Monday, January 24, 2011

Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch

I'll admit that I know just about nothing about Independent Games (Indie Games). I know they're popping up more and more, games made by a few people outside of any "normal" game company, but that's about all I know about them. I don't know whether they're successful, how they're distributed in general, their general quality, or anything else. I'm an RPG guy, and I know precious little about current trends in any other genre of gaming.* And frankly, there really aren't any indie RPGs out there, save for MMORPGs, which is a division of RPGs that I've been mentally steeling myself to take on for years now, and am still a ways away from being ready for. So as there's precious little to play for an RPG fanatic in the field of RPGs (so far as I'm aware, at least), I don't have much contact with indie games.

My good man Angahith, however, alerted me a month or so ago to a relatively new RPG being released via download, produced independently and sold cheaply: Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch. After seeing this preview for it, I was naturally intrigued:

I've played the game now from start to finish, and found it quite enjoyable. Normally I don't make a whole rant for every game I like, but I figure this one could use a little publicity.**

So, as you can probably tell from that preview video, MLRotB is very...different. Basically, imagine that the internet as a whole decided to make a parody of your standard JRPG, and you have this game. You'll alternate between jokes about silly RPG conventions and jokes about the internet, with a liberal sprinkling of real-world events and people being parodied.

It works very well in entertaining the player. The jokes about RPG mechanics are clever and amusing, such as protagonist Mark refusing after a battle to accept blame for hitting his companion in battle because it was a counterattack, which is automatic and beyond his control. The internet jokes are fun as well, such as reading a Christian-esque religion's Adam and Eve story told with online terms and chatspeak, or Mark interrupting his king's speech with a bit of trolling. And I quite enjoy many of the jokes with real-world people and events as their subjects, such as a battle in Greenspan's bank where, after throwing all your money at an opaque bubble that you know nothing about, it bursts, and reveals a robot named Goldman Sex, which, having taken all their money, violates your investors' dignity by attacking them with his pelvis. There's also a fair bit of things that are just downright goofy, like Siren enemies (which actually look more like Harpies, but that's a quibbling detail) that have actual police sirens implanted in their heads whose strongest attack summons a police car that drives through your party.

Beyond the parody aspects, though, there's also a fairly basic comical nature to the game in its own right. Taking away all the satire from the game, you've got a story of a lazy, annoyed protagonist who doesn't actually want to be doing any of this questing having to babysit a party of characters who are genuine in their desire to save the world. This "disrespectful, wise-cracking douchebag gets caught up in grand adventure entirely against his will" has been done before, of course, both very poorly (Final Fantasy 8) and very well (Grandia 2), but this is probably the first RPG I've seen where that idea is used for the purposes of comedy instead of just a serious story, and it certainly works. Just seeing the interactions between the apathetic Mark and the obliviously well-meaning Ines and Elsie can be funny in its own right. In fact, come to think of it, it now seems odd that the other RPGs I've seen with this dynamic of the uncaring jerk hero surrounded with people who want to save the world have all been serious. I mean, wouldn't you think that kind of set up would more naturally lend itself to comedy?

The cut scenes are quite neat in this game, too. Rather than your typical FMV sequences that Square made an RPG standard with Final Fantasy 7, or clips of anime like you'll see in Tales of the Abyss or a remake of Chrono Trigger, MLRotB uses live action video, with actors playing out the scenes dressed as the characters. It's amateur, but that makes it no less fun--in fact, it fits the feel of the game far better than any of the more "professional" types of cut scenes would. Hell, I don't think any FMV or anime or whatever could possibly have been as great during the first scene that we see a loltroll in the game.

The cut scenes also have their style of comedy beyond the game's core satire, I should point out--some of the jokes, physical humor, speech, and timing remind me lighthearted scenes from 80s and 90s dubbed Chinese films, like one of Jackie Chan's comical kung fu movies.

I suppose I should mention the non-writing-related good qualities, too, if I'm going to be thorough about this. The game looks nice enough, the sound effects are decent, and while the acting and voice acting wouldn't win awards, they're fairly good, and you can tell that several of the live actors are enthusiastic about their role, which is good. The battle system is set up well enough, with characters having distinct roles in battle due to their stats and specializations, but also providing some options for the player to customize certain details of each character's battle presence. There are some decent checks and balances in there to keep the most powerful moves from being used all the time and the least powerful abilities still useful even by the game's end, and several of the most handy passive abilities are ones that influence your strategy more than just make a character do more damage. Mr. Leung has also stated in the past that he's fairly proud of his creation of the Combat Skater class, and it IS a rather interesting physical attack support class, one which fills out an RPG party very nicely by having less usefulness against bosses than an outright Fighter class, but much more effective application against regular enemy encounters than a regular Fighter does.

