Thursday, October 30, 2008

Okage: Shadow King's Humor

Okage: Shadow King is an absolutely delightful, very obscure RPG that looks and behaves something that Tim Burton might come up with while tripping on LSD. Despite having tortuously boring dungeons that focus almost exclusively on a mind-numbingly repetitive battle system, it has an unique sense of fun that makes just about everyone who plays it love it.

What OSK is most known for is its bizarre and zany humor. It's silly through and through, filled with crazy hilarity that more or less stays consistent through to the end. To give you an idea of this, here's how the game opens up: Ari, the main character, finds himself having to leave his village to go on a journey to beat up creatures known as Evil Kings at the demand Lord Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV, a selfish and short-tempered spirit who has possessed Ari and is currently inhabiting Ari's shadow, who wants to gain their power for himself. Ari, who got into this mess after his family pressured him into selling his soul to Stan in order to save his sister from an embarrassing curse that caused her to only speak in Pig Latin, has to go along with this on the hope that raising Stan to the state of the legendary Great Evil King Gohma, who Stan makes completely unfounded claims of being a reincarnation of, will give Stan the means to create a body of his own, so he can leave poor Ari's shadow alone and stop harassing him.

The game goes on largely in this vein of amusing oddness, with incredibly silly situations, crazy characters, and funny dialog that guarantees enjoyment throughout the game's entirety. It's such a wacky, fun time that you almost don't realize as the game reaches its later stages that you're also experiencing a deep and thought-provoking plot.

This is what separates Okage: Shadow King from other Humor RPGs such as Super Mario RPG and Earthbound, among others, to me. The games of this sadly rare category are all marvelously fun RPGs that appeal to just about anyone who's not too self-important and anal to have a sense of humor, making them often universally loved, but I'd say that OSK is the only one I've encountered that's an all-out humor adventure that has true meaning to impart on the player. Not that it's surprising that such a thing would be a rarity--it's not often we see a product completely devoted to humor that also has something there to make us really think and consider it. I may absolutely love comedy movies like Space Balls and Ghostbusters, and comedy TV shows like Freakazoid and Mystery Science Theater 3000, but when I watch such things that are built around tickling the audience's funny bone, I don't expect to see anything that really gets me thinking.

(Not to say that Comedies shouldn't be held to any standards; they still need creativity and intelligent writing, just focused in a different way. Crude, unimaginative shit like Superbad or the Scary Movies that just cycle through 5 low-brow punchlines over and over like a month of 8-Bit Theater strips condensed into 2 hours aren't excused).

This is probably because actually getting some kind of deeper meaning into a comedy product is more than a little difficult. While the occasional or even frequent joke is a nice way to break up tension without distracting the audience from the important plot stuff in your average movie, game, show, or whatever, it's hard to keep an audience's thoughts and emotions captivated with your creation's depth when 80% of your dialog and situations are trying to get them to laugh.

Okage: Shadow King, however, seamlessly blends the serious with the comic--in fact, rather than competing, the comic and serious tones work together in this game. The comedy keeps you immediately interested and entertained, while softening the drama of the plot and allowing you to experience and appreciate the serious events and themes without becoming mired in them. You'll be chuckling at the silliness even while seeing themes of individuality, independence, and Man Vs. God explored in as interesting and worthwhile a way as any other RPG--in fact, OSK does it a sight better than quite a few of its peers. I can only hope that more humor RPGs will take a cue from this one and experiment with mixing in some deeper meanings to their joke-laced stories, because it can really result in something nifty.

Friday, October 3, 2008

General RPGs' Combined Gameplay

For the most part, RPGs stick to a certain kind of battle system adamantly. I pretty much divide these up into 3 separate types: Action, Regular, and Tactical. Regular battle systems are what RPG players are probably most familiar with--the menu-surfing standard made almost synonymous with the genre by the infamous Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. Action RPGs are practically the exact opposite, having you actually PLAY the game rather than select commands and hit a Confirm button thousands of times. Although not nearly as common as Regular battle systems, Action battle systems are just about as old to RPGs, with games like Crystalis and The Legend of Zelda series in their early history, and only seem to be getting more common. And then there's the Tactical genre, which has you moving units across maps in predetermined distances of movement, where distances, heights, terrain, and ability side-effects are often the true deciding factors in combat. It's hard to explain, but chances are you've encountered more than one before, and if not, well, I dunno, go on Youtube and find a video of someone playing Final Fantasy Tactics or a Fire Emblem. You'll get the idea pretty quick.

Anyway, RPGs pretty solidly stick to one of these genres, in most cases. An action RPG's gameplay is pretty much never gonna deviate from that battle system, save maybe for the occasional annoying minigame here and there. Outside of of wandering around dungeons, towns, and the map, and playing the previously mentioned annoying minigames, you're not going to be getting much real gameplay in a standard RPG, just hundreds of interruptions where you "battle" enemies with menu choices. There's really not a lot of attempts in the RPG world at mixing up the systems themselves, only at adding features and innovations to the existing ones, which often just ends up making them needlessly complicated (the actual, real world is not as complex in its laws and natural balances as Star Ocean 2 and 3's battle systems are) and/or silly (Final Fantasy 12's requiring experience to equip a better suit of armor than they currently have clearance for, even though the skill to put it on would have already had to have been mastered for them to wear the currently-equipped clothing).

However, there IS a certain innovation that I'm fond of that happens on very rare occasions: the use of TWO (or even all three) of the battle systems in a single game. No, I'm not talking about just the fact that you can (and really do have to quite often) open up a menu during an Action battle to give commands, like in the Tales of series or something. I mean real, distinctly different battle systems being used at different times.

The earliest game I know of that did this was the good old NES title, The Magic of Scheherazade. Now, I admit, I am very, very fond of this old treasure, and nostalgia plays a great part in that--I consciously know it's only a fairly good RPG, but darned if I don't just love it to pieces. TMS was pretty unique, though, in that it employed both an Action battle system, AND a regular Menu one. You travel from one screen area to another (just like The Legend of Zelda 1), and on each screen you can encounter enemies that you have to fight off by actively controlling your character and having him move and attack. But, each time you move from one screen to another, there's a chance of you getting attacked, Random Encounter-style, and having to fight an enemy party in a standard (if extremely simple) menu battle. It's neat, the way it's separated, and it breaks up the gameplay a bit so it's not all just the same thing over and over again.

Of course, the most famous example of this combination of RPG genres would probably be the Suikoden series (the numbered ones, at least; Suikoden Tactics predictably only features Tactical combat). Suikoden games primarily employ your standard, menu-based battle system for most of their battles; however, in each game there are many times when you have to win a round of Strategy combat. Though the tactical battles are usually not as complex or developed as the regular ones are (the first Suikoden's strategical warfare is only a few steps up from Rock Paper Scissors), it's a great break that works very closely with the game's plot to help you get drawn into the game's events. In addition, the series has one-on-one battles that actually qualify as an entirely different genre of RPG battling altogether, in my opinion, which further give the player some plot-related variety. It's done very well.

The last game that I can think of immediately that has a combination of gameplay types would be Bahamut Lagoon, for the SNES. I'd also consider it the best example. Battle is a perfect mix between Strategy and Menu battle systems--you move your units across the field and use abilities and terrain just as you would in a regular strategy game, but you can also have a unit personally engage an enemy instead of just attacking on the field. During this personal fight, you get a turn of regular menu combat with your assembled troops. It's all easy, it's all smooth, and it's all connected, yet separated very distinctly. Quite different and innovative.

Of the 3 games/series where I've seen it implemented, all have done it in a way that was overall positive and refreshing. So, really, why don't more companies do it?