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ALCHEMISTS ATE MY BRAIN

Time for some more CRPG musings! Today’s topic: Mana Khemia: the Alchemists of Al-Revis.

This game here? This is the real deal. This is a motherforkin’ CRPG. Jeebus Crispies, where do I start? There is so much that I like about this game. Let’s just break down a list of cool things.

Cool Thing #1: the Structure. So, the premise of this game is students attending a school for alchemists. Play is structured into terms, which are further broken down into weeks. Each week ends with a story event, usually involving some sort of climactic challenge tied to that plot point. During that week, you attend classes that require you to learn things and face smaller challenges, preparing you for the big one ahead.

 That’s some for-serious game design right there. This genre has needed for decades to innovate beyond the “talk to this guy, then fight some stuff so you can go talk to the next guy, then wander around aimlessly until you figure out who you have to talk to next” format for advancing the story. You’re never left floundering in MK. You always have an assignment to point the way, and the big story events start on their own.

But there’s more! In each week, you get a certain amount of free time. Each day of free time can be used to go on a side quest with one of the other main characters. Doing this increments an opaque “friendship” score with that character, which has a few mechanical effects (particularly impacting cooperative synthesis in the alchemy lab), and even some more profound impacts on the game. For instance,

**SPOILER ALERT**

 One of the main guys doesn’t have a familiar spirit and is bitter about it. If you do enough (a lot) side quests with him, he finally acquires one and becomes a much more effective force in the game. He’s still an asshole, though.

 **END SPOILER ALERT**

Very, very interesting to me is that there doesn’t seem to be enough free time to do all the side quests. I never finished the game, so I can’t say for sure, but based on the timeframe in which you’re supposed to be attending the school, and on how much free time you seem to get per term, I can’t see there being enough.

Cool Thing #2: Sprite-Based Art. Some punk-ass gamers think that sprite graphics are teh suxx0rs. Those people are punk-asses. Sprite graphics are nearly always superior to 3D rendered graphics. You know why? Because the artform is older and the techniques are more developed. 3D is just out of its silent film era; 2D has already had it’s Citizen Kane for a solid decade by now.

Cool Thing #3: the Initiative System. The basic structure of the combat system is your usual Japanese CRPG fare: you’ve got hitpoints and magic points; on your turn, you pick “fight,” “defend,” “magic,” or “item” from the menu; and so on.

What’s really interesting is the initiative system. Rather than just going from fastest down to slowest or using something like Square’s Active Time Battle, each character has a card on the screen, and at the beginning of the battle, the cards are shuffled and dealt out across the top of the screen (with speed stats as a factor but with a heavy random element too), with the first-acting character at the far right and the last on the far left. That’s right, you get to see, right up front, when each character will act in relation to the others. Then, when you act, you get shuffled back in somewhere at the back.

You’ve also got a “wait” command that lets you postpone your action and move your card anywhere you want towards the back of the deck, enabling you to perform combinations and synergy tactics effectively and predictably.

But there’s more! Some skills have delayed or recurrent effects. These effects are also represented by cards and shuffled in. For instance, the “Healing Field” spell will recur in three consecutive rounds, and you can look at the layout of cards at the top of the screen to see when it’ll go off.

This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. It’s also begging to be appropriated for some table-top roleplaying.

Cool Thing #4: the Synthesis System. This being a game about alchemists, there’s of course some alchemy going on. You go into the field to gather ingredients, then mix ‘em up in your workshop to make items. You won’t be buying many items at the stores; just ingredients, for the most part. Your basic items have standard recipes, which is nothing new. What’s cool is that you can substitute similar ingredients for each other and get the same item with some different properties. For the most part, these properties aren’t mechanically relevant, but there are some assignments that require you to make a specific item with certain properties.

But you get to experiment even further. You can go further off the recipe and substitute ingredients that are kinda similar, and end up with a totally different item. You can literally sit in that workshop for hours just checking out all the different combinations you can do. Not only that, but you should experiment, because of…

 Cool Thing #5: the Advancement System. Of all the cool things in this game, this one takes the cake. So, when you win fights, you get some points. Looks like the same old EXP all over again, yawn – but hang on. Those points don’t level you up. You don’t even have levels. What’s going on?

