Continued Strange Journey thoughts

As I continue my Strange Journey into the Schwarzwelt, there will be spoilers. Although Strange Journey Redux, especially, telegraphs its story beats heavily, there will eventually be some things that you don’t find out from watching the intro movie on game boot-up or the opening dialogue on starting a new game.

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Some news, Strange Journey Redux

First off – it’s been awhile since I posted. Normally I’d say “real life”, which is also true, but I’ve been writing for VL (among other things – reviews of a couple SaGa games, some longer last-decade retrospective stuff, and working on a review of SMT5 still to come).

I’ve made a minor (or major, I guess, if you’re here for some stuff) tweak to the site – I discovered the encoding was off, which I think was a result of some mySQL migration along the way. As a result the Game Dev Story guide actually displays Japanese characters appropriately. There are probably some other pages that were broken, but none come to mind offhand.

I struggle to write things that aren’t reviews. Honestly, I kind of struggle to write reviews, because I try to be objective. Sometimes it means I qualify too much (game X is like game Y in that … … which loses anyone who didn’t play game Y). Other times it means I try to remove the emotion from writing a review, which means that I don’t capture the essence of how a game makes me feel. That’s an important essence of a review – for example, to take a game I’ll never review – the Cook, Serve, Delicious! games are interesting to me in how they make me enter a hybrid state that oscillates between panic and flow. On one level, that’s gratifying because never having a state of panic would make things uninteresting, and “flow” is one of my favorite aspects of my job. On another, it’s off-putting because it’s a little too much like my job.

I guess it’s another aspect of why I like and hate writing. Communicating using only words (and the occasional image) is difficult. But then, communication in general is hard. I find that readers on VL typically understand the point I’m trying to make better than I do – one of many reasons I’m grateful it’s back in existence.

Anyway, I decided to write something about Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, which is the actual reason I started putting finger to keyboard. I’m far short of completing the game – having only gotten partway through the second sector. Having not completed the original, I’m sure that I have quite the dungeon-dive ahead of me. But I wanted to mention the incredible, hostile atmosphere that the game has. In contrast to its series cousins, Strange Journey not only has a more mature cast, it takes clear inspiration from science fiction horror. It goes past “disaster” into “isolation in a hostile environment” with the Red Sprite and its crew stranded in the mysterious Schwarzwelt – itself an apparent natural disaster, hinted to be a consequence of humanity’s excesses. The atmosphere plays into the Shin Megami Tensei series’ strengths – with the nails-hard early difficulty mirroring the crew’s first fights with demons, and the pseudo-mythical SMT designs hinting at the Schwarzwelt’s human-derived origins. As soon as the first sector seems knowable, Strange Journey starts throwing new things at you – first a second floor that is different from the first, then a new cast of demons, then one-way doors – in a way that keeps things fresh from a gameplay perspective, but also hints at the oppressive environment that you’re in.

Although Strange Journey has a limited cast, the crew members that you do meet all serve to reinforce the hostile atmosphere of the Schwarzwelt – as hardened warriors, analysts, and engineers all react to their surroundings in different ways. Some crack under the pressure, while others try to focus on the mission. The dispassionate Arthur, AI for the Red Sprite and your de facto quest source, serves as an effective foil throughout. Even as the player knows Arthur’s instructions and observations are correct, its lack of emotional reaction to the surroundings makes it seem somehow untrustworthy – and likewise, much of the crew struggles to cope and comprehend with what is going on.

Meanwhile, when you start a conversation with demons and discover just how capricious they are, it serves to reinforce the feeling of danger – it’s not just that the demons are explicitly hostile to you. Many of them can be engaged in conversation where you find out they are well aware how jacked up the state of the human world is, occasionally giving you the option to defend human behavior or suggest ways to fix it (alongside more mundane conversation topics). And although they might be sympathetic and even join you if you play your cards right, they will just go back to fighting you in most cases.

More to come…

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Return of videolamer (again)

A few months ago, I was considering starting up the ol’ blog again, as you can see from a post I made in December.

I was getting a bit frustrated that the mirror of videolamer I set up didn’t have https enabled due to the fact that it was technically hosted at a subdomain, with the site registered separately. After some back and forth with Jay, we have the site fully up and running with https, a new theme, and even got several original writers back together.

I’ll probably be posting less here, and more blog-y things, with more long-form stuff reserved for videolamer.

I’ve also started using backloggery again, but that’s a little less exciting.

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SaGa Collection: The Legend of Mystery and the Legend of Stability

I finally picked up the Collection of SaGa AKA the Final Fantasy Legends remasters. As reader(s) of my blog might recall, I’m unreasonably nostalgic about these weird games – to the point of writing an FAQ on one of them around 10 years ago.

The Collection itself is about what you would expect. I got the Android version, and the real lure for me was the ability to play in portrait orientation and rearrange the buttons for comfort. The price tag might seem a little high for what it offers – but the fast-forward feature is a godsend (particularly for the second game, and I imagine I will appreciate it on the third also).

