Saturday, April 28, 2012

Breath of Fire 2's Dragon Tear

You know what was a pretty neat idea? Breath of Fire 2’s Dragon Tear. This was the little accessory that showed up with every important character’s dialogue and showed through its color the way the person felt toward you. Kinda like a mood ring, if mood rings were in RPGs, and actually worked at all. The idea’s a good one, giving the player a better understanding of their character’s approval of the protagonist’s decisions, allowing for a way of tracking characters’ reactions to the protagonist’s actions and words as dialogue occurs, and acting as a lie detector by exposing how an NPC really feels, regardless of what he or she is saying--all while being much more aesthetically pleasing than just a message saying someone’s approval has gone up/down, or something like that, as you get in later games like Dragon Age 1.

You know what was a pretty useless idea? Breath of Fire 2’s Dragon Tear. What exactly is the point of having this indicator of how you’re doing in a character’s eyes in a game that offers no player interaction? I mean, there is almost no part of the game wherein the player has any ability to influence the plot or character interactions. It’s a completely linear story, and the protagonist rarely actually responds to anyone in dialogue--and on those rare occasions, whatever the player chooses to have the protagonist Ryu say in response doesn’t really change anything. So if almost every emotional response the NPCs and party members are going to have is unchangeably scripted, why bother to let the player track it? The game’s dialogue is usually pretty straightforward; we don’t really need the Dragon Tear to clarify much.

There’s also the fact that the emotional rating of characters never actually makes a difference, except for a single, extremely tiny moment of the game, which has nothing to do with the plot’s events anyway.* Aside from that one moment, nothing ever changes due to the Dragon Tear rating. Whether the Dragon Tear says a party member loves or hates the protagonist, they’ll say the same lines of dialogue, and they’ll take the same actions in the plot. If it makes the slightest difference in battle performance whether your teammate likes Ryu or thinks he’s scum, I’ve certainly never noticed it, and I’ve played the game through like a dozen times.** No change to the game’s dialogue, to the actions of its cast, to the events of its course, or to the specifics of its conclusion, can be effected by the emotion measured by the Dragon Tear. And like I said, NPCs’ actions and attitudes can’t be influenced by any choice on the player’s part. What little the player can do to affect the mood of the people of the world is of no consequence.

Even as a passive storytelling tool, the Dragon Tear actually doesn’t work all that well. Like I said, the dialogue isn’t all that ambiguous for the most part (bad translation moments aside), so it’s not really needed for emotional clarification, and there were times, I seem to recall, when the emotional reading it was giving didn’t even seem to quite match up with the character’s words, actions, and personality, anyway.

Really, the Dragon Tear is very puzzling to me. From one perspective, it’s a terrific idea, years ahead of its time, something I wish would be implemented in many of today’s RPGs. It would be really nice if we saw it, or something like it, on screen during character interactions in games like Dragon Age 1 and 2, or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4, games where there’s a plot-significant approval rating to major characters that can be bettered or worsened by the protagonist’s actions and dialogue. It’d be so much nicer than just a little message denoting the approval points you’ve picked up, or a rinky-dink little sound effect, which is what we get for the aforementioned games. And yet, this idea ahead of its time has NOTHING to do with the kind of game it was made for! The linear, forward Breath of Fire 2 is a completely different RPG from the kind that could in any way make actual use of the idea behind the Dragon Tear. It’s like a neat idea for a game got lost and accidentally entered the head of a completely different game’s developer.

* Basically, if you sweet-talk a resident of your town enough, he’ll teach you the Missile spell instead of something less powerful. This is IF you chose to acquire him for the town at all, of course.

** Look, I only had so many games as a kid, okay? I played ALL my SNES RPGs at least a few times.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Well, guys, last year I played my first Independent RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch,* and I really enjoyed it. In fact, I’d like to say, again, that you should definitely think about buying it. It’s only $9 now, and it’s quite a hoot. Also, the only way I’m going to see its story continued is if it makes enough cash to warrant a sequel, so go and buy it. Now!

This year, I’ve played my second Indy RPG, Bastion, at the suggestion of my longtime chum Queelez. And I liked it, and since it’s another Indy RPG and thus could definitely use the support of even so tiny a group as my readership, I figured I should do a rant on it just as I did for MLRotB.

So! What do you say about Bastion? A lot, if you’re a long-winded word bag like me. First things first. You can find the game’s homepage here. You’ll find there what options you have as far as acquiring the game. It’s only $15, which these days is, what, the cost of lunch for a couple days? There’s even a free playable demo, so you can make sure you won’t outright hate it before you commit to purchasing it.

