Sunday, June 11, 2017

ATTENTION READERS

The new rant, updated on every 8th, 18th, and 28th of the month, is right below this post. Enjoy! But before you do, I have a quick announcement...


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Guest Rant: Soma Bringer's EX Dungeon, by Humza

Well this is just peachy keen: another guest rant, and not just less than a year since the last, but only a single month! To say that I am pleased would be a gross understatement; I sincerely love the fact that I have readers interested enough in this blog to submit their own opinions, and the fact that I get to read new and interesting perspectives from them, and, it must be said, the fact that I'm off the hook to rant myself for a day. Hey, I'm actually legitimately busy these days. To me, a small break like this is something to treasure.

Today's guest ranter is Humza, who is gracing us with his words for a second time, after his debut rant about Energy Breaker. Humza's a damned fine gentleman who's done me multiple solids in the past, from providing me with a particularly pleasing moment in my life to generously buying me Valkyrie Chronicles 1 on Steam. And the hits keep coming from Humza now with a new guest rant that covers another RPG I have yet to play, Soma Bringer!

Disclaimer: I don't own Humza's words below, and they don't necessarily reflect my own perceptions and opinions. I mean, they might. But I wouldn't know just yet, not having played Soma Bringer myself.



Soma Bringer's EX Dungeon

Humza
April 19th, 2016



Soma Bringer is one of the better known fan-translated RPGs for the DS, being developed by Monolith. It has post-game content that extends the story, which this rant will mostly revolve around (and, naturally, there are spoilers ahead).

The game’s ending (which is a core part of why these dungeons exist from a narrative perspective) shows that the characters Idea and Adonis both merge with Aletheia to stop the Visitors from harming people, which essentially means that neither of these characters would be seen again. The EX Dungeons all chronologically take place before the party reaches the final dungeon, so Idea hasn’t merged with Aletheia at this point. But she keeps her memories, so it’s possible for her to take steps to avoid her death.

With the history lesson out of the way, I have to say that the EX Dungeons are pretty bad, even when post-game content like this is generally weak. From the description above, one would assume that finding out how and why Idea managed to go back in time would be a core part of the concept, but this is not mentioned at all beyond the first few lines of dialogue in the first EX Dungeon’s prologue. If Idea doesn’t act on her knowledge of being unable to meet the party again, then there’s just no point in going through the dungeons. It’s entirely purposeless and retroactively detracts from her sacrifice during the ending, since her inertia suggests that she doesn’t care about her fate, thus making her sacrifice seem less sincere. Monolith probably wanted to subtly convey a message here, but as typical of them, they mistake withholding information with subtlety.

Instead, the EX Dungeons focus more on developing the characters’ backstories more. And that's a positive addition! Or, at least, it would be if it wasn’t handled ineptly. Most of the information that is given during the EX Dungeons is mentioned previously in the main part of the game, like how Millers rushed to save Forte after the latter fell off a cliff. The only information given that’s not covered in the main game is Einsatz and Jadis’ history of being bandits, and it certainly isn’t worth traversing 51 floors in a dungeon for this backstory. There are plenty of dungeons in the main game that lack story content, which would be repurposed to tell this information in a shorter amount of time without losing anything of value. The most damaging aspect for developing characters’ backstories is probably the sparse dialogue, though. In that respect, it’s a bit similar to Persona 3’s The Answer, where the majority of interesting content is at the beginning and end (except the EX Dungeon’s content is probably only half as interesting).

The EX Dungeons aren’t entirely irredeemable; the writers could have opted for an approach similar to Tales of Legendia’s Character Quests, where different party members overcome hardships while revealing some of their history in the process, and Idea eventually implements a solution in the epilogue that would stop the Visitors without her death.

Soma Bringer’s main story was decent, but there weren’t any qualities that were really worthy of note, so there aren’t any high expectations on the EX Dungeons to be much better. Even despite that, the EX Dungeons disappoints because it opens up new loose plot threads and regurgitates events from the main game, without enough dialogue to justify the traversal of 100+ floors in a dungeon*.












* I’m not joking about the total amount of floors exceeding 100. You can go to the bottom of this page and add up the amount of floors in each dungeon. The total is 115, which makes for bad pacing considering the sparse dialogue.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

General RPGs' Protagonists' Worldly Naivete

It’s been noticed by many players that the main character of an RPG is often an amnesiac, or comes from a very isolated/sheltered/completely alien community. Final Fantasy 6’s Terra doesn’t remember anything about herself for a good third of the game, FF7’s Cloud has suspicious holes in his memory which take most of the game to be filled, Shadowrun SNES’s Jake wakes up in a morgue with no memory of how he got there, Planescape: Torment’s Nameless One does the exact same thing, the protagonist of The Magic of Scheherazade wanders about without knowledge of his own identity, The Witcher series’s Geralt is trying through the whole trilogy to properly recover his memories after (I think, haven’t played the third game yet) an encounter with the Wild Hunt, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, Jude from Wild Arms 4 comes from a village in the sky completely isolated from the rest of the world, FF10’s Tidus comes from a city that seems not to exist in the world he finds himself dropped into, Tales of the Abyss’s Luke is a sheltered rich boy who’s never been allowed beyond the walls of his family manor, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4’s protagonists are both kids from out of town, every numbered Fallout game’s protagonist comes from a Vault, an isolated tribal village, or another time, the protagonist of Jade Empire has been raised in a village distinctly set apart from the woes of the rest of the empire, Star Ocean 2’s Claude is an alien, and so on.

It’s a cliche often called into question by RPG players, and poked fun at in parodies like RPG World. A lot of comments I’ve seen made about this common narrative choice over the years have asked, reasonably, why this is so prevalent. Certainly, these tropes exist in all other media forms, but RPGs seem especially fond of protagonists who lack much, or even any, knowledge of their world. Why is that?

Well, as far as the amnesia goes, it’s often more or less the same for most other stories that use the concept of memory loss with their protagonist--the character has a major place in the immediate history of the story, and the revelation of this place is meant to be a huge plot twist. It’s a huge deal when we find out the truth of the events of Nibelheim in FF7 and Cloud’s role in them, and the entire purpose of The Nameless One’s quest in Planescape: Torment is to understand himself and resolve the conflicts of his past--for either excellent story to function, neither Cloud nor The Nameless One can know the full truth of their histories; the entirety of the plot would suffer for it.

The amnesia device, however, is not always used solely for the purpose of plot twists and driving the story. You can rightly say that Shadowrun SNES’s Jake’s memory loss is somewhat important to the story on the whole, but it’s not absolutely vital to it. A couple of interesting twists and revelations come from it, but I think it’s fair to say that the game could have been told almost the same way if Jake had remembered how he was almost killed, and what he had been doing at the time, from the very beginning. Likewise, the story of Final Fantasy 6 would change somewhat if Terra knew herself from the very start, but not, I think, too terribly, at least not superficially. Terra still would’ve needed to be evacuated and hustled on over to the Returners, Narshe would still need to be defended and its Esper put into contact with her, and the issues of the Magitek Factory and opening the gates to the Esper lands would still have had to be addressed. So why is it still so prevalent even when not necessary for the overall plot structure?

Simple! For the same reason that you have the frequent major characters who come from some totally isolated or alien community: because RPG worlds can be too damned nuanced to get by without consistent narrative to explain them. Fantasy and fantasy/sci-fi hybrids, which I would say are the 2 most prevalent categories found in RPGs regardless of which side of the ocean they originate from, are interesting in that they very frequently involve a HUGE amount of lore for their setting. Writers like Tolkien and the peerless Isaac Asimov set high bars of world-creation early in what we regard as modern fantasy and science fiction books, and tabletop RPGs like Dungeons + Dragons and Shadowrun followed suit, slowly but surely building up multiple canons for themselves as they evolved over the years. And no matter how far we think the RPG genre may have moved from its early stages when it was so heavily dependent on Dungeons + Dragons, you can still see that heritage glow within these games as their writers continue to imagine entire civilizations, worlds, even galaxies, plotting out their histories, their mechanics, their peoples, and their cultures down to sometimes ridiculously fine details.

