Thursday, February 19, 2009

Devil May Cry 4: Gating and Mission Design

I was reading an interesting feature article on the website earlier today where a game designer was analyzing various elements of encounter and AI design in 3D brawler videogames. I was rather disappointed that he didn't analyze any entries in the Devil May Cry series; in fact, I am considering trying out his method of analysis on the game later. In the mean time though, one aspect of his article caught my eye: the concept of gating. While the concept behind gating is something that I was already familiar with, it is nice to finally have an accepted word for it.

In essence, gating is where the game developers put in obstacles to prevent the player from running away from or circumventing a battle. It is a valuable tool of the game developer, since it is pretty pointless to make a brawler-style game where the player can just walk right past every fight. There are a couple different ways of implementing gating: one way is to explicitly lock a player into a room until every enemy is dead, and the other is to design the enemies' attacks and AI to punish the player for trying to run away. While Devil May Cry 4 uses both methods of gating, it leans heavily towards the former in every mission, to the point where I think it begins to be detrimental to the game.

As is traditional in the Devil May Cry series, DMC 4's most common form of gating is where the game blocks off all of the doors and escape routes out of a room with red or white walls of energy. The games even use a specific color of wall to differentiate them from walls that can only be removed by solving puzzles or advancing the plot. Now then, there is nothing wrong with this strategy in of itself; plenty of videogames, including most incarnations of the Legend of Zelda series, lock the player in a room until the player defeats every enemy present. I think doing this is a great way to mark major battles. However, I think the technique is severely over-used in Devil May Cry 4. The typical mission structure of DMC 4 can be safely summed up as a string of three to five rooms where the player has to defeat every enemy in the group in order to proceed. While optional enemies sometimes appear, they are in the minority. After the first few missions set up like this, I actually began to forget that I could avoid some battles.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the majority of the battles that don't have explicit gating often are designed to take advantage of "soft" gating. For example, one of the few areas of the game where the player can run away from battles is in the long corridor sections of Fortuna castle. However, these long corridors are typically populated by either Frosts or Basilisks, both of which possess a mix of both high pursuit abilities and dangerous long-range attacks. So while the player can try to run from these enemies, he will probably take a few bad hits from enemy attacks. Furthermore, these groups of enemies are usually comparable in numbers and fighting strength to enemy groups that the player is locked in with. So even they still count as part of the linear chain of major fights.

Honestly, I think the developers went overboard with the gating in Devil May Cry 4. Gating is particularly useful for differentiating big, important fights from small, inconsequential fights. However, the developers decided to make just about every fight in Devil May Cry 4 a big fight, and cut out all of the little fights, and then they used strict gating to lock the player into that structure. However, that uniformity gets tiresome after a while. While Devil May Cry 4 has plenty of variety in enemies, it doesn't have enough variety in the kinds of encounters that the player faces. The consistent use of gating also denies the chance for the player to use running away, even of the temporary tactical withdrawal variety, as a viable strategy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The World Ends With You: Gathering Pins

As I mentioned in my last post, there are somewhere around three hundred Psych Pins in The World Ends With You. As such, simply acquiring all of these Pins is a fairly significant aspect of the game. You even get rated on how many Pins you have mastered as one of the completion rankings in the save screen. All told, this is one aspect of the game that has probably eaten more of my time than the main plot.

There are four ways to acquire Psych Pins in the game. The most obvious way is to buy them from shops, which is fairly self-explanatory. The second way is to acquire them from plot scenes and various other story events in the game, which are actually surprisingly generous in this game. You can get a lot of great Pins and other items just by going through the game's story and opening up all the paths between the game areas, which is very nice and makes up for the game's lack of typical exploration-based rewards like the classic treasure chest. These two are simple enough, but the other two ways you get Pins are a bit more unique.

The third main source of Psych Pins is the Noise, the main enemies of the game. Normally, I hate trying to gather items that are randomly dropped by enemies in RPGs, but The World Ends With You puts an entirely new spin on this concept that makes it useful and fun. Basically, the game enables you to control your acquisition of Pins from the Noise to a very high degree. Every Noise has exactly four Pins it could possibly drop, one for each difficulty level, and a set probability for dropping each Pin. Whenever you beat that Noise, the game randomly determines which Pin the Noise drops, starting with the difficulty level you are currently playing at and going down from there until either you get a Pin or it runs out of difficulty levels to check. What is more, you know these drop rates for every Noise that you have defeated, and you know which Pins you have acquired from which Noise and the difficulty level they are associated with. On top of this, you can freely set the difficulty level at any time, and each area of the game has a fairly limited number of Noise at any one time (and different groups of Noise have different icons on the game screen, making it even easier to isolate them), so it is possible to control both what enemies you are fighting and which Pin those enemies are most likely to drop. If you want a Pin that is only dropped by a certain Noise on High difficulty, then you can easily find that Noise and fight it on High difficulty whenever you want (unless you have passed the point in the game where that Noise is replaced by other Noise, which happens). This is already a significant improvement over fighting a hundred random battles in hopes if finding a rare enemy who will only drop a kind of item with a 1/128 chance, but it gets even better still.

