Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 12

Just a few minutes ago, I finally cleared the main game of Dragon Quest VIII. The ending of the game was very satisfying. Unfortunately, the final boss battle itself was somewhat inferior to the incredible Dhoulmagus fight halfway through the game. Oh well. The final battle had a very epic backdrop and feel to it, and it was also sufficiently challenging. Furthermore, it had a lead in where the heroes call on the power of of the spirits of the sages of ancient times to help them. I am always a sucker for that kind of sequence.

However, the period just leading up to the final battle of the game was in many ways a lost opportunity. After clearing the final dungeon, the player is asked to run around the world to collect a set of seven magical orbs, which are required to fight the final battle. It turns out to be a simple fetch quest. All of the orbs are in obvious locations (based on the plot) and require no challenges to acquire at all. Collecting all seven orbs can be done in an hour or so, without even having to fight a single monster (not counting the ones in the one dungeon, but they can be warded off with a single cheap spell). What the townspeople are talking about in the places you have to go haven't even changed since before the final dungeon. The whole thing felt like an unnecessary time sink that did nothing for the plot.

The reason I call the quest a lost opportunity is that it could have been much more interesting. For one, it could have been a real treasure hunt (unlike some people, I don't really mind late game treasure hunts). The orbs supposedly contained the souls of the ancient sages. There were actually both a hard-to-find tablet left behind by one of the sages, and an old tapestry left behind by another in the game's last town. These two items could have been used as clues for a real treasure hunt, with the orbs hidden away in places related to the ancient sages themselves. Instead, all seven orbs can be found in the places where the seven descendants of the sages were killed. There was no guess-work involved at all, and all of the orbs are lying in plain sight. I never even really needed the echo flute, which tells you if an orb is nearby.

Alternatively, there could have been plot scenes involved in gathering the orbs. Since the quest involved traveling all over the world again, the quest could have been used as a chance to show off the fact that the whole world was in serious danger, with the Big Bad's horde of monsters about to descend on the world, or to give a chance for the heroes to interact with some of the many secondary characters introduced along the course of the game. Instead, there is nothing going at all in orb locations except for daily life.

I guess in either case, the orb quest would still have been unnecessary filler. When the final boss of the game has been revealed, the player probably just wants to get on with fighting him. It might have been best to have dropped the orb quest entirely, or to have introduced the orbs at some point earlier in the game.

Side Note:
The waves of ice ability used by most major bosses in the game got old quickly. It shut down complex strategies too easily. What is the point of the tension system if I can never get my characters to super high tension? Using alternatives, such as status spells, and conditions like shock, might have been a better design choice.

Lufia 2's Structure

While Lufia 2 is a very good game, it has a noticeable flaw. Namely, it is extremely linear in one of the worst possible ways, and it tends to call attention to that fact.

For at least the first half of the game, Lufia 2 has a very predictable structure. The world and plot are broken up into distinct chunks and islands, each of which is self-contained. Each region has a single town, a single dungeon, and some kind of barrier preventing you from traveling further along your path. Each town has some kind of problem that needs to be solved, and after you go to the local dungeon and solve the problem the path leading to the next region opens up, where the cycle repeats. There is very little variation in this structure. For the most part, there isn't even much variety in the kinds of barriers that block your way. Five of the first nine regions use "warp shrines" that happen to be either closed down or malfunctioning as the barrier. Two more are towers that happen to have locked doors, and the last two are caves. By the time you go through the fifth warp shrine and move on to the point where side-quests become available, the entire first section of the game has been completed and Maxim and Selan have already been married.

The basic formula being used in Lufia 2 is hardly a bad one. After all, it is the dominant structure of RPGs, and it is used so much because it works. Dividing up the game into smaller chunks based on geographical region keeps things simple and organized, and lets the player focus on a single challenge at a time without a lot of distraction. It is a good way to keep introducing new places and characters without overwhelming the player or letting the player accidentally wander into overly challenging areas without warning. That said, Lufia 2's problem is that it sticks to the structure far too rigidly, and uses unreasonably artificial means in order to enforce the structure. In the early stretch of the game there are no sidequests, no plots that involve more than one town or dungeon in order to resolve, and the whole structure becomes predictable and repetitive very quickly.

If there has been a few more places in Lufia 2 where you could go on a sidequest or simply explore a bit, the structure would not be so confining. For example, they could have made an optional dungeon available from early in the game where you could go and try to earn a Capsule Monster (a type of ally monster that tend to be overly rare in the beginning of Lufia 2). Perhaps they could have used a boat crossing as a barrier rather than a warp shrine, and given the player a chance to go to an optional area like the Ancient Dungeon earlier in the game. Anything is better than using the same trick over and over.

Game should have variety and should provide the player with the ability to actually explore. Games should not stick too much to a single structure, even if it is a good one.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 11

I am finally almost done with Dragon Quest VIII (I think). I have just clocked in over one hundred hours in the game.  And I was worried that the game would be too short when I first started. It feels like I am finally running out of thing to say about the game too. I still have a bit to say about the plot devices used in the game though.

Not too long ago, I fought a major boss battle in an attempt to save the life of the last of the descendants of the seven sages who stand at the center of the game's plot. However, my reward for beating this boss and saving the life of the sage's descendant was to be accused of being assassins by a third party and thrown in prison (again). What's worse is that the guy I tried to protect was killed of anyways off-screen while my party rotted in the worst prison in the world for a month. Some reward.

The trick is that protecting the last descendant of the sages was absolutely vital to the heroes' quest of saving the world. With no more descendants of the sages left, the Big Bad of the game would be free from his prison and begin destroying the world. On top of that, winning that boss battle gave the heroes a chance to take back the cursed scepter housing the Big Bad's soul and reseal it. Yet, the heroes let themselves be led off by a few guards to prison and left the scepter of pure evil lying around unattended near the person  they were trying to protect from it.

Realistically, the heroes should have put up more of a fight. After all, their entire mission and the fate of the world was at stake. Four or so guards should not have been much of a problem for the heroes who just beat down a villain who was strong enough to KO or kill most soldiers and guards in single blows throughout most of the game. The game had clearly established that the heroes were incredibly strong, by creating opportunities where the heroes could clearly outperform both regular soldiers and the elite mercenaries of the world's richest man.

The entire scene just felt like a cheap excuse for the game to continue. If left alone, the heroes could have sealed away the Big Bad again. But, the game scenario called for all of the sage's descendants to die so that the main heroes could get a shot at facing him at his full power. While I can certainly see the need to keep the game moving, the method the developers used just felt too forced. It would have been better to have used another method to keep the scepter out of the heroes' hands.

For instance, the heroes could have left the scepter on the floor where it landed, and simply convinced everyone to stay out of the room while they figured out a way to safely handle it (a smart choice, since the last time one of the heroes picked up the scepter, it ended in a boss battle). Then, someone could have simply snuck in and stolen the scepter, perhaps foolishly intending to use its power for his own gain. While still a bit cheesy, it would have resulted in making the heroes look like fools.

On another note, I am continuously baffled why both times the heroes are arrested and thrown in prison, no one ever takes their weapons off of them. It just looks weird to see four heroes sitting around a jail cell while still armed to the teeth.. Besides, dungeons where the heroes have to break out of a prison and fight off/avoid guards while searching for their equipment are a classic part of RPGs.

EDIT: My brother just reminded me of a detail I forgot about. The heroes actually received the Ultimate Key, capable of opening any locked chest or door, as part of the story earlier in the game. Getting out of that prison should have taken 5 seconds.

Sequel Geography

One of the most unusual things regarding the Lufia series is the fact that Lufia 1 and Lufia 2 do not share a world map. The two games take place only one hundred years apart in the exact same world, but other than Doom Island itself the two games don't share any of the same locations at all. I can understand why the game designers might have wanted to do this, since using the exact same world map in multiple games can be overly restricting, but it is somewhat jarring without good explanation. Lufia 2 hand-waves the change off by saying that the two games take place in two different regions of the same world, but this is somewhat of an odd way of doing it when both games give you an airship that lets you travel freely and circumnavigate the entire map. Having the ability to freely fly around the entire known globe and loop the edges gives the impression that the area displayed on the world map really is the entire world, which makes it seem like the game is contradicting itself when an NPC says that such a world map is only a single region.

A similar odd situation is seen in Chrono trigger's sequel, Chrono Cross. Presumably, you have explored the entire world already in Chrono Trigger (in many different time eras, no less), but Chrono Cross exists in a place that is somehow outside of Chrono Trigger's world map. The game takes a few measures that makes it a bit less jarring than it was in Lufia (no airship travel in the sequel and a few nods to powerful factions trying to prevent that region from interfering with the events of Chrono Trigger), but it still feels forced.

That said, the "different region" explanation itself can work very well if used correctly. For example, each game in the Suikoden series uses a completely different set of locations for each of the games, even though all but one of the entries in the series are separated by a few decades at most, and many characters appear in multiple games. However, unlike in the Lufia games, the different regions are really treated like smaller pieces of a much larger world. Most games only take place in a single country, the regions are given limited boundaries, and the player is almost never allowed to travel beyond the edge of the main region in any way. In addition, the games contain many references to distant lands that the player can't ever visit within the scope of a particular game. For example, the Queendom of Falena was referenced in Suikoden 2 in a few minor places, but it took until Suikoden 5 for one of the games to actually take place in that country. Another place mentioned several times since Suikoden 2, Kanakan, has yet to actually appear in a game. Because these places have been partially described in several places and have a lot of relevance to many characters' stories, they can be very interesting even when they are not seen. More than once I have found myself looking forward to the day a Suikoden game would take place in a particular region.

