlling stars” to destroy the world (just ‘cause he can), only to find out that it’s just a recipe for fireworks – especially since everyone involved (including the professor who rushed off to try to stop him) decides that the result was kind of cool, then just goes home and forgets about the whole episode. The fortune teller, who tells fortunes by reading fruit, always cracks me up with her dubious and bewildered attitude toward the cryptic messages that the fruit gives her.

I’d love to see this kind of setting and color applied to a tabletop RPG sometime. It reminds me of a children’s story more than anything, but with a slight amorality, and somehow its darker elements don’t seem out of place to me. You know, when I put it that way, it occurs to me that it reminds me, in terms of tone and emotional scope, of Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey comics more than anything else.

As far as the mechanics go, I’m particularly fascinated that the Charm stat doesn’t influence social mechanics (since there are none), but rather determines your ability to inflict status effects on enemies. I also like the “abilities,” which are little moves like backflips, slide kicks, and grapples that you gradually unlock. You equip two at a time, and they have a heavy impact in combat. The workshops provide a great deal of mechanics to explore, and I’m particularly fond of the golems, who must be programmed by fitting Tetris-like blocks (each representing an action) into a grid.

But, there’s some problems.

First off, something that really gripes me (and did when I first played the game too): I don’t like being railroaded into murdering the last three dragons in the world in order to advance the storyline. This ties back into the comparisons I made regarding Chrono Trigger vs. Chrono Cross. In some other game (Shadow of the Colossus, for instance), I wouldn’t mind stuff like destroying ecosystems or rare and beautiful creatures, but it really irks me in this game. It’s the one element of the storylines that does not fit in. (Take note that these dragons keep out of trouble, and one of them even fosters and watches over a tribe – they’re not out burninating the countryside or anything.)

Something I noticed this time through is how passive your role is in the game. The majority of the “quests” consist of watching other people have stories, while you run along behind and kill monsters, then kill a boss at the end. You’re rarely actually a protagonist in the game.

The dungeons, while always pretty, are irritating. The layouts are very convoluted and hard to keep in your head since they don’t align to any form of grid at all (the screens don’t connect cleanly, and aren’t even in any uniform size), and there’s no map features. Couple that with the fact that the enemies respawn when you leave the screen, forcing you to fight them again and use up all your cognitive space; by the time the battle’s over, it’s hard to remember where you were going.

As fun as the workshops are to interact with, the designers made a major misstep in not making it necessary or even particularly meaningful to do so. The game just isn’t difficult enough (it’s really really easy) to require that you develop good equipment or pets. For one thing, you level up way too fast, and actually have to actively avoid leveling in order to maintain even the slightest level of challenge. I ended up using crappy equipment made out of bones and stuff just ‘cause I thought it was cool, and never suffered for this decision at all. While you can go and seek out rare and wonderful materials to try out, there’s no reason to do so other than to find out what happens. I have to admit that just trying things out engaged me for a very long time – but once the novelty wears off, you’re left to realize that there’s not actually much of a game there.

Still, though, I have to come back to the setting. It’s one of the few that really grabs my attention and speaks to me, for some reason, and keeps me playing the game even though I know that the battles are just a chore and the workshops just a tacked-on, inconsequential feature.

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