Friday, May 30, 2008

Golden Sun: opening sequence and writing

I started playing through Golden Sun for the Game Boy Advance again yesterday. I have played it before, though I have never finished it. While I am a big fan of the game and think it has an excellent gameplay system, there is one area where the game is lacking: its writing. As a whole, Golden Sun suffers from very poor dialogue and cut-scene direction, and it is very obvious in the opening stretch of the game.

The biggest problem with the opening sequence is its sheer length. It took me one hour and fifty minutes on the game clock to reach the point where the heroes first step foot onto the overworld and acquire the first Djinn in the game. So it takes almost two hours for the game to really get started. While that time does include exploring a reasonably large town and the game's first dungeon, much of the length comes from the numerous cutscenes that occur during this time. Unfortunately, it feels like Golden Sun's cutscenes do more to waste time than actually move the plot forward.

Overall the cutscenes are weighed down by too much repetition in the dialogue. For example, in the Sol Sanctum, the villains explain that they intend to light the four elemental lighthouses using the stolen Elemental Stars. A bit later, the elders in Vale waste quite a bit of time going over this same information. The line "Jenna will be safe if Felix is with her" is repeated four or five times. One of the most glaring examples comes from the final goodbye scene where the heroes leave the village. The scene starts with two children talking about how everyone is gathering to send off Isaac and Garret, and that they don't see Isaac's mother around. Immediately after that five or so minute sequence, the camera pans down to where the crowd and the heroes are, and spends another five or so minutes going over how Isaac's mother is not there to see her son off. There is no information in the part with the children that is not covered in more depth in the second half of the same scene. The entire opening sequence is full of such examples.

Even more annoying than the repetition is the occurrences where characters stand around doing nothing for 10 to 20 seconds at a time. During these long pauses, the characters will often do a twitching motion, look around at each other, and perform sweat-drops or other emotes, but not say anything. It is impossible to extract any meaning or insight from the characters' actions, so these segments feel like nothing more than long, awkward silences. And yet, they occur frequently, appearing in almost every scene. They don't fulfill any particular storytelling or character development purpose, and should have been stripped from the game.

Perhaps the biggest problem of the cutscenes in the game is the long-winded, rambling tone of it, which is only aggravated by the repetition and pauses. In the big reveal sequence where Felix is supposed to take off his mask and surprise his sister, the dramatic tension of the entire scene is sucked away by the shoddy writing. Instead of a quick, dramatic reveal, one of Felix's companions drops Felix's name first, followed by a couple of minutes where the two companions goad and harass Felix until he finally does take the mask off. Even when a giant floating eye with super-powers shows up and threatens the villains, they take their time to stand around and talk about what to do next for several minutes before making their escape.

Ultimately, the game not only wastes a lot of time during these cut-scenes, it also fails to get crucial information across. In the big scene where the heroes, their family members, and the village elders gather around to talk about what happened and to make the decision that Isaac and Garret need to leave on their journey, many important plot points get lost in the meandering conversation. The game even fails to clearly state what the heroes' (and thus the player's) goal really is. On one hand, the characters say that saving Jenna is important, they also are confident she isn't in any danger with her brother around. While the heroes are told that Alchemy is a dangerous power, they are also told that stopping the villain's plan or not is their choice.

Overall, the opening of Golden Sun would have been much better if the cut-scenes were shorter and more focused.

Persona 3FES: Good Unusual Events

Shortly after I wrote my last post here, I saw a rather unexpected scene in Persona 3. Whether it was because the scene was added in the FES version or it is a scene that has to be unlocked somehow, I never saw it in my previous (incomplete) playthrough of Persona 3. Amusingly enough, that scene was just the sort of thing I was lamenting the lack of in my previous post, so it was a pleasant surprise (if rather ironic).

A few days after the typhoon, afternoon classes are canceled and the characters are instructed to clean up the decorations for the cancelled Culture Festival along with their classmates. The result is a unusual chance to see some of the main characters and the Social Link characters interacting and having a bit of fun. They argue a bit, chat a bit, the hero teams up with a classmate to perform an impromptu comedy routine, and many of the hero's romantic interests all show up at once to play up the love "triangle" social dynamics a bit (I guess it is not really a triangle since there are so many girls, but it isn't built quite like a cliche anime harem. At least it isn't quite a Ranma 1/2 love hypercube...). The scene has no plot relevance, and it doesn't really count towards building up Social Links, but it is a nice, fun scene that develops some characters and lets them interact in ways they normally don't. I really liked it.

As good as the scene was, though, it reminded me how much that kind of scene is really missing from the rest of the game. There are a lot of times when the plot can get really dreary for long stretches at a time and there is a constant burden on the player to make good choices and use your time wisely, so the game needs tension-breaking scenes like that one. After all, even the various Social Links tend to have fairly depressing plots (stress, bad injuries, heartbreak, tough living situations, divorce, dead loved ones, terminal illness...), so purely fun and humorous events don't show up a lot in normal gameplay. Of course, a lot of the dialog of characters standing around in school or your allies at the dorm is pretty funny and lighthearted, but it is hardly a replacement for good scenes.

Another thing that the scene reminded me of was how thoroughly the Social Links are kept separate and away from the main plot. Even though Social Links characters Kazushi and Kenji are both in the same class as the hero and allies Junpei and Yukari, this scene is the only time I have seen any of them actually acknowledge the existence of each other (with the exception of the hero and allies interacting a lot, of course). There has not even been anything as minor as a scene of Kenji saying hello to Junpei at any point, even though both are friends of the main hero (and also share similar personalities and the Magician Arcana). That kind of unnatural wall of silence between characters who should be rather familiar with each other is a noticeably flaw in otherwise well-designed and realistic characters.

The whole thing just makes me wish the Culture Festival didn't get canceled, really. It would have been a lot of fun interacting with a lot of Social Link characters and party members all at once, and getting a chance to do more things like the comedy routine.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The "Defend" Command

Ever since Dragon Quest, most RPGs have had five commands (or variations on these commands): Attack, Magic, Defend, Item, and Run. Now then, in most RPGs, I regularly use the Attack, Magic, and Item commands as part of my typical strategies. Running is also of obvious usefulness if the party is in danger of being wiped out. However, I have rarely found an opportunity to use the Defend command. Despite being in almost every RPG ever produced, the Defend command is almost useless.

The heart of the problem is that the opportunity cost for using the Defend command is almost always not worth the benefit. When defending, a character typically does nothing for one round, but in exchange takes half damage from all attacks. However, there is one big problem with making this choice: the player has no idea if the defending character will even be attacked that turn. If the player orders a character to Defend, all of the monsters might end up attacking other characters. So, the outcome and net benefit of using the Defend action is unknown. Furthermore, there are alternative strategies that have more reliable outcomes. For example, a wounded character can use a healing item on himself instead of defending. The outcome of that action is more certain: the character will be healed and less likely to die. This is in many ways a superior solution all around, since a defending character is only putting off his own demise, rather than reversing it.

In most RPGs, there is only one scenario where the Defend action is useful: when the player knows that a certain character is going to be hit with an attack capable of killing that character. Typically this happens during specific boss battles where a boss broadcasts that it is going to hit a specific character or the whole team with a super-attack. This is usually a scenario specifically set up by the game designers where using the Defend command is the only viable solution. Scenarios like this include countdown attacks, attacks that require a turn to charge up, or attacks where a boss points out a specific target in some way beforehand.