Bastion is a very artsy action-RPG that culturally grounds itself in a Wild West mentality, while really not being Wild West-ish at all. It’s hard to explain. The music, the plot progression, the narration, a significant foundation to its world, they all have clear inspiration in the old Wild West ideals, culture, and history, but at the same time, the world is its own, with a plethora of interesting ideas and exotic locales that you can’t really attribute to the Wild West (at least, not that I can really see). There’s also a bit of Steampunk mixed in there, although I’ve always had some trouble distinguishing Steampunk from Wild West anyway, so where the one ends and the other begins I couldn’t really tell you. It all comes together very well, though, and creates a world that is new, different, and interesting, and yet at the same cool and engaging in a comfortable, familiar way. There’s also a highly unusual element mixed in here--that of the post apocalypse. Now granted, you see a lot of stuff that’s post apocalypse, but to my knowledge, you don’t often get a post apocalyptic scenario combined with a Wild-West-Steampunk-and-also-quite-original venture very often, so that adds one more interesting aspect to it.

The story of the game is quite neat, being overall quite simple (but not pedestrian), but told in a pleasingly complex and involved way. At times the plot’s revelations are overt, and at other times they’re quite subtle and require you to put 2 and 2 together, but either way, the story’s execution is quite good, going at exactly the right pace throughout, with just enough layers that you’ll be interested in at least one replay just to pick up on any of the subtle details and connections you missed. There’s a lot of good underlying themes in Bastion, too, particularly about the follies of mistrust and hostility between peoples of different cultures, which of course ties back in with the Wild West themes, since the (usually poor) relations with Native Americans figures heavily in Wild West culture. Finally, Bastion’s conclusion is satisfying and appropriate (regardless of which ending you choose), which, after the insufferable travesty that the recent Mass Effect 3’s ending was, is something I have lately come to appreciate more than ever before.

The voice acting for the game is quite good. Now, normally, you wouldn’t see me mention this so quickly in a rant like this--after going over the story, my next stop would be the characters, since those 2 aspects are more or less always the most important aspects of an RPG (and most other things). But in Bastion, the voice acting is intrinsically tied to its plot, as 99% of the game’s plot, characters, themes, history, and so on are told through the voice of one narrator. When everything your creative venture is is narrated by a single person throughout the venture’s entirety, you better darn well be sure you get a fine voice actor to do the job. Bastion’s Logan Cunningham is just that voice actor. Onto his vocal shoulders falls the hefty job of providing every narrative detail of Bastion’s considerable story and setting, and he’s definitely got the tone, the talk, and the talent for the role. His voice fits his character and the game’s world perfectly, and you’ll be eager to hear every line from start to finish from him.

Character-wise, Bastion is both good and bad. Its few characters have their histories fleshed out pretty well in the optional dream sequences, which is good (except for Rucks, annoyingly; his dream sequence is just about fleshing out and recalling the world of Bastion). In the actual present of the game, though, only Zulf gets any real character development (most of it subtle and understated, but it’s good stuff all the same), with Zia maybe getting a tiny bit as well. Rucks’s character isn’t really explored at all, and while the Kid (Bastion’s protagonist) has a dream sequence that gives him a back story, there’s almost no personality given to him or his interactions with the other characters. It ultimately goes back to my problem with Silent Protagonists in general; the Kid becomes little more than an automaton, albeit one with impressive exploits that Rucks reports. Still, it’s all done quite artfully, so in this case a Silent Protagonist really is not a serious problem like it is in most other RPGs, and overall the cast of Bastion is decent.

The details of the game are pretty much all positive to report on, too. The music for Bastion is perfect for setting its tone from one part to the next (which is important to a game with as much atmosphere as Bastion), and a lot of the tunes are by themselves pretty cool. Graphically it takes a little getting used to at first, but it’s not a big deal, even if you assume visuals to have any significance in an RPG to start with. Which I don’t. The art for the game is stylized and pleasing, coordinating well with and helping to set the tone of Bastion. Finally, the gameplay has reasonable complexity governing it, allowing for a fair amount of customization to one’s style of play, but ultimately is pleasantly simple and straightforward.