And sometimes, once a writing team’s done figuring the majority of their world out and tying it intrinsically with the plot...it’s a lot to handle all at once. So you need a way to communicate to the player all the important and creative details which you have so painstakingly constructed.

For example, consider Tales of the Abyss. At first glance, its world seems a pretty standard fantasy-semi-sci-fi hybrid. But as you go through the story, one detail of the world after another is dropped on you, and you start to discover that this game’s setting is ridiculously complex. What you think is the surface of the world is actually an elevated shell built around a planet’s toxic surface, held up by high-magic devices known as Sephiroths, for reasons involving the long and relatively complex history of the world’s major religious organization, which follows a reasonably creative doctrine of beliefs and has its own internal politics, even though it’s the mediating force between 2 warring nations whose histories, military strengths, and cultures are also reasonably detailed. Plus there’s a whole thought-out system of magic which is incorporated into the lore of the world itself, and this godlike consciousness of fate that hangs out in the planet’s core, and I don’t even remember what else; there’s a lot in there.

That’s a hefty paragraph’s worth of explanation right there, and that’s just a vague, incomplete summary of the major stuff! That doesn't even go into the nuances of royal heritage, national histories, the lore of individual characters and small villages, the makeup of the various militaries of the world, and so on. Imagine trying to make an intro sequence that explained all the necessary details of the world of Tales of the Abyss in a single go. It’d take a damn hour! No one would sit through or remember even half of it. What alternative is there? Well, have the characters of the game explain the relevant details as they go, naturally. You don’t need to know about the Sephiroths right from the start, nor most of that other gobbledygook. It only needs to come up when it needs to come up. But, of course, then you have the other question: why would the characters constantly be talking about things that most of them would already know about? If these are the facts of their world, surely everyone who lives on that world should know most of them. Maybe not everyone in the USA can tell you who Russia’s political leader is right now, or even find Russia on a map, but I’m pretty sure any one of them could at least tell you that the world is round and that oceans have water in them--and that sort of basic knowledge of simple world mechanics is some of the stuff that has to be explained in a game like Tales of the Abyss.

So how do you make it work? Make the protagonist (the only member of the party that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have around at every part of the story) someone who, for legitimate reasons, actually doesn’t know all the details of the world he lives in. Luke fon Fabre was kidnapped as a child, so his parents kept him in their manor for his whole life, sheltered from the world, and thus he knows virtually nothing about his world, not even the basics. It’s simple, it makes sense, and now, whenever a new part of the lore of Tales of the Abyss becomes relevant to the plot, Luke can have it explained to him, and the player can learn as well.* Easy!

How lesser would the twists and progression of Final Fantasy 10 be if Tidus already knew all he needed to about Spira, and we had nothing explained to us? How difficult would it be for us to acclimate to the considerable lore of the Hexer (Witcher) series if Geralt’s fuzzy memory didn’t require the people who know him to ease him back into his role? How frustrating and contrary to the pivotal idea of exploration would it be for us if the Vault Dweller, Chosen One, Lone Wanderer, and Sole Survivor already knew everything there was to know about their section of the Fallout world and could go straight from Point A to Point B on their quest?** How bland would the revelation of the land of the Unclean Ones in Shin Megami Tensei 4 be to the player if the party already knew all about it and had already mentioned it in passing?

Incidentally, while this is typically something that occurs with the protagonist, it bears mentioning that it’s not always the main character who fills this role. Sometimes a support character is used as the one whose inexperience allows for the explanations that get the player up to speed. Nina in Breath of Fire 5, Galuf in Final Fantasy 5 (who’s a double-whammy of foreigner AND amnesiac), and Elena in Grandia 2 are all members of the party who play this role as necessary, leaving the much more worldly protagonists free to, well, actually know something.

That said, obviously this is not always a necessary trope. Wild Arms 3 pulls an interesting half version of this in that everyone remembers recent times, but memories of the world past 10 years or so back are getting progressively fuzzier. It relates to a huge plot point that’s pretty neat. Still, until that twist, the naive protagonist schtick isn’t really important; WA3’s world is straightforward enough that you can just roll with it as it goes. Final Fantasy 4’s storytelling gets by just fine with Cecil knowing as much about his world as any bloke might be expected to. Radiant Historia tells its superior story even as Stocke knows more about the world’s lore than even an average guy would...and that game’s actually complex enough that a naive character for explanations wouldn’t have been amiss.

And it’s also not even necessary in the games where it does exist, sometimes. Frankly, I don’t think that Star Ocean 2’s world was complex enough that we really required Claude to be a Star Trek refugee to figure it out, and lord knows not a single other piece of that lousy game actually lived up to the idea of it being the sci-fi game it was touted to be. Likewise with the world of Wild Arms 4--the plot and lore was not nuanced enough to really need Jude to come from an isolated sky village. Now, you might point out that his origins also are an integral part of his character, so giving Jude an upbringing more connected to the rest of the world would have changed his personality fundamentally. And you’re probably right. But you know what? Any change at all to Jude’s character would have been just fucking fine with me.

There are also some cases where this storytelling device really isn’t enough. Fei from Xenogears comes to mind. Fei might have been from an isolated village, and partially amnesiac to boot, but the timely lore explanations that gave us still weren’t nearly enough to make sense of the pretentious, quantum physics plot circle-jerk that is Xenogears.

But anyway, yeah, there you go. You now have a long, boring explanation for why this idea keeps showing up so damn often in RPGs, and other stuff, but especially RPGs. You might have figured this all out by yourself, of course, but, well, I’m bored and I like seeing myself talk. Deal with it.









* Now that I think about it, The Legend of Korra did this exact same thing, didn’t it?


** I always found a slight annoyance in Fallout New Vegas’s Courier. There’s nothing, if memory serves, to suggest that the Courier should not know the New Vegas area adequately (he/she’s a damn delivery boy/girl, for heaven’s sake, that’s a job that requires geographical and cultural knowledge!), yet everything is (by necessity) introduced and spelled out the same as it would be to any other Fallout protagonist who actually has a reason for not knowing anything about the area. I mean, I guess you can say that the shot to the head could’ve caused amnesia, but I don’t think that’s ever actually stated or even implied by the game, and the Courier’s dialogue options frequently suggest clear memories of events prior to getting shot.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fire Emblem 14's Downloadable Content

Well, the inevitable has occurred at last. Nintendo has finally decided to ease themselves into selling DLC packages for their more popular games, such as Super Smash Brothers, and more relevantly, Fire Emblem 14. Honestly, it’s just surprising that it’s taken the company this long to take the plunge in a major way. I mean, you know that I respect Nintendo as a company and as a creator of art, but let’s face it, a hard stance on the moral quagmire that is add-on game content is not something one would expect of the company behind Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles 1’s requiring one’s friends to have purchased Game Boy Advances to take advantage of the game’s multiplayer features, or the current Amiibo marketing push.

Anyway, Fire Emblem 14, known as Fire Emblem: Fates to most, is the newest Fire Emblem game, coming to us after the strong success that was FE13. I never did play FE13, myself, because I take issue with a game in which a major component and selling point is the opportunity to play matchmaker with the cast, yet in which there is a complete lack of homosexual romantic options. It’s the mid 2010s, Nintendo, and society is starting to slowly catch up to morality on this point: it’s not okay to thoroughly shun the gays. So, when the news came to me that FE14 actually includes homosexual romantic options, I leapt at the chance to support Nintendo finally taking a virtuous step forward, and bought the game and all its DLC.

