Monday, 22 July 2013

Radiant Historia Thoughts

It's no secret that the JRPG genre isn't exactly flourishing as it once did. Not outside of Japan anyways. Yet while the well dries up and the big franchises flounder, a little company called Atlus has our backs. It's thanks to them that we have games like the Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey series. They were the ones who published the likes of Ogre Battle and Growlanser. The were even responsible for bringing Demon's Souls and Disgaea to the north, where they were wildly successful. In recent years Atlus has become the west's biggest and best source of the JRPGs that AAA studios won't make any more. So when I was told that they had made a superb Chrono Trigger inspired JRPG for the DS, I knew I had to play it. In fact, the game was so popular that Atlus had to do a second run of production because it was so in demand once people knew it existed. I've finally managed to find the time to devote to the game, and so I thought I would give my impressions, having beaten it in it's entirety.

Radiant Historia is a game about timelines, and as such evokes a lot of comparisons to Chrono Trigger. The basic idea is that the game is split into two timelines, and the player has the ability to jump to any key event experienced in either timeline. The idea is that if you play a single timeline, you end up running into roadblocks, and to progress you much either go back in time or spend some time in the other timeline in order to acquire a new ability or change a key event. The idea is that the world is quickly charging towards it's end, and before the game has even begun the world has been doomed several times. It up to the protagonist, Stocke, to manipulate events and lead the world down a different path. Interestingly enough, this leads to a lot of interesting situations where the decision that keeps the world alive isn't necessarily the decision that is best in a given situation. Many choices you can make will lead to a scenario where the world ends, resulting in a "game over" ending. 

What's interesting about these endings is that none of them are all bad. They all give the impression that your decision had a positive impact, but in the end it did not divert the world's path to destruction. You won the battle, but the war was ultimately won. Then you simply go back in time and pick the other option, and unfortunately this is where the game's cracks begin to show. As intriguing as the time traveling system is, it's both incredibly repetitive and surprisingly linear. The game may seem wide open at first, but you quickly find that the way forward is always to play one path until you hit a dead end, then switch paths until you hit another one, and repeat. Similarly, because you spend so much time jumping between key events, you end up covering the same ground over and over again. There are many points where you cannot avoid the intermediary events between key points, and all the scene skipping in the world doesn't mean you won't be running through Lazvil Hills and the Gran Plains a dozen times over. 

This goes doubly for the side quests, unfortunately. Side quests tend to be a lot more interesting, and a lot more fulfilling, but also a lot more frustrating. Many quests will require you to progress much further into the timeline before you can complete them, and some even require you to skip between timelines. When you stumble across an object and think "oh hey, that guy back in that place at that time needed this thing", it's very satisfying to make that connection. But for every time that happens, there's two where you completely forget who wanted the object, where they are located and what exact time window you need to be in to talk to them. What's more, after jumping back and forth in time so much it becomes very easy to forget what happened in what timeline, what you need to actually do to progress from event A to event B etc. Actually completing all of the sidequests without a walkthrough is an extremely monumental task, but it really didn't have to be if the game just had a proper quest log and a better indication of how to progress along a timeline you've long since forgotten about.

But enough about timelines and all that jazz. One of the most interesting parts of Radiant Historia is that it has one of the most interesting takes on turn based combat I have personally witnessed. It goes a bit like this: Your team of three faces off against opponents who are arranged on a 3x3 grid. Some enemies take up 2 or 4 or 6 or even all 9 enemies, but most only take a single spot. Among your arsenal of abilities are skills which can knock enemies about, allowing you to position them in opportune locations for killing expedience. Knock an enemy on top of another one, and subsequent attacks will hit both enemies. Further, you can also do things like knock them into the air, onto traps, out of buff tiles on the ground, etc. Adding to this is the fact that every party member has the ability to switch places in the turn order with any combatant. This can be used to switch the order your guys attack in, or you can swap with enemies in order to try and bunch all your allies' turns together for big combos. It's a novel system that in many cases feels as much like a puzzle as anything else. What's the best way to group up the most enemies as you can? Or is it faster to burn one down at a time? Which character has the best abilities for this situation? Will you need buffs more than movement abilities? etc.

However, as with the timeline mechanic, this battle system is definitely not all roses either. First and foremost is the fact that the game seems to have rather poor battle pacing. Each area contains a TON of enemies, and especially considering how much time you spend walking back and forth through the same old areas, the fights can get old fast. While you have the ability to avoid most enemies on the area map, towards the end of the game you start to need experience quite dearly. Couple that with quite low availability for some of the party members, and it becomes a question of, "grind now or grind later?". Now if you had told me this in the first 15 hours of the game, I wouldn't have minded. The battle system is pretty fun. But eventually around the half way mark through the game, battles just get very grueling. The average number of enemies you fight goes up to about 5, and weird things start happening with the turn order. All of a sudden it becomes apparent that how fast your characters are doesn't matter as much as how close their speed is to eachother (so they can build proper combos). When enemies ambush you, you start seeing battles where you can't even attack until you've hopefully survived all 5 enemies attacking 2-3 times. The result is battles just get less desirable, you want to avoid them more, but bosses actually start getting pretty hard. Thus the aforementioned grinding conundrum.