However, there are a few games where the Defend command is more useful than other games. In these games, the Defend command is paired with an additional effect. For example, the characters in Wild ARMS 3 reload their guns by defending. In Legend of Legaia, the Defend command is called the Spirit command. In addition to decreasing damage by half for the turn, it increases the number of attacks the character can make the next turn. In  Legend of Dragoon, the Guard command heals 10% of the characters hitpoints as a bonus. Another good example is Breath of Fire IV, where characters can analyze an enemy's moves while Defending. And yet, while the Defend command is useful in these games, it is usually solely due to the additional effect, rather than the defensive effect. So these solutions don't solve the fundamental problem of the Defend command itself.

In order to make the Defend command useful, particularly as an actual defensive measure, it needs to be reliably useful as a part of a bigger strategy. There are some examples of worthwhile defensive commands in several RPGs. For example, Auron from Final Fantasy X has abilities called Cover and Sentinel. When he uses these commands, he will get in the way of any physical attack aimed at one of his allies. These moves are a great way to protect more vulnerable mage-type characters from big enemies. There is also the various defensive commands from Skies of Arcadia, which I talked about at some length in a previous post. These commands enable a character to "tank" by spending actions to decrease the damage taken by the team as a whole. As such, they are very valuable.

As a whole, the traditional Defend action is useless compared to the advantages of simply healing a wounded character. While there are ways for an RPG game designer to make it useful in particular situations, these solutions generally feel forced. In the long run, it would make for more tactically interesting gameplay to replace the Defend command with dedicated tanking powers.

Persona 3 FES: Unusual Events

Since it is relevant, current game completion is about 45%.

One thing that has bothering me about Persona 3 is the way it handles unusual events that break the game's normal routine. I am not talking about plot events or story scenes (though I may write about that another day), but rather the kind of normal annual events that break up the usual routine of going to classes and hanging out with friends after school. A number of these events have occurred in my playthrough of the game so far, but most have been disappointments, for a number of reasons.

One such event is the Summer Festival. There is a bit of build-up before the event itself, such as Aigis asking Mitsuru to take her to the festival a few days ahead of time, and it is one of the very unusual things to happen all summer, so I was under the impression that something interesting might happen there. Instead, all that happens is a chance to go on a fairly uneventful date with one of the girls from school. Going to the festival with a girl doesn't really have any kind of special significance, it just makes it easier to reach the next Social Link level like any other date. If you don't go on a date, it is pretty much a normal day and all that happens if you go to the festival is a short scene in which you see Mitsuru and Aigis talking.

A much better example is the Culture Festival that is supposed to be held at the school early in the second term. Various students talk about that event for over a week in advance, and there is some discussion of what some of the major characters are going to do at the festival. When I first heard about the festival I was really curious about it. I wanted to have a chance to explore around school and see all the odd things that might be happening at the festival. Instead, the festival is canceled when a typhoon hits, dashing my hopes. All was not lost, though, since the arrival of a typhoon was itself pretty interesting. I imagined that it would be a chance to see how the people in the dorm dealt with the typhoon, and possibly get a chance to jut see some more good character interaction, like a somewhat more confined version of the Yakushima trip (one of the few such events that is handled very well, if it was a bit short). In the end, though, even those hopes were dashed. The hero gets sick when the typhoon hits and sleeps for three days, waking up when the typhoon has passed. Nothing happens at all.

Events like the Summer Festival and the typhoon should have been chances to do things unique and interesting. They should have been events that would break up the usual routine with a rare opportunity to see something out of the ordinary and do something fun. Instead, such events are treated like unwanted intrusions into the game, and they tend to be short and uneventful or almost completely ignored. Every holiday is just treated as a day off, and even particularly notable Japanese holidays like the Tanabata Festival get glossed over completely. A lot of time in Persona 3 is spent running through a usual routine, and it would have been nice to have some fun breaks from that routine on holidays and the like, but the game doesn't really provide a lot of that, making this one of the few really bothersome flaws of the game.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Apollo Justice: Characters

I was surprised at how few characters from the Phoenix Wright trilogy made appearances in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. Many of the most important characters from the first three games in the series don't appear at all in the new game, and a couple only make minor cameo appearances. In fact, only two major characters from the first series are still important in Apollo Justice: Phoenix Wright himself and the Judge. Noticeably missing are Miles Edgeworth, Franziska von Karma, Pearl Fey, and most notably Maya Fey. Instead of bringing back these old characters, it seems that the designers of the series chose to start over from scratch.

Honestly, I can't really say that they made a mistake in focusing on a brand new list of characters. By the end of Apollo Justice, I really liked most of the new main cast. Apollo, Trucy, and Klavier Gavin are all interesting and entertaining. Making the transition from Phoenix Wright to Apollo Justice as main character, and selling that transition to the fans, was the developers' hardest task in the game. If the developers had relied heavily on familiar faces from the first three games, it would have felt too much like Phoenix Wright was still the main character. That would have undercut Apollo's chances of being accepted. Instead, the developers created new characters to fill out familiar roles in the story.

Most of the new main characters in Apollo Justice are essentially replacements for the old Phoenix Wright characters. Ema Skye is replacing Detective Gumshoe, Klavier Gavin replaces Miles Edgeworth, and Trucy Wright replaces Maya Fey. However, since many of these characters have very different working relationships and interactions with Apollo than their originals did with Phoenix Wright, it helps to make them feel very different than the originals. Ema Skye's moody personality, love of forensic science, and general openness with Apollo are very different than Gumshoe's overall pathetic but good-natured personality and sometimes oppositional attitude towards Phoenix. Klavier Gavin is certainly more laid back than any of the Phoenix Wright prosecutors.

The only character who is somewhat problematic is Trucy. Admittably, part of my problem was that I incorrectly guessed that she was actually Pearl Fey based on promotional information. After all, Trucy was the same age Pearl would be, had the same hair and eye color, and had the same bouncy personality. So I was quite surprised to find out in the third case that she was most certainly not Pearl, but instead a completely new character. I was disappointed, since it meant that there wasn't a connection to the original story that I was expecting, and it meant that Trucy was simply an Expy of previous characters (Maya and Pearl). However, my opinion on the matter has reversed since I finished the last case. The revelation of Trucy's real connection to Apollo has put a fresh spin on the character concept that I like.

At this point, my only complaint about the characters in Apollo Justice is that Apollo Justice himself sounds too much like Phoenix Wright during investigation phases. During trials, Apollo feels like a very different character because of his distinctive expressions, special power, and favorite sayings (Phoenix wouldn't be caught dead saying "Here comes Justice"). However, his narrative voice and thoughts while examining objects and evidence use the exact same brand of humor that Phoenix used in the in original series. Apollo just doesn't feel different enough. It might have been better if he was more foolishly optimistic than dry and sarcastic like Phoenix was.

Anyways, now that the first Apollo Justice game has fully established Apollo and the rest of the new cast, I expect the second game to bring back more characters from the first three games. A big part of the fun factor of a time jump is seeing what has happened to familiar faces during the intervening time period. I would be very disappointed if there was no resolution to that.

Persona 3 FES: AI-Controlled Allies

Another one of the interesting aspects of Persona 3 is that every character other than the main hero is controlled by the game program rather than the player. You control every action of the hero in battle, but you can only select general tactics for your allies. While this is fairly typical, if not necessary, in action games or action-RPGs, it is a very strange thing to see in a traditional RPG like Persona 3. However, despite being unusual, I consider this to be one of the strengths of the game.

