Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Armored Core For Answer: Learning the Game

One of the new games I got as a Christmas present to accompany my brother and I's new Xbox 360 was Armored Core For Answer, a mech action game. This is the first game in that series that I have ever owned, and only the second I have ever played for more than a moment (the previous one being Armored Core 2 Another Age). I was a bit nervous about the game, really, since I disliked the controls and clunkiness of Armored Core 2, but after getting used to For Answer, I am really beginning to like it. However, my original concerns were not completely without merit, since it has taken me several hours with the game to even begin to feel like I have a grasp on it, and there are still things that occasionally crop up and give me difficulties. This game has an awful learning curve.

Controlling your NEXT (the powerful humanoid war machines in the game) can be an incredibly daunting task at first. I suppose someone more familiar with FPS games would be a bit more comfortable with the movement/aiming/turning controls, but added on top of that is the unusual combination of the jump/flight button and the boost button, so that the same button can either make you move over the ground more quickly than usual or make you fly into the air, which takes some practice to master. The real trick, though, is adapting to managing the slow turn speed, the lack of a reliable lock-on function, the easily misled camera, and the differing walking, boosting, flying, and quick boosting speeds in order to use a relatively clunky machine to fight incredibly high speed battles. Enemy NEXT units are important foes, and they can move incredibly fast. Unless you can move just a fast and still retain a high degree of control, the game can be brutally difficult and frustrating. This difficulty made earlier Armored Core games fairly unapproachable for me, and it took me hours to really get the hang of this one, even though I think it is a bit easier to manage the NEXTs of For Answer than the Armored Cores of older games.

The reason that the game controls have such a high learning curve is because the game designers probably wanted to give the player a number of tactical options and wanted to make the experience seem a bit more realistic, but this method does have downsides. I mean, having a difference between a NEXT's walking speed and ground-boosting speed creates an important choice for the sake of walking in order to resupply energy more quickly or boosting in order to move more quickly and avoid shots, but since walking is suicidally slow, you pretty much need to be at least boosting at all times in order to get anywhere and avoid fire. This means that, in anything other than the limited "simple" control set-up, you pretty much need to be holding down the boost button at all times, which seems a bit redundant, creates the annoying dual role of the boost/flight button, and gets in the way of using my index finger to switch my active left weapon. The need to switch between arm weapons and shoulder weapons, and the associated time delay, seems to be another oddity of the game controls. Other features, like the ability to disengage lock-on by depressing the left control stick or the ability to purge weapons by hitting three buttons at the same time, just seem more like traps designed to occasionally interfere with the player than useful control options. Trying to add more features and controls than the console's controller can actually easily support is never a good idea.

Beyond the learning curve of the combat control scheme, there is also a steep learning curve built into the game's NEXT customization system. This system is an incredibly important part of the game, and by its nature is going to have some kind of learning curve, but the game designers really didn't do anything at all to address that issue. Most importantly, my eternal nemesis of poor documentation has risen its head again... The game really doesn't even try to explain what the dozens and dozens of stats given to the weapons and parts in the game are for. Sure, some of them are reasonably obvious, like "Blast Radius" or "Ballistic Defense", but countless others can take a bit of work and effort to figure out. Fortunately, the game designers implemented a color coded part comparison system so you at least know if increasing a number is good or bad, since without that it would have been impossible for me to figure out as much as I have. I still don't have a clue what the "Parallel Processing" stat does, though. Still, even though I am beginning to understand what each of the individual stats means, I don't really get how they all add together to affect gameplay.

