Friday, November 25, 2011

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon's Shin's Fate

Despite having a long, RPG mumbo-jumbo type name, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is quite an impressive RPG from Namco, a very artistic work that comports itself with a dignity and style more like a Hayao Miyazaki film than a regular video game. It's like a...poignant, emotionally-driven artistic anime version of Fallout. While I don't find it as amazing as several people do, and it's certainly true that too much of the details and history of the plot are left unexplained or a little too open to interpretation, I do have to say that basically every part of it seems stylistically thoughtful and laden with emotional meaning, and every step of the gamer's journey through the moonlit ruins and haunts left by a gentle apocalypse is an enjoyable one, a significant one. This is a game that grips your hand tenderly as it tells its tale of emotion, and growth, of loneliness and friendship, and you're happy to hear the story.

Oh, except for this one part which is TOTAL FUCKING BULLSHIT.

By necessity, this rant now will contain spoilers for Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. Big ones. So, if you haven't played the game, don't read this.* Go do something else, instead. Watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or read something by Mark Twain. He's better at witty writing than I am, anyway. A lot better.

Alright, so. What is bullshit about FDFRotM? I'll tell you what is bullshit about FDFRotM. What is bullshit about FDFRotM is the fate of Shin. That is 100% bullshit, and it sours the entire ending. And it pisses me off!

Alright, so, quick refresher--Shin is the main villain of FDFRotM. He is, or was in life (he's an artificial intelligence hologram-thing during the game--but since it's patterned exactly after his memories and personality, and planning to again activate the world-ending Glass Cage project, this version of Shin is as legitimate an antagonist entity as if he were the original), a scientist who achieved semi-psychic abilities to read the emotions and thoughts and whatnot of other people, by making himself the first test subject of his research to improve communication through empathy. After losing faith in humanity because of all he heard in the minds of people around him, Shin brought about (or helped bring about--if I recall correctly, it's not exactly stated that he was responsible for the negative effects of Glass Cage, but it's definitely implied that he had a huge hand in the whole fiasco) the quiet apocalypse of the Glass Cage project that left the world almost wholly without human beings. Shin gives up his quest to eliminate the last remnants of the human race at the end of the game when protagonist Seto combats him, and Seto's companion Sai, another ghost left behind from the old world, confesses that she had always secretly loved Shin. This, of course, shows Shin the error of his ways, he gives up on his plan and he and Sai fade away, happy and content thanks to their love for one another. How nice.

How very nice.


I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Namco. Did I just see that right? Did you just give the GENOCIDAL MADMAN who killed over 6 BILLION PEOPLE a HAPPY ENDING? Maybe you missed the part in your own narrative where Shin brought about the END OF CURRENT HUMAN CULTURE. Maybe you forgot that he caused 6 billion people plus to go to sleep and never wake up again. Perhaps you have not quite considered that this fellow eliminated a PLANET'S worth of sapient organisms.

I'm sorry, but come on. Maybe I don't have enough perspective, but I feel like any individual who knowingly and maliciously participates in the extermination of an entire species, one numbering 6 thousand millions, does NOT deserve to get the girl and ride off into the fucking sunset! This is not a minor lapse in judgment. This is not a child's TV show where we're going to smile and encourage Shin because he realizes he made a mistake that was hurtful to others but has now learned his lesson. Big Bird, Lambchops, and Captain Kangaroo are not going to burst into a cute little song about why it's important not to do what Shin did so we all learn a happy little lesson. Twilight Sparkle is not going to dictate a letter that starts with, "Dear Princess Celestia, today I learned that it's not good to condemn everyone everywhere to death." This is a crime against humanity that makes every previous transgression committed, every war crime conceived, look like cute misdemeanors! If your story is going to involve a guy who expunged a sentient species from all existence, there had better be some serious consequences for him! Particularly if they're offset by the reward of a love interest!

And I mean APPROPRIATE consequences, here. Yeah, Shin does die, but look at the way he goes! Happy, content, satisfied! His notion that humanity sucks is proven wrong by a chick saying she digs him--but his mind is only comprehending the "I HAS GIRLFRIEND NOW" part. What it's NOT contemplating is, "Oh shit. I guess I condemned 99.9% of my species to death based on an assumption that was wrong." You do not see a single twitch of regretful conscience from the moment Sai proves him wrong to the moment he disappears in a golden, misleadingly divine light.

My God.'s so unbelievable to me that Shin gets off virtually unpunished. A happy ending for the mass mass MASS murderer!

