Friday, December 28, 2007

Old Favorites: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, part 2

The progression of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is constant. The story and gameplay work together to create an overriding sense of urgency and the constant push to move onward. In most RPGs of this kind, the progression of the game is more stop and go. The usual progression involves alternating time spent exploring dungeons, and time spent outside of dungeons gathering information and buying stuff. In this way, most RPGs have a leisurely pace that allows the player to explore, back-track to old towns, fight battles to level up, and take on side-quests. However, the gameplay structure of Dragon Quarter is such that it creates a very different pace than normal: an urgent one that matches with the plot of the game.

The plot of Dragon Quarter is pretty straight-forward: the hero, Ryu, is simply trying to save the life of the young girl Nina, another one of the main characters of the game. Early in the plot, Nina becomes terminally ill thanks to some poison, and the only way to save her is to get her out of the polluted environment of the game's setting. The entire game takes place in a massive underground complex, where no one has seen the outside world in over a thousand years. In order to save Nina's life, Ryu and Lin, the third character, have to get her to the surface. However, while the plot is simple, it has a lot of poignant elements to it. While Ryu has been granted tremendous power, that power is killing him slowly (or quickly, depending on how much the player uses it), and it is quite clear that Ryu knows this. So he decides to use this power, and his remaining life, to save the life of Nina by smashing all of the obstacles between them and the surface.

Since both Ryu and Nina have death looming over them for most of the game, the plot has a strong sense of urgency to it. And the gameplay backs up this urgency by encouraging the player to constantly move forward and not look back. The most important source of this urgency is the D-Counter. Since the D-Counter goes up every several steps, the player is encouraged to not waste time running back to old areas. Furthermore, there is never really any need to back-track in the game. The entire game progresses one floor at a time. There is one treasure chest on each floor, and everything you need to open it is on that same floor. At no point in the game is there something you can only get by backtracking back down a floor. In addition, as I briefly mentioned in my last post, there is no way to spend time leveling up by fighting old enemies, since every monster in the game stays dead once killed.

The game also cuts out other aspects of most RPGs that slow down game progression. Towns were minimized in Dragon Quarter. Most towns are only a few screens long, and have little more than shops, a save point, and two to six people to chat with. Furthermore, there is no need to advance the plot by talking to people in town. You can normally just skip right through a town with no drawbacks. Towns are little more than bigger versions of the small rest stops scattered throughout the game. The entire game is essentially one big continuous dungeon.

In addition, there are no side-quests to be found in any of these towns. There really only is one side-quest in the game. At one point, the characters are given the option to go on a short side-quest to find medicine to help ease Nina's worsening condition. In that way, that one side-quest only serves to add to the urgency of the heroes' mission. There is only two major exceptions to this in the game: the mini-game of developing the Fairy Colony, and the optional dungeon Kokon-Horay. However, the Fairy Colony takes place in essentially an alternate dimension where the D-Counter doesn't go up, and time only progresses by killing monsters in the normal game. So in practice, the Fairy Colony is only a place the player checks in on a semi-regular basis while pursuing the main plot. The optional dungeon Kokon-Horay exists inside the Fairy Colony, and is itself one of those massive dungeons where the character's levels revert to 1 and the D-Counter resets to 0.00% whenever the player braves it. It is in practice an optional challenge that a player only attempts after beating the game once or twice.

The game also adds to the sense of constantly moving forward by giving the player a way to track his progress: the depth gauge. While the game starts a bit higher up in the underground complex, Ryu only acquires his dragon powers and meets Nina and Lin at the very bottom of the cave system, 1200 meters below the surface. From that point on, the characters are constantly going upwards towards the surface. Every floor brings the player one step closer to reaching the goal, and that progress is tracked by the depth gauge, which constantly reports the player's distance from the surface in meters. This gives the player a concrete way of tracking his progress.

This progress is part of one of the symbolic elements of the games plot. In some sense, the character's actions are an attempt to overthrow and transform their corrupt, dystopian society. The characters are from the very bottom of a society that classifies everyone by some estimate of potential known as a D-Ratio and locks in their choices of promotion and housing based on those numbers. The characters, an extremely low D-Ratio soldier with no chance of promotion, a poor, abused lab subject, and a rebel, start their quest in EndSector, the lowest level of the complex and home to the people with the lowest D-Ratios and poorest conditions. Yet they eventually climb to the highest levels of the complex and fight against the rulers of that society. In a literal sense, it is the story of the weak and oppressed over throwing the strong in their quest to find a new world.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 7

Game Completion: 100% Complete (I finished it on Christmas, actually)

I have finally completed this game. It was rather difficult, and counting resets and restarts, must have taken me nearly 100 hours. It was a good game, overall, and I am glad I played it. I guess it is finally time for me to write a bit about the game's story. Again, there will be spoilers of the game's plot below.

Overall, the game has a good story. The game has great characters, a lot of interesting twists, several great dramatic scenes, and interweaves gameplay and story very well. At the very least, the story justifies every battle, and every battle moves the story along, which is the most important element of any videogame's plot. While I can't say it is the best story I have encountered in a videogame, it is very entertaining.

Still, there are a few major weaknesses of the game plot, as both a story and a game.

The biggest weakness of the plot is the uneven length and importance of the first three parts. The first part is excellent, and one of the strongest parts of the game. The third part is also very good, even if it is a bit too long. The problem is the second part. The story of the Crimean rebellion has no real connection to the rest of the plot, and as a whole doesn't fit well with the themes of the game. Also, its short length gives the characters of that chapter very little time to grow, making them fall behind the power curve and unbalancing the gameplay aspect of the differing perspectives. As a whole, it seems that the developers couldn't decide whether to make Elincia one of the main characters (like Ike and Micaiah) or just another normal character, and it seems that though they wanted to have three shifting perspectives, they had trouble fitting that many. I think the whole game should either have been shorter, omitting the third perspective, or the third and fourth parts should have been shorter, and more time should have been spent fleshing the third perspective out. In fact, a lot of good could have been done if more of the game was seen from Sanaki's perspective, which brings me to my next point.

The next major weakness of the plot is that, despite the huge importance of the internal politics of Begnion to the main plot, these politics are essentially invisible to the player. Important events, like Sanaki's imprisonment and escape, occur completely off-screen. and when they are revealed to the player they feel more like Deus ex Machina than a logical progression of events.

As a result of that flaw, the major villains of the game, the Begnion Senators, are not visible enough for them to actually be properly developed. All of them, especially their leader, Lekain, are flat, uninteresting characters. One of the biggest strengths of the last game was the way it developed the Black Knight and King Ashnard as villains, but very little of that kind of development is seen here. And even when major villains like Izuka, Numida, or Lekain are finally slain, there is very little fanfare or discussion of the fact. The Black Knight, himself, is a victim of this lack of development. He was an incredibly interesting character in the last game, so much so that I expected him to be the final villain of Path of Radiance when I was still playing through it. But in this game, despite his interesting role in the first Part, he is mostly invisible and absent, and the revelation of his true identity is not handled well. I blame this on the fact that it is pretty much impossible for the player to guess his true identity beforehand, due to the same lack of visibility for the villains. I suppose I can say the same about Sephiran.

Another point is that the game is a bit slow in the first section of the fourth part. There are five whole chapters that consist of only meaningless battles against Ashera's minions, all with the same winning conditions and general battle flow. It didn't advance the story very well, and it got very repetitive in a game that otherwise has very varied and interesting battles. However, the end of the fourth part, the final battle in the Tower of Guidance, is quite good.

Also, even though Yune is a fantastic character, the fact that she only speaks through Micaiah is something of a weakness of the game, because it restricts Micaiah's own ability to play a role in story scenes. As a result, Micaiah, one of the two main characters of the game, and one of the game's best characters, feels absent from the story, and is not developed very well in this time.

Overall, I think the game would have been a bit better if Elincia's chapter was removed, Ike's chapter was moved to be the second part (but ended at the Laguz Army's retreat from Begnion), a new chapter with Sanaki as the main character followed from there to the release of Yune, the final part was changed somewhat, and more scenes depicting the movement of the Senators, the details of the Blood Pact, and the actions and intents of Zelgius and Sephiran were added.

Still, I don't want this to come across as a statement that plot of the game was bad. I really did enjoy it. Sooner or later, I am going to need to play through this game a second time. After all, from what I have read on GameFAQs, there are a few major plot and gameplay changes for a second time through the game, and I really want to see those. But that will have to wait for another time.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Character Theme Music

To continue my discussion of videogame music...

I am rather fond of having theme music for the important characters in a game. The more important the character, the more important it is for them to have theme music. I suppose this is simple enough, but there are a few places which do interesting things with the concept.

First, I think Wild Arms 5's use of character theme music, particularly Avril's main theme, is an example of how effective character theme music can be. In this game, Avril is pretty much the central character of the plot, and one of the most complex and fascinating characters in the game, Her theme music, a beautiful and haunting melody, matches her quiet, dignified, and mysterious character very well. The interesting element about her theme is that the main melody from her theme appears in many different songs, for many different purposes. The boss-battle variation of her theme is great, and the variation from a dramatic point in the ending, which has been altered heavily in tone and energy, is very fitting for that desperate, hopeful, and bittersweet sequence. Because her theme reappears in many forms to fit the tone of the story, and is powerful and memorable, it adds a lot to the game.