For example, look at the Stabilizer customization option. You can add all kinds of stabilizer parts to adjust the stability of your NEXT along with two different axes, which also adds to your Control Calibration stat, but I don't really know how these attributes affect actual battles. It seems like it should be important, given that affixing stabilizers might be even more complicated than assembling the body of a NEXT, but I don't have a clue what having a top-heavy mech or one with a heavier right side than left side even does. Does it affect the NEXT's mobility? Does it throw your aim off? I don't know, and I have even less of an idea what Control Calibration does. The manual seems to imply that you might want to adjust stability to something other than a zero-zero center of balance, but it doesn't say why you might want to, which defeats the entire purpose. I would say that it is nice that they at least gave you the choice to automatically set stabilizers, but that function doesn't ask for input and can't even figure out how to get the NEXT to a zero-zero center of balance, so it seems useless. The whole thing presents itself as being incredibly important, and it can take a lot of time to get a NEXT tuned "right" (which must be redone every time you configure a new set of weapons or parts), but I really don't know why I am doing it, which makes it a chore rather than something interesting. At least it occasionally helps add to the aesthetics of the NEXT...

Finally, even the plot of the game could use a bit more explanation. A glossary or something would be nice, since the game likes throwing out terms like "Lynx", "AMS compatibility", and the like with surprising frequency, but it never really explains them. Even more annoyingly, the only place where game describes some of the important factions that are central to the plot in detail is in a burst of text that appears if a mission takes an unusual amount of time to load, and those fade too quickly to read. I know there is quite a bit of world detail and plot in this game, but the game doesn't do much to really present it to the player properly.

Overall, this game really doesn't do anything to make it approachable to new players, even though there is a very sophisticated and fun game behind the high learning curve. It really is a shame.

Devil May Cry 4: Nero

Introducing a new main character into an established and popular franchise is very tough. The poor fan reception of Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2 is proof of that. However, I think Capcom did a very good job of bringing in Nero and selling him as a cool character. I think that this is in large part due to how the developers went out of their way to emphasize that Nero is a very different character than Dante, as opposed to being a clone or a replacement.

From the beginning, it is obvious to any long-time fan of the Devil May Cry series that Nero plays very differently from Dante. While he still uses both a rapid-fire gun and multi-hit sword combos, Nero's specific combos and special moves work very differently than Dante's. Furthermore, instead of copying Dante's styles or ability to weapon change, Nero uses the Exceed system and the very powerful Devil Bringer. The Devil Bringer in particular differentiates Nero and Dante, since it forms the core of Nero's fighting style, especially against bosses. In fact, even though Nero and Dante will both fight the same bosses, it is noticeable that very different tactics are needed. While Dante can count on superior mobility and long-range firepower, most of Nero's strategy focuses on finding opportunities to hit enemies with his Devil Bringer's Breaker attack. The two character's Devil Trigger abilities and appearance are even significantly different.

The Devil Bringer is certainly a fun weapon, particularly since there are custom animations when Nero uses it against bosses or various normal enemies. Nero's Exceed ability, which let's him charge up his sword to get more powerful sword attacks, allows for some pretty spectacular combos as well. Unfortunately, it is pretty obvious that these powers are new additions to the series, and thus need some more refinement. Despite being the power that distinguishes Nero the most, there is surprising little to do with Devil Bringer. The player can pretty much just use Snatch to close the distance with the enemy and Breaker to unleash a punishing throw. While Nero later on gains the ability to hold an enemy as a shield, that rarely seems to work like it is supposed to and ends up feeling like a minor side-note. I would have liked to see a lot more functions and upgrades for the Devil Bringer, such as the ability to throw an enemy away from Nero, choke an enemy, or something else like that. Exceed can also use a little more work, since I ended up forgetting about it more than half the time. While it is possible to easily build up a single level of the Exceed gauge by using Exact, that isn't enough to allow use of the more powerful Exceed 2 or Exceed 3 abilities. And while Exceed attacks look cool, no enemy seems to have a particular weakness to them, so there often isn't a whole lot of point to building up the Exceed gauge. Still, Nero's abilities were well-executed enough that I actually missed having them when time came to switch to Dante.

The game developers also did a pretty good job of differentiating Nero and Dante's personalities, even though they are both generally cut from the same mold. Even though both characters fought many of the same bosses, their banter with the bosses and general behavior is very distinct. While they are both cocky and confident, Nero tends to be short-tempered, straight to the point, and serious, while Dante tends to be relaxed, joking, and generally more of a show-off.

