Tuesday, September 9, 2008

OPINION: Wiistation 360

I will state here and now that current grouping of consoles is uninspiring and so far basically depressing. This seems to me a little like the console dark ages, a dim period before some great reformation. What really blows my mind however is how I was completely wrong about how it was going to shake out. Here are the problems as I see them in the gaggle of game googahs of this, the seventh generation.

Price- Whoa crap! What the hell happened here? I'm not looking for a game playing battleship thanks, can you please remember this? Wait, no you can't, and now we have $600 Playstations. Ok. I wasn't buying one then and I'm not buying one now at $399, mainly because of the fact that Sony decided to neuter their own console's backward compatibility to preserve the still very brisk market for their own PS2 hardware. Yet the only reason why people were still buying the damn PS2 is because the PS3 was $600 for chrissake! Do you see the craziness here? Should we all run out and buy the PS3 now because of Sony's about face? I say no. Back compat is doable and really only suddenly impossible because of Sony's own misjudgments.

Speaking of misjudgements why not talk about making your A class video game console a tank in your video disc format war and making gamers foot the bill? Perhaps we shouldn't because isn't really pertinent to games. Wait, not pertinent to games? There is a lesson in there somewhere... At any rate I'm waiting for a $299 PS3 with real backward compatibility in hardware before I decide to lay down my money on one of these.

Now lets just get this out of the way. PS2 was frigging king. It wrecked the market because it was a great console, probably the best ever made. Even now top shelf non-kid-type-license titles are coming out for it, especially in Japan. Speaking of Japan, people there are still buying more PS2s than PS3s. Crazy right? Sony forgot about a concept called planned obsolescence when they made the PS2 so great, so much so that in fact it was just too great. Whereas Microsoft got it perfect with a console (XBox 1) that was crap before it was ever obsolete, clearing the way for the 360 with little backtalk from it's previous generation. With infinite resources you knew the next Xbox would take some part of the market anyway. You can't go wrong when you don't have to get it right, way to go guys.

Games- Somewhere in the dawning of the current generation, forces along the battle lines of the console war got the idea that in our American market, what gamers wanted were PC games. Not innovative console titles, but whatever you can get on the PC minus strategy or simulation games. For example; your first person shooters, racing games, sports games, third person action adventure stuff and a few 3D platformers thrown in because, well they are consoles after all. This was always the aim in the Xbox part of the world, so no change there. Sony somehow looked at this and saw this suddenly as the "way to do business in America". Or they could have been following Penny Arcade really closely and were just trying to mollify them, who knows? Either track would have gotten us to this point.

It is possible that things are just changing? That as an aging gamer I am yearning for 2d animation and games that don't require me to stare constantly at a tiny minimap? Perhaps, but things are changing for the worse one way or another. It isn't just my perception. All of this plus the move away from single player games is what is causing this new wasteland to propigate itself. Ask yourself, does every game need to have multi player now? Really? Is this sudden requirement driving publishers to PC based content? The whole Xbox live, "pay for the internet, again, you dummy" model is the real culprit there probably. With that driving development (along with enormous bags of money with the initials MS stamped on them) achievements, voice chat and the other dongles of multi play suddenly became way more important than they really should have been. I am willing to live with the idea that Microsoft was just ahead of the curve and that this is what the new gamers of today are really looking for, I'm just not convinced that it was something that had to happen.

The Wii- This was the one I wanted. THIS was the new console that was going to take it to MS and make them hurt in that special place. The wiimote would the undoing of the rest of the industry and make them understand that game play was king and that shoving Rainbows and Call of Dutys up the tailpipe of the console public wasn't going to win the day. But then... the games sucked. Worse than that some vile miasma drove off the great Japanese developers from the fledgling Wii. If you don't count the Capcom remakes there is practically NO representation from them anywhere. Are they still smarting after the N64 cart debacle, or is there just a serious enmity there now that no amount of controller waggling can repair?

Nintendo even had the whole price thing set up. They made good hardware at a decent price with innovation and design at the forefront. As hardware, actually the Wii is the hands down winner. It's still hard to find and bringing in astronomical numbers that are making their competitors jealous. Does that mean I want to buy the system for it's killer app which just so undeniably happens to be Wii Sports: Bowling? Ummm, no. I learned with the Gamecube that the first party Nintendo stuff, a least in the modern era, doesn't really do it for me. It can be fun at times and always interesting in terms of design, but it lacks something that it used to have. I want to play Galaxy, for sure, but I am going to wait until I'm at a pals house to try it. I'm not made of money ya know.

So lets tidy up this mess and get to the heart of the issue. What do I really think about the current generation in 2008?

Playstation 3- Too expensive and the wrong games to boot. With so much FPS schlock and nothing innovative, I'm waiting for next year. Don't take my word for it just ask gamers in the East how much they love it.

Xbox 360- Vile. I blame everything on Microsoft. The only consolation here is that the Japanese hate this thing more than the PS3.

Wii- Best console, worst games. The silicon version of a Shakespearean tragedy. If blessed with a long life, perhaps the fates will smile on the little white box and give it some titles worth purchasing.