Now of course, the game's not perfect, and I do have some grievances. The first and worst is that sometimes it just plain goes too far in its joking. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, and yes, the game is SUPPOSED to poke fun at one's sensibilities, as that's what the internet does in general, but I feel that there's a limit and that it goes over it at times. The item used in the game to defeat the loltrolls is kind of in bad taste, for example, and I really can't approve of the joke regarding enemy mages (black mages are actually black, while white mages are...dressed up like the KKK) at all. I'm willing to forgive a lot of stuff that makes me slightly uncomfortable--most of the normal enemies in the game are cute animals we traditionally think of as harmless, and it bothers me a bit to be destroying them all, but I get the joke there (that this is basically what EVERY RPG hero does: go around killing innocent wildlife that usually poses no actual threat to him/her), and it's a funny jab at RPG convention, so I laugh and keep going. But the game DOES go too far with its jokes on occasion, and that does sour it for me a bit.

Also, the joke quest early in the game regarding organic food...well, it's not offensive, really, but it DOES make me wonder if Mr. Leung actually knows anything at all about organic produce.

The actual gameplay does have some problems. First of all, the game is pretty buggy. But it's not nearly as buggy as a lot of published PC RPGs out there by big-name companies--Fallout 3 had to be 5 times as full of programming errors as MLRotB, to say nothing of Fallout: New Vegas--so I don't know how much you can really hold it against the game. It works overall, and that's what matters. Fallout: New Vegas certainly couldn't claim that for a while.

I'm not a fan of some of the mechanics of the game--first of all, the options for key mapping are strange, and until you get used to them from playing for a bit, seem uncomfortable. I don't really see why players couldn't set the keys themselves. Also, the actual process of encountering an enemy...well, it's not BAD, but besides some boss encounters, every battle is going to begin with either you or the enemy getting a preemptive strike. It works like so:

On the field, you hit an enemy: Battle starts with you getting first strike.
On the field, enemy touches you: Battle starts with enemy getting first strike.

It would have worked much better like this:

You hit an enemy: You get first strike.
Enemy touches you from the back: Enemy gets first strike.
Enemy touches you from the front: Neither side gets first strike; battle begins according to regular determination of turn order based on stats.

Lastly, the music is pretty bland overall. It gets the job done, but only barely, and there's nothing memorable in there.

These criticisms aside, however, this game is very fun, very clever, and will appeal to just about anyone who isn't a total stick in the mud, particularly fans of RPGs, and fans of 4chan. From vegetable-based Scientology parodies to a fast-food themed boss attack so epic and devastating that it shames FF7's Sephiroth's spell that destroys the whole solar system, this game's a barrel of laughs, and well worth looking into. It's also a pretty good deal--about 20 hours of gameplay for $13. As near as I can figure, your standard RPG has a ratio of $1 per hour spent on it, with some games having ratios that are a bit better (Fallout 3) and some having ratios that are way, way worse (Dragon Age: Awakening expansion). But in general, the dollar per hour ratio seems to hold true for the RPGs I play. So for the time you'll spend on this title, the price is quite reasonable.

You can purchase the game here. If you're looking for a good couple laughs, try Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch out. If you're interested in supporting indie games, particularly of the rare RPG persuasion, try MLRotB out. And if you're annoyed with any of the following and would like a chance to beat the tar out of them, try this game out: loltrolls, McDonald's, Jack Thompson, bees, Scientology. It ain't perfect, but it's a solid humor RPG, and it doesn't outright insult your intelligence, so it's at least more deserving of your cash than most of SquareEnix's titles, and cheaper to boot. I'm hoping this title turns out to be a decent success, because it's funny enough and had enough effort put into it that it deserves to--and because I totally want to see a continuation.

* Hell, I'm not exactly up to date on most RPG news items, either.

** Of course, so few people read this blog that even calling this rant a "little" publicity is probably exaggerating it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

General RPGs From Japan

One of my very earliest rants in this blog was a defense of Western RPGs, which I at the time assumed (wrongly) were almost all made by the US (Canada, Australia, and several European countries also figure strongly into the development pool of RPGs made outside of Japan). I had heard (and have continued to hear) many RPG players speak poorly of Western RPGs in comparison to Japanese RPGs, even though I had played many very good RPGs made by Western companies. I've played many since that were as good or better, too.

