Sunday, April 27, 2008

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Finished the game

I like games that do things differently and as I've mentioned before, Dragon Quarter is quite different from your standard Japanese RPG. I mentioned the similarities to survival horror that the game has, but I don't think I mentioned that there are no inns or ways to heal yourself for free. Let that sink in. It means that every time you make it to a shop, you first have to spend the money to buy healing items just to restore your health. This makes the game incredibly tense. You can never really relax because you've just beaten a big boss since healing yourself afterwards will not be cheap. Resource management is key to the game.

As it turns out, I was really good at the resource management. Despite the fact that the game expects you to do at least one SOL Restart through the course of playing it, I never had to do that. I did get a game over about a half dozen times while playing it, but two of those were right in the beginning before even getting the dragon powers and all the rest were boss fights where I just handled the strategy wrong and had no problem with it the next time. It seems I stocked my inventory well as I always had just enough healing items to make it from shop to shop. My D-Counter was only at about 35% when I reached the final gauntlet of boss fights and so I was able to D-Dive each of the last three bosses.

Even though I D-Dived those bosses, I got the feeling that I could have beaten them with shrewd tactics with just regular attacks. That was a much better feeling than the one time I D-Dived before where I felt it was absolutely impossible to win without doing that.

This game did some things really well. The character customization system with weapons that have slots you can fill with different skills was great. The combat system was generally excellent, with strategic movement and combination attacks. The music is also a strong point of the game.

There are some rough edges too. Though combat is generally great because you always need to use strategy against even regular enemies and can't just mash on attack, it can become very tedious to employ whatever specific strategy you need to defeat each enemy. Tedium is generally the problem, as navigating the interface (all the menus to equip items and skills and especially manage the fairy colony) can take awhile. Reaching the shop again requires a significant break in the game while you buy the items to heal your characters, identify all unknown stuff and then decided what to keep and what to sell.

Overall, though it was a very enjoyable game and I'm glad I experienced it.

I'm actually tempted to play through it again. Whenever you do an SOL Restart (which can also be done after finishing the game), you may lower your D-Ratio which will unlock additional cut scenes during the playthrough. The story in the game is very minimal and I think that's appropriate for the playthrough, but I like the idea of filling in background information on a subsequent playthrough. Of course, I know the reality is that I have so many good games I haven't played yet, I probably won't play through it again. But maybe I'll at least do the beginning part.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer - Completed a Rescue

Not only does this game challenge you to manage your resources and plan every move correctly, it also allows you to be a good samaritan.

Unlike most roguelikes, when you die in Shiren, your character and items are not necessarily lost for good. Three times per game, you can request a rescue attempt. You can generate a password or post a request on an online server. Then, another person with the game can make a trek down to the dungeon level you got to and revive your character.

A friend of mine recently got the game in a short period of time managed to make it to level 20... where he promptly died. So I undertook my first rescue attempt. It's, uh, significantly more difficult than a normal run. You can take stuff from the warehouse in the first village, but skip past all the other towns. This makes food management a lot more difficult (also because I'm used to starting with a riceball). Additionally, you never find any companions so it's a completely solo affair.

Shiren began his journey in a bad situation - a mini-monster house right where I started on the first level. Shiren fell twice before grabbing the Armor Ward +1 from the warehouse in order to start in a better situation. Good weapons were easy for Shiren to come by in the beginning - the problem, of course, was food. He lingered around the rice changers to get a couple of big riceballs. Everything seemed to be going fairly well for Shiren up through Table Mountain. He didn't have an incredibly powerful inventory, but probably had enough. However, he was nearly out of riceballs. Finding a shop, proved to be the difference. Along with the riceball in their, the pair of postpone staves picked up proved to be the key to handling the tough monsters inside table mountain.

On level 19, Shiren knew he had only one more level to go. He was also dangerously low on food. He had eaten his last rice ball and didn't even have any more herbs. He reached the stairs up to level 20 with a fullness of only 2. He began in a small room, but knew he would have to remove his Armor Ward. A few steps through the corridor, he reached the starving point. Each additional step would drain him of hit points. Four steps later, he reached the monster house containing the traveler in need o rescue. But what made his eyes really wide was that he was only two steps from an herb. Reading his scroll of confusion to give him some breathing room, he ran to and ate the herb. He pondered gathering some treasure in the monster house, but knew he would be pressing his luck and the monsters' confusion would not last forever. Instead, he ran up to the fallen comrade and delivered the revival, transporting him out of the dungeon.

