Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dragon Quest 4: Chapters

Dragon Quest IV's distinguishing characteristic is its chapter-based structure. The game is split into five chapters: the first four chapters introduce most of the major controllable characters, while the fifth chapter encompasses the majority of the story. While I am still only in the fourth chapter, I think that the chapter based structure is a great idea. The four early chapters do an excellent job of setting up the central conflict in a believable manner and making a large number of characters interesting.

Establishing the history and motivations of a large supporting cast is easily the most important outcome of Dragon Quest IV's Chapter structure. Compared to most Dragon Quest games, Dragon Quest IV has a lot of characters. I have been introduced to eight permanent characters so far, and there very well may be even more yet to be introduced. With a cast this large, it is very easy for characters to end up being underdeveloped or overshadowed by other characters. However, by giving various members of the cast their own introductory chapters, most of the characters of the game are put into the limelight as the central character in their own fairly involved adventures. These chapters introduce most of the cast as adventurers and heroes in their own right, before they are ever recruited by the main hero. These chapters introduce the various characters' motivations for becoming heroes, as well as what sets them on the path to becoming part of the main party of heroes. As a result, the entire cast of characters becomes very interesting.

The four introductory chapters are also put to good use as a means of foreshadowing the central conflict of the game. While each of the first four chapters has its own self-contained story, most of them directly tie into the larger chain of events going on behind the scenes. Furthermore, each of the chapters has so far set up different facets of the plot and added various mysteries to the game. So by the time the main hero enters the action, a lot of set-up has already been done. The four chapters also flesh put a significant fraction of the game world, much of which the player will need to travel through again later on in the game.

A particular advantage of the four chapters of Dragon Quest IV is that all of them give the player different gameplay experiences. While some of the chapters are more focused on a single character, others give the player multiple characters to use. While some of the chapters are dominated by powerful physical fighters, others primarily have magic-oriented characters. The kinds of dungeons and situations the various characters come across vary wildly as well. Even the enemies that appear are pretty different. No two chapters are exactly alike, so in some way it feels like several different RPGs rolled into one. This variety keeps things plenty interesting as the player goes from one to another.

There is another game that takes advantage of the introductory chapter concept: Seiken Densetu 3. In that game, all six possible characters have their own unique starting chapter, usually consisting of a sequence of story events leading up to a short dungeon. Like in Dragon Quest IV, these prologues do an excellent job of introducing major characters and establishing their motivations for becoming heroes, as well as introducing various villains and the major countries of the game. However, I think the set-up in Seiken Densetsu 3 is not as good as in Dragon Quest IV because the player only has to play through the chosen main character's prologue, and only gets a cutscene summary of the other character's prologues. This does have the effect of marginalizing the plots of the two supporting characters, which is a trend seen elsewhere in the game.

Thinking about it, one can argue that the split-scenario section of Final Fantasy VI is more or less the same thing as Dragon Quest IV's Chapters. The scenarios too are something that occurs relatively early in the game as a means of temporarily putting the spotlight on individual characters. The scenarios in FFVI are even the time where several major characters are first introduced as well.

Personally, I love having individual chapters in an RPG. This is another device I would like to see revisited in the future.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Persona 4: The Hero's Characteristics

A concept from Persona 3 that has been noticeably improved in Persona 4 is the set of attributes that represent the main character's strength of personality and ability to interact with other people. These attributes don't factor into combat at all, but they can have a significant role in the hero's day to day life. In both games, you improve these attributes by spending time performing certain activities,This is one of those elements that I didn't really like in Persona 3, but the changes made to the concept in Persona 4 have made me warm up to it. I may as well just go over each change one at a time.

1) The number of attributes has increased from three to five. Persona 3 had just three attributes (Academics, Courage, and Charm), but Persona 4 has five (Academics, Courage, Diligence, Expression, and Understanding). Charm was my least favorite of the original set of three, since the attribute it was supposed to describe (how popular the main hero is) was built up in the least logical ways (answering questions in class and drinking coffee?) and didn't make a lot of sense because of the Social Link system (why is popularity separate from the main measure of how many friends you had and how much they liked you?). However, it was removed, and has been replaced by three other attributes that make a lot more sense. Like Knowledge and Courage, these new attributes describe the hero's capability to do something, rather than the extent to which he has done something like Charm did, which better matches the actual function of these attributes. Also, the increase in the number of attributes greatly made it necessary for the game designers to increase the variety of activities you need to do in order to raise the hero's attributes, which adds to the variety of the game a bit. What is more, the added number adds to the difficulty of building them up, which forces the player to specialize a bit and adds to tough and interesting choices in daily activities.

2) Attributes have more uses now. In Persona 3, the hero's attributes only affected his grades on tests and limited your ability to unlock a small number of Social Links, but in Persona 4 they have many more uses, and these uses are more dependent upon individual attributes. Beyond just unlocking Social Links, high attributes are required to progress through some Social Links or get hired for part-time jobs. A number of conversation choices throughout the game require higher levels of certain attributes, particularly Courage and Understanding. Raising some attributes increases how much you get paid for part-time work. Raising Diligence lets you go fishing for longer periods of time. These changes make improving attributes worthwhile across the entire length of the game, so there is no longer a clear point where they start or stop being useful.

3) There are more ways to improve attributes now. In Persona 3, you primarily improved your attributes by going to class, going to restaurants or entertainment venues, and studying. There were a few fun alternatives, such as donating to the temple (in the original version only) or visiting the Nurse's Office while sick, but mostly it involved going to a restaurant and wondering why eating tuna improved your Knowledge. Persona 4 makes some much-needed improvements, so now it is much easier to raise attributes in a variety of ways. You can raise some attributes by going to club meetings and working at a part-time job (so it is now possible to strengthen Social Links and improve attributes at the same time), Courage can be raised by defeating powerful enemies, Understanding can be improved by choosing certain conversation options in plot events, and many attributes can be built up simply by reading a book (so buying books and obtaining rare books through quests and events adds some new versatility to the system). As a whole, you will see improvements to attributes far more often in the new system, and you don't have to make a choice between improving attributes and building up Social Links anywhere near as often, which is good because that choice is inherently one-sided in favor of Social Links.

All combined, attributes are simply more important to the game now, and add a lot more to the game experience. Of course, the system is far from perfect, but I am nowhere near as critical of it as I used to be. If the next Persona game simply takes the changes made in Persona 4 a step or two farther, it would probably improve the experience even more. For example, I certainly wouldn't mind seeing these attributes affect the dungeon exploration side of the game, or vice versa.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Persona 4: Day to Day Life

One of the most important aspects of Persona 4 is the tough balancing act between the countless different activities you need to accomplish within the limited time the game gives you. Just as in Persona 3, you need to attend class, hang out with friends and raise Social Links, improve the hero's attributes through a wide variety of activities, and still somehow find time to dive into the dungeons in order to fight the Shadows. However, Persona 4 is far from being a carbon copy of its predecessor, and features a number of changes and improvements to the system. If anything, just figuring out what to do each day might be an even more complex challenge than before.

