Monday, July 21, 2008

Kingdom Hearts II: Gummi Ship

I mostly ignored the Gummi Ship minigame during my first pass through Kingdom Hearts II. I only played through the stages to the extent that I had to in order to open up the paths to new worlds. While I attempted the higher level modes a couple of times to see what they were like, I never seriously challenged them. In hindsight, I never even opened up the Gummi Editor once during that play-through. Yet, I have ended up spending hours playing the minigame so far on my current run. I have discovered that it can be a lot of fun, and I have designed several ships of my own with the Gummi editor. What really makes the Gummi Ship minigame of Kingdom Hearts II really outstanding is how it supports both ways of approaching it: rewarding those who are interested and staying out of the way of those who don't care for it.

All told, the Gummi Ship minigame is extensive enough to practically be a full-length game in its own right. There are almost as many Gummi Ship stages as there are worlds in the main game. While each stage is pretty short and quick, every one has three levels of challenge, each with different enemy patterns, goals, and treasures. Since the player has to both earn a high rank and defeat certain rare enemies on every difficulty level in order to get all of the stage's rewards, there is a lot of replay value to be had in scouring a level for treasures one missed on the first pass. On top of that, I have had a lot of fun playing through old stages with new Gummi Ships to see if I could get better results with new combinations of parts. So far, I have built a cannon-focused ship, a laser-oriented ship, and a ship loaded down with Meteor-type weapons, and I still need to try out slashing weapons. There is still a lot more for me to do with the system.

As extensive as the Gummi Ship system is, the game doesn't require the player to mess around with it at all in order to clear the game's main story. While the player needs to fly through each stage at least once in order to open up the routes to new worlds, doing so is not a very hard task. Unlike the higher level modes, where the player has to eliminate hordes of enemies quickly and efficiently in order to get a high score, opening a route only requires the player to survive the stage. In addition, the game doesn't require the player to design ships with the rather complicated Gummi Ship editor, if the player doesn't want to. For this reason, the player is given pre-built Gummi Ships as he progresses through the stages. While potentially not as powerful as custom-built models, these pre-fabricated Gummi ships are more than good enough to get the player through to the end of the main plot. I made it through the game using nothing but these pre-built ships on my first go-through.

Other than needing to open up the routes, the Gummi Ship minigame and the main game don't overlap at all. All of the parts needed to build Gummi ships are found as rewards in the Gummi Ship minigame. Building a powerful Gummi ship doesn't give the player any huge advantage during the main game. Both of these a good qualities. If the player could get an advantage in the main game from the Gummi Ship system, it would force people who were otherwise uninterested in the minigame to play it in order to get that benefit, which can frustrate players quickly. If Gummi blocks were regularly found as rewards in the main game, players who didn't enjoy the Gummi Ship minigame would get annoyed that they were finding useless treasures. With no overlap, players who really enjoy one of the two games don't need to force themselves to sit through the other unnecessarily.

It is worth noting that many of these elements are significant improvements over the original Kingdom Hearts' Gummi Ship minigame. In the original, there were no prebuilt Gummi Ship models, the player had to fly through Gummi Ship stages regularly, and Gummi blocks were regularly found in treasure chests. The tighter integration of the Gummi Ship minigame more closely to the main game as seen in Kingdom Hearts 1 did nothing to make me like the system any better, and did lead to many of the problems I outlined above. A good minigame should be deep and rewarding, but otherwise unobtrusive.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Kingdom Hearts II: Drive System limitations

I started a second play-through of Kingdom Hearts II for the PS2 yesterday. I am intending to do try a few new things on this second play-through, such as finally watching the bonus ending movie. In particular, I am hoping to utilize Kingdom Hearts II's drive system a lot more than I did my first time through the game. So far, it is working out for me pretty well. I have already gotten used to to activating Valor Drive a lot more than I ever did before.