The reason I like having the allies be controlled by the game AI rather then the player is because it greatly reinforces the basic structure of the game that equates the player with the main character as much as possible. An important part of that equivalency, as well as a number of the themes of the game, is the idea that the other characters are separate from the hero and are individuals in their own right. A lot of effort was made trying to make the characters complex and believable, so that they seem more like real people than plot devices or mere team customization choices. If you don't have precise control over their actions in battle, it emphasizes their independence and individuality, which in turn highlights the fact that the hero is not independent and separate from the player. You control every choice made by the hero, but you can't control the choices made by your allies any more in battle that in day to day life. The whole effect adds to the immersive quality of the game.

Another aspect of the inability to precisely control allies is the fact that it makes the difference between the hero's flexibility and his allies' deep specialization less stifling. The other characters are controlled in a different manner, so there is no expectation for them to fight in the same manner as the hero. Instead, because the hero is the most flexible in both combat ability and control options, and the hero is needed to adjust battle tactics and scan the enemy, it simply reinforces the main hero's importance and leadership position within the team.

Another good thing about this particular system is that, unlike many games with AI-controlled allies, the battle AI in Persona 3 is pretty good. The AI isn't good enough to match what a player can do, and as such its strategies are fairly limited, but you can nonetheless expect the AI to perform quite well. You allies will heal each other when they are injured, cure negative conditions if they are given the chance, will attack their enemy's vulnerabilities and go for the "1 More" effect, will finish off enemies that are weak, and will often go for an All-Out Attack even if you have not given them the "Knock Down" command. Your allies will even learn from the enemies displayed strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to information gathered from analysis of the enemy. If an ally uses an Ice attack on the enemy and it fails, no one in the team will use any more Ice attacks against it. Other than their inability to judge opportunity cost (such as Junpei using Re Patra on an ally who stumbled when he would be better off with his own attack), the ally characters can be relied upon to act in a sensible manner, so 80-90% of the time you don't even need to give out tactics commands.

Because the presence of AI-controlled allies helps the themes of the game so much, and because the AI is good enough that they are not a burden (in fact they are capable of pulling the hero out of a tough spot), the decision to use AI control rather than player control benefited the game quite a bit.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lunar and enemy tells

The Lunar games for the Playstation are two of my favorite RPGs of that era. One of the big reasons I like them so much is the combat system of the two games. Battles, particularly boss battles, had a degree of strategic complexity to them I rarely see in RPGs. A big part of this complexity comes from the "tells" all enemies, including bosses, give during combat.

In both Playstation Lunar games, enemies have special animations they cycle through during the beginning phase of a combat round, while the player is still inputing commands. Each enemy generally has at least two animations, while bosses often have many more. Each of these animations corresponds to an attack. For example, an enemy that is standing in a neutral pose might just use a basic physical attack. However, if that same enemy rears back threateningly or starts to glow, then it might cast a magic spell or use a special attack during the turn. In this way, the game tells the player exactly what every enemy is going to do during combat.

While giving the player this information sounds like it would make the game easier, it really doesn't. Both Lunar games are actually really hard. Even though the player knows what attacks the enemy will use, the enemies are still going to execute their attacks regardless, so the player's characters are going to suffer the same number of attacks either way. The difference is that the player can use this knowledge to approach a battle with more complex strategies.

In a typical battle system, the player has no way of knowing what the enemy will do, and has to react to situations blindly. When facing a group of six enemies, the player only has one strategy: kill all of the enemies as quickly as possible. However, if the player knows that two of those enemies are preparing to execute a dangerous special attack, new strategies open up. The player can choose to either focus on wiping out the entire group, or focus on disrupting the attacks of the two enemies. If the attacks are particularly dangerous, the player even has the choice to focus on defense. These added tactical options engage the player on a deeper level than most RPGs, vastly improving the player's experience.

A good example of Lunar's combat system in work comes from the boss battles of the game. Bosses have lots of attacks, and thus lots of different idling animations to broadcast those attacks. For example, when the final boss of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete surrounds his outstretched hand with dark energy, he is preparing to use his Hell Wave attack, which hits the entire battlefield for a lot of damage. A smart player would have every party member defend that turn. Developers often give this kind of "force the party to defend" attack to boss monsters in RPGs, but it usually involves the boss wasting a turn broadcasting the attack with a charge action, effectively giving the player a free turn to beat on the boss. I think Lunar's solution is much more elegant.

This system also has the effect of rewarding the player for being cautious. In the early stages of a Lunar boss battle, the player doesn't know what attacks correspond with the enemy's animations. So, the player is encouraged to fight defensively for the first several turns while he learns what moves the boss uses. If the player orders his characters to fight recklessly, the boss might flatten them all with a big attack. So the system encourages the player to study his opponents and come up with tactics to deal with bosses.

The strategic combat created by monster tells is what I remember the Lunar series the best for. Few developers have tried to focus on making combat more tactical by giving the player more information. Yet, I think it is one of the best ways to do so.

Persona 3 FES: The Protagonist

The main hero of Persona 3 works very differently than the other characters in the game. As I mentioned last time, most of the characters in the game are specialists who have distinct strengths and weaknesses, but the main hero is not like them. However, that does not mean he doesn't have strengths or weaknesses at all, or is some kind of jack-of-all-trades who can do everything. Instead, he can completely change all of his abilities by changing his equipped "Persona" even in the middle of battle, so he can be a master of fire magic one moment and a strong physical fighter who is weak to fire attacks the next. He is a character who is always a specialist with both strengths and weaknesses, but whose strengths and weaknesses are always changing, and this ability is central to the game.

The fact that the main hero works differently than every other character is fairly important considering two major gameplay details: the hero is always in the party and it is Game Over if the hero falls unconscious. With these two rules in place it would be a very poor idea to make it so the hero has consistent strengths and weaknesses. If, for example, the hero was always weak to ice attacks, then every enemy who could use ice attacks would have a significant chance of killing the main hero and causing a Game Over. Such a thing would make particular battles artificially difficult simply because the enemy could use ice attacks. Another problem is that a specialist hero's strengths could become too dependable. If the hero always has strong fire attacks, for example, then allies who also specialize in fire attacks would be a lot less useful. As such, unlike other characters, it doesn't make much sense for the hero to be a specialist.

Just because the hero can't be a specialist, though, doesn't mean that he should have no strengths or weaknesses. In addition to being bland, that would mean that the battle system would not work as well. Unless you get ambushed by the enemy, the hero always moves first in every fight in the game. In addition to being a chance to set the team's tactics, this is usually your one chance to end a battle quickly without wasting a lot of time or taking a lot of damage. Unless the hero has the strength to seize such a chance, battles become difficult. Of course, if the hero is too strong then the game becomes too easy. Thus, the game system creates a paradox in which the main hero can neither be a specialist nor a generalist. This is hardly a problem unique to Persona 3 (I think any game that has both a true "main hero" and a supporting cast has this issue, and most solve it poorly), but unlike most other games with the problem Persona 3 has a great solution.

