Monday, November 24, 2008

Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3: Single-Player Modes

Naruto Ultimate Ninja has two single-player modes, "Hero's History" mode and "Ultimate Contest Mode". Both could be described as story modes, with "Hero's History" mode being an extremely abbreviated adaptation of the Naruto manga's storyline and key battles, and "Ultimate Contest" mode depicting an original story. There is nothing like a traditional arcade mode, so you if you want to play the game, you only really have these two modes and the versus mode. As a whole, I found these choices to be pretty lackluster.

First off, when I say that "Hero's History" mode is abbreviated, I really mean it. This mode supposedly covers the entire first part of the Naruto manga and anime, but it cuts out a very large number of events and battles, so the entire thing can be settled in about an hour of play. Most of the characters in the game don't even show up in it at all, the focus is very clearly placed on Naruto Uzumaki's battles to the exclusion of most others, and there are no branching paths or alternate versions of events at all, so it is fairly unimaginative and pretty much has no replay value. It is obvious that this was not the main focus of the game.

"Ultimate Contest", on the other hand, is fairly elaborate. Rather than being a linear series of events, it lets you freely control Naruto as he explores the Hidden leaf Village and participates in the original story. This could have been really fun, if it were not for the fact that the original story is a fairly simplistic tournament plot and you really have nowhere to explore except the village. The plot really is just a shallow excuse for a number of battles against other ninja, which would be fine (this is a fighting game after all), if it were not for the fact that the set-up limited the player to using Naruto almost exclusively, made him fight pretty much nothing but the other Leaf and sand ninja that are his own age, and placed all of the battles in an extremely limited sub-set of the game's many fun battlefields. So, the main plot of the "Ultimate Contest" mode has no real variety and a boring plot.

In addition to the tournament plot, "Ultimate Contest" mode features a number of events and missions you can undertake, which help you gather money you need to unlock bonus material (voice samples, movie clips, etc) as well as expand your repertoire of jutsu for the customization system. Fortunately, you can actually use any ninja you have unlocked for this mode in the event and mission battles, but unfortunately the events and missions don't really focus on battle at all. An event is just as likely to be a mix of completely brainless fetch quests (AKA scavenger hunts where the items you need to find show up on your map) and minigames as it is likely to contain a battle (and battles are often combined with fetch quests and minigames). What is more, most of the rarest and most important items you can acquire, the ones that allow customization of each character's strongest Ultimate Jutsu, never require battle at all. Some of the challenge battles found in this mode can be fairly fun, but as a whole, despite this being a fighting game, there simply isn't a lot of fighting, certainly nowhere enough to let the player try out all of the game's characters, Ultimate Jutsu, and customization options.

"Ultimate Contest" mode also has an experience system that lets ninja level up through battle and completing missions, but this system never really seems to matter (most battles can be won as easily with a low-level ninja as a high-level one). Actually, since other than the battles where you have to use Naruto there are practically as many battles as there are characters and most of the time every character gains experience at the same rate, there really isn't a lot of purpose to trying to raise levels for anyone.

The one thing I want out of the single-player modes of any fighting game is a chance to fight a number of battles using all of the different characters in the game. In both original fighting games like Street Fighter, Soul Calibur, or Guilty Gear and high-quality licensed fighting games like the DBZ Budokai series, a variety of arcade modes and versatile story modes fill this niche very well. Despite the strength of its battle system, Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3 just doesn't have this as an option, and thus falls flat. At least it has a decent versus mode...

Grandia: Conversations in Town

Every year in the month or so leading up to Christmas, I end up pulling a game that I haven't played in years out of the depths of my collection. This year, I decided to restart the Playstation version of Grandia (a game I have mentioned on this blog before) and finally sit down and beat it. It didn't take me long to be reminded how long it takes to talk to everyone in a town in this game. Since a town can have two or three dozen characters, and each character has anywhere from one to five things they say, it can easily take an hour or more to properly talk to everyone in a town. In the first ten hours of the game, I spent significantly more time talking to people than exploring dungeons or fighting monsters. Yet, I don't regret doing so in the least, since the NPC conversations in Grandia are almost always entertaining.

Unlike in many RPGs, where NPCs just give a few lines of generic back-ground information to the player when talked to, talking to NPCs in Grandia is used to help flesh out and develop the main characters. Instead of just quietly listening to the NPCs, the main characters of Grandia talk to the NPCs, ask them questions, and make jokes to each other. If an NPC mentions a future dungeon, Justin (Grandia's energetic main hero) will respond and talk about how excited he is at the prospect of going there. Seeing the characters' reactions to this kind of information really helps flesh out their motivations, interests, histories, and random personality quirks, without dumping all of this information on the player as part of the story. Since the main characters talk to each other too, it helps develop what the relationships between the main characters are like as well.

The NPC conversations in Grandia also do an unusual good job of revealing how famous the main characters are in the community and what their reputation is. The NPCs always address the main characters directly, often by name (if they know it), and often talk about what they know or think about the characters' actions. For example, when the party first arrives in a town, most of the locals point out that the main characters look like they are not locals, and the main characters are usually full of questions about the town. However, after some events and dungeons, the locals have become more familiar with the main characters and their exploits. They become more familiar with the main characters and start praising them for their heroic actions. Since the main characters are generally treated with the levels of respect and recognition that they deserve in these conversations, there is something very genuine about them that makes the world of the game more engaging. It also helps reinforce to the player that his actions have had an effect on the game's world.

Finally, the conversations in Grandia are entertaining because they are usually hilarious. Like in many Game Arts games, the characters in Grandia run the gamut from cooky to eccentric to downright insane. The witty, light-hearted nature of Grandia is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus: Pathfinding and Exploration

It is safe to say that a player will likely spend a longer amount of time riding around on horseback in search of the Colossi than actually fighting them. Fortunately, this is actually a pretty fun experience. Even though there are no enemies to fight or puzzles to solve outside of the Colossus battles, the simple act of exploring the game world, seeking out one's targets, is very enjoyable in of itself. If anything, adding unnecessary complications would have detracted from this experience.