In my first go-through of Kingdom Hearts II, I used the various Drive transformations quite sparingly, and for good reason. The Drive gauge builds up fairly slowly, even if the player is collecting many Drive Gauge restoration orbs. Therefore, it is impossible to use a Drive transformation in every battle. At best, it can only be done every two to three battles, and is likely to require more battles than that. Now then, if the player uses up his Drive Gauge fighting a minor battle just before a major fight or boss fight, than the player can't use one of his best weapons when he needs it the most. Since it is really hard to estimate when one is going to fight a major battle, the player is encouraged to use Drive transformations conservatively. In addition, Summon commands also use up the Drive Gauge, forcing the player to make opportunity cost decisions between his strongest powers. This time though, I am discovering that I can use Drive a lot more than I originally expected. However, I do have some fore-knowledge of the game's events this time around, which is helping my ability to estimate how much I can use the Drive command a lot.

If it was just the Drive Gauge limiting the use of Drive transformations, I would have no problem with the system. Unfortunately, there are a few more factors limiting the players use of it. First off, Drive transformations require either 1 specific party member or both party members to be absorbed in order to activate, depending on the individual Drive command. What this means is that Sora cannot use Drive if he is the only character currently fighting. However, I am quickly being reminded that this is a fairly common occurrence. Many of the major scripted battles in the game involve Sora fighting alone or alongside a single ally (who is not one of the two characters involved in 1-ally Drives). So, in many of the battles where the player could get the most advantage out of Drive commands, the battles that the player saves his Drive Gauge for, he can't actually use it. This even includes most of the multi-part final boss battle.

The other limitation of the Drive command comes in the form of Anti-Sora. Every time Sora transforms, there is a certain chance that he will accidentally transform into Anti-Sora, a form with little real combat power and half the defense of base Sora. Since the factor that determines the chance of becoming Anti-Sora increases every time the Drive command is used, Anti-Sora encourages the player to use Drive forms sparingly. However, Drive forms can only be leveled up by using them consistently, which encourages the player to use Drive forms as often as possible. Obviously, this means the game design is working at cross-purposes, which only serves to frustrate the player. On top of that, Anti-Sora's chance of appearing increases dramatically during major boss fights. This means that the player is likely to end up a dead Anti-Sora if he uses one of his coolest abilities during a boss fight. I can't really say that does anything to increase the fun-factor of the game at all.

I would probably have used Drive abilities a lot more on my first play-through if the game developers had relied solely on the Drive Gauge to restrict use of the Drive command, instead of adding on several more layers of limitation. The Anti-Sora form in particular only makes the game experience more frustrating. A special power really only needs one controlling factor and some opportunity costs to balance it out. Throwing on too many limiting factors only frustrates the player.

Persona 3 FES: Conversation and the Hero's Identity

A few days ago, I finally managed to complete the main section of Persona 3 FES, "The Journey". I have been playing this game quite a long time, and the final part of the game was fantastic, so I am quite happy. Now that the game is complete, though, I may as well write a bit about a topic I have been meaning to address since I first started the blog: the story role of Persona 3's main hero.

It is quite clear that Persona 3's game designers wanted to let the player control the identity and personality of the main hero as much as possible. Other than the few voiced lines the hero speaks when summoning Personas in battle, he is a classic "silent protagonist", and every line he speaks in the story (when he even speaks at all) is presented as a conversation choice for the player. The player can choose to have the hero be kind, rude, quiet, or anything else. In theory, this should let the player give the hero whatever personality he wants, but in practice this does not work out very well at all. Important factors in this are the vagueness and completeness problems that are almost pathologically inherent to the conversation choice system. Half the time, it is just hard to figure out how characters will react to a particular choice, and the other half of the time the given choices never really seem to cover how you really want the hero to respond. Beyond this, though, there are two problems that are particularly glaring in Persona 3: advantageous conversation choices and a lack of any permanence for the player's choices.

In Social Links in particular, it is simply to the player's advantage to just say whatever the person he is talking to wants him to say. In almost every conversation choice presented to the player during a Social Link event, there is a single "correct" choice, and selecting that choice will (quite visibly) help build up the affinity between the hero and the Social Link character, making it easier to build up the Social Link to the next level. Since there it is to the player's advantage to build up these levels as quickly as possible, it means that in all of the conversation choices presented in Social Links (the lion's share of all conversation choices), the player is strongly encouraged to say what is advantageous for him to say (usually what the Social Link character wants to hear), rather than what the player wants to say or thinks should be said. This sabotages any possibility of characterizing the main hero in a coherent manner, since the hero is encouraged to act like a carefree goof-off when talking to carefree goof-offs and act like a driven workaholic when talking to driven workaholics. At times, it can feel like the game is encouraging the player to make the hero act like an insincere brown-noser, which is hardly the kind of character I want to play in a game like this.