One of the most important and visible changes to daily life in Persona 4 is the addition of changing weather effects. This plays a pretty important role in the plot, thanks to the Midnight Channel (which only appears on rainy nights) and the looming threat of the fog (which marks the deadline for reaching the end of every dungeon), and it plays an equally large role in the gameplay. On rainy days various people change their schedule, soccer practice is cancelled, restaurants change their selection, the main store offer discounts, the effect of studying at the library improves, different fish show up at the fishing spot, rare monsters appear in the dungeons, and countless other minor things all occur, making a rainy day totally different from a sunny one. This adds a level of complexity on top of the basic weekly schedule that drove Persona 3, adding some variety to an already interesting system. It is a bit of a shame that the distinction is so binary, though. Simply adding some more minor changes to cloudy days, or introducing windy days or something, would have helped. Certainly, foggy days should have been made more visible and notable, considering their importance to the plot, but as it is you hardly even see fog even on the days when it is actually important to the story.

An equally important change to daily life compared to Persona 3 is the shift to the characters venturing into the game's dungeons in the daytime, rather than the evening. Now, you need to give up the most important phase of the day in order to progress through the game's dungeons, rather than a lesser one, and now going into those dungeons even leaves you too exhausted to do almost anything in the evening, as well. You could choose to go into Tartarus pretty freely in Persona 3, since you never lost too much by doing so (there was always more time to do thing in the evening than there were things to do), but you have to give up important opportunities to build up Social Links every time you dive into Persona 4's TV World. This forces hard choices, and encourages the player to go through the dungeons in as few trips as possible. At the same time, many Social Links are reduced in availability or are even completely unavailable unless you have already completed the latest dungeon, so there is also an added impetus to clear through the dungeons quickly, which both balances out the impetus to wait and build up Social Links in order to get the added strength and changes the tome of the game quite significantly from how it was in Persona 3.

Thanks to the condition/fatigue system, Persona 3 made it impossible to clear through the dungeons in a very small number of trips and a short amount of time. You could only go so far through Tartarus before your characters became tired and had to leave, and whenever that happened it could take them several days to recover, especially if someone became sick. Persona 4 changes that, though, and completely abandons the condition/fatigue system. Even if you push your characters to the limit in the TV World dungeons, everyone is guaranteed to be in top fighting form the next day, so the only limit on how often you go into the TV World is the opportunity cost, which has been made more important. This places a lot more burden on the player to decide when is the best time to dive into the game's dungeons, unlike in Persona 3 where 90% of the time your best choice is to simply go into Tartarus every time you are in great condition and have a full team, without hesitation.

One final thing I like that mixes up the schedule is the addition of the Persona Forecast system. This system adds special rules and benefits to the Persona Fusion system depending on the day, and also lets you know what the special rule or benefit will be for the next day. In addition to tying in well to the game's weather theme, this can be a strong impetus to either try to raise a Social Link or dive into the TV World, depending on your situation and the exact benefit, which can either make your choices a bit easier or a bit harder, and certainly makes things more interesting. I do wish that they would let you see the forecast a bit further into the future, though.

Since this post is already pretty long, I think I will need to write about the activities you actually do during the day some other time.

Status Effects

Status effects like poisoned, blinded, asleep, and so-on have been a mainstay of the console RPG genre since it's earliest beginnings, and they can even trace their roots back to the Pen-and-Paper RPGs the genre grew out of. Yet, status effect spells have a history of being neglected and useless. In most RPGs that I have played, the opportunity cost of using a status effect spell is far too great compared to the benefit of the spell in order to make using the spell worth it.

The fundamental problem of status effect spells in console RPGs is that the most RPGs are built on the assumption that the player will fight a large number of battles, each of which takes a relatively short amount of time. However, status effects are generally designed to weaken and inconvenience enemies, not kill them quickly. For example, a status condition that gives an enemy a 50% chance of losing its turn is only useful if the enemy lives long enough to take two, three, or more turns. As a result, it is not worth using a status effect on most enemies, since they can easily be killed by one or two good attacks in most RPGs. That leaves only only two situations where status effects are useful: in unusually long regular battles, such as against a large group of enemies or particularly durable regular enemy, and boss battles. Unfortunately, this is where most RPGs drop the ball, since flat-out immunity to status effects are insanely common in RPGs. The average boss is immune or incredibly resistant to every status condition. While this is somewhat reasonable, considering that many status effects render an enemy completely powerless, the fact that even regular enemies are often given complete immunity to a wide range of status conditions, often for no discernible reason. Furthermore, status effect spells often are given a very low chance of taking effect. Because of this, using a status effect spell is a huge gamble, and is thus a pretty poor choice compared to just doing reliable damage.

I don't think there is any good justification to making status effect spells useless. If you are going to give the player an option, that option should at the very least be situationally useful. Thankfully, there are games out there where status effects are useful or even invaluable. Here are some of my observations and my advice to anyone designing status effect attacks for an RPG:

-Give the player information about the enemies' immunity to status effects.
Simply being uncertain about whether or not an enemy is susceptible to a status condition is often enough to prevent the player from using a status spell. This is why it is important to give the player at least some feedback about an enemy's resistances and vulnerabilities. For example, in Final Fantasy X it is possible to use the Scan spell to see what status effects an enemy is immune to. Furthermore, FFX would give an "Immune" message if you hit it with a status effect it was immune to, instead of "Miss". That is a very important distinction, particularly if status effect inducing attacks have a low chance of success. Without such an indicator, the player may not realize an enemy is immune to an effect and try using that effect over and over on that enemy, or just write off an enemy as being immune after a single miss. Giving the player at least some information and feedback gives the player the ability to make informed decisions.

-Status effects with a low activation rate have no value.
At one point, I considered pairing a status effect to a physical attack to be a good idea, since it meant that the attack would still do some damage, even if the status effect itself didn't take hold. However, I have since realized that there are some caveats on this principle. Let's say there is an attack called Paralyzing Strike which costs 2 MP and does damage equal to the player's basic attack with an added 20% chance of paralyzing an enemy. While it sounds like a good deal at first, the reality is the player can't afford to use this attack in lieu of a basic physical attack. Even at a low MP cost, using Paralyzing Strike every turn can quickly add up to hundreds of MP over the course of a dungeon. As a result, the player is likely to save Paralyzing Strike for use against specific targets that he specifically wants to paralyze. However, if the paralysis effect is not reliable, the player will grow frustrated with Paralyzing strike, and will switch to using more reliable strategies, such as using high MP cost, high damage attacks. As a result of this effect, status effect inducing attacks are only useful if they are either reliable or free, such as in the case of weapons that have some chance of causing a status effect with every hit (though even those generally have to compete with weapons with different effects).

-Useful status effect attacks come in two general categories:
a) Status effects that shut down the enemy's ability to do damage.
In Dragon Quest IV, I have run into enemy groups consisting of four or more enemies that both capable of dealing a lot of damage and tough enough to require the concentrated attack power of multiple characters to bring down. I have also discovered that the Snooze spell is very helpful against these enemies, since it is cheap, hits an entire group of enemies, and can shut down their attacks for several turns. When a status effect spell can swing an entire battle from very dangerous to well-under control, it becomes a very attractive option.

