Friday, January 27, 2012

The Baldur's Gate Series's Add-Ons

Bioware's awfully fond of add-ons for their games. Dragon Age and Mass Effect are practically swimming in downloadable content. Sometimes they're good (most of Mass Effect's), sometimes they're bad (most of Dragon Age's). But what I didn't know until recently, when I finally played the Baldur's Gate games, is that Bioware was playing this game even over a decade ago, with their expansions for Baldur's Gate 1 and 2. And I figure, hey, I do a rant on add-ons for all the current games I play with them, so why not take a look at some from the good old days.* I mean, I'm sure there's something worthwhile to be gleaned from such analysis. It's certainly not just that I'm trying to do an easy rant to buy myself time until I can think of something actually worth discussing.

Certainly not.

Tales of the Sword Coast: This is the expansion for Baldur's Gate 1. It's...well, it's alright, I guess. Most of it's just not terribly interesting. It basically adds a half dozen or so locations to the game, It's basically just a collection of slightly longer-than-usual sidequests. Most if it's just not terribly interesting or relevant. The investigation of Baldur's final voyage is not nearly as interesting as it should be, and the song-and-dance with the ice dungeon is rather pointless. The expansion does do well with Durlag's Tower, though. It's pleasantly challenging, but more important than that, it has a pretty cool story to it that's told very well. I'll give Bioware credit for that; their story-telling prowess is in full swing as the player explores Durlag's Tower.

So is it a good add-on? Well, it's hard to say. First of all, I don't know how much it cost back when it was released--any copy of Baldur's Gate 1 purchased nowadays is going to include the expansion in there anyway, so I can't really gauge how good of a deal it was monetarily. It's also hard to judge because the expansion is pretty much representative of BG1--some good story-telling is there, but a lot of it is methodical sidequest filler. So it's questionable how much can be held against the expansion pack, when its flaw is perhaps just being too accurate an extension of the game. Nonetheless...I just can't say that Tales of the Sword Coast is worthwhile, if not in regards to money, then at least in regards to time. Most of it just isn't particularly compelling. As I said, Durlag's Tower is really good, but that's only one part of the expansion. I wish Bioware could have made the whole thing with the narrative care they put into Durlag's Tower.

Of course, whether or not you should get it is entirely irrelevant nowadays, since, as I mentioned, the expansion will come with the game anyway. But that's gonna eventually be true of any add-ons I talk about for RPGs, so I'll still just put it out there.

Throne of Bhaal: The Throne of Bhaal expansion for Baldur's Gate 2 is...odd. It's less an extension of BG2 as it is a second story taking place after the events of BG2. The odd part of this is that Throne of Bhaal's story is really...kind of more relevant and important than the story of BG2 was. BG2's plot is kind of irrelevant to the overall story of the Bhaalspawn, which is what Baldur's Gate is supposed to be focused on, while Throne of Bhaal resumes focus on the Bhaalspawn and follows that story to its conclusion. It's like the Throne of Bhaal expansion is the true story of BG2, and the game proper was just a long side story.

It's kind of hard to gauge as a result. I mean, it's basically re-opening the overlying plot of the series, exploring it briefly, and then concluding it. What could have been a game's worth of plot is condensed into a sizable but ultimately too short period of time. Things are very rushed with this expansion, like it's an abridged version of what should it should have been. At the same time, though, I don't feel like it's fair to hold that against the expansion too much. There was never a Baldur's Gate 3, so Throne of Bhaal was likely the only opportunity the developers were going to have to bring closure to the series, so at least we GOT that closure.

Additionally, regardless of what it could have been, Throne of Bhaal IS an expansion, not its own game, and as an add-on, it has many good qualities. Even if it's rushed, the plot is decent. It re-introduces BG1's villain, Sarevok, as a party member, and gives him the character development he sorely lacked in the original game. It also gives a bit more character development to the rest of the cast through a few of their interactions, and it picks up from where BG2's romance ended and further develops that, as well. While Aerie and Anomen's romances still weren't terribly interesting to me, I found Throne of Bhaal further developed Jaheira's romance well enough, and it really did a great job in renewing Viconia's romance and developing both the relationship and her character through the course of the expansion. Throne of Bhaal also attempts to develop the protagonist somewhat through the inner trials he/she must face, although this is not really accomplished effectively--it's just hard to properly develop a character so completely open-ended. Still, it gets props for making the attempt. And finally, Throne of Bhaal provides a fairly satisfying conclusion, giving the player a finale that truly marks the end of the Baldur's Gate series.

So overall, I'd say this is a very solid, engaging expansion. Again, it's been long enough that any copy of BG2 you buy is going to include it anyway, so I can't really guess as to what cost it was, but I'd say it was probably the money back in the day, and it's a definite step up from BG1's expansion. Good stuff.