Wild Arms 2 has a minor use of character theme music which is rather fun. In this game, whenever the main hero Ashley uses his Access ability to transform into his powerful Knightblazer form, the battle music changes to Knightblazer's theme. It makes the transformation ability feel more special than other character abilities, and makes the use of Knightblazer more exciting.

Another interesting approach to character theme music is the various songs from the Super Robot Taisen series of tactical RPGs. In this series, the music changes to a character's theme song every time that character attacks an enemy or gets attacked. As a result, you are likely to hear something like 20 different character themes every turn in a battle. This use of music is a product of the series' role as a giant crossover between various anime mecha series, and is designed to make use of the nostalgia and popularity of well-known songs, but it works very well even for the Original Generations iterations of that series, which are not based on television properties and do not have as much nostalgia value. This use of music does a lot to help distinguish characters, and complements the flashy style of the elaborate attack animations and colorful mecha designs. Part of the reason it works is the way the attack animations play out separate from the main battlefield, focusing the player's attention on a single character. In other tactical RPGs, like the Final Fantasy tactics, where individual attacks are subdued and take place in the main battle map, this use of music would probably not work as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Old Favorites: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, part 1

One of my favorite PS2 RPGs is Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Dragon Quarter is certainly the black sheep of the Breath of Fire series; it is technically not even a numbered part of the series. In terms of tone, gameplay, character design, and story, it is completely unlike its predecessors. Unfortunately as far as I know, game critics and fans did not receive the game well. It certainly falls into the category of "you either love it or you hate it." However, there is much about the game that I think is original and truly artistic. Here in part 1, I will be talking about the overarching gameplay system of Dragon Quarter that sets it apart from any other game on the market.

At its core, Dragon Quarter is built around one gameplay mechanic: the D-Counter. The D-Counter is a numerical display in the top-right corner of the screen at all times that shows a percentage that is constantly going up through the game. The D-Counter first appears after a significant event early in the game where Ryu, the main hero, first gains the power to transform in his dragonized form, a staple of the Breath of Fire series. From that point on, the D-Counter begins its count at 0.00% and begins its steady climb upwards. Every several steps or eery round of battle, the counter goes up by 0.01%. However, it climbs much, much faster whenever Ryu actually uses his Dragon powers. Whenever Ryu uses his D-Dash power on the field to avoid encounters with enemies, the D-Counter rises constantly and quickly. When Ryu transforms mid-battle using D-Dive, the gauge rises a full percentage point every round, and rises another point or so whenever Ryu attacks with his super-charged strength. And when the D-Counter reaches 100.00%, Ryu dies and it is Game Over.

The entire game revolves around this relatively simple mechanic. Using Ryu's dragon powers can make any point of the game very easy. D-Dash allows the party to avoid any non-boss battle, and D-Dive makes any boss battle impossible to lose. Whenever Ryu uses D-Dive, he literally becomes invincible to all attacks from every enemy in the game (excepting a couple of enemies in special boss battles). Furthermore, by charging up his attacks, at the expense of 2.00% of the D-Counter per charge, Ryu can kill even the strongest boss in the game in one hit. However, if you rely on this overwhelming power or are reckless with it, the D-Counter will reach over 90% in a matter of a couple hours. At that point, a Game Over becomes inevitable. On the other hand, if the player completely avoids using the dragon powers, the D-Counter will barely break 10.00% by the end of the game.

The trick of the game design is that it is impossible to beat most of the bosses in the game on your first attempt without using D-Dive. Most of them are disproportionally powerful compared to the enemies leading up to them. Furthermore, there are enemies lurking about the areas of the game that are much higher level than the other enemies. Without D-Dive, the characters would quickly die. And since there are no random encounters, and no enemies in the game regenerate, it is impossible to farm enemies for experience to gain levels. So, the game design forces the player to use D-Dive without throwing enemies at the player that can only be killed with D-Dive (again, with limited exception at the end of the game).

Since the player is expected to use D-Dive, and thus create a situation where advancing through the game becomes impossible, the game designers created a system to make the game more playable. At any point in the game, it is possible to reset to either a previous save point or to the beginning of the game, and keep your equipment, skills, items in storage, and bonus experience. This means that Dragon Quarter is a game where you play through the game multiple times, growing stronger every time you reset. Since you can't keep your levels nor all of your items, it isn't something to be done lightly. However, this system allows the characters to gradually grow strong enough to defeat enemies and bosses that previously required D-Dive. This means that the player will gradually progress further and further through the game, becoming progressively less dependent on D-Dive. However, to avoid abuse of this system, game saves are strictly limited, and the player can only make permanent saves in a handful of locations.

Because the game demands that the player resets an area or to the beginning of the game occasionally, the game designers made allowances to make the experience more fun. First off, the game is short for an RPG. In order to get the best score, the player has to beat the game in a single run of 8 hours or less. A more typical run would take between 12 and 20 hours. With replays, it takes a typical 60 or so hours to beat the game, probably less. Furthermore, replaying through areas in the game is spiced up by a prevalence of alternate choices and paths in the game, where multiple play-throughs is the only way to see everything. In addition, the game uses something called the Scenario Overlay System, where additional cut-scenes appear at different points in the game the more times you reset, making certain there is something new every time the player resets.

Altogether, these gameplay systems make Dragon Quarter very unique. The replay value of Dragon Quarter is much higher than any other RPG on the market, except maybe the RPG classic Chrono Trigger. I am impressed how the game designers took the basic idea of the dragon transformation from the previous installments of the series, and found a way to make it a full on god-mode, that was still balanced within the framework of the game design. Furthermore, they took that framework and made it very fun. By making a small game with a lot of re-playability, they were allowed to focus their graphical and musical resources on a relatively small number of areas, the game looks and sounds great for a mid generation PS2 game.

Next Time: How this gameplay framework controls and contributes to the plot of Dragon Quarter.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 6

Game Completion: Currently on Chapter 4-5. About 88% complete, I think.

I really want to write about the plot of the game in depth, but I really should wait until I compete the game. So, more gameplay stuff.

Classes: I have mixed opinions on the new three-tier class system used in Radiant Dawn, a significant change from the two-tier class system from the earlier iterations of the series. I think it has a lot of good qualities, but at the same time, the implementation of the idea is a bit uneven.

Even though the addition of a whole tier is a big change to the system, in practice it actually doesn't change the feel of the game very much from earlier iterations, because the majority of the characters start at the second tier. The few characters in first tier classes end up behaving like the three journeyman characters from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, characters who start weaker than normal but end up very powerful (well, some just stay weak in this game). The characters only reach the third tier late in the game, like normal promotion in older Fire Emblem games. However, it lacks the advantage from The Sacred Stones of letting low-tier characters be more flexible than more advanced characters. Also, the very large number of levels each character needs to gain in order to class up exaggerates differences in stat growth, but more importantly, it severely limits the usefulness of characters who are not available for many missions (like the Crimean Royal Knights). Because of this, having more tiers of classes may not be a good match for a game with shifting perspectives.

Another issue with the three tiers of classes is that the benefits from classing up are uneven between the different classes. For example, Falcoknights and Dragonmasters (second tier classes) have access to two weapons, but similar Paladins don't get a second weapon until the third-tier upgrade (when they already have less mobility and lower stats). Many classes don't get the classic benefits of classing up (like sages acquiring staves) until the second class up, while others gain such benefits at the first class up (everyone gets more movement, Swordmasters get improved critical hit rates, etc), and other classes get powerful, unheard of abilities at second class-up (like Marksmen getting improved range for bows).

Still, one of the more interesting things about this system is that it lets the controllable characters rise far above normal enemies. Enemy grunts don't have access to third-tier classes (instead, they just get higher stat caps), so they lack the special abilities, powerful attack skills, and impressive appearance of classed-up characters. It lets fun and deadly attack skills like Sol, Luna, and Astra be available to every character, but keeps them away from enemy grunts, who would easily kill a controllable character with just a little luck with such moves (which would be overly frustrating). Also, it matches a lot of the tone of the story of the game in Part 4.

Weapons: I really don't have much to say about the classic weapon triangle of Fire Emblem (Axes, Swords, and Lances). Those three weapons have a lot of variety and work well in this game. Similarly, I don't have a lot to say about the Anima spells (Fire, Wind, and Thunder), other than that they should probably have at least one spell in each category which does something unique, to differentiate the spell types a bit more than they are. Also, the fact that the mission I am currently in, very late in the game, is the first chance to exploit the special advantages of the Fire spells (bonus damage to Beast Laguz), and Wind spells are barely any better, is something of a flaw in the game.

I think that Light magic and Dark magic could have been handled better in this game. As a whole, neither type of magic has any special property that would make it unique compared to Anima magic. The main benefit of Light magic, its effectiveness against Dark magic, is limited by the severe lack of Dark magic users in the game. Obviously, that lack hurts Dark magic as weapon type as well. As a whole, having two Trinities of Magic has diluted the purpose of these spell types too much, and it might be better if the Fire Emblem series returned to the Fire Emblem 4 system of having both Light and Dark be effective against the Anima types, and neutral against each other.