The hero of Persona 3 is a specialist who constantly changes his specialization. He could be a master healer who is weak to fire and uses lightning spells one moment, and a strong fighter who uses ice magic and is weak to wind the next. However, the hero's flexibility is limited by his current list of Personas, so it is almost impossible to have the perfect ability set for every situation. Unless you plan perfectly when creating a Persona line-up, there will probably be gaps in your abilities, Perhaps you may not bring any Persona that can use wind, you may not have a Persona that is strong against fire, or worst of all you may have forgotten to bring a Persona that can heal your allies. However, even if you have planned well and have everything covered, the hero still would not be overly powerful. Even if the hero can both use and be resistant to every attack type with his current line-up of different Personas, there is no guarantee that you have a Persona who can be both resistant to an enemies attack and able to attack its weakness at the same time, since you can only use one Persona at a time. As a result, this system is flexible, customizable, encourages planning, introduces an element of unpredictability, and lets the hero be powerful in his own right without overshadowing his allies completely or making them obsolete. It is a really good system overall.

One thing I like in particular about the system is that it encourages creating a team that can compliment the hero's ever-changing abilities. If you don't have a Persona that can use ice attacks, you can bring Mitsuru to perform ice attacks instead of the hero. If you forgot to bring a Persona with healing magic, you can bring Yukari to heal everyone. If you need to heal but don't have Yukari, you can always switch to a healer Persona and perform her role yourself. The party changes to suit the current hero and the current hero changes to suit the party. It is an amazingly elegant balancing act that adds quite a bit to the game.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Persona 3 FES: Character Specialization

I believe I have briefly touched on this point earlier, but Persona 3 FES is a game where it is not advisable to pick a small subset of your allies and use them the whole game without ever using the rest. The main reason for this is simple: every character has unique strengths and weaknesses that can not be ignored. Partially, these strengths and weaknesses are explicit elemental attributes. Yukari is the only ally who uses Wind magic, Wind magic can hardly hurt her, and she will be badly hurt and knocked down by Lightning magic. Akihiko is the only Lightning magic-user, he won't be hurt much by Lightning, and he is vulnerable to Ice magic. Against any enemy who uses Lightning magic or is immune to wind magic, Yukari is a poor choice compared to Akihiko. If there are a lot of enemies around who are vulnerable to Wind magic, then Yukari almost becomes a necessary choice. All of the characters in Persona 3 are specialists. No single character can do everything and fight every battle, and I like that about the game.

There are four important factors at work that I like regarding the characters in Persona 3.

1) Every character specializes in some way. This is the most basic and central factor of this. Each character specializes, with both strengths and weaknesses. No single character can do everything, and every character can do something. Any videogame that allows multiple characters must have some element of this, or the choice between different characters becomes shallow and meaningless.

2) Every character's specialization is unique. This is one of the most important ones. No two characters are identical in role and ability. Any point of similarity between two characters is balanced out by a way in which they are different. Every character has a unique way to fight and contribute to the team. The lets characters have a memorable identity reflected in the game mechanics, so characters are individuals rather than faces and names added onto generic shells or copies of a limited set of archetypes.

3) There are many ways to build a team that can do anything. While this doesn't apply to attack elements, every character does have a focus that overlaps with other characters. Junpei and Aigis are very different, but they both have buffing spells and a variety of powerful physical attacks. If you need to use physical attacks, you have a choice between the two of them. Yukari is a stronger healer and Mitsuru is a stronger magical attacker, but both can heal and use magic attacks, so neither is strictly necessary. There are meaningful choices to made regarding team members, but it is not so inflexible as to force you to use a limited set of "good teams". Instead, you only need to worry about whether individual characters are good for particular situations or not, and can mostly leave the rest of the team up to preference.

4) There is no way to build a team that covers every weakness. Unlike many RPGs, where elements are always constructed in opposing pairs that are both strong and weak against each other, characters vulnerabilities are not based on their strengths. To compare, in Chrono Cross you can always build a team so that you have one ally who is is resistant to fire and vulnerable to ice and another ally who is vulnerable to fire and resistant to ice. In such a case, weaknesses balance out, so any time one character is in trouble, there is another character who is in no danger at all who can pick up the slack. Because vulnerabilities are asymmetric in Persona 3, and because there are an odd number of allies, there is no team that can have resistances and vulnerabilities balance out as nicely as they do elsewhere. There is always an element that can be used against the team that will do extra damage against someone and normal damage against every other team member. Because of this, there is no team that can survive against every possible encounter.

RPGs that allows you to pick a team from a larger pool of characters, yet still has all of these traits, are rare indeed, even though I consider it to be one of the best ways of designing a game built around a team.

Anyways, I should mention that everything I mentioned above is not quite accurate, since I am making a deliberate omission: the main hero. If you add the main hero of the game to the mix, it changes things slightly, but that difference is a topic for another day.

Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam UC Mode

On a whim, my brother and I dug out the PS2 action game Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam. It is easily the best action game in the Gundam franchise that I have seen. However, there is a major flaw in the game's Universal Century mode, the largest mode available in the game; the gameplay is way too repetitive.

The Universal Century mode lets the player play through the events of the TV series Mobile Suit Gundam and Zeta Gundam. The player can even play as characters from the villains' sides. In fact, just about every named Mobile Suit pilot from both TV series is playable in the Universal Century mode, from major characters like Amuro Ray and Char to relatively minor characters who only appear in a few episodes. Sadly, the weakness of the Universal Century mode comes from this large cast.

In the Universal Century mode, every character follows a specific route through the game based on the major battles that character fought in the two TV series. Of course, there is a lot of overlap in these stages, since most major battles in Zeta Gundam or Mobile Suit Gundam involved anywhere from two to almost a dozen named pilots. So, many different characters will be expected to fight the same battle on their respective paths. While the player has the chance the fight the same battle from both sides, he does have to fight the same battle over and over again.

The problem of repetition is compounded by the game's system of route splits and alternate history stages. A big part of the Universal Century mode is about changing history. The game lets the player win certain battles with a character who died in that same battle in the original series. If the player does this, it unlocks an alternate history route for that character, and possible for other characters. For example, Jarid has two points where his path branches out into an alternate history path if another specific character survives. Unfortunately, while this system gives the player the satisfaction of changing history, it adds a lot more repetition to the game.

As an example of this problem, let's look at Jarid's path. Jarid has two places where his route splits: the battle where Lila dies, and the battle where Mouar dies. If Lila manages to survive her fateful battle, Jarid's route branches, and a new chain of missions becomes unavailable. The problem is that the new unlocked missions are identical to his original set of missions. The only variation is that Lila is his new teammate (and CPU teammates are not typically a major factor in a mission). If Mouar survives her battle, the same thing happens. Furthermore, the new paths that are unlocked for Mouar and Lila assume they fight alongside Jarid. So, they also go through Jarid's remaining missions, and are even given the same mechs Jarid gets. So the player is expected to fight through the exact same set of missions five times with just three characters.

The problem comes up without the alternate history element, because some very minor characters have been made playable. For example, Yazan, Dungel, and Ramsus are a team of three pilots who always fight together in Zeta Gundam. Yet, they each have individual paths in Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam. All three characters fight virtually the same missions, using the exact same set of mechs. It is the same as being forced to play the exact same part of the game three times.