A great deal of the enjoyment I have derived from Shadow of the Colossus's exploration comes from the lack of guidance given to the player on how to proceed. Since the game's map is not marked with destination markers and is vague enough to be nearly useless, the payer is given only two clues on finding his next target: a short, cryptic description of the area by Dormi, and the Light of Guidence, which shines from the player's sword in the direction of the next Colossus. However, since the Light of Guidance needs to be actively checked by the player, only works when the hero is standing in strong sunlight, and only points in the relative direction of the next target and not the best path to reach it, the player often has to expend a lot of energy searching for his next destination. I have gotten lost numerous times while searching for a Colossus, and I often end up taking the long winding route instead of the short route. I have had to back-track, guess my way through winding canyon roads, climb up tall objects in a forest to find good sun-light, and so on numerous times in my search for the Colossi. Yet, I have often had a lot of fun doing so, since the act of trailblazing and pathfinding through a sprawling world is such a novel experience for me. Far too often, game developers make it far too obvious where the player's next destination is, or make it impossible to go too far off-track. This approach destroys the chance for the player to enjoy the search itself.

The lack of dangers and monsters in the game helps keep the focus of the experience on the journey itself. As it is, while riding around on Argo, I sometimes was reminded of stories of heroes riding great distances through forests and over mountains on a quest. If I had to get off my horse and kill goblins every few minutes, it would have broken that trance-like feeling. It would have also turned exploring the game world into a repetitive chore. Right now, Shadow of the Colossus is not a very repetitive game. Each Colossus provides a different challenge than the last, and each journey in search of a Colossus is different as well. Adding in minor enemies to populate the world would have required the player to fight the same meaningless battle over each time he passed through a certain area, which would have distracted from the newness of the journey itself. It would have dragged the travel portions of the game out too much as well.

Another thing I like about the exploration elements of Shadow of the Colossus is that it rewards the player for experimenting. During my search for the third Colossus, I noticed a lizard running across the canyon floor nearby. Seeing as how I had a bow, I decided to see if the game would let me hunt and kill the lizard, which it did. It even left a tail behind, which I could pick up. Later on, I discovered a lizard with an unusual white, glowing tail. When I killed that lizard and picked up the tail left behind, I discovered that my grip gauge had increased slightly. The game's manual hadn't even mentioned that there were power-ups in the game, so this was a pretty big discovery for me. After a bit more exploration and experimentation, I found fruit hanging from the branches of a tree that I could shoot down with a arrow and eat to increase my maximum health. These benefits are so slight, they are unlikely to turn the tide in an actual Colossus battle, but they do serve as a very effective reward for a player who takes the time to experiment and explore the game world. In particular, I like these rewards since they reward the player for doing what a person in that world itself would realistically do: hunt animals and gather edible fruit for food.

One final aspect of the exploration element of Shadow of the Colossus that I enjoy is the way Argo, the hero's horse, behaves. When the hero is riding Argo, the player doesn't directly control Argo's movement, he controls the way the hero commands Argo. So, getting Argo to turn the direction you want, get up to a full gallop, or stop can sometimes involve frustration and perseverance. On the other hand, Argo is also capable of following winding, narrow trails and such without a single button press from the player. In fact, it is sometimes easier to navigate by gently nudging Argo in the right direction, then letting him make the turn by himself. This make Argo seem like a real animal, instead of just a vehicle, which is a first in my experience.

It is very rare for me to find a game like Shadow of the Colossus where getting to your destination really is half the fun.

Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3: Ultimate Jutsu

Recently, I rented a copy of Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3, which I have been curious about for a while now. It is a pretty fun game, though it doesn't really break a lot of new ground (it is very similar to the DBZ Budokai series, after all). The core combat system of the game is very good, and they do a lot of interesting things to keep things interesting and stay true to the series. I particularly like the variety of thrown weapons (especially the character specific ones) and the fact that even a character's basic attack combos make use of far more than just basic punches and kicks (like Naruto's long-range Shadow Clone attacks and Tayuya's wide-area flute attacks). This does a lot to give the game far more variety than the typical anime tie-in fighting game and keeps true to the wide variety of fighting styles seen in the manga and anime (one of the manga's strengths). There are a wide variety of more powerful and cinematic "jutsu" attacks that you can give to the characters with the customization system, but you can can only equip three to a character at once, so the variety in basic combat ability is really important.

I would touch on the existence of a system to customize jutsu for each character, but it is fairly simplistic in this game, if refreshingly flexible, so I think I will instead write about the more powerful "Ultimate Jutsu" attacks that each character possesses. Most characters have several of these moves, of which they can only equip one at a time. They are hard to hit with, and once you actually hit with one you go into a button-pressing contest against your opponent while watching the attack animation, which affects the effectiveness of the attack. Also, after the attack hits, many ultimate jutsu cause the user to either transform or enter into a temporary state of heightened ability, or causes the target to enter into a weakened state. This set-up is fairly good, but there are a fairly large number of flaws.

One of the first flaws is due to an eternal source of frustration for me: poor documentation. In the customization screen where you equip Ultimate Jutsu you can see how much damage the jutsu will inflict and how many bars of the Chakra Gauge it will consume, but you can't see whether it enters the character into a powered-up state, what that state would be, and what the effects of that state are. This gets particularly frustrating when a character has at least three different powered-up states, six to eight different Ultimate Jutsu, and not all of his jutsu trigger powered-up states, like Sasuke Uchiha. I know "Curse Mark Activated" and "Curse Mark Chidori" activate "Curse Mark Mode" (and I have a general grasp on what that mode does), and I have memorized that "Ominous Chidori" activates the "Curse Mark Mode 2" transformation (which is completely different than the Curse Mark Mode in every possible way), but while I know that "Sharingan Activated" activates the "Sharingan Mode" (which copies the enemy's move-set), there is no easy way for me to remember whether it is "Lion's Barrage" or "Chidori" that also activates "Sharingan Mode". This gets even harder with something like Temari's "Cyclone Scythe" attack causing her to enter into something called "Heaven Dance Mode", which isn't even directly related to something from the manga or anime (and I have no clue what it actually does). I don't even want to mention my confusion regarding Kiba's "Two-Headed Wolf" attack and transformation... Needless to say, more documentation and possibly some cleaner design could have helped this mess quite a bit.

Another complaint concerns the button-hitting contest that occurs when an Ultimate Jutsu is triggered. This feature is pretty useful, since it lets the person being hit by an Ultimate Jutsu do something to defend himself even after the blow connects, and I like the way the contest is balanced towards either hitting at normal power (in most situations) or being slightly weakened (if the defender is slightly successful), with the more extreme situations (critical damage or attack interrupt) only occurring if one side dominates the contest completely, making it far more fair than the "either it hits or it doesn't" mentality that made similar competitions in some of the DBZ Budokai games so frustrating. The real complaint is that this essential competition takes place while the attack animation is in progress, forcing the player to pay attention to a small corner of the screen and miss parts of the attack. A small complaint, but it seems like a waste to have such detailed animations and then punish the player for paying attention to it. Even putting the contest cues at the center of the screen rather than the corner would have helped.

