Sunday, August 31, 2008

Megaman Starforce: Geo and Omega-Xis

My brother and I have been putting a lot of time into Megaman Starforce 2 (both versions) for the Nintendo DS over the last week. I have been a big fan of the Starforce series and the original Megaman Battle Network series for years now. However the two main characters of Megaman Starforce, Geo Stellar and Omega-Xis, have become my favorite characters out of the entire combined series. As a pair of characters, they regularly produce fun scenes and hilarious dialogue. Without their interactions, the two Megaman Starforce games would not be anywhere near as fun.

In the original Megaman Battle Network series, the equivalent characters to Geo and Omega-Xis were Lan Hikari and Megaman.exe (otherwise known as Hub, Lan's twin brother). Like most Net-Navis in the Battle Network series, Megaman.exe was in many ways an exaggerated or slightly distorted mirror-image of his operator. In general, Lan was the slightly more aggressive and confident of the two characters, while Megaman.exe tried to act as Lan's conscience. However, the two were both pretty straight-forward heroic characters, and thus were generally in sync with each other. Unfortunately, this meant that the character interactions between the two were often somewhat bland. While there were some truly touching scenes built around the fact that they were two brothers (found mainly during endgame sequences), many of their regular interactions often boiled down to Megaman.exe nagging Lan to do his homework.

In comparison, the conversations Geo Stellar and Omega-Xis have even during routine gameplay range from mildly entertaining to downright hilarious, thanks to the strongly contrasting personalities of the two characters. On one hand, Geo Stellar fits perfectly into the reluctant hero archetype: he is a rather timid boy who lacks drive and confidence who is dragged into dangerous situations against his will. However, Geo possesses strong morals and dreams about becoming someone like his father. In comparison, the alien warrior Omega-Xis is an incredibly aggressive character. Omega-Xis thrives on combat and excitement, is always eager for a fight, and has no qualms about doing things like poking around people's secret data files. It is difficult to imagine two characters more different than these two.

These contrasting personalities fuel a huge range of funny and entertaining interactions and conversations. One of the most distinct is the hilarious scenes where Omega-Xis (who dwells in the computer Geo wears on his left arm) literally dragging Geo around by the arm because Omega-Xis got bored and wanted to go somewhere more exciting. We see Geo protesting when Omega-Xis wants to invade someone's computer to take a peek at people's diaries, before Omega-Xis ignores him and does so anyways. And we see Omega-Xis constantly teasing Geo about the various girls who have crushes on him. Because both characters have such contradicting perspectives on everything, it is easy to write a wide variety of interesting material for them.

Perhaps the most useful outcome of Geo and Omega-Xis's personalities is that it gives a very good justification for why a reluctant hero like Geo would actually become a game's main character. In Megaman Starforce 1, Omega-Xis makes it clear to Geo from the get-go that he knows something about what happened to Geo's father, who mysteriously disappeared some time prior. So, Geo has a very good reason to put up with Omega-Xis. From that point, Omega-Xis simply drags Geo from one dangerous situation into another until Geo has slowly become accustomed to being a hero. So there was no point in the game where I asked myself "So why is this guy the main hero?".

In the end, I think the direction the developers took with the personalities of Geo and Omega-Xis was the right one. It has produced really entertaining results so far. While the risk that the writing for the game will get stuck in a rut still exists, I hope that these two characters will be able to avoid that fate.

Megaman Starforce 2: Battle Cards

I have probably mentioned this before, but both my brother and I are big fans of Capcom's Megaman series, and that includes the Battle Network and Starforce sub-series. As such, we have been playing Megaman Starforce 2 quite a bit over the last days, and I have really been enjoying it so far. I already have quite a bit to say about the game, however, since Battle Cards are so important to the game, they will be the first aspect of Megaman Starforce 2 I will discuss.

I really think that the Battle Card system of the Megaman Starforce games is a significant improvement over its predecessor, the Battle Chip system from the Megaman Battle Network games, mostly because it abandons the alphabetical code system. In the original Battle Chip system, every individual Battle Chip has a letter code in addition to the chip type, so you could have things like an "Cannon B" chip that is similar to, but slightly different from a "Cannon C" chip. All "Cannon" chips are used in the same way and have the same strength, but chips with different codes can be combined with different other chips. Because of that system, you can use a "Cannon B" chip the same turn as a "Protoman" chip (Protoman is always B), or you can use a "Cannon B" and a "Cannon C" at the same time, but you can't use a "Cannon C" chip and a "Protoman" chip at the same time. This means that there is an incredibly strong incentive to build Chip Folders using as few codes as possible, in order to maximize the number of Battle Chips you can use in one turn. This incentive is so strong that it practically overrides any other consideration, and often makes Folder creation an overly complicated endeavor. Also, because chips of particular codes may be more rare than others, it occasionally made gathering a good set of Battle Chips a lengthy process. This system worked well enough in the early Battle Network games, when building the Chip Folder was the player's only concern, but what advantages it had began to break down in later Battle Network games.

The big problem for the Battle Chip system came with the introduction of Style forms, Double Soul forms, and other such systems in later Battle Network games, as well as with the continued improvements to the Battle Chip list that came with each game. More and more, considerations like needing a large number of powerful Fire Chips to fuel the abilities of the FireSoul form or needing to include a mix of good Normal Chips and Electric Chips for ElecCross form began to create an incentive that contradicted the code-based incentive. More importantly, the code system made it difficult or impossible to freely use multiple forms with a single Folder. As a whole, the entire system ultimately promoted a limited set of "good" Folders based entirely on what was pre-determined by the game designers, rather than what the player desired.

Megaman Starforce 1 changed all of that when it completely abandoned the idea of letter codes and replaced it with the column rule. Now, in the Starforce series, Battle Cards are laid out as a grid of three columns of two cards rather than merely a list of available options, and cards that have been randomly assigned to be in the same column can be used together in the exact same manner as cards of the same code could be used together in the old system. As such, the player no longer has the option of gaining an advantage through careful Folder construction, which actually means the player is free to chose whether to use a Battle Card or not on the Card's merits alone. Unusual Card combinations are possible in a way they never were before, and Cards no longer have artificial synergy just because they share a letter code. What is more, these restrictions are eased while still preserving the original reason the code system was introduced: adding some strategic complexity by preventing the player from being able to use every card given to him in battle at once. In fact, it pulls it off more successfully because there is no way to work around that restriction in the Starforce system. It also preserves the "wild card" value of the old asterisk-code with the "White Card" designation. A lot of negative side-effects of the system were removed and almost all of the advantages were preserved.

One new feature of the Battle Card system that I find to be particularly good is the change made to the "favorite chip/card" system. Previously, the Favorite Chip was a Battle Chip that was guaranteed to be available at the start of battle, and it was often restricted by a numerical "memory" value that made it hard to make proper use of. In the Starforce games, this is replaced by the Favorite Card system in which you choose a set of four or six cards that become "White Cards", letting them be used more freely, with no over-complicated memory restriction. This change simply lets you use cards you like more easily, and it is a lot easier to manage than the old system, so I prefer it.

There is a lot more I can write about, such as the new Star Card system, but that will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Final Fantasy IV: Counterattacks

One of the most significant gameplay differences between the original versions of Final Fantasy IV and the new DS remake is the radical transformation in how the game's major bosses fight. Scarmiglione, Cagnazzo, Barbaricia, Golbez, and many less significant bosses have so far all been given brand new counterattacks in order to increase the game's difficulty. Many regular enemies have similarly been given new or enhanced counterattacks, to a degree that I have never seen in another RPG. However, the results of this experimentation are actually really good; the addition of counterattacks as a major part of most battles has radically increased the amount of strategy that I have needed in order to win compared to earlier versions of the game, and has made many fights much more dynamic and interesting than they originally were.

Counterattacks are a pretty simple way of making up the gap in the number of actions a boss has compared to a large party of characters. If a boss is limited to making only one action in the time frame where each party member is capable of taking one action, then it is at a significant disadvantage and will be quickly overwhelmed by even simple strategies. This is why many RPGs, such as Final Fantasy 3 or Dragon Quest 8, have bosses capable of making 2 or 3 actions in a single combat round. However, the Active Time Battle System makes it harder to judge how many actions either side is going to make in a certain time-frame, and making multiple actions in a row would look inconsistent under the ATB system. Many later Final Fantasy games got around this by giving bosses multiple parts, each of which could attack independently. However, it would have been too inconsistent with the original game to completely rebuild boss designs to accommodate this method. So, giving bosses lots of counterattacks was a pretty elegant way to overcome the player's number of actions and make fights harder.

