Archive for Rantings

Personas & Phantasies

Hey, it’s been awhile.

In the past several weeks, I have beaten two games that start with “P” and end with “4”.

First off is Persona 4, which is an excellent game.  At this point I think it’s in the running for my favorite RPG ever.  It is leaps and bounds beyond Persona 3, and far easier to stick with than many RPGs, since it uses the Social Link system and does not focus only on battles  – though it also takes a bit longer than most to really get going.

Second is Phantasy Star 4, a Genesis classic which I have experienced for the first time on Virtual Console.  It’s a bit rough by today’s standards, but it is a really nice game – the cutscenes, done in panels of drawings, are unique – the only game that comes close is Wild Arms 4’s random juggling of character positions and expressions.  Overall, though, PS4 is a solid game, and is particularly good for anyone who enjoys a bit more sci-fi in their JRPG.

Some good news has trickled out of Japan, and I’m a bit excited about it.

The first piece is that that SaGa 2, AKA Final Fantasy Legend 2 over here, is getting remade for the DS.  Here’s hoping Square localizes it!  FFL2 is my favorite GB game by far, so I’m looking forward to seeing how (or if) they can improve it.

Second is that Persona 1 and Growlanser are being ported to the PSP.  If both are localized, that makes four (!) great PSX RPGs that are available for PSP, and I may just have to finally get one – that doesn’t even count the Star Ocean 2 remake, which I haven’t heard much about yet.

I don’t know what’s more sad – that companies can make so much money off of reworking old games, or that I think these ports and remakes will be among the best games to come out in the next year – and I’m perfectly willing to buy them despite owning many of the originals.

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Parasite Eve: Short and sweet

Over the past week, I played through Parasite Eve.  I’d played through it years ago, but only remembered a couple of the scenes and areas.  Now that it’s fresher in my mind, it’s a game that’s largely impressive, but has some issues here and there.

First, the game really is cinematic.  It makes great use of perspective, like the Resident Evil games, except in PE a sudden shift in perspective won’t kill you.  It has a great realistic ambiance and feel to it despite the fact that its premise is campy and the “engine” abandons any sense of realism (i.e. kill a rat, get 6 bullets, kill a T-Rex, get a nice pistol).  Whereas RE, Doom, and the like tend to go for cheap “shocks”, PE follows the footsteps of the System Shocks by generating an atmosphere of menace.  Its puzzles are likewise more realistic – instead of finding a key lying on the ground in a room, you might find it in a desk, or on a corpse – there’s a motivation to search everything that might contain something.

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I like bad games

There is a lack of effort involved in the majority of RPGs that I have to confess I enjoy.

The JRPG genre is filled to the brim with games that are so ridiculously easy they are bad “games” – in the sense that a game is something you should play optimally.  The Suikoden series, my favorite of the past two generations, has gone from being “somewhat tricky in one or two battles” to “a breeze even at the worst”, with pretty much no thought involved.

Part of this is a plague of the genre – the phenomenon of grinding.  For those who don’t want to think about what they’re doing, grinding is an easy way out.  There’s no need to play perfectly when you can spend a couple hours killing baddies and come back able to beat the tar out of the bigger baddies.  It takes time, but then JRPGs are filled with fluff (mostly grinding, ironically) already, so spending a bit of time leveling up doesn’t sound too bad.

But strategy is largely lost on RPGs.  I have only played two RPGs – the Lunar series – where playing optimally is not only recommended but required for boss fights, and, if only for that, they deserve much praise.  Even in the Persona games, which I have lauded for the strategy required, thought is needed more in preparation than during actual fights.

Part of this is, perhaps, an unreasonable expectation on my part.  The JRPG is inherently a single-player endeavor, and not everyone is going to want to play for a challenge.  I’ve wrestled with the story vs. gameplay question myself, but my favorites are all games that have both.  For a lot of players, bosses that simply repeat a pattern of moves or use them randomly are enough.  In Persona 3, bosses use some strategy, but several fights in FES revealed that boss AI is every bit as bad as the teammate AI.  Thus far, I’ve been disappointed.  Even Lunar 2’s bosses use set patterns, but the patterns are balanced so well that using the best set of moves is needed for victory.

Is it too much to ask to have a bossfight that involves the same limitations on both sides?  Every boss of every game has a higher HP total than your party combined.  Remember the fight against Magus in CT, where he had thousands of hit points?  Why can’t a game be more balanced?  In most games, your characters can one-shot kill themselves, but have a hard time combining all their strength to take out a single mage – who later joins your party and turns out to be a complete wuss.  I’d like to see a game with fights where the sides are closer to equal in terms of strength, but where the cunning AI will give a lazy player a rough time.