But the needless negative attitude can go both ways, and I've certainly seen a lot of people being unfairly critical of Japanese RPGs (often called JRPGs). So today I'm batting for the other team.*

The major problem I see people having with JRPGs like Chrono Trigger or the Final Fantasy series is the typically linear style of plot development and the concrete character personalities. This goes way back to the beginning foundations of video game RPGs. See, the genre is called "Role Playing Games" because it started out as simplistic video games that mimicked the playing style of table-top RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Table-top RPGs' fundamental vehicle for developing their adventures and characters is the player's imagination--adventures, towns, dungeons, and so on are planned out and put forth by one player who has been agreed will run the game, and the physical traits, actions, speech, and mentality of the main characters are determined by each player. Basically, your character does what you want him/her/it to do, within the game's small limitations.

Early Western RPGs tried to emulate this, making games giving the player as much freedom as could be given. The simplistic plots weren't terribly linear in general, the player could determine their character's traits and determine what the character said and how they reacted to some situations, and the characters' abilities and effectiveness were determined using numerical stats and levels. As time has gone on, Western RPGs have kept trying to keep most of this true. While more constrained than they once were, RPGs like Mass Effect 1 and Fallout 3 allow you to determine what your character looks like, what they can do, and how their skills grow as they go about their adventures. Many Western RPGs like Risen and Dragon Age 1 are still mostly non-linear and open-ended...certain plot events have to happen before others, but just as often the player is given an opportunity to choose what parts of the plot to do when, and how far they want to go exploring. Though more restricted than they once were, RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Planescape: Torment have protagonists whose personalities and character traits are malleable, determined by what the player decides they will say and do. It's not always perfect--the protagonist of Risen, for example, is kind of the same guy regardless of what actions he takes--but a Western RPG will usually live up to the idea of a Role Playing Game--you're controlling a character the way you want to; you're playing their role. You and he are more or less joined as one.**

JRPGs...well, they just don't really do this, as a rule. Back in the 80s, Japanese game companies seem to have looked at the Western RPGs of the time, and hastily come to the conclusion that RPGs had a single defining characteristic: numerical stat-based characters and enemies. I'll grant you that the earlier JRPGs were often not as restricting as they could have been--Final Fantasy 1's main characters didn't really have any character development, and The Legend of Zelda 1 put a strong emphasis on exploration, allowing some non-linear freedom in what you could do when.

But as JRPGs grew and developed, worldly freedom more or less got wiped out--and a silent protagonist really isn't the same as a protagonist you mold to your preference, anyway. By the early days of the SNES, JRPGs were very linear, with plot events that had a very specific order, limited world exploration, and often clearly-defined protagonists. And that's pretty much how they've stayed to the present day. A typical JRPG's plot points take place in a clearly defined sequence of events, and contain a protagonist (or protagonists) whose actions and dialogue are more or less set in stone--the player doesn't get to choose what to do, only ensure that it's done. There are some exceptions--the Shin Megami Tensei games, for example, usually allow you to determine what in-game faction and/or philosophy the main character will support through some dialogue choices as the game's events transpire--but generally, JRPGs are too concrete in their creative aspects to be considered true Role Playing Games.

This is, incidentally, why I find people's complaints about Final Fantasy 13's being too linear somewhat amusing--they seem to think that the other games weren't, when they almost all (FF Crystal Chronicles perhaps being excepted) have been mostly linear. In a comparison of its linear increase to its peers, it's only a little bigger.***

So yes, I can admit that Japanese RPGs perhaps should not really be called RPGs. Literally speaking, "Role Playing Game" really doesn't apply any more to most JRPGs than it does to, say, a Metal Gear Solid game, or a Mario title. Hell, you could make a case that most Racing games are closer to "real" RPGs than a lot of JRPGs (a friend of mine once did so, fairly convincingly). By this point, it's way too late to come up with a new term for the genre, though, and JRPGs already have such a vague set of defining criteria that trying to rename their game type would be an utter mess.**** So, RPGs they are, even if RPGs they aren't.