A similar example is with Iron Giants and Blind in Final Fantasy X-2. Even though Iron Giants are powerful attackers that can nearly flatten a character in one hit and can withstand several rounds worth of punishment, they are susceptible to the blind condition, which makes them miss almost every attack. So having a character use a blind-inducing attack on an enemy every turn is a sound strategy.

b) Status effects that allow the player to defeat enemies faster.
This should be where the poison status condition goes, but it is rarely useful, despite being in every RPG since the original Dragon Quest. In most cases, it does about 10% of an enemy's max HP in damage every turn, which is only useful if the player can only hit that enemy for a comparable amount of damage with each attack. So it is useless against most enemies, which will likely die in a turn or less of concentrated attacks, but it would be wildly overpowered against a boss which is expected to last a dozen or more rounds (thus, most bosses are immune to poison). The only time I have ever used poison as a serious combat strategy was in Final Fantasy X, where poison did one fourth of an character's max HP in damage every turn. That was powerful enough for me to use it as my primary means of killing certain enemies (such as the apes on Mt. Gagazet).

Perhaps a more interesting version of this kind of status condition are effects that increase the damage the player will do against enemies. For example, the oil condition in Final Fantasy XII caused the next Fire elemental attack to do double damage, which made it into one of my main boss-killing strategies. Better still is Persona 3's Distress condition, which makes every attack against the Distressed target into a critical hit. Because of the way criticals work in Persona 3, a spell that makes every enemy distressed can let the player mow down an entire enemy party with just basic attacks (if the condition actually connects, that is).

Status spells can be very useful, and open up more complex and interesting strategies to the player, if the developers of an RPG let them. However, unreliability is the bane of usefulness; there is no reason to give the player a skill that does not do its job. If you design status effects with particular uses in mind, then they will be useful. Far too often, it seems like status conditions are designed the monsters to use against the PCs, but then are given to the player with little though put into their usefulness.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Armored Core For Answer: Hard Mode

While trying to reach 100% completion of the Normal Mode missions in For Answer, I have completely hit a wall in my attempts to actually complete mission 42, what I think is the final mission of the last plot branch of the game. There are so many things I could say about how poorly this mission is designed, how this last plot branch is itself horrible, and how basically unfun it is to get stuck in a game designed to be played through multiple times without any choice but to proceed forward through an impossible challenge, even if there are still things undone on other plot branches, but doing so would probably only make me more angry, so I won't. Instead, I have devoted myself to playing through the game's missions on Hard Mode using the Free Play option (which is a nice option they made available), and I have been pretty happy with the experience.

I will start off by echoing the sentiments my brother expressed in his recent article: it is much better for the higher difficulty levels of a game to provide new challenges, rather than to be a rehash of the normal difficulty level. This is especially true for any game in which you have to unlock higher difficulty levels and the player is expected to play through the game multiple times, such as the Devil May Cry series or Armored Core For Answer. Trying to change the difficulty by altering the math that controls damage values and similar properties is often a bad idea, simply because it can easily imbalance some of the game, often making things more frustrating for the player rather than adding to the feelings of excitement and sense of overcoming impossible odds that are incredibly important for higher difficulty settings. However, adding new challenges to overcome on top of the old ones does add to that sense, and also keeps things fresh. The Hard Mode missions of Armored Core For Answer take the approach of adding new challenges rather than altering the old ones, and it has rekindled my interest in playing through the many missions I have cleared several times already.

One thing I particularly like about the alterations made to the For Answer Hard Mode missions is that they are unpredictable and logical at the same time. In some missions the enemy is reinforced with additional troops, and in others you simply don't get the reinforcements that you typically do. In some missions they add new hazardous environmental conditions, and in others you have to deal with new, severe technical issues with equipment vital to the given mission. The game actually tries to create a sense that the Normal mission is the version in which things go off without a hitch, and the Hard mission is where unforeseeable problems interfere with the mission parameters (listening to your operator get much more angry with the people hiring you to do these missions and even explode into short tirades about poor intel really changes the mood of the missions, and can be pretty funny, too). The fact that Hard Mode makes you fight even more Arm Forts and NEXTs than Normal Mode is another nice touch, since those kinds of enemies are the most imposing and fun to fight type of enemy in the game.

Still, I wish there was a bit more consistency in how big of a change was made in the jump in difficulty. For some missions, the change is hardly noticeable, such as the addition of a few Normals to a NEXT battle or the removal of some reinforcements that didn't help much anyways. This goes as far as few missions in which I am not even sure what they changed (they probably just added some additional enemies). In other cases, the change completely alters the nature of the mission, such as the inclusion of a pair of NEXTs into a mission that was just a straight-up battle against MTs and Normals. The last example is practically the equivalent of adding a totally new mission into the game, that happens to occur when you are already depleted from a protracted battle. I would be a bit happier if more of the missions took the middle road and avoided either extreme. Adding on a complication that matches the existing challenge, like the sudden arrival of a third NEXT into what is normally a battle against two NEXTs, works much better in my opinion.

Dragon Quest 4: Equipment and Nostalgia

When I first walked into an equipment shop in Dragon Quest IV: CHapters of the Chosen for the DS, I was greeted by a very familiar sight: a cypress stick, an oaken club, and a copper sword were for sale, along with wayfarer's clothes, leather armor, and a leather shield. For me, that simple list of weapons and armor is full of nostalgia that dates back to my earliest memories of playing console RPGs. The fact that the Dragon Quest series keeps even the list of low-level equipment more or less constant throughout is a pretty good example of how the series utilizes consistency in order to cultivate nostalgia. This is a sound strategy, since nostalgia can be a very powerful thing, since it is what drives people to become dedicated, long-term fans for a series.

The first console RPG I ever played was the original Dragon Quest, renamed Dragon Warrior in the US. By far, my strongest memory of the game is the decision the player faces at the very beginning of the game: to spend his meager amount of starting cash to buy an oaken club and a set of wayfarer's clothes, or to focus on defense and buy the cypress stick and a suit of leather armor. Since I have never put a whole lot of time into the game, I never really made it much further past that point. As a result, that early experience of shopping ended up being particularly memorable, especially since I repeated it several times to experiment with different starting equipment set-ups.

The next time I played a Dragon Quest game, it was Dragon Quest VIII, Journey of the Cursed King, for the PS2. Farebury, the very first town, had the same stick, club, copper sword, and leather armor that was available in the first shop in the original Dragon Quest. Based on some quick research on GameFAQs, it seems that this near-exact list of early equipment is available early on in pretty much every installment of the series. Even when I was playing Dragon Quest VIII, seeing a copper sword immediately brought my childhood memories of struggling to save up enough money to buy one in the original Dragon Warrior. I experience the exact same feelings of nostalgia when I started Dragon Quest IV last week. All it took was that little bit of familiarity to get me really excited about playing the game. The nostalgia value has been enhanced by the use of the same graphical representations for these pieces of equipment in both DQ IV and DQ VIII.

In the greater scheme of things, something like the names of early pieces of equipment is pretty minor. Yet, I would argue that nostalgia is built upon the familiarity of what would otherwise be inconsequential details. For that reason, I think maintaining consistency in things like monster choice, equipment choice, and so forth between different iterations of the same series is important. These things are what build recognition, familiarity, and nostalgia among fans. I believe the Dragon Quest series is a text-book example of all of this done right.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Persona 4: The New March of Time

I am now quite a bit further into Persona 4, so it is about time I actually write about the basic flow of the game. Like its predecessor, Persona 4 is built around choosing how to manage your daily activities as time slowly moves forward. You choose when you dive into the dungeons of the game, but whether you choose to do so or not days will still slowly pass until events occur in the plot. However, rather than just using a direct copy of Persona 3's structure, Persona 4 implements the same idea in a very different manner.