The Mobile remake includes button rearrangement, configurable backgrounds and portrait or landscape orientation.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why these games are so cool – there are a few factors I can think of. Both mix “swords and sorcery” with modern guns allowing for a variety of combat approaches, both have unusual (if not super deep, particularly for SaGa series games) advancement mechanics, and both have a variety of settings baked into a single game. They’re also among the few RPGs on their platform, so they also have that going for them. If there’s a single reason for my fascination, it’s probably that they were some of the only games I could put up with for hours on end in a car 20 years ago. But I’m going to pretend it’s the first three things I mentioned.

The first game, in particular, is an opaque mess of mechanics. Humans grow via stat potions, Mutants / Espers grow via weighted random chance at the end of a battle and can also gain/lose abilities at random – there are even system-specific mechanics, as some at GameFAQs seem to have noted different rates and mechanics on GBC versus the grey-brick model Game Boy (as far as I can tell, the Collection of SaGa version is equivalent to the GBC – which is rapid-growth, making Mutants easier to use and much stronger stat-wise, but less reliable ability-wise). Monsters morph by eating meat, which makes them less predictable – and they have less overall growth potential – but they also have a lot better survivability in the game’s long dungeon delves and tower climbs, since they can morph instead of needing an Inn.

The second game, meanwhile, is much more straightforward mechanically. Humans grow quickly, while Mutants grow slower but can get unique abilities that help the party or conserve resources. Notably in contrast to the first game, you can pick which ability a Mutant loses when gaining a new one. Monsters are still meat-based, but Robots (fully equipment-based) are added to the mix. With Robots being the ideal front-line fighter (as they can equip spare shields/armor, and benefit passively from shields unlike other characters), and all other mechanics being – relatively – much more straightforward, Final Fantasy Legend 2 is a more focused and traditional JRPG experience.

The mechanics of each actually tie into the overall atmosphere of the game. Final Fantasy Legend 1 has such a terse plot that it feels almost dreamlike – your characters’ motivation for climbing the tower itself is even left a mystery. The main worlds themselves are drastically different from each other, but in between them there are also side-worlds that are mysterious – like the fish-statue mini-world – and even one side-world (arguably two) where you can solve peoples’ problem for literally no reward. The most fleshed-out side character has perhaps 5 lines of dialogue in the entire game.

Final Fantasy Legend 2, meanwhile, feels more like a “solid” JRPG; the motivations of the main cast are obvious, even if the journey is clearly bigger than they originally planned. Each world is much more grounded than (say) the third world of FFL1, with sky cities and gliders, and even though they have clear themes/motifs, that isn’t all they are and in FFL2 the concepts have room to breathe. For example – in said third world, we have no idea why Byak-ko is hiring soldiers; as far as we can tell, the entire “resistance” is a girl living in a hut. As FFL2’s counter-example, in Edo we see townspeople that deeply crave bananas that the black market provides which sets up Hana’s conflict with Echigoya / the Shogun.

For a long time, I considered Final Fantasy Legend 1 a lot worse than its successor – now that I play them back to back, in short sessions, I found FFL easier to bear and am finding FFL2 harder to bear. Even if it’s likely unintentional – mutants seem to grow much faster than my recollection – FFL requires very little in the way of grinding, even with a two-mutant party (my humans were finding it hard to keep up). FFL2 started off fairly similar, but around the midpoint of the game (Venus’ world) it has become more of a slog despite having two spellcasters (which makes most hard encounters easier). FFL2 definitely has a more standard-JRPG feel, and more interesting mechanics (in FFL I could not rely on any mutant abilities lasting more than a few battles), but the larger set of variations involved creates a bit of a FOMO feel akin to the first few hours of a CRPG (should I have started with a different party? why didn’t I pick a monster?).

For the non-nostalgic, these games are definitely products of their time. The first game is aimless, but each world is small enough that finding where you need to go is easy. The second is focused, but actually – oddly, for a game I used to praise for its brevity – a bit longer than it needs to be? They are both considerably more playable than Final Fantasy, and I could argue for them being more interesting and as playable as Dragon Quest (if perhaps not as historic), but if you have the time and are curious about these odd little games, the Collection is an excellent way to play them.

Final Fantasy Legend 2 does have a DS remake which has been fan translated. I played it shortly after it came out, and beat it. I tried playing it again more recently and I honestly can’t recommend it over the original (you’ll probably find me saying someplace else years ago on this site); the encounters go extremely slowly, and while a fast-forward feature exists it makes it much harder to follow the action than it was on GB, and the game still runs slower. It’s largely faithful in theory (with a few added mechanics that bloat the game a bit), so I guess if you have more time and you love the original I could see playing it. I also feel like the designs in the remake are a little bland.

As a parent to young kids – hence the sporadicness, followed by complete dearth of updates – I’ve found the Collection to be a great counterpoint to the modern, constantly-online mobile game. Its entry point is lower than most mobile remakes for me – as a portrait game that loads up in just 20 seconds, that can be played one-handed.

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Suikoden 3 on PSN

Suikoden 3 came out on PSN last night (PS2 classic – unfortunately, only playable on PS3 so far).

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