One thing that seems strange to me about the Ultimate Jutsu/Transformation system of the game is that it often feels unnatural to transform into a form after launching that form's ultimate attack. "Ominous Chidori" is Sasuke's Curse Mark Mode 2 form's ultimate attack from the manga and anime, but you use it before entering that form and you can't ever use it after transforming (since transforming disables Ultimate Jutsu). It just doesn't seem to go in the order it should. Certainly, this order works well for the "Sharingan Activated" and "Nine-Tailed Power" attacks that portray a character transforming, as well as moves that inflict a penalty like Itachi's "Tsukiyomi" attacks, but not for the true ultimate attacks.

One final problem is that it seems too limiting to only be able to equip one Ultimate Jutsu for each fight. There are around 140 Ultimate Jutsu spread unevenly amongst the 40 or so characters, often resulting in some characters having far more Ultimate Jutsu than they can actually use across any reasonable number of battles. More importantly, the limitation of only being able to use a single kind of Ultimate Jutsu in any given battles means there is no opportunity for the player to make important strategic decisions in the middle of battle. The only choice is whether to use the Ultimate Jutsu you equipped or not. This seems particularly limiting since several characters have whole chains of Ultimate Jutsu that would logically be chained together. For example, Rock Lee has his "Primary Lotus" attack, followed by three increasingly powerful "Hidden Lotus" attacks that follow the "8 Inner Gates" progression from the manga. The Hidden Lotus attacks portray a series of moves in which Lee is increasing his power one stage at a time, each move following the last, but you can only equip and use one in any given battle. Naruto's three "Rasengan" attacks work in a similar manner, with each being the strongest attack of one of Naruto's three main states. If the game actually had a system that let the characters iteratively improve their power and change their currently equipped Ultimate Jutsu accordingly, which would work well with many of the Ultimate Jutsu attacks and reflect the way battles are fought in the source material, then the last two problems I complained about would go away.

Still, problems aside, I have to say that the designers behind the Ultimate Ninja games know how to create really impressive attack animations. The music and art style of this game is great.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus: The Experience of Fighting a Giant

I recently got my hands on a copy of Shadow of the Colossus for the first time a few days ago, and it has completely blown me away. Shadow of the Colossus provides only one major gameplay experience: fighting giant monsters by climbing onto their backs and stabbing weak points. However, by focusing on polishing that one gameplay element to perfection, the developers have created a real masterpiece of a game. From beginning to end, one of the fights against a Colossus reveals the tremendous amount of effort that has been put into making that one experience enjoyable.

I have fought and defeated six Colossi so far in the game, but I am still impressed by the size of the monsters every time. Intellectually, I realize that most of them are all about the same size, but I am somehow fooled into thinking each one is bigger than the previous one. Part of this effect is probably due to how hard it is to see the entire body of a Colossus at once. As long as you are reasonably close to one, its entire body will not fit into the screen. If you are far enough away to see the entire body of the Colossus, then it is easy to be surprised at how much bigger it looks when it finally draws close. Furthermore, the game's camera is usually around the same height off the ground as the hero is when the hero is standing on the ground. So, the game camera has to tilt upwards to view a Colossus, magnifying the appearance of its height. Another trick they used to magnify the already considerable size of the Colossi is by filling the game world with terrain that dwarfs the hero, and then making the Colossi even bigger than that terrain. I am pretty sure they are slightly upping the size of the Colossi as the game proceeds too in order to keep the "wow!" factor going.

The one area where the developer's careful eye to detail really shines is in the physics and movement of Wander and the Colossi. The hero's movements are not stiff or simple. Rather, he is always stumbling as he gets up after a jump, walking unsteadily across a moving surface, and being thrown around like a rag doll as he desperately holds onto a gigantic monster's shaking back for dear life. The way the Colossi walk around, shake their heads and backs, and flinch from bow or sword hits is also very natural looking and life-like; the Colossi convincingly behave like living creatures. Furthermore, the way they visibly tear the ground apart with each step and create massive screen-blurring shockwaves with their attacks strongly emphasizes the incredible power that their size gives them. The physics of the game is important to this overall effect too, since the hero really can be pitched from the back of a Colossus if the player makes a single misstep.

Most of all, the experience of fighting a Colossus is so strong and exciting because it is an honest, fun challenge. Fighting a Colossus has all of the elements of a boss-fight, a platformer stage, and a puzzle rolled into one fluid package. Since the Colossi are always moving, reacting, and attacking, the player has to constantly stay alert and keep his eyes on what it is doing. At the same time, getting into position to attack a Colossus's weakpoint is never a simple process since it involves exploiting the terrain, tricking the Colossus into doing something stupid, and/or hampering the Colossus with well-placed attacks. The game also has incredible platformer elements: while I have made a lot of jumps in a lot of videogames, I have never made a death-defying jump from a monster's swinging elbow to its waist before. Shadow of the Colossus expertly melds all of these game elements into a single fast-paced, visually stunning thrill ride.

Equipment vs. Accessories

In my last post I condemned the "equipment tax" in RPGs, the situation where most of the wealth acquired by the player is spent on maintaining the status quo, so now it is time for me to praise the exact opposite situation, where most of the wealth acquired by the player is spent on resources that change the status quo, particularly things that give the player new abilities and add new strategies to the game. This kind of situation is relatively rare in RPGs, but it is not unheard of.

To start thing off, I want to say that I have always been incredibly fond of the stereotypical "Accessory" equipment slot seen in many RPGs. Accessories are classically the one kind of equipment that gives you cool things, rather than just add to numbers. Even if it is something as simple as giving a character immunity to a status effect, accessories actually have the potential to change the way you fight battles. What is more, their value tends to be much more even across the length of a game than equipment that exists only to modify math. Even the cheapest status effect immunity accessory found in the first shop in the game can be invaluable at the end if there is an enemy who uses that status effect. Accessories only become more valuable in the rare case where you can equip multiple, allowing you to combine their effects in any number of possible ways, such as with the great Final Fantasy VI "Relic" system.

Usually, the kind of equipment that modifies numbers only becomes interesting when it also has the kind of effect you usually see with accessories. For example, while the equipment in Persona 3 is otherwise a textbook example of the "equipment tax" at work, most items in that game have additional effects that boost evasion against certain elements, improve stats, give resistance to certain elements, or let you add status effects to your attacks, and these side benefits tend to become more common and powerful as you rise in level. The equipment tax effect limits the potential of this system, since ultimately you need to replace items with good effects with items that have higher mathematical power, but it still has some advantages. Even though the mathematical strength of the highest-level items is just one more iteration of a geometric progression, they are none-the-less more interesting because they have new, flashy, and powerful abilities attached to them, such as the ability to inflict every status condition at once or a large bonus to every stat. Some rare weapons even replace their usual physical damage with elemental magic damage. Because these effects are powerful and rare, it makes these weapons feel unique and interesting, even if their stats are nothing special.

