Monday, May 29, 2006

Lufia 1 and 2's Disparity

We're probably all familiar with the fact that, sometimes, two games can differ tremendously in quality, yet both be of the same series. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is monstrously frustrating and has a yawn-tastic story for the first 75% of it, while the rest of the games in the KH series (thus far) are terrific fun to play and have gripping and intriguing plots just about from start to finish. Phantasy Star 3 is the gaming equivalent to self-mutilation, while the rest of the series is engaging and original. Wild Arms 3 is a great game in the midst of a series of sorta-kinda-maybe-okay-perhaps-I-guess RPGs. And of course, the Final Fantasy series has its games going all across the board--horrible, incredible, and everything inbetween.

But I don't think I've ever seen quite as stark a contrast between 2 related games as with Lufia and the Fotress of Doom and Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals (1 and 2, respectively). Now, true, I think there is actually one example with an even wider gap in actual game quality, that being the horrendous Grandia 3 when compared to Grandia 1 and 2, but the difference between the Lufias still seems the most pronounced to me.

First of all, the second game just looks and feels a LOT more crisp and clean. Everything is more defined, the general gameplay is a little more streamlined and fast, the music seems to have more effort put into it, and the battle system, while still a far cry from "fun," is at least not nearly so dull, repetitive, sloppy, and demonically frustrating as Lufia 1's. With Lufia 1, the bosses were so stupidly hard that you could not possibly avoid long level-whoring sessions about half a dozen times or more through the game. With Lufia 2, everything is set up efficiently--as long as you battle and kill most or all of the enemies you encounter while just progressing through dungeons and such normally, you should just about always be strong enough to take on the next boss (though there usually is still a decent challenge involved, but that's a good thing). With the exception of optional bosses, like Gades the first time around or the Egg Dragon, I can't think of any point in the game where you're forced to spend hours seeking out random monsters (who in Lufia 1 would often be tough enough to kill you themselves anyway) just to struggle your way to a few extra levels so you can withstand your next boss encounter.

But of course, this isn't something too shocking. I mean, a sequel cleaning up the general grubbiness of the original game is nothing new to video games. What really sets them apart are the plot and characters.

Now, the plot for Lufia 1 basically goes as follows: Unnamed Hero (for this rant, we shall refer to him by the name of Turd) sets out to stop superbeings (Sinistrals) from taking over planet, helped by his magically-inclined petal-plucking obsessive-compulsive tea-making girlfriend Lufia. They do nice things and join up with both canon-fodder (Aguro) and the pedo-tastic half-elf half-Lolita Jerin. Eventually Lufia remembers she's Erim, a bad guy. Later she decides not to be. They kill the Sinistrals and save the world. Lufia has to make some sort of sacrifice, but it apparently only actually involves giving up all her memories besides those of how to make a mean cup of darjeeling. But that's okay, Turd is perfectly willing to settle for a witless girlfriend; surely those memories will grow back someday, like a cancer, right? And if they don't, it's not like he had to work very hard to win her infatuation the first time anyway.

So it's your basic cookie-cutter save-the-world deal with a small additional subplot of a cookie-cutter anime guy-falls-in-love-with-amnesiac-girl-who's-forgotten-that-she's-Satan romance. Neither something new nor interesting.

Lufia 2, on the other hand, adds a little more flavor to your gaming experience. Now, yes, it's still a save-the-world game as before, with the same grumpy deities taking the villain's position. This time around, however, the game adds a little flavor to the plot, making it a more epic battle of not between good and evil, but also free will and destiny, Man against God, that sort of neat philosophical thing. Everything about the game’s events just feels a lot more like a legendary quest of heroism and virtue. Not to mention that the romantic subplot this time around is much, much better, not only in simple terms of the characters interacting better, but also in showing a glimpse at a relationship AFTER the characters hook up, through marriage and childbirth--quite a rarity in an RPG. It’s solid and a welcome way to watch the characters grow and develop.