The other major problem is that, other than Social Link level and affinity between characters, the game doesn't seem to actually make a record of what choices the hero has made. Almost any dialog choice made by the player will only affect a few sentences' worth of game dialog, before the conversation possibilities converge again. Whether you do something to make someone happy or do something to make that person angry, five lines later the dialog will continue the same way regardless. In the longer term, even if you do nothing but be rude, spiteful, and insulting, the characters in the game will never start acting accordingly, and will just act like the hero is a generic nice guy. The game simply does not give the player any feedback for giving the hero a consistent personality, and as such there is really no reward for doing so. No matter what the player does, the hero will be just as generic and undefined at the end of the game as he was in the beginning as far as the story and characters are concerned.

With all of that criticism said, I should be a bit fair by saying that the impermanent, undefined, and necessarily inconsistent personality of the main hero does actually fit with some of his limited characterization and the mechanics of the Persona system. Unlike the other characters, who have a consistent personality and a single Persona, the hero has an ever-changing identity to match his ever-changing array of Personas. Personas are supposed to be a reflection of a person's identity, and the hero has over a hundred and seventy of them, more than a hundred contradicting reflections of his "true self". The game even supports this idea by giving you a bonus to Social Link growth if you have a Persona of the same Arcana as the Social Link you are trying to build up, and thus have an "identity" that is compatible with the Social Link character. I actually have to applaud the way the game designers managed to make story and game mechanics compliment each other in such a way, but I think that the failings of the current system are too great to be outweighed by such a small benefit.

The main hero may be portrayed as having nearly infinite flexibility in characterization, but that just means he ultimately is never developed as a character at all. At no point can the player really do anything to turn the main hero into someone they can identify with or empathize with. For example, you can have him say to other characters that he has a reason to fight, but you are never allowed to establish a particular reason for him to fight as a fact within the game. I can make the decision that the hero is fighting to end the Dark Hour for Yukari's sake in my own head, but I can not have the hero act on that decision in any way, even though the question of "what are you fighting for?" is central to the themes of the game. It may simply be a limitation of the conversation choice mechanic itself, but ultimately, the player only gets to decide what the hero says, but not what the hero is thinking or what the hero believes, so any characterization made by the player is shallow and short-lived.

Finally, I should at least briefly mention that the one system the game actually does provide for characterizing the hero, his Academics, Courage, and Charm attributes, is fatally flawed in its own right, for similar reasons to those I described above. To illustrate this, in my last playthrough I played a hero who started with maxed out Academics, so the hero aced every test at the top of his class without ever needing to study once, but still needed to go to Summer School because Mitsuru was worried about his grades falling behind because of too much time spent as part of SEES. There are so many inconsistencies and flaws with that I can't even begin to get into it all, but the main problem is that what the hero does, what the hero is capable of, and what the other characters think of the hero are all disconnected from each other.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Zone of the Enders, Combat Controls, and Lock-On

Zone of the Enders for the PS2 and its sequel Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner are probably the two best mecha action games yet made. While this is in part due to the game's cool mechs and world, as well as to the incredible production values Konami put into the two games, the ZOE games earned their reputation thanks to their excellent gameplay. The action in the game is extremely fluid and fast-paced, thanks in large part to an excellent control scheme. It is in the area of game control that ZOE and ZOE2 really shine.

The genius of the Zone of the Enders games comes from the context sensitive input. The lion's share of combat options can be performed with just the Left Analog stick and two buttons. Obviously, the left analog stick moves the main mech, Jehuty, around. The real brilliance lies with the square button, which causes Jehuty to both shoot at the enemy at long range and use melee attacks if close to the enemy. Similarly, the R2 button can either cause Jehuty to dash if Jehuty is moving, or enter Burst Mode if Jehuty is standing still. So, with just two buttons and an analog stick, Jehuty can perform high-speed maneuvers and execute fancy melee combos, a dashing slash, a powerful Burst Slash, rapid-fire basic shots, a homing dash shot attack, and the Burst Shot. This gets a lot of mileage out of just a few controls, freeing up other buttons to be used for different things. Most importantly, fighting quickly becomes very intuitive.

