Monday, June 30, 2008

Alternate Costumes 2: Making Heroes Look Cooler

A few months ago, Nathan talked about the subject of alternate costumes in many RPGs. He argued that linking alternate costumes to game mechanics was a big problem in a lot of games, since it made the player choose between having characters that looked cool and having characters with good stats (a very one-sided choice). While I agree with him on that in general, there is another side to this. If alternate costumes are linked to equipped armor, it creates a simple method of making characters look cooler as they get higher in level.

It sometimes bothers me that most RPG characters still look like they did when they started their quests while fighting off a game's final boss. For example, the appearance of the main character of Dragon Quest VIII matches his starting equipment and situation very well. However, a yellow cloth jacket and a red bandana don't quite seem appropriate for a hero who is technically equipped with magical plate armor while he is going toe to toe with the Lord of Darkness. Even though RPG heroes typically gain a tremendous amount of power over the course of a game, there is typically no outward reflection of this in their appearance. Creating a difference in appearance goes a long way in convincing the player that he is making progress in a game.

One game series that has done this well is the Fire Emblem series, even though it doesn't use equipped armor to create the effect. Instead, characters get new animations and character models whenever they class-up. So, Micaiah (one of the main characters from Radiant Dawn) goes from wearing simple simple street clothes in her first class to wearing an elaborate priestess outfit in her third class. It does a good job of making her look more capable of fighting the epic battles at the end of the game. Thinking about it, the original Final Fantasy Tactics did something similar by giving the main character, Ramza, new sprites when the player entered a new chapter.

It is possible to achieve this effect by attaching new character models to equipment. Since most RPGs require the player to periodically purchase new equipment in order to stay competitive with monsters, it is possible to gradually improve the matching character models to look more like powerful heroes. At the very least, giving a character's ultimate armor a unique model seems appropriate. However, I think only the main body slot should determine character costume. Making characters look cooler by modifying the character model doesn't work very well if the player is stuck with a jumbled mess. The reason I don't like the way most MMOs handle it is because their approach results in characters with lots of mismatched design elements.

Honestly, I am still not sure whether or not it is better to attach character models to equipment, or to just periodically improve the look of the characters as part of the story. The advantage of using equipment as the basis is that it can better match up with what the character is actually equipped with. For example, a character can look different when wearing cloth armor compared to when he is wearing heavy plate armor. On the other hand, it still results in the problem my brother talked about, which would marginalize more specialty alternate costumes. Either way has advantages and disadvantages.

Persona 3 FES: The Great Plot Twist

I have been taking a break from the game for a little bit longer than I intended, but I am already getting back into Persona 3 FES. I am really glad that this break from the game wasn't as permanent as the break I took in the middle of my first Persona 3 playthrough. Anyways, I want to write a bit about the major plot twist that occurred right before I took my break. Major plot spoilers for the game follow.

For most of the early stages of the game, the characters are given a clear goal: defeat the Twelve Shadows that appear during a Full Moon. The characters believed that, by defeating those twelve enemies, they would end the Dark Hour (the source of all of the problems facing their world) and bring their battle to an end. As such, the battle against the last of the Twelve Shadows, Hanged Man, would have been their final battle. Many events in the game point towards this battle as being the final one. For one thing, in the month before the battle against Hanged Man it became possible to actually reach the top of Tartarus, which has been one of my most important goals in the entire game. In the the last few weeks before the battle, the characters spent a lot of time talking about the upcoming final battle and their hopes for the peace that would come afterward. Even more importantly, the number of giant Shadows that serve as bosses was explicitly limited to just twelve, and the only other enemy, Strega, makes their last stand right before the battle against Haged Man, so after Hanged Man was defeated it seemed like there should be nothing left to fight. With Tartarus fully explored and no more bosses, it seemed difficult to imagine how the plot could continue.

Yet, even though a number of signs pointed towards the defeat of Hanged Man as the end of the game, it could not be ignored that there were countless indicators saying otherwise. From the beginning of the game, it was made clear that the player would spend a whole year in that world, but the battle against Hanged Man was nowhere near the end of that period of time. At the same time, there were all kinds of game elements that made it clear it was not the end yet. As just a small example, there were countless Personas left to create, there were many of Elizabeths requests left unfinished, and many characters had not yet undergone a transformation of their Personas. In fact, some of Elizabeth's few outstanding quests specifically mention areas of Tartarus that supposedly do not exist. Alongside all of this, there were a number of plot elements left unresolved, such as the true nature of the mysterious boy Pharos, the nature of the "end of the world" that Pharos speaks of, and the reason behind Aegis's desire to stay by the hero's side. With all of these factors, it is fairly clear to anyone playing the game that the defeat of Hanged Man would not be the true end, even if the aftermath of its defeat would be a complete mystery. This combination of the character's certainty of the end, the player's doubt, and the uncertainty of what will happen makes the build up to the plot twist quite exciting, and is a great success.

The final phase of the lead-in to the plot twist is one of the best parts of the whole thing. Right after Hanged Man is defeated the characters move straight into getting ready for their celebration, but signs that their goal was not really achieved appear immediately. Even though the Dark Hour was supposed to end after Hanged Man's defeat, it did not end immediately after the battle, and even though the characters do not take much notice of this fact, it may stick in the player's mind. After that, time passes in the same manner it always does, but the hero wakes up in the morning to discover that Pharos, the mysterious phantom boy and Death Social Link who has only appeared during the Dark Hour, is in his room during the daytime and speaks ominously of finally having his memory fully restored. At this point, a lot of really odd events throughout the game suddenly clicked into place for me, and Pharos' true (dangerous) nature suddenly became a lot more clear. After that, time continues on (again just as if it were a normal day of gameplay), and the characters all gather for the celebration, with two characters mysteriously absent. At the end of the celebration, though, the game cuts to the usual "broken clock" image that heralds in the Dark Hour, and a series of events occur in which Ikutsuki, a man long thought to be an ally, suddenly reveals a sinister hidden agenda, betrays everyone, and reveals that the heroes might have unwittingly doomed the world rather than save it. This betrayal is hardly hinted at (in fact, it is only really hinted at by the fact that Ikutsuki's connection to the the dark Hour problem and his ability to move freely during the Dark Hour were left unexplained, as well as the fact that he seemed unusually eager in researching the Shadows and pushing people to join the fight against the 12 Shadows), but the very fact that the player is expecting some kind of drastic plot twist at this point helps the betrayal feel more like a interesting development and an awesome moment than it might otherwise have seemed to be. Finally, Ikutsuki reveals the name of the ultimate Shadow, Death, and his intention to bring about the end of the world using Death's power, making any remaining doubt about my earlier guesses regarding Pharos to vanish from my mind.

I still have not gone very far past that point, but I am really curious as to how the game will go from here. This plot twist not only extends the length of the game, but it transforms the nature of the story entirely. So far, the game has mostly been a story about the heroes following orders given to them by Kirijo and Ikustuki as they slowly defeated the "Monsters of the Month" one by one. Now, the characters have no clear goals, no one more knowledgeable than them to guide them, and no clear "Monster of the Month" to fight. The structure of the game itself has not changed, but the plot can not remain as it has, which means that this next part of the game may have an even more complex and interesting plot than the first part.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Old Favorites: Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana is one of my favorite Super Nintendo era games even to this day. Not only did Secret of Mana (also known as Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) transform the Mana series from a Final Fantasy spin-off title into a fully fleshed out series of its own, it still stands as one of the best games in the entire series. While the game was rather simple in terms of gameplay and story, many of its elements were unique and ahead of their time.

