Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Final Fantasy Series's Limit Break Names

Behold, that most sacred and rare of creatures: a short rant.

Desperation Attack. Limit Break. Trance. Overdrive. EX Mode. And, inexplicably, Quickening. Why exactly does the Final Fantasy series have half a dozen names for more or less the same gameplay concept?

I don’t know why I’m so hard on Final Fantasy naming (recall my old rants on calling their lightning spells “Thunder” and on the stupid suffixes -ara and -aga (and nowadays, there’s -ada, which is just as bad)) in particular,* but this bugs me. I mean, look, in fairness, the nature of the ability does change a little from game to game, sometimes. In FF6, the Desperation Attack had a probability of activating when a character was at very low HP. In FF7, on the other hand, there was a Limit Break gauge that continually built up as the character got damaged, and once it was filled the character could use their Limit Break, although they didn’t have to--they could just kinda sit on it for a while until the player wanted to use it. FF9’s Trance was less a special ability than a mode in which, for a short period of time, a character’s abilities were enhanced, which was, like FF7, gradually built up to from taking damage. And so on and so forth. But these variations are ultimately just small changes to the same concept, that of special, climatic powers being unlocked in (supposedly) desperate situations. Naming them differently as though they were completely different concepts would be like deciding you couldn’t call a black cat the same kind of animal as a cat with white fur. The cosmetic differences aren’t enough to change the fact that they’re both cats.

I just don’t get it. What purpose does the name change serve, really? Why the desire to differentiate at all? I can understand Square’s wish to name FF7’s Limit Breaks differently since FF6’s Desperation Attacks were not really a well-defined part of the game, and were only rarely seen (I daresay most playthroughs of FF6 don’t see a Desperation Attack trigger even once), but after FF7 cemented the concept in Final Fantasy gameplay and gave it a very functional and personalized name, why keep renaming it later? Particularly since SquareEnix would eventually come back to the Limit name in its semi-Final-Fantasy-related Kingdom Hearts series. It just seems needless and silly.

* It’s not like plenty of other RPGs don’t also have stupidly-named spells and abilities. The Legend of Dragoon called one of its huge plot weapons the Psychadelic Bomb and tried to pass it off as serious, and don’t even get me started on the naming of abilities and spells in the Shin Megami Tensei series.**

** Actually, on second thought, I SHOULD get started on that. Thanks for the rant idea, me. Oh, no problem, man! I love your work. Well, except for those AMV rants. Those’re totally gay.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3's The Answer's Worth

Well, I've successfully managed to not mess up my plan to do a Shin Megami Tensei rant once a month for the rest of the year during the very first month. So far, so good. Thanks to Ecclesiastes for looking this over for me, making sure it wasn’t complete crap. You’re a prince, sir.

Warning: This rant will reference directly important events of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3’s ending. It’s a great enough game, and a great enough ending, that if you haven’t already played SMTP3 from start to finish, you should avoid this rant. Go do something else instead. Watch a movie, draw some ponies, eat a delicious meal of gumbo, play SMTP3 since you haven’t already, I don’t care. Just don’t you spoil this for me. By spoiling it for you.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is an absolutely terrific RPG, one of the best I’ve played and well worthy of the honorable title of Shin Megami Tensei. It’s a pretty universal hit, too, in that the strong majority of people who have played it enjoyed it greatly, as well as a cult classic that managed to get nearly as much attention from the RPG community as one of SquareEnix’s numerous overhyped, inferior offerings. I can’t help but be pretty pleased by that fact. I feel like at least half of the truly excellent RPGs are sadly quite ignored (even more than RPGs usually are, I mean) while many of the mediocre or outright bad ones are highlighted (Final Fantasy for the last 10 years, for example), so when one of the popular ones happens to actually DESERVE its renown, it’s a happy treat for me.

The thing with SMTP3 is that it was popular enough that Atlus decided to milk the game for all it’s worth. Almost a year after SMTP3’s release, Atlus rereleased the game as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES, which had several additions built into it. The Social Links were easier to progress, for example, leaving a little extra time during the game’s course to experience its other content, and some new content was added to the main game, most notably a Social Link for Aigis (which turned out to be one of the best in the game). Most importantly, a post-game quest called The Answer was added, which transferred the role of protagonist to Aigis, and set out to clear up some ambiguities about SMTP3’s ending and show us how the game’s cast reacted to the tragic passing of Minato.