I'll be hiding out with my backlog of PS2 titles until christmas 09 probably. With that and my C64 emulator I should be fine.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

SMT- NOCTURNE (HARD MODE): Demonology 102

I have talked a lot already about what demons in the game do and how they are arranged in relationship to one another but there are a few other points to cover. I wouldn't normally get so deep into mechanics if I wasn't convinced at this point that they are integral to the game's deeper messages. How these cogs and gears turn in the Vortex World (this is the clinical term) is a statement unto themselves. I actually have some trouble thinking of other games where these connections are so clear. I mean, did anyone think the 'materia' system in FF7 really meant anything to the game other than, "We at Square have a cool new word to use when talking about magic!" FF7 is a great game, but like many others the systems involved aren't part of the story. It gets worse when characters in the game's cut scenes use skills or spells in ways impossible to do in the actual player-controlled part of the game. That's not breaking the fourth wall, but a fifth wall or something.

Now returning to the subject, the trait that is most important to demons is clearly their skills. Skills are the building blocks of the combat system and ignoring their role will most likely land you in swirly angel land very quickly. Each demon starts with two or three skills when you first get them, and as they level and get stronger they learn new skills. These skills are predetermined by the demons type and are granted when they become the appropriate level for that particular skill. To get an idea of how important these skills are, think of the lowly Foul Will-o-Wisp that I spoke of in an earlier post. He had a skill called zan, which is a magic attack with good damage and low mp consumption. It was a bit better than his normal physical attack so it saw lots of use. Then upon reaching a certain level he learned mazan, which is the same skill except it hits every enemy on the opposing side. Between mazan and his high agility score, he could go first in nearly every combat and damage the whole opposing team before things even started for them. This made encounters with serious baddies far more survivable, and allowed me to explore parts of the map I had only rushed though before. With the skill mazan the Will-o-Wisp went from regular party member to the center of the offense.

Sometimes you capture a demon out there and you may not be so in love with their current skills, but the skills you see coming up for them are so great you put up with having a dud on the front line so this demon can level up and get the skill you're waiting for. On the status screen you can actually see the next skill that they will learn, though many times you wont know what it does exactly having never actually seen it in the wild. Nonetheless it's hard to pass on something called "Dark Might". That is another skill where it's inclusion in a party changes the landscape so dramatically it can reverse the outcome of boss battles. It is a little unfortunate that the demons in certain ways become backgrounds for the skills they possess, but this is probably to make sure that these demons keep changing and morphing into new forms.

How this happens is a two pronged facet of the game and one of my favs overall. In most major areas of the game is a central location with shops, warp points, healers and a place called the Cathedral of Shadows. A nice place, if you like swirling mist, giant concrete pillars and freaky ZZ-Top looking dudes dressed in purple robes. Upon entering this interesting locale for the first time, the 'Minister' informs you that he is there to aid you specifically. Now he is clearly there to aid the player, none of the shops in any of the other games ever made seem to get other customers than the player, but at least he acknowledges this fact.

The Cathedral is where you can take two demons that you have in your party and turn them into another demon of greater strength (most of the time anyway). The two demons chosen to be "Fused" are put at the top of the pillars where they disintegrate and combine into the new demon in a dramatic cut scene. It is possible from what I hear to have accidents occur during the fusing process where what you get is something totally unexpected, but I haven't seen that yet. Also you can sacrifice a third demon at the same time during regular game events and that will make the resulting demon even stronger. This will add levels and new skills to the resulting demon, but you have to be careful when doing this as their skill sets can change dramatically reflecting the skills of the sacrifice more often than not. I figure this is for when you have two powerful demons with skills you don't want, just throw in another demon with skills you like and you get a powerful and useful demon out of it. It's an expensive option however as the only demons that make good sacrifices are the ones that you have leveled many times through battle.

This fusing system is set alongside a more common idea of evolution. Certain demons have multiple forms and leveling them to the point where they have learned all the skills that are possible for them to learn will allow them to evolve into a higher form. This is something players should concentrate on because these evolved demons are powerful and usually come with two or more really great skills right out of the box. They also tend to jump up many levels, even more than you would normally be allowed to control, so there is a serious bonus there. The one thing here that is a bit confounding is that when they evolve they tend to remain in a similar shape but their clan affiliation can change. One would think that they would stay within the family as it is essentially the same demon. For example the demon Beast Inugami evolves into Avatar Makami. They look very similar but yet are of different clans. It's the same demon too clearly as it possesses many of the same skills right where you left them on the non-evolved form. However this does help to counteract the high turnover that seems to plague the front line of the average party.

That leads me to why I think things are set up in this fashion. As this game starts to unfold I am starting to see the over arching concept. Demons are at the center of everything, a seemingly easy spackle to the game being both friend and foe, but they are also a metaphor. The story puts you into what is essentially a half-baked world, and the idea is that you may or may not have the power somehow to decide what comes out of it. The game calls it "Reason". Whatever your Reason is this is what becomes of the Vortex World. It looks like everyone who survived the destruction has a chance at what comes next, and the one with the strongest Reason is the one who wins.

The demons are the living embodiment of that violent change. Not only are they constantly learning and evolving, they become building blocks for other demons as easily as walking into a shop. You decide who continues to exist and who is ground up for parts. There are allusions to machinery and fate and the inevitability of pain and destruction, all of it pointing to the fact that the new world is a giant crucible. And for all it's power, vastness and variety, it too in the end is only to be ground up into parts for some yet larger construction. As above, so below.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

GOD OF WAR: Best game about Greece ever!