The addition of counterattacks has pushed FF IV's dominant strategies in a completely different direction than the original game and even most Final Fantasy games. In most entries in the series, the dominant strategy is a scorched earth approach, where the player continuously pounds on a boss with physical attacks and the party's best magic attacks. The counterattacks in FF IV DS force the player to adopt a much more conservative and defensive strategy instead. For example, Barbaricia counterattacks with an all-character lightning spell whenever she is hit with an attack. If a player was to recklessly attack her with all of his fighters, he would find himself listening to the Game Over music in short order. Instead, it is necessary to focus on defense and healing, so that the party can safely absorb the counterattacks without dying. Other bosses who counterattack with negative status inducing spells similarly force the player to focus his energy on restoring those debilitating status conditions. The fact that FF IV DS has this different dominant strategy is actually really refreshing. It makes the game feel new and exciting instead of the typical Final Fantasy experience.

A particular benefit of having bosses (and regular enemies) use lots of counterattacks is that it makes power storing abilities useful for the first time. In FF IV, Yang has an ability called Focus where he sacrifices a turn to store up his energy so that his next physical attack will do double damage. While this ability has been in not only many Final Fantasy games but other RPGs as well, it has never been useful. Spending an extra turn to do double damage only does as much total damage as making two regular attacks in a row, and performing two regular attacks always has the added advantage of at least doing some damage on the first turn, in case the enemy only has a few hitpoints left. However, the addition of reliable counterattacks makes a single big attack advantageous over several weaker attacks; fewer attacks means fewer opportunities for counterattack. So much to my surprise, Focus went from being a move I never used to an important element of my strategy.

I also need to say that Barrier Shift, a staple of the Final Fantasy series, works much better as a counterattack move than as an actively used power. When Barrier Shift is actively used, it results in two problems: the boss wastes too much time Barrier Shifting to actually fight, and it is so unpredictable that it is likely going to frustrate the player into just ignoring it and focusing on non-elemental attacks. Making Barrier shift a counterattack solves both of those problems. Since the boss doesn't have to spend a turn Barrier Shifting, it will be focused on doing damage throughout the fight. Furthermore, the fact that the boss will only Barrier Shift as a counterattack is predictable enough for a player to actually go to the effort of scanning the boss's weaknesses and exploiting them.

As a final note, one of the best features of the counterattacks seen in Final Fantasy IV DS is that they are always explicitly marked. Every time an enemy uses a power as a counterattack, it is marked Counter: Attack, Counter: Lightning, and so forth. This way, the player knows for certain that an attack is done in reaction to one of his actions, and can plan accordingly. Without this clarity, it is possible that a player could get the mistaken impression that the boss was just doing all of its actions at random, and end up getting frustrated from constantly falling into the enemy's trap. A boss who counters every physical attack is hard enough on its own without forcing the player to figure it's pattern out blindly.

All told, the boss fights I have seen so far in Final Fantasy IV have been really fresh and exciting thanks to the newly added counterattacks. My only complaint is that it might be a little too consistent, since it is fun to beat a boss down with lots of basic attacks now and then after all. I am really curious what the next several bosses in the game will fight like.

Final Fantasy III DS: The Job System

After a few failed attempts at defeating the final boss, I finally managed to complete Final Fantasy III yesterday. Other than a frustrating lack of save points and a few truly annoying enemies (things as powerful as the Red Dragons should not just sneak up on you at random), the final part of that game was quite a bit of fun and I enjoyed the game as a whole. Now that I am done with the game, I want to write a bit about the game's defining element: the Job System.

The Job System is one of the greatest systems to ever emerge from the Final Fantasy series. It allows characters to change their abilities around in a highly customizable fashion, so even a small, unchanging central cast of characters can be as versatile as an army of characters, which helps greatly in enabling variety in the gameplay while keeping the main cast steady (which can really help the plot). And, unlike many of Square's later game systems that also aim for that same goal (like the FF7 Materia system or FF8 Junction system), it presents character options in manageable chunks, so the player doesn't have to get bogged down with micromanaging a large number of small, independent elements. To put it plainly, it is much easier and more meaningful to make the choice between making a character a Knight or a Black Mage than it is to choose between assigning Firaga spells to a character's Strength or assigning them to his Hit Points. When a Job System is implemented well, it can provide a very good gameplay experience.

In the particular case of Final Fantasy III, though, I am not sure if the Job System really is implemented well or not. Certainly, later games such as Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics made radical improvements to the framework established in Final Fantasy III, and as a result the earlier game suffers from the comparison. At the very least, there were many times throughout my playthrough of Final Fantasy III that I wished I could change the equipped abilities of a Job like I could in Final Fantasy V (it would certainly have made some endgame choices a bit easier). At the same time, Final Fantasy III does have a number of unique elements that could not be replicated in later versions of the Job System that work well in this game, such as the distinct tradeoff between lasting power and flexibility seen in the Magus/Devout vs. Sage comparison. Since I can't really say whether the system as a whole works well or not, I guess all I can do is ramble on about some of the smaller details...

1) I don't like the transition period characters undergo after changing Jobs, in which they have reduced stats for a set number of battles while they "learn" the new Job. Because it doesn't really accomplish anything that isn't already controlled by other factors (switching in and out of mage Jobs is limited by the way it affects current MP, etc), and it can be completely bypassed through careful planning and high Job Levels, all it does is get in the player's way and impose some arbitrary connections between certain Jobs.

2) While I prefer some of the ways this is implemented in later games, I do like the simple fact that you get better with a Job the more you use it (the higher your Job Level rises). It creates a reason for a character to stick to a Job for a long period of time, so Jobs become long-term investments rather than a temporary state designed to defeat a single boss with a particular strategy. Without this, there would be no reason for a player to always turn to the same character whenever he needs a White Mage. Of course, it would have been better if the mechanics of raising Job Level and benefits for doing so were laid out more explicitly.

3) I don't like the fact that spending a large amount of time raising Job Levels in one Job becomes meaningless once that character switches to a different class, particularly in the case of "upgrade" Job pairs like the White Mage/Devout pair or Monk/Black Belt pair. When the Black Belt Job become available, the Monk Job becomes obsolete, so any levels dedicated to that class (and thus all of the time the player spent raising those levels) completely go to waste. There should be some sort of global benefit linked to raising a Job's Level high, even if the Job itself doesn't have any more use.

4) I like the way that you never really need any one Job for any given situation, so you always have choices. Every Job performs various roles in a unique way, so there are an incredible variety of viable teams. Certainly, some Jobs are just better than others (I can't imagine a use for the Scholar, and the Red Mage might outclass every other starting Job), so there are balance issues, but this is a game where I was able to effectively use both a Ninja/Summoner/Sage/Black Belt team and a Knight/Devout/Bard/Black Belt team in various attempts at beating the final boss (the former was close but the latter succeeded), so the game clearly allows for a variety of styles and strategies, an essential quality for a fun game.

5) I think you just get Jobs too late into the game. You are stuck with a very limited set of Jobs for the first fourth of the game, and by the time you get the final set of Jobs you are already at the entrance to the final dungeon. I think it would have just been more fun to be able to play around with some of these classes for longer periods of time. After all, I did like the fact that, in Final Fantasy V, you get all but one Job by the end of the first third of the game. Even better is the Final Fantasy Tactics approach, where the player can essentially determine for himself how quickly he unlocks most of the jobs.

6) I like the amount of detail the designers put into making each character look unique for each Job. This works better with some Jobs than others (earlier Jobs like the White Mage tend to have greater variation for each character than later Jobs like the Dark Knight), but it is a nice touch.