The thing about all this is, though, that just because they don't necessarily live up to the original spirit of Role Playing Games, that's not a BAD thing. Rigid story progression in JRPGs can give a plot clear enough progression to benefit it; there are plenty of great stories out there that really could not be told without a specific sequence. Grandia 2, for example, is very clearly laid-out from start to finish in what order its plot's events go in, and it couldn't be effectively told otherwise, and it's one of the greatest RPG plots out there. A pre-made, unalterable protagonist whose actions and dialogue are defined by him/herself rather than by the player can be a VERY strong virtue to a game, which most Western RPGs aren't going to have. Virginia from Wild Arms 3, for example, is a marvelous main character, a fresh, creative personality with depth, realism, and great appeal. She could never work as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventurer protagonist, because almost the entirety of what makes her so great is the specific ways that she reacts to, interacts with, and progresses through the plot and its various characters. Western RPGs' freedom can still get you fantastic plots, of course--the Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic series have great ones, I love Mass Effect's sci-fi story, and Planescape: Torment's plot is one of the greatest ever conceived in a video game--but many, in fact most, of the best stories I've seen in RPGs are ones that play themselves out without significant influence from the player. Suikoden 2, Chrono Trigger, Grandia 2, several Final Fantasies, Disgaea 1, Mother 3, Terranigma, Makai Kingdom, the large majority of Shin Megami Tensei games, and so many more JRPGs have wonderful stories to tell that I wouldn't ever trade just for the opportunity to have greater direction in them.

You can say that JRPGs aren't "true" RPGs. And I more or less agree. But they have so much intellectual greatness to offer in their constrained capacity that there's no shame in that.

* Sounds gayer than it is.

** Also sounds gayer than it is.

*** Yes, this sounds gayer than it is, too.

**** This doesn't actually sound gay...but it is.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker AMV: The Cinematic Experience

Well here's a rare treat: an AMV artist making a return to this rant blog. Yes, the creator of today's AMV is Roynerer, who also made the last AMV highlighted in this rant column, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: The Cinematic Experience. Today's selection has a similar founding idea behind it, but a fairly different mood to its music, visuals, and scene selection keeps it fresh and interesting for us. So, with the customary SPOILER ALERT mentioned, let's take a look-see, shall we?

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: The Cinematic Experience:

Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm Ready for my Close-Up: The game's visuals are aesthetically pleasing in their trademark combination of cartoonish style, cel-shading, and eye-catching color. The quality of the video footage is good, nothing bad nor amazing that I noticed.

As with Roynerer's last AMV, the visual artistry is simple, but exemplary. There's a fade or 2 that are nicely placed, connecting the scenes on either side of them fairly well, but the real subtle elegance can be seen at moments such as 4:11 to 4:13, where Link's swirling in the air fades into a picture of clouds circling a towering mountain peak, and 4:49 to 4:52, where a spinning fairy is followed by a spinning bird. The AMV is basically using different parts of its footage--its very colorful and visually appealing footage--to connect scenes in an attention-capturing way here, and it's quite neat.

Most importantly, though, is just the fact that the scene selection here is very good overall. Unlike the last AMV I looked at by Roynerer, this one is less about emotionally telling the game's story in a linear way than it is about giving a grand summary of the game, much like the Final Fantasy 9 Porcelain AMV did that I reviewed a little ways back. At the same time, though, there IS a certain linearity and story-telling method to the AMV, for it starts and ends with the same beginning and conclusion as the game itself--the first few minutes of the AMV show the same legend told at the beginning of the game and also cover the abduction of Aryll, while the last minutes of the video show the final battle with Ganondorf and the departure of Link and Tetra. For these parts, the scene selection is very good, showing what's needed to get the message across in a manner that keeps the attention. I feel that the main body of the AMV is also notable in its scene selection, though. Granted, with less of a linear tale to tell, Roynerer has an easier task, not having to worry about continued comprehension of scenes and their relation to one another...but the images he's chosen to show the scope, magic, and action of the adventure are very effective, yet not overwhelming as they could have been. This is thanks to the fact that in addition to showing plenty of exciting images of dragons breathing fire and magic light shooting across the landscape and such, the video also has several clips that are more simple and ordinary, such as revolving shots of the islands Link visits in the game, or some kids walking along. Also, I should note that even if it's not as cohesive a sequence as that of the previous Zelda AMV, the locations and stuff shown in this video's adventure-summarizing center does actually go in the order that the game does for the most part--you see each new location and the stuff that happens there in the same sequence as you would visit it and do it in the game. So really, this AMV is kind of like a nicely linear sequence of events, but at the same time a generalized overview of the game, and both parts of the combination are done well and don't take away from the other.

Your Music's Bad and You Should Feel Bad!: This AMV actually uses music from 3 separate movies' soundtracks: Armageddon, Dinosaur, and Lady in the Water. I can't say I'm very familiar with any of these movies--I've actually never seen Armageddon or Lady in the Water, and it's been many years since I saw Dinosaur. But as an unfamiliar listener, I'd have to say that these music selections are very nice pieces, effective at invoking emotion in several powerful fashions.

