Saturday, August 8, 2009

Avalon Code: Some Random Musings

I really have been meaning to write a follow-up to the post in which I assaulted the Book of Prophecy system in Avalon Code, but I feel rather torn regarding how I should follow that one up. On one hand, I feel like I really should elaborate a bit on how I think the Book of Prophecy idea could have been better implemented, but on another hand I also feel like I should just ignoring the positive side and instead describe how badly the game tortures you through the "Book Value" system. I guess all I can do is write a bit about both.

First, some more negativity.

One of the biggest issues with the Book of Prophecy is that every last page of the book has an associated "value" given by a number. Pretty much everything you do in the game other than pursuing the main storyline is related to this value. This number supposedly relates the "amount of information" contained within that page, but the method used to determine that number depends on the type of page in the book. For example, any page that allows Code alteration gives a higher value for putting more Codes on an object and giving the object more potent "Titles" created from Code combinations, with special bonuses for changing an item's form or giving a character the Title that they want the most. However, you also increase a page's book value by various things like talking to people and giving them gifts, killing monsters and juggling them with the irritatingly necessary Judgement Link attack, or just talking to your Spirits and using the powerful Spirit Magic attacks. At this point, the system doesn't sound so bad, but there are a few issues...

First, the connection between what builds up book value and the rewards you get for doing so simply are not very clear. I have absolutely no idea why making stronger weapons will cause the town's mayor to start holding a quiz minigame. I have no idea why doing well in that quiz minigame may cause a rare monster to appear. I have no idea why defeating that monster may cause some random part of the map to start producing Magic Jewels (the game's mostly unneeded currency). In effect, you just get randomly rewarded for going about and doing nothing particularly special. It is rather unsatisfying, in my opinion.

More problematically, the game isn't really rewarding you for any particular kind of activity. It is not like the game is rewarding you for doing the things you would normally do to win the game, since certain things that raise book value actually make the game more difficult, such as making monsters stronger by giving them powerful Codes and Titles. On the other hand, the game certainly isn't rewarding you for taking on greater challenges, since creating absurdly strong weapons that make battles a cakewalk will give you a lot of book value. The real problem, though, is that the game generally tends to give you a lot of book value (and other rewards) if you go around and do a lot of tedious, meaningless stuff that is mind-numbingly boring and frustrating, like checking every last square inch of most of the map squares in the game looking for things to examine (and watching the hero/heroine jump around and yell like an idiot whenever you don't find anything because the examine button is the same as the Judgement Link attack button). Basically, the game gives you a lot of rewards for doing things you will hate doing, which is a terrible game design.

Actually, there are a number more things I could complain about regarding how the game is so miserly in handing out good rewards and seems to enjoy in tormenting the player, but I really should focus a bit more on more constructive and positive endeavors. If I don't, I may go crazy thinking about how stupid I was to fall prey to some of that inanity. At least the experience taught me the rules behind solving 24-puzzles...

So, on to how things could have been better.

There are two things you see Avalon Code's Book of prophecy system that probably could have been used to better effect: unique special Codes and Codes that can't be freely removed from a page of the Book. In the actual game, these two things always coincide, and are always seen as problems that need to be removed, with the special Codes always vanishing when the problems they represent are cleared up. I think the system would be a bit better if unalterable Codes were far more common (with even normal, non-unique Codes being often unalterable), and unique special Codes could be removed and used on other pages of the Book. This arrangement would enable three things. First, making it harder to alter the Codes of something like an NPC or a monster would help the Code system have a stronger connection to the actual gameplay and characterization, since it would be easier to determine what codes like "Justice" or "Snake" are actually supposed to represent. Second, having two different tiers of Codes, with both common Codes (which you can create as many of as you like) and unique Codes, would allow a system where it is valuable to collect Codes, but also easy to alter the arrangement of a single page of the Book without having to flip through pages of the book searching for Codes or pull apart other code arrangements. Finally, it would allow a differentiation between Codes that add Titles and Codes that change the nature of an object in a way that could potentially remove the need for Metalize recipes, thus making Codes treasures in of themselves and encouraging greater player creativity.

Of course, a few other things would also need to be done. A greater connection between the Book and the reality of the game world could be emphasized by letting actions of the game characters more directly affect the contents of the Book. For example, instead of having to unlock a problem Code by adding a Title to a character, you could unlock it through the direct actions of solving that character's problems. As another example, instead of directly removing an enemy's Stone code using the Book whenever you want, you would instead weaken the monster's Code by adding another Code that contradicts the Stone, then hit the enemy with bombs and hammers in order to deactivate the Code, which would give you an opportunity to hurt the enemy with sword attacks as if the Stone code didn't exist. Any kind of greater interaction between Codes and real game states would have made Avalon Code a lot more interesting.

