Posts Tagged ‘ crpg musings ’

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.

BORDERLANDS ADDENDUM

Just a silly side note, but…

In the game, everybody on the planet wears gas masks or air filters over their mouths, suggesting that the planet has a harsh atmosphere or there’s a lot of toxic dust or something.

Except, the player-characters don’t. And the three female NPCs don’t. One of them is bug-fuck crazy, so that makes sense. Another you only meet inside a building, where the air is probably filtered by machines. I don’t know why the third doesn’t need one. The only thing I can think of is that this way you can see their faces and recognize that they’re female.

But, wait, now I remember, two of the male NPCs don’t have masks either. One lives out in the middle of nowhere, is blind as a bat, lives off the land, and is crazy to boot, so it fits. What’s up with the other one? He’s just a guy that manufactures vehicles and runs stations that conveniently teleport them for rental. He’s not crazy, although he is pretty funny:

“Hey, the Catch-A-Ride station outside Fyrestone is more busted than my momma’s girly parts. I’d sure appreciate you takin’ a poke at that. Uh, I mean the station, not my mom. Hot dog down a skag den, know wh’I mean?”

“Hey, is Lucky only sending ya’ll on missions that, like, destroy my stuff? I swear he’s puttin’ bad guys in runners just so ya’ll can blow ‘em up.”

So, in closing, WTF?

CRPG musings: BORDERLANDS

This game is a hoot. Touted as a “roleplaying shooter” or RPS, Borderlands is a hip, quirky, funny, and all-around enjoyable game. Some people might debate whether it’s a roleplaying game or not, but, as I might have pointed out already (I don’t remember if I’ve said it in any recent posts or not), CRPGs are actually just adventure games with character advancement mechanics and a combat system, with no real relationship to actual roleplaying.

Borderlands meets that criteria. It’s an adventure game in that you must explore places and solve problems (all of them simple problems revolving around killing things and/or finding things, but that’s actually par for the course for a wide swath of both CRPGs and adventure games in general). It has character advancement, with experience levels and skills of a sort that you buy with points granted by gaining levels, plus some other things that I’ll talk about in a minute. Instead of some kind of tactical combat system, it has a real-time, first-person shooting combat system – but, really, all that amounts to is a different vocabulary. Nobody tries to say that Oblivion isn’t an RPG, and it’s essentially the same thing (even using the same software, I’m given to understand), just lacking guns.

As I said before, this game is a hoot. The setting is fun and funky, a sort of dangerous frontier planet that draws adventurers and mercenaries due to legends of an alien structure called the Vault that’s bound to contain tons of loot. Then you’ve got desperate little settlements beleaguered by psychotic bandits, and corporations that stand to profit off of the whole shebang. But that’s not the point – the point is the *character* of it all. Consider these advertisement soundbytes from one of the ubiquitous arms-dealer vending machines, spoken by a guy with a Russian accent:

“Vladof! You don’t need to be a better shot, you just need to shoot more bullets!”

“Is shooting bullets not cool enough for you? Get yourself a Maliwan, and set some people on fire!”

The whole vibe is like that. There’s a certain cavalier, who-gives-a-shit, tongue-in-cheek, existentialist quality to the whole game, right down to the ending and the song that plays during the ending credits. The Vault is kinda real, but it’s also kinda not, and it kinda doesn’t matter. There ain’t no heaven, and nothing really means anything, but it’s actually kind of fun that way. It sure is fun to shoot stuff, at any rate.

I want to talk about the mechanics for a while, which are totally boss. So, you’ve got four character classes. Each class has a special “action skill” with a cooldown, although I consider only one of them (the Siren’s Phasewalk skill) to actually be interesting. Beyond that, each character has three branches of other skills with a whole ton of different effects. Each point that you spend on a skill in one branch contributes to unlocking the next tier in that branch. It’s not possible to gain enough levels to get every skill either.

What I love about these skills is the way they work. The Hunter (sniper specialist) has a skill called “Smirk.” What it does is, whenever he kills an enemy with a critical hit (defined not by chance but by where you hit the enemy – frex headshots), he and all his teammates gain a percentage boost to XP for a few seconds. The Siren has a “Phoenix” skill that activates upon killing any enemy; during this state, she is on fire (and burning all enemies close to her) and has a percentage chance for her shots to not use up ammo.

What I like about this is how effects are stated, in very simple terms and dependent on a.) level of skill and b.) character level. I also like the way that they work; they’re either constant, or they’re like, “when you do X, then Y happens.” They’re simple, straightforward, and allow you do to special things just by having them – you don’t have to spend “technique points” or whatever to use them, you don’t have skill levels that you have to increase through practice. You just have a set effect that gets better if you put more points on it, but is already useful out of the gate. And they all add significantly to your tactical options in a firefight.

(All of those principles are things I’d like to see in table-top RPGs. If you’ve been keeping up with MADcorp, you probably already know that.)

Add onto this a type of inventory item called a Class Mod. Each Class Mod adds to certain skills, enabling you to further specialize or to cover bases that you didn’t have enough skill points to cover. Also, you can hit a New-U station, pay an amount of cash based on your level, and redistribute all of your points whenever you feel like it. Which is awesome.

All of this just totally explodes in relevance when you play multiplayer. Actually, the whole damn game gets better in multiplayer. Not only does it change the landscape of optimal skill and arms choice, but the number of enemies increases proportional to the number of players, allowing you to really and truly have some fuckin’ fun.

The equipment mechanics are friggin’ awesome. For one, it’s all randomly generated based on a few templates, so you get different versions of the same gun, with different mods on them and different pros and cons. You have to balance fire rate, fire power, magazine size, accuracy, and special effects (like the potential to set people on fire or electrocute them). You can also do side-by-side comparisons, enabling you to quickly judge how this new gun you just found stacks up to the one you’re already using.

And one more mechanic, my favorite of them all: when your hitpoints get dropped to zero, you start dying and go into a “Fight For Your Life!” mode where you can’t move around, your aim gets wonky, and your vision starts going out as all the blood flows out of you. An on-screen timer shows you how close you are to bleeding out. However, if you can kill *just one enemy* before that timer runs out, you get a “second wind” and rejoin the battle with full health. What that means is you can play the gamble and just get all up in the enemy’s face, taking hits all the time but dishing out damage by the facefuls with easy-peasy critical hits (at this range) – if you’re good enough and don’t get unlucky, you’ll get repeatedly taken down but also keep getting back up within the next second or so. It also means that if you keep your distance and try to play it safe, you’re less likely to get taken down in the first place, but if you do, you’re so distant from the enemy that it’s hard to get a second wind. I preferred the former approach (particularly with the Siren, whose prevalence of area-effect, crowd-control, and speed abilities seems custom-tailored for it), but I love that the game made me think about it.

My second favorite thing in the whole game: “badass” is a mechanical term. It’s applied to enemies that are tougher and worth more XP than other enemies of their level.

Downsides to this game are that it’s quite short (although there’s expansions, but I haven’t tried them), and the quests get kinda repetitive. Most of all, though, I think they could have gone even further with the whole existentialist thing. As it is, they kind of pull their punches a little bit, and let you think a little too much that some of the things you’re doing are making the world a better place. I’d like to see more suffering happen as a result of your actions, but cast in a way that made you laugh it off rather than feel bad about it. Considering how many ugly things this game makes you laugh at, I don’t think it was out of the designers’ reach to do this.

But, all in all, this game is a hoot. I recommend it to anyone who likes or at least tolerates shooty games.

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.

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.