The musical part of this AMV is extremely well-done. This is partially because the music itself is, as I just said, quite good. But the far greater part of what makes this AMV terrific is how well the music is utilized. First of all, the music selection for the arcs of the AMV is great. The beginning, which tells of the legend of Hyrule that the game's story starts with, is played to poignant music filled with mysticism, wonder, and a feeling of epic past events that draws you in--in fact, I was far more entranced by the beginning story in this AMV than I was by it in the original game! After this introduction, the music beautifully transitions into a piece that just as perfectly embodies the idea of a grand tale's beginning as the first events of the game are shown in an abridged fashion, and once the adventure's start has been established, the music once again transitions to a more upbeat tune that perfectly embodies the spirit of a long, involved adventure, perfectly accompanying the part of the AMV that paraphrases the main body of the plot for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Eventually, it changes yet again to a strong, epic score to compliment the climactic final battle with Ganondorf that the AMV details. Finally, the AMV concludes to a more quiet, emotional song that embodies the departure of Link and Tetra from the remnants of Hyrule quite well.

In addition to fitting the general mood of each part of the AMV, the music also nearly perfectly fits the details of the AMV, as well, which is always a feat that requires great skill from an AMV creator. Most people will be able to put their AMV to appropriate music in general, some will be able to generally match the music's notes and changes to the events in the video, but rarely do you find an AMV where the creator has done both--rarer still that it's done as well as this one. There are plenty of examples, such as 3:46, where Link crashes into a wall just as the music's beat percussion thingy sounds, and immediately after at 3:48, where Link's splash into the water below is matched to the next drum beat thing in the music. As the music changes to a calmer, more rolling, yet adventurous tune at 3:56, the scene transitions appropriately into the waves of the ocean as Link sails along them. My favorite examples of this perfect cohesion between visual events and the music's notes and emotions is found at 4:30, where the music soars suddenly as a beam of light races from one island totem to the next, crashing into its target as the cymbals crash in the song--such a tiny part of the whole AMV, yet so masterfully done. But these are just a few examples; trust me when I say that the attention to the details of melding visual and audio in this AMV is constant and manifested countless times in the music video's course. And it can be more than just individual notes matching up, too, smaller passages of video and sound where it's not so much the details as the emotion of both the music and video that are in tune. For example, the way the music's climactic conclusion matches to the finale to the battle against Ganondorf from 6:02 to 6:17 is elegantly epic in this way.

Guy, You Explain: This is one of those AMVs that attempt to summarize the game. Interestingly, it's both like the last AMV by Roynerer, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: The Cinematic Experience in that attempts to show the entirety of the game...and yet at the same time, also like most summary AMVs, in that it's more conveying the general idea, the general feel and epic nature of the game, than the entirety of it. What I mean by this is that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: The Cinematic Experience here shows you the beginning of the game, and brings you to the game's concluding events, its final battle and the send-off for Link and Tetra, covering the most important parts of the game, the ones with the most story-telling power. Roynerer brings us in this AMV an adequately detailed depiction of the final chapter in Hyrule's long saga of adventures. But most of the game's events that follow the beginning and lead up to the ending are more or less glossed over in the video's middle, shown in a jumble that doesn't cover all the bits of plot throughout the game that lead to the conclusion. Instead, we get the more typical AMV summary of the game, seeing lots of scenes of people, places, and events that all spell out a theme of colorful, fun adventure, which is what The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was about just as much as all the epic stuff. Both sides to this video's purpose are done very well, and I feel that they're connected very well together, unified as a whole instead of just forced together.

This AMV's not perfect--as good as the beginning of the AMV is, which describes the opening legend of the game, it's pretty long, taking up almost 3 minutes of an 8 minute video--that's a little too long for an AMV just to have you staring at murals, honestly. But on the other hand, I couldn't really say how this could be fixed--the sequence is too integral to the idea of the AMV, and too well-made, to speed it up, or cut it out of the AMV altogether. So it's not a fault I feel should be significantly held against this work.

And other than that flaw, I can't really find anything else wrong with this. It is, from start to finish, epic, elegant, skillfully made, powerful, fun, colorful, and absolutely great to watch--and in having all these qualities, it embodies its game perfectly. Roynerer has told me in correspondence that he takes pride in his work, and the skill, creativity, and enthusiasm evident in this AMV both attests to this, and proves that he has a right to that pride.