I really don't think I have much left to say. Overall, once you begin to understand the system the game holds up surprisingly well for an NES-era RPG, and I am glad I played through the game.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Items you don't know what to do with

When I was first going through the first big dungeon of Final Fantasy IV DS, the Damcyan waterway, an enemy happened to drop a rare item called a Rainbow Pudding, which I realized I could sell for a ridiculous amount of money. However, I held off on selling it at first because I thought it might be needed for a side-quest later in the game. Hours later into the game, I finally ended up selling it to finance refitting my party members with fancy new Mithral weapons and armor. In a cruel twist of fate, two dungeons later, I find an NPC asking for Rainbow Pudding, at which point I nearly threw my DS out the window. I only became more frustrated when I learned that the item in question has only a 0.4% drop rate. So I now find myself condemned to spend hours farming an old enemy to get my hands on a rare item that I already had.

An incident like this should not happen. All it does is frustrate the heck out of players for making the "wrong" choice when they do not have enough information to base their decisions on. Unfortunately, it is not that uncommon for this uncertainty and confusion to occur. Recently in FF III, my brother found a stash of eleven Golden Swords, which were useless as equipment, but could be sold for semi-decent money, but he held off on selling them for a while because he had no idea if they were needed for their own quest or not. I experienced this same phenomena many times in FF XII as well, where it is unclear what I was expected to do with certain quest rewards, particularly since selling certain items in that game can unlock expanded store selection.

The problem comes from a conflict between two common game devices in RPGs. The first part of the problem is that many RPGs reward players for finding and holding onto rare items. A great example is Xenogears, where the player can redeem the Mermaid Tear, a weird item found in the first hour of gameplay, for a reward at the very end of the game. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Dragon Quest VIII, where all kinds of esoteric items are needed for item synthesis. This kind of thing is so common, that I now almost habitually hold onto items and equipment that I can't buy in shops, even if I don't have a need for it anymore, just in case.

The other factor at work is that most RPGs expect the player to sell stuff to make money. Final Fantasy XII is a major example, since the only way to make money in that game is to sell the stuff that enemies drop. Many RPGs also give the player items whose sole reason for existing is to be sold for cash (these are usually gold nuggets or jewels, but not always).

So, when a game gives a player an item that has a monetary value, is not sold in stores, and cannot be used, both of these forces come into effect. On one hand, experience tells the player that items like this are often needed in quests, but on the other hand, items like this also often exist solely to be sold. Without any other information to go on, a player has no choice but to guess whether holding on to the item or selling it is the more advantageous course of action. And with 50/50 odds, many players are going to end up making the wrong choice and later become frustrated when they discover the truth. The only solution is to give the player more information from the get-go on what the player is expected to do with an item. Making items that are necessary for side-quests unsellable completely eliminates this confusion, or adding phrases such as "quest item" or "can be sold for money" into the item description and staying consistent with their use.

Final Fantasy III DS: Equipment Woes

Because my brother has been playing Final Fantasy IV DS, I have been inspired to go back and finally play through Final Fantasy III DS, which I have owned for quite a while but never played too much. It has been a very interesting experience. Even with the new 3D graphics and modified main cast of characters, this game still has all of the elements of an old-fashioned RPG made for the NES. Some of these are a nice change of pace, such as the loose directions that tend to encourage exploration, but there are just as many elements that remind me of exactly how far videogames have progressed since those days.

At one point around halfway through the game, the plot dumped me in a new place with access only to a single town right after I acquired a new set of Jobs to play around with. The jobs I just acquired were the Evoker, the Dark Knight, the Dragoon, the Bard, and the Viking. The town, though, only had armor and weapons for Thieves, Rangers, Monks, and Vikings, as well as a spear for the Dragoon and a harp for the Bard. As such, the town provided enough equipment for three of these new jobs to function (because of equipment available earlier, everything but the Evoker and the Bard works, but I will get to those two later), but there was a problem: the enemies around that area and in the next few dungeons were much deadlier than previous enemies, so much so that anyone without improved armor would quickly get torn apart. As such, only Thieves, Rangers, Monks, and Vikings were really viable until I could reach some new towns. I could have bought a spear or two and had a Dragoon who could fight, but he would die so quickly to enemy attacks that it would be pointless.

The problems for Bards and Evokers were much more severe. The Evoker class needed an entirely new set of spells in order to be able to do anything, but these spells can only be acquired a few dungeons after you acquire the Evoker class. Similarly, the Bard requires harps in order to function, since its "Sing" ability depends on the equipped harp, but the only harp available in that one town merely provides a protective effect, which isn't something that can carry a character through several dungeons. In addition, neither job can benefit from the armor available in that town, and are stuck with a set of armor that was outdated long before the sudden increase in enemy power. As such, it would be almost suicidal to try to bring either of these classes into a dungeon when they first become available.

This lack of viable equipment actually becomes a recurring problem for several classes. Warriors, Red Mages, White Mages, Black Mages, Knights, and Dark Knights all have to go quite a long time from the point enemies get a sudden large increase in power to the point that they get a full set of armor capable of protecting against attacks. One glaring example is the Dark Knight job, which, from the point I acquired it (9 or 10 hours into the game), had to make do with armor I acquired a long time prior (6 hours into the game) all the way until I reached a new town recently (17 hours into the game and several dungeons and bosses later), and even then that armor upgrade was incomplete. In the meantime, I acquired several full armor upgrades for the Dragoon, something like five new kinds of lance, five or so Viking weapons, two full upgrades for the pathetic Bell and Tome weapons, and three whole levels of new magic spells.

The real problem with this lack of equipment is that it severely delays the player's ability to have fun with new Jobs. The various Jobs are the most exciting new toys to be had in the game, but because of poor equipment and spell availability the player isn't really free to have fun with them. It is something much akin to giving the player a new kind of gun in a First-Person Shooting game and not giving them any ammo for it until five more hours into the game. It just destroys the fun of experimenting with new things and enjoying hard-earned rewards.

Overall, the more widely-usable equipment should have been available across the entire post-Water Crystal section of Final Fantasy 3. Instead of providing a lot of class-specific equipment that favored eccentric and unusual classes, the game designers should have included a lot more armor and equipment that could be used by a large number of classes, as well as made the equipment necessary for certain classes (Evoker spells, Bard harps, and Dark Knight dark blades) available earlier.

One thing that I will say the game does well, though, is that it tends to use equipment availability as a way of hinting at optimal class choices very well. The game gives you Scholar gear around the time you need a Scholar. It gives a sudden increase in Thief gear right before the point where having a Thief is handy. It makes good Dragoon gear available right before a period in which Dragoons are extremely powerful. Dark Knight gear finally appears right in the midst of the time where it is most needed. This kind of hinting is quite effective, though I wish they didn't sacrifice overall flexibility and class viability for the sake of it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Final Fantasy IV DS: Party Based on Plot

Final Fantasy IV used a very unique approach when it came to creating a party of characters for the player to control: party members moved in and out of the party based solely on the demands of the story, rather than through direct player control. While this approach takes some control over the game away from the player, I think it can allow for a game with a much more personal story than is seen in many RPGs.

There are two approaches to RPG party construction that tend to be much more common than FF IV's approach. In the first, as seen in games like Dragon Quest VIII or Wild ARMS 3, the party consists of a handful of characters who join early and are never swapped out. In the second major method, as seen in every Final Fantasy from VI on, the player has a large pool of characters, of which only a fraction can be in the party at a time, but can be freely swapped in and out. The second approach in particular is almost a standard feature of RPGs. However, these approaches force the game developers to write the plot of a game in a particular way, limiting the kind of plots that are possible.

The second approach's main problem can be very visible: the game developers can rarely customize the game's story and events for specific party compositions. No matter which characters are involved in an event, the event will have to resolve the same way. Let's look at Chrono Trigger as an example. Chrono Trigger gave each character in the team custom dialogue for every scene. However, the characters in the game were only playing out generic roles in each scene. For example, after the Ocean Palace, one of the characters in the party takes over a leadership position and asks the local elder some questions. No matter which party member is placed in that role, the same general information is communicated to the player, particularly since the NPC dialogue is inflexible. So even in Chrono Trigger, one of the best games at handling a swappable party in history, can at best offer only minor variations in dialogue and minor additions to scenes based on party composition. In games with larger casts, such as Final Fantasy VI, developers often have to resort to using generic dialogue. In many cases, developers do not even give dialogue to characters who can be swapped out. The result of this overall approach is that it mandates that the story has to be more about the team as a whole than the individual party members.