Here’s how it is: each character has a personalized advancement grid, and you spend the aforementioned points to buy abilities and stat boosts from this grid. You can think of it as similar to the grids on FFXI, except they’re different for each character. Another big difference is that buying a node on the grid doesn’t unlock it’s neighbors. Nope, in order to unlock the nodes at all, you have to engage in alchemical synthesis and make certain items. The requisite items also vary from character to character.

It’s a hard thing to describe, but it is one of the most exciting and most rewarding advancement systems I’ve ever seen. Every time you get home from an adventure, you’re champing at the bit to get back to the lab and experiment with all the new ingredients you’ve found, both to see what kind of cool shit you can make, and also to see what making those things has unlocked for your characters. Not only is experimentation fun in it’s own right, but it’s also mechanically meaningful, even if you’re making stuff that you don’t intend to use.

All you table-top gamers out there: imagine if Ars Magica’s advancement and laboratory stuff worked that way. Is your mind blown yet?

There’s a phrase that I use when a game or subject or author is really jazzing me, to the point where I can’t stop engaging with it for an extended amount of time – often months – because it’s proving so rewarding and keeps having more and more to offer. I say that it’s “eating my brain.” Due to the above, this is one of the few CRPGs to ever eat my brain. This puts it up there with William S. Burroughs, Dwarf Fortress, Carlos Castaneda, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Captain Beefheart. (The only other CRPGs I can think of that ate my brain are Vagrant Story and Baroque, unless ADOM counts.)

Now, every silver cloud has its gray lining, so let’s stop gushing for now. I didn’t finish the game, and had no qualms about trading it for some RPG books, so there’s obviously a reason for that.

Bad Thing #1: I lost interest in the story. Happens to me a lot with these games. This one end up a bit too sprawling for me, in a sort of soap opera fashion, and I never really cared about any of the characters. I really liked the ghost girl, though, for some reason. But then you’ve got the obligatory silent/shy protagonist, the obligatory samurai-and/or-ninja girl character, the obligatory hotsy part-animal girl character, the obligatory bitter rival who nonetheless ends up on your side, and so on. And, again, the gorram cute squishy alien. Why must there always be a cute squishy alien introduced in the latter half of the game? They adopt him as a mascot, which is fun, but, dammit. What a way to alienate (bu-dum-splish) your audience.

Bad Thing #2: You know that whole synthesis thing I was gushing about just a few seconds ago? Well, there’s a problem with it. When you get into higher-level syntheses, there ends up being a lot of steps. I mean a lot of steps. You want to make thing X, but first you have to make thing Y, which requires that you make things A, B, and C first, and before you know it, you’re writing out a spreadsheet to figure out the total number of raw ingredients you need, and then you’re synthesizing old things for five minutes just to try out something new. In other words, it becomes a chore. That, and trawling old maps for ingredients ends up being this game’s version of grinding.

It’s still a damn good idea; it’s just a bit of a bad implementation. What they should have done is design it such that multi-step syntheses are consolidated into one step, indicating all the raw requirements and allowing you to do it all at once.

But don’t let those bad things sway you. This game is a giant among CRPGs. It presents some real and desperately needed innovations to the field. If you like CRPGs even a little bit, you must play this. I bought it on Amazon; you can too. It’s expensive, but now you know it’s worth it.

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holy crap, help

Does anyone know how I can set this thing such that I don’t have to approve comments every time? I’d much rather manually delete spam than manually approve real posters. I can’t find a setting to change this. Help?

fragments

I’m good at writing. I write well, so people tell me.

What I have a problem with is continuing writing. I’ll write a fragment or a start of a story, and it’ll be really cool, but I just can’t get anything else to happen.

It’s possible that the problem is my standards. I won’t even set words down to paper/screen until I think they’re perfect. Kurt Vonnegut called this the “basher” approach, and contrasted it to the “swooper,” who writes all willy-nilly until done, then goes back and fixes it. But, unlike fellow basher Vonnegut, I never make it to the end. I start off strong, but I guess I lose the thread somewhere ’cause I can’t get beyond that point.

Losing the thread seems to be pretty common. Stephen King apparently has a serious problem with it. His books always start off really fuckin’ cool but take a turn for the lesser somewhere. The Gunslinger is one of the best things I’ve ever read. The rest of the Dark Tower series is like gum that’s lost its flavor. It’s still kinda pleasant to chew, but it’s lacking. (I did like The Stand all the way through, though.)