There are, of course, some extenuating details to this situation that make it even more stupid. Such as Shin's motivation. What was it that caused Shin to do this horrible thing? What unimaginable travesty was committed against him that could bring him to attempt to wipe out the human race? Twice? Get ready to shed some tears, guys: people weren't as nice as they should have been. When Shin became able to hear people's emotions and thoughts and such, he found out that what people think isn't always as nice and socially acceptable as what they say and act like. And so, because the people around him had petty negative thoughts in their heads, Shin decided that humanity was irredeemable and had to be eliminated, too petty to be allowed to live.

Because, y'know, finding out people aren't as nice as you want them to be isn't a petty reason to murder them, or anything.

I've seen versions of this idea a few times, and I have to say, every iteration I've seen has been better than Shin's experience. Take the show Torchwood. In Season 1, an alien chick gives one of the show's characters, Tosh, an artifact thingy that will let Tosh hear the thoughts of those around her. Upon bringing it to work, Tosh finds that her coworkers and friends speak and act nicely enough toward her, but think unpleasant things about her, criticizing her for her interests, her attempts to socialize with them, and even her style of dress. She's shocked and dismayed at finding out the secret vices and petty thoughts of the people around her, and it disorients her, makes her question herself, her place in Torchwood, and her beliefs.** Watching Tosh try to make the best of the situation, seeing her shocked loss of faith in people at knowing what they truly think, it all comes across as very believable. It's done well (one of the few parts of Season 1 that is, in fact). But you know what Tosh never gets around to feeling during her emotional turmoil? The desire to kill all humans. Somehow, her experiences, which for all appearances are extremely similar to Shin's, never cause her to question whether she should take an active part in destroying her species. You know why?

Because she's not a PSYCHOTIC IDIOT and the Torchwood writers were actually making an effort to create a character that could be taken seriously!

So not only is Shin homicidal on a species-wide scale, but he's that way for really stupid, selfish reasons. REALLY stupid ones, when you consider that he was a SCIENTIST who somehow thought that a specialized sample group of, say, 50 people could be trusted to be a completely accurate representation of a population of 6,000,000,000. So not only were his reasons for causing an apocalypse those of a whiny douchebag, but he didn't have any reasonable proof that these pitiful reasons were even ACCURATE.

Here's another thought to compound how stupid this scenario is. The reason Shin gives up on trying to kill everyone again is because he finds out from Sai's ghost that she always loved him. He apparently somehow didn't pick up on it. the hell could a mind-reader miss one of the most intense emotional and intellectual sensations one can feel happening in the patient he worked with every day? Particularly when the love was directed at him? This is either a disturbingly bad plot hole, or, if you want to make a stretch and fill in said hole with a quick bit of logic, it means that for whatever reason, Shin just wasn't able to hear love in people's minds, expressions, pheromones, whatever level the damn empathy power worked on. And if he couldn't hear love, who knows what other positive emotions he couldn't tune in on? No damn wonder he thought everyone around him was a jerk if he wasn't capable of hearing the parts of them that were at all decent. So not only did he murder for petty reasons, and not only were those reasons basically entirely unverified and impossible to determine whether they were actually accurate to the human race as a whole, but it's ALSO questionable now whether the experiences he had were even accurate of the handful of people he stupidly decided should be indicative of the whole human race.

We're supposed to feel any sort of sympathy for this guy? We're NOT supposed to be absolutely enraged that he finds peace and romantic fulfillment with no observable feeling of guilt?

And hey, regarding that romantic fulfillment, exactly why does Sai still love the guy, anyway? I mean, I can understand where her feelings came from during life. The game has her explain how they developed, and it's believable enough, if not particularly compelling. But honestly, I feel like Sai knowing that Shin deliberately killed everyone on Earth and is now trying to squash the few humans he missed the first time should maybe cool her passions a bit. Maybe I'm just crazy. Ladies, help me out. If you found out that the dude you'd been crushing on was the bringer of Armageddon, basically a more effective Hitler but who lacks even Hitler's (insanely misguided) wish to improve humanity, would you still have the hots on him? Or would whiny global genocide turn you off just a bit? I'd like to think that the latter would be true, and, by logical extension, I'd like to think that Sai's continued romantic interest in Shin is IDIOTIC.

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a great RPG, it really is. It's compelling, it's creative, it's artistic. Overall, I highly recommend it. Nonetheless, the circumstances of Shin's defeat and demise are stupid, nonsensical, and infuriating. It really feels like an instance where the writers just couldn't be bothered to consider the character and situation for very long and just threw in a few tired cliches to get it over with, cliches that they couldn't even execute well.

