Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement Thoughts

I am a big fan of Strategy RPGs, in fact my favorite game just so happens to be one. SRPGs just seem to have a way of offering me all the things that I want. I get a lot of joy out of creating a fighting force that is customized to my specifications. Creating a long term plan for what I want my team to look like and then gradually seeing that come to fruition is really fun to me. So when I heard about Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement, a game that was suggested to me because ever character's stats and proficiencies are directly tied to your actions, I was instantly interested. Of course it's a $15 game from 3 years ago, but I just recently got around to playing through it. Having beaten the game, I thought it was worth taking a look at what it did right and... everything else.

So what does it get right? The first thing that comes to mind is that the battles are all pretty varied. There are a fair number of them for such a cheap game, and very few of them feature the simplistic "kill all enemies / the boss" objective. Even the missions that do have you simply murdering all the baddies almost always have something else to spice things up, often some object on the map that can be interacted with. This can mean a boulder you have to push down a hill, or a flaming brazier you can shove over to block off a path, or a variety of other things. Between those, and all of the treasures scattered across each map, every battle stays pretty fresh. Beyond that, the only other positive thing I can really say about the game is that it's stat system really is quite extensive, offering a ton of potential customization to each character. However... it's not so simple as that.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Flames of Judgement is a game with a list of issues a mile long, a list that I couldn't possibly sum up in this post. But ultimately, most of the big issues end up relating back to the stat system in some way. Which is unfortunate, because I've always really liked the whole "your stats grow based on your actions" kind of systems. I think the issue Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement faces however is that it just went way overboard. At a guess, I would say that each of your 6 characters have something like 45-50 stats. These include your core stats, your combat stats, your weapon proficiencies and your magic proficiencies. Many of them make perfect sense and are no surprise. Sure, you get better at using swords the more you use them, and melee attacks while your at it. Sure, your MP and magic stats go up the more you cast spells. The combat stats are just silly though. Why do we need a stat the indicates how much damage you do when you move more than 3 squares before attacking? Or when attacking from a higher elevation? More to the point, why do we need to care about these stats increasing?

As I said, the overwhelming depth of this system ends up causing several issues. For me though, I think what really killed it for me was the fact that, each character has so many stats it's hard to get a good impression of how strong they currently are, and how they are progressing. There is no one screen you can look at and see "oh, he has 12 strength, that's pretty good". In fact, each character has a strength, mentality and agility stat, but as far as I can tell they don't actually do anything but indicate the suggested route the player should guide that character along. These stats never change, and within a couple hours of starting the game the character with the second lowest strength was my best physical attacker. Now this may seem like a small issue, but I believe that in a game such as Vandal Hearts, progression is everything. If you can't get a good idea where your characters stand, then your system has failed. These systems work when you have a good idea where you want your character to go, how to get there, and how far along that path you currently are. Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement fails to varying degrees in all three areas.

The other big issue to me was simply the game's usability and just the general feel of it. Just about every aspect of the game feels obtuse and lackluster in some way. Sure, I can understand if a $15 title uses still images for it's story scenes. But I don't understand why it takes as long to load some static images as other games take to load entire 3D cities. Why is it that the only time I can save is when in camp, but I have no ability to enter the camp menu myself? Do I really have to fight and win a battle just to save the game? Easily the worst offender in this regard is the game's inventory menu. It's understandable to some degree that it's hard to display so many stats, but it really wouldn't have been that hard to make a more usable menu system. To do just about anything requires you to scroll to a tab within a tab within a tab, then scroll all the way down a menu. Heck, I didn't even know how to equip items until 1/3 of the way into the game because the equipment screen requires you to scroll down to a second screen, but offers no indication that you can do so.