I may have jumped the gun a bit on that point. More about Nintendo’s disappointing showing on homosexuality in FE14 in a later rant.

At any rate, this means that I’ve got every DLC package available to me. And that means it’s time for a DLC rant!

Note: These are all $2.50 to purchase and download, individually. Except for Before Awakening - I think that one was free.


Ghostly Gold: This one unfortunately sets the standard for a lot of these DLCs. The long and short of it is, you play a mission where you have to stop ghosts from making off with treasure, after a night in which some of your teammates didn’t get enough sleep. I guess if you’re enthralled at the prospect of hearing a quick 2 - 3 lines of monologue by the cast about how they did or did not sleep the night before, then, uh, it seems that Nintendo has finally acknowledged your niche market, friend. For everyone else, skip Ghostly Gold. It’s just empty time-wasting.


Boo Camp: Ghostly Gold was about farming money, and Boo Camp’s about farming Experience, and like GG, BC does not bother to make itself in any way more compelling than that. The premise is that the cast is trying to get stronger by taking part in one of those tests of courage that, going by anime, is some little cultural ritual of Japan’s most bored teenagers. Well, I suppose it beats what teenagers in the USA get up to when left to their own devices. Anyway, if you’re really hankering to trade the time and effort you spent earning your livelihood to Nintendo in exchange for the opportunity to see how the FE14 characters react to a spooky graveyard, then, well, you obviously don’t have enough of an appreciation for your money to deserve to keep it anyway, so you may as well just electronically transfer it straight into Nintendo’s wastebin. Anyone with a functional understanding of the concept of currency, however, should stay away.


Museum Melee: Difficult to believe, but this DLC about farming weapons is actually even less worthwhile than the last 2. At least with Ghostly Gold and Boo Camp, the in-combat monologues of the cast as they react to their situation are mildly interesting. Not interesting enough to justify spending $2.50, of course, or any amount of money at all, but the situations in those add-ons were different enough to make for some slightly interesting commentary. This, however, is just brawling with people with the intent of taking their weapons. How do you get interesting reactions for a situation like that? I can’t say I know. Neither does Nintendo.


Beach Brawl: Hey there, impressionable young target audience member! Do you want to see some of the pretty men and women of Fire Emblem 14 in swimwear, at the beach, doing beach things? Are you a traveler from the past, and don’t know what an ‘image search,’ ‘youtube,’ or ‘rule 34’ is? Are you just morally opposed to the idea of possessing money? Then BOY does Nintendo have the DLC package for you!


Royal Royale: This one is basically just the same damn thing as Beach Brawl (a preset battle between the royal siblings of the game), except it replaces insulting fanservice with the reward of stat-boosting items for the main game. I guess that’s better. If you want some schlock written within 30 seconds about Corrin’s royal siblings competing to send her an interdimensional care package, then, uh, I guess Nintendo’s just hitting all the right niche markets today. Well, if you’re just super hard up for the joy of another long battle virtually indistinguishable from the dozens and dozens of other ones in the game, then you could find a worse way to spend your money. Probably. I mean, I can’t think of one, but anything’s possible in theory, right?


Before Awakening: By the messy hood-hair of Anankos himself, could it be? A DLC for Fire Emblem 14 which actually is story-driven? It is...it IS!

It also IS barely a step up from the garbage above. Now, yeah, I’m not the best audience for this one, because I didn’t play the previous game, so the only characters from Fire Emblem 13 that I have even a slight working knowledge of are those in Super Smash Brothers, and also Tharja, for Rhajat-related reasons.

But I suspect that even if I had any particularly strong attachment to Chrom, Lissa, and the third guy whose name I can’t even remember, this DLC still wouldn’t impress me. It’s empty fanservice that goes nowhere: you show up for a few minutes in the world of the previous Fire Emblem game, assist some of its characters with beating monsters from FE14’s world, you tell each other “Sick moves bra,” and you’re done. Riveting. Nintendo...just leave this stuff for Nippon Ichi next time, okay?


Hidden Truths: Oh, hey! This one’s actually good. That’s a nice change of pace. Yeah, this is another story-driven DLC package, split into 2 parts, which gives some background for 3 of the party members of FE14, as well as building some lore for the game’s history and a couple of its other important characters. All of this feels like an actual, honest bit of bonus character and setting development, too, so even though we’re talking about major characters’ background, it doesn’t come off like it’s content that should have necessarily been attached to the game. And honestly, this is a pretty decent little side story--it got me invested in it, it speaks to me in the right ways. Everything up to this point has been garbage, but I’ll recommend Hidden Truths: it’s a good aside to the game.


Anna on the Run: This DLC is a short-ish battle in which you get a new character, Anna, who is basically to Fire Emblem what Cid is to Final Fantasy--there’s 1 in each game. Unlike Cid, though, the Annas have the Nurse Joy/Officer Jenny thing going on, where there’s like a thousand of them who’re all identical members of the same family sharing the same first name and occupation. More dedicated Fire Emblem fans than I (I still feel like an outsider to the series, even after 5 titles) tend to be somewhat obsessed with Anna. So I’m sure a lot of them are pretty enthusiastic about this DLC.

I’m...not. The plot component here is pretty thin (you find Anna, you help her, she joins you, the end). That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, mind you--the actual process for getting, say, Javik in Mass Effect 3 isn’t much stronger an example of storytelling, for instance, and the same might be said for other DLC-unlocked characters in other RPGs. The problem is that those other characters, regardless of whether or not their recruitment was interesting, contributed to the game adequately in the interrelationship and character development department. Javik’s a well-developed character with a distinct personality, his presence affects many scenes in Mass Effect 3 (sometimes dramatically, such as on the Asari homeworld), and he has relationships with multiple other members of the crew (notably Shepard and Liara) which develop both parties as characters.

By contrast, Anna has no input on or reaction to the game’s plot developments that I’ve noticed, and she’s one of those annoying few characters in the game who only has a Support relationship with the protagonist, no one else. This situation is made worse by the fact that this sole chance for character development is pretty uninteresting. Anna’s conversations with Corrin concentrate on the fact that there are many, many Annas out there, and her trying to figure out a way to seem more individualized--and trust me, my description here makes it sound way, way more interesting than it actually is. It’s not a terrible Support in and of itself, but when it’s the only piece of character development Anna gets in the whole game, then all she amounts to is a mildly quirky gimmick character. And that just isn’t worth paying for. Pass.


Vanguard Dawn: Oh, joy, we’ve given up on story- or character-driven DLCs, and have returned once more to unimaginative one-off battles for gameplay reasons. This one’s the least interesting yet--just defending a spot from a wave of enemies for a while until the battle ends. If you’ve just got to have an item that gives 1 of your units the same job class as Ike from Fire Emblem 9 + 10, then you’ll probably buy this anyway, but if you’re looking for anything even remotely interesting whatsoever, look elsewhere.


Ballistician Blitz: There absolutely is nothing of substance to this. You go in, you hear a couple quips from Anna, you beat some enemies, you get a class-change item. That’s it. That’s everything. You pay money, you get fucking nothing. It’s the Fire Emblem 14 DLC business plan. If you told me that FE14 was a product of Capcom, not Nintendo, I’d be none the wiser.


Witches’ Trial: Man, Nintendo just stopped giving even a tenth of a fuck after Anna on the Run, huh? This is as completely empty and meaningless as Ballistician Blitz, but it actually manages to be lazier than ever before by having the map itself just be taken from another Fire Emblem game, FE Gaiden. Nintendo doesn’t even cover it up; it just outright tells us that it’s recycling battle maps at this point. I mean, how damn hard can it possibly be to make a Fire Emblem map, really? I wouldn’t be half surprised if the entire production cost for this DLC, from class animations to battle map to scant, trite Anna monologue, was covered with the DLC’s first sale.