The set-up where there is a single unchanging party can avoid the problem of generic dialogue and uncustomized scenes, but does require certain plot considerations. Most notably, the entire party typically has to be introduced within the first several areas of the game. Furthermore, once the party is together, it can no longer be separated for any long period of time. A good example is Wild ARMs 4: the first three party members all join in the opening segment of the game, while the fourth joins soon afterwards. Once the four characters are together, the party is only broken up for a couple short scenarios before it reunifies. This actually produces similar results to the previous approach: the stories of the individual members who make up the group are subsumed into the story of the team as a whole, which can potentially limit the growth of individual characters. The game need to put the party together could also result in rather forced introductions in games (in other words: "Why are all of the characters from the same place when the world is so huge?").

The strength of the approach where party members join and leave freely based on plot is that it makes very few demands on writers. The only demand that it does make is that party members join and leave the party under plausible conditions. However, the act of a party member joining or leaving can create a lot of drama in a game. Tellah's confrontation with Edward in Damcyan castle, Leviathan's attack, Palom and Porom's sacrifice, Rydia's dramatic return in the underworld, and so on are all plot points created to justify the appearance or disappearance of a character, but they include most of Final Fantasy IV's most memorable and dramatic scenes. This also puts the focus of the game's plot on the individual stories of the characters. Tellah is a good example: he joins Cecil at first when their paths go the same way, but leaves after his daughter's death to pursue revenge on his own. When Tellah returns to the party, he joins only to get a chance at taking his revenge, which he ends up sacrificing his life for. The entire time Tellah is a part of the story, his tale of loss and revenge is an ever-present undercurrent in the game that is never completely subsumed by Cecil's journey of redemption. The plot-based approach opens up the opportunity for specific characters to introduce their own sub-plots, develop them, and then bow out of the main story when their own plots are resolved, without ever having to pace out their stories based on the flow of the game as a whole.

The biggest weakness of Final Fantasy IV's story-based approach to party membership is that it is not well suited to game mechanics that involve long-term character customization. It would be really disappointing for a player if he sinks hours into carefully building up a character only to watch that character leave after the next plot event. However, the story approach does work well with game systems like FF VII's Materia system or FF VIII's Junction system, which allow the player to customize characters by equipping them with abilities kept in a party-wide pool. I am actually rather surprised that I have never seen a game that combined such a system with plot-based party membership.

I would like to see more games that used Final Fantasy IV's way of doing things. It is a system that has never seen as much use over the years as it deserves.

Beyond Oasis

I recently played through a short game released on the Sega Genesis many years ago called Beyond Oasis using my Wii's Virtual Console. I never owned a Genesis, so I never knew anything about this game until I played it. It really isn't a bad game at all. It is a nice action/adventure/RPG hybrid with well-designed puzzles, a fun combat system, and solid execution. If the game was a little longer, a lot less linear, and had better music, it might have been able to stand as an equal to the Legend of Zelda series.

One of the most important aspects of Beyond Oasis is its spirit summoning system, which is central to almost all of the puzzles and tactics in the game. Basically, as you progress through the game you acquire four spirits who you can summon using the "Light Ball" released from the hero's magical Gold Armlet. If the Light Ball strikes water you will summon the water spirit, if it strikes fire you will summon the fire spirit, etc. The game designers were pretty impressively thorough with this, too. You can summon the water spirit by hitting a slime monster with the Light Ball or even summon the fire spirit by hitting an enemy mage's flame shot. There are even a few odd ways to summon a spirit like hitting the elder of a town with the Light Ball to earn the shadow spirit (it doesn't work when I hit other humans, so I am still trying to figure out the logic), so the game rewards experimentation and creativity. There are many places where creative choices on when to summon which spirit are necessary to solve the puzzles. As a whole, this system works very well, and my only complaint is that there are far too few ways to summon the plant spirit compared to the others (it seems odd that I can't summon the plant spirit by hitting grass or trees when the others are far less restrictive).

Another thing I find interesting about the spirit system is that the spirits are both under your control and somewhat autonomous. Once summoned, the spirits can move around on their own (though usually sticking close to the hero) and can attack on their own, though the degree to which they do this varies widely depending on the spirit. At the same time, you can order the spirits to cast various spells that they will unleash from their position. This semi-autonomous nature can be both good and bad. Certainly, it makes quick and precise aiming of magical effects like the Water Bubble or Fire Breath almost impossible, to the point that I needed to use an expensive wide area explosion spell to light torches, but at the same time the automatic attacks from the fire spirit are strong, quick, and accurate and don't require any of the player's attention. All of the plant and shadow spirit moves work well (since you control their movements precisely, though the plant spirit attacks on its own), but only the water spirit's healing move (which thankfully automatically seeks out the hero) and the fire spirit's big explosion and automatic attacks are reliable under normal conditions. The frustrating fire spirit racing minigame is one place in particular where I desperately wished for a way to manually control the movements of one of the spirits. Overall, I think the game would have been a bit better if either the designers got rid of the moves that required you to precisely position a spirit that is eager to move around on its own, or enabled the spirits to move themselves into position to attack accurately when ordered.

Anyways, I do like the different focuses they gave each of the spirits. The water spirit heals and stuns enemies, so you use it to recover from injuries, reduce damage, and give yourself an opening to attack with your own weapons. The fire spirit aggressively attacks on its own and is particularly effective against certain enemies (like zombies), so it is great in a tough fight against a swarm of foes, or when you don't have the freedom to attack yourself. The shadow spirit negates hits and catches you when you fall, so you use it when you are at risk of taking a lot of attacks you can't dodge. The plant spirit can utterly destroy every enemy that gets too close to it, so it is great for holding positions and clearing out waves of enemies. Each spirit has it own strategy, either defensive or offensive, and the same battle can be fought in very different ways depending on which spirit you bring to it. This kind of tactical variety is really great, and helps a lot with keeping the battles in Beyond oasis exciting until the end.

There are probably a few more things I could take about regarding the game, like its items (limited inventory encourages use and foresight, but at the same time you just get way more great items than you really need), weapons (limited use weapons work surprisingly well here, other than bows), the rank system (too random and the hearts fade too quickly), and finding jewels (a great consistent and useful puzzle reward), but none of those aspects of the game are unique or notable enough to really get into detail about.

Overall, not a bad game at all. I just wish I knew where those last seventeen jewels were, since I thought I was a lot more thorough than that...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Final Fantasy IV DS: Music

I purchased the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy IV a few days ago, and have already put a few hours into it. Final Fantasy IV is a game that I have a lot of nostalgia for, which I hinted at in a relatively recent blog post. After only a few hours in to the game though, one of the first big things to jump out at me is FF IV's music. It may be the nostalgia talking, but I still think that Final Fantasy IV has some of the best songs and use of music in RPG history.

The reason I think FInal Fantasy IV's use of music is particularly good has to do with how the game uses music to match the changing mood of a scene. Nowadays, background music is often very subdued, or even completely silent, during important scenes, because most of the dialogue is voiced. Often, the background music is constant throughout most of a scene as well. However, Final Fantasy IV did not have voice-acting in its original release (or even much in the way of written dialogue), and so it often had to rely on music to carry the the emotional aspect of a dramatic scene. A good example is the early scene where King Baron strips Cecil of his rank. During the scene, the castle's background music fades away, and the game becomes completely silent, until the point where the King says that he is stripping away Cecil's command, at which time the game suddenly starts playing a very sad and forlorn song. Because the song starts playing the exact moment that Cecil says his line ("My liege!"), it does an amazing job of emphasizing Cecil's shock and sorrow at that moment, even without a voice-actor to actually say the line. Final Fantasy IV is full of such moments where music is used to impart such emotions into the character's lines.

Another reason that I really like the music from Final Fantasy IV and its SNES contemporaries is because of the simplicity of those old MIDI tunes. In short, the songs from Final Fantasy IV where both emotionally powerful and simple enough to hum. Because I ended up humming those songs, they got stuck in my head for years. Heck, I am humming Cecil's eerily sad theme song to myself right this moment. The melodies of these songs were strong and memorable. Too often, the melodies of such songs in more recent games become buried in too many technical complexities and the impact of the songs are thus lost.

I am really glad that the developers of the FF IV DS remake kept the game's original music and musical timing. The music of FInal Fantasy IV is a big part of my nostalgia for the game, and I would have been able to tell if there had been any changes to it. As it is, the my nostalgia factor for the game maxed out after only hearing some familiar tunes during the opening CG movie. I guess it goes to show that music and sound are vital elements of nostalgia.