In the end of the day, Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement is a game that exudes mediocrity from every pore. I could spend all day typing and still not list every minor issue I take with the game. You'll notice I didn't even mention the game's plot or it's characters, but I've detailed the most offensive issues here. Ultimately it's a game that is at it's best mildly interesting, and at it's worst an obtuse sack of annoying. Much of that is forgivable in a $15 title, but the most grievous issues plaguing the game are as a result of bad decisions and bad design, not because of a lack of budget. I'm glad that I did play the game, however. It's games like Flames of Judgement that we learn the most from - games with a few interesting ideas followed by a massive list of things not to do. With that said though, I wouldn't recommend it if you are looking to y'know, have fun with your video game.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

E3 2013, Sony Microsoft and Nintendo Impressions

So, E3 is going on, and as always the big news is in the form of the Big 3's conferences. Of course, Nintendo  didn't hold an actual conference, instead opting instead to do another Nintendo Direct, but we will include them anyways. This year's E3 is extra special, because it's the period of hype for the next generation. Information on the next round of consoles (sans the ailing Wii U of course) is just coming to light, people are forming their allegiances, and Microsoft and Sony are fighting tooth and nail to earn said allegiances. It's an exciting time to be a gamer, to be sure. So in honor of E3, I thought I would discuss my thoughts on the the big 3's E3 presence, and my thoughts going forward with the next generation.


If you've been following the information pertaining to the Xbox One, then you know that Microsoft had nothing to lose and everything to gain from E3. Their focus on non-gaming media and their stance on used games and internet requirements turned a lot of people off, at least among the vocal minority. On the whole I would say Microsoft put on a pretty good conference, though. People wanted to see games out of Microsoft, and they got them. Of course many of the games on display were in fact titles that will be available on PC and/or PS4, but people seemed pretty excited for the most part. I can't really claim that anything really caught my attention aside from Project Spark and Titanfall in terms of games, though I'm a fan of the in-built streaming capabilities. We know the PS4 has similar, but I would certainly prefer stream to Twitch (partnered with Microsoft) than Ustream (partnered with Sont). Oh, and there was a rape joke, that was fun.

When all was said and done, I don't really feel that Microsoft came out of their conference too much better of than they were, though. People said they wanted to see games, they saw games, and yet all they were talking about was the elephant who remains in the room, and the $499 price point. I feel like Microsoft tried to just sweep the talk of DRM under the rug and hope games would make people forget, but it doesn't seem to have worked. I think the better approach would have been to subtly show how the online requirements and DRM can work to the player's advantage. Obviously they aren't going to get on stage and discuss all the features everyone is up in arms about, they are there to build hype not draw attention to their detractors. Yet, if I had seen a good reason for an Xbone to be constantly online, then maybe my opinion on the console would change. Instead, we got Smart Glass awkwardly and aggressively shoved in our faces.

I think Microsoft has managed to seal their own fate on this one. As soon as they announced the price point that was all anyone was going to take out of that conference, and it's a doozy. What confuses me the most about the Xbone continues to be the question of demographic. Who is supposed to buy this thing? Microsoft has touted this thing as the one device that will take over your living room, seemingly aimed at everyone. Yet, between used game restrictions, online requirements and a $500 price tag, it seems to me they have managed to alienate every demographic in some way. Sure, it's understandable that packaging a kinect with it will drive the price up, but casual or non-gamers aren't going to buy this thing at that cost. The same is true of college students, whom I assumed was the primary demographic.

I don't know what Microsoft does going forward. It seems to me their only options are to back pedal, and hope they regain enough good will to not be a total disaster. Perhaps the more likely course of action is that they simply stick to their guns and try to stay lean and economical. No doubt regardless of whatever missteps the Xbone will still sell many, many units. If they can maximize their income from every unit, then maybe they can hang on. Either way, it would certainly seem Microsoft has thrown away any chance at the top spot in this generation.


In truth, Sony didn't need to do much. The advantage was theirs to throw away. All they had to do was show up, not murder any puppies, and be heralded as the great prophets of gen 8. Sony basically did just that, and then some. There were several games on show, including Final Fantasy Versus XIII (rebranded as FFXV) and Kingdom Hearts III, and indie titles like Transistor and Octodad. In truth the games were kind of secondary in this conference, to me any ways. It was predictably a bunch of trailers that didn't say much about the games in question. I will say that I was very impressed that Sony managed to get live demos of both Assassin's Creed IV and Watch Dogs, despite Ubisoft not doing a live demo of said games in their own freaking conference. There was also a first look at gameplay from Bungie's Destiny, which at first didn't do it for me, but as it went on and the RPG features came to light, my interest was piqued.