And that’s all of’em. The verdict on FE14’s DLC: abysmal. You even had to ask? Of 11 DLCs, only 3 even attempted to have something resembling story and/or character development, and of those 3, only 1 is actually good, with the others being empty fanservice. I feel a little foolish that I leapt to buy FE14 on the premise I mentioned above (to support Nintendo’s first Fire Emblem foray into representing same-sex relationships) before verifying that the game merited that support, because FE14 has some major problems in that regard. But I feel ashamed that in my eagerness I also bought all of these DLCs. The Fire Emblem 14 downloadable content collection represents money I just threw away. No, that’s not an appropriate analogy. If I actually, literally threw my money away--went to my garbage can, took out $20, and threw it in--I’d only be doing myself harm. But by giving that money to Nintendo in exchange for the DLC I’ve described above, I’ve done more than myself harm: I’ve told Nintendo that it’s okay to charge money for fucking nothing. That putting no effort into its add-ons is acceptable. That selling utterly meaningless gameplay quirks instead of art is permissible. In my misguided, optimistic desire to support a level of morality that Nintendo doesn’t even properly achieve in the game (again, more later on that), I used my money to make myself a liar.

This is the second time I’ve experienced DLC for a JRPG. The first was Shin Megami Tensei 4, and if you remember, I was not happy with it. I had hoped that the next time would be better, but that was a hope in vain. This isn’t a step up, it’s a step sideways. Ugh. Look, bottom line: Get Hidden Truths, only consider Anna on the Run and Before Awakening if you’re a hardcore Fire Emblem fan, and then do what I wasn’t smart enough to do: leave the rest of this crap behind.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Guest Rant: 10 Reasons Why You Should Give Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2 a Second Glance, by Nurjean



Another Guest Rant!  And less than a year after the last, too!  How totally awesome is that?

Today's rant comes to us courtesy of Nurjean, a new but very outgoing, enthusiastic, and interesting reader to have joined our tiny, tiny flock.  A reader who has also played a very prominent RPG which I have not: SMT Persona 2!  It's always a boon to this blog to be able to offer some perspective on another Atlus treasure.

Disclaimer: I make no claim to own Nurjean's words below.  This guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions.  I don't see how it could, really, seeing as I have none for the game it's discussing.  But I'm eager to gain some, so let's read on!



10 Reasons Why You Should Give Persona 2 a Second Glance

Nurjean
March 28, 2016
 
Hi there! Nurjean here from A Creative’s Nook. When The RPGenius posted that he was open to guest rants, I immediately decided I would make one for Persona 2. My first Persona game is the Eternal Punishment PSX version. Despite that, I’ll try to incorporate its “prequel”, Innocent Sin, in this tribute.

Persona 2 doesn’t get a lot of credit.

Try to Google how Persona fans discovered the Persona series. Most of the answers will reveal it was the third entry that led them to embrace the series. Most of them will claim that 3’s the best.

I can’t blame them. After all, it was P3 that put Atlus’ series onto the world map of must–play JRPGs. It doesn’t help that Persona 4 followed the formula Persona 3 set in stone. With Persona 5 in the making, Persona 2 is bound to be shoved into oblivion.

Well, not really. After all, I’m sure there are a bunch of people out there who were introduced to the series by playing the second entry. Now what’s unique about the Persona 2 series is that the story’s broken down into 2 chapters: Innocent Sin, and Eternal Punishment. Innocent Sin never saw an English PSX release for unknown reasons. Fortunately, Eternal Punishment was given an English PSX release. The only disadvantage of playing the second chapter is you’ll have initial difficulty in understanding the game with its references to Innocent Sin.

But it’s not that much of big deal, unless you make it so.

I’m writing this positive rant to give tribute to a beautiful game that’s not your typical highschool-dungeon crawler-sim. While the first chapter gives you the reins to 4 high school kids, the second chapter allows you to play the game as adults with real life issues. Even though the portrayal isn’t perfect, it’s a different take from playing teenage protagonists.

So allow me to show you a couple of things that endeared me to the second entry in the series:


1. “You don’t like the bad ending of the first story? No problem, we’ll add a new chapter where the heroine lives, but wait, let’s add drama to make it fun! What if the hero fucked up in the previous chapter and has to suffer the consequences of his actions in the new chapter?”



This second entry in the Persona series actually refers to Tatsuya Suou’s mistake in the previous installment, Innocent Sin; the consequences of his mistake unfolds in Eternal Punishment.

The second installment of Persona 2 is told from Maya Amano's eyes (another protagonist from IS) who died in the Innocent Sin Timeline.

There are two things to keep in mind to understand Persona 2’s story:

1. Philemon & Nyarlathotep’s Bet. Basically, the good and the evil make a bet to see which side of humanity wins.

2. Tatsuya’s Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. For the uninitiated, Persona 2: Innocent Sin tackles the story of five childhood friends. Due to miscommunication or some plot device the writer thought up, one of them, Jun Kurosu, believed he and his friends killed their friend, Maya Amano, when they trapped her in a shrine so she wouldn’t leave. Unfortunately, the Shrine was set on fire by Tatsuya Sudou. Maya survived, but developed a phobia for fires. However, Jun’s delusion is merely Nyarlothotep’s ploy to win a bet he made with Philemon.

To make the long story short, Maya is killed, thereby fulfilling the Oracle’s Maia, a prophecy where everything in the world, except Sumaru City, is destroyed. To revive her, the four friends agree with Philemon’s proposal to create a new timeline.

The catch? They never met each other.

Although Lisa, Eikichi and Jun willingly gave up their memories, Tatusya chickened out at the last minute and failed to fulfill his part of the bargain.


In this new timeline, everyone forgot each other, Maya Amano lived, yet Tatsuya retained his memory of “The Other Side”. This was the Innocent Sin the game refers to.

Because his memories were the common denominator between both timelines, Nyarlathotep attempted to restore the previous timeline by pushing Tatsuya Sudou to become JOKER and rekindle the memories of the other 4 protagonists. That way, the new timeline dubbed as “This Side” would meet the same fate of “The Other Side”.




Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a simplified diagram of Persona Story.
Honestly, it’s a beautiful yet melancholic tale of friendship gained and friendship lost.

It’s not Persona 3’s Minato, who pulled a Jesus Christ to save his comrades by crucifying himself. Persona 2 gives you the feeling of being with a “stranger” whom you once called a “friend” (most profound if you played IS before EP). It’s the feeling of pain when you know you had so many experiences together, yet you’re the only one who can recall that.

Even if I never played Innocent Sin, I could feel how sad it was to play Eternal Punishment and hear Lisa, Eikichi and Jun’s responses. “Excuse me, but have we met?” “Why do I have this feeling that I met you before?”

It’s like seeing your parents with Alzheimer’s Disease--except that Alzheimer’s unintentional.

Choosing to erase your memories to give your friend a new lease in life is intentional. And knowing that you didn’t fulfill your part of the bargain hurts more. Because you’re burdened with the memories that you were all once friends...yet they can’t remember anything about it.

Sad tale, huh?

Now try to beat that, Minato!

2. Hitler as Innocent Sin’s Antagonist

I’ve heard rumors that one of the reasons Innocent Sin wasn’t released for an English Port for the PSX was because of this dude. Anyway, now what’s a real life historic figure doing in a fictional story like Persona?

Well, that’s because Atlus decided to make him one of the main antagonists of this game! And you get to fight him at the final dungeon!

Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he has his own boss battle theme?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgjSaHFCVkg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-_Mx7vvxCE

Or that his name is mentioned in the Madhouse-produced opening sequence for Eternal Punishment?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1bgbfEPUog

3. The Rumor System


I thought this was one of the brilliant features of this game! Even though it was part of the plot development, this feature was used to affect the gameplay. You could spread rumors to unlock powerful weapons, or unlock a quest. Though the protagonists weren’t the only one who used this: even the antagonists used this against the players!

One of the antagonists in EP, Wang Long Chizuru, spread the rumor that anyone who used the Joker Curse would become Joker themselves.


On the flip side, I wonder why the antagonist (Nyarlathotep) decided NOT to use this to his advantage. He could have spread the rumor that Lisa, Jun and Eikichi would remember “The Other Side”. That would have saved him time. But of course, Atlus came to present a story of redemption and the fight between good and evil. That would have been too easy.

4. The Joker Curse Urban Legend


Japan is oozing with excellent urban legends to scare the shit out of you. Who could forget the videotape that contained Sadako (The Ring)? Or how about the cursed house in The Grudge?

This is the perfect premise for a Japanese horror story. I wonder why no one thought of making a movie out of this?

The curse is simple: dial your cellphone number, and Joker will answer to grant your wishes (Innocent Sin) or kill someone for you (Eternal Punishment). The downside of this curse is that when you don’t have a wish, Joker will take your soul instead (IS); or you will become Joker, as mentioned above.

5. The in-game art is beautiful


No, I’m not referring to the mannequin-freakish art. I’m referring to the in-game portraits that pop up when you talk to relevant characters!

When I first played this game way back in 2006, my only high-end phone was a Nokia 6600 with a VGA camera. I remember taking pictures of every portrait I saw in this game. It was like capturing a rare Pokemon—every portrait was such a rare treat!

I was born in the early 1990s, and I grew up watching 90s anime. This lead to my fondness for cell-shaded art. I believe the artist who drew Persona 3 + 4 also made the in-game art for Persona 2. It’s vibrant, crisp and clean. It suits the overall mood of the story. I doubt it would have the same impact if it used moe-like style. (No, Just no).

6. The Music is a hit or miss, but when it hits, it HITS!

I have to admit, there are some tracks which are lackluster and repetitive. Yet there are tracks which are brilliant, heart-warming and memorable. The music isn’t Yoko Shimomura’s sweeping pieces, nor Nobuo Uematsu’s epic compositions. But it does match the game’s paranormal-horror and occult feel.

Take this dungeon theme for example:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIlNpMnrdN8&list=PL7B7BB33D4FB78C06&index=3

Or the world map that has that Rhythm and Blues Vibe:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6-OsXZ8V7o

Or how about a boss fight that gives you that adrenaline rush?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fee0GYSTebg

Or maybe you like chilling in a bar with your significant other?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MFcbIOuwAA&list=PL7B7BB33D4FB78C06&index=5

Or when your significant other is about to dump you?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y97krQU7s-s&list=PL7B7BB33D4FB78C06&index=21

There are several pieces worth listening in this game. My Top 10:

Map 1 (PSX & PSP EP version)
Map 1 (PSX & PSP IS version)
Maya’s Theme (PSX & PSP EP-IS Version)
Aoba Park (EP)
Parabellum II (EP)
Main Theme Side A (IS)
Change your Way (EP)
Boss Battle Theme (EP)
BGM II (EP)
Knights of the Holy Spear (PSX & PSP IS Version--the Dual Mix Version is great as well)

7. Did I forget to mention that you can talk with demons?

I promise you’ll meet some of the most mercurial to the most gullible enemies in this game. And I promise you’ll read excellent short horror stories when you have Ellen in the Party. Where else can you find a game where you can scare demons by telling horror stories?

8. Glitch #1: How to cast every spell in the game for 3 SP


This worked for my EP PSX version. It was my ex-best friend who discovered this glitch.

When selecting a magic spell, press the R1/2 and L1/2 buttons while the cursor hovers over the spell.

To illustrate, let’s start with Katsuya’s basic Persona attack, “Agi,” that costs 3 SP. Press the R1/2 and L1/2 buttons, and you’ll notice Agi will switch to its stronger spell, Agidyne. Keep on switching until you access other spells...and even enemy spells!

You’ll also notice that as you shift through the spells, a certain code appears on the upper right screen. Each code corresponds to the spell’s name.

Six Advantages of This Glitch:
-You can cast stronger spells at the cost of 3 SP;
-You can cast Armageddon to instantly kill all enemies. Boss monsters are susceptible to this spell, too;
-Leveling up is easier (You’re like God with the Armageddon spell);
-You can speed through the game;
-Saves your time;
-You can cast enemy spells, such as Joker’s “Old Maid”.

Five Disadvantages of This Glitch:
-You’re labelled as a “Cheat”;
-The challenge is gone;
-The game hangs as you try to access stronger or enemy spells;
-The game infrequently hangs whenever you try to cast “Old Maid”;
-You cannot access stronger spells when you’re looking for the 100km/hr Hag at the CD store. If you’re heavily dependent on Armageddon, this glitch spells trouble for this dungeon since you’re forced to use your brute strength.

I don’t know if this glitch works with the PSP port.

If you’re the type who wants to play the game for the story, please do use this. If you want to be challenged without feeling robbed, please don’t use it.

9. Glitch #2: How to teleport and decrease your chances of enemy encounters


This worked for my EP PSX version. My ex-bestfriend also discovered this glitch. I can’t exactly recall the special buttons.

Either press the “Select” or “Start” button. Either button you press should show you the area’s floor map. Drag the cursor to the location where you want to teleport to. Press start again.

Voila! You have learned how to teleport!

Three Advantages:
-Fewer enemy encounters;
-Helps you beat the timer in the Burning Museum part of the game;
-Saves you time.

Two Disadvantages:
-You can’t use this while looking for the 100 km/hr Hag side quest;
-You find no reason to explore the entire floor area by foot.

I don’t know if this glitch works with the PSP port.

If you’re the type who wants to play the game for the story, please do use this. If you want to be challenged without feeling robbed, please don’t use it.

10. Japanese Paranormal-Horror-Occult-Mythology-Jungian Psychology Power-of-Friendship Experience in a Japanese-Based Setting


These are the hallmark signs of a Shin Megami Tensei game. Can you imagine if Squarenix (formerly Squaresoft) created a Final Fantasy game like this? What if Namco-Bandai made a Tales series game with this in mind? No? Never? It feels wrong?

What endears me to the second entry is how it blends the paranormal-horror-occult with Japanese-Greek Mythology, Jungian Psychology and the theme of friendship. I can never find another JRPG like this (unless you tell me).

Most JRPG worlds are reminiscent of Medieval or Industrial Europe. But a modern-day inspired Japanese RPG with a mix of the occult? Couldn’t they have published a manga version for this entry as well? Persona 1 had one, but its story pales to this entry.

It’s true that it’s not the best Persona entry for most Persona fans. Either the story doesn’t really stick with them, or they just prefer good old high school drama mixed with action. But I hope that by pointing some of the entry’s finer qualities, you can give the game a second glance, and go see what’s it all about.

Friday, April 8, 2016

General RPGs' Storytelling EXP

I like it when RPGs employ Storytelling EXP. I wish it happened more often.

What do I mean by Storytelling EXP? I’m glad I pretended you asked! Storytelling EXP is when you receive experience points for writing-related feats in an RPG, rather than gameplay-related ones. Most of the time, we associate experience points as rewards for defeating enemies, or sometimes using non-combat character skills (such as picking locks in a Fallout game, or disarming traps in Dragon Age 1, and so on). And with a lot of RPGs, I daresay most of them, that’s the sole extent of the experience point, er, experience. The only way you level up your character(s) is by beating bad guys, usually over and over again. But sometimes, there are other, more plot- and character-related ways of getting experience points, and those are what I refer to Storytelling EXP.