Persona 3 FES: The Images of the Dark Hour

One of the things that impressed me when I first watched a trailer for Persona 3 was the bizarre and disturbing imagery associated with the Dark Hour, Tartarus, and the Shadows. The shutting down of all electrical devices, the eerie green glow, the red splotches that look like pools of blood covering everything, the blurring effects, the surreal tower of Tartarus rising up amidst a terrifyingly quiet city, and most of all the unsettling effect of Transmogrification in which every normal person is turned into a coffin... The images of the Dark Hour are very powerful and work incredibly well to transform an ordinary-looking town into a nightmare world where monsters roam. The city during the Dark Hour is one of the most ideal backdrops for a secret battle against a terrible, inhuman enemy that I have ever seen. The only problem with this imagery is that it just isn't seen often enough.

With a setting as perfect as the city during Dark Hour, you would expect the game designers would make as much use of it as possible, but instead I think I can count on my fingers the number of times you actually see that imagery across the length of the game. As far as I can recall, you only encounter Transmogrified people in two full moon missions, the opening movie, three or four plot events (including one animated cinematic), and the "end of the world" sequence at the end of the game. You only see a good exterior image of the tower of Tartarus two or three times. You are never even given a chance to actually wander around the town during the Dark Hour. The images of the Dark Hour are incredibly important to the themes and story of the game, but far too often these are simply glossed over.

One major symptom of this effect is the fact that it sometimes feels like the Dark Hour isn't very dangerous in of itself, even though the Dark Hour is the great problem that the heroes are trying to eliminate. I think this is mostly caused by the fact that the Dark Hour doesn't even seem to exist unless the player chooses to go to Tartarus or a plot event happens during that time (which is either rare, predictable, or a harmless visit from Pharos). The Dark Hour, the most important phase of the day for the purposes of the story, is the one phase of the day that is completely ignored and invisible during the course of a normal game day. The feeling that the Dark Hour is insignificant in of itself is only amplified by the fact that, supposedly, normal Shadows almost never leave Tartarus and the heroes must enter Tartarus in order to fight Shadows. This transfers almost all of the focus from the Dark Hour to Tartarus, and what little focus is left on the Dark Hour is taken up by the full moon events, making the full moon seem more dangerous than the Dark Hour. It seems like a waste of the setting's potential, though I admit that it would be hard to make better use of the Dark Hour without completely changing important parts of the game's structure.

One thing the game designers could have done to make better use of the setting would be to create more scenes in which the sudden transition from the normal evening hours to the Dark Hour takes place. Perhaps they could have created a sequence in which the members of SEES are doing some normal event, like hanging out with some friends from school, up until the stroke of midnight, at which point the Dark Hour comes, Transmogrifying everyone but the Persona-users and leaving them alone in the darkened and distorted city. More scenes like that could have even helped make the isolation and hardships of the Persona-users, the people who care forced to see the hidden dark side of the world in a way no one else can, much more clear. Simply having some kind of scene where a Social Link character is visibly Transmogrified or pulled into the Dark Hour and threatened by a Shadow would have helped. After all, since normal people can't remember anything that occurs during the Dark Hour, characters could be pulled into the struggle for a short time without permanently affecting the daytime school stories. Even just having Dark Hour events occur during the Yakushima or Kyoto trips would have been interesting to see.

It really is a shame that the incredibly strong imagery and well-designed concept of the Dark Hour were not used to their fullest in Persona 3. According to what I have seen, Persona 4 will be using a completely different framework, so it looks like the Dark Hour may never get a chance to live up to its full potential as a setting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Kingdom Hearts II: Game Controls

I have to say that I have ambivalent feelings towards Kingdom Hearts II's control scheme. On one hand, the controls are clean and responsive; I rarely encounter problems making Sora do what I want him to do, even in the midst of fast-paced boss battles. On the other hand, trying to execute any command outside of a limited set of commonly used commands has a tendency to get me killed.

I really like the controls for basic combo attacks and the movement abilities. With just the X, square, and circle buttons (alongside the control stick of course), it is possible to pull off amazing and flashy feats. The game benefits a lot from the context sensitive uses of the square button in particular. It can be used to cancel a ground combo in order to execute special attacks, to perform various special kinds of movement while running and jumping, and to recover from knock-back with a counter-attack (as opposed to a simple recover with the circle button). While it doesn't fall into any kind of clean category, having a specific button to perform so many miscellaneous functions works really well.

I also generally like the use of the triangle button as a dedicated Reaction command button. While I sometimes don't like the particular implementation of Reaction commands in Kingdom Hearts II, I love the concept. As seen in boss battles like Shadow Stalker/Dark Thorn and Luxord, it can add a lot to the game's design space when coming up with imaginative battles and spectacular actions. However, one of its best features is that Reaction commands are used to talk to people and open chests, which eliminates any overlap between those common functions and the game's basic movement/combat controls.

The problematic elements of Kingdom Hearts II's interface (which it inherited from its predecessor) are all found in the command menu. While the command menu gives gives the player access to numerous commands, such as magic spells, items, limit attacks, and special transformations, the interface is riddled with just as many problems:

1) Since the X button is techincally the button that executes the selected menu command, once the player moves the cursor off the Attack command to select something else, the player can no longer make basic attacks until he selects another command or manually resets it.

2) Selection in the command menu is controlled with the direction pad, which means that the player has to take his thumb off of the left analog stick (which controls player movement) in order to manipulate it.

3) The player has to turn his attention away from the game's action in order to manipulate the menu, without getting the chance to pause the action.

All together, this means that the player is helpless while selecting anything from the command menu. In a game where Sora can go from full health to dead in the blink off an eye against a tough enemy, even the second or two needed to select something in the command menu can mean the difference between victory and defeat. I know that I have certainly died nearly every time I had tried to heal myself from critical using a potion from the command menu. Fortunately, the command menu isn't completely terrible; it is laid out in such a way that extremely common commands such as limit are in very quick to access to locations on the menu. However, it is useless for any command that needs to be executed commonly or in a hurry.

To get around this problem, the player can set four magic spells and/or items to the L1 hot-key menu. By holding down L1 and pressing the face button a spell is assigned to, that spell can be used with the responsiveness that is necessary in Kingdom Hearts. Unfortunately, four is only half of what is needed in the game. It means that the player has to give up on using two or more of his spells at any one time. 90% of the game's interface problems could have been solved by creating a second hot-key list keyed to the L2 button, doubling the players number of usable shortcut commands. Allowing the player to make shortcut commands for Limits, Drives, and Summons would have helped a lot too (while there are ways to make those three kinds of command into Reaction commands, that interferes with the the ability of the player to recognize other Reaction commands).

All told, I would recommend to the developers of the Kingdom Hearts series to rethink the implementation of the command menu for the next game in the series. As is, I have taken serious damage or died way too many times while messing around with that menu for my liking. If the options embedded within the command menu could be accessed with the game's usual speed and precision, Kingdom Hearts II's controls would be perfect.

Persona 3 FES: Endings 2 (the end to The Journey)

There is a lot I could say about the ending to Persona 3, but I am having a lot of trouble narrowing down how to start because it simply has so much good stuff packed into it. I guess I may as well just summarize a few thoughts I have had about it.

1) The set-up for the final battle and ending, including the final climb up Tartarus across January (which builds up the Judgement Social Link and unlocks the ultimate Persona), the last meeting between the SEES members in which they make the pledge to meet again even if they lose their memories, and the last battles against the members of Strega, is nearly flawless. I suppose the entire cult thing was pointless, but other than that the last month, with its severe change in tone and music, was very good.

2) The final battle was really dramatic and well-done. There was nowhere more appropriate for the final battle to take place than the top of Tartarus, and the final battleground set amidst dark clouds beneath the full moon was spectacular. The battle itself, involving the countdown of all of the Arcana used by the Shadows building up towards Nyx Avatar unleashing its true power, was also very dramatic and sufficiently impressive for a final battle.