At this point, I will draw some comparisons with a few other action games, mecha and otherwise. Most other action games I have seen tend to designate melee attacks and shooting attacks to separate buttons. For example, Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, a decent, yet flawed, mecha action game for the PS2, uses the Square button for gun attacks and the triangle button for melee attacks at all times. In Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, each mech has multiple elaborate multi-hit melee combos that can be pulled off by pressing the Triangle button  and pressing the Left Analogue stick in certain directions at the same time. However, there are a couple major flaws with this system. First off, it is possible to execute a melee attack even at long ranges, where the attack can't possibly hit and can potentially leave the player vulnerable for several seconds as the attack animation is carried out. Even more problematic though, is that it is really hard to connect with these attack chains. These melee attacks target the area directly in front of the mech, no matter where the enemy is actually standing (which is pretty common for melee attacks in actions games). Because of this, it is very easy to miss a moving enemy, or only catch the enemy with a glancing blow. Being locked on to an enemy doesn't have any effect on melee targeting.

What makes melee combat work for ZOE is that lock-on does matter in melee combat (heck, you need to be locked on to an enemy in order to use melee attacks). This is something that can be seen in other really good 3-D action games, such as the Legend of Zelda and Devil May Cry games. In both series, it is possible to lock on to a single opponent. In that mode in both games, the player character is either always facing the opponent, or always re-orients towards that target the moment before launching an attack. That way, there is little chance of accidentally missing the target, even with melee attacks (unless the enemy can dodge quickly of course). Zone of the Enders takes this one step further. Not only does Jehuty always orient towards it's quarry, it will actually move towards its opponent and home in on it with melee attacks, particularly the Melee Dash Attack.

In short, the brilliance of Zone of the Enders comes from building combat around a lock-on system that reads the distance between the player character and its opponent. At that point, the context-sensitive controls kick in. As the player closes in on a target, the system automatically switches over to close-range combat mode and starts to judge the distance between the player and target to determine if the mech will need to close in as part of the attack or not. As a result, the controls are simple, and Jehuty always does exactly what the player intends, instead of stupidly attacking thin air.

Another major innovation of Zone of the Enders is making 3-D space combat more managable by giving the player easy to use altitude controls. Many mecha games, such as the aforementioned Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam overlook that simple detail, resulting in games where the player can get stuck in awkward places as the camera shifts around. While the ability to rise and fall is typically not needed during combat in Zone of the Enders, it does come in handy. Any game with free 3-D movement should give the player all three dimensions of movement controls (a jump button doesn't count if there is no gravity).

Persona 3 FES: Personas

The title creatures of Persona 3, the Personas, are certainly an important part of the game. Acquiring them, building them up, and fusing them together to create new Personas are all activities that take up quite a lot of time and energy. Almost every choice made in the progress of the game is reflected by the incredible variability of the Persona system. This system, the Persona series' inheritance from the broader Megami Tensei series, is essential to the experience of the game. In many ways, Persona 3's adherence to the traditional Megami Tensei system is both a great strength and a great weakness for the game.

The basic scheme of the Persona/Megami Tensei system is very similar to monster-collection games, though a bit less so in Persona than in the main Megami Tensei series because Personas don't fight directly and you can't build teams of them. One of the biggest differences, though, is that unlike more typical monster collection games such as Pokemon, the Megami Tensei makes holding on to your "monsters" and raising their level a less-than-optimal choice. Personas level at about half the rate that the hero does even if you put all of your effort into raising their levels, and raising the hero's level lets you acquire even more powerful Personas who have even stronger abilities, so it is most beneficial to use low-level Personas for fusion than to try to level them up. This means that the player will only use any particular Persona for a very limited time, and there is a clear progression of ever-stronger Personas. In many ways, it is a far simpler system for the player to use than other kinds of monster collection game because the basic choice of what monster to use is so much more clear. It is particularly good for a game like Persona 3 in which the "monsters" do not take center stage, because it makes it a lot easier for the player to make use of a great variety of "monsters" without having to spend a lot of effort acquiring them and individually raising their levels. Because of this, the basic system works very well for Persona 3, though there are flaws in the details.