One of the real marvels of The World Ends With You's combat system is that you can vastly increase the odds of an enemy dropping an item, simply by taking on a handicap. At the bottom-right corner of the menu screen is a star rating, that serves as a multiplier for the drop rates for every Pin in the game. By voluntarily lowering your level below its maximum value (which you can do or undo at any time outside of battle), you can increase this star rating by one for each level you give up. If an enemy starts with a default drop rate of 2% for a certain pin, then decreasing your level by 9 will lead to a star rating of 10, which gives you an adjusted drop rate of 20%. What is more, by challenging enemies to chain battles (a sequence of battles in which you don't heal between battle like you normally do), you multiply the star rating by the number of battles in the chain. If you fight a three "reduction" chain battle, with the same enemy and level handicap as before, the star rating temporarily increases from 10 to 30, and the drop rate further increases from 20% to 60%. By taking on additional challenges, you transform a long-shot drop rate of 2% into a nearly guaranteed 60% chance. Combined with the elements I described in the paragraph above, this transforms the task of acquiring rare Pins from a matter of dumb luck into something that can easily be accomplished by good planning and effort, rewarding skill with the game rather than a high tolerance for frustration. The only barrier to getting the Pins you want is your ability to win battles, rather than how much time you are willing to put into the task. It turns a chore into a fun puzzle to sort out and a challenge to overcome.

A notable aspect of this system is that it even applies in boss battles. Actually, for normal boss battles, this may be something of a flaw. You can't tell the enemy drop rates until you have defeated the boss once, but you only ever fight the game's bosses once (at least, so far in my playthrough). It would probably work better if the drop rates for all of a boss's PIns were 100% by default, so you are guaranteed to get a Pin from the boss and what Pin you acquire is determined only by what difficulty level you have set when you fight the boss. However, the game's various optional bosses which you can fight endlessly are a different matter entirely. Their mix of very high challenge, extremely low drop rates, and valuable rare of even unique Pin drops seem designed to test your ability to manage this system, and they succeed at that task very well.

Also, the various battles against Pig Noise are worthy of note, though these are mostly just special battles that operate under special rules and are guaranteed to give you certain Psych Pins regardless of what your difficulty level or level handicap are set to. I really don't have much to say about them other than that I like them in general, but I get frustrated with how some are poorly designed (such as requiring a specific Pin that is not available during the period that the Pig Noise must be defeated in).

The final method that you use to acquire Psych Pins is Pin Evolution. Some Pins have the capability to transform into more powerful Psych Pins when they level up, based on the kind of Pin Points used to level them up. This gets a bit complicated, really, so I think I will skip my usual summary of the system and just mention some of my thoughts about it all. Put simply, I think this is one of the places where the game simply lets itself add a lot of complication for fairly little benefit. In order to use this system, I had to draw up a Pin Evolution chart based on information from a FAQ at, and I need to reference this chart practically every time I play the game. I find that doing so is practically a necessity, since even with the chart I have to devote myself to hours of work in order to get Pins to evolve, and it would be easily three time as much work without that resource. What is more, even the work I am putting in to this task isn't enough to get the 100% Pin Mastery rating, because that only counts Pins that have been mastered, but Pins that evolve don't count as being mastered. Most importantly, the large amount of effort required to level up and evolve Pins means that actually using Pins that have been mastered (and thus freely building the Pin Folders you want to use) will prevent you from ever acquiring a lot of the most useful and fun to use Pins in the game. This hurts the game more than it really helps, and runs counter to many of the other fairly ingenious elements of the game design.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The World Ends With You: Psych Pins

The Psych Pin system is The World Ends With You is fantastic. It is a very simple and easy-to-use system that lets you completely build the combat abilities of the game's main hero, simply by equipping him with up to six Psych Pins, each of which has its own ability. Neku, the game's main character, can only attack by using a Psych Pin's ability, so he is ultimately a blank slate for the player to customize with the three hundred or so different Pins in the game. These different Pins can complement each other or interfere with each other in a wide variety of ways, leading to a surprisingly flexible and fun system, yet it is incredibly easy to work with.

The most distinct aspect of this system is its dependence upon touch controls. Each Psych Pin is activated by a specific touch command, and you can activate the Pin's attack in battle simply by using the command (you don't need to activate the Pin first, or something like that). Also, the order of the Pins in your "folder" is the order in which the game checks to verify the button input, and you can set Pins to a "sub-folder" so they will only be used if you hold down a button while inputting the touch command, so the system puts a lot of flexibility and control into the player's hands. As a result, you can easily and reliably perform a wide variety of combat options with very simple controls. However, these controls are not quite perfect. For one thing, some of the touch commands are less reliable than others. "Slash", "touch", "touch rapidly", and "yell into the microphone" all work perfectly well, and "drag" works well most of the time, but far too often "press", "draw a circle", and "scratch" can be a bit finicky. Far too often an attack that requires you to sustain a press or scratch will inexplicably cancel before completion, and it usually takes me two or three tries every time I try to activate a pin by drawing a circle. What is worse, several of these button inputs simply don't work well together. If you have a "draw a circle" or "drag" Pin at a higher priority than a "press" Pin, then it is nearly impossible to successfully use the latter. Many pins that depend on touching a specific type of object, such as an enemy, obstacle, Neku, or even just empty space, can often be a bit troublesome if you have another pin that uses a similar command on a different type of target. This gets even worse if the same Pin can target both enemies and obstacles, like some psychokinesis Pins or any drag command Pin (since dragging Neku will always move him, and this comes at a higher priority than any Pin). Finally, some Pins simply are not given a command input that suits the attack, namely Pins that launch an attack in a single direction, but have an input that doesn't actually control direction (such as "press Neku"), and as a result are very difficult to aim. As a whole, the system works well, but just has a lot of annoying quirks.