3) The sudden revival of Nyx Avatar, the revelation of the true, monstrous Nyx within the moon, and the beginning of the end of the world were expected, but still very welcome twists to the game. After all, given all of the discussion over the past few months of the game of how Nyx was invincible, and the importance of the hopelessness of the heroes' battle to the game, the battle shouldn't be won that easily. No videogame with a story based around saving the world should finish before the end of the world is in full swing.

4) It is a cliche story twist that has been parodied time and again, but the whole "in the world's darkest hour, the hero gathers the power from his friends in order to gain new strength" idea is a logical and believable conclusion to the entire Social Link system, so it actually works rather well when it is used here. I like the fact that all of the Social Links that have been maxed out are referenced, I like the resulting, undefined ultimate Persona card (which is certainly The World card even if it is not called such), and most of all I like the fact that the elevator-shaped Velvet Room actually reaches its destination and opens its doors to the light for the first time, as if it is symbolically carrying the hero to his final battle and the conclusion of his story.

5) The scripted battle against the core of Nyx strikes a nice balance between dramatic elaboration and keeping things focused and to the point. I like the fact that the enemy's ultimate attack goes from nearly killing the hero to be completely ineffective against him as the power of his allies surges into him. Also, the fact that the Great Seal move uses up all of the hero's HP is an important detail that properly foreshadows how the game ends.

I was really expecting the ending to conclude shortly after the battle against Nyx, but I was rather pleasantly surprised to see that the ending had only really just started by that point. The hero returns from his battle, the world is saved, and time jumps forward to a month later at the beginning of March, where the parts of the ending I really want to talk about take place.

In a moment of great parallel between the two endings, the next part of the ending starts out exactly the same way as the "Kill Ryoji" ending began, with everyone having lost their memories and continuing on with their lives, speaking about fellow members of SEES as if they were total strangers. However, instead of ending the sequence there and jumping to three days later like it happened in the other ending, here it continues on to the rest of the day that follows, and control is given back to the player as if it were a normal day like any other in the game. This phase is the best part of the whole ending. At this time, the player is free to explore the town, and in doing so can see special scenes for every Social Link at the maximum level that give an epilogue for each story and subplot, as well as scenes involving other members of SEES that show that they have not completely forgotten the bond they share and the things that have changed their lives. It begins just like it did in the "Kill Ryoji" ending, but the freedom that comes afterwards is such a significant divergence from the other ending that it makes it feel like something completely different.

After a few days of being free to see Social Link epilogues, it reaches Graduation Day, the day which both marked the end of the "Kill Ryoji" ending and was decided to be the day in which the characters would meet again even if they lose their memories. Whether it was that promise or just the fact that the SEES Social Link would have maxed out (and thus become unbreakable) twice over between the time Ryoji asks for a decision and the final battle, it is clear that the continuing memory loss would actually be broken in this ending, and when Aigis approaches the hero at the beginning of this day speaking as if the hero's memory has returned (or was never really lost at all), that divergence from the bad ending is confirmed. The final sequence in which Mitsuru slowly gets her memory back in the middle of the same speech she was making in the "Kill Ryoji" ending is almost magical with how effective it is in reversing the tragedy of the heroes' lost memory in the bad ending, but in a odd way that reversal is reflected by another reversal: instead of going out with his friends to sing karaoke, the hero rests his head on Aigis's lap, and slowly closes his eyes...

In a way, there is really no other way that Persona 3 could have ended other than with the hero's death. Much like the idea of the Hero's Journey and the concept of the tarot, the entire story of Persona 3 is essentially a giant metaphor for a person's life. Even more clearly, the hero was bound to Ryoji, an incarnation of Death itself, and was haunted by Thanatos from the very beginning. The hero was given the contract by Death under which he was supposed to assume responsibility for his own actions, and was promised a single year within the game. Because of all of these, I was certainly expecting the hero to die, but I was surprised and impressed at both the fact that the game designers actually went and made it happen, and the way in which it happened. The common, cliche way such things usually happen in stories is that the hero sacrifices himself in the final moment and never returns home, but in this game he does return from his battle with Nyx and lives long enough to enjoy that time and see the happy result of his struggle. Most notably, the way the hero goes is incredibly peaceful and joyful. The hero simply lays his head on Aigis's lap while listening to the sounds of his friends coming to meet him again, and closes his eyes as if for a nap. rather than a tragedy, the hero's death is portrayed as a long-awaited, well-deserved rest. If it were not for a large array of subtle foreshadowing and the oddly sad tone in Aigis's voice as she talks to the hero, it would be impossible to guess that he had even died. Honestly, more than anything else I consider it to be a beautiful ending.

As a whole, this lengthy ending touches on pretty much everything you could hope for in an ending to a videogame as involving as Persona 3, and beyond that it is exciting, touching, dramatic, and bold. It may very well be one of my favorite videogame endings of all time.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Kingdom Hearts II: Organization XIII

Organization XIII was a really interesting concept for a villain group, but I don't think their role in Kingdom Hearts II worked out very well. Even though Kingdom Hearts II is a fairly long and involved game with numerous stages and boss battles, the main villains of the game hardly got any screen-time or character development. As a result, it was hard to remain interested in them as characters. In order to have been good villains, the various members of Organization XIII should have appeared before Sora much more regularly than they did in the game.

The weakness of Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts II is particularly glaring because Organization XIII put in a very strong appearance in the GBA game Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. First off, the four members of Organization XIII from Sora's story in Chain of Memories appeared regularly in the games plot from the get-go. At the end of every floor of Castle Oblivion, the members of Organization XIII either appear before Sora to talk to him or talk about their plans with each other in a cutscene away from the main characters. They also regularly appear as opponents: each of the four Organization XIII members fight the player twice over the course of the game. As a result of all of this, those four members of Organization XIII leave a strong impression.

Sadly, the seven (or eight if you count Roxas) members of Organization XIII who feature prominently in Kingdom Hearts II don't have nearly as much stage presence as the original four (which is rather ironic, since Axel appears in both games). A great deal of this comes from how seldom many of the Organization XIII members appear individually. Other than Axel's two-part appearance in the Roxas prologue, the player first encounters Organization XIII when all six of the remaining members appear as a group to taunt Sora. After that, only Axel and Saïx reappear on a regular basis. Here is a basic summary of the appearances of all of the members of Organization XIII:

1) Puts in a short appearance in Olympus Coliseum (1st) (not even as a big part of the world's plot) where he mostly runs away and acts cowardly. At least he forces the player to fight a short minigame-type battle. Unmasked.
2) Appears out of nowhere during mid-game Hollow Bastion event. Boss battle and dies, having never played a role in the game's overarching plot or done anything significant in any of the Disney sub-plots.

1) Plays mindgames with the Beast in Beast's Castle (1st).
2) Helps carry on the plot of Beauty and the Beast(2nd). Unmasked, boss battle and dies (in really short succession), having never played a role in the game's overarching plot.

1) Taunts Sora with mysterious words during the original Organization XIII appearance in Hollow Bastion. However, since he keeps his hood down and doesn't reveal his name, the whole time he just looks like a generic member of the Organization, so it hardly counts.
2) Shows up in the Land of Dragons (2nd), where he has one line of dialogue and no major story role. Unmasked.
3) Appears out of nowhere in the final dungeon. Boss-battle, dies, having never played a role in the game's overarching plot or done anything significant in any of the Disney sub-plots.

1) Shows up to brilliantly outwit the party in Port Royal (2nd) and set up some challanges. Unmasked.
2) Appears through a Megaman-style fortress boss door in final dungeon. Boss-battle, dies, having never played a role in the game's overarching plot.

Axel (this is where things improve somewhat):
1) Appears before Roxas in the prologue during the Struggle match. Mini-boss battle.
2) Shows up to have a major battle with Roxas at the end of the prologue.
3) Appears in several scenes alongside Saïx in and around the mid-game Hollow Bastion event as a means of bringing Kairi into the plot.
4) Comes out of nowhere to fight alongside the heroes against the horde of Nobodies en route to final dungeon. Sacrifices himself heroically. Dies.

1) Shows up alongside Axel in various scenes around the mid-game Hollow Bastion event as a means of bringing Kairi into the plot. He performs most of the major exposition of Organization XIII's plans here. Unmasked.
2) Reappears in numerous cut-scenes in the final dungeon, helping move along the Riku and Kairi plot and doing basic exposition.
3) Appears through a Megaman-style fortress boss door in final dungeon. Boss-battle, dies.