Finally, I think the story of Devil May Cry 4 did a good job in making Nero feel like an interesting and important character. Metal Gear Solid 2's big mistake was in hyping Solid Snake as the main character in most of the promotional material for the game, making him the starting playable character, and then doing the surprise character swap to Raiden a quarter of the way into the game. That process made Raiden into an unexpected and unwanted replacement for Solid Snake. In Devil May Cry 4 though, Nero was very much at the forefront of the trailers and demos for the game, so players went into the game expecting that there would be a new playable character. Making Nero the starting character also gave him a chance to establish himself and his role in the story early. The end result is that even someone like me, who is a big fan of Dante after playing the previous games in the series, ended up liking Nero a lot.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Devil May Cry 4: Continues and Gold Orbs

I got Devil May Cry 4 for Christmas, and I have already cleared through the end of Chapter 9 already. Despite some early worries about the game's difficulty, Devil May Cry 4 has proven itself just as exciting and intense as it's predecessors. In fact, the designers at Capcom have made some noticeable improvements to the game that make the game's difficulty not nearly as big of a pain as in Devil May Cry 3, by bringing back an improvement made in Devil May Cry 3's Special Edition.

In the original version of Devil May Cry 3, as well as in the first Devil May Cry, the player needed to use up rare and expensive items called Yellow Orbs in order to continue from a checkpoint. This was always the thing that frustrated the most in Devil May Cry 3. The bosses in Devil May Cry 3 were almost always located at the end of long and difficult stages. At the same time, every major boss in DMC3 was very dangerous and difficult in its own right. For example, I originally died to Virgil four or five times, which means that I had to trudge through his stage five or six times in a row. Now then, I am someone who enjoys difficulty, but having to replay the same stage all of the way through multiple times is more annoying than fun. I have always felt that tough challenges are always more fun if you have the chance to try it again immediately after you fail.

The Gold Orb system, which was added as an option in Devil May Cry 3 Special Edition and returned in Devil May Cry 4, gives the player the ability to continue from a checkpoint as many times as he likes. It really came in handy for me when I challenged Bael, the boss of Chapter 4 in DMC4. I probably fought Bael around seven times before I finally managed to crush him for good. If that fight was in DMC3, I would have had to trudge through the entire stage over again after dying. Instead, I got to fight him seven or so times in a row without interruption. Not only did it take less time with less frustration, but it let me focus on experimenting and fine-tuning my strategy. In Devil May Cry 3, I usually just gave up after a point and ended up using items to help me beat a boss and just avoid the frustration; but in Devil May Cry 4, I was free to enjoy the challenge of the fight itself more.

At the same time though, Devil May Cry 4 still rewards those players who get through a stage without dying. After my seven consecutive fights against Bael, my score for Chapter 4 was absolutely terrible: I only got a D rank. Compared to my typical A and B ranks, that D is a blight on my record. So to improve my overall score, I will probably go back and challange Bael again, this time armed with knowledge gained from my earlier hard-fought victory. So, the challenge of beating a stage without dying still exists in Devil May Cry 4, but it is no longer a requirement for progressing through the game. I think that this is how it should be.

Samurai Warriors 2 Empires: Battles

I really should finish talking about Samurai Warriors, even though I have been pretty thoroughly distracted by Christmas stuff as of late...

The battles in Samurai Warriors 2: Empires are quite a lot of fun. They combine action and strategy elements in a very effective way, so that both are extremely important to success. Because battles can only be won if you control bases, it means you can't just wander around killing every enemy you come across. Instead, you need to strike a balance between attacking enemy strongholds and protecting your own, which means that the nature of the battle is constantly changing and you need to stay on your toes in order to keep up with it. That ever-changing and unpredictable nature of the Samurai Warriors battles is what makes them so exhilarating.