The biggest change in Persona 4 is its much greater focus upon the dungeons you explore. In Persona 3, you go into Tartarus primarily to raise your level and gain the equipment you need for the event bosses, but the major events of the game and the battles against the event bosses are controlled by the date (the rise of the full moon), not how far you go into Tartarus. You don't even need to finish climbing the available areas of Tartarus before the next major event. In Persona 4, however, you must reach the end of every dungeon within the alloted time (before the fog sets in), since otherwise you fail your goal and get a Game Over. Instead of being something you do to prepare for inevitable battles that will happen regardless of what you do, going into the dungeons and defeating the boss in the dungeons' depths is your true goal in the game.

The changes made to the system are a big improvement, in my opinion. I once described Persona 3's Tartarus as a "Plot Desert", but because of Persona 4's changes the TV World dungeons are the stage for many of the most important events in the game. You must reach the end of every dungeon within a certain timeframe, so, unlike in Persona 3, the game designers know both when you are going into the dungeon and what characters are available. It also just feels more rewarding and natural to have the most difficult battle at the deepest level of the dungeon be an important story battle, rather than a meaningless battle against a generic foe. The structure of Persona 3 is ill-suited to putting a large number of important plot sequences in Tartarus, but a few slight changes to that structure reverses that flaw entirely.

Another important and beneficial consequence of the change is that it adds to the feeling that the main characters (and thus the player), are actively achieving something by doing what they do. Persona 3 is a great game, but the nature of the way the main characters fight their conflict is very passive. In that game, all you can do is just wait for the next full moon. Even if you complete your climb of Tartarus early, you must still wait for any plot events to happen. Once you fight and defeat the boss that emerges every full moon, the only thing left to you is to get ready for the next full moon, since the characters' only goal is the broad idea of "get rid of Tartarus and the Dark Hour" and every month's battle is only one more small step toward that goal. In Persona 4, though, your goals are almost always much more immediate, so you will either achieve your goal or fail to do so within a limited time-span after the goal appears. Because of this, there are periods of relative peace and tranquility between crisis periods, in which all of your goals are met and there is no new threat and dungeon coming up on the horizon. At the same time, the crisis periods are more focused upon a limited period of time, and the stakes seem higher, so they have a greater degree of tension. As such, the game fluctuates more greatly between periods of high tension (in which your goal is to reach the bottom of the newest dungeon as quickly as possible) and very low tension (in which you are free to pursue a number of optional objectives throughout the older dungeons at a relaxed pace). This helps the game a lot, I think.

Another important part of this change that I haven't touched on is the difference between the goal-posts used for measuring time in the game. Persona 3 is built around the lunar cycle, so every phase of the game lasts around 28 days, which is extremely predictable with no room for significant deviation. Persona 4 is built around the risk of "the fog coming in", which doesn't have a set and predictable cycle. This means that there is a widely variable amount of time that occur between crisis periods in the game, and once a crisis starts you can only really guess at how long you have before you run out of time. This improves the relaxed pace between crises, adds to the tension of a crises period, and, most importantly of all, gives the game designers a lot more flexibility regarding how the calendar is scheduled, which helps a lot regarding things like holiday schedules, unusual events, and exam weeks.

However, mentioning calendars is reminding me of how useful it was having one in Persona 3. The lack of one in Persona 4 is a bit annoying, even though I know it wouldn't be useful in determining how long I have left until the fog sets in. At least Persona 4 more than makes up for it by letting you roll back time if you can't achieve your goal, which prevents the nightmare scenario of being unable to progress any further, and thus having to start the entire game all over again, that is possible (if unlikely) in Persona 3.

Devil May Cry 4: Son of Sparda difficulty

A couple days ago, I started the Son of Sparda difficulty mode in Devil May Cry 4. I haven't played it for very long, but it has already surprised me. Relatively early in Mission 2, I encountered a group of Assaults, a fairly vicious enemy that was only introduced in Mission 8 on Devil Hunter (Normal) mode. In Mission 3, I encountered a pack of Basilisks, which was the very last regular enemy to be introduced in Devil Hunter mode. As a result, the early missions have felt very different than they did on my first go through of the game. I think this is a great idea, since it has given me fresh and new challenges that I haven't seen before in the game. It is a much better method of differentiating difficulty levels than just tweaking the enemies' AI or stats.

The original Devil May Cry did something similar. If you go through the game on Easy Automatic mode (like I first did), several of the strongest types of regular enemy, including Frosts and Fetishes, do not appear at all. Since I didn't encounter them on my first go-through of Devil May Cry, I was pretty surprised to encounter brand new enemies on Normal mode. I think it was a pretty interesting idea. It gave someone who already beat the game once something to look forward to on a second go-through. In a series like Devil May Cry, where the player is expected to defeat lower difficulty modes before moving on to the higher ones, keeping the experience new is important. Otherwise, the game can get frustrating and dull when moving on to higher difficulty modes.

Goldeneye for the N64 did something kinda similar: it added new mission objectives on higher difficulty settings. For example, on the lowest difficulty setting, the player can clear a certain mission just by fighting his way through to an exit point. On a higher difficulty setting, the player is required to steal some files and destroy some alarms before making his way to the exit point. It made missions play out in a completely different manner, and put the player through more demanding situations.

I vastly prefer this kind of approach to creating different difficulty settings. Not only does it make playing the same game feel different depending on what difficulty the game is set to, it works as a very obvious indicator that the player has moved on to a genuinely more difficult challenge. If anything, I would have liked to have seen the game developers for Devil May Cry 4 hold some enemies or bosses in reserve until Son of Sparda mode.

As a side note, I like the naming scheme for the Devil May Cry 4 difficulty modes. They are just fun.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lost Odyssey: Mortals and Immortals

After clearing Grandia last week, the game that I have been playing the most of has been Lost Odyssey for the XBox 360. Honestly, it feels more like a Final Fantasy game than Final Fantasy XII does, so I have been enjoying it quite a bit. The main premise of the game is that the main character, like several other major characters, is an immortal who has lived unchanging for one thousand years. However, while Lost Odyssey has plenty of game mechanics in place to help tell the story of immortal characters traversing the ages and a strong base concept, it doesn't seem to really take advantage of what it has in place.

Lost Odyssey splits all party members into two groups: immortals and mortals, and uses different mechanics to determine what skills and abilities they have. Mortals are pretty straight-forward: they gain new spell levels, skills, and passive abilities as part of leveling up. For example, Cooke gains White Magic spells and abilities to augment her healing magic as she levels up. On the other hand, Immortals acquire Skills through two methods: learning a skill that a Mortal knows by fighting alongside that Mortal, and permanently learning a Skill from an equipped accessory. Furthermore, Immortals acquire more Skill Slots (and thus the ability to equip more learned Skills) by using items called Slot Seeds. As a result, Immortals tend to be much more flexible than Mortals, with greater access to passive abilities and complex combinations of abilities. Between the Immortals' added versatility and potential power over Mortal characters and the strong story emphasis on them, the Immortal characters tend to stand out as main characters over the Mortals. In many ways, the game system seems perfectly suited to telling a multi-generational story, where you have a fixed number of Immortal characters in the party at all times, and a large cast of Mortal characters who enter and leave the party as the story progresses and the years flow by. Unfortunately, that is not what the game designers opted to do.