Bows suffer a bit in this game from the prevalence of good weapons from the main Triangle which have a range of 1-2. This dilutes the niche bows traditionally have had in the series (being the main ranged physical weapon) significantly. Also, the very low accuracy and rarity of longbows with a range of 2-3 removes an advantage. However, the ability of the Marksman class to use all bows effectively at a range of 2-3 restores that advantage, just a bit too late. As a whole, I think the advantage of bows with a range of 2-3 should be maintained more consistently across the game. Otherwise, bows work well.

I think, as it stands, Knives are not really in the same category as other weapons. They still show too many signs of their very recent evolution from thieves using swords. The stats for the silver dagger are nearly identical to the stats for a silver sword, and the only classes to use knives are the rogue variants. It would be better If more classes used them (Archers, maybe?), and they were further differentiated from swords.

Crossbows are actually one of the best innovations in the weapon system of this game. They work well, and feel more distinct from bows than daggers are from swords. Still, it would be better if more classes had access to crossbows, if there was a bit more variety to them, and if they were actually ranked like other weapons. Most importantly, it should be clearer which classes could equip crossbows (since this information is not available on any character information screen in-game).

Finally, I think the whole system of building up weapon levels is a bit flawed. Currently, there are too many ranks (E through SS, making each growth of weapon level mean too little), a class needs to be in at least rank C to even use decent weapons of a category (so even third-tier Marshalls need to equip weak Iron Lances), and physical weapons and magic categories seem to build up at radically different speeds (causing mages to fall far behind). Overall, this system just overly restricts characters from accessing the rare and powerful weapons of the late game (not fun), and has no clear benefit. It would be better to revert to the much older system of having weapon levels build up automatically at class-up, with certain characters having bonuses to certain weapon types.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Most Important Music

Good music is probably one of the most important parts of a videogame, yet it is one of those things which is often mishandled. I guess I might as well write a few articles about it.

I think the single most important pieces of music in a videogame should be the boss battle themes. This is because boss battles are typically the most dramatic and important places in the game where the player actually has control over the game. Obviously, dramatic moments should have appropriate music to match, but it seems that a lot of games tend to put more effort into making good, unique pieces of music for cut-scenes, rather than gameplay. I believe that doing so is a serious mistake. Videogames are interactive, and the most dramatic and interesting moments should be the gameplay phases of greatest importance to the story (which are usually boss-fights). The music of the game should reflect that.

The worst possible situation is having the same music for every battle in the game, no matter how important the battle. The RPG Xenosaga: Episode 1 actually comes very close to this extreme, since only the final battle has a different song than any other battle. Whether it is a regular battle against grunt soldiers, a desperate battle against alien monsters attacking a civilian population, or a showdown with one of the game's major villains, you hear the same music. Xenosaga had many great songs, and benefited from the talent of the great composer Yasunori Mitsuda, but all of the effort was placed on cut-scenes, as if the gameplay itself was unimportant. Even worse, there are huge stretches of gameplay that are completely lacking any music at all. It hurts the player's experience, and shifts all of the dramatic energy of the game to the cut-scenes, rather than gameplay. I think this is one of the more important reasons that many denounce the game as being more like watching a movie than playing a game, even though it has very long gameplay sequences.

The opposite extreme would be to have a game which has a unique, high-quality song for every gameplay sequence, but that is extremely impractical. There is probably a short action game of some kind which does this, but I don't think I have ever played such a game. It would be a nice experience, though.

I think there are a few rules that should be observed when designing music for action sequences.

1) Music for normal action sequences doesn't need to be too elaborate, but it should never be boring.

2) It is good if the normal action music changes as the game progresses. New stages or new phases of the story should be reflected with new music, especially if there is a large change in the tone of the story.

3) Action sequences which are particularly important to the plot, or are particularly difficult or exciting, should have distinct or even unique music to match.

4) Any battle against a recurring character should have a special piece of music based on the that character's theme music. The same applies if the enemy belongs to a recurring group of characters.

5) Each phase of the final battle should have a unique song.

I should probably write about character theme music sooner or later.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Devil May Cry trailer impressions

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been following some of the trailers for the soon to be released Devil May Cry 4. There is one thing I really have to say: Nero looks way too much like Dante. Same white hair, both wear long coats and lots of red, and both carry swords on their backs. While Nero has been wearing more black in more recent trailers, it is still hard to distinguish him from Dante in the quick cuts of a trailer. Surprisingly, Nero looks more like Dante than Virgil does, despite the fact that Virgil is Dante's twin brother.

It should be possible to immediately distinguish any two characters in the same game, double so if they are main characters. Dante and Virgil were easily distinguished in DMC3 by the different colors of their coats, their different hair, their different weapons, and also by their vastly different body language. A relatively simple change to Nero's character design could similarly eliminate any confusion between him and Dante. For example, changing his hair color by a little bit, or by completely removing the red in his outfit.

Anyways, I do like what I am seeing so far in the trailers gameplay wise. The ability to change styles mid-battle resolves a major annoyance from DMC3. Also, I am impressed than Nero does fight very differently from Dante, thanks to the special powers of his right arm. It defeats the point of having multiple characters if they fight too much like each other. That was a major problem in Megaman X7 with Axel and X. I am also hoping for a lot of unlockable secret characters. It was a real disappointment that Virgil was not unlockable in the original version of DMC3. Unlockable characters are a king of bonus feature that never grows old.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Radiant Dawn, Chapter 3-Endgame

The final chapter of the third part of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is an amazing piece of level design, combining story and gameplay perfectly. Obviously enough, there will be some serious spoilers for the game.

A lot of the reason for the greatness of this particular level comes from the dilemma I mentioned in my previous post concerning this game. The battle in this chapter is the climax of the tragic battle between the Daein Army, which fights against its will, and the Apostle's Army, which knows nothing of Daein's plight and continues the battle out of desperation. The player is given control of the Apostle's Army, has allied forces, and the enemy numbers over 90 units, including every controllable character from Micaiah's perspective, with more units reinforcing every turn. Finally, the winning objective is a total rout of every enemy.

The stated winning condition is the most surprising aspect of this fight. In every previous battle between controllable characters, it was possible to achieve the stated objective without hurting a controllable character. In this fight, the mission objective is asking you to completely wipe out a whole team of them. This is a situation that can be dramatic and painful even for the player. However, this is the one point in the game where the stated winning condition is not the real one. Normally I hate deceptions in winning conditions, since it makes things random and confusing in a genre which normally rewards precision and tactical planning, but here it is used to highlight the difference between the character's intentions and the actual events unfolding behind the scenes, and the real mission objective is clearly implied.

The Fire Emblem, Lehran's Medallion which seals the Dark God, has been the main object of interest for both Path of Radiance and the third part of Radiant Dawn. It has been made clear that it will be released if enough chaos is brought from war, and that the events of the third part of the game have brought it beyond the point where it was controllable. Even from this chapter's name, "From Pain, Awakening," it is clear that the Dark God's revival is at hand. When the battle begins, a strange blue number appears at the upper right part of the screen, the indicator for the true winning condition of the battle: the sacrifice of enough lives to release the Dark God.

The blue number increases with every death in the battle, whether it is the death of an ally or an enemy. The very color of the number ties it as to the blue flames of the Medallion and the Dark God, and it pulses with a heartbeat. As the number increases, the heartbeat increases in frequency and volume. When the number reaches certain values, the game cuts away from the battle to show various scenes which reveal the revival of the Dark God growing closer and closer. The number of deaths needed to bring about the revival is not known, leaving the end uncertain. The end effect is ominous and dramatic, and no matter what, it is clear that the player's own actions are going to be the final trigger for the Dark God's revival.

I was expecting the number of deaths to be somewhere around thirty to fifty, but the actual required number was as high as eighty. This high limit forced me to go through some fairly tricky maneuvering to avoid killing the character's of Micaiah's team, and every time I got close to a multiple of ten I prayed that it was the magic number that would end the battle before I lost an interesting or valuable character. It is an interesting experience, wanting to wish death of many unnamed characters and the revival of a Dark God, so that a few characters may be spared. It brings to mind a similar dilemma faced by the heroine of the game, where she is willing to kill countless soldiers, but would risk her army to prevent the death of a single person she cares about. Having a game put me in the same complicated emotional state as a character, even for a moment, is a rare experience.

The way this one mission combines so many elements so well is proof that, in a good game, the story and gameplay are interwoven and inseparable. While the events that lead to this chapter are somewhat forced, and the events after are somewhat cliche, this chapter is a marvel of good game design.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

More Difficulty Problems

This should be the end of my trilogy of blog posts regarding difficulty in videogames. I have recently been playing Devil May Cry 3 again. It is a lot of fun, but it is very, very hard. Right now, I am stuck trying to defeat the Doppelganger on Normal Mode. I already went through the entire game in Easy mode, and have built up my health to about 80% of max and built up every weapon. Doppelganger is still extremely tough. I swear that it is impossible to beat Normal mode without building up first in Easy mode. It is no wonder that Normal difficulty became the Hard difficulty setting in the Devil May Cry 3 Special Edition rerelease.