Xemnas (the leader):
1) Appears briefly in the mid-game Hollow Bastion event, and in a few associated flash-backs. Unmasked.
2) Reappears in final dungeon after all of the other Organization XIII members have been killed. Talks melodramatically with the party a little. Chain of final boss battles, dies.

In summation, only Axel and Saïx have any major recurring appearances across the game, and even those are limited to a few discrete sections of the game (near the mid-game Hollow Bastion event and the final dungeon). Saïx is also the only member of Organization XIII to regularly interact with other members of the Organization. He is also used to do all of the plot exposition. The rest of the members often feel like they are really only filling out a necessary quota.

The biggest problem with how the Organization XIII members are used is that they never interact with each other in any meaningful way. In Chain of Memories, the four members of Organization XIII interacted with each other constantly, engaging in a complex web of alliances and betrayal. Those interactions established their identities and built an exciting basis for the game's plot. The Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts II would have been much more interesting if it was full of sub-factions and individual members pursuing their own agendas. Without complex interactions and individual motivations, most of the members of Organization XIII end up acting like a random collection of generic villains with themed super-powers.

The other big problem of Organization XIII, their lack of on-screen appearances, could have been remedied in a number of ways. One of the biggest would have been to make the Organization as a whole more prominent in the Disney Worlds. While Xaldin has a big role in Beast's Castle, and a few of the others make minor appearances in others, the developers could have gone a lot further in integrating the Nobodies into the Disney stories. For example, Demyx or Luxord could have easily replaced Ursula in Atlantica's plot, which would have made a lot of sense, considering that Ursula was defeated in the last game and returns inexplicably in Kingdom Hearts II. They could have also put in a more prominent appearance in Agrabah, where the game does mention that a Nobody interfered but never shows it happening.

In addition, having the player fight various members of Organization XIII multiple times would have improved things a lot. For example, introductory boss battles against Saïx or another Nobody in Twilight Town or at the end of the big mid-game event would have been appropriate. Having a second boss battle against a villain elevates that opponent from one-shot boss to recurring character in a players mind. For example, Black Waltz no. 3 from Final Fantasy 9 is a very memorable opponent because of its persistence, even though it doesn't have any kind of major story role. In any case, more Organization XIII fights wouldn't have hurt, since they were generally the most exciting battles in the whole game. Maybe have a few of the members transform into those giant Nobodies like Marluxia did at the end of Chain of Memories?

If you create a large group of villains instead of one or two, you need to do something different in order to make them work. You have to do more than just rely on the threat of the whole group, but instead sell all of the individual members as credible characters in their own right. Giving them all consistent appearances and strong individual motivations goes a long way in achieving that. If the developers of Kingdom Hearts II had stuck closer to what worked so well in Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II would have had a much stronger cast of antagonists.

Persona 3 FES: Endings 1 (bad endings can be good too)

One of the most important moments in Persona 3 FES is when Ryoji gives the player the choice to either kill him or spare him on New Year's Eve. The choice to spare Ryoji, and thus fight against the undefeatable goddess Nyx, is clearly presented as the correct choice because the player's allies unanimously decide to go that route, but it is within the player's power to go against that decision and choose to kill Ryoji, which means the heroes lose their memory and live peacefully until Nyx destroys the world. It is a classic choice between the easy road that leads to a bad, "the world is destroyed" ending, and the hard road that leads to the good, "the heroes save the world" ending, but Persona 3 puts a new spin on this choice that makes it far more interesting than usual.

The typical set-up for a "bad" ending brought about by a conversation choice is that the ending is short and pretty much inconsequential. One of the first games I ever saw with such an ending was an old SNES game called EVO: Search for Eden, where you were given several such conversation choices (the choice to join forces with the Tyrannosauruses or Birds in the middle chapters), and in every case choosing the "bad" choice just gave you a short "this is how you die" sequence before kicking you back to the map screen. Another one I can recall from that era is the Breath of Fire 2 "let the gate remain sealed" ending, which mostly just leads to an ominous image of an army of demons, and little else. In both of those examples, and a few more that I can recall off of the top of my head, such as in Suikoden 2 and Suikoden 5, the "bad" ending doesn't even give you a proper roll of the credits, just a brief bit of narration and a few images. For the most part, these endings exist solely to say "you made the wrong choice", often by showing the world ending or something like that, and very little else. The "kill Ryoji" ending in Persona 3, though, is very different.

One factor that makes the Persona 3 "bad" ending so unique is that it is a full ending in of itself. The actual ending is fairly lengthy, featuring a large amount of conversation between the most important characters, and while it is nowhere near the length of the game's true ending, it is still fairly complex and is not an unreasonably-sized ending at all. Further, it features a full credit-roll, almost the exact same credit-roll seen in the true ending, including the fantastic ending song. In addition, you can save "game cycle" data with this ending just as if you had beaten the final boss and brought the game to full completion. In fact, I have seen lengthy games end with shorter and less-satisfying " true endings than this game's "bad" ending. However, these facts alone are not what makes the "kill Ryoji" ending so interesting to me.

What truly sets Persona 3's "bad" ending apart is that it does not rely on any cheap gimmicks to get its point across. It would have been easy to just show that killing Ryoji was a bad choice because it leads to the end of the world, since all the game designers had to do in that case was show Nyx destroying the world, but that would just be a predictable, boring ending that would do little but say "if you want to save the world, make the other choice". Instead, the actual "kill Ryoji" ending doesn't even bring up the end of the world of Nyx at all, but rather focuses on the themes that actually matter to the choice. After all, the heroes are not making the choice between saving the world or letting it end, they are making the choice between losing their memories so they can live peacefully until the end and keeping their memories so they can fight a battle that is supposed to be hopeless. As such, an ending that features Nyx destroying the world would go against the spirit of that choice, because it would be saying that the reason killing Ryoji is bad would be because the heroes would be running away from a battle to save the world, and implying that going the other way would lead to a victory over Nyx. However, by ignoring the entire "end of the world" angle in the "kill Ryoji" ending, the game puts the emphasis on something far more important to the themes of the game: the fact that giving up their memories for the sake of peace is too terrible a price for the heroes to pay in of itself.

As I tried to describe in my last post, the core cast of likable characters who grow tremendously and form a strong bond with each other is one of Persona 3's great successes, and the "kill Ryoji" ending works incredibly well because of that success. The ending portrays the members of SEES at a time several months after losing their memory, in which all of their growth and all of their friendships have been lost. Rather than looking up to their upperclassman as mentor figures and friends, Yukari and Junpei hardly even know Akihiko and Mitsuru and regard them distantly without any of the familiarity that would have become common by the time you make the choice. The characters have forgotten Aigis entirely, and she is doomed to just watch on from a distance, completely forlorn. Mitsuru has forgotten the way her father died and the reason for his death. Everything the characters gained from their many months of struggle and sacrifice is gone, and instead they are making hollow statements that echo the words of Takaya, the misguided and possibly insane man who is one of the game's major villains. The entire effect feels incredibly tragic, as if the hero undid everything that SEES managed to accomplish and destroyed everything the members of SEES believed in with a single act of betrayal. This ending truly works well to show exactly why the choice to kill Ryoji is a terrible one, and as such manages to surpass almost every "bad" ending I have ever seen.

One more thing I want to mention about this ending is the way it parallels the true ending of the game so well, but that will have to wait until I actually get a chance to write a bit more about the true ending. However, I will say that that because of both that parallel and the nature of the "kill Ryoji" ending as I have discussed above, this is the one of the few "bad" endings (and the only such ending that occurs before the end of the game) I have ever seen that really adds to the experience of watching the true ending. This is one of those endings that should really be watched by anyone who plays the game.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Kingdom Hearts II: Disney Adaptations

At least eighty percent of the plot of a Kingdom Hearts game comes from the Disney source material that was adapted in order to make the various worlds that Sora & co. visit on their road to finding their friends. So, it is vitally important that the adaptation from classic Disney movie to videogame stage is pulled off well. Unfortunately, I don't think the transformation went anywhere near as smoothly in Kingdom Hearts II as it did in the original Kingdom Hearts. Whereas Kingdom Hearts I creatively adapted the stories of the movies to better fit the gameplay and over-arching story of the game, Kingdom Hearts II usually resorted to simply re-treading the original plots of the movies (with the often glaring inclusion of Sora). As a result, I found the worlds of Kingdom Hearts II to be significantly lacking in comparison to those of the original game.