Oh my... Seriously, God of War is out of control. There hasn't been a piece of interactive entertainment with more swagger and balls-out action since Duke Nukem 3D, AND it does it with more style and better gameplay. It's as if every design decision in the entire game was checked by a pair of young college guys sitting on a couch, beer and cheeze doodles at the ready. If they said, "That rocks...", or "Woah..." it was good, if they said ANYTHING else it was passed back to the developer to make it more 'rockin'. You might think that I am bashing the game, and in a way I am, but this is just the truth. If gore and nudity aren't things you are usually seeking in your media than this is not the game for you. All that said, God of War is an important document on how to do the action genre right.

The game follows the adventures of a giant grey-skinned troll named Kratos. When I say 'troll' I mean he's ugly and he's mean. Usually the main characters in these action epics are handsome, or at least possess rugged good looks. Here we have an anti-hero who is more anti than the normal swordswingers. His past is filled with slaughter for it's own bloody sake, he is rude and unmerciful with out any of the normal boyish jocularity or smirking, and he is butt-ugly. There is mention that he is trying to make up for his past transgressions by working for the gods of Olympus, so there is some great sin (other than the bloody slaughter) that has yet to come out. He is plagued by nightmares so there is a little room to root him on but that is about it. Kratos is rage ridden monster and he seems perfect for the job.

The job is the killing of a certain god of war; Ares of Greek mythology. Ares is out to destroy Athens for some reason and Kratos is charged by Athena to stop him. Anytime I am charged by a goddess to do anything in a videogame I'm pretty content. Goddesses are usually A: super-hot and B: super powerful. What more could a guy want? So as a player I am committed to the task, but do my thumbs have the stamina?

Mashing the attack buttons is a good way to get things done in God of War. So long as the enemy isn't behind you, Kratos' "Blades of Chaos" will be pummeling someone and racking up crazy combos which are conveniently displayed on the right side of the screen. This tactic only works on 90% of the enemies however. There are larger or quicker baddies out there and trying to mash your way though them just isn't smart. There are two attack buttons, a light and a heavy attack, a grab button, block button and jump button. The combo system here feels a lot like Soul Calibur, with the moves elegantly following one another no matter what series of buttons you try. Naturally not all of them are good, and some get leaned on more than the others but it probably comes down to one's own style of play. As for these troublesome enemies, there isn't much you can do but get slammed for a little bit while you learn their combos and timing. Timing is very important in God of War as it seems that dealing with the game's gargantuan bosses often hinges on attacking at the right second.

I have a lot of the same feelings about this game that I had about another PS2 classic that I consider God of War's sister game, that is Capcom's Devil May Cry. Putting the two together it is easy to see the similarities, but where GoW really has it over DMC is in the story, graphics and level design departments. DMC was clearly grown from the roots of the Resident Evil series, and the level design shows many of the older riffs from RE and RE2 living happily alongside it's very different protagonist, Dante. The evolutionary change there was clearly in the combat and upgradeable weapons, how throwing down with enemies became a looked forward to event, rather than something you wanted to avoid. DMC's setting was great, but GoW locales are superior in every way. SCEA took what worked from DMC and built around it with the "Clash of the Titans" paintbrush and did it to great effect. The connection is further driven home with a legendary demon hunter often mentioned in the DMC world named "Sparda", and Kratos often called the "Ghost of Sparta" being a Spartan himself. Not coincidence.

As I mentioned above the Blades of Chaos can be upgraded. The way this occurs is that when an enemy is slain they will drop these glowing red orbs, which you collect and store like experience. Once safely housed in the start menu you can spend your orbs on upgrades. In addition to the blades Kratos eventually gets magic attacks granted to him by the various gods of Olympus. For example, there is an area lighting attack for gaining the trust of Poseidon and a stone turning gaze attack you get from Aphrodite. These as well can be upgraded to become stronger and more versatile. As you upgrade your weapons and magic your move list grows and you ostensibly become stronger. Aside from the damage increases although I am not sure what the true use of the upgrades are. Seeing a "no-upgrades" faq on Gamefaqs tells me that the game is beatable without them which I find a little irksome, after all if something isn't strictly necessary why include it? This however is a small complaint in a game so totally overflowing with awesome.

Right now I am about five hours into it and have no regrets. After the plodding and contemplative Nocturne, GoW is exactly what was needed clear out the cobwebs in my brain. It's like a bloody action breath mint for the mind. I also have a special amount of pride that I found this treasure at an NH pawn shop that looked like something from out of a Mad Max movie, mutants included, after a hour of sifting though copies of NHL 2003 and Barbie Horse Adventures. My cost? $8. I also got a copy of Wild Arms 3 out of the deal for the same money. The secret meaning here? To me it was like a great quest... traveling to a far away kingdom to brave strange chain-smoking monsters to come away with what was the BEST game out of the four or five thousand housed there in that decrepit temple. The fact that that game was God of War? Not coincidence.

Friday, August 22, 2008

SMT- NOCTURNE (HARD MODE): A Fiendish Labyrinth

To put it bluntly, this may have been the wrong game to challenge on the hard mode. The mania that has me gunning for harder and harder play from videogames has probably finally gotten the best of me here. Not that I'm giving up mind you, this is a very good game. The path to take when putting your team together is always clear, but sometimes you need more strength and luck than you are going to have at that point. The complaints that I had in the past have since been mollified by the great gameplay in SMT: Nocturne. And we all know that things like art and story tend to take a backseat to the meat of the game once you've got your hands in it. The art is still sort of an eyesore, but the story has taken a few nice turns that I think are interesting. On the whole, the demon training/combining part of the game is satisfying too. Look for more details in Demonology 102, coming up next week.