The most distinctive part of Secret of Mana was its multiplayer. In an age where two controller ports were standard on every console, Secret of Mana allowed for up to three players to take part in the action (if the third player had a MultiTap adapter that is). What is more, additional players could jump in at any time, since the game did not distinguish between singleplayer and multiplayer modes. Since the three controllable characters were always part of the combat team regardless of how many players there were, having multiple players did not change the overall power of team, nor did it change the story around. It was a simple solution that avoided the problems that can be seen in many similar, more-recent multiplayer games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, which often featured gutted plot-lines and segregated single-player and multiplayer modes. Secret of Mana stands out for having both a full length story with complex characters and really strong multiplayer gameplay at the same time.

Secret of Mana was also a game that gave the player a lot of freedom, particularly in its opening stretch. For example, the player has the chance to recruit the Girl at a few different places in the opening stretch of the game. The player can recruit her at Pandora castle before going to Gaia's Navel (though only temporarily, she leaves before you enter the main dungeon), at Pandora's castle after recruiting the Sprite, or by saving her from a werewolf attack if you try to go to the forest without recruiting her first. Later in the game, when cannon travel becomes fully available, three areas open up all at once: the desert, the snow-field, and some parts of the Empire. While it is necessary to complete these areas in a rough order, the player is free to explore them as he sees fit immediately. There are no artificial barriers preventing the player from entering the Desert Palace before he completes the snow-field, for example.

Instead of relying on saying "you can't go there yet" to the player, Secret of Mana borrows from its predecessor, Final Fantasy Legend, and uses a lot of tool-based obstacles to control the player's movement. For example, the party can't advance very far into Elinee's Forest until they acquire the Axe, since the Axe is the only weapon that can cut down the pillars blocking the road. Of course, the Axe can only be acquired by completing a major story sequence. Many of the weapons in the game have such special properties, such as the Whip's ability to cross gaps and the Sword's ability to cut through thick bushes. These powers are derived from the Flail, Hammer, and Axe of Final Fantasy Legend, which were put to similar uses (it can be assumed Final Fantasy legend borrowed the idea from the Legend of Zelda series, which it strongly resembled). The game also requires the player to use certain magic spells to open up paths by casting them on magic orbs. I like these methods of preventing player movement, since it lets the player check out an area ahead of time if the player wants and encourages the player to explore the gameworld to look for places where he can use powers to open up new areas. It is a much better solution than many alternatives that I have seen.

Another thing about Secret of Mana's weapons that I liked was that all three characters can equip any of the eight weapons. At the same time, you have to build up weapon skill levels to unlock more powerful charged attacks. So the game encourages the player to divide up the eight weapons among the three characters. I liked giving the hero the sword, the axe, and the bow, while giving the girl the whip, glove, lance, and javelin. The sprite (who was usually controlled by the CPU) got stuck with just the boomerang. Thinking about it, this system supported the multiplayer system by letting the players use the weapons they liked, no matter which of the three characters they were playing. Of course, this also encouraged the players to each choose one of the three characters to main. At the very least, the game did not punish any of the players for playing a certain character, since all three characters could put up a decent fight in physical combat. Though in hindsight, giving the male hero access to magic would have evened out the three characters even more.

While the Mana series seems to have been suffering a decline in recent years, Secret of Mana still holds up as a fun game. The series would be well served by returning the the simplicity of its second iteration, and by returning its focus to Secret of Mana's excellent multiplayer.

Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn: Laguz Lords

Radiant Dawn's four Laguz Lords, Caineghis the Lion King, Tibarn the Hawk King, Naesala the Raven King, and Nailah the Wolf Queen, are extremely powerful characters who deserve special mention. They are Laguz, but because they are so overwhelmingly powerful and do not operate under the same limitations that normal Laguz must suffer through, it is almost unfair to try to compare them directly. Even powerful third tier Beorc characters, who normally are so much more reliable than Laguz, pale in comparison to the mighty Laguz Lords.

The Laguz Lords have many advantages over normal Laguz. They all start at high level, have incredibly good starting stats, and even their stat caps tend to be higher than those of normal Laguz. For example, Caineghis starts at level 36 (four levels short of max level for Laguz), and his stats start out about as high as Skirmir can hope to attain, and a few of his stats (like Speed), start at what would be Skrimir's cap and can go higher still. What is more, most Laguz Lords start with SS-rank innate weapons (which are very difficult to attain for most Laguz), and their weapons are slightly more powerful than normal Laguz's innate weapons (Tibarn's SS Great Talon has 2 more Might and 10 more Hit than any other Hawk's SS Talon). Further, most Laguz Lords have a greater number of innate skills than normal, and far greater skill capacity. Finally, their greatest and most defining advantage is that they have the Formshift skill, which lets them transform at any time and stay transformed indefinitely without any regard for the transformation gauge that restricts every other Laguz. With all things considered, the raw power of the Laguz Lords completely surpass every other Laguz and all but the very strongest Beorc, making them unquestionably the strongest characters in the game.

The existence of these four extremely powerful characters severely distorts the choice of "who will I bring into the final chapter". Any character who specializes in melee physical attacks will ultimately be compared to the Laguz Lords, especially any Laguz. After all, the Laguz Lords can easily tear apart just about anything in the game other than the two strongest final enemies (one of whom is himself the lord of the strongest Laguz type, Dragon King Dheginsea, and the other of which is the final boss), and those two bossess are so powerful that the overwhelming power of the Laguz Lords is practically a necessity. There is almost no way to justify bringing any Laguz other than the Laguz Lords unless you either really like Laguz characters and just want to bring more than the Lords and the required Heron and Dragons, or you are deliberately holding back on bringing some of the Lords because you want to make the final battles a bit more difficult. Truthfully, it is hard enough trying to justify using a normal Laguz even without the all-powerful Laguz lords showing up in the very end.

I will say, though, that I appreciate the presence of the Laguz Lords in the earlier missions of Part 4 of the game. In the Fire Emblem games, it is often extremely useful to have a character who is reliably powerful enough to defeat any foe or hold any position. and having a Laguz Lord along with each of the three groups helped balance them out and let them survive some of the tough battles.

I also think that it was fairly appropriate that such power was given to the laguz royalty, characters who were given an incredibly important story role. Looking at some other data, there is some similar power given to some other characters important to the plot, such as Ike, Micaiah, Elincia, and Sanaki, who all have somewhat higher stat caps than comparable normal characters, though unlike the Laguz Lords their power is not as obvious and guaranteed (and they don't have either the boosted skill capacity or stats that can go above 40). In this regard, the Laguz Lords work very well as characters who are particularly powerful due to their role in the plot (which is usually associated with being royalty). That said, the immense power of Formshift throws things a bit out of balance. In many respects, the limitation of the transformation gauge is what keeps Laguz (whose stats can surpass 40) from surpassing Beorc (whose stats have an absolute limit of 40). As I described in my last post, the transformation gauge overcompensates a bit too much and ends up overly limiting many Laguz compared to Beorc, but because the Lords do not use the transformation gauge at all, they don't have any effect that reins in their power and end up being too powerful. As a result, while powerful Beorc royalty do not completely make normal Beorc characters obsolete despite their greater potential, Laguz Lords do make normal Laguz obsolete.