I’m not willing to pull a King. I can’t bring myself to finish the story with any less than I think it deserves. Therefore I’ve got lots of fragments but not much that’s finished. But these fragments are good reads. I love them. So, I’m gonna start posting them.

Here’s the first fragment, intended for a novel with the working title Beautiful Abominations.

***

Weston is waiting for the kid to finish banging around on the red Fender Telecaster.  The kid looks to be around sixteen, with spiked hair and a few piercings.  He plays little smatterings of classic rock – a little Stones, some Zeppelin, a lot of Cream.  Weston sighs; the kid has no touch, no finesse, no sensitivity, just youth, vigor, and sheer exuberance.  Weston can feel the strings pulling out of tune, but he resists the urge to take the guitar and show the kid how to use it.  The customers don’t want to buy guitars from people who make them feel stupid.

            Finally the kid puts the Tele back on the rack, and moves on to a fancy new Gibson.  Good.  Weston never liked Gibsons, anyway.  They sound too nice, especially the new ones.  As far as Weston is concerned, the electric guitar was perfected in the 1950s, and the Tele is one emanation of that perfection, with its bravely trashy and cutting timbre.

            Nonchalantly, Weston picks up the Tele and begins to re-tune it.  An act of repair.  He sits on a stool with his back to the shop’s front door.  The bell rings and a customer enters.  Weston feels a strong aura wash into the room, distorting the flow of things somewhat.  He doesn’t turn to see who it is.  Big deal.  Just another punk with gallons of personality and zero vision or discipline or respect, putting that enormous natural potential to waste.  All too common in the music scene.  A few years ago, he would have tried to pass something on, some grain of the art, maybe even be tempted to teach.  But they don’t listen, not with auras that big.  Accustomed to the things they gain without effort, they are comfortable.  The comfortable won’t evolve.

            Someone begins playing the piano, a low susurrus of warmup notes, stretching the music muscle.  Gradually it coalesces into a passage that Weston hears from the corner of his ear, his focus diverted by the Telecaster.  The music triggers a little niggling in the back of his mind; it’s familiar.

            “Hey, man,” someone says.

            Weston looks up.  It’s the kid.

            “I wanna buy this axe, man.”

            “Sure thing.”  He puts the Tele back on the rack and leads the kid to the cash register to make the sale.  Thoughts burn through his head that he wishes for all the world he could voice, but he doesn’t.  You’re paying four digits for a guitar that has a soul made of space-age synthetic polymers.  It has no bravery.  It does not contain a single ounce of rock ‘n roll, neither piss nor vinegar.  It is not a power object, and it will not increase your mana.  It will not be your conduit, your staff, your axe, your samurai sword, nor your lightning rod, only your crutch.

            “Here’s your receipt, man,” Weston says, not cognizant of the fact that he just put a curse on the guitar, “Rock on.”

            That ordeal dealt with, the piano edges into focus.  He recognizes the tune, and he ought to; he wrote it.  Nobody plays Guild songs except him.  Nobody knows them except him and the old members of the Guild, and most of them are dead or in Europe.  Who the hell is playing a Guild song?

            Looking to the piano, his throat catches as he recognizes her too.  And he ought to; she has her mother’s eyes.  Black hair, long but worn close to her head in some kind of crazy, curling, hair-sprayed sculpture.  David Bowie makeup around the eyes.  She looks to be about nineteen.  Jesus, has it been that long?

            “You missed that chord,” he calls out, the shock overriding his ability to hold back his correctional instincts.

            The music stops abrubtly, the last note left hanging out on a slender branch, never to be resolved.

            “What?”

            Oh, hell, now you’ve done it.

            “There’s a suspended second in there.  You didn’t play it.”

            “What?”

            He steels himself and approaches the piano.

            “That’s the bridge to ‘The Rose and the River,’ right?  That’s supposed to be an inverted B-flat suspended second, and you played an inverted B-flat fifth.”

            She blinks angrily, giving him a what-the-hell-do-you-know look.

            “Try it,” he coaxes, smiling slightly.

            She takes it from the top of the bridge, and plays the suggested chord when she comes to it.