Now on the subject of difficulty, I have been cursed twice by my own hand. Once when the game asked me, "Will you play the kiddy wuss version of the game? [NORMAL] Or are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president? [HARD]" (I'm paraphrasing here) I mean... really. What could I have done? It's not like me to take that kind of guff from a videogame. So I had to choose [HARD], but perhaps they should have called it [DESERT ISLAND MODE]. Secondly I need to discuss a game called Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne Maniax.

This is the director's cut of the original game released in Japan, and was the game that was brought to the states and translated by Atlus for release as SMT: Nocturne. Maniax added a number of new elements, including a place called the Labyrinth of Amala. The labyrinth is a place reminiscent of your old Ultima Underworld games (beat em), or the more recent Etrian Odyssey (beat it). It is a tough as nails dungeon with traps and pitfalls and many other kinds of carefully engineered doom. You gain access to this place after defeating a jaunty skull-headed fellow named "The Matador" and talking to an old man in a wheelchair and his hot goth nurse type... person.

After the battle you whisked to this alternate world with walls the color of blood and creepy music. Once there you hear from the Old Man that he once had eleven candelabrums (candelabras?), one for each level of the Labyrinth. And he wants me to get them back from the fiends who stole them from him. I said yes, naturally. After all when presented with an epic quest what else would one do? What I didn't understand at the time was that I was already on an epic quest, and this was totally optional. I could have said no, and have never heard from either of them again, or had to fight ten fiends. The real problem is that each of these fiends is placed in irritatingly close proximity to the regular bosses, who are pretty tough, and are about twice as strong. There hasn't been a boss battle I haven't had to spend time on preparing for yet. Having two of these battles back to back without any kind of story progression is really annoying. Had I known about the structure of the optional content would I have changed my answer? Probably not. Massive dungeons are a reason I buy games to start with.

So as I defeat each fiend and get his candelabrum, I can travel deeper into the labyrinth. With all the preparation (read: grinding) needed to overcome the bosses it makes for the perfect playground for xp farming. The place has it's own rules and story as well, which makes it more interesting. It is also very big, big in the sense that every level of the labyrinth has multiple floors of it's own. One trip down a ladder can put you up against demons you have no chance of beating, that's of course if you aren't lucky enough to fall into a pit trap that takes you down lower than that even. There certain death is dealt to you by totally unfamiliar demons who will reflect your own attacks back at you. No kidding, it is the classic "you don't belong here yet" kind of beatdown you might remember from the old days.

I haven't played a game where the possibility of death was so great since my days of Nethack obsession. It is only a certain part of the game so the comparison is not perfect, but without the greater amounts XP gleaned from this place I'd be wandering around the overworld for ages trying to get the same things done. Despite all the roadblocks I've pridefully put up for myself, I am still quite looking forward to the tasks at hand. A sure sign I am dealing with a winner here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


So in continuing my personal search for meaning within the world of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I am awestruck with the extent the game goes wanting for interesting tidbits to talk about. Or perhaps it's the way that entire portions of the game seem to play themselves.

For example, the player and his party are part of what the gameworld calls a 'clan'. These clans operate like mercenaries, talking on jobs to battle monsters or each other for money. Some of these clans are good and other are less so, so this creates the clan on clan conflict. What is bothering me here is that your clan has eight skill ratings representing things like combat, tracking or magic skills. Each battle or job that you complete gives you a certain number of points, and these points level up your clan level which in turn makes your clan skills go up, and THEN sometimes you get rare items in commemoration of your new skill levels. Sounds interesting at least, right?

The trouble is that when you get these points, you don't have any totals, nor do you even know how many points you may need for the next clan-level. Now just on chance you happen to level up, and your skills go up too... but you don't get to decide where the points go. Even these prizes you may or may not get just seem to come at random. It's just too Pavlovian. You're going to fight battles, you can't avoid them, so when it's all over this little presentation occurs and you get prizes! Yay! Like a slot-machine where all you do is pull the handle (fight a battle). When I see things going on in a game I; A: Want to know why these things are happening, and B: Have some say in how they are happening. The clan system doesn't do either of these things. From what I can tell it's used mainly as a gate against taking missions that you are too weak for, as certain missions require minimum clan skill ratings. All fine and good, but you might have done something simpler and more understandable to do the same thing, like looking at character levels! How about that? Can you do that instead of creating this non-interactive mockery?

Now it is true that there are already a ton of things to keep track of in FFTA, what with all the weapons you have to keep passing around to your characters every three or four battles to make sure that they aren't losing valuable classroom time at Inanimate Object University. I just can't believe that the designers decided to let this little thing run itself to save the player some headaches. The headaches are there. You aren't getting rid of them. If we could control the fate of our clan in some fashion, it would probably have been refreshingly straightforward. What happened here was the design team saying "We want to make the player feel like he's making progress without having to do anything. After all, some other parts of our game are really annoying." Others may coo and giggle at the whirling wheels, but for a sim and war gamer like myself it's a major turn off.

Now it's not enough that clan management is black box, but entire missions are taken out of your hands. These "Dispatch" missions have you choose one member of your team to help some faceless person find a lost cat, or scrape out the bottom of a frying pan. They go off for a number of days or battles, and return with cash and items essentially for free with a quote like, "That was easy!" or "Mission 'Clean My Gutters' was over too soon!" In FFTA, even the battles off screen are easy! Can you frigging believe it? Can't they at least pretend it was hard? I'm not asking for serious prose or anything. How about, "'Eat this Burrito' was really difficult!" Anyway, the decision you have to make about who goes on the mission is important, but it's easy to see who is going to succeed and who is going to fail. At the selection screen the winners get up and dance for you and the losers just sit there, so no chance of stray critical thinking getting in the way there.