Speaking of which, the characters also really set the second game apart from the first just as much as the plot. Where Lufia 1 gives you a cast rank with uninteresting mediocrity, Lufia 2 gives you a cast of realistic, unique individuals teaming up for the greater good and actually interacting with each other as friends and sometimes rivals. They’ve all got good personality traits that set them apart from your average breed of questing bums, be it Dekar’s goofy attitude, Selan’s faithful strength, or even just Maxim’s ability to have fun while adventuring without losing his overall serious and strong demeanor. They’re all good characters, and they mesh well with the story, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

So in just about all ways, Lufia 2 is greatly superior to Lufia 1. But what really makes the gap so memorable to me is the length that Lufia 2 goes to in order to connect itself flawlessly to the first game as a prequel. It’s not just a case of one sequel doing its own thing and kinda sorta trying to tie itself to the previous game enough to call itself a sequel, like with Chrono Cross, nor is it just a game in the series completely separate from the previous one(s), like Grandia 3. Lufia 2 plants itself firmly in the same place and timeline as the first game, and actually defines its world, explaining the origins and expanding the knowledge of a ton of details from Lufia 1, from giving a little more explanation to the Sinistrals’ existence, to showing the origins of the flower that Lufia loves so much, to better understanding the nature of the legendary Dual Blade. Lufia 2 does such a complete job of setting up even minute details of its predecessor that it’s almost even worth it to play Lufia 1 just to see all the big and little connections. That, I think, is what really makes these 2 games stand out as being so different from one another--the fact that they’re so strongly connected, with more care than nearly any other RPG series you can find.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Breath of Fire 3's Plot

With the summer comes a lack of time spent wondering how to spend it whilst sitting in a college computer lab inbetween classes, and thus, I'm gonna cut my rants back to just Mondays for the season. Yes, yes, I'm sure you're all devastated.

Anyways. I've always been a big fan of the Breath of Fire series--bigger than the good-but-not-fantastic series might warrent, even. One thing I've heard from a lot of people who've played some/most/all of the series, though, is that BoF3 is the low point of it. This is simply just not true. (Spoilers ahead, like, of the whole game).

Now, I can understand where this comes from. People I've encountered largely criticize it as seeming pointless, a long adventure without any satisfying aim or conclusion. The reason for this is that Breath of Fire 3 isn't your standard, shallow save-the-world deal. It's not a typical world-spanning quest ending with a climactic showdown with whatever mentally-imbalanced villain with unspeakably destructive powers is threatening the planet/universe for reasons one can only describe as "stupid." In fact, the conclusion of the game has your actions putting the planet's people in more jeopardy than ever, because you choose to kill the goddess who holds a slowly spreading, all-engulfing desert at bay, giving it no obstacle to continue its expansion into the last untouched continent of the planet, where almost all of the world's civilzation is gathered.

The problem is that people don't approach the game with an open mind. They go into the game expecting what they do from almost all RPGs--an eventual happy ending with the world safe and sound and evil banished forever, with several aspects of human nature and interaction having been examined along the way. Well, with Breath of Fire 3, the philosophy IS the plot. The whole quest is just a series of events and characters that all build up to the moment at the end when you confront the goddess who watches over the world, protecting it from the danger of the desert, but stinting its growth and freedom. This moment, in which the main character Ryu must choose whether or not he'll submit to the goddess and allow her to keep coddling the world's people and restricting their advancement, or trust in the determination and strength of the world's people and strike her down to free them to live life as it should be lived--with freedom and choice, even if having those important qualities brings danger, is the defining point of the game, everything it's built up to. It's not MEANT to be a climactic battle showing that Good will overcome Evil. What it's meant to be is a moment showing that despite the dangers and hardships that come with it, people need to have their freedom to live as they wish to, without a parental entity holding them back to protect them from the harsh realities of the world. It's an excellent and thought-provoking message of hope, freedom, and individualism all wrapped into one, but it nonetheless does mean an ending of uncertainty rather than happy security, and that's just not what most people expect from a video game. It's certainly not an inferior method, but if you can't appreciate this original twist on RPG story-telling, then the game will, indeed, seem as empty and disappointing as its detractors claim.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Lufia 1's Characters

Yes, it's once again time for a review of one game's terribly stupid cast. Not that the rest of the game isn't equally stupid or worse.