* This probably will leave this rant with no one to actually read it. Oh well.

** Why it would surprise Tosh at all that Owen is thinking mean things is anyone's guess. It's not like Owen goes out of his way during Season 1 to hide the fact that he's a complete and total asswipe.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Alundra 2's Reputation

Alundra 2 has, it can be debated, a bad reputation. I say it can be debated because it's generally more accurate to say that Alundra 2 has NO reputation, being a very obscure old RPG from the Playstation 1 days that got even less attention than its already oft-forgotten/ignored predecessor, Alundra 1, did. Generally speaking, no one but the big RPG enthusiast is going to even know what Alundra 2 is, should you ask.

The obscure-RPG-playing community, however, does have a general opinion of the game, from what I've seen, and that opinion is that it's just plain bad. Where Alundra 1 is generally praised in the gaming circles where its existence is known of, Alundra 2 receives, in those same circles, scorn and avoidance.

I think the main reason that people hold such disfavor for it is that it has nearly no ties, technical or thematic, to Alundra 1. It's not surprising that gamers would hold that against Alundra 2; after all, most of the people who would be interested in seeking out and playing Alundra 2 do so, I imagine, because they're fans of Alundra 1 and want more of the same. But Alundra 2 is just nothing like Alundra 1--no common characters or plot (there's no reason to think it even takes place on the same world), the gameplay style is notably different, as is the atmosphere and general look. About the only real connection they have is the title of the games and the fact that some of Alundra 2's music sounds like some of Alundra 1's. Alundra 1 is moody, Alundra 2 is lighthearted. Alundra 1 brings about surprising emotion, Alundra 2 goes for chuckles. Alundra 1 has subtle themes and a conflict between gods and men, Alundra 2 has a straightforward save the world adventure. Alundra 1 has frustratingly difficult puzzles, Alundra 2 has frustratingly difficult controls. Alundra 1 looks okay, Alundra 2 looks like something that was dug out of the garbage bins at Naughty Dog, Inc. while it was developing the first Crash Bandicoot. And so on.

Thing of it is...well, it's not warranted, this general dislike. Alundra 2 isn't a bad RPG. Oh, it's not an especially good one, either, I'll certainly grant you, and between the 2, Alundra 1 is clearly the superior RPG. Better ideas, better characters, better story, better execution overall. But Alundra 2 is, if not outright good, certainly a decent RPG, and enjoyable enough from start to finish that you shouldn't feel your time spent with it wasted.

What you have to realize, I think, is that this game, despite obviously trying to cash in on the meager fame of Alundra 1, knows what it is and does not try to be more. What it is, is a lighthearted adventure involving pirates, evil magic keys, dungeon-crawling, and world-saving. Alundra 2 doesn't really have any ambition to provide more than that, and if you expect it to do so (likely by expecting it to live up to Alundra 1's standards), it's natural that you'll be disappointed and dislike the game. This is, for once, a real case of a sequel that should be judged by its own standards and not by those of its predecessor.*

And by its own standards...Alundra 2's alright. In lieu of deep issues and emotional depth, Alundra 2 goes for a touch of the goofy, keeping itself amusing. You're never particularly invested in or worried for its characters, but they'll make you chuckle on occasion. The events you'll witness aren't exactly inspiring or particularly novel, but they're fun enough and even quite humorous at times. It's a casual RPG, but for being such, it does it well, I think, for it knows when to throw in a bit of humor, and often you'll be caught off-guard by it enough that any cynicism you have won't have caught up by the time you let out a guffaw. There was one scene in particular in the game that made me laugh out loud, the one that shows how the king has been replaced and in what way this illusion is maintained--it basically boils down to a wooden king doll sitting in the throne with a dude hiding just behind said throne, who, when needed, reaches around to lift the king's arm in a commanding way, or adjust his head. This bit of zany humor is portrayed with just the right timing and attitude that I found it to be uncommonly funny.

I also think it's worth noting that even as a name cash-in title, Alundra 2 really isn't as bad as all that. It sure as hell isn't the only RPG to transparently use a name to help sell it, and as far as that goes, I've seen much worse. Remember Grandia 3? That game had even less to do with the series it stole its name from, making it another obvious case of adopting a name for marketing purposes, and it flat out suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked. Maybe Alundra 2 doesn't live up to its name and maybe they didn't try for too much more than a generic adventure with it, but at least it wasn't outright heinous, so it's still a step above its name cash-in peers.