The problem of all this repetition could have been mitigated somewhat if the game developers varied the wining conditions and opponents between different paths more. By varying the winning conditions from "defeat the Zeta Gundam" to "hold out for two minutes", for example, fighting the same battle again could have been more interesting. Even better, the developers could have embraced the alternate history element of the plot more heavily, and changed the mechs the player faced around on the alternate history paths. It would have been fun to fight against Kamille piloting the Super Gundam or ZZ Gundam instead of the Zeta Gundam on some alternate paths. Or maybe fight Quattro piloting the Jiong instead of the Hyaku Shiki.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Apollo Justice: Movies as Evidence

I recently completed the third case in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. While my brother apparently has some issues with it, and it was a little weak in some areas, I generally liked it. However, there is one part of the case where the game designers did not use the game system to its full potential: the video tape. A major piece of evidence in the third case is a video recording of a concert performance. This video tape is used by both sides to make arguments throughout the trial, particularly in the second half of the case. However, the the use of video evidence in this case of Apollo Justice just doesn't compare to how it was used in the final case of the DS remake of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

In that final case, a video recording of a crime is also a key piece of evidence. At numerous points in the trial, it is necessary to point out specific things in the video. This was done by playing, fast-forwarding, rewinding, and pausing the video as necessary, then manually pointing out a specific part of the picture that has the required clue. I thought it was a lot of fun, and made it very easy to use the video as evidence. I still think it is the best part of that case.

Unfortunately, the use of the video tape in the third case of Apollo Justice isn't nearly as interactive. The player can't pause, fast-forward, or rewind the video at all, only skip between sub-sections. Even worse, the player can't point to a specific part of the video as evidence directly. There are a lot of clues in the video, but the player is restricted to pointing out those clues by presenting other related evidence, rather than pointing them out on the video itself. Being able to point out specific details on the movie itself would have reduced the amount of frustration involved in guessing at what piece of evidence to use to point out the part of the movie I wanted to talk about.

Another problem comes from the sound mixer that was also used as evidence in the third case. In the sound mixer, the player could listen to a song and point out parts of the some as a piece of evidence. Yet, I found the sound mixer to be very annoying to use. Unfortunately, the player couldn't compare the sound mixer to either the video of the song being performed or to the lyrics of the song (since the game used music to represent lyrics in the actual audio). Therefore, it was impossible get a sense of what part of the song in the sound-file matched up with other events going on during the scene in question.

The gameplay mechanics involved in both of these key pieces of evidence could certainly have been improved. The problems with the video tape in particular are jarring because of how well the exact same thing was implemented in a previous game. I hope these problems are fixed in the next Apollo Justice game.

Persona 3 FES: Level Balance

Persona 3 FES is the kind of RPG where the differences in level between various characters can become a problem. Persona 3 has all of the classic causes for this particular problem: the main hero can never leave the team, there are more allies than you can have in the team at one time, there are many advantages to using all of your team members rather than just a minimal number, and team members you are not actively using will not gain any experience points. The problem is further emphasized by the lethality of the game; battles are incredibly deadly even for characters at the appropriate level, and they would be suicidal for a character who has fallen too far behind since all of an ally's abilities are level-dependent. The simple truth is that it is inevitable that some of your allies fall ever more behind in level every time the hero fights a battle, and in addition to being something of a pet peeve of mine, this effect can severely affect the long term viability of a team.

Fortunately, while level gaps are inevitable in Persona 3, the game designers have also provided a pretty good solution to the classic problem: the ability to order your allies to fight Shadows independently of the main hero himself. At any point while exploring Tartarus you can simply order your allies to break off and fight battles on their own, letting the hero sit back and watch as all of the battles are fought for him. Because of this, even though you always control the hero, he does not always have to participate in every battle. Your allies can gain experience without adding to the experience difference between the hero and any other character, and as a result it is possible to make up for any level gap, given enough time. However, "enough time" is the part where another issue arises.

Your allies simply do not earn a lot of experience when they defeat a shadow without the hero's help. They gain some experience, so fixing level gaps is an inevitability, but doing so can take quite a lot of effort. The big problem is that your allies seem to earn far more experience when the hero participates in a battle than when he does not, even though the general rule in the game holds that you gain more experience if fewer people participate in a battle, In truth, an ally fighting alone may earn 20 experience points from a particular enemy, but a team of both that character and the hero would earn 50 experience points from the same enemy. In addition, the amount of experience you allies earn when fighting Shadows without the hero around is incredibly hard to predict, particularly since it is impossible to know what you allies are actually fighting unless the hero intervenes. Because of these factors, correcting level gaps can be a time-consuming hit-or-miss process.

Another problem with this method is that it can be both dull and frustrating. The AI that runs how characters explore the levels of Tartarus is not very good, and combined with the random nature of the dungeon it means that it is impossible to just order your allies to fight Shadows and get a prompt and effective result. An even bigger issue is the fact that your allies simply don't seem to fight very well without you. Even enemies far below the team's level can kill an ally in a single battle and your allies don't ever heal themselves on their own, so you need to constantly run around monitoring their health and healing them when necessary, which can be troublesome in large areas where allies are far apart. Even if things go well, it still involves a lot of standing around waiting for battles to finish. All told, this whole process is almost more trouble than it is worth.

As a whole, the ability to split up your team and fight Shadows individually in Persona 3 would work really well if it was just modified slightly. If it was a little less troublesome and a little more rewarding, it would be a lot more useful. I suppose that the game designers did not want it to be a completely superior choice to normal team combat, particularly since any battle that does not involve the hero will never lead to a Game Over, but I think they might have gone a bit too far in making it a poor choice.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Order of Actions in Turn-based RPGs, cont

In my last post, I talked about how important it is in a turn-based RPG to make the action order dependable. There are actually a few turn based RPGs out there that have gone beyond that, and gave the player direct control over the order in which the characters in a battle act.

The first of these is Breath of Fire 4 for the Playstation. At the beginning of every turn, the player picks three characters out of the six available, and gives them commands. Those three characters move up to the front row of the battle to fight, while the other three characters move to the back row and sit the turn out. Moreover, the three attacking characters will act in the order in which they were selected. So, if the player orders Ryu to attack, Nina to blast with a fire spell, and Cray to use a status spell, they will carry out those actions in that exact order. 

Yet, speed is still an important stat in the game. Nina is incredibly fast, easily capable of moving before any enemy does. Ryu is a fair bit slower than Nina. Cray is very slow, and will generally move after the enemies. So, if the inputed order is Nina, Ryu, Cray, then Nina will move first, before the monsters do, while Cray will move last. However, if the action order is reversed, making it Cray, Ryu, Nina, then Nina and Ryu will wait until Cray takes his turn, with the monsters most certainly acting before he does.

The Playstation 2 RPG Wild ARMs 3 had a nearly identical system. The four party members acted in a very specific order based on their speed stats (typically Virginia, then Jet, then Gallows, then finally Clive). However, the player could manually change the action order into whatever he wanted during a battle. So the player could have Clive move first if he wanted, though typically at the cost of letting the monsters get the first action.

So, it was possible in both of these games to intentionally let the monsters go before the heroes do, or to hold back the action of a powerful attacker until a slower character could cast a buffing spell. Not only is there no chance that the turn won't play out the way the player expects, but the action order becomes a tool the player can use to create more complex strategies. Arguably, this system gives the player even more control over the flow of battle than the Final Fantasy series' Active Time Battle system, where a character has to forego acting in order to letting other characters move first, which is a net loss in the number of actions the team can take.

Hmm... Maybe I should talk about other RPG action systems sometime.

Metal Slimes and Wealth Hands

The two games that my brother and I have been writing about lately, Dragon Quest 8 and Persona 3 FES, share one thing in common: they both have really rare enemies that drop large rewards if you manage to kill them. In Dragon Quest 8, these creatures are the Metal Slimes (and variants) that drop very large amounts of experience points if you can defeat them. In Persona 3 they are the "gold Shadow" Wealth Hands (and variants) that drop rare items. Both are very rewarding if you can kill them, but the process can be very troublesome.