Now he had the pride of both finding the golden condor and rescuing a fellow traveler.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Etrian Odyssey - Reached B5F

This is the second old school-inspired game I've started playing recently. While Shiren was based on Rogue, Etrian Odyssey is based on other original computer RPG - Wizardry.

Wizardry was another of the original computer role-playing games and described a formula that many other early role-playing games would use. It was basically a dungeon crawl - start in a town to procure supplies and equipment and then head down into the dungeon. Each floor of the dungeon has its own unique layout and the deeper you go, the tougher the monsters get. The dungeons are presented to you in a first-person view and you move on a grid - going forward or backward one square with 90 degree turns. This formula inspired many classics like Might and Magic, The Bard's Tale, and Ultima.

One of the key meta-activities these games required was drawing map. Since all the corridors pretty much looked the same in these games, you had to play them with a piece of graph paper next to you, drawing in the walls as you saw them as well as any special features.

Obviously, requiring players to make their own maps, especially with a portable game just wouldn't fly in this day and age. But instead of having the game automatically create the map, the creators of Etrian Odyssey decided to make map-making part of the game. Taking advantage of the DS' touch screen, the game gives you virtual graph paper on the bottom of the screen where you can draw walls, and make notes of stairs, items, and powerful enemies.

This is all pretty awesome. Making the maps is completely easy to do and it feels really satisfying to be the cartographer.

There are two other aspects of this game that are causing me to enjoy it so far.

The first is that it has some great customization for your characters. You start with seven different classes with which to make up your party of five. Each class also has over a dozen skills and you have skill points with which to assign to these skills and configure your characters. These skill points are precious too, as you only get one additional skill point for each level that you gain. It's quite a deep system.

The second aspect is the sense of dread it gives you. In old school RPGs, you knew that if you stumbled into the wrong enemies, your game could be quickly over. You had to carefully preserve your health and resources and be sure to get back to town when injured. This game is a little easier with the standard enemies you can face, but it has special enemies called FOEs that are significantly more powerful than normal enemies you face. Most of the time, the first time you encounter an FOE it will completely own you. You need to serious strategy and strength in order to face an FOE. The thing that makes these super-enemies fair is that you can see them before encountering them and know when to avoid them. But the sense of dread when you know one is near and are low in resources and then it starts chasing you is great.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Defeated Modified Bosch

I had to D-Dive for the first time in this battle. D-Diving is basically turning into your dragon form where you are a super bad-ass. The downside, of course, is that doing this raises your D-Counter. Once that reaches 100, it's game over. You lose your humanity or become some evil dragon or something like that (the game isn't exactly clear on that issue) and you're done.

I find the tension of whether to use your super ability delicious. In some games, not using a limited resource has no real consequence. It may make the game a little harder or be a little more frustrating, but it doesn't seriously change the game. In Dragon Quarter, it's at the heart of the game. The requirement to use limited resources is also present in the fact that there is never any automatic healing. The only way to heal is to use healing items and aside from the few you can find in the course of your adventure, you'll have to buy them at shops. The creates another tension in whether to use your money to upgrade your weapons and armor or use it to stock up on healing items.

All that said, I was a little disappointed because it seemed I had to D-Dive in order to win this battle. The boss regenerated a massive amount of health each turn and the amount of damage I could do it wasn't consistently high enough each turn to lower his health beyond what he would regenerate. I do feel a bit cheated in that respect, but since this is my first playthrough of the game, I suspect that I'm underpowered from what I could be and that if this were a later playthrough I could actually beat him without becoming a dragon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Final Fantasy III - Finished the game

At least I can say I've finished it, but the last couple of hours I put in were not very enjoyable.

It's tough to say why. I was enjoying the old school feeling and goodness in this game and then in the last section, the fun just kind of fell off a cliff. The game didn't change significantly, but I think the problem was, as I mentioned in my last entry, that there wasn't the promise of anything new to explore or any new gameplay mechanisms to unlock. I knew I would have to go through the final dungeon and beat the boss. Oh sure, I got a few new weapons and pieces of armor along the way, but it really felt like I had done all there was to do in this game and was now just going through the motions to get to its end.

One of the most interesting parts of playing this game was to examine it historically as it influenced later Final Fantasies. The job system is obviously the key innovation, but the little things like Chocobos, Summons, and Cid are there. But really, having played this, I can see how Final Fantasy IV is sort of a fan fiction of this game as all the characters in it have fixed jobs that pretty exactly map to the jobs of this game. And then Final Fantasy V came along and realized how lame it was to only be able to use on job's skills at a time and basically made the job system really fun.

