Current Projects: Feb 2013

I figured I’d update this site with a few of my latest projects (writing, translation, etc).

I’ve posted a couple of new articles at videolamer in a vain attempt to resuscitate a website where I was happy to both read and write.  A third is on the drafting table and nearly complete, but I’m not sure it will ever get posted given the lack of feedback and effort on the part of both readers and writers.

A project which I thought would never get going finally did late last year: scanlation for the manga written to accompany (I assume) The PS1 version of Baroque.  The PS2/Wii remake of Baroque was released in the US and is a game I recommendTwo chapters of Volume 2 are complete, and a couple more have been submitted for editing and finalization.  I’m doing the translation work and the manga group Friendship Scanlation is doing everything else.  Independent of the game I’m not sure the manga is anything special, but I enjoy its art style and it adds some story content that was difficult to find in-game.  For those who played the game and thought the story was overly vague, the manga has much better pacing and of course less dungeon-crawling.

Game translation projects are on standby for the time being.  The only item really in consideration is the sequel to Jesus.

I’ve also started a new project – in collaboration with Jay, I have begun development on a game using the XNA engine (appropriate for Windows/XBLA development).  It is a pirate-themed strategy game with a wildly branching plot.  It’s been fun, and I hope it sees the light of day.  In case anyone who happens to read this might be willing to do artwork or music composition, we are still looking for assistance.

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Review – Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean

Baten Kaitos is one of the few RPGs exclusive to the Gamecube, and it has a sort of middling reputation.  I hear practically nothing about it, aside from the occasional “What under-appreciated RPG would you recommend” thread on this or that forum.  For that matter, I didn’t even know that there were two Baten Kaitos games (Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, as well as Origins) until fairly recently.  Origins was made second and is rarer (generally considered “better” as well).

Throughout this review, I refer to BK: EWatLO as “Baten Kaitos” for simplicity.  I have not yet played Origins.

Baten Kaitos was made by Monolithsoft and Tri-Ace working together.  When you look at each pedigree, you might understand why many find it interesting:

  • Monolithsoft: (largely consists of developers who worked on): Xenogears, Xenosaga, went on to make Xenoblade
  • Tri-Ace: Star Ocean series, Valkyrie Profile, Tales series

So you have Monolithsoft to build an over-arching world with an impressive history as well as the tortured history of the protagonist, and Tri-Ace to make all other standard RPG stuff interesting.

Tri-Ace’s focus was clearly the Magnus system.  You accumulate cards which represent weaponry, spells, items, and so on.  Each character has their own deck (which grows as the game progresses) into which you put the cards you find.  During battle, each character is dealt their initial hand of cards with which to take actions – for example, you might get a hand including a couple of weapons with numbers in sequence.  If one is played after the other, bonus damage is dealt.  As far as mechanics go, Baten Kaitos is perfect at introducing the system to the player.  Initially only two cards can be played in sequence, and each card has only one number to pay attention to.  As the game progresses, you find cards with multiple numbers, your deck size increases, and you have to start paying attention to the element of the cards that you include to avoid inadvertently cancelling out your damage.  Some exotic (and honestly sort of pointless) static effects make keeping track of the numbers harder.

Artistically, Baten Kaitos impresses as well – showing Monolithsoft’s talents.  The world consists of a half-dozen (ish) floating islands, with the denizens of these islands eking out a living in a different way on each.  The overarching back-story tells of an ancient war with an evil god, and how he was sealed away at the cost of “the Ocean”.  It should come as no surprise that by the end of the game you discover the meaning behind the back-story in the course of visiting all the islands.

What is most impressive about the artwork in Baten Kaitos is the design for each of the towns.  Many of them are fairly bland (especially early on), but some of the towns have a unique look to them that no other game has quite captured.  Each is beautifully drawn, often with some kind of movement in the background as well.  The town themes are likewise the best music the game has to offer (in a score that is otherwise somewhat bland and repetitive).

As someone who looks for new and interesting worlds to explore in my games, this is where Baten Kaitos shines the most.  It is unfortunate that many of the towns are much smaller than they should be, and that the game focuses so heavily on combat, leveling mechanics, and collecting random items for side-quests.

Other than the two features – mechanics and atmosphere – I cannot really recommend Baten Kaitos.  The voice acting is so-so, with a few good characters (mostly Gibari) rounding out the somewhat bland performances put on by the rest.  All voices, without exception, sound like they were recorded inside a deep well, which I have heard blamed on the compression of the voice work.  Outside of combat, the mechanics are often confusing and pointless – with your Magnus changing over time (e.g green bananas turn into yellow bananas, then into rotten bananas and finally into a generic and useless “rotten fruit”).  Many recovery items are food that gradually rots over the course of game-play, and even some weapons change and become less useful as time goes on.  Much of the battle system requires the player to depend upon random chance – since every deck should have defensive and recovery items, there’s a nonzero chance your hand will be full of items that are largely useless –  simply because that character isn’t being targeted.  Finally, although atmosphere is good, the story suffers from its adherence to JRPG traditions – sudden “reveals” that involve flashbacks, each of which “changes everything” but is not nearly important enough for you to have figured it out much ahead of time.