One of the most noticeable flaws of the system is actually in the designs of the different Personas. In that area, Persona 3 may have taken a bit too much from the greater Megami Tensei series. All of the Personas used by your allies and enemies in Persona 3, from Junpei's Hermes to Aigis's Athena, all have a really great unified look to them, mixing human-like forms with surreal elements to create creatures that look like they are subconscious echos of the Persona-users, and they quite nicely incorporate a lot of the same design elements seen in the enemy Shadows (some Shadows, like The Reaper and some of the Twelve Shadows would actually make great Personas themselves), but the problem is that only three out of more than a hundred and seventy Personas available to the hero use that look (Orpheus, Thanatos, and Messiah). The rest of the hero's Personas all take their designs (and possibly models) directly from other Persona games, and don't look like anything else in Persona 3. I suppose the fair way to interpret this is that the designers wanted to keep the looks of the creatures the same between all Megami Tensei games for brand reasons (the unfair interpretation is that they were just lazy), but I don't think it was the best choice. The difference is just too glaring.

Another flaw is actually related to the three Personas that actually do match the rest of the game's aesthetics. These three, the hero's first Persona "Orpheus", the plot-central Persona "Thanatos", and the ultimate Persona "Messiah", are all among the most important Personas in the game, but in the end they are treated just like any other Persona. Orpheus is incredibly weak and should be abandoned quickly, Thanatos is just another Persona who will be acquired and traded out eventually (despite his important symbolic role in the game's plot), and as far as I am aware Messiah is just acquired normally and treated like just another Persona (even though he appears on the game DVD and in the credits). I admit that this is only arguably a flaw, but it just seems that these three Personas simply don't get the kind of special treatment they deserve. They seem to be the hero's equivalents to the Personas that everyone else in the game uses, so I wonder if it would have been better if they worked more like Junpei's Hermes or Aigis's Athena, which level up along with the Persona-user and transform with the plot, and less like normal Personas. If nothing else, it would have provided a reliable "always available" Persona (or three), which would at least be useful for showing off the hero's Persona abilities in plot scenes.

A much more pressing concern about the Persona system is that fusing Personas is just too time-consuming and annoying. My brother touched on this a while back, but one of the biggest flaws is the random nature of passing on skills through Fusion. Passing on good skills is essential, but it can take dozens of random combinations before a good combination of skills can be passed on (and even then passing on ideal skill sets is nearly impossible). In addition, it is impossible to even know what kinds of skills a fused Persona can acquire from its component Personas unless you go through this tedious process a few times. Trying to pass on a rare and powerful skill like Samsara or Thunder Reign through several generations of Personas can be difficult even without trying to pass on skills like Hama Boost or Elec Amp that are needed to get the most out of them. Trying to pass on great combinations involving three or more skills (like Auto-Maraku + Auto-Mataru + Auto-Masuku) is almost impossible. This issue just amplifies the annoying fact that it is hard to figure out what skills to give to a Persona that does not have a central theme to its innate skills. The whole thing would have been a lot better if the game was more explicit about the ability-transfer rules and it was possible to simply select the skills you want to pass on from a list.

One final point where the game has some room for improvement is the way experience is handed out to Personas. I think it would just be better if every Persona gained at least some experience from battle, rather than only the Persona you end battle with. There are ways around this limitation (such as the Growth skills), and the game does not really need it to function, so all it does is force the player to give the Growth skill to Personas he wants to build up a bit (a major annoyance given the system I just described above), or for him to use particular Personas in battle far more than necessary (and to the exclusion of many others). It simply intrudes upon the basic flexibility the hero has in being able to easily switch Personas in battle, and makes it harder to actually make full use of a full team of well-built Personas.

Anyways, I want to end this by saying that I really do like almost everything about the hero's Persona system. It adds an incredible amount of customizability and tactical variety to the game system, and can be a lot of fun. If it were just a bit more user-friendly, it would be an ideal game system for people like me who enjoy seeing the benefits of putting a lot of thought into building characters, and an equally ideal system for the plot and themes of the Persona series.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Entry Level RPGs

Some years ago, I was trying to figure out a good game to have my parents sit down and play so that they could learn more about my favorite hobby. Since RPGs were my favorite kind of video-game, I tried to think of a really good RPG to introduce my parents to the genre with. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a really good introductory RPG that could be easily picked up by someone unfamiliar with the genre. At the time, the biggest RPGs that were available were Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8, which were good games, but had fairly complex game systems. While I considered introducing my parents to RPGs through some of my older SNES era RPGs, my SNES was stuffed away in storage at the time, and SNES games couldn't show off the technically abilities of games of the time. Because of this indecision, I didn't get around to teaching my parents how to play RPGs. However, the incident did make me start thinking about what makes a good entry level game.