Am I going too hard on the lighthearted FFTA? I have to admit the genre, pedigree and review scores all had me thinking this was going to be really great, but so far it's been underwhelming. You could say that I am judging a game clearly aimed at kids with a eye used to more adult strategy fare. You could even say that with only 33 missions completed out of a possible 300, I haven't seen enough of the game to make these sweeping negative statements. Well, you're WRONG.

Friday, August 15, 2008

SMT- NOCTURNE (HARD MODE): Catch em all?

I don't think I can really get into much further discussion of Nocturne without going over the primary attractions of the game, the demons. From what I can tell so far, there isn't a battle you fight in the game that isn't against a demon of some kind. One of the many hooks here is that the very same demons can become your allies without much trouble. In fact, you aren't getting very far at all without getting as many demons on your side as possible, as soon as possible. And this is only allowed because the main character himself becomes a demon very close to the start of the story. Having trouble keeping all these demons straight? I don't blame you.

My guess is that there are probably more than a hundred of these colorful characters out there to fight and recruit. Each demon has an individual name and a clan name. They are constructed like so where if the demon's name is "Jirae Kodama" "Jirae" is the clan name, and "Kodama" is the individual species name. They also seem to fall along various physical themes, and these themes do not stick too close the clans where they are dominant. For example, "Jirae Kodama" and "Jirae Sudama" are alike in color, size and skills, but "Jirae Hua Po" is also of Jirae clan, yet looks far more like a member of the "Fairy" clan, "Fairy Pixie". Furthermore Hua Po and Pixie are seen banding together against the player in random battles in many places at the start of the game. Hua Po and Kodama are also found alongside one another, but less often for some reason.

To give you an idea of what you might see for demons in the new Toyko, you have "Wilder" clan, which is a clan of beastlike demons. The "Divine" clan is a clan of angelic demons (believe it or not). The "Foul" clan is full of slimes and ghosts. A personal favorite, the "Megami" clan is a phalanx of female demons based on various goddesses. The "Fiend" clan is the one the player belongs to, having consumed a special type of demon to gain it's powers (more on this later). Having only seen a small portion of the total group, around 15% by the reckoning of the Demonic Compendium (think pokedex), I can't really say if these patterns are consistent throughout the demonic world or if I will be surprised again by what I find.

Getting these demons to do what you want can be an interesting process and not too difficult. I have already been warned that there are demons that won't choose to go with me of their own free will but I haven't encountered any of them yet. What you want to do is first find the demon that you want in a random battle, then isolate them, killing everyone else in the opposing party. If there are other demons around either they will block the attempt. Once that is accomplished you can use the "talk" command or have one of your demons use the "seduce" skill. The only difference between them seems to be that "talk" is automatically part of the main character's battle menu. Then the demon will usually start demanding items, money or to drain your 'power' (HP). These requests are never simple, you nearly always have to give them two or three things before you get the final stage of negotiation. The demon you are trying to get to join the team asks you a question. Usually it's something like, "Are humans meant to suffer, or is it just their own stupidity that causes suffering?" I kid you not, this is a very philosophical bunch. You must answer in the positive or negative, and based on that the demon can join you or just take all your stuff and leave, even if you answer correctly. Hell, they can break off the negotiation at any point they want. I've seen this occur with weaker demons more often though. A stronger demon will most like get every last thing out of you before making a decision.

I'm pretty certain at this point that there is a series of secret variables that keep track of your relationships with the various demons, or at least the various demon clans. At the start of the game I recruited a weak demon, probably the weakest one, named "Foul Will-o-Wisp". Foul clan demons are hard to communicate with, you mostly you have to wait for them to halt combat to talk to you. He requested a healing item, I gave it to him and he joined up. He was a kind of floating ball of white smoke with a suffering grimace floating in it. As the game wore on, he naturally gained levels and sometimes upon leveling up he would ask to talk to me. At these points he started giving me gifts, healing items mostly. What happened next was even more amusing.

Every time I would encounter another Will-o-Wisp, they would stop fighting to come over and beg for items. Apparently it had gotten around that I was a friend to the Foul clan! It had gotten so bad that when I decided that I didn't want to avoid combat by placating the demon with money or items, the Will-o-Wisp would just leave combat dejected, robbing me of his precious experience. Annoying for sure, but endearing too somehow. My Will-o-Wisp was essential part of my early game because of his force attacks which could hit every demon in the opposing group at the same time. Now all demons can exhibit these behaviors in varying amounts, but I never again came across another demon as loyal or emotive at the "Foul Will-o-Wisp". I eventually had to break him down for parts at the Cathedral of Shadows (more on this in another post) to make a stronger demon and I have to admit there was a little regret in the decision.

There is another demon out there with even stranger behavior than this. The title of Strangest Demon easily goes to "Yoma Isora". The Isora is a big aquatic manta ray sort of deal that lives in the sewers of the Great Underpass of Ginza. I noticed first that they're negotiation questions were always very windy and often didn't have clear answers, so getting them was always a coin flip. Then after recruiting a few one rushed up to me and begged for his life, offering advice for the kindness. I relented and he gave me a tip on using demon skills that I already knew and was off. After that Isora would break combat to run up to me and ask me their strange questions, all without provocation or a "talk" command. Sometimes I would get items, sometimes not. They would always leave afterward. Once an Isora started talking to me without even a question being asked first. Just rambling about the universe for two or three lines, and then gone like the rest.