There is one exception to the “reveals” being generally not that interesting – there is one that depends upon a certain aspect of the story that seems silly and odd at first.  This one twist about 2/3 through the game is interesting and unusual – but certainly not worth playing the game if it sounds otherwise uninteresting.

It may be sub-par in more ways than it’s interesting, but Baten Kaitos is another JRPG that a fan of the genre probably shouldn’t miss.  Those who don’t follow JRPGs religiously or have fallen behind should hold off on this one, though – many games in the genre are more engaging than Baten Kaitos.

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Great Greed: Or, I play bad RPGs so you don’t have to

Many, many years ago I was an avid reader of Nintendo Power.  I had already developed a taste for RPGs, although they were a bit less numerous back then.  A bunch of them were bad – and often, even Nintendo Power was willing to admit that.

Regardless, I would read each article about an RPG with fascination.  When it was a game I knew, I would enjoy flipping through the various artwork and reading about the tricky parts.  Otherwise, I’d quietly file it away in a hidden corner of my mind, to play later.

I’m finally working my way through the last few of those games I filed away – you can see in the last dozen or so posts that I reviewed Paladin’s Quest and 7th Saga, and a year or so back I played through a good chunk of Arcana.  All of these games I tracked down, purchased, and (with the exception of 7th Saga, which is too tedious) played on real hardware.  The only one left is Lagoon.

From this experience, I’ve learned a few things:

  1.  I actually played most of the good RPGs of the time when I was a kid.  Paladin’s Quest is the only one of the set I’d play again.
  2. Somehow, I still manage to enjoy even the bad RPGs.  The vast majority of RPGs at least have some optimization axis or story, and either one gets me.
  3. Even bad RPGs are still pretty expensive by comparison (all of these were around $20ish).

This leads me to my latest game: Great Greed, a game released on the Game Boy in 1992.  As soon as I heard the name, I remembered reading about it in Nintendo Power and thinking that the description sounded really cool, and the artwork was kind of neat.  The context in which I heard the long-forgotten name was incredibly bizarre: a NeoGAF post about how the game asks you to pick your marriage partner at the end.  It turns out that the game allows you to marry another guy, an 11-year-old, and even the king or queen.

Now that my nostalgia was back in action, I decided to order the game and play through it on my Super Game Boy.  And, sadly… it’s the worst of the lot thus far.

It’s not like the game doesn’t sound entertaining.  By the one-hour mark, I was doing a break-in on an abandoned record factory to get an old washed-up singer’s debut album.  Some professor specializing in genealogy named the album as his price to investigate the family tree of the Crab family, so that princess Cup Cake and I could prove that the mysterious politician “Crabby” was actually a fraud working for the evil Bio-Haz.

If I heard that description, I would think “wow, that game sounds incredibly wacky.”  And in a way, it is.  The next section had me infiltrating Oasis Castle so that I could reclaim it for the Kimchi Tribe, who would in turn give me Golden Pepper to defeat the dragon guarding a prison where Dr. Bromide was being held.  I needed to talk to Dr. Bromide because… actually, the game didn’t tell me why.  Or, more accurately, Cup Cake didn’t tell me why.

You see, even at its very wackiest, Great Greed suffers from a complete lack of explanation.  Maybe it’s intentional parody of the RPGs of its time, which seems accurate enough.  It would be in good company there, since Earthbound happens to be a perfectly good game in its own right.  But where Great Greed fails is in the execution.  While Earthbound builds an interesting, fast-paced battle system and has interesting dialogue, Great Greed has neither.  Its battle system is quick, but it only has one party member.  Assistants (like Cup Cake, Lolly Pop, Candy, and so on) have a special effect that triggers at random, but it’s never enough to make things interesting.  When the grind is factored in, one realizes that the game likely takes about twice as long as it could if it threw balance to the wind and let the player enjoy the silly parody.

Technically, though, the game is actually a little bit impressive.  It allows saving anywhere (like the Final Fantasy Legend games), but more importantly it actually has an auto-save function.  In 1992!  It saved me about 25 minutes when I forgot to save just before a boss battle.