At this point, I wonder if it would have been better if the Laguz Lords simply had a more favorable version of their own tribe's transformation rates. For example, perhaps Caineghis could have had the high gauge growth rate of a Tiger or Cat, but kept the low decline rates of a Lion or maybe even a Dragon. That way, he would be a lot more flexible than the other Lions, but not absolutely better than them. Even just giving the Lords the ability to start each battle with a full gauge, rather than an empty one, might have been enough. There must be a way to make particularly powerful Laguz without removing the one trait that most defines Laguz as a whole.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn: Laguz

Looking back at it, it has been quite a long time since I talked about the mechanical implementation of the Laguz in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. When I made my original comments about them, I had barely even used a lot of the Laguz characters, and I had not yet seen how they compare to Beorc characters in the final stages of the game. It seems I never went back and corrected some of my observations. I guess I was too wrapped up writing about the plot at the time. I guess now is as good of a time as ever to write at length on the subject.

Most notably, I need to revise the statement I made that the main system of stats for the Laguz, the fact that their stats double when they transform, is a system that works reasonably well. I really don't think that it is the case anymore. It is certainly an interesting way to make even minor changes in stats very important to a Laguz character, but it ultimately results in a Laguz character simply being far too weak in its human form. Because of the huge difference in defense and speed, any enemy who would be a reasonable threat to a transformed Laguz can easily kill an untransformed Laguz, because they are guaranteed to use a high-damage double attack, often against a target who can't fight back. Finally, combined with the different level systems for Beorc and Laguz, the stat doubling just makes it harder to compare the fighting ability of characters of different races.

A major problem for Laguz characters that I didn't mention last time around is the fact that they just don't seem to be able to level up well compared to Beorc. It is just hard to get a Laguz to gain levels and stay at an even level with Beorc characters. Even if a Laguz does gain enough experience (such as with a large amount of bonus experience), they seem to slowly lose effectiveness compared to their Beorc allies.

The reasons for the Laguz's inability to gain experience are a bit complex. Certainly a major part of it involves the fact that laguz just seem to earn less experience while they are transformed. Because Laguz levels mean something different than Beorc levels, a Laguz should require about 1.5 times the amount of experience as a Beorc to go up an equivalent level, but Laguz seem to just earn less than that in battle. A far more certain factor about this issue is that Laguz just can't fight as often as a Beorc character. and thus has a bit more trouble building up experience. Laguz have periods in which they can't fight, but you must fight in order to earn experience, so Laguz just can't earn as much experience as a Beorc given the same period of time. What is more, some of the best ways to build experience, such as holding a choke-point and fighting off a wave of many enemies, are impractical for a Laguz because their transformation gauge empties with each fight. Because of this, most Laguz need to focus on killing at least one enemy every round they can, but most of the time this is impossible. On top of all of this, many Laguz can't be deployed in battle as often as Beorc characters, so they have even less of a chance to earn experience.

The other issue for Laguz characters, the fact that even if they do gain levels they don't seem to compare well, has its own set of reasons. Even though Laguz gain levels more slowly, their stat growth rates tend to be poor, so they often don't level very well. Each Laguz level up benefit is worth twice as much as a Beorc level up benefit, but they get so much fewer that it cancels out that advantage. But because their stat growths for important stats are so low, levels gained from Bonus Experience tend to be absolutely terrible for Laguz characters, often featuring only a boost to HP (less than what they get from normal level-up), Luck (the one stat that doesn't double), and a single major stat. What is more, Laguz characters don't Class Change, and thus don't benefit from the same Class Change stat boosts that Beorc characters do. Finally, even if a Laguz character manages to reach its stat caps (which is harder for them than Beorc), that only puts them on an even level with a Beorc character who has reached its stat caps. Ultimately, a top-level Laguz who can't fight all day and can't use special weapons has the same stats as a Beorc who can, and events in the late game even negate the advantage of their unbreakable claws.

Now that all of that is out of the way, I will take a moment to comment on the individual Laguz tribes.

Wolves: Their transformation gauge fills by 6 for every turn spent untransformed, and it empties by 4 for each turn spent transformed. Fighting while transformed lowers empties the gauge by 3. As such, a wolf will empty the gauge faster than it can fill it, even if it only fights once per transformed turn, and thus it must spend more time untransformed tan transformed, unless it uses Olivi Grass or a Laguz stone to fill the gauge more quickly. Because the gauge fills so slowly for them, they will only be able to transform on the sixth turn of battle, so one of those items is necessary to get them into battle in the first half of a fight, but even Olivi grass only helps that by two turns (it is three points short of getting a third turn, which means three wasted points). It is just hard to effectively use a Wolf in battle.

Cats: Their transformation gauge fills by 10 for every turn spent transformed, and it empties by 5 for every turn spent transformed. Battle is beast form emptied the gauge by 4. A cat's transformation gauge fills very quickly (they are the only Laguz who can afford to wait and let their gauge fill naturally), but it also empties quickly. Fortunately, a cat's transformation gauge fills faster than it empties (slightly, assuming only one battle per turn), so they have no trouble recovering from battle. This makes it seem like Cats should be very useful, but I have always had problems with them. I think the reason for this is the fact that, because their gauge fills and empties so quickly, it is a poor choice to use items on them. An Olivi Grass only speeds initial transformation up by one turn and wastes 5 points. A Laguz Stone would be a waste on them because their gauge would empties so quickly. Cats are not bad, but they are just hard to use to their full potential.

Tigers: Their gauge fills by 8 for every turn spent transformed, and it empties by 4 for every turn in beast form. Battle in beast form empties the gauge by 3. Like Cats, they gain more than they lose, but unlike Cats they don't lose so much per turn that using item is ineffective. Using an Olivi Grass reduces initial transformation time by two turns, at a loss of just 1 or 2 wasted points (depending on how you count). With Olivi Grass, a Tiger can transform just as quickly as a Cat that is using Olivi Grass, and fight quite a bit longer. They are the first kind of Laguz who can actually afford to hold a position and take a number of attacks (though not indirect ones). For them, the math actually works.

Ravens: Ravens use the same numbers as Wolves, with the same poor result. They are simply lackluster.

Hawks: They use the same numbers as the Tigers, and work equally well. One thing that is particularly noteworthy about the Hawks and distinguishes them from other Laguz is their special abilities. The Hawk named Janaff has the skill Vigilance, and the Hawk named Ulki has the skill Insight. Unlike most other skills, these abilities are character-specific and can not be removed. Both skills give a significant boost to combat ability, and Janaff's Vigilance gives him a far greater vision range in Fog of War maps. Because of their reasonable transformation time and powerful skills (not to mention flight and Canto abilities), the two Hawks are some of the few Laguz who are on par with or better than most good Beorc.

Herons: Now we get into something a bit different, but first... Their gauge fills by 3 for every turn spent untransformed (4 for Reyson), and their gauge empties by 5 for every turn spent transformed. They should never get into battle, so battle numbers don't matter much. Obviously, their gauge drains faster than it fills (even without battle), so they spend more time in their human form than in their bird form, but it hardly matters. For Herons, being transformed means they do the same thing they do when not transformed, except they happen to be slightly better at it, so unlike other Laguz they don't need to be transformed in order to be useful. Also, Herons are the ultimate support characters, both able to use Galdr to actively support and Blessing to passively support. Heron Galdr are so useful that a turn spent increasing their transformation gauge with items is a poor choice simply because they could instead be using Galdr. Herons are the one kind of Laguz that are unquestionably useful throughout the game, and might serve as a model on how Laguz should be designed in the future.