The annoying part about the whole touch command issue is that there are a number of commands which are under-utilized. For example, a small number of Pins require you to "slash down" or "slash up" on various targets in order to activate an effect, but not many. However, these commands are very reliable, don't contradict each other, and they only require you to place them ahead of generic "slash" Pins on the priority list. If this kind of specific command was used more often, it would made it much easier to combine different Pins. Also, a greater number of Pins with an automatic effect or the "touch Pin to activate" command would have been nice. Still, the fact that the system works as well as it does, even with a huge number of Pins, is a testament to how well this system was designed.

To get back to the topic of how versatile this system is, I really have to praise the variety of different Pin combinations you can create, each of which leads to its own combat style. There are Pins that cause status conditions alongside attacks, Pins that cause status conditions at the start of battle, and Pins that lengthen the amount of time enemies suffer from status conditions, so you can very thoroughly build a strategy based around any status condition in the game. There are healing Pins with differing number of uses, Pins that increase the number of times you can use your Pins, healing Pins with that mix different amounts of healing with the ability to cure various conditions, Pins that increase how much you get healed, healing Pins that have longer or shorter periods in which they leave the hero vulnerable, Pins that automatically activate a healing Pin when you become seriously injured, and Pins that just automatically heal you when you get hurt, so it is entirely up to you on how best to fit healing into a battle strategy and how many Pin slots you are willing to dedicate to that one aspect of combat. Because there are so many variables that control the ability of Pins, such as touch command input, attack power, number of uses, and reboot time, there are many different options for even a single type of attack, and thus there are countless options for strategies and combinations. Personally, I like to mix moderately powerful attacks that have a large number of uses with powerful attacks that have a single use and quick reboot time.

Finally, I really must say that I like the Pin folder construction rules, since they are so clear and created so much design space. Basically, all Pins are given a psych type (such as Psychokinesis, Shockwave, Energy Rounds, etc) and a class (C, B, A, Reaper, and Angel). You can only equip one Angel Pin and one Reaper Pin, but the other classes only come into play in combination with type. You can have up to three class C Pins of the same type, but only a single class A Pin of any given type. Because these rules depend on two different variables, it creates a framework that both restricts overly powerful combinations and leaves a very wide degree of flexibility. What is more, it is a system that generally encourages versatility, since the restrictions on C, B, or A class Pins will never come into effect if you use a wide variety of different types. I don't really think that every Pin is given a proper classification (some Reaper Pins are hardly worth the slot, for example), but the system as a whole is quite effective.

Next time, I think I will write about collectible nature of the Psych Pins.

Devil May Cry 4: Returning to Old Areas

One area where Devil May Cry 4 really suffers in comparison to the older entries in the series is in how they handled Dante's section of the game. When Dante becomes the controllable character in mission 12, he begins a trek back through all of the areas that Nero has passed through earlier. As such, the second half of the game is a reprise of the first. Now then, earlier entries in the series used this same trick, and it is a perfectly legitimate way to proceed through a game if done well. However, the Dante section of Devil MAy Cry 4 ended up feeling tacked on because the developers did not change the old areas nearly enough to make the experience of reprising them feel new or interesting.

Returning to old areas is actually a classic element of the Devil May Cry series. In missions 16 through 19 of the first Devil May Cry, Dante goes back through the areas he first went through in missions 1 through 8 (as well as a few others). In Devil May Cry 3, Dante first climbs up to the top of the tower of Temin-ni-Gru, then descends down into its basement, and finally climbs all the way back up to its roof. However, the difference between these two games and Devil May Cry 4 lies in how they handled reprising old areas.

In the original Devil May Cry, it is daytime when Dante first arrives in the old castle. While the castle is completely loaded with demons, it otherwise seems to be a fairly ordinary castle. However, as Dante moves onwards and completes missions, day gives way to night, and by the time Dante returns to the keep that he explored in the first few missions, it is completely dark out. While the change in lighting is enough to make exploring the castle more difficult, the castle itself seems to become possessed by evil after nightfall. Walls lined with suits of armor take the place of doors, the internal structure of the castle seems to have rearranged itself, and certain parts of the castle, such as the cathedral, take on a twisted, biological appearance. The transformation of the castle works very well because it successfully twists what was once familiar and known into something unknown and much more frightening. The game also shakes things up by adding new rooms, new ways of getting around, new enemies, and a brand new, really difficult boss to this section of the game. It is impossible to say anything bad about this execution of the idea of returning to old ground.

In Devil May Cry 3, Dante does most of his backtracking through familiar territory in missions 14 through 17, where he climbs back up to the roof of the tower from its deepest basement. However, the game throws a twist at the player. At the end of mission 13, the entire tower transforms: the tower's height increases significantly, rooms that used to be connected are now on separate floors, some old rooms have collapsed, and new doors and passageways have appeared. As such, climbing back up the tower is not as simple as going though familiar areas backwards; it involves trailblazing completely new paths and getting used to new ways of exploring the tower. While this section of the game plays off of the familiarity of the old areas, it is in practice an entirely new set of areas to explore. To top it all off, the player fights two brand new bosses during this section of the game.