I think that is about enough commentary on that game for now. I've got too many other games to write about.

Romancing SaGa: BP, DP, and LP

Among the games I have been playing during my break from blogging is Romancing SaGa, a somewhat older game for the PS2 I recently stumbled across. While Romancing SaGa is a remake of an old SNES RPG that never made it state-side, it is pretty clear that it is a loose remake, since there are some pretty interesting innovations derived from more recent SaGa games. One of the best of these innovations is the BP/DP system, which is involved in the costs for using the various spells and special weapon techniques in the game. This system is light-years ahead of traditional MP costs and results in much more dynamic and strategic combat.

BP is short for "Battle Points", and it is the primarily limiting factor on what special moves that you can use in battle. Unlike in a traditional MP system, where characters have MP totals that are carried over between battles, BP resets at the beginning of every encounter. Each character has three pertinent BP values: their starting BP amount, their maximum BP total, and the amount of BP that they gain at the start of each turn of combat. As such, a character's BP total is in constant flux, going up and down as the battle progresses and the character uses his spells and special moves, which in turn means that what moves the player has access to are also in constant flux. For example, a character who starts a fight may have to wait until turn 2 before he can cast a certain spell. However, if that character keeps using weaker spells in the mean-time, he might never get to use the stronger spell. So, BP makes the player have to constantly weigh the opportunity cost of actions.

I find that this approach is much more interesting than the traditional per-adventure MP model, which doesn't usually force the player to make interesting resource-management decisions on a round-to-round basis. In most RPGs that use MP, the dominant strategy consists of two parts: conserve MP as much as possible during regular battles, then use your MP with complete abandon during boss battles. Even if MP gets low, there are typically plenty of items available to restore it, so low MP is rarely a factor in determining which move a character has access to in a major battle. In the BP system though, the best special moves often consume from a quarter to half of a character's max total. So even though it is constantly regenerating, using your best attacks constantly isn't necessarily a good idea. On the other hand, since BP is encounter based, it means that characters can use their various special moves without worrying about saving them for boss battles, which makes regular battles generally more exciting.

However, the biggest innovation of Romancing SaGa is that it does incorporate aspects of more traditional per-adventure resource management as well using DP (Durability Points). DP isn't a character statistic; rather, it is a quality of equipped weapons. A weapon has a maximum DP ranging from 20 to 60 or so, with 50 being pretty common. Attacks can deplete anywhere from 0 to 10 DP with each use, and when a weapon reaches 0 DP, it becomes useless until repaired. However, normal weapons can only have their DP restored by resting in an inn, while special weapons can only be repaired by forking over a lot of money to a blacksmith. As such, it is usually worth conserving DP until you need it. However, an interesting effect of the DP system is that it encourages characters to carry multiple weapons (such as a regular weapon to use DP draining attacks with and a more expensive weapon to use low DP attacks with), which adds some interesting tactical layers to combat.

Where the BP and DP systems really shine is in how they interact. Since every attack has two costs, the system allows for a wide range of special moves that are useful in an equally wide range of uses. For example, weak, low BP, zero DP cost attacks are great for saving up BP for a bigger attack when dealing with normal enemies. High damage, high BP, low DP attacks are good at quickly eliminating regular enemies, but are generally unsustainable during protracted combat. High damage, low BP, high DP attacks are great for dealing solid damage to a boss round after round, but they chew through weapons and are thus useless for fighting regular enemies. Since exact details such as individual BP regeneration rates, current BP totals, what weapons are available, what the costs of various moves are, and so forth are so variable, there are rarely obvious choices to make. The sum result is that each character has a wide range of interesting moves available and the player is forced to make interesting resource management decisions every turn.

However, the system does have a few weakpoints. Most notably, spells use BP, but not DP; instead, powerful spells consume a character's LP (Life Points). However, each character only has six to eight or so LP, and when they run out, they die. Since this is hardly the only way to lose LP in a fight either, using spells with an LP cost can be suicidal. Another problem is that the number of actually usable moves is a lot lower than it could of been due to poor balancing of moves and limited availability of various special moves. The system could definitely use some tweaking and refinement.

In the end though, I think that an RPG combat system that incorporates multiple resources instead of just one ultimately produces a more interesting combat experience than one that uses just one if handled well. Mixing per-encounter and per-adventure resources together works particularly well. I would definitely like to see more games use systems like this.