Perhaps the Isora are the scholar-poets of the demon world. They seem friendly in their own way, if only a little too much so. During a routine battle I watched an Isora run up of one of the other demons in my party, not even to me! (this has never happened again) Once there and situated in front of "Beast Inugami" he ranted, "I see a RIVER! A glorious shining RIVER! I give my life to you!" And then immediately joined the party without my permission. Not what you'd expect from your garden variety Seaking, eh?

Monday, August 11, 2008

HEARTS OF IRON: If at first...

1938- it took about a year and a half to repair my dissent rating. During this long stretch my Industrial Capacity increased slowly with the decrease in dissent and also as the provinces I had unknowingly knocked out of commission with the "increase industries" command started to come back on line. As the extra points trickled in I began to crank up my weapons research in an effort to gain the ability to create mechanized infantry with the speed to keep up with Hitler's blitz and avoid getting encircled.

Also in that stretch Comrade Stalin continued his scourge of the officer corps. I received two more message boxes with accompanying yes/no choices to make. Now understanding the effects of dissent and what exactly the cost of allowing my enemies to thrive was, I found myself with a very different feeling on the subject this time. The designers were going to make me pay to be merciful here. Now everyone agrees that what the man did was terrible, wrong for the country and in the end wrong militarily, but if I didn't cut out these malcontents while could I wouldn't be able to wage any war at all and that meant certain defeat for International Communism. So was Stalin right? No, but what I realized at this point was that what he did was right for him. The fact that he had to go to such lengths to maintain power probably tells us that he was most likely not the best choice for communist dictator, but the USSR was stuck with him and so was I. With conflicting feelings I found myself opting to start weeding out the badnicks and keep my IC increases humming along.

With the folk of the USSR back on the team I was able to start producing supplies in quantities that would allow us some fighting and whatnot. I began wondering where my next battles would be as 1939 arrived. Germany made the decision for me easy, it was to be Poland.

Winter 1939- Earlier in the year I had opted out of a German agreement that would have given me about a third of Poland, but would take away the land I had sundered in Lithuania. I was already half a demon myself so I wasn't about to make any deals with the Nazis. After that in March the blitz began in earnest in Poland. I attacked simultaneously from the east, between us Poland was crushed by the time fall arrived. I had a few more provinces than the German pact would have allowed me, held onto Lithuania and had not made an enemy of Germany in the meantime either. All good. Then I waited for the eventual German advance.

To my surprise, the German units abandoned their new border, leaving only one or two divisions here and there to look after their new Polish citizens. I was annoyed to see that units of the former Lithuanian army were hiding out across the Lithuanian border in what was now German-occupied Poland. This at the very least showed me that even if Germany was tolerating Russian expansion now they wouldn't be doing it in the future.

The trouble is that memories are short and mine is even shorter and during the balance of that year I became... bored. I was churning out mechanized divisions at a good rate and felt the deep seated need to enlighten some of the other border countries, much as I had done in the Lativian area. I clearly didn't want to stray into Germany at this point even if the border was nearly naked as letting them tire themselves on their western advance and being entrenched when when returned seemed a wiser course of action. So who gets to join the club next?, I wondered.

1940- The rump-end of Turkey was looking delicious (heh heh) so I sent fifteen divisions under my best commanders down there to get them into line. It looked like a cakewalk from the border. I should have started wondering at my new strategy when my regular infantry took three months to make the journey. I wasn't about to send my blitz-beating units down there and I suppose if you don't put your infantry in trucks, they're walking. Imagine walking four hundred miles. Go ahead. Doesn't seem like a great time to you either, eh? What kind jerk must I be? For what they had to face when they got there it was a wasted trip anyway.

As my men snailed their way to the south I noticed German units piling up at my border again, slowly at first and faster as my units winded down to the Turkish out lands. They got there late in the fighting season nearly September, but there was no snow or other atmospheric factors this close to the equator so I began the attack immediately. Now that far down on the European map much of the terrain is sandy desert or rocky badlands, which makes the governable parcels of land much larger and the provinces there equally so. You can imagine my surprise that moments after I gave the order to crush the enemy I learned that my infantry would not see combat for two and a half weeks. They were at the border! How much closer do you have to be?? It looked as though I had some time to kill before I would see any action there, so I returned my attention to the Russian-German border in Poland.

What I saw there was worrying. I had ten or so units to deploy, so I did and even after than I could see I was completely out-gunned. My average army size was around 11 or 12 divisions at many places along the divide. The German advance was averaging about 18 or 20 divisions, with a few spots climbing as high as 40 divisions with tanks and planes everywhere. They were not so weakened as I hoped they would be by the fierce fighting in France I suppose. Historically there wasn't much fighting at all, but I was guessing that the computer France would prove a better opponent. At that point my Turkish expedition was meeting with much more resistance that I thought there would be. The Turkish defenders all jumped out from behind the sand dunes at the same time and created a wearying slog where I was hoping for a decisive march to victory. Just about the time I was wishing I had never gone to Turkey the Germans invaded.

1941- The battle was in question only for a short period of time. It was as if the Germans had an army from the future; employing advanced armor, artillery, and tactical bombers in every engagement in addition to the vaunted blitzkrieg. I brought my own fighters and bombers to bear in the heaviest conflict, but they were turned away by the power of the German Luftwaffe. After only a few attempts, my entire air corps was down to about 20% effectiveness. In the flanking conflicts in the north and south I had only regular infantry to defend with and the blitz attacks quickly had my Strelkovaya units on the run. The defeats began to pile up. It was over for me in Russia.