Taking out “grinding” isn’t even that difficult – the leveling scheme in Chrono Cross (which I have made fun of in the past) actually does things pretty well.  If the non-boss fights are kept to a small amount, it could certainly work out in another game.  It surprises me, considering how many complain about grinding, that no game has excluded grinding entirely.

But then – to some degree, I find I still enjoy the laziness of playing thoughtless games.  If I have to think, that means expending effort – if there’s too much of it (like if I have to think in every single fight, for example) things start to feel more like work.  Some games do pretty well by being a book where you press X a bunch and occasionally explore to find things – The Phoenix Wright-like RPG.  Rogue Galaxy and Suikoden V do that pretty well.  FFXII even takes out the part where you press X, and funnels the strategy into a bite-sized area right around the time you get gambits.  These games are good fluff – they’re like an easy-to-read, but not very deep novel.

But the really rewarding games challenge the mind on two fronts – by having an intriguing story while maintaining an edge of challenge in between plot points.  They keep the “game” in role-playing game without losing the role.  It takes balance, just like a good boss battle.

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October 1st, 1997: Never Forget.

Haven’t updated in nearly a month, and figured I should.  Here’s what I’ve been up to.

P3: FES is one hell of a game.  Whether that is a good or a bad hell depends on your taste, but it’s epic in scale and I still think back on it months later.  I am really looking forward to P4, which was recently announced for a release date of December 9th stateside.

P.T.O. 4 is somewhat lackluster.  Pacific Theatre of Operations was one of Koei’s little strategy-sim experiments in the SNES days.  At the time, it felt too complex for its own good.  The PS2 edition (which I hadn’t known existed until just a week ago) is either far too complex or far too simple.  The game recommends you automate ship development, plane management, and politics – which leaves you with management of your navy officers and your navy itself, which feels far too simple.  Battles are done by giving your fleets vague objectives (sometimes they even listen) and you usually want to take out enemy airports.  It feels sort of like half a game with automation, but after a brief look at ship-building, it looks like I could spend weeks trying to figure it out.  I’m probably just not going to bother.

Chrono Trigger, meanwhile, is still a great game.  My tastes have changed since I was younger and I now favor games with more strategy and dialogue, but CT is certainly among the best of its generation and, like Lord of the Rings, will stick in my mind as an example of what the medium can do.  I have found many fantasy novels that build on LotR, but few can match its depth and remain so concise.  CT’s pace is nearly breakneck (few dungeons take more than a half hour) which is a big refresher after games that take 10 hours to ramp up the plot.  I wonder if that makes Chrono Cross the Silmarillion or the Unfinished Tales?  Either way, it is my current project.

I am continuing my hacking forays into the NES game Destiny of an Emperor.  I have updated the officer editor with a portrait preview feature and have been gradually working on a script editor (which does not yet have its own page).  I would try and mesh the two into one codebase, but I looked at some of the original editor’s code and it’s a total mess (so says more than a year of software development).  I’d rather just rework how things are, which I may do once I’ve got the script editor further along.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  Got to get to bed before spies start sapping my alarm clock.

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Growlanser memories (or, the lack thereof)

Seldous I liked Growlanser: Heritage of War. At least, I think so. It was a pretty solid game, maybe a little bit cliched, with a fairly complex plot, a few likeable characters, decent voice-acting for most characters, and so on.

The thing is, I sort of forgot I played it. There was this blank in my mind and I was wondering what I’d played after Wild Arms 5. I couldn’t think of much, so I figured I just hadn’t been playing any RPGs or something. After a while, I remembered that it’d been Growlanser. What is it that makes Growlanser so much more forgettable to me than Wild Arms 5? The characters are arguably more interesting, the plot more complex, the battle system more tactical (although with is less difficulty)… the only things WA5 has on Growlanser are difficulty and music, really.

As much fun as it would be to try and chalk it up to quality of music, I think the fact is that Growlanser is more seamless than WA5. Overall, it might be a better game – but there is very little in the plot that requires you to think. I remember one moment where I thought to myself, “Holy crap, that really sucks”, but otherwise, I didn’t get very engaged in the game. Even character interaction often has options that boil down to “be nice”, “be angry”, “be badass”, “be irreverent”, and by the end of the game your “personality” is mostly decided so you can’t use most of them.

There are practically no load times, so there’s no downtime either. Combat requires setting up an initial strategy (mostly character placement) and then carrying it out. “Knacks” or skill-type special abilities have very little effect most of the time, so it gets to be very mindless.

It’s not like Growlanser’s a bad game, it’s just highly forgettable.   It’s like watching a cliched, fantasy anime – not a whole lot of thought required, just good clean somewhat-cheesy fun.  That makes it nice for a quick, low-intensity game… but I’m not sure if I’ll ever play it again because that means I’d have to remember I have it.

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