To me, this is a good example of an inherent problem of difficulty settings: they are not very consistent between different games. Some games, like Kingdom Hearts 2, are extremely easy on their lower difficulty settings. Other games, like Devil May Cry 3, can be very difficult and nerve wracking on their lower difficulty settings. It is not even consistent within games of the same series. For example, I considered Metroid Prime 1 and 2 to be a satisfying challenge on Normal Difficulty. I was never able to beat the Elite Pirate in Metroid Prime 1 on Hard difficulty. With this experience, I chose Normal difficulty when I played Metroid Prime 3. However, I only died twice in the entire game, and both times were caused when I made silly mistakes in Corrupted Hypermode caused by pirate EMP grenades, rather than from normal life drain. I even survived a stupid suicide trip through a lava waterfall to collect a power-up somewhat out of sequence. Normal mode in Prime 3 was noticeably easier than Normal mode in 1 and 2.

It would be best if games could create some kind of unified standard for how hard the standard Easy, Normal, Hard, and Maniac difficulty settings should be. Unfortunately, creating some kind of industry standard may be completely impractical, if not impossible. In any case, developers may need to turn to other solutions.

One thing Devil May Cry 3 does is offer a switch from Normal Mode to Easy Mode if the player dies too much. This is a reasonable solution that is being used by many other games, but I don't think it is perfect. When DMC3 first made the offer, after I had lost several times to the first boss, I declined. Being offered a switch to a lower difficulty setting hurt my pride. By the time the offer was made, I had easily cleared the first two stages of the game, and had little problems getting to the first boss. As an experienced gamer, I have long since learned that persistence s the key to getting through tough boss battles (something that is particularly true in DMC3). I figured that I could beat the boss with some persistence. I was wrong.

This highlights part of the problem in asking players to select a difficulty setting: it is hard to judge how hard a setting really is until you have played the game for a while. Most videogames start with the kid gloves on, and slowly stack on the challenge as the game progresses. This is true no matter what difficulty setting is selected. This means that first impressions of a setting's real difficulty can be wrong. This is compounded by the inability of the player to easily change difficulty setting. Some games like DMC3 let the player switch to an easier setting if they lose often, but few games let the player trade up in difficulty. For example, I was fairly deep in Kingdom Hearts 2 when I really decided that the game was to easy for my tastes, but in order to make the game harder, I had to start the game over again from the beginning, and lose hours of progress. So, I trudged onward through the game, and regretted my early choice of difficulty setting.

Allowing the player to more fluidly change difficulty setting within one play-through of the game may help these problems. I believe Odin Sphere had such an option. While the current system is invaluable, improvements still need to be made.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 5

Game Completion: Starting Chapter 4-1.

I am finally in the final stretch of the game. The story has been great the whole way and the gameplay is a lot of fun, but the difficulty has been fairly high for a while now, so I am going rather slowly. I hope I can beat this game by Christmas.

The biggest difference between this game and previous Fire Emblem games is the way the story shifts perspectives between different groups. It is a great storytelling device, that lets the player see the plot from different perspectives and adds to the complexity of the story. Because the different perspectives are often on different sides of the main conflict for large stretches of the story, it prevents the story from degenerating into a simple story of heroes against villains, and lets the many tragic elements of the story play out effectively. Suikoden 3 is another RPG that makes great use of this to tell a story about a tragic war, and I imagine that any game that wants to portray a conflict as senseless or tragic needs to make some use of this technique in order to be effective.

One of the more surprising things that results from the shifting perspectives in this game is the way that it affects the characterization of Ike, the main character of the previous game and a major character of this game. In the chapters where he is an ally he is the same kind, trusting, and noble warrior he has always been, but in the missions where he is the enemy commander, he takes on a fierce, ruthless quality, without the creators even changing the way he speaks or acts. When he went onto the field of battle himself and advanced towards my units, it was one of the more terrifying things I experienced in the game. It was an interesting experience, to say the least.

Anyways, enough about story, it's time to talk about gameplay.

Having the game shift between three or so groups of characters drastically changes the way a Fire Emblem game is played. Traditionally, the series has been about recruiting characters and slowly turning a small army into a large one, as well as slowly sifting out the characters you recruit, ignoring weak ones and building up characters with potential. Radiant Dawn turns that upside down. Because of the shifting perspective, the player must use about 60-70% of the available characters at a time, and in many missions, you must use every character available to you, rather than the old formula of choosing your favorite dozen characters for every mission and ignoring the rest. Even though there are even more characters than in the last game, there are fewer characters you can ignore, and there are even far less people you recruit in the traditional style of the series (instead, you tend to get a large block of characters every time the perspective switches to a new group).

One of the less obvious ways that this change affects the game is the way it changes the difficulty of the game, In older Fire Emblem games, you could usually count of having the best possible team for any given chapter, built only from characters with high levels, good equipment, and good stat growth. Because Radiant Dawn forces you to use a larger percentage of your team, and you can't choose from your whole lineup for any given mission, you are forced to use sub-optimal teams and below average characters on a regular basis. Also, your few powerful weapons and skills need to be stretched between a wider group of characters, so any individual character has fewer options than in the previous game. These effects are compensated for somewhat by evening out character power a bit more than usual, making bonus experience plentiful, and giving out more powerful, character-specific weapons, but it does a lot to add to the game's difficulty.

Finally, Radiant Dawn makes very good use of the combination of shifting perspectives and the iconic Fire Emblem rule that any character who dies in battle is permanently lost. Missions where you have to fight against the characters you like and have worked hard to build up are even more dramatic and complex than normal missions. Killing controllable characters is not fun, and hurts your chances at completing the game, so the player naturally wants to avoid hurting them, and the game designers integrate that emotional reaction into mission design and the story. They turn that impulse into an unspoken mission objective, and write ways to avoid such losses into the mission objectives, so the player is never forced into killing a controllable character, while at the same time making the battle and mission objectives believable. These battles are stressful and difficult, but are also some of the best missions in the game.

One of these missions, Chapter 3-Endgame, deserves a whole post dedicated to it, so I will write more on it another day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Alternative Difficulty Scaling

Games have included variable difficulty settings as a standard feature for years now. Most of the time, this scaling difficulty curve follows a simple pattern: as the difficulty setting increases, the enemies do more damage, take more hits to kill, come in larger numbers, and fight smarter/more aggressively. This is a pretty tried and true method of scaling a game's difficulty for different modes. However, this way of scaling difficulty has a few flaws, as well as a few alternatives.

The most significant problem of the traditional method of difficulty scaling is that it is completely opaque to the player until he or she actually chooses a difficulty setting and plays with it for a while. You can't really quantify the differences easily, and can't describe the differences to the player without revealing a lot of information about the inner workings of the game system.

However, there alternative means of varying difficulty than just manipulating damage and enemies. In my last blog post, I described how the inclusion of permanent loss in the Fire Emblem and Megaman series affected game difficulty. Since it has a noticeable effect on game difficulty, it means that it can be manipulated in order to adjust game difficulty and perhaps form the basis for various difficulty settings. For example, the possibility of permanent character death is what makes the Fire Emblem series so difficulty. It is not inconceivable to imagine adding a new "Easy" difficulty setting to a Fire Emblem game where characters simply don't die permanently or have a finite number of extra lives. This would certainly make the game somewhat easier, by allowing the player more leeway to make mistakes. And this is just one example of how it is possible to adjust game difficulty by modifying various different gameplay systems.

In fact, two recent Fire Emblem games did use nontraditional means of adjusting difficulty. In FE: Path of Radiance, the Easy and Normal difficulty settings did not have Fog of War on any maps, while hard mode did have it on specific maps. In FE: Radiant Dawn. Easy and Normal modes allow the player to make a mid-battle save, while the player can only suspend their game on Hard mode. Another example is from Megaman Zero. In that game, a basic feature of the game is that the player can build up weapons by using them and unlock new techniques, such as the charge slash. However, on Hard mode, the player cannot build up weapons, and is stuck using basic techniques. Coupled with bosses who have moves they do not possess in Normal mode, and the game becomes much more difficult.

The advantage of using techniques like this is that they are obvious to the player. These differences can be explicitly spelled out to the player in the manual and can have an obvious effect on difficulty. They also allow the developer to allow the player to control how "hardcore" a game is in ways that cannot be done with traditional scaling of enemy power.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Fateful choices

Recently, in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, in the middle of a story sequence before a mission, I was suddenly presented with a choice of two options in how a main character would act. I was rather surprised since this had not happened before in the game. As a whole, I am not certain that making the player face such a choice was a good decision by the game developer.

There were two major problems with the choice that the game presented: it was the first such choice, even though I am very deep into the game, and the consequences of the choice are unclear. Neither quality would be problematic on its own, but combined they detract from the game experience.

In the RPG Radiata Stories an equally unusual choice presents itself. At a seemingly random point in the game, two conflicting requests are made of the character, and the hero has to choose between them. However, the hidden consequences of the relatively innocent choice are made clear, when the game tells the player that choosing one or the other is a choice between two different paths through the rest of the game, and explicitly lays out the cost of each choice (losing access to different groups of recruited characters). The choice is sudden, but the consequences are known. Also, based on the scenes which occur right after the choice, the consequences would be clear even if it was not specifically spelled out for the player.

The RPG Persona 3 has many choices of consequence. However, these choices are not unusual, since the player is required to make them all of the time. It is impossible to know how important any particular choice is, or even if there is any importance. As such, the player never has any reason to dwell on any particular choice, so even choices with severe consequences can be made more easily, even though the consequences are unknown.