Now, I’m not too terribly familiar with the SMT fanbase in general, so I could be wrong, but I’ve gotten the general impression from people I’ve spoken with that The Answer is not particularly liked by a significant number of players. I don’t think there are many that outright hate it, but the general outlook I’ve perceived is a negative one. And I don’t think that’s really a fair assessment.

Now, to be fair, I have to acknowledge that in some regards, The Answer IS not so good. Specifically, when one looks at it with the perspective of a practical consumer. If one were to equate the differences between SMTP3’s original and FES versions, the FES version is less like a rerelease of the original game (since the original had only come out less than a year prior, and for the same system), and more like the original game with a standard Downloadable Content package (the extra stuff in the main game) and an Expansion (The Answer addition). But you’re not just buying a DLC and an Expansion--in order to experience the FES version’s benefits, you had to pay for the whole game all over again. Fine for a consumer who hadn’t happened to purchase the original version (like me), but not so great for anyone who did. Now Atlus did take a small step to better the situation, in that you could, I understand, transfer your original version’s save game information to the FES version and be able to retain some of the stuff from the first version, so it at least wasn’t a total loss, time-wise, for the owners of the original SMTP3. But the fact remains that anyone who had bought the original and wanted to experience the FES version’s benefits was forced to pay the full price of a new game for what could only very generously be called even half a game’s worth of content.

I’m not sure what Atlus could have done about this, admittedly. Playstation 2 games aren’t really designed with the ability to be modified and added to later. Still, I feel like it’s a raw deal for the customer, and surely there was SOMETHING they could have done. I mean, just off the top of my head, maybe they could’ve had 20 or 30 bucks knocked off SMTP3’s FES version price upon purchase for anyone who could prove that they purchased the original. Like, have’em show a receipt (and ID, perhaps) to the retailer to prove they had previously bought a non-used copy of the original game as they get the new one. Something like that. But as it is, the SMTP3 FES version, and by extent The Answer, IS something of a rip-off.*

But by its own merits? Well, I don’t really have a problem with The Answer. I think that the returning cast are portrayed pretty well, and although their character development isn’t ever as strong as it was at times during the main game, it IS there, and it’s certainly not bad. I thought that the scene where Mitsuru’s comforting Yukari was really quite good, in fact, and Aigis’s character is handled pretty well and in a way that expands her beyond the tenderly wise, yearning, and loving role she had, while still properly acknowledging and building off of it. I like the general premise of the story, and while I think that the plot advances a bit slowly at times, it’s overall worthwhile to experience, and learning the truth of Minato’s fate is a pretty poignant moment.

From what I’ve gathered from the idle conversation of friends and asking around on GameFAQs, there are a few main problems that people have specified regarding The Answer. The first is Metis, the new character. Well, I can’t really argue part of this idea. Metis hasn’t got much depth as a character, and her personality’s neither especially memorable nor appealing. Still, I don’t feel that Metis is a significant detracting factor of The Answer. She does serve her purpose for the plot as the only one supporting Aigis as the group becomes divided, and even if her character adds more or less nothing to the adventure by her own individual merits, I don’t think it takes anything from it, either. And I would argue that the same thing could be said for Akihiko and Koromaru in the main game (and The Answer, for that matter), and no one seems to have much of a problem with them.

Another problem I’ve seen people state about The Answer is how it ends. The Answer ends with Aigis seeming like she should have died, but continuing to live on even though her internal robotic parts have been fried, with the only explanation of this phenomenon being Fuuka’s theorizing that she seems like she’s alive now. It’s been said that this is more your standard improbably everyone’s-happy-sunshine-and-rainbows-for-all Disney ending than a Shin Megami Tensei ending. I suppose I see some logic to this; it IS kind of quickly thrown in there, just as quickly resolved, and has an almost overbearing positivity to it. But I actually think that despite how rushed the idea is, it’s important to The Answer, because it’s ultimately showing us the Tarot’s transition from end to beginning. As I mentioned in my overly long SMTP3 and 4 Tarot comparison rant, the Major Arcana of the Tarot basically symbolize a journey of self-actualization and human understanding, beginning with The Fool, where all is blank and the journey’s potential is raw and unrestricted, and ending with The World, the end to The Fool’s journey through the Major Arcana, at which point the cycle shall begin again at a higher level with a new Fool, just as every close to a journey of understanding in life marks the beginning of a journey of a new kind. Aigis’s death as an android and as what she once was is the moment of The World Arcana in The Answer (perhaps even of SMTP3 as a whole), as she has reached the end of her small journey of understanding, and her rebirth as something alive, a being ready to join the world in a new way, a better way than she could before, represents a new beginning for her, the moment when she once again becomes The Fool, new, fresh, having all the understanding and lessons of the previous cycle within herself and ready to embark on a new journey to grow in new ways. Hell, in my opinion, this is also the start of the next cycle of the journey began and completed by protagonist Minato, for it was his journey from Fool to World in the main game that has brought all of this about, and the greatest pieces of understanding that Aigis gains from her journey through The Answer are those that Minato learned, embraced, and embodied. To me, Aigis’s beginning a new cycle is the proper completion and continuation of Minato’s as much as it is hers.