One alternative to the "different region" idea that accomplishes a similar effect is seen in the transition between Breath of Fire 1 and Breath of Fire 2. The two games share a few locations and the general shape of the BoF2 world maps is similar to the original game's map, but they also have a large number of differences. In fact, BoF2's map looks a lot like a version of the BoF1 map with higher ocean levels. They are the same world, but because the designers didn't specify how much time took pace between the two games it is possible to simply assume a long time has passed and the world has changed somewhat. The rest of the Breath of Fire games use different variations of this. The games share some locations, but the connections between the games is left vague, and in the case of BoF3 the map is far from complete, so vast changes to the landscape can very easily be hand-waved away as being the result of events that take place between the different games (if you can even prove that the games are connected at all). The jarring effect of the changes between Lufia 1 and 2 is not seen here, because the world itself is not as clearly defined as it is in the Lufia games.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Level Gaps

A common occurrence in many RPGs is when one or more characters falls significantly behind the other characters in level. A major case of this happened to me in Dragon Quest VIII when Jessica died at the very last moment of a major boss battle, losing out on a huge experience gain. Jessica's temporary absence from the party as part of the plot further increased the gap between her and the other characters. In order to close the gap, I equipped her with an item that gives her one experience point for each step taken. After spending almost half the length of the game equipped with that item, the level gap between Jessica and the other characters is finally almost closed.

This example shows how easy it is for level gaps to open up in an RPG like Dragon Quest, which both relies on large experience drops from bosses, and tries to make boss battles extremely lethal. However, it is even easier for level gaps to appear in games where the player switches characters in and out of a party. This is an extremely common occurrence in the Fire Emblem series, where the player can only field a fraction of his army, and there are no chances to level up characters outside of story missions. The player is forced to pick a line-up of favorite characters, and then watch as the rest of the characters are left to become more and more useless as they fall further and further behind in level.

Even in games where the player can level up characters who fall behind, as is the case in most RPGs with party selection, it often involves level grinding. For example, if the player doesn't use certain characters in Final Fantasy VI for a while, he must then spend some time fighting random battles in the overworld or such to get them back up to the same level as the rest of the team. And in cases where it is impossible to swap out certain characters, closing level gaps can become a big problem.

The worst case of level gaps I have ever experienced was in Final Fantasy VIII. Because Squall could not be swapped out of the party, he ended up being almost twice the level of the rest of the six character team. This ended up being a bit of a problem, since the level of the monsters in FFVIII were based on Squall's level. I actually considered letting Squall die and leaving him dead for a while, so that I could bring my other characters up to match his. The only reason the other five characters could even compete was because levels did not matter much in FFVIII compared to the benefits of the junction system.

There are two main ways of eliminating level gaps. In the first method, the amount of experience a character receives is determined by the characters level relative to the enemy's level. A really good example of this is in Suikoden games, where a character can practically go from level 1 to level 30 in four battles against level 30 enemies. This method ensures that level grinding is never really a serious problem, even if a character does fall far behind due to neglect.

The second solution is making sure that characters can't miss out on experience by dying or not being in the party. At its lowest limits, this approach means giving characters outside of the party 50% or so of the experience gained by those in the party. This is extremely common in many Final Fantasy games and the like. At its highest limits, this approach means doing away with individual character levels altogether in favor of a unified party level. The only game that I know of that takes an approach like this is Chrono Cross, which rewards the player with Star levels for every boss beaten (which I am pretty sure are connected to individual character stat gains).

Level gaps can be a real source of annoyance and frustration for some players that are directly caused by elements of the game system design. So, there is no reason level gaps cannot be eliminated.

Lufia's Prequel

As I mentioned in my last post, the classic RPG Lufia and the Fortress of Doom let you play through the final confrontation between the hero Maxim and the evil Sinistrals, and in doing so created a memorable and interesting group of characters, despite their lack of screen time. As such, it was no big surprise when the sequel to Lufia ended up as Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals, a prequel telling the entire story of how Maxim came to be the hero who originally defeated the Sinistrals. Lufia 2 was a very good game, and despite a few oddities and flaws it surpassed the original to become a truly memorable game. Even if it weren't for the quality of the game itself, it is an interesting game for me because the designers had to make a story that would be interesting even though many players would have already seen the game's final confrontation and learned a lot about the characters.

There are several important facts that are made clear about Maxim's story in the original Lufia. First, Maxim was the hero who wielded Dual Blade in the final battle. Second, the final team that fought the Sinistrals were Maxim, Selan, Guy, and Artea. Third, Maxim and Selan were married and had a child. Fourth, the final battle was fought on the floating fortress Doom Island, against the four Sinistrals: Daos, Gades, Amon, and Erim. A player going from Lufia 1 to Lufia 2 would expect all of these things to hold true, and other than a few minor details regarding the sequence of events on Doom Island, they are. Lufia 2 doesn't even try to twist around events in order to have a "real" final boss battle that takes place after the battle shown in Lufia's opening sequence. The battle fought against Daos at the start of Lufia 1 is the final battle of Lufia 2. In fact, Lufia 2 goes so far as to keep a lot of the same dialog and give Selan the "light" spell she uses to illuminate the dark fortress at the start of Lufia 1. Of course, while the end of Maxim's story is set in stone, the journey itself is a different matter.

Lufia 2 begins with Maxim living in a small town in a region totally unlike anything seen in Lufia 1, where his closest friend is a girl named Tia. As he travels through the game, Tia joins him as a major ally from the start, and he meets Guy, Selan, and Artea on his travels, along with two other major party members. You end up using Maxim, Guy, Selan, and Artea as the final team, but that is hardly the only team available. In fact, one of the new characters introduced in Lufia 2, Dekar, is one of the most entertaining and valuable allies in the entire game. Also, because of Tia's presence in the game, the inevitable romance between Maxim and Selan is unexpectedly made out to be a lot less inevitable and obvious than it otherwise could have been. Because of this, even if the player has the foreknowledge who will join for the final team, there are still many things in the game that would be new for that player, so things remain interesting.

Because Lufia has already established that Maxim and Selan are married and have a child at the end of their journey, Lufia 2 is one of those very rare games in which the love story results in the two lead characters meeting, falling in love, getting married, and having a family all across the course of the game itself. In fact, most of that occurs halfway through the game. Also because of what is known from Lufia 1, Lufia 2 is an even more rare type of game in which a married couple actually adventures as a team, rather than being a more conventional story of a hero who leaves his wife at home. The designers even had some fun with that element of it, particularly in the rather unconventional way Maxim and Selan ended up celebrating their own wedding (which involved the weapons and armor they kept hidden under their wedding clothes). As a result, the relationship between Maxim and Selan is far from being a typical over-used plot, adding to the uniqueness of this game.

My only real complaint about the way Lufia 2 carries over from the original game is the way it depicts the sword Dual Blade and Doom Island. Dual Blade is Maxim's iconic weapon, and is very important to the plot of Lufia 1, but hardly has any role at all in Lufia 2. Doom Island is the site of the final battle and is the main place that links the two games, but doesn't appear until the end of Lufia 2. In fact, both pretty much just appear out of nowhere at the end of the game, with fairly little explanation or build-up, even though Lufia 1 implies that both are central to Maxim's quest. It simply seems odd that a game that otherwise works well as a prequel would ignore two of the most important pieces of the series' plot.

One thing that makes Lufia 2 a truly unusual prequel, though, is the fact that you can go through the whole game knowing that Maxim and Selan will die in the end. The year of peace they enjoy in the middle of the game is a nice touch that gives much of the same effect as a happy ending, but it still is the closest they come to a "happily ever after". Lufia 2 does not dodge around the fact that Maxim and Selan died in the opening of Lufia 1, and it does not do anything to try to undo that fate and give them a happy ending regardless of what was said in Lufia 1. This makes the game feel very bittersweet even in the light-hearted moments, but at the same time helps make those moments seem even more important.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 10

I finally acquired the power to fly in Dragon Quest 8, and it has really been a fun experience so far. The developers made exploration of the game's overworld a major part of the game's experience, and it shows in the way the game handles flight. I think the way the game handles this system has added quite a bit to the experience.

The flying system in Dragon Quest 8 is remarkably close to the system in the Square classic Secret of Mana. When the player uses the item that allows the party to fly, the game switches over to a more zoomed out and less detailed overworld. However, while this extended overworld doesn't let the player make out fine detail, it does let the player accurately see every hill, lake, house and road in the main overworld. When a player tries to land somewhere, the game drops the character off at the closest landing point available, typically near a geographic landmark. However, the number of landmarks makes it feel like the player can be dropped off anywhere on the map.

Of course, there are also plenty of areas that can only be reached by flying. What I like about the DQ8 system is that it makes it very clear where the player can and cannot land. There is a shadow made by the bird the player flies around as, and when the shadow is surrounded by a white border, the player can land at that spot. Furthermore, the special places that can only be reached by flying are visually distinctive. They often have unusually colored grass or dirt, and usually have a white cloud floating above them. These visual clues practically shout: "explore here!"