Actually, I think just about every really good "ultimate weapon" in RPGs has some effect like those in Persona 3. The Atma/Ultima Weapon from the Final Fantasy series often breaks the normal math and bases damage on level and how injured the wielder is. The Ragnarok and Illumina swords of Final Fantasy VI add all kinds of special properties to attacks in addition to giving large stat boosts and having high attack power in order to secure the "ultimate weapon" position. The ultimate weapons of Final Fantasy VII are unique in having a full set of 8 paired Materia slots, in addition to possessing abilities that modify damage based on HP and MP totals. Even something as simple as the Rainbow's base 70% critical hit rate in Chrono Trigger can mean a lot. It is things like this that make "ultimate weapons" into something more than being merely the last weapons you acquire.

I really think that RPGs would be a lot better off if they simply replace the "iterative mathematical improvement" scheme with something much more valuable, where equipment provides interesting effects rather than large numbers. After all, Final Fantasy X used just that kind of system, and it worked incredibly well in that game. That game has all of the same properties as an "equipment tax" RPG, where new weapons are available at every stop and you progress from weak beginning weapons (those without any properties) to ultimate "Celestial Weapons" (that have incredibly strong abilities), but it works entirely on providing the player with different options and encouraging the player to buy things because he thinks they are worthwhile, not because they are strictly necessary. It is an excellent example of how well that kind of scheme can work, and I think it should be more widely emulated. Certainly, future Final Fantasy games and RPGs in general would be better off following in Final Fantasy X's footsteps, rather than go the path of Final Fantasy XII, with a central character customization system that exists to emphasize the equipment tax rather than actually enable customization.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dokapon Kingdom: The Mid-Game Gap

Just past the mid-point in Dokapon Kingdom, my brother has been caught in a trap of sorts caused by a flaw in the board layout of Dokapon Kingdom. Because the fifth continent of the game does not have a weapon shop of its own, it is really easy for a character who was behind the curve during the fourth continent to fall almost hopelessly behind the game's frontrunners, which may take characters out of the game disappointingly early.

The problem has its roots in the nigh-inaccessible nature of the fourth continent, the game's analog to South America. Not only does the player have to cross through three other continents to reach the fourth continent, but the fourth continent is cut off from the rest of the board by a forest dungeon that is approximately the size of a continent in of itself. Since the fourth continent is so far away from the rest of the board, a player can't afford to go there lightly. Now then, the fifth continent is connected directly to the early parts of the third continent, and is thus easy to access from the main part of the game board. However, since the fifth continent has no weapon store of its own, a player who wants to purchase new weapons during Chapter Five has to abandon the fifth continent and trek all the way back to the fourth continent's weapon store, placing that character very far behind the rest of the pack.

Because of the way Dokapon Kingdom's Story Mode is structured, two of the four players in my current game have been placed in this bad situation. During Chapter Four, when the towns on the fourth continent became up for grabs, Player 3 (a CPU) never even made it onto the fourth continent due to bad luck on movement rolls and in combat. Furthermore, my brother (Player 1) never got the right rolls to make it to the Weapon Store, even though he spent some time on the fourth continent. On the other hand, Player 4 (another CPU) and I did get out hands on up to date weapons and shields. Unfortunately for my brother, he didn't have time to stick around and buy weapons because Chapter 4's end of chapter event forced all of the players to quickly scramble back to earlier areas. Once that was completed, the fifth continent was open for business and became the focal point of the game, making the trip back to the fourth continent too time consuming to be worth it.

Unfortunately for my brother, not having up to date equipment is a serious draw-back. First off, it is very hard to take on the new, more powerful monsters of the fifth continent with weapons and shields from the third continent, and if a player can't kill those monsters, he will fall behind the level curve and be unable to capture towns. While it may be possible for such a character to beat some monsters, level up, and take a town, a character with better equipment will do those things faster and with less effort. Compounding the problem, it is nearly impossible for a under-leveled and under-equipped character to take on another player in direct combat. So, Chapter 5 has so far led to a significant widening of small gaps between players that opened up based on relative luck in Chapter 4. At this point, Player 3 has almost been completely shut out of the game, and my brother is going through hard times.

While it is necessary for a competitive game to eventually solidify the standings, this is much too early in the game for that. There are still two whole continents to go before the game is decided. Games like this are a lot more fun when it is a close race and most of the players have fair odds of taking the lead. Even though I am now in the lead, the current situation just isn't very satisfying. While it still remains to be seen whether or not Chapter 6 will give a chance for those who are behind to catch up, it might still be a very difficult task for those who have fallen behind due to the increasing power of enemies and the vast gains the leaders have made. What it all comes down to is that the game would have had a much more level playing field if the fifth continent had just had a Weapon Shop.

The Equipment Tax

When you reach a new town in a new part of the world, you need to go to the weapon and armor stores in order to upgrade all of your equipment. It is a simple routine, and it has been part of almost every RPG I have ever played, going all the way back to Dragon Quest. This need to upgrade equipment at every new town occasionally gets altered, made more complicated, or even completely subverted, but far more often it is not. At its most basic, every character will get a new weapon and new armor at every town, and the growth in power of those items will scale perfectly in proportion with every other character's new weapons and armor. While this is perhaps the most common model for how characters upgrade equipment across the course of the game, it usually detracts from a game more than it helps.

In a situation where new, more powerful equipment becomes incrementally available as the player progresses through the game, the cost of this equipment will inevitably become little more than a tax the player has to pay. In such a structure, the game designer must design the game under the assumption that the player will always have the best equipment available. This means that a player who, for some reason or another, doesn't have the latest equipment will be at a disadvantage and have a more difficult time with the game. At the same time, acquiring the new equipment doesn't give the player any kind of new advantage (since the enemies will have equivalent increases in power to match) or new kind of strategic option (for this post, I am assuming that equipment only grants the usual bonuses to attack and defense, and new equipment only gives bigger bonuses), so acquiring new equipment only maintains the status quo. As such, the cost of the equipment is little more than the minimum amount of money (or whatever) that the player needs to pay in order to avoid a penalty and keep things the same as they were previously. In many cases, the need to pay off this "tax" can simply be a source of frustration and stress for the player (this has happened to me countless times), and may result in the player feeling required to spend a lot of time on boring activities (AKA money-farming/grinding) in order to progress.

