Friday, January 18, 2008

Item Creation Systems, Part 1

Since I have finally completed many of the games I have been playing over the last few months, I am going back to a few old ones I want to play some more. Right now, I happen to be playing Ar Tonelico, an RPG for the PS2. This is a quirky game, which makes it fun to write about, so I will certainly have a lot to say about it, but for now, I can only think of one thing: I hate Grathmelding.

Grathmelding is the name for the system that lets you combine old or useless items into new and useful ones. It is a great concept, but the execution in this game is just terrible. What is worse, Ar Tonelico is made by the same developers as the Atelier series, an RPG series which uses item creation as the central mechanic to good effect, and it begs the direct comparison because Ar Tonelico and the Atelier Iris series seem to share the same basic game engine and a lot of artwork. It seems entirely likely that the Grathmelding system is in the game simply because Ar Tonelico is an offshoot of the Atelier series, even though its inclusion is glaringly forced into the setting and plot.

For the following comparison, I will be drawing examples from Atelier Iris 2, mostly because that is the only Atelier game I have played.

The Grathmelding system is actually very similar to the Synthesis system of Atelier Iris 2. Both are based on combining common junk items into basic items, then combining those basic items with other junk into more complex items, and continuing that cycle until the end of the game. Essentially, in order to create a single powerful item you need to combine several items, each of which was made from several items, some of which were made from a few more items. In other words, unless you have a stockpile of pre-combined items, you may need to go through several stages of item combination in order to get a finished product. Also, this entire process breaks down if you are missing a single component of any of the combination steps. Creating simple items is easy enough, but making complex ones can take a lot of tedious effort. Essentially, such a system will quickly get bloated and unplayable unless measures are taken to remove some of the complications and middle steps.

The major differences between Ar Tonelico and Atelier Iris 2's item creation systems lay in the different ways they try to solve the complications of the basic system they share, and the different ways they reward mastery of the item creation system.

The main method that Ar Tonelico uses to simplify the item creation process is to make some of the items you create available in shops. This way, instead of having to remake an item every time you need it in a later combination, you can just buy it in a shop and use it without the middle steps. However, the usefulness of this system is flawed, simply because the prices of the items you need to purchase are far too high, and money is too scarce. As a result, the only reasonably economical thing to do is to make each item from scratch, including every component item. The game makes no effort to solve the problem of needing specific items for each step that may be rare or hard to find.

Atelier Iris 2 simplifies the basic system through two methods: Mana Synthesis and allowing several possible ingredients for each recipe. Mana Synthesis is a mechanic which lets you recreate certain types of items very cheaply and easily, without needing to buy them from shops or recreate them through tedious effort. Also, any particular item can be made with many different possible ingredients, so you can choose to make it with either rare ingredients found in chests or bought from shops, or it can be made with cheap Mana Synthesis Items that can be acquired reliably, or some combination of Mana Synthesis Items and normal items. Even some of the most complex items can be made with the same effort as a low-level item this way, so the system is less tedious and frustrating.

Even though Ar Tonelico's Grathmelding system is difficult, heavy use of the system is not very rewarding. Every item can only have one variable ingredient, the Grathnode Crystal, and this only affects the "Quality" of the item, which only matters if you turn that item into another Grathnode Crystal. As such, mastery of the system will allow you to get a few rare Grathnode Crystals, but the money and effort required for this would be better spent just buying items from shops.

In Atelier Iris 2, system mastery lets you actually make the items and equipment you make even stronger. You can add more range or power to an attack item like the "Flame" item depending on what ingredients you choose for it. Then, you can add those same properties to any item that can use "Flame" as a component (such as "Mega Flame"). It is even possible to build recursive loops using different ingredients, using "Flame" items to make "Megal Flame" items, and then using "Mega Flame" to make "Flame", in order to vastly more powerful items. This is much more fun and rewarding than having items you create always remain the same.

As a whole, Atelier Iris 2 has a system that makes it fun and rewarding to mix together items, and Ar Tonelico's system is a chore. Even though the two systems are based on the same framework, the differences have a huge effect on the playability of the game. However, I'm not done with examining this kind of system yet, but more will have to wait for another day.

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