What really stands out about this system is that I have found quite a few surprises while just flying around continents I have explored already. For example, I was surprised to see a giant stone structure on top of a mountaintop while I was flying. I had passed by that mountain several times on foot earlier in the game, but I did not see it at all back then. Furthermore, the structure was not on the world map. I felt like I had suddenly stumbled across some amazing discovery. When I landed back down on the ground nearby, I was surprised to discover that it was possible to see a corner of the structure from the ground if you look at it from the right angle. RPGs rarely give that kind of feeling of sudden discovery.

Finding things like that stone structure or a ruined old house on a mountaintop near the first area of the game made flying a very fun experience in Dragon Quest 8. It really makes me disappointed that many RPGs of late, most notably the Final Fantasy series, have been limiting air travel to selecting a destination from a menu. Flying around in an airship or on the back of a bird or flying dragon can be made into a fun experience in of itself.

Lufia's Opening

One of my favorite RPGs from the SNES era that is almost completely forgotten now is the Lufia series. The first game in that series, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, is one of my favorite games from that era. It is a solid RPG that put a lot more emphasis on telling a good character-driven story than many other games of its time. However, one thing particularly good about the game is its opening sequence.

Lufia and the Fortress of Doom starts out with the player controlling a group of characters led by a red-haired warrior named Maxim who have just invaded the floating fortress that serves as the final stronghold of a group of all-powerful evil beings called Sinistrals. The four heroes are all at very high level, are equipped with very powerful weapons and armor (including the legendary sword Dual Blade that is central to the plot), and have a large arsenal of powerful magic. In other words, the game starts with what would otherwise be considered to be the final dungeon of a game, including a battle against the most powerful foes in the game, the Sinistrals themselves. However, after the heroes make great sacrifices in order defeat the Sinistrals, one hundred years pass, and the player is introduced to the real hero of the game: Maxim's descendant.

The idea of the hero of a game being the descendant of a great hero who saved the world from evil in some time long ago was hardly new when Lufia and the Fortress of Doom was made. After all, such a plot, the story of Erdrick/Loto and his descendant, was very important to the original Dragon Quest (actually, it is important to at least the first three Dragon Quest games), and has appeared in many other places (in Final Fantasy V there are even two different levels to the idea, and it is central to game plots as recently as the Jecht plot in Final Fantasy X). However, while that plot was far from new, the fact that Lufia both lets you play through the climactic final battle of the old heroes and keeps the two different time periods close together results in a game where the battle of the past actually feels relevant to the events of the game's present.

Because the two eras of Lufia are only spread a hundred years apart, the evil of the Sinistrals and Maxim's heroism are within living memory. In fact, you meet one of the former heroes very early into the real story of the game, and an important goal later in the game is trying to find and meet the other surviving hero. The relatively small hundred-year gap also means that the game's hero is only the great-grandson or so of the legendary heroes Maxim and Selan, rather than some kind of undefined "the bloodline flows through you" descendant (a typical plot element that I despise, actually). Also, the inevitable revival of the villains and the search for Maxim's Dual Blade are made to be far more directly connected to the events of the past than is usually seen.

More important than the small time jump, though, is the way that the old heroes and villains are given real identities and characterization. The sense of long-held camaraderie between the heroes, their brave and desperate stand against terrible odds, and Selan's touching and tragic final wish that she could hold her child one last time before her death all add up to make the old heroes memorable and likable. Meanwhile, the fact that the most important villains are all named and given identities and personalities right at the beginning becomes very important to the plot of the main game, particularly for one very surprising plot twist late in the game. Many turns in the plot and a lot of the real emotion of the game is built upon the characters and events of the "ancient battle", and that would be far less effective if the battle was simply talked about, rather than shown.

Also, one final great quality of Lufia's opening is that it is a lot of fun. It is a really great opening simply because it starts the game with a lot of action and gameplay, letting the player actually play the game while simultaneously introducing a lot of central plot elements without an excessive amount of exposition and boring narration. It grabs the player's attention with fun battles and good characters right from the start, without any kind of excessive build up. It is hard to find openings that do so quite as cleverly as this one.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 9

Dragon Quest 8 is turning out to be much longer than I anticipated. While the end of the game is clearly in sight now, I am more than 80 hours into the game. A bit long for my tastes, but not bad I guess. Anyways, I have a confession to make about the game: I have been relying heavily on FAQs to help me with one particular part of the game: the alchemy pot.

The alchemy pot is actually a rather brilliantly designed item creation system. It works in a very simple manner: the player chooses two items to put into the pot (up to three items after an upgrade). If the two items can be combined, then the pot begins cooking, and an item is produced after some time. The pot even dings when the item is complete. If the items cannot be combined, then the pot spits out the two items immediately, and the player loses nothing. So, the system is very easy to use, and encourages experimentation.

The alchemy pot system also produces plenty of useful items. Many of the best items at all levels of the game can be created by the alchemy pot. For example, it is possible to take basic healing herbs (which can be purchased dirt cheap at any general store), and combine them in various ways to make strong medicine, rose-miles, special medicine, lesser panaceas and even greater panaceas (the strongest single-character healing item in the game). It is also possible to create unique and very useful weapons and armor from the moment the alchemy pot becomes usable.

On the other hand, the products of the alchemy pot are rarely unbalancing. Creating stronger weapons and armor is usually dependent on finding new components that only become available later in the game. For example, upgrading the snakeskin whip into the dragontail whip requires waiting for dragon-scales to become available in the game, So, the growth of equipment power is held in check to match the increase of challenge in the game.

Yet, I still find the alchemy pot bothersome at times. While it is a fun addition to the game, figuring out useful recipes can be a mind-numbingly hard task. While the game gives the player the recipes for numerous items, these recipes cover only a fraction of the total number in the game. Furthermore, the given recipes can be uselessly vague. While some recipes such as the Sage's Robe can be easy to figure out, others like the Magical Skirt can be very tricky. In the Magical Skirt's case, the given recipe says that the player must combine a grass skirt with two different "magical items". There are at least six different pieces of equipment with "magic" in their name, plus numerous other overtly magical items. And I would never have guessed that the actual recipe required a magic staff.

The problem is that some guidelines are necessary for the player to figure out what combinations are possible, since guess-and-check is not feasible in Dragon Quest 8. For one, there are simply too many possible combinations for a player to try them all. Second, items are too expensive for the player to have multiple spare items lying around in storage. Many combinations require combining equipment that the player might not have otherwise needed to buy. With money so tight in DQ8, buying spare equipment for the sakes of experimentation was usually not practical.

In this situation, the best possible solution is to use recognizable patterns to make item combination easier to figure out. To a certain degree, there are items in DQ8 that do follow clear patterns. Basic healing items can be made by combining store-bought herbs for example. Cheeses can be made by combining basic cheese with special mold. Cursed items can be combined with saint's ashes to create non-cursed items. Certain magic swords can be combined with accessories to make improved versions of the magic swords. Rings can be combined with status effect causing weapons to make status protection rings. Trends like these make it possible to anticipate possible item combinations and experiment along focused paths.

Unfortunately, most recipes in DQ8 do not follow such clear patterns. Instead, there are many items such as the scholar's cap, which is created by combining a pair of scholar's glasses with a magical hat. While the combination is logical, it's logic is based on the notion that the player knows that the finished product exists. There is no other pattern followed by other items that can be used to extrapolate this recipe. I only knew about it because it was one that the game gave me. Sadly, almost all armor and most weapons in the game are equally impossible to guess as this.

As a result of this, I resorted to looking at Alchemy Pot guides online to figure out recipes. Which I think is a bit of a shame.

SRW:OG2 Damage Scaling

In my current playthrough of Super Robot Wars: Original Generation 2, one of the characters I have used the most is Arado Balanga, who pilots the mech called Wildwurger. Arado is a decent pilot with a very high defense stat, and because I have used him so much (he is one of my top four aces), I have been able to build his stats to be well above average. His mech, Wildwurger, is a high speed aerial machine that also features high defense, and because I improved the mech's capabilities to the maximum it has one of the highest defense values that is possible to achieve. Through most of the game, Arado has been almost untouchable by any opponent, since he is able to dodge almost any attack and anything that does hit him tends to do very little damage. One of his most important roles in the game is using his "Defensive Support" ability to take hits instead of allies. He is designed to be one of the best tanks in the game.

Despite all of this, I recently watched Arado get taken down in a single hit from a foe which was supposed to be little more than a glorified miniboss. What is more, the hit rate of the enemy's attack was an uncomfortably high 44%, despite the fact that Arado was standing next to allies who raise his evasion rates. As such, one of my strongest units had a 44% chance of being destroyed outright whenever he tried attacking a foe, even though I needed as many units attacking as possible to even have a chance of defeating that opponent.

I think this is a textbook case of letting offense scale unreasonably high compared to defense in a game. While I appreciate that, on the highest levels of difficulty, SRW:OG2 demands that you use Spirit Commands in order to succeed, I think scaling things so far that a top-notch defensive unit can't survive a direct hit and that my most mobile units can't evade without spirit commands goes a bit too far. Characters should be able to reliably serve in their role at every stage of the game. Characters built around evasion should be able to evade reliably. Characters built around defense and survival should be able to survive reliably. Characters built around attack should be able to attack reliably. Even though it is assumed in SRW that characters need Spirit Commands to emerge victorious, they should not need Spirit Commands to even be useful against a mere miniboss. I should be able to rely on the fact that a character who has been able to survive every single attack made against him in the whole game will survive another hit, but in this case I was mistaken in doing so.