The game sure as hell isn't without its flaws, of course. As I mentioned before, the control mechanics are pretty bad, and, though it doesn't matter much, it's quite strange that Alundra 2 would look so amazingly messy and ugly when Alundra 1 actually had a graphical presentation of good quality. The challenge factor of the puzzles is much less than Alundra 1's was, although that isn't necessarily a bad thing to some players (like myself), as Alundra 1's puzzles were sometimes way more difficult than they had any right to be. And hey, I wouldn't be me if I didn't frown on the game at least a little for not striving to do better with its story and characters. They may be amusing, but you can have a game that's both amusing AND has good characters and a meaningful plot--Disgaea 1 and Okage: Shadow King managed it, no problem.

Nonetheless, the overall package of Alundra 2 is fun enough, and though it's not very impressive, it at least knows this and doesn't try to convince you that it is, the way most uninspired RPGs will. And it does provide some good amusement all along its way. Alundra 2 isn't a great RPG, but I stand by the idea that it's at least a decent one, an enjoyable one, and I don't think it deserves the bad rep it has.

* I run into this argument fairly often, most notably concerning Chrono Cross, and every time someone has brought it up, it's annoyed the crap out of me. Because yes, Chrono Cross does suck enormously when compared to Chrono Trigger and as a sequel it's absolutely goddamn fucking awful. But if you don't compare it to CT, it STILL has an incomprehensible and outright stupid plot, a lousy and mostly superfluous cast, and so on. It is STILL absolutely goddamn fucking awful, taken alone or as a sequel. But its various defenders will, in a desperate move to at least appear like they have a legitimate stance, insist that anyone detracting from Chrono Cross MUST be doing so SOLELY because they're unfairly** judging it by the standards of Chrono Trigger. This tends to be the tactic of everyone I see use this argument when defending sequels. My point here is that Alundra 2 is, I think, one of those rare occasions where it actually is true that it's decent not by comparison but by its own merits.

** And why, might I ask, is it so unfair to compare a sequel to the original when it is clearly meant to tie in and build off of the original? It isn't like CC is detached from CT like Alundra 2 is to Alundra 1. They're connected by vital plot events, occur on the same world (more or less; that's always a gray area with time- and dimension-traveling stories), incorporate several of the same characters...obviously you should judge a game by its own worth, but when it derives a significant part of the qualities you're judging (plot and characters) from a predecessor, how it incorporates those aspects should be a consideration, too.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

General RPGs' Minigames 9: Spheda

I really like how long a period can go by between rants on minigames. It means I haven't encountered any bad ones for a while...or at least, I haven't remembered them.

Sadly, something the other day recalled to my mind the Golf minigame of Dark Cloud 2. What a goddamn pain in the ass. I'm tempted to just end the rant right here; that assessment is really about the only thing you actually need or want to know about the minigame if you haven't already experienced it. But that'd be the easy way out, and I've never been one, well, actually, I AM usually one for the easy way out, but let's just do this anyway.

So, Golf. Even as immensely boring as any sport is to watch or especially to simulate in a video game, Golf stands out for being boring. Watching some pretentious jerk stand still for several minutes so he can judge exactly how wind and distance and such affect a trajectory so he can swing a metal stick and hit a little ball across an over-sized lawn with no eye-catching landmarks or plant life just to see whether he can get said little ball into a little hole in the dirt is not my idea of a good time. Frankly, it leaves me wishing they were swinging the metal sticks at my head instead of the ball, just so I can see if my anesthetized mind is still capable of feeling pain. It doesn't even promote the development of any primitive skill that has a rudimentary usefulness--at least Soccer builds up your ability to kick a low moving object, which will be handy if you ever need to bring the hurt to a coworker's ankles, and Football promotes the ability to be body-slammed and not die, which is a very useful skill to have if you ever decide to commit suicide by having a bull ram into you but change your mind at the last second. What the hell does Golf teach you? Perhaps some day, when we finally declare war on the world's prairie dogs, our Golf players will become our greatest heroes, gloriously sending bombs into one underground bunker of our adorably chubby, godless mammal enemies after another. On that day, I shall eat my words.

Until then? Golf is rubbish.

So I'm not particularly predisposed to having to put up with it in my RPGs.* But even a fan of the game probably wouldn't like it in Dark Cloud 2. Because, you see, DC2 doesn't just give you Golf--it gives you Spheda, which I prefer to call Dungeon Golf. Dungeon Golf, a term of my own invention, is when you play Golf in a dungeon. It's a pretty self-explanatory term. You know what a regular Golf game requires? Among other things, a lot of open space. You know what a dungeon doesn't really provide? That.