The most common form of this comes as a reward for completing quests. Once you follow a quest through to completion in, say, Fallout New Vegas, whether it’s a main quest mandated by the plot or an optional sidequest, you’ll be awarded a sum of EXP, the amount of which is almost always sizable, and sometimes varies depending on how well you did the quest. This is a pretty common occurrence in western RPGs like Dragon Age, Fallout, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher, and so on. Heck, quest-reward EXP is basically the only kind you ever get in Mass Effect 2 and 3, and almost the only kind available in the recent Shadowrun titles. Also, there are some games where you’ll be awarded a bunch of Storyline EXP not so much for finishing specific quests, as just for reaching certain points in the plot, such as with Celestian Tales 1.

This is a pretty sensible approach which calls back to the roots of the genre: the tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, which follow this general idea by and large. Quest experience points encourage you to finish the tasks you start, and to experience all that the game can offer, which is good. And of course, since most of the story of an RPG is usually told through the characters and narratives involved in quests, Storytelling EXP for completed quests is providing an incentive that betters the chances that a player will see and take in all the ideas and story that the writers wish to convey. And it even helps on a level closer to that of gameplay, since getting an experience point reward for a quest gives an extra level of satisfaction at having seen the task through to its completion, a satisfaction which I personally find money and items and so on not to give. And besides, if we say that gaining levels is indicative of our characters growing as adventurers and individuals, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to achieve that growth from more aspects of their adventure than just beating the bejeezus out of bunnies that randomly cross their path?

There is, though, a form of Storytelling EXP that I like even more. The quests that you get experience from completing, after all, don’t HAVE to be particularly strong in the writing department or have an especially strong tie to the story and its themes and characters--it’s only that that’s possible. But there’s also the Storytelling EXP that you get from directly investigating and pursuing the game’s plot and characters--and you know me, that’s the stuff that I really value in RPGs, the aspects of the genre that I think make it worthwhile to play. Planescape: Torment is an excellent example of this. Yes, in PT, you get experience for fighting monsters, and completing quests, but there’s also a significant wealth of experience points to be had simply through pursuing dialogue options and seeking to gain as much knowledge and wisdom about the game’s world as you can. There are many huge EXP rewards in Planescape: Torment for when you persuade NPCs through conversation options, for learning as much as you can from important plot figures during your dialogue with them, for exploring every lore-significant part of the game’s setting, for learning the protagonist’s history and piecing together the clues to his identity, and for coming to know, understand, repair, and greaten the party members.

Planescape: Torment isn’t the only game to do this, of course. There are many instances in the first couple Fallout titles which reward the player with experience points for exploring the games’ characters, setting, and lore through exploring dialogues, and the more recent Fallouts also give a little experience here and there as a reward for exploring extra dialogue paths that require certain stats and skills to access. Knights of the Old Republic 2 has almost as much of an EXP priority on exploring its writing’s depth and brilliance as Planescape: Torment did. The Witch’s Wake DLC for Neverwinter Nights 1, short and incomplete though it is, provides numerous little experience boosts for thorough exploration of all that characters have to say to you.

Still, though there are several games that employ this nuanced Storytelling EXP, it’s still pretty uncommon. I’ve played almost 290 RPGs as of writing this, and think I’ve seen this idea used in maybe 10% of them, certainly not more than 15%, and probably actually less. What a shame that is--and how strange! Being so strongly story-driven as the RPG genre tends to be, it seems to me like it would only make sense to tie one of the biggest driving forces of gameplay to the elements of the game’s story. It really seems like a waste of an opportunity, especially when you consider how terrifically well it usually works out.

I mean, look at some of the examples I mentioned above. Planescape: Torment is nigh-universally considered to have one of the most brilliant, deep, and rich stories and casts in all RPG history, and I myself would certainly go a step further and claim that it’s one of the greater works of storytelling art in human history, period. How incredibly important it is, then, that the game makes it a major point that your greatest source of power comes from knowing that terrific story and interacting with its countless thoughtful nuances. The case is similar with Knights of the Old Republic 2--such an important part of that game are the ideas of knowledge, wisdom, and the ability to sway others as being the true mark of power, and of seeing the universe from a higher perspective and understanding its workings of cause and effect, that having a reward for exploring these concepts and learning all you can from the game’s characters and world is symbolically essential! And hey, the whole idea of Witch’s Wake in Neverwinter Nights 1 is that of trying to learn the truth of yourself, the battle you survived, and the mission you’ve been charged with...so wouldn’t it make sense that you’d get a gameplay reward for seeking the answers to the questions which define this side story’s plot and purpose? Getting experience rewards for finding out as much as you can in a story that is about exactly that, creates a better immersion in the tale!

I especially wish that JRPGs would pick this idea up. I mean, I want to see more RPGs use this dedicated Storytelling EXP, period, but as you might have guessed from my examples so far, this is definitely more of a western RPG thing. Still, some JRPGs have used Storytelling EXP, or at least, something similar to it, to their benefit. Sakura Wars 5, for example, is a combination tactical RPG and dating sim (I still wonder who came up with that idea), wherein the characters in your party become more powerful combatants not through defeating enemies, but rather through having stronger personal relationships with the protagonist. Well, 70% of the game’s a dating sim, so it makes sense, right? If your actions in getting all your teammates to like you didn’t affect the battles in any way, then you’d wonder what the point was; this way, the character relationships that the game wants to focus on are properly emphasized by the gameplay. Similarly, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 have a system where you gain most of your experience points from defeating enemies, but advancing your Social Links for each Tarot Arcana provides level up bonuses for the Personae you create and use in battle, with a complete Social Link giving any Persona of its type several level-ups instantly when that Persona is created. This is a great idea, because a huge amount of the story and characters are explored through the Social Links in each game, as well as a ton of the thematic ties with the Tarot, which is at the heart of the games’ meaning. It’s especially important in SMT Persona 3, since that game, at its core, is about our connections with others and the ways that we enrich one another through them, so powering up your Persona, the powerful and monstrous manifestation of your psyche and soul, through furthering these connections is a perfect use of gameplay to underscore story. So yeah, definitely possible to incorporate Storytelling EXP in a JRPG with good results.

And that’s about it! I like Storytelling EXP, especially the kind that goes beyond just basic quest rewards, and nearly every time I’ve seen it used in an RPG, it’s really benefited the game overall. It doesn’t have to be the only source of character advancement in a game (though Mass Effect and Sakura Wars 5 prove that can work just fine), but I’d at least like to see more RPGs factor a significant amount of their experience points to come from storytelling sources.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Eternal Senia

I try to devote a rant to most Indie RPGs I play, on the basis that they usually can use the extra publicity (though not always; holy shit Undertale got popular fast). I’m not sure whether today’s subject, Eternal Senia, really benefits from publicity the way most other Indie RPGs would, though, since Eternal Senia is free on Steam--does its creator, Holy Priest, actually get any money from the game? I really don’t have any idea. But I do know that either way, ES is a great RPG and that whether or not publicity benefits it, playing it benefits others, so on we go.

Eternal Senia is a free Indie RPG available on Steam, made using RPG Maker. Now, yes, everyone and their mother seems to have dabbled with RPG maker at this point, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still find some quality works coming from it. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, though sadly getting harder and harder to locate since its creator vanished into the mists of the internet, remains one of the better RPGs I’ve ever played, an artistic work of video game storytelling that contains within it great emotional power and one of my favorite RPG romances to date, and it was made with RPG Maker. And Eternal Senia joins it as another really great game resulting from the RPG Maker program.