If the amount of damage being inflicted upon Arado was just a bit lower, or if he just had a few more hitpoints, I could accept the 44% risk of being hit, but as it stands the damage values have scaled just high enough that Arado can no longer be used in the same way I have been able to use him for the whole game.

I really need to finish up those last few stages of the game... I may never beat the game if I keep at this rate.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 8

I spent my time playing Dragon Quest 8 today going through a major side-quest, which finally opened up the main casino of the game. Since my brother posted about the Casino minigames themselves, I want to talk about the side-quest itself.

What I really like about the side-quests in Dragon Quest 8 is that they don't feel like side-quests at all. This last side-quest felt almost like part of the main plot of the game. To start with, the side-quest is built upon events that occurred within the central plot, and more or less involves tying up some loose ends. While the side-quest itself is a pretty straightforward dungeon dive leading up to a boss fight, the amount of scenes and plot that surround the entire side-quest is comparable to most dungeons in the game.

First off, the side-quest actually introduces two new characters who had so far been only mention in town conversations up to that point in the game. Both of these characters are fully voice-acted and appear in as many scenes as comparable NPCs in the main plot of the game. The dungeon itself has quite a few scenes that take place at the end. Furthermore, the main characters have multiple conversations available about the side-quest, and treat it as their current main goal once the player accepts the quest. All in all, the amount of dialogue, character development, cut-scenes and voice-acting are all on par with any part of the main quest of the game. And this all fairly typical for side-quests in Dragon Quest 8, which makes the whole game feel very consistent.

And at the end of the side-quest, the entire town it starts in changes more than most towns do after a major plot point, with a major overhaul of NPC placement and conversations. So completing the side-quest made me feel like I had really accomplished something, since the game world seemed much for the better afterwards. There is a lot to be said for making the player feel like his actions make a difference.

Gambling Minigames, Part 2

Right now, I am watching my brother play Dragon Quest 8, in his first trip to the Baccarat casino. He is currently on his seventh real attempt at the Roulette game, where he should have about a 1/3 chance of earning quite a lot of tokens. He hasn't succeeded yet, though he has restarted the game a lot.

And he just reset again, because he lost the bet again. Even with the ability to save and reset this Roulette minigame is beginning to get annoying. It is really beginning to look like the game doesn't play fair. So far, it is almost half an hour of gameplay with absolutely nothing to show for it.

Comparing the odds on the Dragon Quest 8 game table to the odds on a real roulette table, it seems that the odds are actually somewhat generous in the Dragon Quest 8 version. Overall, any individual bet gives a little bit more than it should, so playing continuously should benefit the player. That said, it is only a slight advantage in the players favor. In the Xenosaga Ep. 1 Poker/High-Low game that I praised in my last post, the odds are supposedly 5.5 to 1 in the player's favor, which means the average bet nets more than five times its value given enough time playing the game. The odds in dragon Quest 8 are nowhere near that good, even if they are much better than in real casinos.

That said, my brother finally did win (and made a killing), and the rewards for playing the casino minigames are worth it, so it seems that my brother will continue playing.

This is really convincing me that gambling minigames that are part of bigger games should be either be created from scratch in order to give high odds to the player or be games of skill rather than luck. Simply remaking real casino games doesn't work perfectly. Also, every videogame should have a way to soft reset or load data from a menu. Having to hard reset the console a dozen times in a half hour can get very tedious.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 7

I like the character customization system in Dragon Quest 8 quite a bit. While every character in the game learns numerous spells naturally and possess distinct characteristics, there is a system for customizing the four characters by training in certain skills. This system allows the player to have fun customizing the characters, while maintaining the advantages of having characters with set strengths and weaknesses.

The Skill system in Dragon Quest 8 is pretty simple. Every time one of the four characters levels up, he or she acquires a few skill points, which the player immediately allocates into one of five skills. Each of the four characters has a unique list of skills, based on the weapons the character can equip with an additional skill based on a distinguishing characteristic of each character. For example, the main hero has the Swords, Spears, Boomerangs, Fisticuffs (unarmed combat, shared by all four characters), and Courage skills. Once a character put enough points into a skill, the skill levels up, and the character either acquires a new ability or spell, or the character's power with that certain weapon increases.

Of course, it is impossible for one character to max out all five of his or her skills. Right now, I am expecting to have accumulated around 200 skill points for every character by level 40 or so. Since it takes 100 skill points to max out a skill, a character can expect to only max out two skills during the game. Maybe three if the player reaches really high levels. So, I have been focusing each of my characters on only one or two skills during this go-through of the game. For example, my main hero is currently focusing on the Swords and Courage skills.

What I really like about this system is that it gives the characters some degree of flexibility. For example, if a player has Jessica (naturally the game's main attack mage) study the Knives skill, she acquires potent single-target physical attacks, and eventually gains the ability to equip high-attack power swords. If Jessica focuses on the Whips skill, she gains multi-enemy attacks that induce status conditions. If Jessica focuses on the Staves skill, her magical powers increase and she acquires healing abilities. So which skills a character focuses on can have an enormous impact on how the character fights in combat.

On of the benefits of this customization system is that the game can play very differently if a player chooses a different selection of skills. Even though I haven't even finished the game yet, I am already strongly tempted to play through Dragon Quest 8 again, just to try out a different combination of skills. Of course, this system does have a big downside: this degree of flexibility does allow a player to gimp his characters. In my first attempt at playing Dragon Quest 8, I tried to improve all of my characters' skills evenly. As a result, my characters only gained useful powers at a painfully slow pace, and they would have never acquired everything.

Finally, one of the major elements of this customization system I like is how limited in scope it is. It is not an incredibly deep customization system that lets the player give any ability to any character. Because of that, the four characters maintain a strong sense of individual identity and uniqueness. Also, because the characters always gain important powers such as healing magic regardless of which skills the individual characters take, no character is required to take any specific skill. Many of the team's bases are already covered, so it is hard to gimp the team as a whole.

Gambling Minigames

While I haven't played the game myself, I have been watching my brother play Dragon Quest 8 quite a bit lately, so I suppose I might as well write a bit about it. Namely, I want to talk about the casino minigames found in Dragon Quest 8.

Casino minigames are reasonably common in videogames, though most of the time they are not as elaborate as the minigames seen in Dragon Quest 8. For the most part, they work well as (hopefully) entertaining diversions from the main plot that can be very rewarding. In many ways, DQ8's casino's are a good implementation of the idea. The casino doesn't use normal currency, but instead uses special tokens that you can exchange for special prizes. This means that, in addition to being an alternate source of income to defeating hundreds of monsters, the casino serves as a place to get special items that are hard or impossible to find anywhere else in the game, so the player actually has a reason to spend time playing the casino minigames. Also, the Dragon Quest 8 casinos let you successfully start earning tokens even with a modest initial investment, so you don't need to wait until late in the game to play. Of course, while I haven't seen the main casino in Baccarat yet, the casino games introduced so far in the game have a noticeable flaw: they can be very tedious.

Unlike in real world casinos, you can't ever really lose in a videogame casino minigame. If you happen to take a loss, you can always reset and try again. Any casino minigame, no matter the game's odds of winning, will eventually earn a net profit for the player, given enough saves and restarts. As such, there is no particular point to stacking the odds against the player like real casinos do, since all it does is make the player lose and retry more, and make the process fairly tiresome and less fun. Instead, I think casino minigames should always put the odds in the player's favor, so that the player can enjoy the thrill of winning without having to waste time by losing and retrying dozens of times before getting even a minor win. In fact, even if the odds are in the player's favor, so long as they are not high enough for the player to notice the odds and take advantage of them, they are not good enough.

One of the best casino minigames I have ever seen in a videogame is the Poker/High-Low minigame from Xenosaga Episode 1. If you know how to properly take advantage of that minigame, it becomes an easy and fast way to make money in a game that otherwise gives you very little (I suppose you can also do the Gnosis/gemstone transformation trick, but that is a different subject), simply because it can give you insanely high odds. It is a casino minigame where the chance of winning is high enough that you can expect to win a few times every time you sit down to play it, so you never feel like your time is being wasted by the minigame. Another good casino minigame that is comparable can be seen in the Pokemon Diamond and Pearl games, though I don't think the odds are quite as high as they are in Xenosaga.

Meanwhile, my experience with the casino in Dragon Quest 8 has been somewhat lackluster. The odds are bad enough in DQ8's bingo that it can take a few hours of play to make even modest gains, which can include several resets. What is more, the fairly low cap on how much you can bet means that it can take a lot more effort than necessary to earn decent things. While this may change once the larger Baccarat casino is opened up, it seems like it would be poor game design to make the less fun minigames available long before the fun ones.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 6

While I have already mentioned that I really like the number of abilities my characters have in Dragon Quest 8, there are quite a few abilities and spells in the game that I simply do not use. Some of these were once useful, but have since become useless. Others have been useless from the moment I acquired them. So here, in no particular order, is my Dragon Quest 8 special attack graveyard:

Needle Shot:
Angelo's third special bow attack tops my list of "most useless attack in DQ8". Supposedly, Needle Shot is a 1 MP attack capable of killing an enemy in a single shot. However, I have never once actually seen this happen. On top of that, Needle Shot only does 1 point of damage if it fails to kill its target, which is pretty useless. In comparison, Yangus has a scythe attack called Grim Reaper that not only launches an instant death attack against an entire group of foes, it actually works and does full regular damage if it fails to kill instantly. Needle Shot is made even more useless by the fact that Angelo himself can cast a fairly reliable group instant death spell naturally. With clearly superior alternatives abound, Needle Shot is simply a poorly thought out ability.