If you do not have many paces to make player choices in a game, then any choice given to the player seems like it should be very important. If the consequences of a choice are vague and unknown, then decision making is more stressful for the player. Both occurred n a severe form in Radiant Dawn, with the first choice occurring only with a very dramatic and tragic choice, and the consequences are not obvious, even several hours later in the game. I have gone a bit further into the game since that choice, but I am still wondering if I made the right decision, and the second-guessing and replaying the scene multiple times has reduced the dramatic impact of an otherwise great part of the game.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Permanent Loss

One of the most distinguishing features of the Fire Emblem games has always been the fact that when one of your characters is defeated in battle, that character dies, and is gone for good. Permanent death of a character is something that most videogames try to avoid, and for good reason. Making it possible for the player to permanently loose something by making a mistake radically increases the difficulty of the game. In Fire Emblem for example, if you actually let characters die once a mission, you would eventually be stuck trying to beat the game with only one character.

One good illustration of this concept is in the Megaman X series. In Megaman X5, rescuable civilians first appeared as an optional objective. Rescuing these civilians gave X an extra life and partially restored his health. A few specific civilians even forked over valuable equipable parts. Not a bad addition in of itself. However, in Megaman X6 and Megaman X7, this system led to problems. In X6, these civilians could be permanently killed if a specific enemy called a Nightmare touched them. In X7, these civilians could be killed if any shot, enemy, or hazardous terrain touched them.

Now, I should mention that dying isn't really a big deal in most Megaman games. Even if you run out of lives and get kicked back to the stage select screen, you still have everything you have collected up to that point in the game. It isn't uncommon in the series to enter a stage, go find a power-up, and then kill yourself off so that you can go to another stage. There isn't any permanent penalty for dying. In X6 and X7, the civilians became a possible permanent penalty that you have to constantly worry about. Since civilians could drop power-ups (one of which was necessary in X6), the death of a civilian could mean that the player could become weaker in the long run. Not to mention having a list full of MIA and Dead just feels bad. And since all progress is kept if you die, the only course of action if you lose a civilian is to reset the game from your last save file. In other words, losing a civilian becomes a more severe losing condition than the death of the main character.

This wasn't so bad in Megaman X6, since the only enemy that could permanently kill a civilian is obvious, and fairly slow-moving. However, it really became a pain in X7, where civilians could be killed just off-screen before you see them in some missions depending on how fast you move. It prevented the typical strategy of casually exploring a stage to get a feel for it, and instead demanded perfection from the very get-go. Because of this, even more than the sluggish controls, Megaman X7 is the only game in the series I did not beat.

Permanent loss took on another form in Megaman Zero, which conspired to make it the single hardest of all of the Megaman games. In Megaman Zero, extra lives did not replenish after a game over. Instead, you start with a finite number that does not grow much. Furthermore, it is sometimes possible to fail a mission by dying. In addition, dying seriously hurt the player's post-stage ranking. Therefore, the game demands that the player clear every stage without dying. When I went through the game, I ended up resetting every time I died.

Because of this effect, game developers should be very cautious about adding in the possibility of permanent loss. It can have a dramatic effect of difficulty, and can make a game more frustrating than fun if the loss comes seeming randomly.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 4

It is Thursday again, so time for the next entry about the big game I am playing right now.

Game Completion: In the middle of Chapter 3-10

A few more details worthy of mention:

Shops in Radiant Dawn show the signs of the gradual improvement of the Fire Emblem system. In older Fire Emblem games, you can only buy weapons if you bring a character to a Shop or Armory square during a battle, and few missions even had Shops or Armories. Buying items was a fairly stressful task of somehow guessing the number of weapons you needed to buy in order to last your army until the next shop became available, determining what weapons to buy and how much you could afford, and balancing this with the limited item capacity of your individual soldiers and the needs of actually trying to win the battle at the same time. In addition to the strain on the player, it limits map design, because it is required to have visitable shops every few stages, regardless of what makes sense for the plot or what makes sense for a particular mission.

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones made a slight improvement, in which you could buy from battle shops in the overworld after you cleared the mission and at the preparation screen before battles (albeit at higher than normal prices and with a limited inventory). Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance made the significant improvement of moving all shops (except the secret shop) to the new Base screen, which clears up all of the problems caused by shopping in the middle of a battle. Radiant Dawn takes this a step further, by adding the "special inventory" of unique items in the main Shop, which mostly replaces the role of the secret shop that lets the player buy rare and powerful items. I don't know if there is a secret shop in Radiant Dawn, but it is no longer needed. The special inventory, which changes with each mission, also is an interesting way of providing hints about the challenges of the coming mission by providing special weapons and items that improve your chances at beating the mission.

The Forge, introduced in Path of Radiance, is another useful addition to the series. The ability to forge weapons of much greater than normal power helps even out normal characters against more powerful characters like Ike, the main hero of Path of Radiance, especially since there were very few powerful "S-Rank" weapons in Path of Radiance, and it was difficult to even find characters capable of using A-rank weapons. In Radiant Dawn, the forge is mostly the same, except it seems to be cheaper, the arbitrary limitation of one use per chapter has been removed, and the ability to add small boosts to a forged item by using rare items has been added. There is supposed to be a system of expanding the options of the forge by selling your old weapons, but the options of the forge seem to shift from stage to stage as well, so I am unsure how useful that function is. Like many things in Fire Emblem, a bit more documentation and transparency would be appreciated.

The Skill system, returning in Path of Radiance after being introduced in Fire Emblem 4 and missing from the GBA games, has been improved somewhat in Radiant Dawn. I am honestly baffled as to why basic abilities like Shove and Canto, which are inherent to whole categories of characters, cost valuable skill points, but other than that, I like the system. Unlike in Path of Radiance, when you remove a skill from a character it is now moved to your inventroy, rather than just disappearing. This makes skill assignment more flexible and less stressful, and encourages experimentation. At the same time, the skills a character starts with will cost nothing unless they are removed, so there is both a distinct advantage to leaving those skills equipped, and the freedom to remove them and use them on someone else. It is quite elegent. Also, the addition of third-tier Beorc unique class skils and the Satori Sign skills for Laguz, which are powerful, can not be removed, and don't have a net cost for the character, is an improvement on the useful but somewhat limiting and scarce Occult Skills from the previous game.

I will need to discuss the addition of a third-tier class upgrade for Beorc after I get more of a chance to actually use those classes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Main Characters and FFXII

When designing the main characters of a videogame, it is vital to make sure that at least two things are true: 

1) The main characters need a reason for becoming the heroes. If the person playing the game ever questions why a certain character is sticking through numerous bad situations, then the believability of the game becomes compromised.

2) The main characters need to be appropriate for the kind of story that is being told. You can't just come up with any kind of character and make him or her the central hero of any kind of game.

The reason I decided to write about this topic today is that I was recently reminded of Final Fantasy XII, a game that had great potential that was held back in part by a poor choice of main characters. At this point, I should put the disclaimer that I did not finish FFXII. I estimate that I made it about half way through the game. However, even though I made it that far, it still had not become apparent to me why Vaan, the supposed main character, had even joined the team.

At its core, the main plot of FFXII deals with war and the political situation concerning Dalmasca and the Archadian Empire. Even though the main character is technically Vaan, the princess of Dalmasca, Ashe, is the character who actually drives the action of the game with her desire to see her country freed from Imperial control. Balthier and Basch also help drive the action because they have personal connections to some of the most important players in the game's action and are sympathetic to Ashe's goals. Fran and Panelo join mostly out of their connections to Balthier and Vaan respectively.

The character whose motivations are questionable is Vaan (and by extension Panelo, who he drags into the events). The reality is that Vaan never really has a motivation to save Dalmasca. Unlike Ashe or Basch, he doesn't really seem to be very patriotic. His only tangible connection to the political events of the game come through his brother, who plays only a minor role in the game that is overshadowed by Basch. His main connection to Ashe is that he can apparently share the strange visions she has, but that remained completely unexplained half way through the game.

Early in the game, when I was first getting to know Vaan as a character, his strongest motivation is to become a sky pirate, the same as Balthier. However, Sky Piracy has very little to do with the plot of the game. The game doesn't even dwell too much on what Sky Pirates do other than fly around in airships. Vaan's obsession with sky pirates has more to do with the allure of freedom from responsibility and his current worries in life. In that sense, Vaan is the archetypal protagonist of a coming-of-age story. Unfortunately for him, FFXII is not a coming-of-age story.

The is really no room for Vaan's story in Final Fantasy XII's plot. A lot of the time, Vaan's lighthearted chats with Panelo and such are pushed off-screen in favor of more serious dialogue involving Ashe and Balthier discussing the morality of using ancient super-powerful artifacts as weapons against the Empire, and how much they actually trust each other. Not even the other characters take Vaan seriously. Balthier quips that he brought Vaan along for entertainment. The one time the other characters ask Vaan why he is coming along, he ends up grasping for something to say, and they end up just walking out before he can come up with a response. It seems that even the game developers did not take Vaan seriously as a character.

It might have been better if the developers had picked a different character to be the lead character. One good pick would have been Larsa, the prince of Archadia who drops by the party often enough that he might as well be a party member. Not only does he have direct connections to the politically heavy plot, he is the main villain's little brother. He also demonstrates a very pro-active interest in the unfolding events of the game. He is also young enough that he could easily take on a lot of the coming-of-age plot aspects surrounding Vaan. Not to mention that he probably has more speaking lines than Vaan anyway.