Both the Metal Slimes and the Wealth Hands share a number of characteristics. For one, they don't show up very often under normal circumstances. When they do show up, they can be really hard to kill. Metal Slimes are very hard to hurt and will run away at the drop of a hat. Wealth Hands tend to run away quickly before the battle even begins, and always get the first action (which they may use to run away). So, in the case that you find one of these rare creatures, one of the most common results is that they run away before you even get a glimpse of them, which is annoying to say the least. As such, these creatures can be hard to kill, but at least the rewards for doing so are in line with the difficulty.

Despite the similarities, though, I would say that I think Wealth Hands are the much better implementation of the concept, for a number of reasons. The most important of these reasons is that defeating Wealth hands is far less random than being able to defeat Metal Slimes. The greatest barrier to defeating a Wealth Hand is the way it runs away and vanishes before the start of the battle itself, and this is something that can be overcome if the player is cautious and uses a good approach strategy. What is more, finding them is easier because their gold coloration makes them stand out compared to other enemies, so you can reasonably process through a hundred enemies to find a Wealth Hand without fighting a single battle. To actively find a Metal Slime, on the other hand, you may need to tediously fight through a hundred battles. Finally, in the uncommon situation where an entire floor of Tartarus is full of Wealth Hands, the game turns into a Wealth Hand hunt, and defeating Wealth Hands can actually turn into a fun diversion from the normal routine of exploring Tartarus.

Another difference between the two kinds of rare monster is related to the rewards you receive for defeating them. The reward for killing Metal Slimes is a large amount of experience, which is certainly a significant reward in a game where levels can be hard to build up, but not a reward I would consider to be good. Having rare creatures drop very large amounts of experience makes the rate of gaining experience and levels far too random. Whether the player is behind the expected level curve, at the curve, or ahead of the curve can depend far too much on the random chance of a Metal Slime appearing and sticking around long enough to be defeated, which can be problematic. Even more importantly, experience points are not a very satisfying reward. They are important, but in my opinion they are simply too nebulous and vague to serve as a proper reward. Gaining levels is something that just happens across the game, so gaining more levels never feels very special. Wealth Hands, however, have a much better reward, since they are guaranteed to drop rare items. Whether it is a Medal item you need to complete a request, a Coin that you can sell for a lot of money, or a Nihil item you can use for Weapon Fusion, you usually get a great reward for defeating a Wealth Hand.

These kinds of monsters are a form of a rare opportunity for the player to get a rare reward. This is a good concept, but it is important for the people designing such a challenge to remember that they should not steal away a once in a blue moon opportunity before the player has enough time to seize the chance, and that the reward for such an effort should be worth the trouble.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Order of Actions in Turn-based RPGs

All RPGs have a strong element of strategy built into their combat systems. Victory or defeat is determined by whether or not the player can adapt his strategy to match changing battle conditions. However, in order to create a strategy, a player must be able to predict how his choices will affect a battle. In turn based RPGs, one of the most important things a player can know is in what order the various characters (both hero and monster) will act.

If a player knows the order of actions, it becomes possible to control the flow of battle very precisely. For example, lets assume a situation where one of the heroes in a battle is very low on hit points. The character will probably die if it takes another hit. The natural course of action would be to heal the wounded character before the monsters get a chance to attack that character again. Therefore, the most logical course of action would be to make the fastest character on the team (or at least a character faster than the monsters) use a healing item or skill on the wounded character. This is a very basic kind of strategy in this type of game.

The only reason I am talking about this is because I recently played a turn-based RPG where the action order was not very reliable: Dragon Quest VIII. While the order of action in Dragon Quest VIII was based on the Agility stat, there apparently was a strong random element that controlled the order in which characters and monsters acted. Jessica had by far the highest agility of any of the characters, and Yangus had the lowest. However, while Jessica did tend to move first, there were numerous times where Yangus would act first in a turn, and Jessica would act last. It was impossible to know for certain who would more in what order during a battle past rough estimations.

This had a decidedly negative impact on my ability to control my fighters. For example, if I tried to do a combo where Jessica cast Oomph (an attack power buff) on Yangus just before he executes a powerful attack, I had to cross my fingers and hope that Jessica actually cast the spell before Yangus moved. Healing mid-battle was similarly hair-raising; I often resorted to having two characters try to heal the same person at once, just to get some assurance the heal connected before the enemy's attack did.

In short, my control over combat in Dragon Quest VIII was not precise. I was limited to controlling actions on a turn by turn level. In comparison, there are RPGs where it is possible to influence events on a much more precise level. In Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete for the Playstation, action order was much more predictable. My fastest character always went first in the turn, usually before the monsters did. My slowest characters always moved after the enemies. So I could predict how a battle would turn out, and plan accordingly. I could have my fast character use a resurrection item on a dead teammate, and then be certain that my slower healer character could heal the newly revived hero back to full health on the same turn. In this case, my control over the characters is very precise. I could control events on an action by action level.

Now then, someone could argue that the added randomness to action order makes Dragon Quest VIII harder, and presumably more interesting. However, the added randomness is not the good kind of difficulty. The fun of RPG combat comes from the creation of strategies along the lines of what I described earlier. Good RPG battles are first and foremost a test of wits. Adding wildly unpredictable elements into this battle of wits to make it harder is like making a driving game harder by making the steering randomly stop working every once in a while.

Furthermore, this unreliability can have significant effects on character balance. For example, agility is the only stat at which Jessica is the best character. Her physical stats are all inferior to the other three characters, and her magic power is second to Angelo. Yet, her one best stat is not much of an advantage in a system where luck has as much effect on turn order as stats. So, Jessica sometimes feels like the weakest of the four characters in the game. On the other hand, a character who is reliably fast is inherently useful. The one fast character from Lunar 2 I mentioned above was very useful because of her speed alone, despite not having many strong powers for most of the game.

Persona 3 FES: Managing Time

A major part of Persona 3's gameplay revolves around deciding how you will spend your time. As I mentioned before, the flow of time is central to the story and gameplay of Persona 3, and the decisions on how you spend the limited time you have are very important. There are many different things you can do on any given day, as well as some things you must do, but you can only do a few things in any one day. At any given time you may have to choose between building up different Social Links, raising your social attributes, hanging out with a friend to build up a friendship, praying for good fortune, studying, getting rest, or various other things. The importance of these choices can not be understated, and much like with Harvest Moon, the emphasis on the choice of how to spend your time really adds a lot to the game.

One thing I particularly like about Persona 3's implementation of the idea is that you never have to worry about wasting time by walking around and exploring a little. The time you are managing is "scene time", not real time; you have to worry about wasting an Afternoon, not five minutes. I think this is an improvement over the system used by another game with a similar concept, Way of the Samurai 2, where time was broken up into sections, but each section had a limit based on the passage of real-time. With no dependance on real time (you can spend five hours in the "Dark Hour"), you can feel free to spend time taking care of minor errands and exploring the town without impacting more significant choices. At the same time, you can skip through a particular chunk of time very quickly.