If new equipment is little more than a tax to be paid in order to avoid a penalty, then it would be better off it that entire aspect of the game were removed entirely. After all, I have never actually missed the act of buying equipment in games that didn't feature it (Xenosaga Ep. II comes to mind). More importantly, it seems like it would be easier for the designers if there was no equipment, since it means they don't need to guarantee that there is enough money (or whatever) available for the player to pay the "equipment tax", it would mean that there would be fewer variables in character balancing, etc. If equipment is simply going to be improved incrementally, then there is no advantage to having it that would justify adding all that complexity. If there is some aspect of an equipment system that justifies its existence, it is usually only limited by an incremental upgrade system (for example, a rare and difficult-to-acquire weapon being completely replaced by a weapon found in an ordinary shop later in the game).

There are many games I can think of in which equipment adds a lot to the game experience, but none of these games have the stereotypical "buy new equipment for every character at every town" system. The Fire Emblem scheme, where weapons will eventually break and most of your equipment for the entire game is comprised of simple iron and steel weapons, makes equipment management an extremely important part of strategy and makes unusual weapons extremely important and memorable. In SaGa Frontier, pretty much all the equipment you will ever see is available to be bought from the start, but cash is so limited that you need one of the game's several infinite money tricks in order to ever buy anything, making the items you acquire through luck and exploration extremely important. In Final Fantasy III, inequality in the availability of viable equipment can be annoying, but at the same time it forces the player to adapt by trying out new classes and strategies. Both the Suikoden and the Super Robot Taisen games combine non-transferable equipment upgrades with very large teams of characters, so it is impossible to upgrade everyone, forcing the player to make tough decisions. There are many ways to make equipment work, but just buying a new, mathematically-superior weapon at every town is not the way to do it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dokapon Kingdom: Wandering the Map

My brother and I have been playing a lot of Atlus's RPG/Party Game hybrid Dokapon Kingdom lately. So far, it has been quite a lot of fun. It has been a while since I have been hit so severely by the "one more turn" effect. Unfortunately, I seem to be chronically stuck in last place in the Story Mode run we are playing through currently...

One thing that strikes me about the game is that the game designers had a very good appreciation for the importance of movement in this game. Using items or field magic doesn't take up your turn, so unless you start your turn in the middle of a fight or are stuck for some reason or another, you will always be able to move, which is certainly nice. Also, items that affect movement form a very large fraction of the number of items in the game, ranging from common and cheap "1 Crystals" that let you move one space, to rare and expensive "Multi Crystals", "Super Spinners", and "Guided Warps" that greatly improve your movement capabilities in various ways and provide a powerful advantage (one CPU player recently got a huge head start and took first place thanks to a single Super Spinner). Since moving is what lets you actually do things in the game, and choosing where to move is probably the most important thing you do every turn, the fact that you are given many options that let you modify movement and don't have to worry about sacrificing movement in order to do other things help the game quite a bit.

I suppose that such would be attention natural though, considering that the mechanism for movement and the division of the map into spaces are the most significant "party game" elements in Dokapon Kingdom. The act of spinning the spinner to determine which space you land on is what makes it feel like a board game. When the game is working at its best, you can twirl the spinner, get any result, and figure out which space you land on would be the most advantageous, playing the game entirely by ear. For a lot of the time, the design of the world map really compliments this kind of play. Because the map has so many inter-connecting paths, small loops, wide loops, and a fairly interesting variety of towns, loot spaces, field spaces, and other special locations, you almost always have several interesting places to choose to move to. Unfortunately, the random element of the spinner has some severe drawbacks, as well, and this is revealed whenever you can't just play the game by ear and go where the spinner takes you.

One of the single most glaring flaws with the game is that it is both frequently very important to the game that you move to a single, particular space on the map, and nearly impossible to actually do so thanks to the randomness of the spinner. For example, you need to go to the single Dokapon Castle space fairly often across the course of the game (to deliver items, change jobs, get Pranks cleared, etc), and even if you happen to be on the correct side of the map (that castle really should be more centrally located), you still need to land on the castle space. The small, asymmetrical loop right in front of the castle means that you can usually reach the castle with 2 or 3 different results on the spinner if you are close enough, but even with that you can end up futilely trying to reach the castle for many turns. If the space you need to land on doesn't have a convenient asymmetrical loop right next to it, or even worse is stuck in the middle of a linear path with no branches, then you have no choice but to wait for a lucky one-in-seven chance and hope that the spinner doesn't catapult you far away from your target space. If the target space you need to reach is far away, then you need to hope that you don't get stuck with low numbers on the spinner for several turns straight. In these cases, items that modify the spinner go from being useful to being absolutely necessary, and the game can become pretty frustrating.

A large part of why this is a problem is that many, aspects of the game are time/turn sensitive. Every turn you are stuck trying to get into Dokapon Castle is a turn your rival players are using to capture towns, become wealthier, and grow stronger in a more lucrative location. Every turn you spend trying to land on the one space you need to land on in order to escape the Casino Cave is a turn where a time limit you have may be counting down, and an opportunity is slowly being wasted. Most importantly, every turn you are trying to do such a thing is a turn that you could have been spending doing something more interesting. Luck should be a factor in the game, but it should not be something that determines whether you are having fun or not.

Unfortunately, there isn't really any kind of easy solution to this. Items that modify movement help a lot, but they can't be acquired reliably (the only way to get one reliably is to seek out an Item Shop, which brings up the very problem that needs to be solved). Good map design, like the asymmetrical small loop in front of Dokapon castle, also helps a bit, but it is a bit inconsistent and doesn't really solve the fundamental problem. One solution would be to get rid of the randomness entirely, but that would sacrifice an important element that keeps the game fun. Perhaps a better one would be to minimize the importance of unique spaces, like Dokapon castle, dungeon entrances, shops, and the temples. If you didn't need to do things like go to Dokapon Castle in order to class change, go to a particular shop to buy the latest weapons, or go to a temple in order to reset your revival point, but instead could get those services from a larger number of spaces (the same way you could heal HP at any of the many towns), then a lot of the problem would go away. If you had a chance at being able to buy up-to-date equipment almost regardless of your current position, then the game would be much more supportive of just rolling with whatever number the Spinner gives you, which would be a lot more fun.