            “Oh my God,” she gasps, “I’ve been trying to figure that out for, like, months now.  How the hell did you know that?”

            “I, er… Well, I wrote it.”

            She crinkles her brow.

            “The hell you did.”

            He pulls out his driver’s license.

            “See?  Robin Weston Bancroft.  Check your liner notes.”

            “I don’t have the liner notes, my drummer burned it for me.  Besides, that doesn’t mean you’re the same Robin Weston Bancroft.”

            “Oh, right, like there’s two people in the world named Robin Weston Bancroft.  Look, here, I’ll prove it.  Name any Lightning Guild song.”

            She narrows her eyes, then gets up from the bench, accepting the challenge.

            “‘Morning Bel.’”

            He sits down and takes it from the top.  Four bars into the second figure, she interrupts.

            “‘Heartflower Bloom.’”

            “That’s a guitar piece, hang on a sec.”

            He returns with an acoustic guitar, checks the tuning, and proceeds.  It has a glimmering pulse to it that it doesn’t have on the record – it’s note-for-note, no discernible changes, but it sounds so much more present, like a living, breathing thing.  She doesn’t even have time to interrupt before the dense, forty-five second composition is finished.

            “Jeez, that was better than the record.”

            Crow’s feet crinkle on the edges of Weston’s smiling eyes.

            “I’ve had some practice since then.”

            “Do ‘The Blue Dust Willow Breakdown.’”

            “These are all from The Rose and the River; don’t make it so easy.”

            She shakes her head.

            “R&R is the only one that’s still in print.  I don’t know any of the others.”

            “Really?  The only one?  Those sons of bitches.  Well, I’ll burn the others for you.”

            “So, hang on a second, if you’re the Robin Weston Bancroft, what are you doing working in this piece-a-shit music store?”

            He shrugs.

            “Chopping wood and carrying water.”

            “Yeah?  Why?  What happened to the Guild?”

            “I disbanded it.  The mission was a failure.  Everyone heard, nobody listened.  We all went home.”

            “You mean you gave up.”

            “No, I mean I cut my losses.  You might not believe me, and I wouldn’t have at your age, but there are times when endeavors simply fail, and you have to move on.  You can’t just keep pumping your energy into a dying thing, trying to keep it alive.  It isn’t worth it.”

            “You’re right.”

            “Eh?”

            “You’re right, I don’t believe you.  That just sounds like a lack of resolve.  Me and the Luminiers, we won’t go down without a fight.  Even if that means sinking with the ship.”

            He gives a short laugh and shakes his head a little.  Despite that, he’s proud.  Doesn’t have a right to be proud, not really.  But he is anyway.

            The girl suddenly jumps up once, excitedly.

            “Jeez, wait ‘til I tell Josie that I met the leader of the Lightning Guild.  And Mom!  She’ll never believe me.”

            Don’t ask, Weston.  Don’t.

            “Would, uh… Your mom’s not Valerie Maddow, is she?”

            The girl is taken aback.

            “Yeah, she is.  How did you know that?”

            “Family resemblance.  Val was… an old friend of mine.  You’re, uh, Jeanette, then?  Or is Jeanette your sister?”  He hastily adds the last sentence.

            She shakes her head.

            “I’m Jeanette.  Don’t have any sisters.”

            Salt stings the corners of his eyes.  Keep it together, Weston.

            “Last time I saw you, you were three years old.”  You used to try to play my guitar, while I was playing it.

            “No way!  I wonder why Mom never mentions you.”

            “We had a… falling out, y’know?”

            He turns away to hide his eyes.

            “Henry didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him.”

            She snorts derisively.

            “Nobody likes Henry, man.  Mom kicked him out a year ago.”

            “Do what now?”
            In less than the time it takes to blink back a tear, a hope is born and carefully killed.  Weston’s not stupid enough to entertain hopes like that.  Not anymore.

            “Five years too late, if you ask me.  He was a good for nothing, drunk ass son of a bitch, too dumb to know what he had.  I’m amazed that Mom held back on him for so long, y’know?  Honestly.”

            “Huh.  Well, that’s, uh…  Hey, did you want this piano?”

            “Kinda, yeah, but I can’t afford it.”