Lions: Their transformation gauge fills by 5 each turn spent in human form, and empties by 3 for every turn spent in beast form. Battle empties the gauge by 2. They build up slowly and can stay transformed for very long periods of time, and naturally fill and empty the gauge at the same rate (assuming one battle per turn). Using Olivi Grass reduces initial transformation time by three turns, with no wasted points, and transformation takes so long (and lasts so long) it makes using a Laguz Stone a very good choice. Much like with Tigers and Hawks, the ability to get a lot of benefit from items in order to fight a long time makes Lions a lot more effective than Laguz who rely on natural restoration of the transformation gauge (though it helps that Lions only join late in the game when you can actually afford the kind of items they rely upon).

Dragons: Their transformation gauge fills by 5 for each turn spent in human form (4 for White Dragons), and empties by 2 for each turn spent in dragon form. Battle empties the gauge by only 1 point. They have even better transformation gauge fill/empty rates than Lions (who were pretty good already), and thus gain even more benefit from items like Laguz Stones and Olivi Grass. In addition, they are the one kind of Laguz who can fight using indirect attacks, and White Dragons are the only kind of Laguz who can inflict magical damage. Because of all of this, they are far more useful than most Laguz and can actually match the long-term endurance of the Beorc and Laguz Royalty. Above and beyond their combat strength, though, they have an even greater role: support. Dragons have the powerful passive support skills Night Tide, Blood Tide, White Pool, and Boon that can heal and strengthen their allies, making them incredibly valuable even if they are not transformed, much like a Heron. It is a shame that Dragons only join absurdly late in the game.

As a whole, the entire system of transformation is incredibly dependent on items, so the Laguz that have good synergy with Olivi Grass and Laguz Stones are far more useful than the Laguz who don't. If there was some other way to build the transformation gauge other than natural restoration that also depended on the natural growth rate, it would probably have balanced the system out a bit more (and made Cats very useful). As it stands, though, relying on natural growth is just too slow for any Laguz.

One thing that I can't help but notice is that some of my favorite Laguz, the Herons and Dragons, both use powerful support skills to help allies even when not transformed. They don't have the kinds of unique weapons that boost their own power in special ways like the Beorc, but they have skills that boost the power of allies and add to their value. Unlike the many kinds of Bird and Beast Laguz, Dragons and Herons have advantages that go beyond the mere stat comparisons that tend to favor the more reliable Beorc characters, so it is easier to justify using them in battle. In my opinion, this is an advantage that could become a true niche for all Laguz characters in future games. Many Laguz already have slight nods towards this kind of role (skills like Howl, Glare, and Shriek weaken foes under special conditions, and many Satori Sign skills have similar weakening effects alongside their heavy damage), and there are a number of skills that could be easily altered to add to this (for example, turning an effect like Daunt into a Laguz innate skill). If nothing else, powerful character-defining skills like Vigilance and Insight can become more common. A move towards a combined combat/support role would put Laguz on a more even level with Beorc, help differentiate them from Beorc, and add to the tactical complexity of the game.

That covers most of what I have to say about the Laguz. Well, I still need to write about the Laguz Lords, but they deserve their own topic anyways. I may also write a bit more about the Herons as well. I really hope that the people behind the Fire Emblem games continue to use the Laguz in future games, and continue to improve upon the concept.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Game Burnout

In one of my previous posts from February, I mentioned that I preferred games to be around 30 hours long, as opposed to the real long 80-100 hour long epics that a lot of RPGs are nowadays. At the time, I argued this on the grounds that these long epics take up too much time and thus reduce my ability to play a wider variety of games. However, there is another factor that makes long games unattractive: burnout. After playing a certain game long enough, the game stops being as fun as it was before. I have noticed that my brother and I tend to get burnt out on a videogame after playing it for around sixty hours to eighty hours or so.

I only noticed this recently from watching my brother play Persona 3. When we first bought Persona 3, my brother made it about half-way through the game, before simply stopping. At the time, the main cause for the stop was the release of the final .hack//G.U. game. While we occasionally talked about restarting the game, we didn't get around to doing so until the release of Persona 3 FES gave us a strong incentive to. Yet, my brother stopped his second play-through of the game after making it slightly further than he had reached before. This time, he has switched to playing an old game, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, rather than a brand new one. I don't think the timing of this is a coincidence.

There is nothing in particular about that section of Persona 3 that would have encouraged someone to lose interest in the game. As a whole, Atlus did an unusually good job of making sure that Persona 3 had a consistent amount of plot and a consistent gameplay experience. The combat in that stretch of the game was no worse than prior parts of the game. There was about as much level grinding required as in earlier levels. Heck, both times my brother stopped, he had just gone through major dramatic moments of the plot, which introduced new complications. So, a major drop-off in the quality of the product was not the cause of my brother's declining interest.

The biggest culprit is Persona 3's length. Making it only halfway through the game took over 80 hours of gameplay. Not even counting FES's newly added chapter, the game is massive. No matter how good the gameplay, a game element that was fresh and interesting at the beginning of the game is reduced to being familiar and ordinary after the player has been playing the game for a few weeks. Furthermore, the player will have probably experimented with most of the strategies and approaches that are possible in the game after enough time. The tasks that a player has to go through constantly as part of the gameplay, such as fighting random battles, leveling up characters, and exploring dungeons, gradually becomes more and more chore-like over time. In other words, the basic fun-factor of a game can diminish over time.

There are quite a few games that I have become burnt out on well before I finished them. These include Grandia, Tales of Symphonia, Legaia 2, and many others. While these games usually had a few quality hiccups around where I stopped, there was never any one thing that frustrated me into stopping. I simply got burnt out. Now then, there are a lot of factors that go into whether or not someone gets burnt out while playing a videogame, but length is certainly a major one.

Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn: Forging Weapons

I don't think I appreciated the real value of the ability to forge custom weapons in my last playthrough of Radiant Dawn. It is an extremely useful system, and one of the many good innovations made in the two Radiance games.

From what I have read online, it seems the Japanese version of Radiant Dawn required you to spend "weapon points" that are acquired by selling old weapons in order to actually forge something. I am glad that is not the case in the US version, because that would have made the system far less useful. With the apparent difficulty of acquiring "weapon points", it would prevent the player from acquiring a large number of forged weapons, and it may have restricted forged weapons to only being used in the final phases of the game, when forged weapons would be already nearly obsolete because of the powerful SS-rank weapons and character-specific weapons. That whole subsystem would just restrict the player's ability to experiment with and have fun with the entire forging system.

The weapon point limitation was fairly unnecessary in large part because the entire system is already fairly well balanced. The whole thing works by taking one of the base weapons (Iron, Steel, and Silver versions of the default weapon types, plus a few thrown weapons and the basic Tomes other than Dark), and letting the player modify the weapon for a price. The cost increases exponentially with how much you modify it (so it is cheaper to get a slightly better weapon and expensive to get a really powerful weapon), with the base price set by the weapon price (so it is more expensive to raise the attack of a Silver Sword by 1 than it is to raise the attack of an Iron Sword by 1). Thus you have the flexibility of either making a cheap slightly-tweaked iron weapon or an incredibly expensive, but powerful buffed-up silver weapon, with both costs being (mostly) fair.

Another great thing about the system is the use of Coins. It is possible to acquire a number of items called "Coins" in the game that can be used to further upgrade an item after all other upgrades have been chosen and paid for, so you get essentially free improvements to the weapon. You can use one Coin per weapon to "choose" a random card (it gives you an illusion of choice, but in truth it is just drawn randomly, and is designed so that even resetting won't let you change the result) and add its benefits to the weapon. You can get simple things like the "Sword" card that adds to the weapon's attack power, or stronger things like the "Goddess" that slightly increases attack power, accuracy, and critical hit rate. Coins are extremely plentiful, so these free bonuses are an extremely economical way of adding to the power of your weapons. It is even possible to create weapons that are slightly better than a normal weapon at no added cost with a Coin. It is an elegant addition to the system that makes it slightly more complex and fun than the simple cost-benefit calculation of the system's main component.