Of course, it is more than just the struggle over bases that keeps battles unpredictable. The formation system, in which you and the enemy have competing formations that can add a lot to the strength of either army, but only for the team with the stronger formation, means that the entire tide of battle can be turned around amazingly quickly when formations change, so making good use of the system is essential. Also, each of the many maps of the game is distinct and memorable, with battles on open fields, mountains, the decks of ships, and sprawling castles. What is more, the attacking and defending positions are almost always totally asymmetrical, so even the same map can behave very differently depending on which side you are on. The changing conditions of each battle, with everything from cannon-fire to erupting volcanoes affecting the situation, also adds a lot of variety. Of course, the large number of characters with fun and diverse fighting styles and capabilities helps a lot, too. This really is the game series that sets the bar for adding variety and tactical depth to action games.

Still, despite how much I like the game, nothing is perfect. For one thing, I really don't like the fact that you immediately lose the battle when the player is defeated. While forcing the player to sit back and wait to re-spawn isn't exactly ideal, since there is nothing worse than being forced to sit back and do nothing in a game, it seems like there could be some penalty that didn't lead to total defeat (particularly with how penalizing defeat is in Empire Mode). This problem is exaggerated by how difficult it is to even fight normal grunts with some characters, especially anyone who is low-level and doesn't have almost any moves yet. Actually, the raw imbalances with the effectiveness of some characters, particularly with the ability to deal with large groups of soldiers or multiple enemy officers, is a pretty major problem in its own right. Far too often, it seems that I just get caught in a hopeless juggling game between multiple enemy officers and soldiers, and my health vanishes incredibly quickly, yet some characters can fight themselves out of such a situation without a lot of trouble.

I think that about sums it up. I already returned the game to the rental shop, so I will need to wait until I actually own a game in the series and have played it some more in order to say anything more detailed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Samurai Warriors 2 Empires: Empire Mode

Wow, it has been a while since I last blogged...

In order to tide me over the last few days until Christmas, I rented Samurai Warriors 2 Empires a few days ago. This is actually the first time I have ever played a game from Koei's "Musou" series, and the first game in the imperial strategy genre I have played since a few really old and pretty bad SNES games. I was pleasantly surprised with how fun and addicting this game is, on both its strategic empire management level and its tactical action game level.

Focusing on the strategic side for now, I am truly surprised that they created an empire management game other than Civilization 4 that has actually managed to grab me enough that I completed an entire scenario and unified all of Japan in two days. Buying Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV for the Virtual Console was a recent reminder of how much I really used to get bored and frustrated with the genre, and why I lost interest in it years ago, but now I realize I may not have been giving the evolution and refinement of the genre enough credit.

There are a lot of reasons this game in particular works so well. For one, the strategic side of the game is fairly streamlined and focused, and is built entirely around acquiring, managing, and improving the soldiers and resources you need in order to fight the tactical battles that are at the game's core. Details like food supplies and the happiness of the citizenry, which at best only have a minor effect on the actual tactical battles, are extremely simplified and reduced down to being minor and easily managed numbers. Having troop numbers be a property of officers, so you can manage the replenishment and movement of troops simply by working with the officers in command is also a nice touch, that keeps the emphasis on the way battles are fought and keeps the system easy to use, and gaining additional troops is a nice side benefit of leveling up officers. Finally, the "Consult" system that gives you get good advice, lets you accomplish more, and manage your empire more quickly by listening to your officers works very well. All told, the system is a lot of fun, though that does not mean it is perfect.

The game certainly has a few issues that can get bothersome. For one thing, you can only freely "Decree" most kinds of policy only after one of your generals has carried out that command using the "Consult" system, which can be extremely frustrating when you realize that there were some great policies available that simply never came up. Even more annoyingly, you can only use various Tactics in Free Mode after purchasing said tactic using "Consult", even if you acquired that tactic as a reward for victory and used it in an Empire Mode battle, which brings me to the problem that you pretty much need to acquire everything in Empire Mode in order to use it in Free Mode. That makes the main advantage of Free Mode, the versatility, a little bit more annoying, though it isn't as problematic as the unnecessarily confusing way character growth carried over from different sessions of Empire Mode into Free Mode, or even vice versa (or even between different playthroughs of Empire Mode, which seems to defeat half the point).