In contrast to what was done in the previous games though, the player does just play through familiar areas backwards after Dante takes over in Devil May Cry 4. While the game does try to mix things up a bit by adding a couple of new elements to the areas, the changes are superficial at best. For example, Fortuna castle has the exact same layout as in Nero's go-through, except that ice walls have appeared to shepherd Dante down a specific, roundabout route. Th only change of note is that a door that had been previously blocked off (but still on the map) is now mysteriously open, revealing a single stairwell. Other areas were not so fortunate. Dante travels through the underground lab in the exact same direction Nero did, fighting more or less the same enemies (in the same rooms), with the single change that he has to deal with a cloud of poisonous gas that is more annoying than interesting. The only area to get a real change in mood is the forest, which is filled with rain and a creepy fog that has rearranged the connections between rooms. However, the forest reverts to its sunny, familiar self as soon as Dante slays the area boss. Heck, even the "lost woods" puzzle is completely unchanged in Dante's go-through, with the exact same clue and solution. The entire thing is compounded by the fact that Dante fights the exact same set of bosses that Nero fought (minus the most interesting ones) in the exact rooms that Nero fought them, with only a single exception. All told, Dante's side of the game completely lacks any interesting twists to keep things novel or interesting.

Devil May Cry 4 might have been a lot better off if it had used some of the same tricks that the previous installments used to make familiar material fresh and interesting. At the very least, it would have been a good idea to have made Nero pass through the areas during the daytime and Dante at nighttime, or vice versa.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Devil May Cry 3: The 7 Hells

In my last post on enemies in Devil May Cry 4, I compared the new demons from DMC4 to a particular group of demons from Devil May Cry 3: the Hell reapers. In my opinion, the Hell reapers of DMC 3 are an exceptionally good group of regular enemies because they combined a solid theme shared among all of them while also being good at requiring the player to adapt his strategy depending on the composition of the enemy group.

First off, all of the 7 Hells type enemies share several features in common appearance wise: they all where hooded cloaks, they have a gaunt, skeletal appearance, and almost all of them use scythes. In essence, they are all look vaguely like the cliche Grim Reaper. At the same time, each individual type of Hell reaper has a very distinctive look, particularly in terms of coloration and posture. So, a large group of 7 Hells looks like a mob of similar, but distinct individuals. I think it works quite well.

More important to the success of 7 Hells as enemies is in how each individual type of Hell reaper has its own focus:

Hell Pride: The most basic kind of Hell reaper, these guys are only capable of short range melee attacks.

Hell Sloth: These Hell reapers are capable of teleporting, making them good at surprise attacks.

Hell Gluttony: These ones are capable of performing a rather dangerous mid-range sand blast attack.

Hell Lust: These Hells are extremely fast and suddenly dash in from long range to attack.

Hell Wrath: These guys don't use scythes, but instead act as walking bombs.

Hell Greed: This type of 7 Hell carries around a coffin which it uses to periodically summon other Hell reapers.

Hell Envy: This is a version of the Hell Pride that is unique to a specific area of the game.

As seen in the list above, each Hell reaper has its own particular special skill, which requires different tricks to beat it. For example, while a Hell Pride can be quickly defeated with focused ground combos, a Hell Lust's vicious attacks force the player to keep moving and stay airborne. These wildly varying fighting styles also mean that it is possible to create a variety of unique combat encounters by combining different types of 7 Hell. For example, fighting Hell Prides and Hell Greeds at the same time is a fairly straightforward affair; one must simply take down the Hell Greeds quickly by attacking them during their periods of vulnerability, while occasionally clearing out some Hell Prides if they get too numerous or too close. On the other hand, in a similar fight against Hell Greeds and Hell Lusts, it isn't so easy to ignore the Hell Lusts. In that situation, one must instead turn to more hit-and-run style tactics.

The strength of the 7 Hells is that each kind of Hell reaper is designed to be a building block for an encounter, instead of a monster that can do anything on its own. As such, even though Devil May Cry 3 is full of encounters against the 7 Hells, no two are exactly the same. At the same time, these encounters feel thematically appropriate, because the 7 Hells are share a common design paradigm.

I can confidently say that the 7 Hells are the best set of enemies from the entire Devil MAy Cry series.

Persona 4: Individual Social Links

Since I have already summed up most of my general feelings about the Persona 4 Social Link system, it is time to look at some of the individual Social Links in depth.

Culture Clubs: Much like in Persona 3, you get to choose one club to join for each of two categories, and these clubs have associated Social Links. The big difference here is that the choice in club actually matters. In Persona 3, whether you picked the Art Club, Music Club, or Photography Club, you were still going to end up in the same club as teammate Fuuka and Social Link character Keisuke, which certainly makes you wonder why they bothered to give you a choice at all. In Persona 4, though, choosing the Drama Club will open up a Social Link of the Sun Arcana with a girl named Yumi, and choosing to join the Band will open up a Link of the same Arcana with a different girl (I don't really know who she is, since I am still on my first playthrough). This means the choice in club may not have any significant gameplay difference (as far as I am aware), but it does change the subplots and scenes that you experience across the game, which adds to the game's replay value and makes the player's choices feel more important. This is certainly a nice improvement.