Instead of telling a story that crosses the ages, Lost Odyssey has so far played out like a fairly ordinary RPG. Despite the fact that Kaim Argonar and the other Immortals have a thousand years of history behind them, most of the major plot points seem to have taken place within the last thirty or so years of the game. At the same time, most of the major character development for the Immortals took place in the unseen past. Most of this backstory is conveyed to the player through the "Thousand Years of Dreams", a collection of short stories written in the first person that can be viewed whenever the party rests at an inn. However, almost all of the dreams that I have viewed are stories more focused on various people Kaim has met across his journeys, instead of on Kaim's own character development. So, Lost Odyssey has so far felt like a game with a typical RPG plot and limited character development for the central characters. I am hoping this will change as the game goes.

I think a multigenerational story would have worked much better. That way, the player could watch the character development of the Immortals first hand, as opposed to learning about it after the fact. The game's story as a whole would have stood out much more as well. The real shame is that the game system seems so perfectly suited for such a story that it feels like wasted potential.

Persona 4: Down, Dizzy, and All Out

Well, here I am, writing about a Persona game again. Persona 3 was easily my favorite thing to write about last year, so this was probably inevitable. Actually, I think I may be addicted to Persona 4 already. In many ways, it even manages to surpass its predecessor, which already stood as one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Persona 3 and Persona 4 are extremely similar games regarding their game structures, battle systems, and such, but their similarities only highlights the large number of little improvements made in the newer game.

One such improvement is the change to the way the Down condition works. I really liked the One More/Down/All-Out Attack system in Persona 3, so I was surprised and disappointed when I read in the manual that they actually changed it for Persona 4, but when I actually played the game I was impressed to see how well the change works. You see, in Persona 3, whenever you hit an enemy with either a critical hit or an element that enemy is vulnerable to, that enemy is knocked down and the character who made the attack can take another action. An enemy who is knocked down wastes a turn getting back to their feet (unless they get attacked, which means they stand up), and if all enemies are knocked down you can launch a powerful All-Out Attack, which does a lot of damage to all foes but also returns all enemies to their feet. This creates a great trade-off between relying on All-Out Attacks for damage and knocking enemies down in order to prevent them from attacking, and made targeting enemy weaknesses a very important strategy.

Persona 4 keeps that system, but changes it in three very important ways. The first is that knocking an enemy down no longer forces that enemy to waste a turn getting up, the second is that hitting an enemy who is already down doesn't cause them to get back up, and the third is that you can hit an enemy who has been knocked down in order to trigger the dizzy condition, which causes the enemy to lose a turn and remain in the vulnerable downed state until the start of the turn after the lost one. All-Out Attacks still returns all enemies to their feet, though. The reason I first thought that this new system was worse was because I didn't know about the second change, but with that change it vastly improves the choice to not make an All-Out Attack.

With the Persona 3 system, you pretty much have to hold back on attacking downed enemies and only attack standing enemies with their elemental weakness if you want to use the down condition to prevent enemies from attacking, but by doing so you can totally shut down their ability to attack. In the Persona 4 system, you can only prevent every other attack (because the Dizzy condition only ends at the beginning of a character's turn), but you can attack freely while the enemy is down and dizzy (and can deal a lot of extra damage that way). The value of All-Out Attacks is the same in either game, but now the alternative is a lot more fun. After all, it always more fun to go wild and attack rather than to sit back and wait for the enemy to get back up. At the same time, it adds a bit to the challenge because it is impossible to completely shut down an enemy just by using elemental attacks. It also adds some extra flexibility to enemy and boss design, because a boss can be allowed to be knocked down without fear of it being totally crippled, which means it is not as problematic to give bosses elemental weaknesses. The fact that down and dizzy are separate conditions, so an enemy may be susceptible to being downed but not dizzied, only adds to the flexibility.

I also have to mention that this change is also an improvement when you consider how it changes the way allies are affected by critical hits and hits against their weaknesses. In Persona 3, getting knocked down by an enemy is one of the most annoying situations you run across frequently. It means that either the character lost their turn, or you have an ally waste a turn in order to get rid of a condition that only makes you lose one turn. The skill that clears the down condition, Re Patra, is a waste of a valuable skill slot in that game. In Persona 4, however, merely getting knocked down is not a problem at all, since it won't cause an ally to lose a turn, but getting knocked dizzy causes an ally to both lose a turn and be vulnerable to attack for a period of time, making it worse than the old knocked down condition. As such, a skill like Re Patra isn't really needed to restore the down condition, but might actually be worth using to help a dizzy ally. Far more importantly, unless an enemy is particularly aggressive in attacking a downed ally, allies losing turns is a rarer occurrence in Persona 4 than in Persona 3, which helps reduce the chance that a single enemy attack can damage the team beyond their ability to recover and thus lead to a Game Over. This seems like a pretty good design move to me.

As a final side note, I have to say that I am happy that they changed it so you can get a One More attack even if you hit a weakness with an all-enemy attack. It makes enemies that use such attacks a bit more dangerous, but it also avoids a number of frustrating situations and slight ability imbalances that plagued Persona 3. It is amazing how much these minor changes can affect the game.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Grandia: Story

After more than a month or so, I finally finished the original Grandia early this week. It is a game that has a few issue and shows its age, but it is a game that certainly has some great moments. Sadly, most of the moments took place in the first half of the game. While the first half of Grandia was brimming with a unique charm, the second half of the game ended up reducing the plot into a recycled cliche. In many ways, Grandia would have been better off if the developers had tossed out the Gaia plot in favor of focusing the story more strongly on Justin as an adventurer and explorer.

In the first disc of the game, the plot is centered on a very simple concept: Justin's long and difficult journey to discover the truth of the mythical civilization of Angelou and the enigmatic Icarians who were depicted in its art; a journey that is inseparable from Justin's own growth and coming of age. From the outset of the game, the plot sets up these elements: in the very beginning, Justin is just a bratty and energetic kid who dreams of becoming a famous adventurer like his father and grandfather and is fascinated by the myths of the ancient Angelou civilization. When he stumbles upon a device left behind by Angelou in an old ruin that gives him a clue to the existence of the Angelounian city of Alent, he sets out on his journey. The structure of the game from there on does a lot to emphasize the "journey": the first disk is defined by a number of points in the story where Justin makes a crossing into a new land, leaving the old places he has visited behind forever. The most remarkable of these is where Justin and company climb the End of the World, a massive wall dividing a continent no one before had ever successfully crossed on foot.

In the first half of the game, most of the fun comes from this journey and the sense of being the first one to see these things and meet these strange tribes of people. For me, one of the most memorable events in the game is when Justin and Feena (Justin's love interest) are roped into agreeing to be the couple of honor for a festival, only to discover that they just agreed to be sacrificed to a dragon. Justin's dauntless personality drives the spirit of the game early on, since while he is constantly getting the party into trouble with his reckless abandon, he also spurs the other characters on to accomplish things they never felt possible before.

Sadly, the entire mood of the game changes drastically early in the second disk. Instead, the plot begins to revolve around the ancient monster Gaia, a creature that was only vaguely hinted at in two or three scenes in the first disk. Now then, Gaia does fulfill a role: it serves as an explanation for why the Angelou civilization was destroyed and is the big bad evil thing that the heroes have to kill to get the ending credits to roll. Unfortunately, that is all that Gaia ever really is, and it ends up dragging the rest of the game down with it. Apparently, the developers thought that they needed a powerful, world-destroying evil in order to have an appropriate final boss. So, they spent most of the second disk building up Gaia as a threat by showing off towns that have been destroyed by Gaia turning everything into stone.