Well, that was fun. Overall, I think the Baldur's Gate series did alright for its add-ons. BG1's wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible, either, I suppose, and BG2's more than made up for it. The overall experience was certainly more rewarding than the add-on experience for Dragon Age 1 and, so far, the main DLC packages for Dragon Age 2.

* Note: "Good old days" not actually all that long ago, nor significantly better than current times.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Secret of Mana's Cover Art

Tell me something: Have you ever just stopped and LOOKED at Secret of Mana's cover art? Like, just sat and really gave it a proper once-over? If you haven't, here's your chance:

SoM Cover Art

Now is it just me, or is that a ludicrously good piece of art for a video game cover? I mean, look at the damn thing. Look at the complexity of it! Save the picture and then zoom in on it if you want to. Look at the lines in the bark, the detail given to the individual leaves. I'm no artist, so describing this properly is not a task I'm likely to succeed at, but the dedicated level of detail in this piece alone is way beyond almost any other RPG official art I've seen to date, and certainly far, FAR advanced of any RPG of the 16-bit era Secret of Mana hails from.

Beyond just the skill and depth, though, the art for this game's impressive also for its size. It's not just that it's a great piece of work--it's really quite big, to the point that Squaresoft unfortunately had to crop out a fair chunk of it for the actual game cover and instruction manual. A shame, really, because the quality of the picture is consistently high from top to bottom. This is no small, simple picture; this has not only the quality of a real piece of art, but the size as well.

Lastly, I'd like to note that SoM's cover art also has merit in true artistic value. I mean, so far I've mentioned the technical qualities, and those are impressive, but this scene is more than the sum of its parts. It directs your attentions and imparts meaning, even emotion. Look at the way it's arranged. The entire thing is meant to express the incredible grandeur of Nature, embodied in the monumental central figure of the Mana Tree. This is a picture that gives exactly the sense of awe that standing before a massive tree of life should.* While the game's major characters are present in this picture, they are dwarfed, and so removed to their corner at the bottom that I daresay no one who sees this will realize at first that they're even there. That's certainly a different perspective to have in a game's main art piece; usually any characters who make it onto the cover art are thrust to the center of the picture's attention, sometimes in an almost painfully crude manner (see Breath of Fire 1 and 2's cover art for a couple of examples of this). Here, however, it is the power of the scene itself that is emphasized as important, and by extension, the overall theme, tone, and purpose of the game, rather than just the actors that see its events through. To supplement this idea even further, the first colorful, non-plant thing the eye is drawn to in this picture are the flamingos flying past, again putting a stronger emphasis on the natural world, and hence the scene itself, than on the human factor.

It's very different, very artistic, and very, VERY far above the norm for RPG cover art. Hell, half the time the cover art for RPGs is just the game title done up all fancy, maybe with a little uninspired background design. Even when you do get a proper scene or character shot or something, it's never anything you'd really call art, at least not on the level of Secret of Mana's. I suppose it doesn't really matter too much as long as the art attracts the attention of potential buyers, or whatever function cover art is supposed to serve. Nonetheless, the one for Secret of Mana is really just awesome, and deserves some praise.

* Ironically, the actual scene in Secret of Mana in which the party reaches the Mana Tree not only fails totally to recapture the moment's majesty that this picture depicts, but seems to basically not even bother to try to.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

General RPGs' Wasted FMVs

Happy New Year, all. This year we're going to mix it up by updating on the 8s of the month instead of the 5s, because 8 is clearly the best number.

Ever since the era of the Playstation 1, Full Motion Videos have been a major component of console RPGs (and a few PC ones) and their storytelling process. They're not as big a thing as they used to be, as more and more games reach a level of visual prowess that makes the game's regular graphics close enough to an FMV's quality that the cinema just isn't really worth it. But they're still around, and still important.

Back on the PS1, FMVs were, for quite a while, a really big deal. Eventually we got used to them, and by the PS2 era they were the status quo. But on the PS1, FMVs were new and exciting. They were also more attention-grabbing than nowadays for their contrast--even the lower-quality FMVs were so much of a jump from the visuals of the game proper that they seemed incredible by comparison. FMVs come, past and present, in a couple varieties, most commonly your standard CGI stuff, like you find in Chrono Cross or Final Fantasy 7, or anime cut scenes, such as those you see in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4, for example. Sometimes they'll be showing scenes of action, battle, and destruction, like many of the ones you find in Final Fantasy 10. At other times, they'll be used to show a scene deemed especially important to the plot's course or the development of characters, such as the dancing scene from Final Fantasy 8, or the majority of Lunar 1 and 2's cut scenes. Of course, you'll often have FMVs made for the intro to the game, and for the game's ending, cuz, y'know, that stuff's important.