Dokapon Kingdom: Required Game Time

My brother and I have been sinking a lot of time into the multiplayer party-RPG Dokapon Kingdom over the last week or so. It is a pretty fun and addicting game, with a lot of elements designed to encourage an exciting and competitive multiplayer environment. Unfortunately, right now I am concerned that that despite its billing as a party game, Dokapon Kingdom requires too much game time. Since even a limited game requires several hours to see through to completion, organizing a group of people to play a full game could be problematic.

To begin with, the game's story mode is certainly designed to be played consistently over a longer period of time. In the Story Mode go-through right my brother and I are playing right now, we are just short of the halfway point after playing for around ten hours. Playing through Story Mode to completion is probably a twenty to thirty hour task, which makes it pretty unsuitable for a party environment. Rather, Story Mode seems to be designed for a situation like ours: several family members playing the game together for short chunks of time over several days.

It is pretty clear that Normal Mode and Battle Royal Mode are the main game modes designed for party-style play. Even then, they can still be long affairs. A Normal Mode game set to length of 12 weeks (84 turns) took the two of us about 3 or 4 hours to get through. That means that a Normal Mode game of Dokapon Kingdom is pretty comparable in length to a fairly complex traditional board game: something someone has to devote an entire evening to. It really isn't suitable to be played for only and hour or two; a game lasting only a few weeks is too short for anything decisive to happen. Because of this, Dokapon Kingdom is a good choice for a gaming club or a group of friends with a free afternoon, but it isn't suitable for a short 1-hour game while waiting for other people to arrive at a club meeting.

Unfortunately, while Dokapon Kingdom can be played for only a few hours, even that much time is not really enough to get into the real meat of the game. The game world of Dokapon Kingdom is very large with a lot of depth; there is no way for a group of people to really take advantage of everything there is to offer in only a few hours. In particular, the class changing system of the game is very unlikely to come into play in a typical Normal Mode game. After ten hours in Story Mode, I have finally been able to access a second tier job, and from what I have seen it is unlikely that jobs can be acquired at a faster rate in Normal Mode. So, people playing Normal Mode are probably limited to playing the three staring jobs out of a list of about a dozen total classes. So a lot of the material that is in the game feels like it is going to waste in reasonably short games.

I admit that I do need some more experience playing Normal Mode and Battle Royal Mode games, but I currently do have some big concerns about how well the game will work in an environment like my old college gaming club. Still, I will probably give it a try some time, since the game can be a lot of fun. I will blog about it here when that happens.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drama and Boss Battles

Boss battles serve a lot of functions in videogames. They are a means of providing a gameplay experience that can't be found elsewhere in the game. They can serve as checkpoints to ensure that they player has built up his characters' stats or developed his own skills to the necessary degree in order to tackle future challenges. However, perhaps the most important function of a boss fight is to serve as the dramatic climax to a section of gameplay. A boss fight that is too short, easy, long, or boring can destroy the dramatic build up and leave the player disappointed with the game experience.

First off, a major boss fight shouldn't die too easily. If the player ends up killing a boss in only a few attacks, the entire boss fight will feel anticlimactic. One recent example that comes to mind is the final battle against Kefka in Final Fantasy VI. When my brother finally made it to Kefka's final form, Kefka began to dramatically charge up a powerful attack, only to die before executing it even once. That victory felt too hollow, and I was pretty disappointed by it. I am not saying that every boss in a game needs to be nail-bitingly hard, but they shouldn't be too short. At the very least, a boss should last long enough to show off its abilities and make the player feel like he has to work to defeat it. If Kefka had possessed the same stats as normal but had two or three times the number of hit-points, it probably would have been a much more exciting boss fight.

Conversely, a boss fight should not be too long. If the player is stuck fighting a boss for half an hour or more, he may end up forgetting about all of the build up and anticipation and end up bored or frustrated. A good example of this is the battle against Anubis in Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner. When fighting Anubis, the player alternates between long periods of dodging and waiting and very brief opportunities to attack Anubis. While this is not necessarily bad in of itself, Anubis has an incredible amount of health; more than enough to absorb a few dozen attack combos. What this means is that the player has to repeat the same maneuvers again and again and again over the course of a really long period of time, which is simply boring. The fight would have been much more exciting if Anubis had half of his current health or less, balanced by an increased power level.

Striking a careful balance in terms of a battle's length and difficulty is a difficult process, However, there are ways to maintain a boss battle's dramatic tension, or even to build tension, within the boss battle itself. If a boss is constantly changing attack patterns and evolving its strategy as the fight progresses, the player will remain engaged and excited. This can be further enhanced by having dialogue and short plot-sequences intermixed with the boss battle. A great example of these devices in action is the final showdown with Ganondorf at the end of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. As the fight progresses, Ganondorf slowly figures out Link's fighting style and starts blocking attacks that worked earlier in the fight, forcing the player to come up with new strategies of his own. The battle pretty comes in three phases, starting with Zelda giving Link some assistance using the Light Arrow, then a phase where Zelda is knocked out cold and Link has to fight on his own, and finally moving on to a phase where Link a Zelda have devised a strategy of bouncing Light Arrows off of Link's Mirror Shield. In a sense, the boss battle has a story in of itself that progresses as the battle progresses. By making a boss battle into an evolving story, the scene remains dramatic, even if the battle itself is fairly lengthy.

In the end, I think it is safer to lean on the side of a longer boss battle, but to spice up boss battles with evolving elements and some degree of internal story. That way, one can avoid the problem of a boss battle being anticlimactic or boring.

Transformation Costs (Another View)

It is pretty rare for this to happen, but I really disagreed with certain elements of my brother's last post concerning transformation abilities in various videogames. For various reasons, I like many of the transformations systems that he didn't like and don't like a lot of the systems that he did.

For example, I love Shadow Hearts' demon transformation system. It is a system that lets the main hero, Yuri, be both the most flexible character in the game and still prevents him from being able to do everything at once. If you transform into a powerful Light form like Sandalphon, then you gain access to strong light-elemental attack and get vastly improved magical defense, and if you transform into a Fire form like Forron you can use fire spells and get greatly improved physical strength. In his base form, Yuri can only either use a basic attack or transform, so these specialized demon forms and their unique powers make up the entirety of his ability set. They cost Sanity Points, which are fully restored at the end of each battle, but because it is actually much harder to restore Sanity Points during a battle than something like HP or Magic Points, and powerful transformation cost very large amounts of Sanity, it means that you can't freely switch forms in the midst of a fight. Once you have transformed, your SP will be too low to risk another transformation. Thus, the real cost of each form is the opportunity cost of the abilities granted by every other form, which works very well since each individual form has an incredibly limited array of moves. Rather than being an ability too costly to use often, Yuri's demon transformation is the core of his power.