Vaan's weakness as a main character could become a more long-term problem for Square-Enix. Many of the recent Ivalice Alliance series of Final Fantasy spin-offs, most notably Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, have been using Vaan's appearances in those games in their marketing to try to bank on the popularity of their big budget game. However, since Vaan put in a very weak showing in FFXII, his cameos and second appearances might fail as an effective draw for players. Weak protagonists lack long-term marketability.

.hack//Liminality and Online Jack

.hack//Liminality and Online Jack are two unusual elements that are included in the .hack and .hack//G.U. videogames. They fall somewhere between in-game animated FMVs and an independant animated series designed to tie-in with a videogame.

.hack//Liminality is a series of four animated episodes, each on a disk that is packaged with one of the four volumes of .hack, and they range from about 15-20 minutes in length to 45 minutes. More importantly, they are mostly unrelated to the characters and main action of the games themselves. rather than tell the story of the games, they tell the story of people other than the game characters who experience firsthand the damage that originates from the game's conflict, and those characters' attempts to understand that conflict. The games take place entirely within the fictional MMORPG "The World", but .hack//Liminailty takes place in the real world. The degree of separation is such that only passing references occur in the games to the events of the animated episodes.

The .hack//Liminality episodes' main purpose is the portrayal of why it is important that the heroes of the game succeed in their goal. Episodes 1 and 2 in particular show people who are put in danger and who have a common friend who has fallen into a coma due to the problems found in "The World". This actually helps the games themselves quite a bit, because the way the plot and set-up of the game itself prevents the player from seeing these problems firsthand while playing the game. Also, episode 3 helps clarify a lot of the otherwise vague backstory of the game. Episode 4 is a lot less effective, because it doesn't serve such a clear purpose for the game's story.

Online Jack from .hack//G.U. is in a very different format, as a set of optional movies that can be accessed within the game itself. What is more, it is broken into a larger number of episodes, each of which is unlocked by progressing within the game story. This connects it more closely to the game's timeline, and integrates it with the various simulated forums and animated news boardcasts that provide all kinds of information to the player about the game world. This reduces the ability of the episodes to tell a long, self-contained story (which .hack//Liminailty Episode 1 did very well), but it does make the episodes more closely conected to the game experience itself.

The problem with Online Jack is that the events of the episodes do not tie in closely enough to the main game's plot. Online Jack portrays several characters who are trying to gather information about certain events, but, for the most part, the player knows far more about what is going on than those characters do, so it contributes very little to the plot of the game, and results in a plot that feels incomplete.

As a whole, I think the concept behind .hack//Liminality and Online Jack has a lot of potential, and could probably be used more widely. It seems that it is very difficult to strike a balance between the need to connect such a side-story in with the main plot and to keep it entertaining in its own right, but if it is accomplished succesfully, it cna probably add a lot to a complex story.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Multi-Volume Games

Since I have been playing .hack//G.U. Volume 3 a bit lately, I have been thinking a bit about the idea of games which come out in a series of volumes, each of which is purchased as an individual game. Right now it is an unusual scheme that has its pitfalls, but it has a few clear advantages. Its largest advantage is that it allows a company to create a long game with high production values, even if the game would not otherwise be able to sell enough copies to justify the large cost. These days, rising production costs have worked to make games a lot shorter than they once were, and long games with an epic story are becomming less common, so the movement to multi-volume games does make sense. Still, it is rather difficult to make a multi-volume game that makes the best advantage of the structure.

Because I have played them, I am going to use the original ,hack games, the Xenosaga trilogy, and the .hack//G.U. trilogy as my examples. From what I hear, recent episodic PC games like Half-life Episodes 1 and 2 might also work as examples, but I don't know enough about those games in particular to commenton them.

As far as I am aware, the four volumes of .hack were the first games to use this set-up. All four games use the same save data, have the same engine, and all tell different chapters of the same plot. As such, it really feels like one game that has been split into four parts. In terms of gameplay, this works well, because this removes any learning curve for the later volumes, and makes the games all feel more like a coherent whole, but at the same time squanders some potential to make use of the volume structure. A larger problem is that the story and gameplay were not really well suited to the legnth and pacing of four volumes. The fist volume works well, providing needed exposition and setting up the premise of the story, and ends at a great place: the first battle against the main enemy, and a dramatic sequence which sets up the goal for the rest of the four games. Unfortunatly, the next three volumes do not distinguish themsleves from each other very well, and the whole experience ends up being overly repetative, with too little plot and character development for such a long story. Another significant problem is that the game does not have the variety of scenery, good visuals, and intricate story that would justify buying it in four volumes. The whole thing feels like it would fit on a single game disc quite easily, so it can be hard to justify the purchase.

The successor games to .hack, the three volumes of .hack//G.U., vastly surpass the original games in every way. While there are a few storytelling issues here and there, the .hack//G.U. games tell a much more complicated and interesting story that has enough variations and character development to flesh out a long game. The story works better as a set of volumes as well, because each volume focuses on particular charcters and subplots, and each volume ends with a dramatic sequence that wraps up many subplots and has a revelation that triggers a clear shift in the story and the characters' goals. Also, the beginning of each volume introduces new plot elements and complications, which works quite well. The game keeps the same system between each volume, but adds minor changes and improvements, so there are new things to try and experience in each volume. Finally, the game has fairly high production values, which helps justify the purchase. As a whole, it makes much better use of the multi-volume structure than its predeccesor.

I think I need to write about .hack//Liminality and Online Jack at some later time.

I can probably write a whole essay on the mistkaes and lost potential of the Xenosaga games, but certainy one of the biggest problems with the story of the games is the flawed divisions between the different volumes. The story of the first volume is left incomplete, the second volume only serves as the second half of the first volume, and the third volume completely skips a large section of the story, and wraps up too many plot threads from the first two games too quickly, while ignoring others. In terms of both gameplay and graphics, each volume is highly inconsistent, which makes the experience somewhat jarring. The fact that you can't directly carry save data between volumes because of the gameplay changes is a very severe problem. If nothing else, this series is proof that it is nearly impossible to use later volumes of a game series to fix problems with previous volumes.

As a whole, there are a few things I can conclude about multi-volume games. First, the story of each game needs to both tell part of the greater story, and stand on its own as a story-arc. Transitions between volumes should be memorable and distinct, and involve major changes in the story. Also, having a lot of consistency in graphics and gameplay is very important, but it is also important to keep adding minor new things for each volume so the player does not feel like he is just playing the same game over again. In that regard, .hack//G.U. serves as the best example with the way the main character's abilities are expanded once each volume. Also, it seems that having more than three long volumes might drag things out a bit, so it might be best to stick to just three (though this is probably very different for games in which each volume is very short). Finally, it is probably best to use the same game engine between each volume, to keep the expereince consistent and avoid the costs of making each volume be a full project.

Other than those conclusions, I am a bit uncertain about two important details: I can't decide how introducing new characters should work across multiple volumes and I am not sure whther it should be possible to miss something in one volume and lose the chance to get that thing in a later volume. The first comes up because I disliked waiting until the third volume to recruit some characters in.hack//G.U., but having the dsame cast across all three volumes of Xenosaga became too boring. The second problem is because both alternatives have benefits and drawbacks. Losing the opportunity to get something is painful (I missed a lot in .hack//G.U. becuase I didn't do a few things in the first volume), but it rewards the players who went through previous volumes, which adds to the experience. I suppose some compromise needs to be made for these issues.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Co-op RPGs?

After my last post, Nathan reminded me about a co-op game that I had forgotten about: Final Fantasy III (as it was called then, it is now more commonly called Final Fantasy 6). I am not sure how many people know about it today, but Final Fantasy III for the SNES had a multiplayer option where control of the characters could be divided up between Player 1 and Player 2 during battle. Field gameplay remained strictly single-player, with the odd exception of the overworld, where both players could simultaneously control the same character's movement. This was an odd version of asymmetrical co-op, the concept I brought up in my last post.

My brother and I usually play through RPGs together. While only one of us actually plays through the game and makes the final decisions, the other watches through the game to enjoy the story and help remember details, think through puzzles, and generally try to make helpful decisions. The ability to allow my brother to help out in a more direct fashion while I  played through a game was something I enjoyed. It did not make combat any easier, since only one of us could make decisions at a time. However, it was a very different experience, where the two of us had to plan out battle strategies together quickly under the pressure of the Active Time Battle System. I enjoyed it. We usually divided control of the characters based on which characters were our personal favorites. Thus, my brother mastered Sabin's Blitz inputs, while I never was able to even remember what they were.

Final Fantasy III was not even the first time an RPG had a co-op feature. Final Fantasy II (now more correctly referred to as Final Fantasy 4) for the SNES accepted input from both controller ports simultaneously. It might have been merely a bug, but it allowed for a similar experience to FFIII's multiplayer, if somewhat more chaotic. Unfortunately, FFIII for the SNES was the last time a traditional console RPG had a multiplayer co-op option. Final Fantasy VII dropped the concept completely, and the multiplayer features were even removed from the Playstation remakes of FFIV and FFVI.

Yet, I still think that asymmetrical co-op in normally single-player RPGs is an interesting concept that is worth taking a second look at. It could be implemented in a similar fashion to what was originally done in FFVI with very little effort. With even more effort, something truly original could be done.