Bastion’s not perfect, I suppose. It’s pretty short, clocking in at about 10 hours from start to finish, and unfortunately, it does leave one wanting more. That’s not to say it feels rushed, or incomplete, or anything of the sort--it tells its story at its own pace, and accomplishes everything it sets out to do in that regard. Still, it wouldn’t have taken much to keep it going just a bit longer--1 or 2 extra missions thrown in that failed to yield the sought-after Cores or Fragments (plot doohickeys) could have extended the game’s life by another hour or so, and that time could have been filled with a bit more development of and interactions between the main characters. The brevity of Bastion is helped a bit by its strong replay value, but even then, you’ll probably acquire and experience pretty much everything you want by the end of the second playthrough, and of course that second playthrough will take much less time than the first did, so you still won’t have spent much more time on the entire game as you might on a Fallout DLC of less price. That, and the fact that I wish there were more character development are probably the game’s only flaws.

But really, as I said, the character development issue is still positive overall for Bastion, and so what if it’s short? Is a game’s worth measured by its length or its content? You can spend 50 to 60 hours playing La Pucelle Tactics, or Final Fantasy 8, or Star Ocean 2, and that sure as hell doesn’t make any of them better than Bastion. Hell, I would’ve preferred it if those games were a great deal shorter; it would have meant fewer hours of boredom and/or torment.

Overall, Bastion’s an artsy game, an interesting game, a thoughtful game, and a solid, all-around good game. My tiny forays into the world of Independent RPGs has been very encouraging so far, and if this genre has any more gems like Bastion, I’m going to enjoy my further explorations of it. I thank Queelez for recommending it to me, and I’m forwarding that recommendation to anyone and everyone who reads this blog. Go give Bastion a shot; I think you’ll like it.

* Assuming you don’t count Kingdom of Loathing. Which I guess DOES sort of count, but that’s more like an Independent MMORPG, and here I’m just talking about your regular RPGs.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Fire Emblem Series's Wyvern Riders

Considering that I'm The RPGenius and that Fire Emblem is an RPG series of over 10 titles' length, I've had surprisingly little experience with the series. Many years ago, I played the fan-translated FE4, and last year I checked out FE7 and FE9. This year I've played the remake of FE1, but that still equates to less than half of the series I've gotten to, and unlike the Shin Megami Tensei games, which I only discovered about 3 years ago, I've known about Fire Emblem for close to a decade. Dunno why this is; they seem fairly decent so far. At any rate, it is thus that I say, before diving into this rant, that I know comparatively little about the series as a whole, and perhaps this issue IS addressed at some point, and I'm just out of the loop...although I somewhat doubt that whatever explanation there might have been made for it would stand up to much scrutiny. Nonetheless, here is my issue of the 10-day-periodical-rant-period:

Why the bloody devil do the Fire Emblem Wyvern Riders never use the damn dragons they're sitting on for offense?

Think about this. The Wyvern Rider, AKA Dracoknight unit in a Fire Emblem game is basically a person holding a spear and riding on the back of a wyvern, a special kind of dragon. They're very handy units due to being able to fly over obstacles, much like the Pegasus Knight units in the game. Unlike the Pegasus Knights, however, these are people who are riding a freaking DRAGON. You know--the mythical beast coated with thick scales, equipped with terrible razor-sharp iron claws, and armed to the teeth with teeth? Very sharp ones? Exactly why is it that the Wyvern Rider only takes advantage of the creature's back and wings, and not the rest of the wyvern's assets? I mean, sure, the spear is a powerful, versatile, and far-reaching weapon, and hey, all power to the dragon-riding grunt that wants to skewer enemies with it. But wouldn't it be a far more effective strategy to add to the spear's poking powers a huge, fang-filled maw powered by impossibly strong jaws? Because it IS sorta, y'know, RIGHT THERE.

I mean, it's not like with the Pegasus Knights in the games. I think it'd be a pretty useful and sensible thing to have the pegasus take advantage of being gifted with flight and hooves, and kick enemies as it swoops in for the rider's sword or spear attack. But I'm not really going to argue about that, because horses are not usually all that bloodthirsty a species, and one could reasonably assume that just adding wings to them wouldn't change that. Training a pegasus steed to join in the battle and make its own attacks wouldn't be any more feasible than training a regular ridden horse to do so, and to my knowledge, even war horses were never trained in such a way.

But a wyvern? The concept of biting something really hard to make it die is not exactly a foreign idea to a member of the dragon family. If it were, their mouths would look a little less like a nightmarish killing machine. You don't have to work especially hard to convince a wyvern to attack anything threatening in front of it. The behavior and tools are already there. The only issue might be training the vicious scaled death-maker to STOP doing so at some point, and we know that one's no problem, since apparently the Wyvern Riders have managed to get the monsters not to attack anything at all.

I dunno. I'm sure I'm just nitpicking again, but it seems inefficient, not to mention silly, to have a creature designed specifically to attack and kill anything it wants with impunity, to take it into battle, and then use it as little more than a flying chair.