Actually, the character growth problem only aggravates an even more significant problem for the game: the raw difficulty in just sitting down and having a few fun battles with your favorite characters. This can only be done in Free Mode, but in order to unlock every character for use in Free Mode you need to play through the full unification of Japan at least twice, in two different time periods. Because some characters only appear in one time period, the carry-over of stats can be a bit problematic when half the characters you want to use in the second time period start at level one, while everyone else is a monster (and yes, I know you can turn that off, but there are consequences to that I can't quite predict). The fact that some characters from the first playthrough ended up a monsters and others simply did not makes it even more complicated (and I don't even know how to correct that). Beyond just unlocking these characters, simply trying to use them can be hard. There are only two dozen or so characters that have unique character models and abilities (the fun and effective characters), but there are hundreds of generic characters who share the same role, and the game doesn't do enough to let you easily distinguish them. Even in Free Mode you need to scroll through the complete list of hundreds in order to even find one of the fun characters, and in Empire Mode they can be painfully hard to track down and acquire. If nothing else, there are three specific factions of Empire Mode that have a large number of distinct characters and at least a dozen more factions that are filled with nothing but generic officers, and the game doesn't give a new player any guidelines on which are the "good" options. Not to mention I haven't even seen Miyamoto Musashi yet... Ultimately, thanks to the amount of work you need to do, setting up a given Free Mode battles is too much trouble to really even be good way of having a good random match even if you have unlocked everyone for that mode (some more automation would be nice).

My last major complaint is that the game doesn't even really try to pretend that the player and the CPU both abide by the same rules. The CPU doesn't share the player's officer limit and CPU officers don't need to participate in a battle to gain experience like the player's do (another place where carrying over experience growth is problematic, though this one is weird even in across a single Empire Mode playthrough as you acquire more former enemies as player officers). Alliances with CPU opponents can be one-sided in their favor, since they can call on the player to help fight their battles but you can't call on them (if there is a way, I haven't found it yet). If you defeat an enemy province or push back an enemy assault, you would be lucky to have captured one or two enemy officers across the course of the battle, but if the enemy defeats you, then you stand a chance of watching nearly every officer who participated in that fight (and some who didn't) get captured, and since the CPU doesn't have a real officer limit, it means the enemy is likely to hire every good soldier in your army (including the fun and loyal officers you heavily depend upon). The last one is particularly bad, since it means losing isn't even an option you can really accept in the game, and it means there is a severe inequity in how easy it is to acquire new officers (particularly the powerful and fun unique ones).

One final, and fairly minor complaint I have about the strategic side of the game also extends into the tactical side. Namely, I can't seem to figure out if there is any kind of reasonable difference between generals and lieutenants. You bring an equal number of both into battle, so it is not that one outnumbers the other, and it is not really a reflection of power either, since you can assign any officer to be either a general or lieutenant. Only generals can give advice for the "Consult" option, but because you have so many the game tends to clog that option up with a bunch of generic characters (making the notable leanings individual characters have toward particular policies harder to sort out). It doesn't affect what they do in battle, since they all seem to act equally anyways. It seems like is either an unnecessary distinction or a failed opportunity, and if it is neither than it really hasn't come across in the game at all.

Still, I have been having a lot of fun with the game, so it certainly shines despite the flaws. Unless I get caught up with the games I will be getting as presents tomorrow, I will probably write about the combat side of the game next time. But for now...

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Grandia: Enemy Diversity

While watching my brother play through Grandia over the last few weeks, one thing I notice is that, in certain parts of the game, there simply isn't a lot of variety to the enemies. Many field areas and dungeons in the game average have an average of four or so enemy types, a fairly reasonable number, if perhaps a bit small, but some places are far worse than that.

The places in the game with the worst enemy variety are almost always military bases full of soldiers. It seems to be a rule in that game that every dungeon or major scene that has soldiers as enemies will have exactly one kind of soldier for you to fight, that will always show up in groups of three. They don't even show up in multiples of three, even though up to nine enemies can be present in a single battle, and instead just stick to groups of three. Other games that feature battles against soldiers tend to mix up the kinds of soldier that you fight, mix in other kinds of creature with the soldiers, and change up the numbers, but that doesn't happen at all in Grandia. You don't even get to fight the tanks that are seen everywhere in these dungeons. Even worse, every solider in the game uses a recolor of the same soldier sprite, and the soldiers all tend to fight using similar attacks and relative stats, so every solider-based dungeon involves battles just like the previous soldier-based dungeon. It is an incredibly boring lack of variety.