EDIT: A few hours after publishing this, I realized that I had made a critical oversight: there is one RPG series that has supported co-op for mot of its existence: the Tales of... series. As an example, Tales of Symphonia for the Gamecube could support up to four players at once during battle sequences. Since the Tales of... series uses a real time battle system that plays a lot like an action game, there is even a tactical advantage in having a second player controlling one of the characters, rather than an AI. The Tales of... series is an example of how co-op in a genre that traditionally doesn't have multiplayer can make a game or series stand out.

I also think that there is still room to expand the idea of RPG co-op, particularly in the areas of puzzle solving and exploration.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 3

Game Completion: In the middle of Part 3, Chapter 5

I really like the level design in this game. Each chapter feels fairly unique, with distinct objectives and complications. I can only recall one or two stages so far that are simple battles in which you just need to rout an enemy or defeat a boss. Interesting objectives are so common that, in one mission, the lack of any such complications made me rather paranoid that something would happen towards the end to make things more difficult (I admit I was rather disappointed when it turned out it was just a simple battle).

Some interesting things this game does in level design, especially compared to previous Fire Emblm games, are:

1) The different chapters have many kinds of Victory Objective. With distinct Rout, Defeat Boss, Defend, Arrive, Sieze, and Escape objectives, as well as few which are outside of those common types (like the objective of mission 3-3). Various creative uses of these objectives, especially the Arrive command (such as in mission 3-Prologue), keeps the stages from feeling repetative. Having multiple wining conditions, especially in the otherwise long and potentially boring Defend missions, is also a nice feature.

2) Most levels have some kind of incentive that encourage the player to stay on the offensive. The Fire Emblem games are easiest if you play cautiously and advance slowly, but are much more fun if you push as quickly as you can and push your ability to respond to attacks to the limit. This game rewards the latter by both traditional methods for a Fire Emblem game, like having Thieves and Bandits who will destroy towns and rob treasure chests if you progress too slowly, and a newer, but very common in this game, method of having civilians and allied soldiers on the battlefied who can be saved. As far as I can tell, keeping allied and civilian units alive and letting them escapape the battle rewards the player with valuable bonus experience in this game. There are even some stages which ask the player to avoid killing enemies, an interesting and novel challenge for the series. Previous Fire Emblem games might only have a single stage with nameless allies that need rescuing, and often you only receive an item for saving them, so the fact that they apear so often in this game is a nice change.

3) The actual terrain of the battle is often quite varied and interesting. The addition of different levels of height, and gaps that can be climbed, both add a lot to the game experience.

Of course, there are a few problems with the level design, mostly stemming from excessively powerful defensive locations, and terrain that is more difficult to traverse than is necessary. In a game where three-to-one odds can be fatal, one mission (2-Endgame) has a choke-point that allowed a single character on my side hold back a constantly spawning group of enemies which could number up to sixteen or more at a time, and in other missions the enemies hold almost equally powerful locations. Another problem is that heavily armored characters and mounted characters seem to be punished too much by rough terrain, especially gaps that require climbing. Armored characters already have less movement than other characters, and mounted characters suffer lower caps on their stats (and penalties on movement in indoor stages), so these characters end up being all but useless on some stages. At the same time, flying characters (who might be stronger and more common than mounted characters) don't suffer these penalties and are necessary to get through some stages with a large number of choke-points, so they end up being rather unbalanced with horse-riding units.

That about covers stage design so far... Before I forget, I should mention that I really like the addition of a mid-battle save (rather than just a suspend) to the fire Emblem series. It eases a lot of frustrations with replaying a mission many times to make up for a minor mistake, and permits the player to be more daring in battle (which adds to the effect of #2 above), making the game more fun.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Co-op Gameplay on Consoles

I have always been drawn to games that have good cooperative gameplay. Since I have a twin brother who is also into video games, it is nice to be able to play the same game as him at the same time. It is no wonder that some of my favorite games from my childhood were the SNES classics Secret of Mana and Kirby's Superstar.

Back in the days of the NES and SNES, cooperative gameplay was not uncommon. Part of it was certainly the greater influence of arcades back in those years. Cooperative beat-em-ups like Final Fight and Co-op shooters like Contra used to be a staple of arcades. Some arcade games, like the old Simpsons arcade game, supported up to 4 players at once. In those days, the cooperative mode of games was inseparable from the main game mode. In fact, it was often possible for a second player to join a game in the middle of a play session.

Unfortunately, there ha not been very many really good examples of cooperative gameplay being a major selling point of a game ever since the transition to 3D games in the Playstation era. The biggest reason is that 3D games are not well suited to co-op gameplay. In order to have effective co-op gameplay, all of the players need to be able to see their own characters at the same time. This was not a problem in the days of 2D sprite based games, but it is a major problem for 3D games, where having a functioning camera is hard enough when there is only one character. This has led to an unfortunate decline in co-op games over the years. Nowadays, only a handful of games have cooperative play.

There are really only a handful of ways to handle cooperative game in a 3D game. The first and most common method is using split-screen. Unfortunately, splitting the screen in half (or more) severely limits the visual range of the players. It also forces the designers to scrunch the HUD of a game into a smaller area. Larger HDTVs can lessen these problems, but it doesn't change the fact that players will compare the split-screen game to the single-player game experience. Online cooperative gameplay gets around the limitations of split-screen, but it doesn't allow for two people in the same room (such as me and my brother) to enjoy the co-op mode.

In order for a 3D game to have multiple players looking at the same screen at once, there are still a few options. The first option is to use a static camera that looks down on a large area that contains all of the characters. Essentially, a developer has to emulate the effect of a 2D game. Unfortunately, this approach constrains the actions of the players. The characters, as is usually the case in old side-scrolling 2D co-op games, would not have the ability to split up and handle different objectives. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and the forthcoming Super Smash Bros. Brawl use this approach. The other approach is to use asymmetric characters in the co-op mode. This is done in the N64 game Jet Force Gemini, where one player controlled the main character and his movement, and the other player controlled a floating robot named Floyd that floated next to the main character's head, and could shoot at any target on screen. The recently released Super Mario Galaxy uses a similar mechanic. This solution relegates the second player to a supporting role, but it does have the advantage that the second player can theoretically join in at any time, as was the case in the arcade days.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fake Rewards

My brother's recent post regarding Metroid Prime 3 reminded me of a problem with that game: despite the amount of effort it takes to collect all of the missile expansions and ship missile expansions, there is little real benefit from doing so. These items are presented as being rewards for the player overcoming difficult obstacles and puzzles, but they serve very little benefit for the player beyond a certain point.

Ship Missiles Expansions are the most obvious Fake Reward in Metroid Prime 3. As far as I can tell, they are completely useless. You only rarely even have the chance to use a Ship Missile attack in that game, and it is easy to replenish your missile supply between those rare occasions by just walking into the next room and shooting a crate. There isn't a single place in the game where getting even one Ship Missile Expansion will make a battle or puzzle easier.

Missile Expansions are slightly more useful than their larger cousins, but you will never need 255 missiles in the game. Unless you waste a lot of missiles against enemies resistant to them, you might never use more than 20 missiles between rechargs in the whole game. Having such large numbers of missiles was important in older 2D Metroid games, because enemies like Ridley, Mother Brain, Zeta Metroids, and the Queen Metroid all required a large stock of missiles for the fight to even be possible. In the original Metroid Prime, this was also the case for some fights, and the Beam-Missile Combo weapons provided another way of using large numbers of missiles at once, thus justifying the large number of Missile Expansions. However, Metroid Prime 3 does not have any fights that require a large number of missile hits (with boss battles being too dependant on the Hypermode gimmick), so there is no reason for the player to ever need a lot of missiles.

Spending the time and energy to earn something that is not useful is a frustrating experience for the player, and does not make the game any more fun. It is a pitfall that should be avoided in game design.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 2

Game Completion: In the middle of Part III, Chapter 2

Now that I know a lot more about the game, it seems it is time for me to talk a bit more about some system elements of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn.

The Laguz: The Laguz characters of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and this game represent one of the hardest things to balance: a character or unit that is weaker than others half of the time, and stronger than others the other half of the time. In addition to that issue, they are different from other Fire Emblem units because they don't equip weapons, which is both a benefit (their weapons don't wear out) and a problem (they can't use different weapons for different situations). Finally, unlike other Fire Emblem characters, they don't class change when they increase in level.

The implementation of laguz characters in Path of radiance was fairly good, but was flawed. The way the transformation guage fills with every turn and attack while the laguz is in human form, and then drains for each turn and battle the laguz is in beast form, is quite elegant. However, all laguz were the equivalents of a class-changed character, which limited their availability in the early parts of the game as either allies or enemies. Also, they did not tend to gain enough power from levelling up that they stayed competitive given their limitations of use. In the final battle, only the exceptionaly powerful lagiz charqacters could keep up with the beorc characters who have been used across the entire game and are equiped with the most powerful weapons.

In Radiant Dawn changes many aspects of this system.