For all of these reasons I really like the forging mechanic, but I still think the system could use a few more improvements. For one thing, this system makes it impossible to create weapons with any of the many special properties that are found on other weapons. For example, it is impossible to make a weapon with the "horseslayer" property that inflicts triple damage to enemy cavalry, or a "brave" weapon that can be used to attack twice. These kinds of weapons are very interesting and add a lot to the kind of tactical choices of the game, so it is a shame that they are excluded from the weapon forging system. That said, it would be somewhat excessive to enable the player to create such powerful weapons just by paying a fee. However, the "Coin" system provides a solution. It would be easy enough to let the player get special properties just by drawing the right card.

At this point, though, I wonder if the "Coin" system could be improved somewhat. As it stands, Coins are a nice treasure, but hardly something that feels particularly valuable or worthy of effort. After all, you may draw a good card with a Coin, but you might also end up drawing the "Vine" card and getting nothing at all for your spent Coin. In addition, you get so many Coins that it reaches a point where you simply don't need any more. Perhaps it would be better if the random element of Coin effects were dropped. Instead of finding Coins, it might be better to find "Sword Coins", "Goddess Coins", and "Brave Coins". Instead of giving up a generic Coin in the hope of getting a good benefit, the player would have to put the effort into finding particularly rare and valuable Coins and then choosing how to spend them wisely. This kind of change would make finding Coins more rewarding and would add to the kinds of choices available to the player.

On a much more minor note, I really like the ability to change the color of a forged weapon, but I would have preferred it if the chosen color overwrote the default color, rather than simply be layered on top of the existing color. The current effect is far from satisfying in many ways. It is impossible to get a pure black weapon, for example, and combining colorful Tomes with any color gets unusual results. I also would not mind the ability to choose the design of the sword in addition to the color. At the very least, the Blade/Greatlance/Poleaxe models should be available in addition to the default weapon models. After all, a lot of smaller weapons look fairly ridiculous in the hands of larger characters like Generals.

Finally, I owe this thought to my brother, but this kind of weapon customization would be a great thing to combine with the Fire Emblem 4 scheme, where weapons can't be easily traded between characters, don't vanish forever after breaking, and can be passed down from one generation to the next. It seems like it would be a lot more fun to pass down an incredibly powerful forged weapon rather than an Iron Sword. This kind of system would also be a good combination with the older and more restrictive Weapon Level scheme which made the distinctions between Iron, Steel, and Silver weapons part of the distinctions between characters and classes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Golden Sun: Boss Battle Length

The full versatility and strength of the Golden Sun battle system only seems to fully come out during boss battles, where the player is encouraged to pull out the stops and fight all-out. It is in boss battles where the player is most likely to use the full spectrum of his characters' abilities, including Djinn powers, support Psynergy, and summons. Tragically, boss battles are usually over way too quickly in Golden Sun. Almost every time, the boss dies when it feels like the battle should really only just be beginning.

So far in the game, I usually start a boss fight by using support-type Djinn to boost the entire party's defenses, attack power, and speed. Afterwards, I use attack-type Djinn like Flint and Fever to attack the boss and continue to set up for summons. If I use nothing but Djinn on all of my characters, I can use the third level summons (the strongest available right now) on turn four. At that point, I have all four party members use their summon spells to attack the boss and boost their elemental power. However, the boss typically dies after only the second summon attack, leaving me disappointed with the battle's anticlimactic end. 

Even if I mix up my strategy and have some characters do nothing but use Psynergy spells to heal or attack, or focus on using lower level summons, the boss is typically dead by the fifth round of combat. Every time, it is disappointing. Four or five rounds of combat is not enough time for Golden Sun's combat system to fully shine. Where I am in the game, each character has three or four Djinn, more than half a dozen Psynergy spells, summon spells of various power levels, physical attacks, and an inventory full of recovery items. If each character can only act four or five times in the whole combat, the player has no chance to really use these options.

The most annoying aspect of all of this is that it is only after a full barrage of summons that the gameplay really gets interesting. In the aftermath of a high level summon attack, a character gains a large increase in elemental power, but is suffering from severe stat loss due to the used up Djinn. At that point, the player has to adapt his strategy. Since the characters' Djinn only come back one at a time, the player is forced to carefully choose between using the Djinn that are slowly coming back to get another chance to summon, or let them recover in order to restore the party members' stats. Tragically, I have never had the chance to go through this phase of a battle yet, thanks to the short length of the fights. I haven't even been able to play around with different strategies for this situation. It is frustrating.

The bosses in Golden Sun should have had at least double the number of hit points they currently possess. In my experience, boss battles do not suffer from being long. Rather, many of the best RPG boss fights are long and difficult ones, where the player is forced to pull out every trick and strategy at his disposal to come out on top. A really long boss fight would have been really enjoyable in Golden Sun, because of its uniquely dynamic combat engine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn: Second Playthrough

About a week ago, I decided to play through Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn again. It is a good game, so I have been having a lot of fun with it. Knowing what is going to happen next in the game beforehand and remembering some of my old strategies for tricky stages is helping make this playthrough quite a bit easier. However, one thing that is bugging me is that so far there really hasn't been anything new for me to experiment with, and it doesn't seem like the basic game experience is going to be all that different from last time.

Radiant Dawn's predecessor, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, makes a number of additions to the second playthrough that are really interesting. For one, in that game's second playthrough you can acquire item like the Knight Band or Wyvern Band that let you modify the rates at which your characters' stats increase upon level up. Alternatively, you could forego the classic random stat scheme of the fire Emblem series and play in "Fixed Mode" where stat growth is not random at all. These are not major changes, but they are still things that make subsequent playthroughs of the game a bit different than the first time, which adds to the replay value. While I am aware that a second playthrough of Radiant Dawn isn't exactly the same as the first playthrough, it still doesn't have any kind of pervasive game mechanic changes like the Bands or Fixed Mode, which is disappointing.

Still, one thing that is beginning to surprise me about the Fire Emblem series is the extreme influence of the randomness of stat growth upon the game. Because character stats go up randomly based on stat growth probabilities, the same character can turn out very differently depending on how their stats grow. Last time around I completely wrote off the character Nolan because several of his most important stats barely grew at all, resulting in a character who was too weak to even be useful in a fight. Yet this time around Nolan's stat growth has been incredible, and as a result he is one of the characters I have been relying upon the most. When this randomness is combined with the fact that there are more characters than you can even use in one playthrough, and that there are a very large number of different Support combinations, it means that while the challenges you face may be static, the strategies you can use to build a team to overcome that challenge may change every time, and there is never a single set path to victory. In this regard, perhaps it is not strictly necessary that subsequent playthroughs have a large number of added features.

Anyways, I am looking forward to the rest of this second playthrough of the game. Simply knowing basic things like which characters are available in which missions are going to make planning out this playthrough a lot easier, provided that the random number generator doesn't throw me a curve-ball...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Golden Sun: Djinn hunting

Djinn are by far and away the largest source of power available to the characters of Golden Sun. Equipping Djinn can increase the statistics of the characters as much or even more than equipping weapons and armor. Furthermore, some of the most important powers in the game require having a lot of Djinn. For example, the only line of multi-target hp restoration spells in the game is unlocked by equipping certain characters with at least four Mercury Djinn. The importance of even individual Djinn is magnified by how relatively few are available in Golden Sun; only seven Djinn of each of the four types exist in the whole game. Therefore, missing even a single Djinn can hold the party back significantly.