Anyway, since the last portion of this game kind of ruined the interest I had in it, I'm mostly glad I finished now so I can say I've cleared one more game from my backlog. Now I can feel a little less guilty about starting new games.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Assorted Gamespite Articles

As a new article of mine is soon to be published, I realized that I've neglected to post here letting any regular readers here (do I actually have any?) know about them. So here goes.

I wrote a series of articles on the MacVenture games that were ported to the NES. These were a series of point and click adventures created for the Mac that, thanks to not needing a keyboard, could now be played on home video consoles. Shadowgate, Déjà Vu, and Uninvited were the three titles that made it to the NES (in that order), and I think Déjà Vu is the only one that really holds up well.

Also, I wrote a virtual console review of Kid Icarus, exploring why nostalgia is so key for this game - it was really innovative when it came out but very much doesn't stand up well today.

As mentioned, I have another article that will be published on gamespite in the next few weeks and I'm pretty proud of it. I think it's the best writing I've done in awhile.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Reached the Industrial Area

This game is difficult - at least when compared to modern RPGs. Generally, there's a bit of hand-holding and tutorial in the beginning to get you into them. In Dragon's Quarter, I just flat-out died in the first dungeon my first two times playing it.

My third time playing the game, I finally "got it". Everything about that combat system and how to correctly deal with monsters just clicked and I found myself really getting into this off-kilter RPG.

Breath of Fire has had four previous games in the series. I haven't looked into them, because they aren't supposed to be that different from their contemporary Japanese RPGs. Dragon Quarter is.

The main hook is that you aren't really expected to get through the game in one playthrough. It is certainly possible, but the game is designed in such a way that at a certain point you will realize that it isn't possible for you to get any further since you don't have any health restoring items and your character is about to die. At this point, the game gives you the option of doing a "Scenario Overlay" when you restart which basically means when you start over, you have all the skills your character previously had, along with any money you've put in the bank, progress you've made on the colony, and party xp (bonus experience you earn which can be given to the characters).

The other aspect that contributes to the need to restart is your D-Counter. Early on, you learn that your character can turn into a dragon - which is awesome! You become incredibly powerful and can quickly decimate foes. Each time you become a dragon and each time you use its abilities, your D-Counter number goes up. When it hits 100 you presumably lose control of yourself and lose your humanity - which is less awesome. That's another game over there. So, if you've had to use dragon abilities to get yourself out of some scrapes you may find it nearing 100% and have to restart.

In a strange coincidence, this game is pretty much a combination of the last two games I've been playing. The connection with Shiren is pretty obvious - they're both RPGs with turn-based tactical combat. They both expect you to die and restart, having learned something of the game from your previous run, but also allowing you to carry some things over from your previous run. Breath of Fire isn't nearly as unforgiving as Shiren since it does let you restore saved games as many times as you want. But... real save points are spaced far apart so a lot of your saving will be of the same "suspend" save variety that Shiren had - you can save your game anywhere, but when you come back to it, your save is immediately erased.

The saving aspect brings in one of the big connections the game has to Resident Evil - they are limited. If you want to save your game at one of the save points scattered throughout the game, you need a save token, much like Resident Evil required you to have ink ribbons to save at the typewriters. Save tokens are precious - you only find a few and can't buy more or store them so you have to be careful about using them up. The connection to survival horror becomes more apparent when you notice how little money and healing items the game gives you. The player must make the best use of their resources or they'll find themselves in an unwinnable situation and have to restart. I'm not the first to call this a Surival RPG, but I wholeheartedly support that appellation.

Having never played a Breath of Fire game before, I have no clue how innovative the combat in this one is, but I think it's incredibly well done. First of all, you can see enemies before battle and they take place right on the exploration screen, much like my favorite of games, Chrono Trigger. That you can see the enemies and know where you'll be fighting them is great. Additionally, the combat is very tactical. Characters have a certain number of action points, when it is their turn they can move and attack in almost any combination to use those. Maneuvering for position or to get just in range of an enemy is key - especially because several attacks can hit enemies in a line, rea, or cone. There is a wide variety of attacks for each character (and different weapons that you can specialize in different ways). Also, one character can place magical traps on the battle field and its a lot of fun to hold enemies off with these or coax them into them. The game also adds a bit of complexity in that there's a lot you can do pre-battle like set traps and hit the monster first to get a first strike turn, but I don't think those are as well implemented or interesting. Still, it's a pretty great system.

Finally, this game has the best cut scene system ever. Not only are they skippable (as it's a sin in this day and age to not have them be), but they are pauseable as well. Finally, I can go pee during some exposition and come back and not have missed it!