As for the entire "dramatic tension for boss battles" argument, I will pretty much completely disagree. Just because Yuri can use his strongest transformations in every battle doesn't mean that his transformations can't add a lot of dramatic tension to a boss battle. For one thing, my brother forgot to mention the one use for Sanity other than transforming: warding off the "Berserk" state. Every turn each character's Sanity decreases slightly, and when it runs out that character loses it and goes "Berserk". This really doesn't come into play for any character during normal battles, but it is a major factor in every boss battle. Depending on various factors, Yuri's demon transformation ability can make him extremely susceptible to this (using the penultimate Amon form frequently reduced Yuri to merely 3 Sanity when it was new, even with a cost-reducing accessory equipped). The boss fights are difficult enough that Yuri needs to use his strongest (and most costly) forms in order to win, so even though he has far more Sanity than almost anyone else, his transformations level the playing field so he is in the same tense situation as everyone else. Also, the fact that Yuri needs to use his strongest forms and powers magnifies a slightly hidden cost to using powerful transformations: the cost of the powers granted to each form.

Yuri's third-tier Dark form, Czernoborg, is much stronger than his first-tier Dark form, Death Emperor. Also, Czernoborg's main attack spell, Revelation, is much stronger than Death Emperor's Dark Messenger spell. However, just as the Czernoborg transformation costs nearly four times as much Sanity as the Death Emperor transformation, the Revelation spell costs nearly four times as much MP as the Dark Messenger spell. In addition, Revelation is a much more difficult spell to successfully cast, thanks to the game's Judgement Ring system. Revelation is the kind of spell you need to use in many of the game's later battles, but because Mp doesn't get restored between battles, it is just too costly and tricky to use often against normal enemies. If you want to actually use attack spells in normal battles, a weaker form with cheaper spells is a better strategy. Also, the powerful stat-boosting spells that define the different elements are only really useful in boss battles. As such, there was a pretty clear difference in both the forms I used and the way I used transformations between normal battles and boss battles.

Finally, I will say that the fact that you can use Yuri's demon transformation in every battle is a valuable benefit in of itself. If a character has a particularly defining ability, especially one that requires a lot of effort to manage and develop, then that ability should be useable as often as possible. If you work hard to unlock an ability, then you should be able to use that ability more than once. Since unlocking new demon forms for Yuri can be time consuming and tricky, that effort should be rewarded. If you could only justify using such forms in boss battles, then you get the situation where you have only four chances to use one of six different forms, which means a lot of effort can go to waste.

For many reasons related to why I like the Shadow Hearts demon transformation system, I don't really like the Breath of Fire 3 and 4 dragon transformation system. Where Shadow Hearts elegantly separates the cost of transforming and the cost of using a form's abilities so they use different resources, in the Breath of Fire games they both share the same resource, often leading to the transformation ending too quickly and many abilities being too costly (both transformation cost and ability cost increasing with more powerful forms is practically double-penalizing the player in such a situation). Also, particularly with Breath of Fire 3, the Dragon Gene system is a fairly large sub-system of the game that can result in countless forms, but you never really have a chance to use that many across the course of the game (the poor balance between the forms adds to this issue, since only a limited few forms are any good). As a whole, it results in a game where you simply can't use your main character's most distinctive abilities (or hardly any abilities at all), except for just a few rounds out of the occasional boss fight, and even then you will usually only be launching cheap, ordinary attacks.

As for some of the other things my brother mentioned, I agree that Knight Blazer is a good transformation (it is not central to the character's combat ability, so the fact that you can only really use it rarely works well, and the music change is a nice touch), and that Devil May Cry's Devil Trigger is nearly perfect. I just don't agree that Metis's Neo Orgia Mode is bad, though. I think my brother underestimates the real opportunity cost of the way Metis's AI routines change while in that mode, but I do agree that the fact you can't use it until the end of a boss battle is a bit problematic (it might be better if there was a finite limit to how often it could be used in a given battle, rather than the "Metis becomes helpless afterwards" limitation). I think that about covers it...

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Cost of Transformations

Special transformations are pretty common in many videogames, particularly in RPGs, these days. By "special transformation", I mean the ability of a character to enter into a special state where they possess increased stats and/or more powerful abilities compared to normal. Including this kind of effect in a game can add a lot of variety to gameplay, and help make major battles more dramatic and exciting. However, if the price that the player pays in order to use the transformation is wrong, it can have a negative effect on gameplay. If the cost is too cheap, the player will use the transformation in every battle; too expensive, and the player will never use it all.

The reason that I thought of this topic is that I noticed that my brother occasionally kicked himself for not using Metis' Neo Orgia Mode during regular battles in Persona 3 FES. Neo Orgia Mode is a pretty potent transformation: it significantly increases Metis' stats, renders her immune to most status effects, and makes all of her spells and special attacks free, and it only has two limiting factors: it can only be used for four or so turns, and Metis operates under a more limited AI routine during Orgia mode. The turn limit doesn't really do much to limit Neo Orgia mode's use, since most regular battles in Persona 3 can easily be cleared in one to three turns. The turn limit only really applies in boss battles; since Metis becomes unable to act and vulnerable to attack after the timer runs out, the player is limited to using Orgia mode only at the end of a boss battle, often when the battle is in wrap-up mode. The main reason not to use Orgia mode in regular battles is that Metis doesn't fight very effectively while powered up. In my opinion, the added power and free use of spells more than makes up for that most of the time.

A game with a transformation system that works similarly is Shadow Hearts. In that game, the main character, Yuri, can transform into a demon to gain increased stats, elemental affinity and access to powerful magical spells. Whenever Yuri transforms, he has to pay a price in Sanity points based on the power of his demon form, as well as an upkeep cost at the end of every turn. However, since Sanity points fully recover at the end of every fight, and there are no other abilities which cost Sanity points, Yuri's demon transformations function in more or less the same way as Metis' Orgia Mode: a turn limit the player doesn't want to go over. Because of that, there is literally no reason for the player to not transform during every battle.

Is being able to transform during every battle a bad thing? In my opinion, it takes away from a very important effect transformations can have on a game: dramatic tension. Beyond just serving as challenging tests, boss fights are exciting because they are the dramatic climax to a stage or story sequence in a videogame. The player going all out with the abilities and powers at his disposal is a big part of the excitement and drama that occurs during a boss fight, and special transformations are a way to give the player a very tangible way of feeling like he is holding nothing back. So there would be nothing wrong with transformation systems that can be used all of the time like Persona 3's or Shadow Hearts' if they gave the player access to bigger and stronger transformations than usual during boss fights. Unfortunately, they do the opposite: the player has to hold back more than usual during a boss fight.