Unfortunately, it is possible to miss some Djinn in the game very easily. While many Djinn appear in plain sight (though usually out of easy reach) in towns and dungeons, others are hidden away off the main path. For example, the most recent Djinn I collected was hidden in a remote corner of a large, hard to explore desert dungeon, and could only be seen by using the Reveal spell. Even though that desert requires the player to constantly use Reveal, there is still a good chance a player might miss that Djinn if he doesn't put in the effort to search over every inch of the desert.

While it is not that hard to get every Djinn in the towns and dungeons, the real offenders are the Djinn hidden on the overworld. These Djinn only appear if the player fights a random battle in a specific, very limited section of the overworld. There are no visible signs that a Djinn is hiding in these locations, which are usually far away from the main roads connecting the towns and dungeons. Furthermore, if there are clues in NPC conversations as to the locations of these Djinn, I haven't seen them. The only reason I know where these Djinn are is because I checked GameFAQs. The difference in difficulty in finding these Djinn as opposed to the rest is monumental.

Unfortunately, there is no way for the player to be certain that he has even missed a Djinn. There is no set order in which the Djinn become available. While one set of four appears in the order of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Mars, the next set is Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Mars. Even more problematic is that the sixth Venus Djinn becomes available before the fifth Mercury Djinn. The player might falsely assume he missed one.

While I don't think the hunt Djinn should be made too easy (since it is a fun collection quest), there are ways to eliminate the really frustrating elements. First off, the game developers should leave clues as to the whereabouts of most of Djinn. While this could take the form of information given by townspeople, it could also include some kind of Djinn radar that tells the general locations (the name of a town/dungeon/overworld region) the Djinn are located in. Also, fixing the order in which Djinn appear into a specific pattern could leave clues to whether or not the player has missed a Djinn, from which he could surmise where the Djinn could be. Finally, the problem of finding Djinn on the overworld could be fixed by creating a visible marker of a Djinn's presence, such as the circling form that Flint took at the beginning of the game. Any one of these solutions may be sufficient.

Rondo of Swords: First Impressions

I am suffering a bit of Persona 3 FES burnout, so I have been playing a few other games lately. One of these is a game I just bought: Rondo of Swords, an unusual tactical RPG for the DS. I have only cleared the tutorials and first mission, so I am not sure how good the game is yet, but there are two things I can say about it: the first chapter and tutorials are hard, and the interface is severely lacking.

It is rather unusual for me to fail the first mission of a strategy game three times before I succeed (and even when I succeeded I lost a character, which may make the next mission even harder while I wait for him to recover). It is even stranger to have had to retry a few of the tutorial missions a few times because I kept failing them. Partly, this is because the game pretty much just throws you into the system head-first without a lot of direct guidance. Even some of the things they explained were a little... vague (how does facing matter, exactly?). Another problem is that the first mission involves a group of enemies far beyond your level chasing you down a street, so if your units get hurt by the weaker enemies along the way they can't take the time to heal (since you can't both move and use an item in the same turn). I think it was a mistake to add that kind of difficult complication into the very first mission, when the player is still trying to figure out the unusual and creative game mechanics.

Even more problematic the very large number of clear flaws in the game interface, ranging from minor annoyances to crippling omissions. Since there are so many, I may as well make a list.

1) It takes too many button presses or stylus taps in order to get anything done. In order to just open a characters status screen, you need to double-tap the character, tap the menu that shows up in order to get a cursor to appear (which is really unnecessary), and then tap (or was it double-tap?) the "info" choice. It is jut as annoying trying to cancel out of a selection, too. Far too often I try to select a character in order to look at their status or make them move, only to find that I accidentally left something selected elsewhere and need to go back and cancel out of that in order to do what I want.

2) The skill menu in the status screen doesn't do enough to separate the different kinds of skills. Passive, active, and support skills are all used in different ways and apply to different situations, but there is no way to quickly look at the skill list and see what is what. Magic skills are differentiated nicely with a different color, but nothing else is given that treatment. This is particularly a problem when examining an enemy's skill list.

3) Information about many skills and accessories is terribly imprecise. A skill may say something like "increases critical hit rate", but will not say how much it does so. This actually came to bite me when I tried using some of my characters' support skills in the first battle. I took a risk in order to benefit from Kay's "restores HP" support skill, but it ended up being a meager 5% heal that hardly helped at all. I would have used a more-powerful healing item instead if I knew that the support skill was so weak (in fact, this confusion eventually made me fail the mission the first time).

4) There is no way to check the attack range of bows and spells, either for the player's units or enemies. You can only see these ranges when actually launching the attack. In the case of multi-target spells and abilities (like the hero's Brave Ray or the line ice spell from the Tutorial), the limited interface actually makes it impossible to know the full range even after you have used it. You can't scroll the screen or look at a wider view while using some of those moves, even though their area of effect extends past the edge of the screen, so it is hard to know if you will hit some enemies or even strike an ally with such a move. This lack of information can be crippling when it comes to figuring out tactics and positioning, so this is a major oversight.

5) As mentioned above, it is impossible to go to a wide-area view when it is necessary. You can only see a wide area view when you have nothing selected, the one time where it is completely unnecessary. What is more, the wide-area view does not display movement areas or attack ranges, and you can't even scroll it directly (you cancel wide-area view if you try, so you must scroll in normal view until you get where you want to use wide-area view). Wide-area view could have been very useful in examining attack ranges (since many units can move further than the screen displays), but it is pretty much pointless as-is.

6) Unlike pretty much every other good tactical RPG out there, Rondo of Swords doesn't tell me what I am getting into before (or even after) I launch an attack. I don't know important things like hit rate, damage, critical hit rate, counter-attack rate (a really important one in this game!), or anything else. It feels like every attack is a total shot in the dark.

7) In fact, I don't even really know what my characters' own base chances of hitting or launching a critical hit are, or even the relative damage potential of different spells.

Maybe I have been spoiled by the kind of great interfaces seen in other tactical RPGs, like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, or even Super Robot Wars, but the interface in this game is severely disappointing. Interface should be the last thing I should be criticizing in a game, but here it is extremely glaring. A bad interface leaves a bad first impression, so this hasn't been a great start.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Golden Sun: Psynergy and Puzzles

Like the Wild ARMs series and Legend of Zelda series, Golden Sun tends to have a lot of puzzles, particularly in the game's numerous dungeons. Whereas the Wild ARMs series has character specific tools, Golden Sun lets the player use various Psynergy spells in the characters' repertoires to solve these puzzles. A typical puzzle may involve moving out-of-reach statues using the Move Psynergy, or creating frozen pillars out of water to use as platforms with the Frost Psynergy. There are lots of different spells that can be used in the field for these puzzles, and most puzzles involve combining one or more of these Psynergy spells with more traditional "move the blocks around" puzzle elements. All together, I think it works rather well. Unfortunately, there are a few annoying aspects of the system that come up time and again to make the experience unnecessarily frustrating.

The first problem with Golden Sun's puzzle system is that Psynergy spells cost the same amount of Psynergy points to use in the field as they do in battle. So, using the Frost spell to create a frozen platform costs Mia five PP. While this is not a whole lot of Psynergy points in the greater scheme of things, it still can add up, particularly in the early parts of the game. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the character still has to pay the cost of the spell if the player miss-aims it, which can happen quite frequently.