The most important changes are made to how the transformation guage works, and the power of the transformation. They changed the system so that every type of laguz gains and loses points on the guage at differing speeds, so some laguz can change on the fourth turn, but others will change on the eleventh. More importantly, the player can now let the guage remain at full without the laguz transforming, and can order a laguz to return to human form before the guage empties. These, along with an increase in the number of items that fill the guage, greatly increases the tactical options of the laguz, and are a much needed improvement. However, I am still confused by the way the guage seems to only fill irregularly when the laguz is attacked in human form.

Another important change in the game is the way stats are modified by a laguz's transformation. In Path of Radiance, transforming added set values to each stat. In Radiant Dawn, transforming doubles each stat. These means that laguz benefit more form each increase in level, but also that their human forms are extremely fragile, and become even more fragile as the game progresses. It seems to work out pretty well.

Finally, laguz use a different system of levelling than beorc. This is results in a lot of confusion about how the levels of laguz are supposed to compare to beorc levels when determining who to give kills and experience points to. This is made worse by the fact that an untransformed laguz gains experience at a different rate than a transformed laguz.

The Support System: The support system, the system whch lets you form ties between allies to give them combat bonuses and see optional conversations between them, is an important recurring elements of the Fire Emblem series. Path of Radiance used pretty much the same syustem as was used in the Fire Emblem games for the Game Boy Advance did, except made an improvement by basing the availability of support links on battles fought as a team, rather than the older system of basing it on turns spent adjacent. Also (like shops), it moved support conversations from the battlefield to the Base screen, making them more plausible and easier to manage. The only problem was that many support links between early characters took far too long to be built up properly, which punished experimenting with different characters and teams.

Radiant Dawn makes many major changes to the system. First, it limits a character to a single support partner, though now that partner can be changed, Second, it seems that it has returned to a loosened up version of spending turns adjacent to characters, rather than battles fought (I'm not sure, since like in other Fire Emblem games, it isn't explained well). Third, any character can now form support with any other character, rather than a limited set. Finally, the optional conversations which occur between support characters have been moved back to the battlefield, and have been trimmed down to just short greetings. The first two changes are tolerable, but the fourth, an obvious result of the third, is a grave mistake on the designers' part.

The greatest benefit of the support system in recent Fire Emblem games have been the way they provide character development for the cast of characters. Because Fire Emblem characters can die permanently, most members of the cast tend to fade away once they join the team. They cease to appear in the main plot, so they can only be developed and made interesting through optional dialogue. Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones both did a lot good character development and examination of the plot with these conversations, so their absence is quite noticable. In fact, a lot of the main plot elements of Radiant Dawn and character backstory elements of recurring characters were only hinted at in the optional conversations of Path of Radiance.

I guess I should save more for another post.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Weapons in Metroid Prime 3: Ice Missle vs. Seeker Missle

I have been a fan of the Metroid series ever since I played Super Metroid on the SNES. So, purchasing Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was an obvious decision.  I think that the game was pretty good. The elevation of the Grapple Beam to the position of being a major game play element was well executed for the most part. However, not all of the weapons and tools in the game were created equally. During my play-through of the game, I made one major discovery:

The Seeker Missile does a very poor job as a weapon.

During the entire course of Metroid Prime 3, I only used the Seeker Missile two or three times in an actual combat situation. The biggest problem facing the Seeker Missile is that it is a weapon designed to target up to five enemies at once in a game where Samus Aran is usually fighting enemies in groups of 3 or less at a time. There are only a handful of enemy groups in the game that are larger than three:

1) The large swarms of small, swarming enemies, such as the Pirate's walking mines. Most of these enemies are non-hostile, and the ones who are tend to advance too quickly to lock on to with all five missiles. In any case, spamming beam fire works well against these, and consumes less ammo.

2) The Tinbots and Steambots in Elysium. However, all of the Steambots are dead by the time Samus gets the Seeker Missle, and the Tinbots are easy to fight with other weapons.

3) The large swarm of six warping Metroids on the Valhalla. However, these enemies all but immune to missiles except for the brief moment where they pull back and charge at Samus. It is more reliable to take them down with a barrage of Beam fire.

While there are places where it is possible to get good use out of the Seeker missile, there are usually other strategies that work just as well if not better. This problem is exaggerated by some problems with the weapon itself that tend to discourage the player from using it:

1) Missiles have finite ammo. If faced with the choice of using up a limited resource or using an alternative strategy, most people would go for the alternative strategy, unless the one that uses up limited resources are significantly better.

2) The Seeker missile wasted 1 missile whenever I first pressed the missile button down to charge it up. In order to not waste a missile, I was forced to charge the beam temporarily, and then quickly hold down the missile button as the beam fired.

3) I never got the "lock onto one enemy more than once" ability of the Seeker Missile to work.

Because the Seeker missile never stood out as superior to other weapons in any specific situation, it simply was not a good weapon. In order for a weapon to really be seen as valuable by a player, it needs to give the player a significant advantage compared to other weapons in the same game under some circumstances.

The Ice Missile from the same game is a good example of this concept. On the second planet of the game, Samus Aran fights enemies such as the Reptilicus and Warp Hound, which are very resistant to normal missiles and beam shots, and can be aggressive attackers. However, the Ice Missile that is obtained on that planet makes them much easier opponents. It takes only two or three Ice missiles to kill one of these enemies, and the Ice missile slows them down, making them easier to hit and weakening their offense.

Because the Ice Missile has that effect, it makes the player start to think: "How did I ever live without this?" That kind of thought is what makes a weapon a good weapon.

There are a couple of things the developers of Metroid Prime 3 could have done to make the Seeker Missile more worthwhile. Most of these suggestions involve adding enemies that make the Seeker Missile a better choice for fighting against them. Unfortunately, most of the enemies and puzzles that require the Seeker Missile in Metroid Prime 3 are obvious and feel forced.

1) There are flying bug enemies on the second planet that are best fought using missiles simply because they are too fast and evasive to hit with beam shots. However, they only appear in packs of two or three at most. If they came in larger swarms of six or more, then the Seeker Missile would be an attractive option for fighting them.

2) Enemies that are more dangerous if attacked one by one. For example, a bunch of robots that become aggressive as soon as one of them is attacked. Alternatively, a group of enemies that gain more powerful attacks each time one is destroyed. In that case, the best option for fighting them would be to destroy all of the enemies at once.

With some additions like these, the Seeker Missile could have been a much more significant part of Metroid Prime 3.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Fire Emblem:Radiant Dawn, Part 1

Game Completion: Through Chapter 1:1

I am a long-time fan of the Fire Emblem series, so I have been anticipating this game for a while. Obviously enough, I got it as quickly as I could (it was released yesterday after all). For those who don't know much about the series, Radiant Dawn is a direct sequel to Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, and is the tenth game in the Fire Emblem series, though only the fourth to have been released in the United States.

The game has just been released, so I will avoid spoilers.

So far, early impressions are mixed.

First off, I had a severe problem when I tried starting a new game using data from Path of Radiance. The game froze, and a load buzz sound persisted until I shut off the console completley. This was repeated every time I tried. As such. I ended up giving up on that, and just started a new game without old data. Since I was looking forward to using my old data, I'm not very pleased.

However, the game itself so far is playing very well. It very quickly recaps the important elements of the last game's plot, and establishes the basic elements of the new plot. The heroine Micaiah's kindness and special abilities are laid out quickly, the dark, somber mood of an occupied country is felt, and the heartless cruelty of the occupying army is made crystal clear in short order. I already have a character on my "must see die" list, which is pretty impressive, actually. The music, while subdued, is beautiful, and sets the mood nicely. I also like how the first two missions transition in such a clear and logical manner, with the second mission being a direct logical result from the first, and how these missions solidify the character portrayal of the heroes so nicely.

In terms of gameplay, it is classic Fire Emblem. I am playing on Normal difficulty, and it is already surprisingly tricky. I had a few close calls with a few characters, and a lucky dodge of an attack is all that saved me from having to restart the second stage. I like games with this kind of challenge, so I am quite happy. Also, the use of more complicated objectives then "defeat all opponents" so early in the game is quite a nice change of pace from the rest of the series. I hope it persists.

One problem so far is in stage design. Traditionally in Fire Emblem games, houses that you can visit during a mission have a red roof, and a clearly seen. Path of radiance added a clearly open front door. In the second mission of Radiant Dawn, this was not the case, so I nearly missed some places to visit, becaise I did not recognize them. I understand that red roofs do not match the grim visuals the devoloper was aiming for, but some visual elements should have been added to make visitable locations clearer.

Anyways, my wishes and fears concerning the game are as follows:

1) The good speed and mood of the plot gets maintained over the course of the game.
2) The new systems and modifications to the Fire Emblem formula work out.
3) All the mysteries and plot threads that persist from Path of Radiance get a satisfying resolution.

1) That, like the last game, the Laguz characters will lack a clear role, and have more drawbacks then strengths.
2) That the many interesting characters returning from Path of Radiance will outshine the new cast, and prevent them from being interesting. Also, the opposite, in which the good characters from the last game will be completely overshadowed.
3) The classic elements of a Fire Emblem game get implemented poorly.

Finally, I have a few closing comments about the manual. As a whole, it is good, but like most other Fire Emblem game manuals, it doesn't explain many important elements in enough depth. Among other things, I don't know how the Support system works in this game (whether it works like it did in Path of Radiance, or the older system, or something else), and I don't know how it relates to or is different from the new "Bond" system.

I will post about more things in depth when I get to play the game some more.