Heart Breaker:
On paper, Yangus's first Hammer move, Heart Breaker, seems good. It is a 2 MP attack that does full attack damage to an enemy with a chance of "shocking" the enemy, causing them to lose one turn. However, like Needle Shot, Heart Breaker has been useless to me simply because it almost never does what it is supposed to do. Despite using it against every boss and strong enemy I have ever come across, Heart Breaker has only worked once or twice. Furthermore, the 2 MP cost make the move too expensive to use on a regular basis, since Yangus has very limited MP. In contrast, Jessica has a very similar move called Blow Kiss that not only can be used with any weapon, it is both free and much more reliable than Heart Breaker.

Metal Slash:
One of the hero's sword moves, Metal Slash is on this list because I haven't found a real point for it yet. Supposedly, it is effective against Metal enemies, but it doesn't do any extra damage against most enemies with Metal in their names. It seems designed to help kill Metal Slimes (rare enemies with incredibly high defenses, but only 5 HP), but the one time I cornered Metal Slimes, Metal Slash did only 1 point of damage, the same amount of damage my other characters were capable of doing. While it apparently lets the hero hit the highly evasive Metal Slimes easier, it is way too limited in scope to be useful.

Fire Slash and Dragon Slash:
Along with Metal Slash, these two moves were among the hero's first three sword abilities. These have actually been useful. While I rarely used Dragon slash due to the lack of dragon-type enemies in the early game, I found that plenty of enemies were weak to Fire Slash. Both moves could even be used for free. Unfortunately, both of these moves are on the list thanks to the existence of Falcon Slash. Falcon Slash lets the hero attack twice in one turn with slightly reduced attack power. On average though, Falcon Slash will do more damage to an enemy weak against fire than Fire Slash, and Falcon Slash is still free. If Falcon Slash actually cost MP, Fire Slash and Dragon Slash would not be on this list.

Lady's Thong:
This 2 MP Whip attack lets Jessica heal herself slightly by doing damage to a group of enemies. Unfortunately, it only heals Jessica by 13% of the damage done to the first enemy she hits. Since Jessica can only do 30-40 or so points of damage, she can only normally heal herself for 3-4 HP with this move. In comparison, Angelo can use his Cherub's Arrow attack (a 0 MP Bow move) to heal 3-4 MP with each shot, which he can then use to cast Mid-Heal or Full-Heal. Jessica is better off saving the MP for attack or status spells.

Penny Pincher:
Yangus's second hammer move, this one costs 2 MP to steal 10% of the money the enemy normally drops in addition to a regular attack. Since most enemies only drop chump change, this attack will only give the part 2 or three gold coins per hit. Once again, Yangus's MP is too low to be squandered recklessly on normal enemies. In comparison, I use Yangus's Steal Sickle a lot, despite its horribly low success rate, because it is free.

A common problem among many of these moves and other is too low of a chance of success, or too little effect. In addition, other characters often have clearly superior alternatives. So while the characters have plenty of special moves, I find myself relying on only a few (Falcon Slash, Wind Sickle, Cherub's Arrow, and Twin Dragon Lash) most of the time. I might talk about these abilities some more after I have seen the rest.

New Game+

One thing that I think I mentioned briefly regarding Super Robot Wars: Original Generation 2 is that I am on my second playthrough of the game. I am not sure if I actually mentioned that the fact I am going through on a second playthrough has given me a number of advantages. Such a thing is not uncommon at all in RPGs these days, having continuously become more widespread since Chrono Trigger popularized the idea near the end of the SNES era. I am a big fan of Chrono Trigger's New Game+ mode, but in many ways I find different takes on the idea, such as the one in SRW:OG2, to be even more interesting.

Fundamentally, New Game+ modes, game modes that allow you to carry some benefit through subsequent playthroughs of a game, are based on the idea of improving the replay value of the game. There are many different implementations of this in a variety of different genres, but I think I will stick to RPGs for my examples. Almost every New Game+ mode falls in to one or both of two different categories, depending on the kind of benefit it gives the player. I suppose I will call these the Carry Over type and the Bonus Prize type.

Carry-Over type New Game+ modes allow you to carry stats and abilities from the end of the game to the beginning on a subsequent playthrough. Chrono Trigger, many of its direct imitators like Shadow Hearts, as well as many recent games like Nippon-Ichi's Disgaea games, use a system of completely carrying over your party's full capabilities from the end of the game to the beginning of the next playthrough, so you can begin the game with characters strong enough to defeat the final boss. Other versions let you only carry over a specific set of things from one playthrough to the next. For example, in Suikoden V, you can keep money, unequipped items, formations, epic skills, and Party SP, but not levels, experience, or anything equipped or spent on a character. In SRW: OG2, I was able to carry over three times my reserve of unspent money and half of the total amount of Pilot Points obtained for each character. Both of these two effects are similar in concept, but the difference in degree has a pretty significant effect on the game.

With a partial Carry-Over benefit, the game is a bit easier than it was on the original playthrough, but otherwise it tends to play a lot the same. The main effect is to make playing through the game just a bit easier the second time around. My second playthrough of Suikoden V was very similar to my first, and was possibly even more difficult in the end because of some poor choices of tactics on my part. My current playthrough of SRW:OG2 is almost identical to a normal playthrough, with the exception that I have a few more fully-upgraded units and many more characters have the SP Regenerate ability this time around. These kinds of New Game+ benefits work the best when the player might want to go through the game a second time whether or not there was a benefit. I played Suikoden V a second time because I wanted to recruit all 108 characters and actually get the best ending, and I am playing through SRW:OG2 so that I can see the alternative paths that I missed the first time through.

With a full Carry-Over benefit, the game is a lot easier than it was on the original playthrough. Often, this will result in the complete removal of the normal challenge of the game, and in the worst case scenario it reduces the whole game to a tedious exercise in simply going through the motions. This kind of benefit will only really work if there is new content available filled with challenges appropriate to fully powered characters in the subsequent playthroughs. Chrono Trigger sets a good, if a little simplistic, example of such a good implementation with the way it lets you challenge the final boss at any time on a later playthrough, rewarding you with different endings depending on where in the story you do so. Many other games that use this benefit don't provide new challenges or other new content, and thus tend to not work as well as other New Game+ modes.

Bonus Prize type New Game+ modes don't let you carry over anything from your previous playthrough, but provide a totally new benefit instead. One of the clearest examples of this is seen in the SNES game Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals, where you will receive four times the experience and money from every battle when you start the game with the Retry mode, with no other change. In Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, if you go through the game a second time you will be able to acquire special stat-modifying equipment that you can't get otherwise. In other games, going through the game another time will let you see plot scenes or story paths that were not open to you the first time. These kinds of New Game+ benefits try to make the second playthrough different than the original, so playing through the game again feels like a new experience.

Overall, I think New Game+ modes are great for adding replay value to a game, but they require that the game either has multiple routes or possibilities that encourage replay in the first place, or that the New Game+ mode opens up new game experiences. If all the New Game+ mode does is let you go through the exact same game, except without any challenge, then it will not add to the game experience at all.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 5

Okay, I have to take back some of my previous statement about Dragon Quest 8 getting easier. I just fought through what has to be the hardest boss fight I have experienced in a few years. As was befitting a major boss fight at a game turning point, the battle against Dhoulmagus was a long, brutal battle. I guess all of the advantages that come with progressing in a game, like what I talked about last time, don't mean much when going up against a really well-designed boss.

The developers were able to make the fight against Dhoulmagus hard because they understood the concept of economy of actions. I am borrowing the term from some of the talk coming out of the development of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Essentially, economy of actions refers to how the number of actions a character or monster can make has a huge effect on its power. Even a monster with lots of hit points and powerful attacks will be fairly easy if it can only act once in a round, since it will be up against three, four, or five characters, each with their own action. That's about 4 actions to one. So, in order to make a boss fight against a major villain interesting, it is necessary to even up the number of actions between the two sides.

Dhoulmagus was such a big threat because of two key reasons: he evened up the odds by creating two clones of himself on the first turn, and he was capable of acting twice every round. So, he had four actions of his own every turn to match my four actions. If he had only acted once every round, my character's defense and healing would have easily been able to keep up with his damage output. Furthermore, the Doppelgangers forced me to spread out my damage more and use less powerful all-enemy attacks. As it was, I spent the entire two-part battle struggling to keep my characters alive. For the first time in the entire game I had to resurrect fallen comrades mid-battle.

Another thing that made the battle particularly hard was Dhoulmagus's use of all-character attacks, particularly in the second battle. Even though he had only two actions in the second half of the battle, Dhoulmagus was able to nearly exhaust my healing resources because of his constant use of strong all-character attacks. However, this only was a serious threat because I did not have full-party healing spells, and instead had to constantly alternate between healing individual characters using both of my healers. If I had full-party healing spells, Dhoulmagus's full-party attacks would not have been nearly as big of a threat. I guess this goes to show how powerful team healing spells are.

However, Dhoulmagus also proved to be difficult thanks to his wide array of action-denying attacks. In the first phase of the battle, he used single-character sleep spells to great effect, while in the second phase, he used an all-character one-round stun attack. In addition, he used an attack which nullified my entire teams buff spells and tension (an effect where a character uses a turn increasing their attack power). This forced my characters to waste more rounds restoring buff spells and rendered the turns I spent raising tension worthless.