I may have been able to run to Moscow and gather together the remnants for a counterattack, but it didn't seem to me at the time that it would bear fruit. I turned off the messages, zoomed the map view out and let the game run at maximum speed. The German advance did peter out a little bit after Moscow, the immense Soviet interior either too large or too empty for them to take. What they did do was engage my units wherever they ran to, reducing my army to about 35% of it's pre-invasion size. Not a happy ending, da?

I was pretty sure that I wouldn't prevail in HoI's second world war seeing as the game was so complex, but I was secretly hoping I would give Germany more of a fight. No matter. I have recently gotten my mitts on a copy of Hearts of Iron 2: Doomsday so I will rise again from the ruins. Will I go for the USSR again? Probably not. Perhaps I'll play a small out of the way country with a more easily defended border. Someplace like Venezuela.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

SMT- NOCTURNE (HARD MODE): Eatin' demons, castin' spells

I have been eagerly awaiting this game since about the time I went searching on ebay and saw the exorbitant prices for used copies. They were usually about $40 - $60. I checked reviews and it scored very favorably, and I was very interested in the dark demon summoning setting as well. I had made a decision early on in my PS2 years when I decided that I would obtain the Shadow Hearts games as they came out and wait until later to catch up on the SMT stuff. This has saved me quite a bit of money until now since the game count on the SMT/Persona side is considerably higher, and the games more sought after in general. Don't get me wrong, the SH series is A-class stuff. Even the first game has lots of great moments.

Well, now I am playing Nocturne and my initial impressions are... mixed. I was puffing up this game a bit on the hype probably, but I don't usually let it get to me. There are two things worth mentioning first that I won't usually hold against a game. One, the main character is on of those silent/yes/no types. This is an old-school thing and I understand why it works. This allows the player to identify with the protagonist, allowing the player's internal commentary to take the forefront in the play experience. I'm not a major fan of it but you can't get on a role playing game for using respected tools of the genre. I mean, am I going to rag on hit points next? Ahhhh, no.

Secondly there are no voices in the game. Of course this is another old-school thing, but not so much for the same reasons. Older games were on carts or simply didn't have the budgets for voice tracks. Now this game was released in an era when at least partial voice tracks were pretty common, but not totally so. I will have to watch this and see if this was an artistic choice or not. Neither of these really have degraded the experience for me, but I just wanted to cover them before going on.

One thing that is really bothering me is that the main character is an emotionless freak. I mean not a peep during combat or a strongly worded (yes/no) response during conversations. The story thrusts this high school age boy into a post-apocalyptic world riddled with demons bent on his destruction, and of course this is after he's undergone an instantaneous demonic puberty that has left him radically changed. Even Dragon Warrior would give us a "!!!" at climatic points. Is this an extension of the silent hero idea, or another artistic choice? Perhaps he really is nonplussed by all of these things. Perhaps he's a chosen one who was born here in a past life or something. Like Paul Atredies, "He will know our ways..." Gawd, I am really making excuses here. My point is that this could be the case in which his near-psychotic detachment would make sense, sorta. But, could he look any more bored??? Ok we're past that now.

The other issue I am having is with the art. This was probably the first cel-shaded game for the SMT people so you can say they were getting used to it, but the real-world environments look really washed out and bland. When you get to the more strange alternate-realms the game puts you into things are far more visceral and convey mood well but they have been rare so far. Could they be trying to make a contrast here? I'm not sure. On the character end of things the art style makes them look stiff and manikin-like. Emotion again is hard to find and in general the designs are not so interesting to look at. I am only five hours into the game now, so these things will probably change a bit as the events take their toll on people. The demons on the other hand have some really great designs, even if the themes chosen thusfar are not the most original.

My guess is that the real star of SMT: Nocturne is supposed to be the setting, which is fantastic. The heart of the main story right now is a mystery about what the heck happened to the world, so at the start the protagonist is fumbling around trying to learn about how this new world works and this allows the largest amount of exposition on the setting. This new world is a nightmarish mirror of the real one, and also a very brown mirror, but it seems to have existed long before the arrival of the main character. There are factions, rules and common complaints coming from it's numerous denizens. So did we travel in time as well as in space when the world changed? Or was the real world the mirror of this one?

Combat in Nocturne (I'm playing on hard mode btw) is a fast turn based system that allows for just enough depth to keep it fun and challenging. It is possible to end up in random battles that can overwhelm you, so saving is a virtue, but so long as you don't make any obvious blunders even these battles can usually be weathered. Demons, their strange behaviors and their powers are obviously as the center of the system but I will save that part for later when I have seen more. The music is very good, if a little quiet at every moment other than battle.

It may be possible that this is a game elevated to it's acclaimed heights on the fact that the setting is so totally unique. Most of the things done here in the systems and design have been done all or in part before. It's a mish mash of good ideas, and I like the way it works. Right now I am just waiting for the moment where I care about what is happening to these people and hoping that the real gold in Nocturne ends up coming out in the story. At least I'm pretty sure I won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

ODIN SPHERE: Armageddon

I have beaten this game and seen both endings and I can say that it will be in my PS2 top-five for all time. An amazingly good game with an equally great story and the best 2d artwork of ANY game on the system hands down. Also, Odin Sphere is unique amongst my favorites for getting it's spot the list for it's story foremost, then graphics and then gameplay. More novel-like than any game I have played, it is not only completely voice acted, but those voices never detract from the presentation instead enhancing the gameplay whenever characters speak. Atlus USA should be lauded for it's job on the localization. All of these elements make Odin Sphere a real triumph. Now how did the game end, you're wondering?