At any rate, in a game that so brilliantly and artfully employs and embodies the considerable wisdoms and themes of the Tarot, an ending like this in some degree is pretty crucial. Yes, looking at this strictly on its surface level, it is a bit too cheerfully feel-good, and too contrived to BE cheerfully feel-good. And don’t get me wrong, that IS a problem--one of the many great aspects of SMTP3 is that on top of all the immense towers of insight and wisdoms and art is a story that’s genuinely fun, interesting, and creative, making it a game that’s not just brilliant, but good even at surface level (which is sadly often not the case with works whose greatness is underlying), so for the actual, literal events and storytelling value of The Answer’s ending to be lacking is disappointing. Nonetheless, what truly makes SMTP3 exceptional, even brilliant, is its commitment to the subtle, underlying themes of the Tarot, and so I have to say that I view the happy end of The Answer as a good thing, because it all adds up to what it should.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve seen about The Answer, though, is its general pace of narrative. The simple fact of the matter is that most of The Answer is about the gameplay, not the plot, focusing more on traversing the dungeon and a higher difficulty for the battles.** Many of the times when you get a break to see the story elements, they’re more about character back story than the actual plot at hand. The real, main story of The Answer is mostly present at its beginning and in its last stages, leaving the majority of the time you spend with The Answer small side stuff and just battles, battles, battles. And...well, this complaint is pretty much totally legitimate. I mean, I think I appreciate the small bits of character history more than many people do, but they’re not all that important, or even particularly good. And you know my feelings on RPG gameplay, so increasing its quantity at the sacrifice of more time with the plot is NOT a good thing to me. Yeah, this is a real problem with The Answer, one that I noticed and was very displeased with as I played through it.

But you’s something I can forgive. Because, well, I think what plot IS there is worth it. The Answer provides us with a decent mini-story about how the SMTP3 cast reacts to the loss of their leader in SMTP3’s ending, and brings these broken people back to the state that Minato would have wanted them to be in, the state that he gave his life to provide for them--hope, personal awareness, friendship, and the optimistic desire to go out there and create a better world. It gives them, and we the players, the promised answer of what exactly happened to Minato, why he died, and provides a little more explanation on Nyx, as well, all in a way that is creative, interesting, and even inspiring--just what SMTP3 is supposed to be. A better understanding of Minato’s sacrifice makes him that much greater a hero, as well. I also appreciate some of the character development, even if there’s only a small amount--the stuff regarding Mitsuru and Yukari after they lose to Aigis and Metis was very well-done, for example. And ultimately, The Answer gives us what we must have from SMTP3: a story reaffirming just how powerful the human spirit can be, a reminder of how important it is to improve ourselves as humans to reach that higher level of spirit that Minato does, a story that finalizes the Tarot journey we saw before with Minato and makes the transition into the next cycle of the Tarot’s journey through Aigis (emphasized ever so cleverly by the fact that this new journey begins on April 1st, aka April Fools’ Day), and the idea that it is through our connections to those around us that we bring meaning to our lives and better ourselves as human beings.***

So in the end, what’s the verdict on The Answer? Well, it’s not as good as the main game of Persona 3. But SMTP3 is one of the top 10 greatest RPGs I’ve ever played. It’s a shame that its follow-up doesn’t live up to the game’s quality, but that’s still far and away from making it actually bad. It does what it sets out to, and even if it doesn’t give us as much content-per-playtime as it really should, what it’s got IS often good, and does, by its end, tie into the primary Tarot theme adequately. It’s not amazing, but I think saying that it isn’t good is a disservice to The Answer.