Sports Clubs: As with the culture clubs, the choice of which sport club you join is far more significant than it was in Persona 3. However, it implements that significance in a different way. Both club choices have an associated character, but regardless of which choice you make you will befriend both of them (since they are close friends with each other). Far from making the choice irrelevant, though, your choice in club has a major impact on the storyline associated with that Social Link. Thus, you meet two great characters either way, and there is still a significant difference based on the choice. Also, having larger groups of people hanging out with each other in Social Link scenes makes them more interesting and dynamic, which helps a bit. I actually like this implementation of the club choice better than the culture club variation.

The Fox: This is a truly bizarre and fun Social Link, that doesn't work quite like any other. For one, the fact that it is a Social Link with a surprisingly intelligent animal that can't talk is strange enough, but but even more strangely it doesn't even use the same system to determine its growth as other Social Links. Rather than build up affection with the Fox, you must solve people's problems with the game's quest system in order to unlock higher levels of this Social Link. What is more, the Fox actually goes with you into the game's dungeons and provides special healing services there (and building the Social Link gives you a discount on those services). The unique way you build the Fox up makes it stand out as a refreshing change compared to other Social Links, and its added usefulness makes me wish that more Social Links were given side benefits and a role in the game's dungeons.

Margaret: This woman is another strange Social Link like the Fox. She is the assistant to Igor, the strange figure that fuses demons and Personas for the heroes in pretty much every Shin Megami Tensei game, and thus doesn't even really exist outside of the mysterious Velvet Room that only the hero can visit. As such, raising her Social Link is based around bringing her unusual Personas (this makes it a lot like the Fox), and doesn't even cause time to pass. The fact that there was no Social Link with Elizabeth, Igor's assistant in Persona 3, always seemed a bit strange (particularly in FES, where you can go on dates with her), so this is a nice touch. This unusual Link also adds some much needed variety to the game, and helps add to the number of plot important characters who have Social Links (a nice trend in Persona 4 that needs to be carried even farther).

The Dojima Family: Both the hero's uncle and cousin are Social Links in this game, and they are easily two of my favorite Social Links in the entire game. The simple fact that the game's nameless hero actually has a family is nice enough in of itself, but just as important is the fact that these are the only Social Links other than the ally links that are with plot-important characters with a large number of voiced lines of dialogue. As such, the Social Link scenes don't have to bear the entire burden of developing these characters and portraying the hero's interactions with them, and they appear frequently even if you never build up their Social Links. This means that, even though their Social Link scenes are dominated by central problems (in fact, both Social Links share the same problem, just with two different sides), these problems don't create the same issues to anywhere near the same extent that they do in other Social Links. Other than the ally characters, these are the only two Social Link characters who react to the game's plot and have an impact upon the greater story of the game. The Social Link system would really benefit by making more Social Links resemble the ones with the Dojimas.

None of the other Social Links are really notable enough to be worth mentioning, so I may as well wrap this up. I still need to write more about ally Social Links, but that is going to be its own post, and I need to play a bit more of the game first. I may need to shake off the grip The World Ends With You has over me before that can happen, though...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Persona 4: Social Links

Persona 4's Social Link system is one of the elements that has changed the least since Persona 3. I have already discussed both Persona 3's version of Social Links and a few ideas on how to change that system, and unfortunately many of the issues I raised earlier are just as problematic, if not even worse, in Persona 4. As long as the Persona games still use the classic Shin Megami Tensei system of acquiring new "monsters" and fusing them to create ever stronger "monsters" (which is its own issue), then the gameplay benefits of building up Social Links will be perfect as-is, but the actual process of building up those Social Links is still significantly flawed.

The greatest problem of the Social Link system is still the lack of presence and development of the Social Link characters. Most of the Social Link characters are still just random people that are completely unrelated to the main story of the game, so you really only interact with them in the ten scenes that build up the Social Link. Many still don't show up at all other than the times in which you can hang out with them, and none of them react at all to the main plot of the game. At the very least, the game designers could have given these characters the same constant presence that many of the nameless recurring NPCs in the game have. After all, every last person walking around the game world (other than a few who only show up for quests) has their own personality, quirks, problems, and reactions to the events of the game. there is no reason the game designers couldn't have given the same kind of dialog that the nameless NPCs use to convey so much to the player, in addition to normal Social Link development. Even such a minor addition could have added a lot. As it stands, it often seems like the Social Link plots and the main story of the game are so separate they may as well not take place in the same setting or involve the same main character.

Another great problem is the nature of the Social Link subplots. In almost every case, these subplots involve some problem that the Social Link character is facing, and how this problem gets solved. Often, this problem takes the forefront to the detriment of actual development of the character or portraying a believable friendship with the main character. This is actually a pretty major problem from Persona 3, but it has become more apparent to me since I last discussed this issue. A good example of how bad this can get is seen with the Social Link character Yumi, a girl the main character can meet if he joins the Drama Club. The first few scenes in this Link, which focus on introducing Yumi's love of acting and straightforward, strong-willed personality, are quite fun, but shortly afterwards the entire thing gets hijacked by a plot involving Yumi's estranged father falling ill. Almost the rest of the Social Link subplot is a long chain of scenes at the hospital in which Yumi laments her bad luck in life. These scenes don't even really portray how the hero helps her through this (that is just left as a vague implication), instead, they simply focus upon various stages of how Yumi's problem develops, almost completely ignoring the main hero's presence (and thus the player's importance). Even the idea that this is supposed to be the drama club Social Link is ignored by this subplot, which makes most of the fun parts of the first few scenes involving Yumi completely meaningless, and really stretches the question of why you can only see scenes involving Yumi in the hospital on days when the drama club meets. I am certain that the writers for the game intended this to be a fairly emotional story, but in creating a story about how Yumi deals with her problems with her sick father they completely forgot to actually tell a story about a growing bond between Yumi and the main character, which is what it should have been. This kind of focus on a character's problems, rather than on the character itself and how that character interacts with the main character, is far too typical for Social Links.