As far as the plot is concerned, the game presents a pretty compelling story. As I mentioned earlier, the idea is that you have to try and nudge the world's destiny on a path that doesn't lead to destruction. Unsurprisingly this involves all the tropes of an evil empire, beast tribes that hate humans, people misusing mana etc etc etc. Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot I can actually say without spoiling it. What I will say though is that as the game went on, I was very interested to see where each plot line would lead, and how they would inevitably join back up again. Around the 1/3 way mark things start to get really interesting and it really motivated me to push on through the lul that comes soon after. However the plot, too, is not without issue. Once again we come back to the repetition the time mechanic brings. Because you have two separate timelines that advance in parallel, things often seem like they are going at a snails pace. Until you near the end of the game, it's often really hard to see how things are relevant in the big picture, especially when you start mixing up the history of each line in your head. In the end of the day the payoff is pretty good though. I found the ending to be very touching, in a way that very few games ever are.

I guess ultimately what I'm trying to say here is that I'm very conflicted on my final opinion of Radiant Historia. It's chock full of really interesting ideas. At times those ideas are very well executed. At other times the game drags like nobody's business. There was a stretch of about 8 hours within the game where I went from loving it, to hating it to loving it again. In the end of the day I would probably conclude that Radiant Historia would be amazing if it was about 25-30 hours long rather than 40. I think the truth behind Radiant Historia though is that, judging by the lack of advertising and the limited initial run, Atlus probably just had some crazy ideas they wanted to play with. I doubt it was ever intended to be more than a fun little experiment, and I suppose in that regard it succeeded. Whatever the case may be, I would still recommend that any avid JRPG fan give it a go. If you are willing to overlook some of the issues I outlined above, then it could easily classify as one of the best JRPGs released in the last 5 years. Even if you can't see past the flaws, it's a one-of-a-kind experience. It truly has the makings of something great. Whether you think it achieved that or not may well vary from my own opinion.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Wind Water and Making Travel Fun

As any fan of the Zelda series likely knows, an HD remake of the game is coming to the Wii U this October. This announcement sparked a bunch of discussion among people I know, and as with most Wind Waker discussions, this eventually lead to a conversation about traversing the open ocean. It's a pretty notorious and ill-loved aspect of Wind Waker, and a direct source of a lot of hate on the game. So after some discussion and some thinking, I thought I would spend some time talking about this aspect of Wind Waker, and travel time in video games in general.

So at it's root, the issue here is pretty obvious. Travelling for large amounts of time is typically uneventful and boring. This isn't always the case, some games manage to make it interesting, but I'll talk about that more later. Essentially what it comes down to, is that there needs to be something to occupy your mind continually while travelling. Sometimes this can be as simple as having something really pretty to look at. Travelling can in itself occupy some brain power too, especially if navigating something like a city, which would also them have traffic and such. However if you are crossing a distance large enough for it to be labelled as "travelling", then chances are the points in time where you need to wonder "which way do I go now?" are far enough apart that there is plenty of time for boredom to creep in. And yet, other times you may be travelling by air or by sea. In which case, you are likely moving in a straight line and navigation isn't even a worry. 

So let me give you another example of a game that does travel time poorly. You may have heard of Just Cause 2. It's an open world game with a massive world which focuses on blowing up property and doing silly things with the grappling hook. However it also so happens that the world is so large, getting from one point to another can take an agonizingly long time. To make matters worse, being set in the fairly rural island nation of Panau, the roads are fairly unoccupied, and more to the point it's almost always better to fly places anyways. Flying awesome jets is cool and all, but soaring through the skies in a straight line for 5 minutes at a time is pretty dull. It's to the point that, dying is really only annoying because it means you are going to need to make that journey again. The only times that travelling is fun, is when you discover a secret of some description (which only exist on the ground), or you are grappling hook jumping (which is slower than most vehicles). I've personally never dreaded travel more than in this game.

With that said, let's now move on to the other end of the scale. I've never not dreaded travelling as much as in Saints Row the Third. The game does 2 main things to keep travelling fun. First off, it's entire city is designed to be dense rather than vast. It never really takes that long to get from one place to your destination. The other, is that it offers constant opportunities for rewards along the way. Going on foot? Might as well go streaking at the same time. Going by car? Drive in the opposite lane and dodge cars. Going by air? Fly close to the buildings, barely missing. All these things reward the player with Respect points, and this means that you always have something to do no matter where you are going. What's more, it adds challenge to travel - it's certainly harder to drive against incoming traffic, but if you are rewarded for doing so why would you ever not do it?

So the question then becomes, where does Wind Waker play into all this? Personally I feel like it depends a lot on how you play the game, but for the average player it probably lands closer to the Just Cause side of things. The Great Ocean is doubtlessly vast and mostly empty, but It's not devoid of distractions. To me, being something of a completionist, I never found the ocean that boring. It was always enough to always be on the lookout for baddies, treasure and the splash of fish in the distance. There aren't always a lot of active things to do, but for those that care about them, there are plenty of things to be on the lookout for. By the time you start to feed all the fish and find all the treasure, you start getting warp spells to aid in your travelling. For someone who maybe doesn't care about dredging up every sunken treasure or  feeding all the fish to uncover the map, I definitely see why this seafaring would be dreadfully boring though.