Soldier dungeons are not the only places with that problem, as well. One other place in the game, the Twin Towers dungeon, has only two kinds of enemies, and one kind is found in a single room that is visited briefly by a single character. The rest of the dungeon is filled entirely with weird medusa creatures and nothing else. This is all the more remarkable because this dungeon is technically occupied by the same soldiers you fight elsewhere in the game, but you can't break up the monotony and fight them there.

A somewhat less extreme, but still relevant example is the Typhoon Tower, an important dungeon in the middle section of the game. This tower is broken up into three sections: the path to the tower, the area around the entrance to the tower, and Typhoon Tower itself. The path to the tower is filled with nothing but a single type of monstrous plant enemy, and is thus about as boring as a soldier dungeon. The area around the tower is actually halfway decent, combining the plant enemies with new "Klepp Soldiers" (a type of bird-man monster) and Lizard Riders (Klepps that ride lizards). The tower itself is filled with six types of enemies, but these are broken up into three types of Klepp soldiers and three types of lizard riders. This would not necessarily be bad, but each kind of Klepp solider comes in the same numbers as the other kinds of Klepp soldiers, tends to have similar stats as other Klepp soldiers, and uses the same attacks as other Klepp soldiers. They are technically different, but only in the most minor ways. The three kinds of Lizard Rider are equivalently similar to each other. Thus, they may be technically different, but fighting an Elite Klepp doesn't provide much in the way of a new experience compared to fighting a basic Klepp Soldier. Thus, even though there is quite a bit of variety of enemy type in the dungeon, it still ends up feeling very monotonous and dull. The first stretch involves fight a lot of plants, and the latter stretch involves fighting countless Klepps that all fight alike, so other than the initial introduction of the Klepps there really is a lot of repetition and little variety.

The truly depressing part of all of this is that some other parts of the game have quite a bit more variety. For example, despite its small size the Castle of Dreams has five enemy types, all of which are completely different from each other and four of which were never seen before that dungeon. They range from high-HP, low-defense zombies that are weak to fire and use status attacks to low-HP phantom mages that are highly resistant to attack and use powerful attack magic, with everything in-between being equally distinct. What is more, these enemies show up in varying numbers and practically each room has its own combination of enemy types, so there is a fair amount of unpredictability and diversity. Yet, the Castle of Dreams is a small optional area, while the monotonous zones are large and important to the story.

I will admit that Grandia makes such repetitive combat more interesting than some other games, because the player needs to constantly build up different stats and has a fairly wide variety of ways of doing that which you may need to cycle through, but it is easy to get sick of seeing a particular enemy group when you have done nothing but fight that one kind of enemy for two hours of gameplay. Even the best combat system gets dull if you don't get to fight new things once and a while.

The Fear of Over-leveling

Strangely enough, one of the things I am afraid of most when playing RPGs is becoming over-leveled. This can have odd effects on my playing habits; for example, I often try to avoid normal battles when back-tracking through areas I have already cleared, just to avoid gaining unnecessary experience points. However, this fear of over-leveling comes directly from my love for a challenging experience. In many RPGs, in order to maintain a consistently high degree of challenge, the player has to keep his levels as low as possible, which I think can be a big headache.

In an RPG, the difficulty of an encounter is dependent on the relative levels of the PCs and the monsters. If the heroes have higher levels than the enemies, the battle will be comparatively easy, and if the heroes have lower levels than the enemies, than the battle will be comparatively hard. Now then, if the player finds an opponent to be too difficult to defeat, it is usually possible to gain a few more levels by fighting random enemies, which will make it easier to overcome the hard opponent. But if the player finds that a particular challenge is too easy, it is usually impossible to lose levels and make it easier short of starting the game over from the beginning. So once a player has over-leveled, it is hard to go back.