The game that introduced me to the RPG genre and got me hooked on it was Final Fantasy II for the SNES (FF IV by the Japanese numbers). In retrospect, it was a great introductory RPG. First off, Final Fantasy II was a very simple game, since there was no complex character customization. Instead, characters only gained preset abilities as they leveled up. Combat was as simple as using the Fight or Magic command to defeat enemies. Now then, the American Final Fantasy II was a stripped down version of the original Final Fantasy IV with reduced difficulty, but I think that actually made the game a better entry level RPG. I remember having a lot of trouble with certain bosses (most notably Rubicant) when I first played Final Fantasy II, while these days I can beat those bosses easily, even on the original harder difficulty setting. The easier difficulty setting was a lot more forgiving for a rookie like me who accidentally de-equipped his main character's sword before ever getting into a fight. In particular, I found the early game strategy guide built into the game's manual to be very useful in my younger days.

These days though, there is a strong tendency for RPGs and other videogames to be made with experienced players in mind. Games have much more complicated gameplay these days, particularly when it comes to character customization and combat. Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid is a much more complicated game system than most earlier RPG systems, with a much greater ability for the player to gimp his own characters. Most games have a lot more limited tutorial support for new players as well. The very useful "Beginner's House", where the player can talk to a concentrated group of NPCs to learn about basic game mechanics, from the early Final Fantasy games was discontinued in the series after FF VII. I haven't seen a full early game tutorial included in the game manual since Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (and the practice was becoming rare even in the SNES days).

Even today, I have trouble thinking of a really good introductory RPG. While Dragon Quest VIII is almost as simple and straightforward as an SNES RPG, it is also really difficult in the early part of the game, and has enough customization that I gimped my characters on my first attempt at it. Final Fantasy XII has the complexity of the Gambit system, the added problem of having to deal with real-time monster encounters, and a reliance on lots of sidequests and level grinding. And the further one goes from the big name RPGs, the more likely one is to encounter niche RPGs that differentiate themselves through increased complexity aimed at genre veterans.

Today, remakes of old games are the only place someone is likely to find a really good entry level RPG. And even then, the upcoming DS remake of Final Fantasy 4 has been advertised as having increased character customization and increased difficulty compared to the original version. While those factors do appeal to me at my current dedication to the RPG genre, I can't help but wonder if it will still be as good of an entry level game anymore. With the recent expansion of the videogame market to tons of brand new gamers, entry level RPGs are really needed now.

Persona 3 FES: Fuuka's Support

One of my favorite things about Persona 3 is the character Fuuka and her role as a kind of distant information analyst and navigator for the party. Even ignoring Fuuka's role as a character in the story, she serves an incredibly valuable role in the exploration of Tartarus, and her presence is one of the things that makes Persona 3 so unique. One of the most important things to mention about her is the fact that, even though she never participates in battle directly, she gains experience, grows in level, and learns new skills just like any combat character. A lot of her individual abilities are very similar to the kinds of things you see in other games, but the fact that they are tied to a particular character is what makes Fuuka unique.

First off, Fuuka's most important role is battle support. She does not participate in battle directly, but she observes battles from a distance and can be ordered to perform actions through the same Tactics menu that commands every other character. Her main battle command is Full Analysis, an upgraded version of the Analysis command that the original support character, Mitsuru, uses. Mitsuru's Analysis only identifies an enemies Arcana and weaknesses, but Fuuka's Full Analysis reveals all of that and the attacks an enemy can use. Also, as Fuuka increases in level she eventually learns Oracle, an ability that will trigger a random effect once per battle when called upon. Both of these abilities only take effect when called upon, but they are both controlled by the support character's own abilities and are independent of the composition of the battle team. Most RPGs that have such effects link them to a battle character (so you can only use something like Analysis if you bring a combat character who has that ability) and force you to use up a battle characters turn in order to use such an ability, but Persona 3 doesn't, so abilities like Analysis are reliably available and much more easily used. In many ways, this set-up makes many kinds of abilities that could otherwise be a poor choice into something incredibly useful.