Story-wise, it’s incredibly obvious what the story is about – the main character is an environmental researcher of some kind, summoned to an alternate world where everything is named after food, and the evil Bio-Haz is trying to pollute the normally prosperous land.   Some of the towns do have bizarre themes, but they always tie back to the quest.  For example, one town has a set of laws you can spend money to re-randomize (i.e. Don’t Talk to Soldiers, Don’t Enter the Armory).  I didn’t actually get thrown in jail, but I assume it wouldn’t have done much.  Once you reach the prison, you find out all the prisoners were gathered to do forced labor mining pollution-causing rocks.

If it were not quite so grindy, Great Greed would be a fun little game and I would finish it for certain.  Perhaps for an RPG on the Game Boy – where most of the competition was the various inaccurately-localized Final Fantasy games, it wasn’t bad at all.

Since it is, though, the most interesting part of the game is the section from the aforementioned forum post – which I am unlikely to reach.  Sometimes, even I have to admit defeat so that I can play something more enjoyable.

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Quick Review – Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time

Since the very beginning, Growlanser’s had a sort of cursed existence in the US.  The first game, on PSX, never came over (nor did its PSP remake).  The second and third games came over courtesy of Working Designs, but Sony of America only allowed it if they were sold as a pack and (as I recall) budget priced.  Atlus localized Growlanser: Heritage of War (I like to call it GrowHOW), but by that point the series had pretty much no fanbase on the continent.

Quick history on the series – the Growlanser games are Careersoft’s continued effort at strategy RPGs now that their Langrisser games have been concluded.  They’re pausable, real-time strategy games focused on a small number of playable characters (usually up to 4), with a sort of ATB system reminiscent of Grandia (e.g. you can delay opponents’ turns by attacking them).  The hallmarks of the series are its varied missions, politically focused stories, and interesting / unusual / creepy character designs by Satoshi Urushihara, most famous for his work on Record of Lodoss War and in *cough* hentai.

Luckily for us few fans of the series, Atlus was willing to publish the PSP remake of Growlanser 4 (with additional characters, ending paths, etc) as Wayfarer of Time.  Though some aspects leave something to be desired – specifically, voices were cut from the US release – textually it’s a very impressive effort, since the game includes such a large variety of response patterns and branching paths.  Despite the large volume of text, all of it reads very naturally.

Wayfarer of Time is considered by the series’ hardcore fans (not me – I’m a fair weather fan and don’t like to import much) to be the best in the series, and it’s easy to see why.  The politics behind the primary conflict in the game – between the militaristic republic of Dulkheim and the stable kingdom of Valkania – is shown in detail, and offset by lesser conflicts, some of which are more traditional JRPG fare (Angels vs. Humans).  Character relationships are built up and change as the war progresses, and tough decisions eventually need to be made.

One of the interesting features of the game is the large number of side-quests, many of which are hidden.  For example, there are characters whose life or death depends upon you doing certain things prior to story events.  In my own play-through, I missed at least a couple of these.  The difference story-wise is often minor, but that’s pretty understandable from a writing point of view.  There are also three distinct routes, although one is only available on a second play-through and another is determined based on a (fairly) arbitrary matter of character recruitment.

Play-wise, the difficulty curve seems a bit on the steep end for the middle of the game (~10-20 hr point of 28ish overall for me).  Each mission in the game has a “Mission Complete” (ideal) outcome, as well as Mission Clear (OK) and Mission Passed (barely won), and many are pretty much un-Complete-able unless you know what you’re getting into ahead of time.  This isn’t a huge deal, though, as only a few endings require certain battles to be Mission Completes.

Overall, the game’s my favorite entry in the series thus far (having played 2, 3, 4, and 5 now) and one of the best RPGs available on PSP.  Hopefully we get to see the rest of the Growlanser games in English as well.

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A few Suikoden Tactics thoughts

Over this weekend, I finally beat Suikoden Tactics, the Strategy RPG semi-sequel to Suikoden IV.  As a long-time fan of the series, I had intended to beat the game for some time, held off by two things.  First, Suikoden IV wasn’t very good and the story never resonated with me.  Second, Suikoden Tactics has the much-maligned feature of permanent death for non-story characters.  When combined with the grid elemental system and a massive set of things enemies can do, it’s extremely difficult at times to predict whether a character will die in any given situation.

Since I beat Suikoden IV for the second full time just a few months ago, the time was right.  I didn’t start the game with much gusto, but at about the 15-hour mark (~25 hours total in the game), suddenly everything clicked and I finished Tactics in two days.  There were two successive epiphanies I had:

  1. Suikoden Tactics is totally unlike any other Suikoden game in that it is about 5:1 game:exposition ratio.  If you play it hoping for more plot, expect to be disappointed.
  2. Tactics has an arguably better implementation of many Suikoden mechanics than the core Suikoden games do, for three primary reasons: complexity, variety, and difficulty.

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