The basic premise in DC2 is to get your stupid ball to roll, fly, and ricochet around the passages of the dungeon to get into a glowing alternate-dimension-portal-looking hole. To do this within the allowed number of swings, you need to send the damn ball bouncing all over the dungeon, avoiding or knocking against various barriers, objects, and walls. Regular Golf usually involves, if I'm not mistaken, a generally straight line to the goal--you may have to get over traps and hills, you may need to double back with the ball if you overshoot things, but there's never a maze-like set of corridors to navigate. This is almost closer to Pool than it is to Golf. So there's really no reason to think that even an enthusiast in this sport is going to enjoy the Dark Cloud 2 version.

This is further cemented by the inclusion of the one thing about Golf that is universally hated even among fans of it: the impediments and traps. If you like Golf but aren't a fan of getting your ball stuck in places it's hard to hit it out of, or losing the ball altogether by hitting it into the wrong spot, you are not going to like Spheda. The dungeons in which this minigame occurs often have bodies of water that must be avoided. Then there's the Mount Gundor dungeon, where you can and, I assure you, very often will accidentally knock the damn ball off the ledge and down the abyss. And there are parts of Ocean Roar Cave submerged in an inch or 2 of water where you will sculpt a monument to profanity as you attempt to get the ball where you want it to go through the flooded cavern, impeded at every stroke by the fucking water everywhere.

Now, any normal sadistic, hateful game developer might have stopped there. He's presumably alienated his target audience of RPG players (most of us aren't avid sports fans, I think). He's alienated anyone who actually likes Golf. Any normal spiteful developer would call it a day and move on. But not the madmen working at Level-5. No sir! They decided to compound the frustration and stupidity of Dungeon Golf with the color system. See, in Spheda, it's not enough just to hit the fucking ball into the fucking hole. No, you have to make sure the ball is also the opposite color of the portal thing--if it's red, the ball must be blue, and vice versa. How do you change the ball's color? By bouncing it off something. So of course, given the narrow and twisting confines of many areas of the game, and the fact that a swing of any decent power will at the very least cause the ball to bounce off the ground itself, it's more likely than not that you'll have no idea which color it will be by the end of every swing, and by extension, by the time it gets within sight of the distortion you need to hit it into. You can--and by "can," I mean "very often will, with curses spoken loudly and teeth gnashed mightily"--find yourself lined up for a clear shot into the damn goal with 1 swing left, and find the ball sporting the shade you don't want. Maybe you'll have a wall you can ricochet off of into the goal to change the ball to the needed hue--and maybe you won't, and will have to do the whole thing over again.

Which brings me to the next "fun" part of this minigame--trying the level over again. When you fail to beat a stage in Spheda, which is going to be the majority of the time, you don't just get to try it again. That would only be a little annoying. No, to try again, you'll have to re-enter that level of the dungeon and beat all the enemies in it all over again. Because, y'know, there aren't enough repetitive fights against generic enemies in an RPG already, right? So in addition to setting you back 5 or 10 minutes for the Spheda game, any subsequent attempt after an initial failure is going to run you a good 10 - 20 minutes extra. This minigame, more than most others, was obviously designed with the belief that the player is immortal and thus places no particular worth on his or her time.**

The one thing I can't fault Spheda on too much, I suppose, is the fact that there's not much actual need to play it. The rewards for it are nice enough, but not especially important--each successful round of Dungeon Golf rewards you with some good, but not necessary, items, and a medal. Medals can be exchanged for new outfits that change the main characters' appearance, or for an item that lets you rename weapons. So overall, you're not going to be penalized by missing out on something significant if you don't indulge in your self-loathing and play Spheda. And the only time the game forces you to play it barely counts, because if you can't manage to win that mandatory round, the game just has one of the characters do it for you. So in the end, Spheda is at least not compulsory.

But stupid? Frustrating? Pointless? Unwanted? A terrible idea that demands a kick in the face be delivered to anyone and everyone involved in its creation? Oh hell yes.

* Hell, I'm not sure we should have to put up with it even in our Golf games. Seems to me that you could sneak an entirely different game into a Golf title without upsetting too many people. Is someone really going to complain that you tricked them into actually playing something fun?

** Of course, I did play Phantasy Star 3 from beginning to end, so I guess I shouldn't put on too many airs about valuing my own time too heavily.