It can be surprisingly easy to become over-leveled as well. Nowadays, many RPGs are designed such that it is possible to beat the game without level grinding, even if the player goes straight towards his next destination constantly. At the same time, RPGs are usually full of side-roads and optional areas to explore, backtracking through old areas to do, and side-quests to undertake. However, exploring optional areas and taking on sidequests exposes the player to more random battles, which means more experience points and levels. So, if the game is designed to be beatable even if the player doesn't go on sidequests, then a player who does take on sidequests will find his characters to be over-leveled. Furthermore, since many RPGs don't give the player very many clues (or deceptive clues) about what level range is appropriate for specific areas, a player may not even realize they are becoming over-leveled until it is too late.

There are few different ways to avoid this problem. First off, the game designers can design the game such that the player has to normally level grind in order to clear the game's main challenges, as was the case in many older RPGs. Unfortunately, level grinding is itself a problem to be avoided, since it is simply not fun most of the time. A second option is to let players who want a greater challenge actually give up levels. This has been done in a few games: late in Wild ARMs IV and V it becomes possible to give up levels in exchange for rare items and equipment, and in Disgaea games it is possible to reduce characters back to level one in order to gain better stat growths. This can work, particularly if it become available early in the game and required level ranges are well advertised, though I have yet to see a perfect execution. Finally, one can design a game so the PCs level growth is strongly tied to plot progression. For example, in Chrono Cross, the stats of the characters are strongly linked to how many bosses the player has beaten. This is one of my favorite solutions, since it eliminates the problems of over-leveling and level grinding at the same time.

I guess the biggest contributing problem is that RPGs don't have difficulty settings often enough. If character level is the one and only factor determining game difficulty, then it makes the problem of over-leveling that much more prominent.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Grandia: Characters Leaving the Party

Grandia is an unusual RPG in that it features a fairly complex system of building up characters and at the same time has multiple characters that leave the party permanently. Normally, it is very disappointing and disheartening when a character you have spent hours building up properly leaves, but Grandia has an interesting mechanic that helps alleviate this problem.

Grandia's ability system is built around building up a characters skill levels in their weapons and in the game's four magic elements. By building these skill levels up to certain pre-determined levels, a character can learn new special moves or magic spells. However, doing so can involve putting in a lot of dedicated effort and intentionally dragging out fights to acquire more skill experience points. Furthermore, giving a character access to one of the four magical elements requires the player to trade in a Mana Egg, a rather rare and valuable item. So, building up a character requires the expenditure of a lot of time and limited resources.

Normally, it is advantageous for a player in an RPG to neglect spending valuable resources on temporary characters. However, even knowing beforehand that certain characters in Grandia were going to leave the party at the end of the first disc, I still ended up building them up. I felt comfortable doing so because Grandia gives a consolation prize of sorts when a party member leaves for good: skill books that can be used to transfer part a fraction of the old character's skill levels to another character. So, if I spend a lot of effort building up the stats of a party member who will leave, I can give a part of those stats to either help a new party member catch up or to help a character get a high level move late in the game. In that way, building up a character who is going to leave becomes advantageous in the long-term, since if you don't spend the time building that character up in the first place, you won't have any skill levels to pass on to other characters.

Grandia II does something very similar to the original in this regard, but at an even better deal. When one of the game's characters leaves the party for good, the player gets a skill book that transfers that character's accumulated skill points and magic points in total to another character of the player's choice to do with as the player pleases. I think this approach to handling leaving party members is a lot more interesting than what happens in games like Final Fantasy V, where the party member who leaves is replaced by a carbon copy clone stat-wise.

There is a lot of story potential to be had from a main character leaving the party, and it would be a shame to let a game's ability system get in the way of that. However, you don't want the player getting too upset about a character leaving for game mechanic reasons, and giving the player a reward for putting time and resources into a temporary character is a great way to ward that problem off. It encourages the player to become more invested in every character, irregardless of how long the character is in the party.