And then there are the rather pointless, boring mini-FMVs that several older RPGs are fond of using to show new places when you reach them, like some of the ones in Planescape: Torment. I've never really seen the point of using CGI to introduce a new location. It's a new place, big freaking deal. Instead of blowing their budget and disc space on scenic shots of some stupid mountain or town or such that you're going to be spending hours familiarizing yourself with anyway as you wander around it, why didn't the developers give us scenes of things happening, characters doing plot stuff, things that will actually hold our interest in some way? It feels like some idiot tourist's vacation video. With all the cool shit and memorable moments of character interactions in the classic Grandia 1, for example, did we really need to use a minute of the game's limited FMV time on a sky overview of the Garlyle Base? It's a base with tanks and machinery and so on; there's absolutely nothing in this FMV that couldn't have been depicted equally effectively with the game's normal graphics. We get a cut scene of that, but none for the heartbreaking scene of Sue's farewell, or Gadwin and Justin's fight to test determination and growth? No FMV for the powerful, triumphant moment where Justin and his friends stand atop the purported End of the World and see the limitless potential hidden behind it? The hell is up with that?*

It just seems like a waste, you know? It's only in the recent age of video games that FMV has become relatively easier to insert into games. During the 1990s, space on game discs was precious, and CGI was, I think, more work to create and program in, being a newer idea and practice. The idea of the FMV cut scene has always been, to my understanding, a way to add in visual enhancement to emphasize something to the player, grab their attention and make some part of the game really memorable. So whose stupid idea was it to waste time, money, and game space on showing off some fucking buildings, or a forest, or such? They couldn't have used those resources to make FMV that we might actually care about? Why the hell, for example, does Baldur's Gate 2 have a cut scene for the sun setting or rising over a town when you're there for the changing of evening to day and vice-versa? Is it supposed to impress us? Because it doesn't impress me. It just makes me wonder why the time of day gets its own FMV sequence, but nearly nothing else in the game does. Why not instead an FMV scene when you first meet a potential party member? Or even just for a couple of the really important ones? Even a brief rendering of Minsc and Jaheira in their cages at the game's beginning, or Viconia surrounded by an angry mob when you first rediscover her, would have been better than being expected to ooh and ahh over going from day to night.

The really annoying kind of FMV, though, way worse than the vacation video brand I just mentioned, is the Legend FMV. The Legend FMV is a cut scene which, for reasons far beyond my comprehension, chooses to blow multiple minutes' worth of disc space and game budget on a fully rendered depiction of scrolls, hieroglyphics, runes, wall carvings, tapestries, texts, and the like being read (always in a serious, learned voice) to establish the game world's nonsensical yet plot-essential religious hokum. Sometimes important scenes or characters in the legend will be depicted in some boring single frame, if you're lucky. Best case scenario, you might get some narration over a scene of some ancient civilization's everyday life with all their technological whatsits, like in Grandia 1's example of this FMV style...which just makes it a vacation video from the strangely more advanced past.

Thankfully, the Legend FMV isn't and hasn't ever been all over the place, but there are a good amount of games that have one, or more. The Legend of Dragoon, for example, just seemed to have one Legend FMV after another. Sometimes the stupid mural would be the whole FMV, other times it would take up part of the cut scene and then the player would get some real CGI action once it was out of the way. But overall, The Legend of Dragoon spent a good several minutes' worth of FMV on hearing people talk while looking at boring, stupid cave paintings and such, and that's just so damn annoying to me. There are some people who find cinematic cut scenes to be boring anyway, but even an FMV enthusiast like me just wants to get back to the game while these things are going. It's even worse when you consider how awesome some of The Legend of Dragoon's other FMV sequences are; just thinking of the lost potential makes me scrunch my face up in bitterness.

Like I said, there are thankfully not too many Legend FMVs to contend with (hell, there's even a couple good ones--going back to Grandia 1, its Legend FMVs actually were kind of acceptable, largely because they actually showed the ancient civilization they were talking about rather than just a bunch of smudges on some scroll or something). Still, with all the great moments of danger and excitement, emotion and intrigue, and grandeur and creativity that you can find in RPGs, it's just disappointing that so many FMVs in the genre focus on uninteresting stuff like scenery and wall carvings. It's always seemed like a tremendous waste; if you're gonna spend the time and money on CGI to make your game flashier, make it COUNT for something.

* I should note, in defense of this personal favorite RPG of mine, that Grandia 1 DID later on include many big moments rendered in CGI, and overall was not wasteful of its limited FMV time, when you compare it to several other RPGs of the same time period. But I do feel it's still a good example, because with a game like Grandia 1, that's chock full of classic moments, even a little FMV time wasted instead of devoted to portraying these moments is a damn shame.