Eternal Senia is relatively straightforward in terms of its plot. Senia is a girl who has entered the Tower of Eternity to save her adopted older sister Magaleta, who is a powerful demon-fighting magical holy nun or something...you know, anime stuff. And that really is basically the game right there--you take Senia up through the tower to save Magaleta, learning about their history and the lore of Eternity as you go along. That’s not to say that there aren’t plot twists and story depth in ES, of course, but it all just boils down to a simple story of the incredible, touching love between these 2 sisters.

What makes this game so great is how incredibly poignant it is. Some RPGs are about the ideas and events of a story most of all (Deus Ex 1, for example), some are more personal, with the characters and their interrelationships being the center of game (Planescape: Torment, for example), and most, I would say, are a balance between the 2 sides (Wild Arms 3, for example).* Eternal Senia falls into the second category, drawing you into the story of its protagonist and her sister, and bringing you massive, massive doses of what is clinically known as The Feels. Seriously, if you enjoyed choking back sobs and feeling your heart itself affected by the tale of, say, Mother 3 or Undertale, then you’ll love this game.

It’s actually kind of remarkable how quickly you become invested in this story of love, devotion, and sacrifice. The game is not long; Steam has clocked me in for a mere 5 hours of playtime, and I played pretty close to a completionist run of the game. Yet in that short time, Senia and Magaleta quickly become characters that you have a vested emotional interest in, and genuinely care for. That’s a feat that a LOT of RPGs can’t manage with a full 50 hours of storytelling opportunity, let alone doing so in a tenth of that time. Only Undertale and Eternal Senia can get me teared up for an ending after half a dozen hours or less, and if you’ve been reading my rants in the past couple months, you know that any comparison to Undertale speaks highly for a game.

It must be said, of course, that the game’s not perfect. Some people have complained about the gameplay itself. Eternal Senia uses a very serviceable and smooth gameplay system, but it’s certainly also not very impressive. Basically, you ram your character into enemies to attack, giving and suffering damage at the same time. Not the only RPG that uses this mechanic (Fairune, Witch + Hero), but I can understand why that would be off-putting. What I don’t understand is how anyone finds your standard RPG combat system any more entertaining...at least in Eternal Senia, I’m actually controlling my character’s actions, even if it’s just running around body slamming stuff, rather than simulating the experience of navigating DOS, like your average menu-based combat system.

Of more significant note, of course, is the translation issue. If you can read Chinese, great! You have no problem. If you’re relying on the English translation, though, well...there’re a lot of technical problems with the translation. Grammatical errors and awkward phrasings are, well, abundant. If you grew up with video games in the 80s and 90s, get ready for a nostalgia bomb of Engrish like you’ve never imagined.

Still...it’s a rather interesting situation, this translation issue. Even though everyone agrees that it’s there, I don’t think I’ve seen a single player of Eternal Senia mention in a review, forum post, or anything else that the translation was a significant stumbling block in playing and appreciating this game. It certainly wasn’t for me! And I’m an English teacher in training! Somehow, the meaning of every line is adequately clear, and you’re drawn into this tour de force of emotion no less for the fact that a lot of its dialogue sounds weird. In fact, I have to wonder whether a small part of how emotionally gripping the dialogue is, could actually be due to the translation...there have been times in RPGs past, such as Final Fantasy Tactics, in which the first, ‘lesser’ translation conveyed the characters’ pathos and ideals much more earnestly than the later, ‘corrected’ translation. Whether or not the subpar translation hinders or secretly helps it, though, the fact is that the dialogue, story, character development, music, and personalities in this game will hit you and hit you hard regardless, so I would urge you not to let this flaw dissuade you from checking Eternal Senia out.

And that’s about all I have to say about this game. Eternal Senia is a rollercoaster of tender emotion, more likely than not to leave you misty-eyed if not outright weeping at its ending, and it does all this while costing you very little time, and no money. Although you can, if you want to show your support, donate via Paypal at http://m963741m.wix.com/senia#!about-us/c21nl (thanks to the Anon who submitted this link!). I certainly enjoyed the game enough myself to donate. I’m told that Holy Priest is working on a sequel,** and I can’t wait to see this story continued. I definitely recommend you check Eternal Senia out; it’s just a lovely RPG.









* Well, I suppose there’s also a fourth type of game: the one that doesn’t bother with either, and is just a pile of boring nothingness, like Lagoon, or Evolution Worlds.


** Thank God. I mean, maybe I’m just setting myself up for more heartbreak by wanting a continuation, but all the same, if there weren’t a sequel in the works, then I’d have a new entry for the top spot on my list of Most Needed Sequels.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Final Fantasy 9's Players' Perception of Kuja's Power

This rant is made possible by the awesome contemplative nature of Ecclesiastes. Thanks, buddy!



Long time reader and good buddy Ecclesiastes posed a question to me a few months back, which essentially inquired why Kuja receives so little attention from players, compared to his Final Fantasy villain peers, for his power, when he has destroyed a planet all on his own. Taken from the email Ecc sent to me:


“Kuja for some reason seems to never be acknowledged in this regard. Maybe I'm not in the places on the internet where he's mentioned, but I don't recall seeing it even one time in the inevitable villain powerlevel bullshit discussions. Just a bunch of Kefka and Sephiroth hype, two of the least powerful FF villains ever. I know IX is underrated to the point that I'm mildly surprised the ESRB deigned to slap a letter code on it, but this is a peculiar omission in what is still a relatively common topic.”


It’s a very reasonable question. Everyone, especially the deranged chimps themselves who work at SquareEnix, goes crazy over how impressive and powerful Sephiroth is. Yet the guy lacks the sheer power to destroy a world on his own, having to rely on a Materia to do it for him, and even in terms of a confiscated power, it’s only so-so. I mean, yeah, Meteor is world-damaging, but it takes a damn long time for it to arrive. At least when Final Fantasy 5’s X-Death, for example, gains the amazing power to take things and put them in other places, he can do so in an immediate fashion. Beyond that, Sephiroth’s limited to just being pretty strong, fast, and having some semi-magical ability. And, I guess, control over plot-convenient pretty boys who are exceptionally shallow characters but can resurrect Sephiroth (sort of)...whatever the hell Advent Children was on about.

Then you take Kefka. Final Fantasy fans who have studied Sesame Street thoroughly enough to realize that the process of counting doesn’t start at the number 7 are all quite familiar with this infamous jester bad guy, and laud him for the fact that he actually did outright destroy the world in Final Fantasy 6.* Usurped the power of not 1, but 3 goddesses, and just fucked the world’s shit right up. More legitimately powerful than Sephiroth, that’s for sure.

But Kuja? A simple observation of his power reveals that he towers over Sephiroth and Kefka in terms of power, as well as most other FF villains. Sephiroth has to borrow a black rock and then has to wait 8 - 10 business days for Armageddon to ship. Kefka has to steal power from others for his Light of Judgement, and the majority of the destruction he causes is just from him moving the goddess statues around--it’s really not even him doing it; anyone physically strong enough to push a carved stone around could have done exactly as much damage to the world as the majority that Kefka gets credited for. Kuja, on the other hand, arrives at the planet Terra, gets pissed about mortality, and, through his own power alone, destroys the planet.

As in, on his own. He didn’t activate a gigantic robot to do it for him (FF4). He didn’t hold onto a black rock and wish super hard (FF7). He didn’t just happen to stand in a convenient spot between three petrified deities (FF6). Kuja destroyed Terra himself, with HIS power. And when I say destroyed, I don’t mean that he made it a very difficult place to live in (FF6). I don’t mean that he badly damaged a part of it (FF7, potentially). I don’t mean that he went around destroying small towns (FF6 + FF10). I don’t mean that he scooped up parts of it and dumped them somewhere else (FF5). I mean that he reduced everything on the planet to fiery slag. And he did it in minutes.