I think the biggest thing about this conference was the subtle things like the language they used. It seemed to me like every word in Sony's presentation was chosen very carefully, and it went a long way. I loved the referential humor that they knew the people watching the show would get. More to the point though, Sony clearly had been paying extremely close attention to what Microsoft's detractors were saying. Almost point for point, Sony had something to say about every one of the Xbone's weaknesses. Oh, you are obstructive to indie's? Here's 20 minutes of indie games on PS4. You restrict used games? Yea, we don't. They may have well have been shouting "PS4 does what Xbone don't", but instead they were just taking subtle jabs there weren't off-putting, but reassuring.

Then there was the final nail in the coffin. They announced the $399 price point, and it was all over for Microsoft. Not only is the PS4 significantly less restrictive, more powerful, devoid of  major privacy concerns and just more gamer friendly in general, but it's $100 cheaper. That makes a big difference. That means more early adopters, which means more third party developers, which means more exclusives, which is ultimately all that it comes down to. The PS4 even has some small advantage in their Gaikai cloud streaming service, but what that ultimately ends up looking like has yet to be seen. On the whole, it would seem that the PS4 is in a decisive lead some 5 months before either console is released.


It's very strange to me that Nintendo seems so far removed from the competition of late. Ever since the last generation started it's felt like Sony and Microsoft have been duking it out, and Nintendo has been off in the corner doing their own thing. This has never been quite so apparent as with their approach to this year's E3. Sony and Microsoft are battling for supremacy, holding huge 2 hour conferences in E3. Meanwhile, Nintendo's console has been out for 7 months and they put together a 40 minute pre-recorded presentation from the empty 7th floor of their office in Japan. In truth, it really wasn't any different from every other Nintendo Direct that has been put out, except that it happens to have happened during E3.

In that light, I would say that on the whole, the presentation was pretty unsurprising. Every game that was shown was either an already announced (or, at least known to be existing) game, or a highly predictable one (zomg, who would have guessed! Mario Kart, ON THE WII U?!?!?!). Of course there isn't anything wrong with that. Nintendo has subsisted on their first party titles and handhelds for over a decade now. People love their Nintendo franchises. None the less, there is clearly a lot of excitement behind the announcement of the next Super Smash Bros (apparently entitled simply "Super Smash Bros" ?). With games like that, a closer look at Wind Waker HD, and another look at Platinum Games' Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2 it seems likely that Wii U sales will begin to pick up.

And then there was "X". The next game from Monolith Soft, the rumored Wii U successor to Xenoblade Chronicles. In truth, I think I'm more excited about this title than any other I have seen from E3 thus far. I mean it's like Xenoblade, but high def, with more awesome mechs, mechs which the player can ride, and it's a more proper RPG. It looks pretty amazing, and is the first Wii U title I have seen that really screams "you need this console. You cannot miss this game". Of course I was always going to grab a Wii U once Zelda games started being released, but X might finally be the first third part core game that really pushes the Wii U into peoples' homes.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Fire Emblem and Player Choice

So I've been on a bit of a Fire Emblem kick for a while now. A couple of months ago I finally played through Path of Radiance, and following that I made my way through Awakening. More recently, I'm in the middle of re-playing plain old Fire Emblem, the GBA game from 2003. I've found it kind of interesting to look at how the series has evolved over the past 10 years. Of course the series didn't ever leave Japan until 2003, but since then it has picked up significantly more widespread appeal. I can't help but feel like several of the changes made to the series since then were made in the interest of appealing to the new fans rather than the old. So with that said, today I wanted to talk a bit about choosing characters, and why it was better back in the day.