This comes up the most when using Ivan's Mind Read and Reveal spells to explore towns. Even though both spells only cost one PP apiece, I typically use Mind Read on every NPC in a town to find valuable information and Reveal to sweep every square inch of the town for hidden treasure. It can quickly add up to be 40 or 50 Psynergy Points. In one early town (well before Reveal is even added to the equation), Ivan ran out of Psynergy points before I had finished such a sweep. Since Psynergy points do not recover naturally inside of towns, I was forced to stay at an inn in order to even finish my exploration of the town, and then stay at the inn a second time so that I could have full PP before setting out.

The other annoying drawback of the Golden Sun system has to do with the availability of the necessary Psynergy for puzzles. While some of the most common puzzle Psynergy (namely Move, Read Mind, and Reveal) are always available as part of one or more character's spell lists, the availability of the rest of the necessary spells is sometimes in question. For example, many spells, such as Catch, Force, and Cloak, are only available to a character equipped with a specific item. Other spells, including Whirlwind, Growth, and Ply, are learned naturally by various party members, but are only available to characters with specific class set-ups. For example, Whirlwind is only available to Ivan if he has only Jupiter Djinn equipped. Therefore, the player is often required to temporarily rebuild his Djinn list in order to make required Psynergy spells appear, which often turns puzzle solving into more of a hassle than a fun diversion. The numerous and sometimes redundant equipable items also eat up a lot of the very limited inventory space of the four characters. 

My complaints about the interactions between Psynergy and puzzles could be solved by two quick changes. First off, Psynergy spells should not cost PP when used in the field. While this change would not have an appreciable effect on game balance and combat, it would alleviate the frustration from running out of PP in the middle of a town. Second off, the Psynergy spells that can be used in the field for puzzles should be made a permanent part of the character's Psynergy lists. For example, instead of giving the player an equipable item that bestows the Force spell, just have the same event add that spell to an appropriate character's spell list. This way, the player won't have to dig through menus to re-equip Psynergy all of the time.

Persona 3 FES: Social Links Alternatives

I criticized the Persona 3 Social Links system quite a bit last time, so this time I think I will offer a few ideas on how the whole system could have been designed differently to get a better result. A lot of the fundamentals are very solid, such as the ten levels for each Link and the corresponding benefits, so I will keep those intact. Some other things, though, really need to be changed.

I think the most important change would be to put more emphasis on the effort needed to unlock the events that raise Social Link rank, rather than on the events themselves. It should be a bit harder to raise rank, but the process should be more interesting. This means that the kinds of scenes you see when hanging out with a friend on a Sunday in Persona 3 should replace the empty and generic "you feel your friendship is growing stronger" scenes you see when hanging out with a character who isn't ready to raise rank yet. Overall, you should need to interact with a character fairly often in order to build up a Social Link, perhaps as many as thirty times or more to reach rank 10, with even more scenes available than necessary to reach rank 10. This many scenes gives a lot more space for good character development.

One problem with requiring a large amount of time like this, though, is that it might make it too hard to build up a large number of Social Links, but this problem is easily solved by making it easier to build up many Social Links in parallel. In other words, I think the Persona 3 system of only hanging out with one character at a time should be abandoned (since that system is itself something of a limitation, this is killing two birds with one stone). Thus, most of the time you will hang out with two or three people for an afternoon, rather than just a single person. This has a side-benefit of enabling more interaction between the different Social link characters, which can help add some depth to the characters and keep things entertaining for the player.

Another major change that needs to be done is to add some obligations for the player to uphold, particularly regarding clubs. I really think that the player should be expected to go to club regularly, rather than treat a club as a simple opportunity to hang out with a single friend. Thus, I think the player should deal with the risk of having his Social Links enter Reverse state if he doesn't attend club regularly. Of course, that kind of punishment is impossible in Persona 3, since it is expected that the player joins at least two clubs, a sports team, and Student Council, which each meet three days out of the week and have conflicting schedules. As such, in my ideal system the player would only join one club, and this choice would mostly affect the speed at which you build up Social Links, rather than what Social Links are unlocked.

At this point, I think my full ideal Social Link system has begun to take shape. In this system, your choice is not "who will I hang out with today" but rather "what event will I see today". On any particular day there will be several different events occurring, each of which involves a few Social Link characters. Maybe on one day Yukari and Fuuka would invite you to go shopping with them, Kenji, Junpei, and Bebe all decide to go to a restaurant, and Student Council has a meeting, while on another day Akihiko and Junpei go weapon shopping, Chihiro and Mitsuru go somewhere to talk about ways to help students who suffer from Apathy Syndrome, and Yukari and Yuko are at Archery practice, and the player has the choice to watch any one of these scenes (which may never appear again in the game). At the beginning of the game, you choose which club to join, each of which has several characters associated with it, which lets you interact with those characters far more regularly than would otherwise be possible, but obliges you to attend club regularly at risk of alienating your friends. When you have built up a friendship enough, you can see a special event and build up Social Link rank the next time that character is free.

This system has a few advantages over the Persona 3 system. First, because every day has its own events, the characters can actually respond to the flow of the plot and different days of the calendar. It also fleshes out characters in ways they could not be in Persona 3, so basic character traits like "who are Yukari's friends" or "what does Akihiko do all day anyway?" can actually be explored. It basically lets fun events like the Yakushima trip or the impromptu comedy routine become the norm, rather than the exception. Another major benefit is that would a lot more onto the replay value of the game, since different choices would let you see almost an entirely different game on a second time through. Of course, there is a fairly substantial disadvantage for the developers, since such a system might demand more than a thousand Social Link events in order to offer reasonable choices for the player each day, rather than four hundred or so in Persona 3, so this scheme can hardly be called perfect.

There are just a few more minor things I should mention. First, I think every member of SEES in Persona 3 should have had their own Social Link, not just the girls, so that is one other thing I would have changed. Also, I would add a benefit to hanging out with a person whose Social Link rank has already been maxed out. Something basic like small stat boosts or experience point bonuses for Personas of the same Arcana would be appropriate.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Golden Sun: Combat system

The heart of Golden Sun lies in its combat system, which is easily one of the best I have ever seen. Combat in Golden Sun is built to be dynamic and flashy. Not only does the game give the player access to lots of fun powers, it encourages the player to actually use these powers, even in regular battles. Yet, the player still has to utilize a lot of strategy and think his moves through carefully.

In Golden Sun, characters have access to three main types of power: Psynergy spells, Djinn powers, and summon spells. However, each of these powers operates on different, yet interconnected systems. What makes the Golden Sun system work so well is that all of a character's abilities are renewable. For example, Djinn powers are almost free to use. When the player uses an equipped Djinn's special power, the Djinn is switched from set mode to standby mode. Between battles, the player can simply open the menu and switch the Djinn back to set mode, making them ready to be used again. So, Djinn do not use up any permanent resource (though there is an opportunity cost involved I will get into later).

Psynergy spells work like typical magic spells seen in other videogames. When a character uses Psynergy, the spell's cost is deducted from the character's total number of Psynergy points. What makes Golden Sun different than a normal RPG is that Psynergy points recover as the party walks around in dungeons and on the overworld. It seems to be balanced so that the characters can afford to use about one Psynergy spell per battle without reducing their average totals. The result is that the player can use fancy group attack, status condition, and healing spells as part of his regular strategy and still have plenty of Psynergy left over for boss fights. So the player is strongly encouraged to make use of these powers regularly, but not go overboard in any one normal battle.