I won't be giving anything away when I tell people that the end of Odin Sphere is the end of the world. You can make guesses at that after looking at the cover of the game, the game's titular king, Odin, is a character from Norse mythology where the event of Ragnarok (the Norse end of all creation) figures heavily. This world-ending has a different name, but the myth is borrowed from in parts along with a few others from other cultures to make the game's overall theme. Where the endgame gets it's texture and context is in a series of texts known generally as the prophecies. These can be accessed any time for reading in the 'prophecy' menu, and are won from npcs in story events mostly. The old manuscripts tell about the end of the world from a number of different perspectives, but the major ideas do not change. The world will be visited by five calamities and in the end the land will fall away into the void and the sky eaten by the Lord of Serpents. During the Armageddon Mode, the entire experience changes. The beauty that the world once possessed is shattered and just about everyone perishes in the calamities.

It is easy to look at the graphical style and the characters, a fairy princess for example, and think that Odin Sphere is for youngsters but it is relevant on the adult-level far more often than it is not. I think the art style and the lush nature of the environments are designed to be placed next to the blasted devastation of the armageddon mode as a contrast. Kamitani (the director) wanted us to mourn for Erion, I think. The npcs lament, cry and beg for release from the doom of their senseless deaths. The forests burn, and mountains are brought low and the great cities razed without exception. We are to be given the explicit message that nothing survives this devastation. There is a 'good' ending obviously but as always these things are relative.

That brings me to the way the endings are handled. Each of the five calamities must be defeated by one of the five main characters. Not only that, but for the 'good' ending each calamity needs to be fought by a particular character, and the choices are not obvious even when you use the prophecies as a guide. There is one curve ball that pretty much guarantees that you will see the bad ending before the good, though this is probably by design however as nothing in the game was done without a great amount of thought.

Now before and after each of these five battles there are cut scenes, and for each of the five characters there are good and bad cut scenes depending on who you choose and therefore which track you are on. I should say that some of the best story in the whole game is given over in 'bad' endings for the various characters, so you will probably need at least three trips through armageddon mode to see it all. It's certainly worth the effort.

I really can't go any further without giving too much away, but this kind of match-the-character approach to ending the game allows for an amazingly multi-layered story to close out this epic. You get many viewpoints to the end days of Erion and you even have a chance to end things on a lighter note if you are careful about it. If you folllow the path the texts lead you along, there is one last book to read where the fate of the world is decided. As a videogame, Odin Sphere will most likely be referred to by designers time and time again for the way in handles narrative and plot. Right now there isn't a game that does it better. As I mentioned in a previous post, George Kamitani is going to be a big Kojima-like deal before too long. Count on it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hard Mode, hard to pass up?

I must be some kind of masochist. I'm about to start playing Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, having recently finished Odin Sphere, and I am already stuck. At the start of a new game the game asks you if you want to play with normal difficulty or on hard difficulty. I can't decide which I want.

Now I like a challenge, but I don't like being stymied or having to grind for levels. Now you may say, "But dude, that is what 'hard' means in RPGs!". This is not always true. In the original Valkyrie Profile, the hard mode allowed access to events and optional dungeons that the regular mode did not. Also the increase monster strength allowed for the tactical nature of the combat system to be expressed, making every action in combat more important. The thing I really can't stand in games is mindless combat. My tastes run toward the tactical anyway, so having myriad skills and spells that never see the light of day because your regular attacks can take care of all the challenges for you is unforgivable. In a game with all the layered systems and optional dongles of SMT Nocture, my fear of having this happen was even more acute.

I am about an hour into the main game now and the weakness of the enemies is giving me the heebie-jeebies, so I need to learn what the hard mode actually adds to the game. Now I read everywhere on the interwubs that this game is very hard at certain points, but I see no mention of the hard mode. So I dig deeper, one player says that there is no extra content in hard mode. No extra events, characters or dungeons. Not what I wanted to hear. Next tidbit I get is that in hard mode there are basic mathematical increases to monster strength, and probability based attacks like insta-kills and status effects are far more common. Insta-kills are insta-annoying, and yet...

To actually beat the game on hard mode, wouldn't that be even more awesome? Wouldn't I have to pimp the systems to their utmost to prevail? Wouldn't I get the greatest appreciation for the game design and textures in the game rules by challenging myself? Wouldn't the spectre of death make every random encounter all the more interesting?? The spectre of DEAAAAATHHHHHHH! (He's right over there... don't look!!)

Ya anyway, I can already see myself restarting on hard mode. This is happening tonight. *sigh* Am I nuts? The only guarantee is that I will spend more time playing this game one way or another, and I have a huge pile of games to play after this one. Is beating SMT: Nocturne on hard mode even all that important? Nothing but the math is changing here apparently, but the very fact that few if any of the goobs on gamefaqs, UGO or IGN have claimed this feat for themselves makes me want to try it all the more. There is one other thing I get out of this, however. And that is that no matter how I grind, min/max, combo or match traits to situations, I will not feel as though I am cheating myself out of any of the challenge. Is this the puritan work-ethic at work in my demon summoning/training/breeding/eating video game? Yeah probably.