However, the emphasis on Gaia and the plot-lines surrounding it comes at the expense of the spirit of the game itself. There are no more grand journeys into unknown lands in the second disk: the entire thing takes place in a single area that all of the locals are pretty familiar with. Character development suffers as a whole, since the usually talkative and interesting Feena falls into a quiet, depressed mood for most of the latter half of the game, and Justin himself goes from being the driving force behind the party to being someone who needs other people to constantly be telling him where to go and what to do. The point where it becomes absolutely clear that the plot of the game has become twisted is when a certain character asks Justin why he is going to Angelou. The player has three choices: "I don't know", "To find answers about the secrets of Angelou", and "To save the world"; "To save the world" is the only correct choice. When Justin and his friends finally reach the lost Angelounian city of Alent, what should have been the grand culmination of Justin's entire journey is nothing more than a brief stop-over where the heroes don't learn anything they didn't already know.

I don't think that a "save the world from destruction" plot necessarily adds anything to a game. Grandia would have been a lot better off if had focused on a the more personal story of Justin and his journey to uncover the secrets of Angelou and become a legendary adventurer.

Armored Core For Answer: Enemy Types

One thing I really like in Armored Core For Answer is the wide variety of enemy types that the player must fight across the game's many missions. Each mission offers a distinct combination of different enemies, from the puny MTs to the colossal Arm Forts, and as a result the game presents a variety of challenges the player needs to overcome. This is particularly important considering the game's focus on NEXT customizations, since each type of enemy requires different strategies and weaponry. While a skilled sniper NEXT armed with nothing but long-range rifles will work surprisingly well against an enemy NEXT, its slow rate of fire and limited ammo makes it a somewhat poor choice against large numbers of MTs or Normals, and most Arm Forts could ignore its attacks completely. The difference in enemy types encourages the player to experiment with NEXT customization, and makes each stage an entirely different experience than the last.

Anyways, here are some thoughts on each major enemy type:

Normals: These are the most basic enemy grunts in the game. They move around at a slow pace, but have boosters and can fly if need be, and some can even be quite fast. They can take a few hits, but not many. Some are powerful long-range snipers, while others carry melee weapons. Just about anything works on them, but they can pose a threat regardless. These guys are just tough enough to make high attack-power weapons like blades and plasma cannons meaningful, but common enough to make ammo matter. They are great opponents, since they balance being tough enough to be significant with being weak enough to come in large numbers so well.

MTs: These are the weakest enemy type, coming in somewhat large numbers but always at very low power. If they move, they hardly do so, and most can't fly and will die if you send them falling into the water or something. They are supposed to serve as cheap cannon fodder that can be destroyed in vast numbers, but most of the time they don't show up in big numbers at all, with the exception of only two stages or so (Escorting the Red Berets and the attack on Cabracan). Also, their total lack of mobility makes them seem too much like fixed guns, rather than an actual vehicle. I can't say that they are really used to their fullest in the game.

Ships and Traditional Aircraft: These show up in several missions, but they feel almost out of place alongside the less realistic Normals, NEXTs, and Arm Forts. I do like a lot of the aircraft, since they either fill the role the MTs should have, or act like larger, aerial Normals. On the other hand, the ships seem too much like immobile floating gun turrets, are mostly too small, and suffer horribly in comparison to the Arm Forts. Still, all of these kind of craft serve as a good excuse to use the heavy weaponry of the game, without being too much of a threat to the player, so they can be a lot of fun.

Small Arm Forts: These mostly include the Arm Forts like the Land Crab or the Eclipse, the smaller kinds that show up several times across the game. Other than the fact that they are often too easily destroyed (some seem to go down as quickly as an enemy Normal), they have an impressive presence on the battlefield due to their large size, impressive weaponry, and large numbers of support Normals, so they can have a strong impact on a mission. They are always a lot of fun, and one of my few complaints about them is that there are simply not enough missions in the game where you have to fight off a large number of these things. Also, these things really are on a much smaller scale than the larger Arm Forts, and fill a very different role in the game, so I wonder if they really should share the same name...

Large Arm Forts: These things are true monsters, and are always a stage in of themselves. They tower above the landscape and possess truly frightening destructive power, which makes any battle against them a memorable experience. As far as I am aware, For Answer is the first game in the Armored Core series to have such enemies, and they make a fantastic addition. Any problems with them is limited to specifics about each one, though those issues can be significant. For example, one of the strongest and most notable Arm Forts, the Answerer, requires an excessively specific kind of NEXT configuration in order to fight, doesn't broadcast its weaknesses well, and the fight against it ends too suddenly and anti-climactically. Still, the concept is sound, and it was certainly a good idea to put them in such a prominent position in the game's story and achievement selection.

NEXTs: This is easily the most diverse category of foes, and a particularly important one since almost every named character in the game is a NEXT pilot. NEXTs are unbelievably fast, possess Primal Armor capability, and have incredibly accurate and powerful attacks of every imaginable type, which means that they are both uniquely powerful opponents and can avoid or negate many kinds of attack that would be effective against lesser enemies. To top it all off, even an average NEXT has more resistance to damage than an Arm Fort. Ultimately, every enemy NEXT is built with the same system that the player's NEXT is built with, so enemy NEXTs fight with all the same power that the player uses to wipe out Arm Forts and destroy dozens of Normals. These guys can be very frustrating opponents, and missions in which you have to fight NEXTs can be terribly repetitive, but the game would not be anywhere near as fun without them.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Devil May Cry 4: Guns and Devil Arms

One of the best parts of the Devil May Cry series is that you get to kill enemies using a wide variety of cool weapons, each of which has it's own quirks. While Devil May Cry 4 doesn't quite have the same number of weapons as Devil May Cry 3, it does have a few really distinct and fun ones. So, here are my thoughts on the various weapons in DMC4:

Red Queen:
Nero's basic sword is a fun weapon to play around with. The developers did a good job of differentiating it from Dante's Rebellion, even though it still has a lot of the same basic functionality. Most notably, Red Queen probably has the largest and most elaborate list of upgrades in the entire game, with several new combos, four special moves (several of which with upgrades), and upgrades to the Exceed ability for the player to buy. However, while the basic combos of Red Queen are fun to use, it's exceed function just doesn't seem to do enough to warrant using it. While it is pretty difficult to build up the Exceed gauge mid-battle, it is pretty easy to waste it, since it takes only a single mistimed press of the Y button to waste one gauge. Furthermore, no enemy in the game seems to have any particular weakness to Exceed attacks. So while the EX special attacks are pretty cool and fun to occasionally play around with, there is little motivation for the player to use them. Adding some enemies with a weakness to Exceed attacks and making it possible to get more attacks out of the Exceed gauge would have helped the system a lot.