In addition to her active combat support abilities, Fuuka has a few passive ones as well. Fuuka's Support Scan and Third Eye abilities both change the information available to the player in normal battle. One lets you see what buffs and debuffs affect selected targets, and the other modifies the main target selection cursor so it will tell you whether an attack will be effective or not. Both of these abilities are unlocked as Fuuka rises in level, so it can be said that raising Fuuka's level changes the game interface and the kind of information available to the player.

Finally, Fuuka has several important roles and abilities relating to the exploration of Tartarus. She provides you with information about what is happening, such as telling you about unusual events that occur on some floors, warning you when a character is low on health, or warning you when the Reaper appears on a floor. This means that important gameplay information is relayed to the player through a character in the game, which is always a good thing. As Fuuka raises level, she gains the ability Healing Wave, which heals the whole party whenever you climb a set of stairs, and Escape Route, which lets you warp back to the entrance whenever you like (making Access Points and Traesto Gems obsolete). Much like some of her combat abilities, these abilities essentially change some of the rules of the game, and tie those changes to Fuuka's level growth. Simply put, it becomes much easier to climb Tartarus as Fuuka rises in level. Overall, linking rule changes to a character's growth is a very elegant way of allowing the player to have more options as the game progresses.

My only complaint about Fuuka's role in the game is that they could have given her so many more good abilities. Perhaps she could have gained abilities that improved the game's mini-map/radar, an ability to read how much longer you can last before your characters grow tired, or an ability that made finding rare treasures easier. Certainly they could have given her more combat abilities, such as the ability to read what attack an enemy will use next, or some other direct combat effect like Oracle. Other than that, though, I think she does nothing but contribute greatly to the game.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Breaking the Plot: Rewarding Player Experimentation

Earlier today, I discovered a video on YouTube that showed the "bad ending" of the PS2 videogame Zone of the Enders. This really surprised me, since I never even realized that there was a bad ending in the game when my brother and I were playing through it. Apparently, if the player lets the bad guys kill off a lot of innocent civilians (or does so himself) in the game's rescue missions, one of the main characters in the game will die prematurely, triggering the bad ending. It is also possible to trigger the inevitable destruction of the Antillia space colony by destroying one of its main support shafts. The characters who tag along with the main protagonist of the game even have special dialogue if the player intentionally blows up civilians. While all of this is pretty morbid, it is actually a sign of the developers' remarkable attention to detail.

Videogame players have a tendency to experiment. It can be really fun to mess around and see what the game allows, and how it reacts when you try something really different or unusual. Creating results for the player's experimentation is a way of rewarding those players who enjoy messing around like this. So by filling the game with details and creating results for off-the-wall player actions, a game developer can both make the world of the game feel more real and add in an additional fun-factor.

Hideo Kojima, the producer of Zone of the Enders, knows this. One big part of his style of game design is to put a lot of easter eggs and responses to random player actions into his game. Metal Gear Solid 3 has some of the best examples of this. Most notably, it is possible to completely circumvent a major boss battle against The End by utilizing a very short window of opportunity to snipe him immediately after a cut-scene earlier in the game. In addition, there are dozens of ways to mess with regular soldiers, allied characters, and bosses. You can tranquilize an ally character and then listen to her mumble in her sleep. You can play with a boss's head by putting on a mask that looks like someone he knows. You can lure Revolver Ocelot into quick draw contests or make him compliment you on your gun-juggling skills. It is possible to completely miss these things on a normal playthrough of the game, but they are there for the people who look for them.

Not all easter eggs have to be as big as killing The End prematurely. One of the ones in Zone of the Enders that I liked was the fact that the colony crashes into Callisto after two years if the player destroys the colony shaft. In the game, it only takes the form of two or three lines of dialogue as part of a mission result screen. However, those few lines of dialogue are enough to acknowledge that the player has done something unusual. Adding in a lot of these kinds of details make a game feel more polished.