With all of that said, Persona 4 has indeed made a few significant improvements over Persona 3's version of the Social Link system. The two biggest are the addition of every Persona-using ally as a Social Link (which addresses a major problem I had with Persona 3), and the change to girls' Social Links so you don't automatically pursue a romantic relationship with every girl you know. The former change is probably worth its own post, so I'll get into it another day. The latter change is simply a much-appreciated improvement, since it means that you don't need to act like a two-timing skirt-chaser in order to build up every Social Link, and can feel more free to build up a girl's Social Link even if you don't want her to be the main character's girlfriend. Actually, considering some of the important secondary effects of building an ally's Social Link and the fact that many of the ally characters are girls, the latter change is practically essential to Persona 4. In addition to those two major changes, the added stronger link between Social Links and the hero's attributes, so raising Social Links both more frequently requires built up attributes and raising some Social Links will also improve certain attributes, also is a nice general improvement, and the pay you earn for Social Links involved with part-time jobs is another much-appreciated addition.

This is such a big part of the game that I still have quite a bit more to say, particularly about individual Social Links, but I should probably save it for another day. This post is getting long enough.

Devil May Cry 4: Enemies

There is a pretty good variety of enemies in Devil May Cry 4, ranging from the weak Scarecrows to the insanely powerful Blitz demons. However, I don't think that the list of enemies, nor how the enemies in the game are used are perfect. It is a little hard to pin down exactly, so I will tackle the various enemies in Devil May Cry 4 one at a time.

These are the successors to the Puppets of Devil May Cry 1 and the Hell reapers of Devil May Cry 3; they are weak enemies designed to be fought in large numbers throughout the game. Unfortunately, the Scarecrows just don't seem to do the job as well as their precursors. First of all, the Scarecrows only come in two main varieties, an Arm type and a Leg type, which are difficult to distinguish from each other since they both fight in more or less the same manner. In comparison, the Puppets of DMC1 came in blade-wielding, dart-throwing, and gun-toting varieties, as well as in the slightly stronger Bloody Mary variety. In DMC3, there were seven kinds of Hell reaper, each of which was both visually unique and had distinct powers. This lack of variety really hurts the Scarecrows, since most Scarecrow battles end up feeling the same.

The other problem with the Scarecrows in DMC4 is that they don't appear very frequently in the game. It is actually a lot of fun to tear through large hordes of weak enemies using your large array of flashy attacks in a Devil May Cry game. That is more or less the reason for the existence of the Scarecrows and their ilk. Yet, Scarecrows don't actually appear all that frequently in Devil May Cry 4. While they appear in just about every major section of the game, with the exception of the first few missions they only appear in a room or two per mission, if that. In comparison, just about every corridor and transition room in DMC1 or DMC3 is stuffed with fights against similar enemies. Part of this is due to DMC4's tendency to build stages around 3 or 4 major fights against stronger enemies with little in the way of optional fights in transitional areas.

Assaults and Frosts:
With DMC4's emphasis of having a few major battles per mission, the lizard-like Assaults end up being one of the most prominent enemies in the game, particularly in Son of Sparda mode, where they al but replace the Scarecrow. They are designed to fulfill the role of an enemy that is a bigger challenge than the Scarecrow, but still weak enough to be fought in groups of three or four. In that sense, they are somewhat comparable to the stronger varieties of Hell reaper from DMC3. However, while the stronger Hell reapers came in a wide variety of specialist forms, the Assaults come in only one form that tries to do everything at once. They throw long-ranged attacks, perform a variety of mid to long range dashing attacks, have decent melee capability, can perform a screaming attack at short range to stun Dante/Nero, and can block both gunfire and melee attacks. This all-in-one nature of the Assaults doesn't really help them as monsters. Since they can fight using a variety of moves, there isn't really any kind of strategy for fighting them, so they end up being more annoying than anything. At the same time, they always fight the same way and rarely come alongside anything else, so fighting them gets old after a while.

The Frosts are really just elemental versions of the Assaults with a greater emphasis on power and defense over speed, so a lot of my comments above apply to them as well. Oddly enough, they are introduced much earlier in the game than the Assaults.

Chimera Seeds and Chimeras:
I actually like these things. The Chimera Seeds are almost unique among DMC4 monsters in the thematic nature. The Chimera Seeds only appear in the forest area, and are directly linked to the boss of the forest, which successfully ties together the enemies in the area, the area itself, and the boss of the area together in a way no other area of the game is. The Chimera Seeds themselves do something unique: they attach themselves to other enemies and make those enemies stronger. However, I much prefer it when the Chimera Seeds start out unattached, so I have the chance to try and prevent some of them from attaching to other the enemies. For too often, enemies come with Chimera Seeds pre-attached.