In other words, the developers of DQ8 were able to make the Dhoulmagus fight very difficult by significantly increasing his number of actions, giving Dhoulmagus allies to soak up attacks, and giving Dhoulmagus the ability to deny or cancel out the actions of the characters. These are all tried and true methods of improving the difficulty of a major boss battle. Many of the earlier boss battles of the game used these same tools to lesser degrees in order to make them more challenging as well.

Beyond just what made the battle hard, the battle against Dhoulmagus was fun, thanks to the showmenship that went into the fight. First off, it felt a lot like the final battle of a game (particularly since Dhoulmagus has been the main villain so far). After Dhoulmagus's first form was defeated, he underwent the stereotypical transformation into a more powerful, more monstrous form. While it is an old trope, it still works, particularly since the first form felt like a full boss battle by itself. The backgrounds of both fights were also unique and very flashy. On top of that, Dhoulmagus was given a very large number of attacks and actions in both battles. In the first battle, Dhoulmagus used a basic melee attack, the "wind sickle" spell, the "thin air" spell, a full-party thorn attack, a multi-hit attack with thrown debris, a sleep attack, his debuff spell, and a full team heal spell, while still making time to laugh at the party. This is quite a few more attacks than is typical in a boss fight, and it adds to the spectacle of the fight considerably.

I am now really looking forward to the real final boss of the game, whatever that is.

Side note: I really hate how dead characters don't get experience in most RPGs. Jessica died mere moments before the final blow was struck against Dhoulmagus, and missed out on 12000 experience points. This is particularly a problem in DQ8, where boss battles give huge xp gains, but have a high chance of killing off a character or two. This causes really bothersome level discrepancies that are hard to close.

Xenogears' Opening

Since I have been writing about games with giant robots in them lately, I feel like I should give a nod to one of the greatest games in the mecha genre, and one of the greatest RPGs of all time: Xenogears. Despite the fact that the game is tragically incomplete, there are a lot of good things to say about its story and gameplay. One small sample of this I would like to dwell on for now is the complex opening sequence.

The game starts out with an animated movie segment (using the same combination of computer graphics and hand-drawn animation as the rest of the game), set on an incredibly huge spaceship. The spaceship, the Eldridge, suffers a mysterious calamity at the hands of a mysterious biomechanical organism, resulting in the destruction of the ship and the appearance of a woman with long indigo hair. When I first encountered this movie, it was in the demo for the game, so I actually had no idea about what kind of game Xenogears was supposed to be (never having heard of it before). As such, the movie made me expect it to be set in a traditional space-faring sci-fi setting.

Immediately after the movie ends, though, the game uses a sequence of paragraphs to relate the story of two nations at war on the desert continent of Ignis, and the rise of "Gears" built from lost technology. This sudden change in tone radically changes the player's perception of the setting, and establishes the idea that the opening movie was just a brief glimpse into the backstory of the game that foreshadows things that will occur a lot later into the game.

At the end of the text narration, the story is suddenly focused upon a small rural community put on the border between the two warring nations. There, we see a battle between the giant mecha called Gears (with a character standing next to one for a size comparison), that involves a desperate youth and a man trying to dissuade him from fighting. Mention is made that some of the enemy Gears are not falling like they should, and a fairly evil-looking Gear appears at the end, shortly before the scene focuses on the flames in the background, before shifting to a different image of a flame. This flame turns out to be a painting drawn by the same youth who was in battle, who is now in a peaceful situation, and the real gameplay finally begins. Essentially, all of this last scene turns out to be ominous foreshadowing of an battle that will occur some time later in the game.

The next stretch of the game (which can take quite a bit of time) is built around establishing both the identity of the main character, Fei Fong Wong, and his place in the peaceful village of Lahan. There are quite a few characters introduced here, including Fei's wise adoptive father, Fei's friend Timothy, Fei's other friend Alice, and Alice's annoying brother Dan. It is also established that Fei has amnesia and has only lived in the village for three years, Alice and Timothy will be married the next day, and that several people (including possibly Alice) wish that Alice was marrying Fei instead of Timothy. Also, there are a number of minor sidequests and minigames to be found, as well as a lot of helpful and nice people to talk to, and the whole place is made out to be a likable little refuge from the conflict gripping the continent. The characters are likable and their situation is interesting, and the whole thing feels like a classic start to a traditional RPG. At this point, I would not have been surprised if Timothy or Alice were main party members or long-term allies (or, in Alice's case, a major love interest for Fei).

Further gameplay takes the hero to Citan's home, where the player is introduced the Citan (the man from the ominous battle sequence) and his family. Here, Fei is introduced to a music-box playing a beautiful and sad-sounding melody (originally seen as Marle and Crono's love song in Chrono trigger, actually, so the connotations of it being a love song is clear to anyone who has played that game), which leads to Citan musing to himself that Fei would be happier if he could live like a normal man (a clear indication of Citan knowing more than he lets on about Fei), and the ominous shattering of the music-box (which, coming right after Citan's musings, indicates that Fei will not have that chance of happiness). Shortly afterwards, Fei returns towards Lahan village, only to see two groups of Gears flying towards the village, and he rushes home to see if his friends are alright.

The village is in a panic because of the battle raging between the various Gears inside of the village, and several people (including Alice) are convinced to flee the village to find safety. While looking fort the missing boy Dan, Fei spots a gear that has collapsed, its pilot dead, and something unusual happens. An animated movie starts, showing Fei looking at the Gear, when an image of a cross-shaped pendant is suddenly displayed, and Fei sees a mysterious boy whose eyes are hidden by his hair sitting in the Gear's cockpit. The movie ends, and an oddly quiet Fei suddenly climbs into the Gear. An easy Gear battle against two enemies follows. Afterwards, Citan muses about how Fei has a terrible fate (more evidence that the man knows something, and that Fei is someone special), and more enemies appear, the evil-looking Gears from the foreshadowing battle. Presumably, the events from then repeat here, but the player does not have to suffer through the repetition. At this point, Timothy appears, looking for Fei and Dan, the evil Gears seize Fei's Gear, and the evil group's leader makes a gesture. This is the point where the original demo ends.

The moments after the end of the original demo transform the game completely. In another animated sequence, the evil gears open fire on Timothy, killing him while Fei looks on in horror. Fei blacks out, and a bright light erupts from his Gear, filling the whole area. The screen briefly shows Alice being enveloped in the light. A short time later, Fei awakens, and learns from the angry villagers that he has just destroyed the tranquil, lovable village of Lahan and killed both his adoptive father and dear friend Alice, while Dan, who once looked up to Fei, now curses him as a murderer. Instead of being an unusually pleasant town full of allies to support the hero, an exaggerated version of something commonly seen in earlier RPGs, Lahan is destroyed, and what few friends and little identity that the amnesiac Fei may have had are lost. The contrast between the happiness of the earlier gameplay and the grim agony of this loss drives Fei's feelings into the player in a way that any less involved telling of the story could not.

I could probably go on a bit further and describe Fei's first encounter with Elly and the appearance of Grahf (both excellent scenes), but this probably suffices as a description of the opening. The way the game deeply involves the player in the stories of the characters in Lahan village, and then goes against expectations to completely destroy the village, is a great piece of storytelling. At the same time, countless minor details are mentioned that hint at the complex forces working in the background of the story, including many details that will not be clarified until the second disk of the game. Even minor details like an random NPC's comment that painting just came naturally to Fei will combine with other information later in the game to add depth to the story. The complex and emotional beginning hooks the player and provides a great start to one of the best stories ever told in a videogame.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 4

I am really surprised how easy of a time I have been having in Dragon Quest 8 right now. While there has been a recent sudden increase in the power of the monsters I am fighting in the last dungeon I went through, I had no trouble clearing the dungeon at all. This is particularly surprising considering how hard the early part of the game was. However, I guess that it reflects a general tendency of RPGs to become easier as the game progresses.

In the early stages of Dragon Quest 8, particularly before I recruited the full party, I was running into stretches of serious difficulty on a regular basis. For example, this go-through of the game stalled after I had my team wiped out by the second boss of the game multiple times. While I managed to defeat the game's third boss on my first try, I lost two out of my three characters in the attempt. I even lost a character to a rare monster I encountered while exploring around the overworld soon after the third boss battle. During those early parts of the game, I also found that I could only handle four or five consecutive battles in a new region of the overworld before I ran out of disposable resources.

Now though, I can run through brand new dungeons and overworld regions without much fear. I can even encounter enemies somewhat earlier than I am meant to and still have a fair chance of victory. I haven't even lost a party member since my run in with the rare monster I described above. The game just doesn't feel as hard anymore.

The reason the game isn't as difficult is due to the vastly increased options I now have over those early days. Thanks to higher levels, my characters have a lot more options when it comes to healing and defensive spells. Whereas early in the game, I only had one healer with limited MP (the main hero), few healing items, and no way to resurrect dead characters, I now have two healers (one of whom can regenerate his MP), a resurrection spell, and the ability to mass-produce healing items using the game's alchemy system. Furthermore, three of my four characters have special moves that can potentially prevent enemies from attacking. The addition of all of these things has made my team of heroes nearly impossible to kill in a game that I had pegged as extremely lethal when I first started playing it.