One system that gets it more of less right is the Dragon transformation systems from Breath of Fire 3 and 4. In both of these games, Ryu can transform into a powerful dragon form by paying a flat Ability Point cost during initial transformation, followed by a smaller upkeep cost every turn. Unlike Sanity Points in Shadow Hearts, a Breath of Fire character's Ability Point total is kept between fights, so the player can't go around freely using transformations if he wants to still be able to do so during the next boss battle. However, since the player has access to several levels of transformation with various costs, it is possible to afford using a weaker transformation during a tough regular fight. The biggest flaw of this system is that Ability Points are also what Ryu uses to cast spells, both in and out of his transformed state. So if the player wants to use Ryu's regular magic spells, he can't afford to transform (this was particularly problematic in BoF 3, where Ryu was the best healer in the game).

A very different system that also works well is one where the player has to spend turns accumulating power in order to transform. A good example of this is in Wild ARMS 2, where the player can spend 100 Force Points in order to transform Ashley into the powerful KnightBlazer. A similar example is Xenogears, where a mech has a certain chance to enter Hyper Mode after making a non-deathblow attack once it has achieved Attack Level 3. Both of these cases share two things in common: activating the transformation requires several turns of effort, and attempting to transform involves holding back with some other power. What this means is that, while the player can use the transformation in any battle, it is usually quicker to beat regular enemies with more mundane means. However, these transformations are a major factor in any long-lasting boss fight.

One factor that I like about transformations that are not designed to be used in every fight is that they can be used as a safety net of sorts if the player runs into a really tough random battle. For example, my brother used KnightBlazer to bail himself out of trouble when a random battle went against him quite a few times. It is somewhat comforting to have a powerful trump card to fall back on when an enemy turns out to be surprisingly difficult.

Perhaps the single best transformation system I have ever seen is Devil May Cry's Devil Trigger system though. In DMC, the player has a Devil Trigger gauge that is used for transformation. As long as Dante has at least 3 gauges filled, he can transform at any time, and once he transforms, the gauge begins to empty. The genius of it is that the gauge recovers quickly enough that the player can afford to use it during battles against tough groups of regular enemies, and even use it multiple times during a boss fight. However, the gauge recovers slowly enough, coupled with the minimum energy requirement, that the payer is strongly encouraged to be conservative with the Devil Trigger gauge. The system works beautifully.

There are a few ways to make transformation systems way too expensive to use. In particular, the price of giving up actions is not to be underestimated. Even if the price of transforming is simply giving up a turn for the player to actually transform, that may be enough for the player to choose against using the transformation, particularly if the player is in a crisis situation. Even more problematic is forcing the player to use only one character out of an entire party during a transformation as is the case with Breath of Fire 3's Behemoth transformation or with Final Fantasy X's Aeon summons. Going from three characters to just one results in significantly reduced combat power and adaptability. Unless the resulting transformation is extremely powerful, it generally isn't worth it.

A kind of transformation that is particularly bad is the kind that the player has no control over. Final Fantasy IX's Trance system is particularly bad, since it is an ability that takes a long time to build up, only to activate when the player least needs it. Another game with a similar system is Tales of Symphonia with its Break system.

There is a lot more material I could talk about, but I think I will cut it short here. My brother and I will probably be talking about this topic some more over the course of this week.

Persona 3 FES: The Story of The Answer

I completed The Answer yesterday, and thus I have finally seen the entire story of Persona 3 FES. It has taken me a surprising amount of time to reach this point, especially considering that Persona 4 is slated to be released in just over a month from now, but it has been well worth it. Persona 3's story has been fun the entire way.

Other than the opening section that introduces Metis and the threat of the Abyss of Time and the final section, the plot of The Answer is built around looking into the various characters' pasts using the doors found at the end of every section of the dungeon. Because of this, even though The Answer is an epilogue to the main game it ends up putting a lot of focus on stories that occurred before those characters became important to the events of the game. As a result, these windows let you see previously hidden parts of the story and unknown character motivations. Many of these, such as the revelation that Junpei's father was an alcoholic and the effect it had upon Junpei, cast a new light on events from the main game, and they all add to the incredible depth and complexity of the Persona 3 cast. However, as much as they add depth to the characters, these scenes don't really do a lot to progress the story of The Answer itself.

One of the most important ideas of The Answer is that the characters are unable to move forward with their lives because they have lingering doubts and regrets concerning the death of the main hero at the end of the main game. In essence, the Answer is a story about grief, the loss of loved ones, and how to deal with that kind of pain. This theme is very powerful in the most important moments of The Answer, and it is brilliantly merged into the game with the constant pursuit of the main hero's shadow throughout the Abyss of Time, but it simply does not play into any of the "scenes of the past" other than Aigis's. As a result, the main theme doesn't show up in the only real plot sequences you see for the majority of the 30 hours or so of gameplay you need to progress through in The Answer. This is really the only significant complain I have about the game's story, and I think the rest is pretty impressive. Well, it gets a bit preachy towards the end, I would have liked to see more elaboration on and reaction to the revelation that Personas are just tamed Shadows (which was similarly understated in the Old Documents of the main game), and the ending is a bit weak compared to the ending of the main game (which was a hard act to follow indeed), but those are minor complaints at best.

One thing that deserves particular praise is the way the complete disintegration of the party and subsequent battle between former allies was handled. This kind of sequence can very easily feel forced or illogical, but here it is surprisingly believable and realistic, given all the complexities of the various characters. The schism in the team is portrayed equally as both a tragic mistake that the characters recognize as such, and a necessity born from the different perspectives the characters cannot reconcile, and is certainly the high point in The Answer's story. Also, the battles against your teammates are a lot of fun and fairly challenging, which helps.

Another thing I really liked was Metis. Beyond being a valuable new ally in the game, she was simply a likable character who played an essential role in the story.

Since this is probably going to be my last post concerning Persona 3 itself, I might as well say that I really liked exploring the Abyss of Time more than Tartarus, mostly because it was less monotonous than Tartarus was. Unlike the blocks of Tartarus that remained uniform throughout, the different sections of the Abyss of Time changed from time to time as you passed through them. Perhaps more importantly, the actual music playing in the background changed from time to time, so you aren't stuck with a single background track for the entire game, like in Tartarus. This helps make the game feel less repetitive, which is a much needed improvement. It probably doesn't go far enough (both dungeons are far too thoroughly built upon a limited number of possible corridors and rooms), but it does help.