I really have no idea why the designers of DMC4 used Basilisks the way they did. Basilisks fulfill a pretty basic and necessary niche of monster: they are relatively fragile enemies that specialize in ranged attacks. As such, they should have been a major enemy that appears alongside Scarecrows and Assaults for most of the game. Yet, the Basilisks are introduced only near the very end of Devil Hunter Mode, appear in only a few places even in Son of Sparda mode, and generally only appear in packs consisting of only Basilisks. I really have no explanation for it.

Once again, this is a monster that only appears in very few encounters. Yet, they are a pretty interesting enemy, since they can picked up by Nero and thrown at other monsters for a pretty powerful attack. At the same time, their presence can make a tough fight much harder, since they are distracting and can do a fair bit of damage. They really deserved a bigger presence in the game.

As far as I can remember, these guys only show up in a pack of three in one encounter in the entire game. Their presence is so limited that I don't even know what to say about them. Like the Gladius and Basilisk, these guys seem to have been designed primarily for their role as weapons used by Agnus Angelo. Outside of that role, they don't seem to have much point in DMC4.

Bianco Angelo and Alto Angelo:
I can't deny that the Angelo-type enemies are some of the coolest enemies in DMC4. The Bianco Angelos work well as a mid-tier enemy designed to be tough until you get used to their quirks. The Alto Angelos work well as elite opponents on their own, and can transform a group of Bianco Angelos into what is practically a mid-boss fight. Yet, I can't shake the idea that there should have been a third kind of Angelo, such as an Angelo similar in strength to the Bianco that was designed for ranged combat. That would have given some more variety to the early/mid game Angelo fights, and would have opened up a greater variety of Alto Angelo squads. Alternatively, it would have been nice if the Angelos appeared alongside the weapon type enemies (Gladius, Cutlass, and Basilisk) more regularly, and even better if they could have synergized with them more. For example, maybe an Alto Angelo could pick up a Cutlass and use it as a weapon, similar to how Agnus does.

Mephistos and Fausts:
Honestly, at this point I just plain hate these things. There is only one strategy that works on them: shoot them until their cloak falls off (which can take a frustrating amount of time), then slash them while they are vulnerable until they die. At the same time, they are too powerful to casually group with other enemies. The one time I fought Mephistos and Frosts at the same time, I discovered that it was almost as tough as a boss fight. As such, you only fight Mephistos in groups of two or three Mephistos, with a Faust occasionally thrown in for a particularly tough fight. This makes fights against Mephistos tedious, annoying, and boring. I much preferred enemies like the Bloodgoyles of DMC3, which were similar, but weak enough to be paired up with other enemies.

This enemy has so far only appeared by itself as a really difficult solo fight. I have died or nearly died every time I have fought it. While there is only one real effective strategy, the enemy is rare enough and strong enough that I can't really complain. The third time I fought a Blitz, I got to use a Gyro Blade to fight it, so I can't fault the designers for not trying to spice up battles against the thing.

After writing this much, I think the recurring issues of enemy and encounter design have come out into the open. In short, while the game has a wide variety of interesting enemies, the enemies don't complement each other very well. You fight most enemies in groups consisting of just that enemy type, with occasional exception. Most of the enemy-types in the game are fairly resilient enemies with a wide range of both long and short range moves, which means that they don't have glaring weaknesses that the player can exploit or that other enemies could cover for in a mixed group. A such, there is little strategy to be found in determining what order to kill the enemies in. The lack of variety also means that fighting these enemies gets a lot less interesting after a while.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Devil May Cry 4: Boss Handicaps

Today I had to suffer the shame of killing a boss while it was handicapped for the second time in my time playing Devil May Cry 4. What really bugs me though is that I am not convinced that I needed the handicap. I am pretty sure that I could have won that fight at its full difficulty if I had been given the chance. Unfortunately, the game made the choice for me. This particular incident makes for a good example of why I don't like auto-adjusting difficulty that doesn't ask for the player's consent.

Mission 9 of Devil May Cry 4 is one of my least favorite stages in the game, mostly due to its introduction of the Alto Angelos, and it is much worse on Son of Sparda difficulty than I expected. I am ashamed to say that I needed to use a few items to live through the second battle, where an Alto Angelo unit was reinforced by a whole flock of Gladiuses. I subsequently had to continue after dying to a laser beam trap on the climb up towards the boss. After all of that trouble, I was pretty determined to beat the boss, even if I had to continue a bunch of times, since I did not want to have to climb my way up that stage again.

Unfortunately, I died to the boss, Agnus Angelo, three times before I finally beat him. However, I noticed something strange on my third attempt: Agnus summoned a group of three Gladiuses to fight me instead of the two Basilisks he had summoned during my first two attempts. When Angus summoned the Gladiuses again on my fourth and final attempt, I became certain that the Enemy Handicap had kicked in. I received confirmation of that fact when I beat the stage and was hit with the associated score penalty. While part of me was just relieved that the stage was behind, I was also honestly frustrated. I felt like the game had denied me the chance of having a fair shot at beating Agnus at his full power.

Since this is currently my second time through the game, I have fought Agnus Angelo several times already, albeit on a lower difficulty mode. The main reason I was dying was because I was being reckless and taking too many hits while I was on the offensive, and I still needed to get used to identifying his moments of vulnerability again. I am pretty sure that I could have beaten him at his full power with enough practice fighting against him at that level. If I was given the choice, I would have kept on fighting him at that power level until I beat him. But the game didn't give me a choice in the matter.