While this trend towards the game becoming easier as the player progresses is a fairly common element of RPGs due to this effect caused by increasing player options, I still don't like seeing the difficulty of a game change. The beginning of a game should not be the hardest part, since undue frustration might put off a new player. It also creates false expectations in the player about what the play experience of the game is going to be like. On the other hand, introducing more complexity and options to the player as he becomes familiar with the game isn't necessarily a bad idea, particularly since new character options, items, and abilities are all a kind of reward. So I am not really sure what can be done to tweak Dragon Quest 8's difficulty curve. Maybe I will get some ideas after playing it some more.

Old Favorites: Zone of the Enders 2

I am still playing through SRW:OG2 (I'm at mission 36 out of 43, the end of the third route split), but I think I have used up all of the good topics from that game, so I'm going to move on to something different. I have been meaning to write about Konami's Zone of the Enders 2 for quite a while now (I even pulled it out and played through most of it again a few weeks ago), so now is as good of a time as any.

Zone of the Enders 2 is one of the finest action games I have ever played, and it is easily the greatest mecha action game I have ever known. Its format is simple and classic (go through a series of stages in order, fighting through countless enemies and bosses), it has a straightforward plot (there are a lot of complex things happening in the background, but the story focuses entirely around just a few characters and events, making it easy to follow), and it has a lot of good action. The game has a very bad translation, terrible enough that the original promotional trailer has better dialog, but it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay. It is also short (in many places, it seems like there were sections of stages and scenes that were cut) and the Versus Mode is lackluster, but it has a lot of replay value and a great Extra Missions mode.

The real glory of Zone of the Enders 2 is found in the controls and combat system. It was a brilliant move to combine shooting and blade attacks into the same button, with the attack you use determined by range. Most similar games have different buttons for different types of attack, but since Zone of the Enders 2 puts so much emphasis on the lock-on and focusing on one foe at a time, it makes a lot of sense to use one button for both kinds of attack (after all, who is going to swing a sword at long range?). Being able to modify those basic attacks with the Dash and Burst modes (both of which are triggered with the same button) adds to your basic abilities and flexibility, while still keeping things simple. With the powerful Grab attacks and Subweapons also both controlled by one button (though this is toggled with a press of one of the L buttons), you can perform a very wide variety of different attacks with just four buttons and the analog stick, freeing up other buttons for controlling vertical movement, the lock-on cursor, and the defense shield. All combined, the game lets you freely fight extremely fast-paced and exciting battles while freely moving in 3D space, and is a lot of fun. My only problem with the control scheme is that too many minor effects rely on the poorly designed analog face buttons of the Dualshock 2 controller, which means even a slight change in pressure on the button can lead to different results from some attacks.

In terms of stages, battles, and opponents, Zone of the Enders 2 is great. Unlike the first Zone of the Enders game, there are quite a few enemy types, each of which is very unique and requires different strategies and weapons. My only complaints in this regard relate to the bosses. The first Zone of the Enders has truly great boss battles, concluding with a pair of unforgettable high-speed fights against an opponent evenly matched with the player, but the sequel doesn't have as many good boss battles. The battle against Ardjet is too easy, the battles against Nephtis are overly drawn out and rely on repeating the same gimmick over and over, the battle against Inhert is muddled by the opponent's constant evasion, cheap doppleganger tricks, and the pitch-black second half, and the battle against Anubis is ruined because you can't use even half of your normal combat options against him, while he has a single attack that dominates the flow of battle (the homing, shield-breaking fireball). The game would have been even better if the designers just let you fight bosses the same way you could fight normal enemies.

As a final note, in my opinion the original Zone of the Enders is a great example of building a story around how just a single character interacts with a much broader conflict. The reasons for the conflict and the details of what is happening around the hero are ignored, and everything is focused entirely on how the hero reacts to a sudden catastrophe and grows in response to it. Even though the original Zone of the Enders is a tragically short game, its story plays out like a good movie so well that I don't think it would work as well if it were any longer. Not every game has to be a huge epic in order to tell a really good story.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Dragon Quest 8, part 3

I am now more than forty hours into Dragon Quest 8 now. I am impressed, there has not yet been a drop off in story pacing or the like at all so far. The game has been maintaining a pretty good balance between plot progression and giving the player plenty of side-quests and optional things to do.

The root of this is good balance has to do with how the game world is compartmentalized. The game is broken down into explicit regions, each of which has a single main town, a unique monster list built around a specific level range, plenty of open space filled with chests and rare monsters, and sometimes a major side-quest or mini-game. It creates a very clear measure of progress in the game, since the player can focus on clearing one region of the game at a time. Since every region offers both plot events (usually including a dungeon) and quite a bit of optional area to explore, both of which are level appropriate, the player is given a fair amount of choice between going onward and side-questing at every point in the game. By the time a player has cleaned out everything to do in a particular area, a new region has already become available to explore.

Furthermore, sidequests are introduced gradually, and are often intertwined with the player's progress through the main plot. For example, the biggest side-quest/mini-game in Dragon Quest 8 is the Monster Arena. The Monster Arena is where the player can challenge battles against various monster teams using a team of monster he captured himself. These enemy teams are divided into various ranks, going from A through G. In order to win battles in higher ranks, the player needs to acquire a stronger line-up of monsters. However, the player usually needs to progress farther into the game to find these stronger monsters. Since the challenge and rewards for low-level ranks are appropriate for early in the game, and higher ranks are appropriate for later in the game, the Monster Arena is well designed to be challenged on and off across the entire length of the game.

As a result of these game elements, I have always had two or three different choices I could make whenever I asked myself: "So what do I do in the game now?". This has kept my interest in the game going quite well this time around.

Other notes:
1)I guess I underestimated attack magic last time around. I am using a healthy variety of attack spells at this point in the game. However, I still think that they don't scale as well as some of the weapon abilities in the game. This is probably the result of having three upgrading versions of every attack spell.

2)There are some weapon abilities in the game that upgrade into more powerful versions later one. Many of the lower level versions of these abilities are very bad, to the point of being useless. This should not be the case.

SRW:OG2 Spirit Commands

One of the most unique game elements of the Super Robot Wars series has always been the Spirit Command system. Every character in the game has a list of six Spirit Commands, which each has its own effect and SP cost. So long as the pilot has SP, these commands can be used freely without giving up any kind of action. These effects range from minor, but incredibly useful boosts such as Accel (increases movement range by 3 for your next move) and Focus (increases hit and avoid rates by 30 for one turn), to very powerful abilities that can be extremely useful for complex strategies, such as Zeal (allows you to take an extra turn) or Attune (increases an ally's hit rate to 100% for one turn).

The importance of these abilities to the game can not be understated. Because most units can only survive somewhere from two to four hits from a normal enemy, and a lot of units can't survive a direct hit from a boss at all, using Spirit Commands such as Focus can be essential for units to survive battles and quickly defeat enemies. Also, because so many bosses have very high defenses, incredibly large hit point totals, and can regenerate as much as 30% of their health every turn, Spirit Commands that increase damage and enable more attacks can be the only way to even win at all. The last few bosses requires the whole team to use every last drop of SP in order to win by even a narrow margin. It would not be a stretch to say that SRW:OG2 is a game built around managing your use of SP.

One reason I like the Spirit Command system is that it puts a lot of control over the flow of the battle into the player's hand. Unlike other games, the player always has a choice to either take a risk by attacking with poor odds or to spend some SP and get a guaranteed success. The innate chances of success are an important part of the game, but they can be controlled. If it is particularly important or dramatically appropriate, a player can always choose to ignore even impossible odds and accomplish a task. In a way, it allows the game to be completely unfair and present a challenge which seems hopeless at first glance, but still allow the player to succeed.

I also like the way Spirit Commands help differentiate characters and clarify character roles. There are around forty Spirit Commands in total, but each character only has six. Four Spirit Commands, Alert, Strike, Focus, and Valor, are nearly universal among the characters. meaning most characters only have two or three slots devoted to the less common commands. As a result, the few unique commands given to a character define the character very well. A character without Focus will not be able to dodge a large number of successive attacks. A character with Guard (reduces all damage to 1/4 for one turn) is likely to be good at using units with high defense and a barrier. A character with abilities like Attune or Faith (restores an ally's health) is a support character who should be protected and kept alive. A character with Zeal or Love (the ultimate Spirit Command) is an important primary attacker.

Effects like these, which don't cost a turn and allow a player to control the flow of battle, can be a lot of fun, and in the case of Super Robot Wars, they help emulate a more cinematic style in which sudden strokes of luck and fate can affect a battle just as much as the skill of the characters.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Dragon Quest 8: Part 2

One of my favorite features of Dragon Quest 8 is the ability to talk to my teammates at any time. By pressing the start button, I can open a screen that lets me talk to King Trode, Yangus, Jessica, and Angelo. Usually, each one of the main characters has something to say about the current events of the game (except for the silent main hero, of course).

This kind of system appears in quite a few games as a means of helping to remind the player of what his next goal is. The most famous examples are the fairies and Midna from the 3-D Legend of Zelda games. The player can talk to these characters at any time with the press of a button, and get either helpful advice or a pointer in the direction of the next plot event. However, the characters in Dragon Quest 8 are much more interesting than is typical because they do more than just give the player generic reminders of where his next destination is.