The biggest problem with a slavish retelling of the original movie's plot is that it is impossible to capture the feel of a movie within the confines of a video game. Movies and video-games are very different mediums with very different needs and different tools at their disposal. In particular, unless a developer painstakingly recreates every last detail from a movie scene in video-game cutscene form, that scene will have less impact in the game than it did in the original movie. Since it is virtually impossible to do this without resorting to expensive FMVs (or replaying clips from the original movie), trying to recreate the original emotional impact of a movie (particularly classic Disney movies loaded with nostalgia for a lot of players) is a hopeless endeavor. This problem is made worse by a particular quirk of the videogame medium: players generally don't like watching cutscenes without gameplay interspersed to break it up. Because of these factors, game developers cannot entertain players by simply bombarding them with cut-scene versions of familiar movie scenes.

Sadly, Kingdom Hearts II often did resort to just this approach. The most egregious offender is KH II's Atlantica stage, which at one point retells more than 70% of the movie's plot in thirty minutes of cut-scene broken up only by a quick chance to save and a three minute interactive cut-scene event. While not as bad, many of the other KH II worlds similarly tried to compress the plots of entire movies into hour and a half long stages (Mulan and Pirates of the Caribbean are notable examples). However, they also tried to tell most of the main plots of these movies, and relied heavily on cut-scenes in order to do so. The result is a lot of relatively short stages that feel like the cliff-notes versions of the classic movies and are too light on exploration and serious action.

In comparison, the first Kingdom Hearts generally focused on a smaller part of each individual movie, and built a semi-original plot line around that one aspect. For example, the Wonderland stage of Kingdom Hearts is built entirely around a scene from the movie where Alice is held on trial by the Queen of Hearts. Saving Alice from the wrongful allegations becomes the plot for Sora and company during their stay in Wonderland. While places from the movie become areas in the game, the game focuses on making the player feel like he is exploring Wonderland himself, instead of forcing the player to watch Alice explore Wonderland as she did in the movie. Furthermore, Kingdom Hearts introduced a change to the plot to make it fit in with the overarching plot of the game: the Queen accused Alice of trying to steal the Queen's heart (the Heartless were the real culprits, of course). A similar amount of change can be seen in the original Atlantica stage, which cut out the entire "Ariel falls in love with a human" plot to focus on Ariel's relationship with her father (once again bringing in the main game plot in a convincing manner). In these ways, the stage lets the player experience the magic of the movie in an interactive fashion, and makes the movie world feel like an integrated part of the larger Kingdom Hearts world. It also kept the action firmly focused on the players actions and the game's main characters, as it should be.

The Kingdom Hearts II stage that succeeds the best at feeling like a really fun stage is Timeless River. Since Timeless River was based on old six minute cartoon shorts, there really was no plot to speak of to base the stage on. Instead, the stage was all about playing up the mood of those old-school cartoons. Timeless River successfully transmitted that wacky and frantic mood and allowed for a lot of fun gameplay at the same time.

I should at this point mention that many of my favorite Disney adaptations from the first Kingdom Hearts did not involve Disney specific worlds at all. One of the best was introducing The Beast, the Princesses, and Maleficent into Hollow Bastion, a world designed for the game specific plot. The appearances of these characters did not rely on the plot of their original movies whatsoever; yet, their roles in the game were nonetheless interesting, and helped make Hollow Bastion an incredible stage. Another great choice from Kingdom Hearts was transforming a section from Fantasia into a boss-fight in the final dungeon. Chernobog had no plot, but the monster and its awe-inspiring music was one of the most unforgettable aspects of descent into the final dungeon.

Significant adaptation is required in order to translate a movie into a videogame. This is doubly true for large cross-over games like Kingdom Hearts. I think the original Kingdom Hearts was much more successful than its sequel at making the Disney worlds interesting by focusing on creatively adapting smaller, easier to manage pieces of the movies into something that functioned as a game first and foremost.

Persona 3 FES: The Growth of SEES

In a lot of my writing over the last month I have been pretty critical of Persona 3's storytelling, so I have decided I am just going to write a lot about how the game managed to redeem those failings and turn the whole thing around into a pretty good story.

The single factor that covers up most of the weaknesses in the game's story and makes the story truly enjoyable is the strong central cast of characters: the members of SEES. These characters, the main characters who fight alongside the main hero and struggle through many victories and tragedies alongside him, are likable, interesting, believable, and complicated characters who grow and change greatly across the course of the game. In many ways, I consider the core cast of Persona 3 to be one of the best groups of characters I have ever seen in a videogame.

Two of the SEES characters, Yukari and Junpei, and particularly important to the game experience. These two characters are introduced at the start of the game, and they are the very first characters to join the hero in battle (in fact, you need to climb the entire first block of Tartarus with only their help). They are also the hero's classmates and dorm-mates who sit right next to him in class and struggle right alongside him through all of the troubles of his double life. Just like the hero, they start the game as ordinary students who have just joined SEES and have no real experience with the Shadows or the Dark Hour, and in the end they stand by the hero in the final battles, risking their lives alongside his. In many ways, they are the most believable characters in the game, and the events that help them change and grow are the most memorable and endearing scenes in the entire story. Because of all of these factors, these two characters mitigate the impact of one of the game's greatest flaws.

As I wrote at length about before, I don't consider the main hero of Persona 3 to be a very good character, but in many ways the strong presences of Yukari and Junpei throughout the game helps make up for that weakness. Yukari and Junpei are alongside the hero through the entire game, but unlike the static and silent hero, they speak up and have their own stories, and as a result they often supplant what should be the hero's role in the game. When a hero needs to say something but the silent protagonist remains silent, often it is Yukari or Junpei who will step forward and respond in his place. One place in which this is done very well is in the case of Ryoji. The bond between the hero and Ryoji is what is essential to the game's story, but all of the interactions between the hero and Ryoji are brought about because Junpei befriends Ryoji immediately. Junpei's automatic friendship with Ryoji is not all that important in of itself, but it works to make up for the limitations of the hero's silence. In another example, a minor plot element important to the game, the initial fear and hesitation the members of SEES feel regarding their Evokers, is explored entirely through Yukari, and it is left vague whether the hero struggles with that at all. Beyond all of that, Yukari's grief over her father's death and struggle to understand why he died works well to fill in for the game's lack of development regarding the hero's dead parents, and Junpei's involved and touching romance with Chidori helps add a lot to a game where the hero's own romance subplots are detached and often flawed. The strong similarity between the hero and those two characters, and the strength of their stories, works well to make a strong story out of a game with a weak main hero.

However, Yukari and Junpei are not the only interesting characters in the game; just about everyone in SEES is a great character. Akihiko and Shinjiro's old friendship, marked with tragedy and disagreement, and way Shinjiro's death moves Akihiko to become a much greater person, works incredibly well. While it develops a bit too rapidly all at once near the end of the game, the story of how Aigis, a robot built only to destroy Shadows, tries to find a place for herself in the world as a living being is surprisingly moving, particularly due to the Aeon Social Link, and is probably one of the best versions of that kind of story that I have seen in quite a while. I can say similar things about almost every member of SEES, really. Even minor subplots, like Junpei's struggle to overcome his jealousy of the hero and disappointment with his own limitations or the way Ken is embarrassed about and tries to hide the simple fact that he really is still just an elementary school kid who misses his mother and likes superhero stories, make the game characters feel genuine and help the player empathize with them.

As a whole, the members of SEES go through a classic "heroic journey", where they start as normal people and after many trials end up changing their world for the better. At the same time, they go from being a group of people who hardly know each other and often don't get along into a group of people who have formed an unbreakable friendship and are willing to face certain death in order to hold on to that bond. The grow up from just being a group of people trying to serve their own interests and become a band of people who are willing to abandon an easy road to happiness in order to build a better future. It is a very common kind of story, but this game proves the general rule that as long as you put a lot of effort into making a story good, it doesn't matter how common it is. Also, in this game where the main hero is left undefined, having the entire central group of characters undergo the heroic journey helps a lot in implying that the hero himself has changed and undergone such a journey, even though the game system does not support such a journey very well in of itself.