Topping off the core set of special powers in Golden Sun are the summon spells, which can only be used when a set number of Djinn of one element are in standby mode. While these summons are easily the strongest attacks in the game, they do not cost Psynergy points to use. The only cost of using summon spells is in their opportunity cost. Djinn are not just useful for their special powers, they also provide passive stat gains and additional spells when they are in set mode. They can even change the class and overall abilities of the characters they are equipped to. So, when a significant number of Djinn are in standby mode, as they need to be in order to summon, the character suffers significant stat penalties. Furthermore, summon spells exhaust the used Djinn, which require time before they can recover and return to set mode. If the player uses a powerful multi-Djinn summon in a regular battle, not all of the Djinn used will recover in time for the next fight.

The dynamic quality of Golden Sun's battles arises from the interconnected nature of these three sets of powers. When a fight starts, a character has all of his or her Psynergy spells and Djinn powers available. As soon as the character uses one of the powerful Djinn abilities, the character's available options change. Now, the character is down one option as far as Djinn powers go, has reduced stats, possibly has different available Psynergy, and now has a low-level summon spell open. So over the course of a protracted fight, each character's options will likely change significantly. Unless the player limits himself to only using basic attacks or psynergy spells, every character will be using a new action every turn of battle. Thus, battles have a flow to them that keeps the action from being repetitive or stagnant.

The other outcome of this system is that it opens up many different strategies and supports many different play-styles. For example, the player could use Djinn powers in every battle, reseting the Djinn afterwards. Alternatively, a player could intentionally switch his Djinn to standby before fights, and start every battle with a powerful summon attack. One player may equip the Djinn with the intention of maximizing stats and creating the best classes and Psynergy, while another player might arrange the Djinn to set up summons quickly during boss battles. The possibilities are nearly endless.

My only complaint about Golden Sun's combat system is that it doesn't do anything to make items particularly useful compared to other RPGs. While there are smoke bombs, sleep bombs, and the like, there is little point to using them. I already have access to group status condition spells, so single use status condition items are not very valuable. In fact, since money seems to be very tight in the game, spending money on healing items and bombs seems to be a sub-par choice. Maybe this will change as the game continues on.

Persona 3 FES: Social Links

The Social Link system is both one of Persona 3's greatest concepts and one of its greatest failings. It is the all-important system that binds the social and combat aspects of the game together and gives meaning to the choices the player makes concerning the hero's normal life.The Social Link system works to do two things: give structure to the "social life" aspects of the game and to provide tangible gameplay rewards for interacting with those aspects of the game. In many ways, Persona 3 would not work if it were not for that system. At the same time, the Social Link system is far from perfect.

It may be a bit odd to do so, but I will talk about the benefits of building up Social Links before I talk about the mechanism of building them up. After all, the benefits are very important to the system; if there was no reward, then players would have no reason to even bother with the entire Social Link system and would be better off saving time by just returning to the dorm after school. Fortunately that is not the case, since the rewards for building up Social Links are very good indeed. Raising the Social Link level of a particular tarot arcana will give bonus experience points to any Persona of that arcana created through the Persona Fusion system, so any Persona created with a level 10 Link of the same arcana will immediately gain 5 levels upon creation. Because Personas are the basis of the main character's power, this means that building up Social Links provides a significant increase to the hero's power across a large stretch of the game. If you build up Social Links then you will have strong Personas, and if you have strong Personas then you will have a much easier time completing the game, thus there is a strong incentive to build up Social Links. This part of the system works very well, and all I can do is praise it.

The part of the Social Link system that I think is flawed is the other aspect: the way it forms a structure for the social aspects of the game. Namely, that structure, the method by which you build up the Social Link levels, is nowhere near as interesting and involving as it should be. Under the current system, there is exactly one group or character associated with each Social Link, and ignoring the plot-dependent Social Links, there are exactly ten significant scenes (and a slightly larger number of insignificant ones) tied to each of those groups and characters. Whenever you build up a hidden friendship value associated with each Link high enough, you can spend some time to watch one of the ten significant scenes, which raises that Social Link's level by one. This all seems good enough, but problems arise because the ten scenes that raise Social Link level are pretty much the entirety of the player's interaction with the Social Link characters.

The limited presence of Social Link characters is something that stands out in the game. Whenever you speak to a Social Link character while walking around town or school, pretty much all they ever do is give you a choice of hanging out with them or not. If hanging out with the character is not an option, then they will either say something generic (which only changes as you raise Social Link level) or simply not be present. Unlike the generic people standing around town, Social Link characters do not react to the progression of the plot. If a character who previously did react to changes in the plot becomes a Social Link character, then they stop reacting to the plot (this is very noticeable with Yukari). If you hang out with a Social Link character, but have not yet built up enough friendship to see the next major scene, then the narrator simply tells you that you spend time talking before returning home, and nothing else happens. Once you have raised a Social Link to level 10 (the state where you become lifelong friends), you no longer have the choice to hang out with that character, the character reverts to having a single set response if you talk to them that never changes, and in at least two cases the character disappears from the game entirely. In other words, Social Link characters are isolated from the plot, can only be interacted with in limited scenes that you must prompt, and they stop mattering to the game once they become important friends. I don't think I am alone in thinking that this kind of plot isolation is not very satisfying.

In addition to all of that above, another property of the Social link system is that the ten plot scenes where the Social Link character can actually be interacted with are extremely linear. At no point in these scenes can you make a choice that would change the outcome of the scene (let alone the Social Link's plot) or prevent you from building up the Social Link any further. It is not even possible to make an error that would prevent the usual raise in Social Link level at the end of the scene or cause the reversal of the tarot, no matter how much you make the Social Link character angry. There are many conversation choices available in these scenes, but all they do is control how long it will take before you can see the next scene. Regardless of what choices you make you will progress through the same story, so long as you continue to decide to hang out with a character. Again, this is something that is rather unsatisfying.

The final problem of the Social Link system is that it doesn't force obligations on the player, or at least obligations which the player has the ability to choose not to uphold. For the most part, even for things like clubs and student council, there is never any obligation to spend time with any particular Social link on any particular day, no matter what choices you make regarding social links. For the few things they ask you to do on particular days (like the summer sports competition), you are forced to go whether you would like to or not. This is really problematic regarding the "time management" aspect of the game that I wrote about around a month ago. It means that the only decisions you make are "what can I do today" rather than "what can I do today considering what I promised to do yesterday?". A good time management game (like Harvest Moon) has many aspects of the latter (such as the obligation to water crops once you have planted them), but Persona 3 has nothing of the sort. As such, the social aspect of Persona 3 doesn't really involve the kind of detailed planning and schedule juggling that can add a healthy amount of difficulty and complexity.

In the end, the only real choice you need to make in the social aspect of the game is: "who will I build up Social Links with?" Once that choice is made, the only thing you need to do is continue spending time with that character until the Social Link is at level 10. The only interesting complexities come from trying to balance spending time with several different characters at once, which is not quite enough to make up for the lack of flexibility and character interaction. The many flaws in the Social link structure are a real pity. The rewards for building up Social links are great, but even more importantly the characters of the Social Links are great characters in their own right. They are very well designed, well rounded characters with complicated personalities and engaging stories. A great deal of my criticism of the Social Link system is due to the fact that I really like the characters and wish they had a much greater presence in the story of the game itself. Characters like Kazushi, Yuko, and Mamoru should be at the center of the game's plot, not isolated away in a small corner of it.