What makes the conversation system in DQ 8 interesting is that it is both event-sensitive and location-sensitive, in a addition to the typical plot-sensitive nature of these interactions. The other characters change what they depending on where the party is and what just happened. For example, if the player takes an optional detour to visit a fortuneteller, the other characters will talk specifically about the advice that fortuneteller gave. If the player wins a victory in the monster arena side-quest, the party will talk about how good victory feels, and so forth. The characters even say different things on the overworld than they do in towns. The system is remarkably responsive to changing situations in the game.

Unfortunately, a problem with this is that sometimes, the other characters don't have anything to say at all, and all four of them just say ".........". In other words, the characters were not given any written dialogue. It happens surprisingly often, including an entire dungeon relatively early in the game. This lack of consistency is glaringly obvious when otherwise the game rewards the player for talking to his team with lots of witty dialogue.

At least the ability to talk with my comrades at any time helps alleviate the problem that some of them very rarely have speaking roles in cut-scenes. At the point I am at in the game, Jessica and Angelo in particular have barely said a voice-acted word since Angelo was recruited. While they have been developed somewhat through the optional conversations, it has left those two characters woefully under-developed and somewhat one-dimensional so far. It is also making me wonder if it is possible to completely skip recruiting Angelo or turn down Jessica's request to join.

SRW:OG2 Battle Flow

One thing that I really like about Super Robot Wars: Original Generation 2 is the complexity of the individual battles. As I mentioned in some of my earlier posts, each battle in Original Generation 2 tends to have several twists and complexities. As a battle progresses the Mission Objectives constantly change, new enemies appear, you get reinforced with allies, and even very important story scenes will often occur in the middle of a fight. In some later missions of the game, the title for the current mission will not even appear until you have defeated dozens of foes and accomplished an intermediate objective. There are a few particular schemes to this complexity that all work very well to different ends.

One of the most basic situations in SRW:OG2 is a battle which begins with only a few units under your control until a large group of allied reinforcements arrive (usually along with one or both of the battleship/carrier units). In this situation, the starting group is always mandated by the plot, and the reinforcement group is usually chosen by the player from the full list of available units. Often, it is a losing condition for the first phase of the battle that you can't lose any units, but this changes to the normal loss condition (all units lost or loss of a battleship) when you are reinforced. This set up is incredibly predictable because of how often it is used, but at the same time I can understand why it is used so much because it works well. It allows both a significant part of a battle in which a limited number of characters get the spotlight (often combined with the challenge of facing a large number of enemies with only a few allies), and at the same time allows for a battle phase in which you can use whatever units you want (which is important for building up the strength of the units and getting a chance to use even minor characters in the cast). It allows both the opportunity for detailed story sequences and desperate situations with a few characters and full scale battles with an entire army, within the same mission. This structure is really good at helping develop different stories within such a large cast.

Another very common shift in battles is the sudden emergence of a boss unit instead of or along with a normal wave of enemies. In many cases, the emergence of a boss is unanticipated, and severely changes the tone of a mission. A mission which may have been a straight-forward battle against a large number of grunts can suddenly transform into a desperate battle for survival in which you have to somehow hold out long enough to escape (this is very common in early missions). This tends to be very dramatic, and serves a few important gameplay purposes. First, it provides a good chance for the player to build up money and experience, even in the "desperate survival" type of mission. Second, it lets the player build up the important "Will" stat before a boss battle, which can only be easily gained through defeating many weak enemies, but is very important for defeating a boss. Finally, it helps add to the distinct challenge of OG2 boss battles, which are simultaneously terrible wars of attrition (you need every last scrap of energy, ammo, and SP to win) and races against time (mot bosses regenerate health terrifyingly quickly, so if you let up at all our effort will go to waste and the battle becomes impossible). Having a large number of enemies before a boss fight means that you must fight those enemies far more efficiently than usual, which is a good challenge.

One final trend in battles is that new units almost always get a chance to show off. Either the new unit will start the battle on its own, or it will join your forces in the middle of a mid-battle story sequence and attack a major foe in a spectacular fashion. Either way, most units will have an entire mission centered around their introduction. This aspect is pretty clearly tied to the way SRW games are built around things being blown up in very flashy ways, and the whole effect is a lot of fun. Certainly, it is far more interesting than just dumping characters into the team without going to any effort to make them memorable.

I think it is a shame that more games in the tactical RPG genre don't have such complex battles. Of all of the tactical RPGs I have played, only the Fire Emblem games have anything resembling the kind of major mid-battle events or as many twists to a single battle that are seen in Super Robot Wars, but even in Fire Emblem battles tend to have little story and remain mostly static. Despite being one of the great defining games of the genre, Final Fantasy Tactics only has about two battles in which there is any kind of mid-battle event or change to the starting battle situation at all, and both are merely cases of an enemy already on the battlefield transforming into a monster rather than dying. In Final Fantasy Tactics, or almost any other game in the genre, enemies don't even get reinforced, and battle objectives are static. In such games, battles are treated as only a challenge to be overcome between story events, not as story events in of themselves, which means they don't ever reach their full potential.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dragon Quest 8

After a long hiatus (two years maybe?), I finally started playing Dragon Quest 8 again, and I have managed to get pretty deep into the game over the last couple of days. So far, I am enjoying it quite a bit. In particular, I am finding that I am enjoying the game's battle system quite a bit, thanks to the number of interesting choices that are available during combat.

It is very rare to see RPGs where the characters have multiple different abilities they can choose from that have no cost. In Dragon Quest 8 though, three of my four characters currently have such abilities. For example, Yangus has both Steal Sickle and Wind Sickle, neither of which cost any MP. Steal Sickle is a regular attack with a minute chance of stealing an enemy's item, while WInd Sickle is simply a potent attack. The nameless hero has Dragon Slash, Flame Slash, and Metal Slash, all regular attacks that are effective against certain opponents. These attacks are functionally replacements for the basic attack command, but they significantly increase the tactical options for the player.

A good example is with my current setup for Jessica. Her main weapon is a whip, so she can attack a group of enemies with her basic attack. However, I also gave her the Blow Kiss attack, which does damage equal to her normal attack against a single enemy, but with an added chance of charming the enemy so that it doesn't attack. So, there is a trade-off to made when choosing either attack. Her basic attack is good against groups of weak enemies, while her Blow Kiss attack works well against single strong enemies. I think it allows for much more interesting combat choices than a system where only basic attacks are free.

Other notes on the combat system so far:

Attack magic seems somewhat weak so far. Spells seem to only remain useful for a short time after I acquire them, then quickly fall behind physical attacks in effectiveness. For example, the Boom spell was very useful when I got it, since it did comparable damage to a normal physical attack against all enemies in a battle. However, it currently only does about half of the damage most of my characters do. Only one of my attack mage's spells can do comparable damage to my main fighter's attacks.

On the other hand, status spells are surprisingly effective. Group confusion spells are particularly effective, and DQ8 actually has an instant death spell that consistently works. I like this very much, since it increases my tactical options significantly, so I am doing more than just using basic attacks every turn when fighting regular enemies.

I will probably have more to report as I get deeper in the game. Right now, I am neck deep in gambling in the game, so I might talk about that a bit some time soon.

SRW:OG2 Intermissions, Battles, and Story Scenes

Playing Super Robot Wars: Original Generation 2 all over again has made me remember something very distinct about the game: the story scenes are very, very long. At the beginning of every chapter you are likely going to read through possibly fifteen minutes or more of character dialogue, and there will be about that much after the battle is complete. I think having that much dialogue is a good thing, since it provides a lot of good story exposition and leads to a surprising amount of character development for the game's large cast, but having to sit through incredibly long story scenes in which multiple different plot threads are unraveling at the same time can get tiring. In a way, I think the game's story is not paired up well with the way the story is being presented.

A part of the problem is that, other than plot events in the battles themselves, the game strictly follows the loop of Intermission, Story Scene, Battle, Story Scene, Intermission. Every story event has to be placed within that linear flow, including everything from conversations between various minor villains regarding their political aims, to discussion of the next mission, to minor humorous exchanges between some of the main characters. Because permanent saves can only be made at the Intermission screen, this means that you need to sit through a lot of dialogue every time you start a battle or end one (the ability to skip through dialogue quickly with a button press helps this, but it is not necessarily the best way to solve the problem).

One way to fix some of the annoyances of this system would be to move a lot of the dialogue from the story scenes to the Intermission phase, where you can still save the game. This is pretty much the approach that recent Fire Emblem games and the Front Mission games take, with the Base system from the former and the interactive first-person perspective of the latter. By chopping up the story into smaller bits and putting them in a place where story changes to your line-up (like SRW route splits) can accounted for and the game can be saved, it makes the game experience less tiring for the player. In this case, the sequence is closer to Intermission, Story, Intermission, Story, Battle, Story, Intermission.

I suppose, though, that as long as a game is ordered as simply a sequence of battles the problem of story pacing seen in SRW:OG2 will never be completely gone. Things like long story sequences describing the villain's goals which are completely unrelated to any individual battle are necessary to a good story, but tend to bog down the story flow surrounding an individual battle, and this can;t be easily avoided simply by shifting when you can save. That said, I think some other games in the genre, like Final Fantasy Tactics, manage to escape that limitation. In that game's case, it does so by eliminating a strict link between story scenes and battles. In FFT, it is possible to fight battles that have very little to no story, and to encounter story sequences that have no battle associated with them. You may have several story sequences or brief inteludes focusing on a villain for a while, and then get into a sequence of battles in which the story only focuses upon the direct cause and effect of each battle. Character development of the main cast in FFT can be a little thin, but other than that the dynamic pace of story leads to it flowing well.