Persona 3 FES: Tartarus the Plot Desert

Persona 3's Tartarus is a very well executed version of the randomized dungeon concept, but it has not quite escaped one of the biggest flaws of that archetype: the lack of plot. Persona 3 is very good at giving the player interesting short-term goals and a sense of making progress into the tower, but it doesn't do quite enough to make that progress a part of the game's story. At times, it seems like the characters themselves do not have a real reason for climbing Tartarus, and that the only reason to go into the tower is to fulfill Elizabeth's requests. Often, it just seems unsatisfying to reach the top of a block, only to have nothing happen.

Just about the only story-related things to be found in Tartarus are the Old Documents, the items found at the top of each block. However, instead of being deep insights into the truth behind the game, they are only small snippets a sentence or two long, and more often than not they are a statement of the writer's confusion rather than anything helpful. Talking to random people in town tends to give better information than the Old Documents, and major plot events reveal far more. What is more, what little information those documents do provide is never even acknowledged by the characters. The Old Documents are among the most time-consuming pieces of information to acquire, yet they might as well not exist as far as the plot is concerned.

In addition, there is not a lot of character interaction in Tartarus itself. Other than the few times where you must go to Tartarus for plot reasons, there really isn't even much in the way of dialog. Sure, characters have all the things they say in battle and when responding to commands, but other than that, the only dialog you see are Fuuka's status reports as you climb the tower, but those are not very much. Most of the time, all Fuuka talks about is whether she can she can locate the next target floor or not, and a lot of that dialog repeats itself over and over again as you climb the hundreds of floors. When you confront one of the powerful bosses near the top of each block, all Fuuka says is that it is a really strong lone Shadow, and nothing else occurs. Even reaching the false top of Tartarus, all you get is Fuuka wondering "is this the top?" with a single sentence, and not much else.

The problem with all of this is that the entire structure of Tartarus, with its segmented blocks and barricades that only vanish as the main plot progresses, is very well suited to having significant plot scenes occur within it. Places like the permanent teleporter rooms, boss battle rooms, and the barricades that separate blocks would all be great places for unusual events to occur. Maybe a boss Shadow would do something unusual, or talk to the character briefly, or attack just as the characters find some clue about the true nature of Tartarus. Maybe the characters could find a room that was originally part of the lab beneath the school that spawned Tartarus ten years prior, and get a glimpse of the events that unfolded there at that time, or maybe find the remains of one of the other Anti-Shadow weapons like Aigis. Maybe reaching certain places would cause Pharos to appear and speak with the hero briefly. No matter what they might be, having even small events like that scattered throughout the tower would go a long way to make trips into Tartarus feel like a more significant part of the game's story.

With all of that said, I can understand some reasons why the game developers chose not to do so. After all, progress through Tartarus occurs somewhat independently of progress through the main game, so events would be almost impossible to synchronize. Further, the characters available to you for any given trip to Tartarus can vary greatly from day to day, and characters getting sick or tired affects that even more, so it would be impossible to create events that depend on the presence of a particular character. However, these problems are not insurmountable. In fact, the entire Social Link system shares the synchronization problem and was still implemented well enough. That problem can be overcome for Tartarus with the same solution that helped the Social link system: keeping the different plots isolated from each other. Have the events in Tartarus depend to a reasonable extent on the events of the main plot (based on the barricades), but don't have events in the main plot depend on what happens in Tartarus. In such a case, Tartarus events and the character interactions inside would dictate how much the characters actually know about what is going on, and discussions of "where do we stand?" and "what do we do next?" would mostly take place there. Balancing all of that might require a lot of planning, but it is possible.

The other problem for putting events in Tartarus, the unreliability of characters, is not that unusual of a game design challenge, so it is actually less of a concern. There are at least two characters who are always present in Tartarus trips (the hero and Fuuka), so there will always be some kind of reliable basis for character interaction and events. Beyond that, it is a simple matter of changing scenes slightly to reflect who is available, something that occurs in a large number of games and often makes such games a bit more interesting. Having a few more scenes that might change depending on who is present would add a bit more variety to the game.

As it stands, it seems like a glaring contradiction in the game that the character's stated reason for entering Tartarus, a desire to learn more about the Dark Hour and find a way to stop the Shadows and end the threat of Apathy Syndrome, is the one thing that does not happen at all in Tartarus. Far too often, it just feels like exploring Tartarus isn't important.