Unnamed Protagonist: This hero is one of those annoying sorts who doesn't canonically have any name that I'm aware of, so there's really no way of easily referring to him. I myself named him Maxim like his heroic grandfather (the hero of Lufia 2), but that ended up being kinda confusing later on as I tried to distinguish which Maxim was being referred to when people discussed the virtues of granddaddy Maxim to his unnamed descendant.

However, I have to concede the possibility that not naming this guy was INTENTIONAL on the part of Lufia 1's creators, because they may have realized that a complete lack of any defining name would reflect his complete lack of any defining characteristics. As a character, he can be likened largely to a sack of wet sawdust. No personality whatsoever beyond "dur were is evilz i gotta killz0rz it!!" and "OMG GOTTA SAVE MY LOVE INTEREST."

Lufia: Certainly the high point of the cast, though not really by her own doing. Lufia, as herself, is about as devoid of interesting qualities as this game's hero. You ever see that Red Versus Blue episode where Church and Tex are in Caboose's head, and see Caboose's impression of what a girl is like, saying crap like "I like pretty pretty dresses!" and such? This is generally the impression you get of Lufia. Her joys in life are pretty pretty flowers! And making cinnamon tea for her protagonist boyfriend, who barely seems to acknowledge her existence until she's gone for a while! Half the time she's talking I expect a girlish titter to escape into the dialogue box.

Of course, what makes her interesting is that she's also the Sinistral Erim, who has always kicked ass, but it doesn't really last for long before her overwhelming desire to make flower crowns and various kinds of tea overcome her dark instincts and she comes back to her annoying self.

Aguro: Aguro is the very essence of a Grunt. His entire purpose in the game seems to be being a second physical attacker (and by attacker, I mean, he can Attack, and do NOTHING else), and to be a person in the party who is not the hero or Lufia to add important, insightful grunts.

Jerin: Jerin is a half-elf who looks and acts just like a child and may in fact BE a child (it's hard to tell given elves' longevity) who really really wants to get her lolicon freak on with the hero.

Amon, Daos, and Gades: These three evil superbeings known as Sinistrals are, um, evil, and, uh, they want to take over the world, and do bad things. That's about it. Oh yeah, and at the end of the game, they all mash together in order to form...SUPER MEGA MUTANT VOLTRON SINISTRAL! You see, somehow, when you combine 3 godlike evil dudes, who are 2 warriorish-looking jerks in armor and 1 guy in a robe, you get what looks like Lavos's spleen. Really, someone please explain the following equation to me:

Amon + Daos + Gades = Michael Jackson
Because I'm not quite seeing how it works.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Bahamut Lagoon's Love Triangle

I've been a pretty cantankerous RPG grump lately, so let's mix it up with another positive rant. And of course, as always, spoilers abound. I mean, I don't usually even bother putting that up these days, but sometimes I spoil so much of a game that I feel that I really HAVE to.

I don't expect too many of you are familiar with one of Square's more obscure old RPGs, Bahamut Lagoon, so here's a sum-up: A Silent Protagonist (God how I hate them) leads a small army of warriors, including Metallite, the original Adelbert Steiner, to save his world against the plots of an evil emperor and the encroachment of an usurper dragon god. Said world in need of protection is made up of large masses of land that float high, high in the sky, forming a world of aerial islands (and you thought Skies of Arcadia had that idea first).

So, yeah, history lesson done with. The game's definitely interesting and fun in its own right, with many deep, dynamic characters, an engaging and interesting plot, and a good share of goofy fun (Donfan is the most awesome RPG smoove operator lady-chaser EVER). But probably the most interesting and original aspect of it, to me, is its romantic subplot.

Now, before I begin, lemme just make a disclaimer here. A lot of this is gonna be based on my personal interpretation of the main character, Byuu, because, being the ever-irritating Silent Protagonist that he is, one has to piece his personality together out of actions, yes/no questions, and general demeanor rather than actual dialogue and monologue, meaning there's plenty of room for interpretation. But as we all know, my interpretation is always right anyways, so let's begin.