Another good feature about time management in Persona 3 is that you have to make different choices depending on time of day and day of the week. After-School hours on the Weekdays usually give you the chance to build up Social Links, build up attributes, or pray at the temple. Evening hours give you a choice between going to Tartarus (which gives up the Late Night hour as well) or going to the mall to build up attributes. During the Late Night hour you can sleep or study. On Sundays and Holidays you have a large number of special choices for the valuable Daytime hour. Beyond this, every character has their own schedule of what they do during the week, this all has to be balanced with the need to go to Tartarus and recover from the fatigue of battle, there story scenes and special events come up reasonably often, so it is very difficult to even have a reliable schedule, so you have to deal with each day as it comes. The game simply won't let you sit back and stop thinking about how to manage time.

Of course, while I really do like the system Persona 3 uses, there are a few places that I think it could use some improvement. I guess I might as well just list them...

1) I don't like the way days pass by so briefly during exam weeks. For some reason, you can't do anything on an exam week other than take exams. I don't really see the need for completely removing all chance to do anything on those days, when exams already limit your ability to build up Social Links and go to Tartarus a week beforehand. It makes months with exams and months without exams far too different.

2) I think there is too much stuff that can only be done on Sunday. There are too many contradictory things that can only be done on a Sunday, and most of them limit your ability to wander around and see what is happening on Sundays, even though that is the day out of the week where wandering around is the most interesting. It would be better if you had more freedom to explore. Maybe it would help if you could explore a bit before going to meet a friend on a Sunday "date"?

3) There was not enough done to make Saturdays seem special. The characters are supposed to have more free time on Saturdays (since they don't have afternoon classes), but there are no special things you can do only on Saturdays. Maybe it should have been possible to hang out with friends on Saturdays like you could on Sundays.

4) The Online Game you can play on Sundays seems to take up an excessive amount of the day. It is the only choice in which you must give up the ability to do anything in the Evening and the Late Night hour (including any chance to save) in addition to a Daytime hour.

5) This is a minor issue, but it feels like there should have been some choices open to you in the Early Morning hour to match some of the choices available at Late Night hour. Maybe something like a choice to sleep in late or interact with the other characters living in the dorm.

These few complaints aside, the time management system in Persona 3 is really good. There are a lot of things you need to do each month of the game and only a limited amount of time to do them in. There is always a constant pressure to keep doing things, so the game never really hits a boring lull moment. The choices are interesting, and the game itself never artificially gets in the way of making your choices. Figuring out how to spend the day is a lot of fun.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Conserving MP

Whenever I play an RPG, I typically conserve MP (or AP, SP, etc) to a ridiculous degree. For example, I always watched my MP like a hawk when I was playing Dragon Quest VIII. Since Angelo had a move that allowed him to restore his own MP, I always kept his MP full. I only felt comfortable using his expensive spells when his MP was near full. Furthermore, I typically ended a dungeon with more than half of Jessica's MP left over. Since she couldn't regenerate MP, I typically avoided using her magic if possible. I only started using her cheap 2-4 MP cost moves regularly once she had a MP max over 250. I conserved Yangus's MP the most, since he only had a fraction of what the other characters did. So, he typically ended a dungeon with three quarters of his MP remaining.

I think my approach to using spells and skills is actually an outgrowth of the way Dragon Quest VIII and other RPGs are designed. Typically, a dungeon is a long haul full of monsters that in of themselves are not a significant threat to a party at normal fighting condition. However, most RPGs have a boss encounter at the end of a dungeon (or multiple bosses throughout the dungeon) that do represent a significant risk. So, a reasonable strategy for a player would be to maximize his chances at defeating the boss by saving up as many resources as possible for the fight.

This strategy is reinforced by the common trend of making regular monster encounters simple to overcome without the use of magic spells or other significant resources. For example, I was able to defeat almost every regular enemy in Dragon Quest VIII using nothing but regular physical attacks and 0 MP special moves. I only resorted to using magic when fighting certain enemies with very large HP totals or unusually large groups of monsters. In most Final Fantasy games, I see similar patterns.

Perhaps the single best example of this phenomenon in play is the Playstation game Breath of Fire 3. The main character of the game, Ryu, possessed the strongest healing magic of any character on the team. He had the best all-character heals and revive spells. Yet, I never used these spells much at all over the entire length of the game. Why? Because Ryu could use his dragon transformation powers during boss fights instead. By using up all of his AP, Ryu could sustain his transformation for about five to six turns, while dishing out the most damage of any character. If I had used up Ryu's AP earlier in the dungeon by using his healing a lot, his time spent in dragon mode would be much shorter. Since AP restoration items were rare and expensive, restoring Ryu's AP before a boss fight was never really an option.

I think this pattern of gameplay can negatively impact a game's experience. Since the player is discouraged from using his flashier and more strategically complex special moves and spells, it reduces regular monster encounters (which typically make up the largest part of the game experience) into a very repetitive grind. It can also make the player feel like they have wasted their resources if they come out of a dungeon with characters who still have most of their MP.

However, there are several games that break out of this pattern. One of the best examples is the original Grandia. In Grandia, I used magic spells and special attack skills much more often than my basic attacks, even against regular enemies. This is because Grandia did two things differently than most RPGs. First off, a character in Grandia could only learn new spells and special moves by using their current magic spells a lot of times. This encouraged the player to actually use magic. Second, save points that automatically restored the party's HP and MP were consistently located just before every boss fight. This freed the player from having to worry about saving enough resources for the boss. So, instead of saving MP in Grandia, I ended up trying to waste it.

Another game that pulls this off is Persona 3, and for similar reasons to Grandia. Once again, Persona 3 allows the player to approach boss fights in peak fighting condition, no matter what. However, instead of encouraging the player to use spells through a "level up through use" system, it did so by making battles hard. Since individual monster encounters in Persona 3 have the very real risk of ending in game over, the player is encouraged to not hold back with limited resources like SP.

Since the condition where a player plays through a game is the result of the developers' game design decisions, and may have a negative impact on the player's experience, figuring out ways of breaking out of traditional patterns in the way games like Grandia and Persona 3 did is not a bad idea at all.

Persona 3 FES: 1 More and Knocked down

Two of the most distinct aspects of the Persona 3 battle system are the knocked-down condition and the "1 More" effect. Every time either an ally or an enemy hits a target's weakness or hits with a critical hit, the enemy will be knocked to the ground and the attacker can perform an additional action. Further, if an ally or enemy makes a melee attack and misses, there is a chance that character will stumble and fall to the ground. Finally, if all enemies are knocked down, the team can perform a free "All-Out Attack" on every enemy target.

The knockdown/"1 More" effect of hitting an enemy's weakness is incredibly influential to gameplay. With this system, so long as you have the attacks that let you attack the enemy's weakness, you can attack until every enemy is knocked down and an "All-Out Attack" becomes available, which is usually enough to defeat any normal enemy group. This means that, so long as you are prepared, you can defeat foes quickly and easily, making long trips into Tartarus a lot more manageable. Of course, the controllable characters also have weaknesses, so the enemy can easily take advantage of a player's mistake and turn even an ordinary battle into a desperate fight to survive. Because of this, the game strongly rewards good planning and fighting with intelligence, rather than brute force or simple level grinding, which is something I always like to see in games.