In the end of the day, the only reason Wind Waker's ocean was ever so big was really because of the technical limitations of the Gamecube. The game's engine needed enough time to make sure nearby islands were properly loaded before the player came in range, and increasing their travel time was the way to do it. The HD remake will have improvements in place to make the experience more painless, and it's unquestionably for the best. I think we all know that the game's real bugbear was that money grubbing &*$% Tingle anyways.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Thoughts on Penny Arcade's on the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness 4

Over the past couple of years there have been few games that I've looked forward to more than those put out by Zeboyd Games, the 2 man crew responsible for Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, and now episodes 3 and 4 of Penny Arcade's series of games. Their work just contains a certain quality to them that few games do -  a quality that says that the people making these games love JRPGs as much as I do. So having beat Rainslick 4, and knowing that Zeboyd is looking for feedback, I thought that I should compile my thoughts on their most recent game in one place.

Easily the biggest thing that I enjoyed about Rainslick 4 is all the different ways to approach a battle. As someone looking for that depth of gameplay, I really appreciated coming up to a battle, losing, adjusting my strategy and switching some equipment, and then winning. It's like a puzzle, but not the annoying kind, it's a puzzle that involves doing the things I actually enjoy. Solving the puzzle can be very satisfying, although I do wish it was a little easier to switch out accessories once you've seen what you are up against in a given battle. 
However on this note I feel I should also mention that, by the end of the game there were actually too many different permutations of party members and equipment. With 20 or so party members, all with unique abilities, it get's really hard to keep track of who can do what, how you have their equipment set up etc. Not to mention that the game's UI really doesn't work when dealing with that many characters.

On a similar (though somewhat ironic) note, I was not a fan of the way the party was separated in 2 until the end. It really messes with the pacing when you jump back and forth between the two. It works well narratively to say "ok this group is stuck doing this for a bit, let's see what the other group is doing". It's frustrating in terms of gameplay though. Every time you switch you are going from a stronger group to a weaker one with a totally different set of abilities, plus it makes managing your equipment fairly awkward at times. However where the irony comes in is that, I actually felt like this part of the game before the two parties merge was the best. Reason being, the game felt a lot tighter and more coherent when dealing with groups of 6-8 monsters. There are lots of options without being overwhelming. When all is said and done, I ultimately prefer the Rainslick 3 model better over all. Having a larger degree of customization on a smaller number of characters get's rid of a lot of the issues facing the system. It's a lot easier to keep track of what each class / person has available to them, it's a lot easier to build UI for, and I think it just builds a better narrative.

Beyond all this, I also felt like the game's pacing in general was a bit off, and it could have done with being a few hours shorter. Zeboyd has always done a good job of keeping the pace up in their games, with snappy combat systems. In Rainslick 4 it just felt like the variety of gameplay was very thin, and in some places it really started to wear thin (most notably, the back to back battlefield and Q'atra dungeons). It just feels like 95% of the game is spent in combat or exposition, which is odd because objectively that's been the case in all Zeboyd games, but I never really felt it before. Not to mention that there is more exploration and secrets to find in Rainslick 4 than any of their other games. I think what it comes down to a few things. In previous titles you could spend more time examining objects and such which makes the environments more interesting and gives you something else to do (As much as I'm sure it was a giant pain writing and coding text for every gravestone). I also felt like the areas in Rainslick 4 were just less interesting in general. They looked and sounded amazing, but there just felt like a lot less variety and creativity. As a result it feels more like a really pretty funnel to the next point of interest.

Aside from that I only really have 3 other, smaller complaints. The first is that I felt like the rewards from optional end-game content were gravely insufficient. It was really rewarding to me personally to complete these challenges, but it seemed like each of these areas gave very little exp (understandable, given the game's balance philosophy). I never ended up using the ultimate shoe weapon, the "secret" monster or the "secret" monster trainer. The only reward that really felt substantial was the ability to face Fish Force again, and steal their mascot. This leads me to the second complaint. The game is way to focused on magic. Which is fine to a degree, magic has a tendency to be more interesting, and is somewhat balanced in that magic users tend to be more squishy. It just feels wrong that once the groups meet up, there doesn't seem to be much use to strength types. And the final complaint: the game's writing took an odd turn in this title, though being as that wasn't really Zeboyd's role in this game I won't expound on it.

Ultimately, Rainslick 4 just wasn't quite as awesome as I was ultimately hoping. It has amazing art, amazing music, a lot of really funny moments, tons of cool secrets and very good core gameplay. It's held back by a fair number of things here and there though. Many of them are small issues that are kind of niggling things that are hard to put your finger on. Many of them are quite possibly just personal preference. In the end of the day though, I would not hesitate to give Rainslick 4 a hardy recommendation to anyone who enjoys RPGs the way they were meant to be made.