I don't think the idea of giving the payer an advantage if he keeps losing is a bad idea in of itself, but I don't think it is fair to the player if the game adjusts the difficulty without the player's consent. I would have preferred it if the game gave me a pop-up window that had explicitly asked my if I was willing to take a penalty to my score in exchange for weakening the boss. That way, I could have kept trying against the boss at full power as long as I liked, and still have the option of an easier fight when I finally reached the point where my patience runs out. Since different people have different tolerances for frustration, there is no way a single fixed number of deaths before the handicap kicks in will please everyone.

The World Ends With You: Battle System

While I have certainly been devoting a lot of time to Persona 4 lately (more than 70 hours so far), I have also been spending quite a bit of time playing The World Ends With You, Square-Enix's unusual RPG for the Nintendo DS. The game is a masterpiece. I am almost staggered by how well it blends creativity, style, ambition, excellent gameplay, and a great story. Honestly, I can't believe me it took me this long to give the game a try. Still, if I am going to actually critique the game, rather than just praise it shamelessly, I may as well start by talking about its distinctive combat system.

The most important thing to say about WEWY's battle system is that action occurs on both screens of the DS simultaneously. The main character, Neku, fights on the bottom screen using touch controls, and his partner fights on the top screen using button controls. The two characters remain separate on their different screen for the entire battle, even though they are fighting the same enemies. What is more, the battle occurs in real time for both screens, so enemies can attack both of the characters you are controlling at once and you must fight back with both characters at the same time. Needless to say, actually fighting effectively with both characters at once is very difficult. Actually, I find it totally impossible, and usually end up doing badly whenever I try. The great triumph of this battle system, though, is that you don't really need to do the impossible in order to do well and have fun.

The battle system's greatest strength lies in the "light puck", a ball of glowing light that wanders up and down between the two screens during a battle. While a character has the light puck, that character's attacks are strengthened, and when they hit with a "combo finisher" the light puck moves on to the other character. By keeping the light puck moving between characters with a constant string of successful combo finishers, the light puck's power increases, further magnifying its benefits for whoever is carrying it. Because of this system, the player gains more benefit for simply paying attention to whoever has the light puck than trying to pay attention to both screen at all times. The light puck's glowing beacon turns the game's chaotic battles into something ordered and coherent, and sets a fun, fast-paced rhythm to the battle system that adds a lot to the game.

As a side-note, I should also mention that the game offers a few options regarding automating the character on the top screen, if you really don't want to manage the battle, but I don't use that system so I can't really comment. It is a nice touch, though.

Controlling the main hero on the bottom screen is probably the other great highlight of this game's battle system. Other than a single button used to toggle some of your options, the lower screen is entirely controlled via touch controls, and is probably one of the most intuitive and widely varied versions of such a control scheme that I have ever experienced. You can use a wide variety of simple motions such as touching, slashing, pressing, scratching, and dragging in order to execute a wide variety of commands determined by your equipped "Psych Pins", and the vast majority of these controls are amazingly responsive and reliable. As a whole, the main hero is highly customizable, easy to control, and can easily take part in mobile, fast paced combat against the enemies of the bottom screen with only a relatively small learning curve. Most importantly, the kinds of decisions you need to make while controlling the main hero are fairly simple and quick (mostly involving what pin to attack with or where to move), so it is fairly easy to just pick an attack, execute it quickly, and pass the light puck on to the hero's partner.

Unfortunately, the controls for each of the hero's three different partners are not as easy and fun as the bottom screen touch controls. You control the top screen character with either the four directional buttons or the four face buttons, with different combinations of button presses corresponding to different defensive moves and attacks. This is not bad in theory, but as a whole I find these controls to be terribly clunky and difficult to use. The biggest problem is that you can't see your attack options until you start attacking since they are random, but if you actually pause longer than a second the attack is canceled automatically, and any enemy attack will also cancel your attack, forcing you to start over. What is more, the top screen characters can't move, so they have to rely on precise timing of defensive moves in order to dodge any attacks, and you can't use most of these defensive moves while attacking (and can't defend yourself if you are looking at the other screen). Finally, these clunky battle controls are combined with small minigames unique to each character, so that you have to choose your attacks carefully if you want to complete the minigames and acquire "fusion stars" needed to active the game's powerful fusion attacks. As such, they require you to slow down and think about your moves which would mess up some of the rhythm of the battle system even without the difficult controls. All told, trying to actually earn a fusion star or two with this control scheme is a lot like trying to wrestle a slimy eel, so I mostly end up just button mashing when the light puck drifts to the top screen.

Mercifully, the top screen controls are amazingly well suited to button mashing. The randomness of the top screen controls sabotages any attempt to precisely control the upper character, but it also means that you always have a chance of earning fusion stars even if you just point the character towards an enemy and hit the same button over and over. What is more, the characters in this game can take a surprising amount of punishment, so being unable to dodge attacks is not a severe problem. As long as you don't actually try to do anything too complicated or precise, the upper screen controls actually work quite well. It is certainly a major flaw of the game that it is easier to just ignore a fairly major element of the combat system, though. The game would probably have been better off if the upper screen side of the battle was more focused on actually fighting, rather than running a minigame in order to earn fusion stars.

Still, even with that flaw the game's battle system is a lot of fun. The fact that is works so well even though it is a remarkable departure from anything seen before is very impressive. With a bit more fine tuning, it could have been perfect.