One particularly important part of this whole system is the fact that it is nearly impossible to be 100% sure you can take advantage of a foe's weakness. If every allied character had the ability to use every kind of elemental attack, then the entire system would fall apart. In such a situation, every time a character's turn came up they would be able to knock down every foe and launch an All-Out Attack, and the game would be far too easy. However, Persona 3 prevents this by restricting every character down other than the hero down to usually a single weapon type and a single magic element or something equivalent, and limiting how many times the hero can change Persona in one turn. These restriction mean that it is impossible that every character can attack the same vulnerability, and that it is difficult to knock down a mixed group of foes. These restriction mean that even such a powerful game mechanic is not problematic, and they also add to the importance of planning and strategy in the game.

Another major feature of this system is that it makes getting the first turn in battle incredibly important. If you can sneak up on a Shadow you can easily defeat it, but if you are ambushed the enemy may knock down some of your characters and inflict a lot of damage. Thus, the game encourages you to get good at preemptively striking the Shadows in Tartarus and avoiding their ambushes.

Something I particularly like about the system is that an All-Out Attack is not always the best choice. All-Out Attacks are certainly powerful and useful, but they do have drawbacks. Whenever you use an All-Out Attack you have to give up a "1 More" action and all enemies who have been knocked down are able to get back to their feet. You do a lot of damage, but you give up an option and the enemies can launch counter-attacks without interruption. Because of this trade-off, there are many situations where it is a better idea to cancel the All-Out Attack and leave the enemies knocked down, particularly in situations where the enemies have powerful attacks and the heroes are injured. While All-Out Attacks are a useful way to quickly defeat weak foes, they are not a guaranteed way to win every fight. Instead, they merely serving as an additional option in battle, adding to the already impressive tactical complexity of this game.

Needless to say, I really like the interesting variety and solid challenge presented by Persona 3's combat system. It has the kind of complexity and enjoyability of combat that I usually have to turn to Strategic RPGs or pure Strategy games in order to find, and I like seeing that in traditional RPGs (though I suppose it is inaccurate to call Persona 3 traditional).

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Villain's Presence

Good villains have lots of screen-time. This is a recurring trend that I have noticed in many video-games. The best villains are typically the ones who make it a habit of appearing before the player often. It is hard to like/hate distant or faceless villains. So, a good villain needs to make their presence known to the player. And in a videogame, the best way to give a villain screen-time is to let the player directly interact with the villain. In other words, giving the player a chance to confront and fight a villain multiple times across the length of a game is one of the best ways to make a villain interesting and memorable.

Dragon Quest VIII, which I just completed, does a good job of utilizing its main villain. From the outset of the game, it is made clear that hunting down the evil jester Dhoulmagus is the party's main goal. He first appears in a flash-back sequence, but quickly appears in front of the heroes himself, performing all of his evil deeds right before their eyes (and dropping hints to the player as to his real goal). About halfway through the game, the player finally gets the chance to fight Dhoulmagus directly. And yet, that is just the beginning. The heroes battle against the true villain of the game in three more major boss battles before the player even gets to the final dungeon. By the time of the second fight against the main villain, he had even started to recognize the heroes, and knew that he had to be cautious when fighting them. It created a wonderful sense that it was an ongoing battle directly between the main heroes and the villain.

Perhaps the all-time greatest console RPG villain is another evil clown: Kefka, from Final Fantasy VI. From the very first part of the game, where Kefka can be seen placing the Slave Crown on Terra's head, he has an almost constant presence in the game. He first appears to the heroes in person threatening King Edgar, lighting Figaro castle on fire, and sending a pair of Magi-Tech armor to kill the heroes, all the while filling the game with his insane personality. Whenever he appears, he does so by making his distinct evil laugh. He commits evil deeds across the entire length of the game, usually right before the heroes' eyes. He is rarely gone from the action for long, and appears in at least three boss fights in the first half of the game.

What made Kefka so interesting was not just his evil deeds and character design alone, it was the way he could be interacted with by the player. He doesn't just appear in cut-scenes to taunt the heroes, he is part of the game-play. When Kefka first appears in Figaro castle, he just stands around and can be talked to like any other NPC. During the chase scene before the poisoning of Doma Castle, he runs around the imperial camp, and the player has to actively chase him down and even fight him a couple of times. During a visit to the Imperial capital, the player can listen to him rant as he stews in a jail cell. These interactions make Kefka a vital part of the game experience, as opposed to just a character in the game's story.

For an action game villain, a great example is Virgil from Devil May Cry 3. Virgil appears as a major boss at the end of all three major sections of the game. Beyond that, he appears in half of the game's cut scenes. While his personality and design are obviously a big part of his success, his strong presence in the game is a big part of his success as a villain.

In contrast, the worst villains in videogames are usually the ones who don't even appear until the very end of a game. In Final Fantasy IV for example, the player doesn't even hear the name of the real villain, Zemus, until the second to last dungeon of the game. He only appears in front of the heroes two minutes before the final battle. Because of this, Zemus has never been a very popular villain. He never even had the chance to be seen as the game's real villain.

Persona 3 FES: Tartarus and the March of Time

Game Completion: Half-way through the first month.

I got my hands on Persona 3 quite a while ago, back when it was first released. I ended up playing about 70 hours of it, enough to get me a bit past half-way through it, but I ended up stopping there. I had just watched a fairly dramatic sequence of events and thought it was a decent enough time to take a small break from the game so I could play a few other games I had recently acquired. For various reasons (which happen to include pretty much every game I have played since I started writing for this blog), I have not played the game since. The recent release of Persona 3 FES seemed like a great opportunity to give the game another chance. So, I have spent a bit of the last two days playing FES, and I have been having a lot of fun with it.

Persona 3 is easily the greatest implementation of a "rogue-like/random dungeon RPG" that I have ever seen. I have played a number of variants on that particular genre, but I have ended up hating them all, with the sole exception of Persona 3. I think this is primarily because Persona 3 thoroughly departs from a lot of the common conventions of the genre, and thus manages to avoid the pitfalls and limitations of such games.

One of my biggest problems with randomized dungeon games is that they tend to have very loose objectives and goals. Usually, the basic premise is that you try to get to the end of the dungeon, with no other primary objectives or ways of marking your progress. This leads to me feeling aimless and unsatisfied. I never know if I am doing well, doing poorly, and I fell like I have very little incentive or encouragement to progress at all. I have never been able to stick with such a game for very long, and always get bored and move on. However, Persona 3 is different. One of the basic themes of the game is that "time marches on", and that property of the story and gameplay changes everything. More than just saying "you need to explore Tartarus", the game tells the player "you need to reach the next barricade in Tartarus before the next full moon". This results in both a sense of urgency and achievable intermediate goals for the player. What is more, if you reach the barricade two weeks before the full moon you know you are ahead and doing well, and if you reach the barricade only two days before the full moon you know you are cutting it close and probably not doing something right. These goals and timeframes give the player a reason to keep going further and further into the tower, and also give a player some signposts so he knows if he is doing well, which is essential for encouraging the player's sense of accomplishment.

The passage of time in the game has another major benefit: it provides a structure for the plot. Plot events happen completely independent of your progress in Tartarus. Your ability to survive those events is not quite so independent, but the events themselves will occur whether you are ready or not. The plot is constantly moving forward and things are always changing, so things outside of the random dungeon never feel static or boring. Both the inside of Tartarus and the ordinary town where the heroes live are never the same two days in a row, so there is almost always something new to do. The fact that base towns in random dungeon RPGs tend to be static and boring has always been one of my least favorite elements of the genre, but in Persona 3 the town is probably more lively and interesting than the dungeon.

Persona 3 is an unusual game that happens to be both long and very, very good, so I will probably be writing about it for quite a few weeks to come.