            “Tell you what.  I’ll buy it for you.”

            “Do what now?”

            “Call it a belated birthday present.”  For nineteen goddam years.  He realizes with a pang that he doesn’t even know when her birthday is.

Chrono Trigger vs. Chrono Cross

I like Chrono Trigger. I don’t like Chrono Cross.

For one, Chrono Trigger has a battle system that is just tactical enough to be interesting. See, Square games have a problem where the battle system is just a matter of portioning out your attacks in an efficient pattern, ‘cause nearly every monster will take 2 hits from your strong guys to kill, and 2 of your weak guys are more-or-less equivalent to one of your strong guys, so you just have them all target the enemies in such a way that you’ll finish in the minimum amount of time. You save the magic for the enemies that are annoying. Once you’ve got this pattern figured out, battles are just a chore.

Chrono Trigger starts there, but adds some stuff onto the framework. There’s lots of exception-based abilities for monsters, which will force you to use other things – like specific magic, specific party configurations for a specific location, and occasionally specific equipment – if you want to win the battles as efficiently as possible. Also, the enemies move around on the field, which has an impact on the usage of your area-effect attacks. I only wish that your own characters could also move on the field. Combo attacks, unlocked as characters learn new techniques and you try new party configurations, also make time management important: the game uses Square’s famous Active Time Battle system, and all the characters involved in the combo have to be ready in order to perform the combo. The end result of all this is that the most efficient battle plan changes over and over through the course of the game – making it a continual exercise, not a constant chore from the first. (Also, boss battles don’t last three hours. I hate it when Square pulls that shit. In this game, if you do it right, boss fights take like five minutes, tops.)

At first glance, Chrono Cross also has an interesting combat system. However, the stamina thing, effectively a set of action points whereby you can divide a character’s attacks between a set of weak but accurate, strong but inaccurate, and moderate attacks for varying point costs, didn’t really have that much impact on anything – in fact, it boiled down to that whole strong-guy, weak-guy thing I mentioned earlier, except each “attack” consisted of multiple strike commands. The elemental field system was neat for a while, but it was either way too easy to take command of the elemental field, or way too hard – and usually it was too easy in weenie monster fights (when I mostly use standard attacks) and too hard in boss fights (where tactics ought to be encouraged, not smacked down). The elements were just FF7’s materia all over again, which I hated in FF7 and hated in Chrono Cross because it made it feel like there weren’t any real differences in the character’s abilities, which makes effective team management a lot less engaging. Also, there weren’t any enemies that I thought were cool.

I also kinda like the stories and characters in Chrono Trigger (except Ayla. I hate cavemen in these games for some reason). Sure, it’s another save-the-world quest, but you only find out that the world needs saving because you time-traveled in order to run away from the cops. And you only figured out how to time travel on accident. Plus, you get to mess with history and see how your actions have affected later eras, which is pretty cool. Particularly because you get to make things better.

I hated most of the characters in Chrono Cross (with the exception of Harle, because I have a thing for harlequins). They were too bizarre, and there were also way too many of them to keep track of. No, actually, the number of them wasn’t to blame, because Suikoden (which I’ll talk about at some point) must’ve boasted somewhere around 30 times as many characters as CC, and it never bothered me. Maybe it’s because in CC I have no reason to care about all these weirdos (I’m looking at you, Mexican wrestler who tends the graves*, bizarre plant/bulb thing, and cute squishy alien!).

But here’s the real reason that I don’t like Chrono Cross. As I said, in Chrono Trigger, your actions make the world a better place. In Chrono Cross, it seems like no matter how hard you try to fix things, the world only gets more and more fucked up, and it’s all your fault. I mean, in CC, you wind up having to destroy an ecosystem. I tried to get around it, but there didn’t seem to be any other way. In CT, you get to save an ecosystem. You don’t have to, it’s not required, you get to do it just because you want to help. CT felt exciting and rewarding; CC just left me feeling cold and sorta ashamed.

I never finished Chrono Cross, so, I dunno, maybe it got better. I lost interest somewhere in the third act or so, which is a problem I have with a lot of Square games. Chrono Trigger is, in fact, one of the few Square games that I’ve ever finished, so that’s pretty good.

* Which, on paper, is AWESOME. How they went wrong on that I’ll never know.