Blue Rose:
While Red Queen feels like a fun variant on Dante's sword, Blue Rose just feels like a weaker version of Ebony and Ivory with none of the cool special tricks. Even more aggravating is the complete lack of upgrades for Blue Rose; the only abilities to buy for it are it's three levels of Charge Shot. Now then, the concept behind Blue Rose's charge shot is pretty cool and distinct, since each level of charge adds a new special quality to the bullet: the first level adds a knock-back effect, the second sets the target on fire, and the third adds a time-delayed explosion. Unfortunately, charging the gun takes forever. By the time the gun reaches even it's second level of charge, I could have hit an enemy with several melee combo chains. While it is possible to charge the gun while fighting normally, doing so requires holding the X button down while still trying to press the Y, B, and A buttons with precise timing. My hand just can't do that. Blue Rose really needs more special tricks, and more ways of being differentiated from Dante's gun. The developers could increase the guns knockback and stunning capabilities more, or perhaps give Nero the ability to load and fire various kinds of special round.

Devil Bringer:
As I said in an earlier post, Devil Bringer needs a lot more functions, seeing as how it is Nero's distinguishing ability. The fact that the only purchasable upgrades for it are moderate increases to Snatch's range is pretty disappointing. The developers might want to look at how Grab and Throw was improved between Zone of the Enders and Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner for some inspiration. Still, it is surprising fun to use despite how simple it is.

Yamato (Nero):
Having a weapon available only while Devil Triggered is a really interesting concept, and I think it is pretty well executed. Some more special attacks would be a little nice, and I think it would be cool to somehow be able to expend some of the magic gauge to draw the sword and execute a big attack (such as the attack Dante uses) while in normal form.

What is there to say? It's Dante's main sword, and handles exactly like expected for the most part. I do think the newly added red glow is a nice touch, since it makes the sword look more like a powerful magical weapon. It might actually be a match in terms of coolness for Alastor now. The fact that the Stinger attack transforms into a very different attack while Dante is Devil Triggered is really cool. I am a little disappointed that his other attacks don't seem to receive any similar upgrade. However, Rebellion's chargable special moves (Round Trip and Drive), suffer from some of the same criticisms I leveled at Blue Rose: the charging takes too long and is impossible to do while actually fighting.

Ebony & Ivory:
Just as good as they have always been. They still have a lot of tricks, though mostly thanks to Gunslinger style. Suffers the problem that almost every other gun in the game does: the only upgrades are increasing how long you can charge the gun.

It's nice to see that a gun that has been in Dante's arsenal since DMC1 finally get a name. See Ebony and Ivory for most of my comments for this gun. It fills a useful niche, but could use more special tricks.

It is a pretty nice varient on the tried and true Dante hand-to-hand weapon. However, it is missing a lot of the tricks that Beowulf had, particularly in the realm of ranged attacks. Like so many other weapons in the game, it suffers from few decent upgrades as well. The ability to charge every ground attack is pretty cool, but since it takes so long it is only situationally useful,and even then I can only justify charging to the first level. Still, not bad. However, I think the mask is a little much for the look of the weapon.

Pandora is quite easily the best concept to come out of Devil May Cry 4, and is certainly a weapon that I am hoping to see come back in later iterations of the series. If expanded upon, the transforming gun Pandora could easily serve as a character's only firearm. In fact, the weapon almost seems like a better fit for Nero than Dante, since using it correctly involves building up a special gauge to bring out more powerful attacks. This is one weapon where I would have really liked to see more upgrades for, since it is really disappointing that there is only one chain of transformations available for the gun. I would have liked to see several different branching chains of transformations. Easily my favorite gun in the entire Devil May Cry series.

Lucifer is a very interesting weapon. The fact that it can chain infinitely by default, with several different finishers is a cool touch. Impaling an enemy with explosive harpoons is a pretty fun effect too, though I wish the developers had mapped a different button input to trigger the detonation. Away plus Y while locked on to an enemy can be surprising awkward if Dante is surrounded by enemies. I think the developers could also have done more with the wing-like look of the weapon, and given it an attack where Dante actually throws a blade into an enemy.

Yamato (Dante):
While I am a big fan of the Slash Dimension attack, Yamato feels way too much like a one-trick pony. Since Yamato cannot be used with any Style (since it's its own Style), nor can it be upgraded in any way, it feels very limited in use. Still, the idea of a style where Dante uses a second weapon in addition to his main equipped one is a solid one.

I may come back and give my updated thoughts on these weapons when I finally get around to going through Devil May Cry 4 again.

Armored Core For Answer: Weapons and Parts

While combat and missions play a very large part of Armored Core, one of the more distinctive and time-consuming aspects of the game is the NEXT customization system in which you built your NEXT from various parts and and tune its fighting capabilities in order to suit your preferences. Thanks to the wide variety of weapons and parts, you can build everything from a lightweight aerial combat skirmisher focused on short-range machine guns to a fortress on tank-treads that incinerates everything in its path with grenades and missiles. As I mentioned a few posts ago, there is a pretty steep learning curve for this complicated system, but it is very flexible and fun to play around with.

One of my favorite aspects of the system is the fact that the designers tried to balance out every part. There is no clear and simple progression from the weak parts to the strong parts, like in Square's Front Mission series (which has a very similar customization system, if a bit less flexible of one). Instead, the parts that may come pre-installed in your starting NEXT can be useful throughout the game. Every part has its advantages, but also has its drawbacks, which means that there are very few parts that are unquestionably better or worse than others (though there do seem to be a few, I admit). For example, even though the Moonlight laser blade is a rare part that has to be won from a dangerous opponent and has a potent mix of high attack strength and long reach that separates it from any other laser blade, it still has such a high weight and large energy cost that it is completely unsuitable for many kinds of NEXT, even some pure melee-combat NEXTs (like the one I often use). Because there are so many weapons and parts that are very good, but only under specific conditions and in combination were certain other parts, there is a very wide assortment of possible strong NEXT configurations.

The piecewise construction system of Armored Core NEXTs has its issues, though. You can only directly compare parts one at a time, so both comparing a single part against multiple alternatives and comparing entire NEXT configurations against each other in detail are fairly difficult tasks. I often find myself making alterations to a NEXT one part at a time and praying that the sum of the individual alterations leads to a net benefit. This gets even harder when comparing the effects of parts that interfere with or compliment each other, but don't share the same slot, like comparing hand-held weapons to integrated weapon-arms, or trying to manage the complex set of main boosters, side boosters, back boosters, integrated tank-leg boosters, and back or shoulder mounted optional boosters. In such cases, it can be all too easy for minor drawbacks, like a slight energy cost increase on each part, to slowly add up beneath the player's notice until it becomes a serious flaw with no easy solution. A lot of this could be avoided with a few additional interface options, such as the ability to look at you NEXT's full specs in greater detail and compare those specs to another NEXT's.

Still, I don't want to say that the game doesn't provide the player with any useful guidance on designing NEXTs. The game provides a very comprehensive library of NEXT designs that you can load and use yourself, including the designs for every set of parts with the same name (like the Tellus or Lancel), as well as one for every last enemy NEXT in the game. If you are having trouble creating an effective aerial combat NEXT, you can always load the design of a powerful aerial enemy, like CUBE's Fragile, and either use it directly or take it as the basis for a new NEXT. This is easily one of the best features in the game, really, since it both makes NEXT design a lot easier and lets you try out what it is like to use any of the NEXTs you have fought against in the game. Actually, I should probably try this out some more myself. I've been wondering how Otsdarva's Stasis handles...