Now, at first, the love triangle of this game seems familiar to the point of stupid cliche--protagonist (Byuu) loves girl, antagonist (Palpaleos) loves girl, and girl (Yoyo--no, seriously, that really is her name) is caught in the middle of them. Antagonist turns out to be not that bad a guy after a little while, just to be on the wrong side. Byuu spent his childhood with Yoyo, and in their childish innocence, they went through a little ceremony promising to always be together (on this note, SquareEnix would later plagiarize itself in Kingdom Hearts 1). Palpaleos spent a few years later on getting to know and love Yoyo as she was a well-treated prisoner of his emperor's.

Now, here's where Bahamut Lagoon suddenly turns around and throws you for a loop: Byuu, the hero, loses. The hero of the game does NOT get the girl he loves. During her forced stay under the care of Palpaleos and his country, Yoyo falls in love with him (one can most likely attribute this largely to Stockholm Syndrome, which adds another very unique and intriguing dimension to the romantic story), and stays in love with him throughout the game. Byuu, however, still loves her as well, and his childhood memories with her hang heavily in his mind.

This whole triangle is carried out VERY well overall--it's not some stupid soap opera with feuds and jealousy, but rather a simple bittersweet affair. Byuu holds no grudges, and neither he nor Palpaleos battle one another out of jealousy or try to aggressively win/keep Yoyo's heart.

It's a story of having regrets that the world changed them as people, and that they had to move on from who they were to who they had become. Very poignant, and considering how easy it would have been to make it some violent, shallow affair that you could see on ABC during the daytime, I can really appreciate it. The closest I can think of to ever having seen a relationship ending up like this would be Final Fantasy 6's Terra's brief interest in Locke, but even she admits later that it wasn't substantial. I really enjoy and appreciate this game for taking a real stab at a new and intriguing angle to the tired love triangle.

Friday, May 5, 2006

The Final Fantasy Series's Ara-Aga

You know what I miss about the old days of Final Fantasy? Besides the fact that Square hadn't yet discovered that they could make money without trying to give the player quality, I mean. Although, then again, I can't see them spending significantly more effort in making that crap heap FF5 than they did on FF10-2. So I guess they've always known that they could be lazy and make a profit off of any poorly-written swill they slap a Final Fantasy name on.

But what I REALLY miss about the old days was that spell names made some fucking SENSE. First of all, of course, there's the fact that lightning spells were called Bolt, as in, bolt of lightning, instead of Thunder, as in, the sound that lightning discharges make that have nothing to do with the lightning itself. And for that matter, spells involving ice were called Ice, instead of Blizzard, which doesn't make all that much sense since the spell typically involves hitting a foe with/encasing a foe in a big block of ice or something. Last time I checked, blizzards were snowstorms, involving a lot of wind, a lot of cold, and a lot of snow. Not really just a big chunk of ice materializing around you.

Square's complete and total ineptitude with meteorological terms aside, though, what I miss about the old spell names was that they were reasonable. You had Fire 1. Fire 2. Fire 3. Fire 4, in FF Tactics. The numbers denoted the power of the spell. It's a working, functional system, right? I mean, it's not fantastically creative--other RPGs might actually name their increasing spells differently to show their strength, where Fire 1 would be called something like Single Match, progressing up to Fire 3's equivalent, 5000 Volcano Explosions While In The Center Of The Sun, or something. But the numbers WORK. They make some SENSE.

Nowadays, we have Ara and Aga. Want to cast Fire 3? Too bad! Instead, you get to cast Firaga! Wanna cast Bolt 2? No dice; you're gonna have to make like Liono and start yelling about Thundara (seriously, now, I can't be the only one who gets a Thundercats rush when I see that spell name, can I?). I mean, where does it even COME from? How does adding an ara at the end of Blizzard suddenly make it a more powerful ice spell? No, really, if you were to look at the spells Firaga, Fire, and Fira, what sort of reasoning would bring you to the conclusion that Firaga is the best of them? I mean, hell, if I were asked which one I thought sounded the most powerful, I'd say Fire, because it's an actual word and doesn't sound as much like something a toddler would gurgle whilst drooling gobs of sour-milk spittle all over his stale, crusty bib as Firaga does.

I miss the happy golden days of numbers. They made sense and they worked. And since Square has not started naming its games Final Fantasara and Final Fantasaga, it can still clearly see the benefits of them. So for heaven's sake, Square, stop monkeying around and bring back the days when your spells were something other than nonsensical moron-babble.