The evidence is patently obvious. Kuja is much more powerful than almost every other FF villain, in terms of what destruction he can accomplish and how fast. And he’s at this level of power on his own, without needing to rely on and steal the power of others, which is more than you can say for pretty much every other FF villain, and hell, most RPG villains period. But Ecclesiastes is right--go to any major FF discussion board topic about powerful villains, and Kuja’s all but ignored in favor of Sephiroth and Kefka’s weak-ass shit, as well as that of the other villains of the series. You’ll be much more likely to see people talking up the power of Sin, Vayne, X-Death, and so on, than you will Kuja. It was true in my experiences with Gaia Online, it’s true for Ecc’s experiences of GameFAQs, and a little searching on my part just now confirms that it’s true on multiple other sites, too.

Why is this? Why do fans so often completely pass over Kuja’s villain accomplishments, when the facts are clear?

Well, there are the usual contributing factors. FF9 is still extremely underrated and overlooked, sadly, and then there are the shallow morons--and they be many--who disregard the guy just for his outfit and looks. And there’s SquareEnix’s marketing strategies, too, in that other villains are much more focused on and popularized by the company itself.

But, I believe that the core issue of the lack of recognition of Kuja is this: Kuja destroyed a planet that doesn’t have a lot of weight to the audience. In Final Fantasy 9, the planet Gaia is where the audience starts the game, and it is the planet which we spend dozens of hours exploring from 1 pole to the other. Through Zidane, we travel across Gaia on foot, on the back of chocobos and gargants, and aboard ships of both air and water. It is Gaia that we know the size and scope of from traveling experience. Gaia is the planet filled with characters we have met and become familiar with, and Gaia is the planet possessing lore and a story which we have watched unfold and participated in all along the way. To whit, everything and everyone that the main characters of FF9 are connected to and fighting for, is on Gaia.

By contrast, what is Terra? Terra is a planet Zidane and company visit only a short time after hearing of its existence. Terra is a planet only a fraction explored--no more than a dungeon’s worth, really. Terra is alien and strange, and connects only in a distant, though admittedly essential, way to a few characters and a little of Gaia’s lore. The simple fact is that Terra doesn’t have substance as a world to the player, not as a Final Fantasy world usually does.

When Kefka ruins his world, he’s ruining the equivalent of FF9’s Gaia, not the equivalent of FF9’s Terra. Kefka ruins the world that we’ve traveled over, whose characters we have met and whose events we have seen unfold. The difference is that Kefka destroys the world, and Kuja destroys a world. FF6’s ruined world is the everything and everywhere of the game, but for FF9, Gaia is that world, and Terra is just an interesting location that is emotionally separated from us. And you can apply this to the majority of the other FF villains, as well--Sephiroth threatens the only world FF7 knows, X-Death messes around equally with both worlds FF5 visits, Sin is a constant destructive force in the only significant location of the game, Spira, and so on.

So, despite the actual reality of Kuja’s power as evidenced by his destruction of Terra, despite the demonstrable fact that he is far more powerful than Kefka, Sephiroth, Zemus/Zeromus, the Dark King, Raem, Vayne, Ajora/Altima (well, maybe), Seymour, Sin/Yevon, the Cloud of Darkness, Galdes, Feolthanos, and probably most of the villains from the FFs I haven’t played...the perception of Kuja’s power is only naturally going to be that it’s less impressive than, say, Kefka’s, because Kefka destroys the world that truly matters, and Kuja destroys its third cousin, twice removed.













* Well, mostly destroy. Nature’s dying, monsters roam everywhere, humanity’s on the edge of survival, that sort of thing. It’s a bad scene for the world and its creatures...still, Kefka’s wrath is a little less impressive when you realize that the worst spots of the World of Ruin would still be considered a vacation retreat for the people of any given Fallout game.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Chrono Cross's Time Shifter

I have not been especially ambiguous regarding my feelings on Chrono Cross. Whether you look at it as an RPG in its own right or as a sequel to Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross is crap, through and through. There is just nothing good I can say about this game, no single characteristic or feature that can be praised.

Well, almost.

In the approaching 10 year history of this rant blog, this is a momentous occasion, because today’s rant is the first time, and unless I’m very much mistaken also the last time, you will hear me say something positive about this game. Yet there is, in fact, 1 feature to Chrono Cross that is laudable. Can you guess which it is?

...If you guessed “the accent system,” I will find you and I will murder you in your sleep.

The answer is the Time Shifter, an oft-forgotten little doohickey that Chrono Cross awards to you after you’ve hated yourself long and hard enough to actually finish the game and start a New Game+. The premise of this key item is simple: with the Time Shifter, you can slow down the game (don’t bother; much like an obnoxious American speaking to a non-English speaker, going slower will not make the garbled mess that is Chrono Cross any more comprehensible) by holding the L2 button, and speed up the game by holding the R2 button.

This is a goddamn fantastic idea.

Let’s get the obligatory joke out of the way up front: blah blah great idea because the faster you can get through this shitty game the better. With that out of the way, though, I have to say, this would be a terrific feature for ANY RPG, if implemented the exact same way.

Look, you know my feelings on RPGs. I’m there for the story, the dialogue, the themes, the emotions, the characters, the humanity, the humor, the drama...you know, all the art of storytelling. To me, the battles, the stat and item management, the puzzles, the exploration, those are almost always just necessary evils I put up with to get to the good stuff.* I’ll tolerate all the time-wasting filler that stretches a 7 - 10 hour story into a 40 - 50 hour game to see a story and its characters through to the end, but the biggest reason I rarely replay an RPG, even a great one, is because it’s too much of a damn time sink to justify seeing the same story a second time, even considering how great that story may be. It’s part of why I so greatly appreciate the idea of your standard New Game+ feature--being able to replay a game with my endgame-leveled characters means cutting a hell of a lot of hours out of the process just for the fact that the fights are that much faster and there’s no need for level-grinding.

So just look at how great a Time Shifter would be as a feature in any other RPG! Any RPG with multiple endings, at the very least, should have such a thing, a device that can let the player fast-forward every battle and go zooming from 1 area to the next as they revisit the game to get its full experience. But even entirely linear RPGs with a single plot path and ending would still benefit to have a device like this for subsequent playthroughs, because it would still up the replay value considerably. If you’ve created an especially excellent story, people WILL want to experience it more than once, so it makes sense to make the process smoother for them.

There’s not much about Chrono Cross that wasn’t awful or intensely uninteresting, but the Time Shifter, at least, was a really good idea in game design, particularly for this story-driven genre, and I really wish it were a standard for the genre, or at least a common element like New Game+ is. Being able to speed up all the game’s filler would make it much more convenient to see an RPG’s multiple paths, it’d make it a lot easier for me to show great games to others, and it’d give the deranged developers of Chrono Cross something they could point to and say, “We actually did contribute something positive to the industry, see?”












* Almost, but not always. Sometimes the exploration of dungeons and other locations can be a subtle part of the storytelling process. A lot of the exploration in the Fallout series, for example, heightens the detail and lore of the game’s setting, which ties to the series’s signature examination of Americana, and I eat that shit up. Likewise, there are some occasions where the battles are tied strongly to the plot’s events and/or characters’ development (like, say, Zidane’s walk of angry existential crisis on Terra in Final Fantasy 9, or most final boss battles), and so are a worthwhile part of the storytelling process. And then there’s Undertale, where the whole battle system is a significant factor in the story and messages of the game.

But, y’know, the other 99.3% of the time, it’s just pointless filler.