Friday, January 2, 2009

Limited Inventory Space

Earlier today, Grandia's inventory system really ruined a game session for me. Grandia uses a limited inventory system, where each character in the party can only carry twelve items, not counting equipped weapons and armor, with no team reserve. I was exploring a section of what could be the final dungeon when I found a Spirit Helm: most likely the strongest helmet in the game. Unfortunately, all of my characters had full inventories, so I was asked what to do with the Helm I just picked up. In a tragic turn of events, I accidentally chose the "Discard Found Item" option instead of the "Discard Item in Inventory" option, and permanently lost out on one of the most powerful pieces of equipment in the game. Needless to say, I had no choice but to turn off my PS2 without saving, and now I am facing the prospect of not only retracing my steps up to that point, but trekking all of the way out of the dungeon just to drop some of the junk in my inventory into storage. This entire incident is a perfect example of some of the flaws in character limited inventory systems.

There is plenty of good reason in limiting the number of items a player has access to in an RPG. In a typical RPG, such as in most Final Fantasy games, every player-controlled character has access to a massive inventory with a potentially nigh-limitless number of healing items and possibly even attack items. With an inventory full of sufficiently powerful healing items, it becomes easy for a player to keep his characters healed during a long battle. So, limiting the player's usable inventory is a valid means of adjusting the difficulty of a game.

Unfortunately, limiting inventory space has a lot of other effects on gameplay. Most RPGs typically hand out a lot of treasure in dungeons: be it more potions, new and improved equipment, or items destined to be sold at the next shop. In a game where the player only has ready access to a limited inventory, the player has to budget a large part of his inventory space to store those items, or else start throwing old items away in order to make room. Thankfully, most games with limited inventory have some means of storing unneeded items, but such games rarely let the player send things into that storage space from inside the dungeon, causing the player to still have to make tough decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. I remember having to throw away a lot of unidentified weapons and armor in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter because of that games' limited inventory. Having to throw items away like that is frustrating, since it feels so wasteful.

A particular problem of Grandia's system is that characters keep all of their items when they leave the party temporarily. So, I have been put in situations where one character leaves for a dungeon, and takes the main character's only axe with him, limiting my weapon choices. This particular problem could have been avoided if the player was given the chance to redistribute items between characters when someone leaves the party, or at the very least the character's items were dumped into storage (as is the case for characters who leave permanently).

Another effect of limited inventories is that it usually limits what items the player will actually use to just the bare essentials. Grandia's shops are full of various non-healing battle items, such as bombs that are effective on certain types of enemies, items that boost various stats, and items that drop various enemy stats. Unfortunately, I never could justify bringing those items with me into a dungeon. I could only ever afford to bring four or five items per character into a new area; any more and I risked having to start throwing stuff away. Since that included one or two spare weapons per character, I had to prioritize bringing the most essential items: revival potion and only my most powerful all-character HP and MP restoration items. I simply had no room to bring anything else, which left 70% of the items in the game a waste of inventory space. It is a real shame.

My favorite inventory system of all time has to be Kingdom Hearts' hybrid inventory system. In Kingdom Hearts, each character keeps their own inventory of items, and each character is differentiated by the maximum number of items they can carry. At the same time, there is a shared party inventory that can carry the typical large number of items, with the exception that it can't be accessed during battle. In addition, items in a character's inventory can be set to be automatically restocked from the party inventory after a battle, which helps cut down on the number of minor tasks the player has to worry about. So all told, the Kingdom Hearts inventory system has the advantage of limiting the player's inventory for balance purposes, but at the same time it helps distinguish different characters' strengths, limits needless hassle, and prevents the problem of having to worry about throwing stuff away to make room for new items. If a game designer wants to implement a limited inventory system, that is the example I would recommend looking at.

Armored Core For Answer: Missions and Story

After some dedicated playing (and probably an excessive amount of time spent rebuilding my NEXT into new configurations), I completed my first playthrough of Armored Core For Answer earlier today. Actually, I am already a significant distance into my second playthrough already. It is surprisingly fun to play through old missions using a new NEXT configuration and different strategies, but the real fun of the second playthrough is to be found in the game's large number of missions and branching story. After all, I completed only around half of the missions available in the game and saw only the first of three different endings. This game has a fair amount of replay value.

One thing I really do like about the game is that it actually has found a good structure that combines a classic and flexible formula in which you choose your next mission from a list with a story that progresses forward and branches out. In this system, you choose from a number of missions for each of the chapters of the game, unlocking more missions as you complete earlier ones. After completing a certain number of missions, the remaining missions become unavailable, and you must choose between a small number of particularly difficult and plot-important missions as the final mission for the chapter. Completing that mission ends the chapter, progresses the timeline, and begins the next chapter. As far as I can tell, what chapter-end missions become available is determined by your starting affiliation and what missions you completed in the chapter, and which chapter-end mission you choose determines what plot branches you fall into. All told, this seems like a great system for telling a story in a structure designed to let the player have a significant choice regarding what missions he plays.

The problem with Armored Core For Answer is that it has a lot of trouble actually using missions and the chapter structure to actually tell an interesting story. As I mentioned in my last post, this game could really use a glossary of terms and organizations, and after completing the game I think it could probably use a better glossary of characters, too. To be perfectly honest, I really had no clue who I was fighting in the final battles of the game, and even less of an idea of why they were attacking the place that I was defending. I know that some organization called ORCA came out of nowhere and attacked the "Cradles" that are important in the game's story, but it is never clear why they are doing what they are doing. I know that ORCA is endangering the lives of countless people, and I know that the League that controls the Cradles seems vaguely sinister, but beyond that I don't understand the conflict at all (after I already beat the game!). It makes it hard to relate to a story and make a meaningful choice between different sides and branching plot paths if the reasons for the games central conflict, as well as the goals and personalities of the most important characters, are totally opaque to the player.

I suppose the main problem is that the game is entirely built around missions, and yet the game designers really didn't put a lot of work into telling a story in the missions themselves. About all the plot you get from the missions themselves are a few lines of dialogue, but thee game doesn't provide you enough context to make these bits of dialogue coherent. One of the best places for developing a story would be in the mission briefings, but those are a total wash. I mean, the penultimate battle of my first playthrough was against a pair of powerful NEXTs being piloted by top officers of ORCA (I think), but all the mission briefing did was tell me about the location of the mission, and didn't even mention that I would be fighting NEXTs, let alone who was piloting them. In the battle itself, the different characters participating said some things that should have been interesting, but since I had neither any idea who the enemy pilots were or what they were trying to achieve, everything they said was essentially incoherent and meaningless babble. Ultimately, the plot of the game is entirely told through the short pieces of narration that occur between every chapter, but those are so short, distant, and lacking in detail that they don't really convey the real depth of the story at all.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that I know that someone created a fairly sophisticated and entertaining story for this game. It has a detailed, unique setting and a number of characters with personality and goals, and all of this changes across a number of significant events. However, the game doesn't make a serious attempt to actually tell that story, so the player is left with a bare-bones summary of the plot and a few brief but fleeting glimpses into the story's true depth.

As one final complaint, I will say that the ending I got on my first playthrough is probably not the ending I would have chosen, and the path I may be leading towards on my second playthrough is not what I would expect given what I have chosen so far. As a whole, there is a pretty huge gap between the nature of most missions and the plot consequences of choosing between those missions, which means that it is very difficult for the player to choose his own fate unless he already understands the game and its plot very well. I would consider this to be a severe mistake on the game designers' part.