* Not the worst I’ve seen where add-ons are concerned, of course. Mass Effect 3’s Omega DLC, Dragon Age 1’s Awakening Expansion, and Borderlands 1’s Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot DLC are all bigger rip-offs, for example.

** At least, everyone SAYS it’s a higher level of difficulty. Oddly enough, I, personally, somehow found The Answer to generally be easier than the main game. I’m really not sure how that happened, but I can only guess that I was somehow playing the main game entirely wrong the whole time.

*** This is kind of neither here nor there, but I was just thinking the other day, as I rewatched the Season 3 Finale of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, how well MLPFiM fits with SMTP3 at times. I mean, one of the most important messages of that episode--a great message--can be found in how Twilight Sparkle solves her friends’ mixed up destinies by allowing their own selfless friendship to put them in the right place to rediscover themselves. The message is clear--sometimes by helping those we care about, we help ourselves even more. It’s just the kind of theme of the self-empowering nature of interpersonal connections that Persona 3 so excellently proclaims to us.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Guest Rant: A 'Tranquility Lane' to Call our Own, by Adam Rousselle (Fallout 3)

A little while back, one of my readers (apparently you guys do exist, wonder of wonders) emailed me and asked whether I would be so kind as to feature some of his own RPG thoughts on this silly little blog of mine. Though I could not (and currently cannot) fathom why anyone would want to piggyback onto a blog with a whole 11 followers, I didn't see why not, and thus, we are here today, with a Fallout 3 rant by Mr. Rousselle, an intelligent fellow by all accounts I'm privy to. Will this be a one-time thing, or will Mr. Rousselle, and possibly others, share more guest rants with us in the future? No idea, but I'm all for the exchange of intelligent thoughts and ideas, so hopefully there will be more of these in the future.

I guess I ought to throw up some sort of disclaimer, though, right? That's what all the bigwigs do. I make no pretense of ownership of Mr. Rousselle's words here, and this guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions. That said, though, I wouldn't publish it if I didn't think it was at least worth reading and contemplating, so check it out.

A ‘Tranquility Lane’ to Call our Own

Adam Rousselle
July 2, 2013

It was a warm day in January as I walked the grounds of the famed Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. I had driven up from Calgary to get away from the stresses of our so-called ‘modern life’, but was still very much preoccupied by them. I climbed up the stairs and on onto the deck of an Alpine-style chalet and took in the vista below; however, not even the stunning white capped mountains in front of me and the crackling fire inside could calm my nerves. Then it struck me that this place was reminiscent of Jacobstown in Fallout: New Vegas. The anxiety left my body and I was free to take in that moment and simply enjoy consciousness.


Within seconds it struck me: as Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now famously put it “like a diamond bullet right through my forehead”. I realized that in the game, once I got past the abject horror of running for my life and desperately chasing down supplies, the virtual world of the Fallout universe is a liberating one. It is a world where I don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on unwanted neckties or other crap I don’t need. There are no credit cards, only bottle caps; success is determined by merely surviving to see the sun rise once more.

More often than not in Fallout, the most successful characters are those in communities where their fellow members band together through reciprocal kindness to carve out a life in the harsh world around them. One need look no further than Nicole from the Followers of the Apocalypse in Fallout, or James, the Lone Wanderer’s father in Fallout 3. Seeing characters like these instills in me a sense of community in these games, which serves as a welcome reprieve from the never-changing war of the world outside.

This made me think: what’s so bad about our time that I feel liberated just thinking about the virtual, albeit deep and compelling, reality of this game series? I think we can all agree that the safety of our surroundings, coupled with modern medicine and basic amenities has added more to our quality of life than detracted from it. Despite this, I couldn’t quite get past the bizarre sense of peace I got when I immersed myself in what is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

It was at this time that I thought of Fallout 3’s ‘Tranquility Lane’. For those of you who don’t know, Tranquility Lane is a virtual world created by Dr. Stanislaus Braun to occupy those weathering a nuclear apocalypse in an underground vault. The problem with this already terrifying scenario is that Braun has absolute power over the other subjects of the vault: I’m sure we all know that famous Lord Acton quote about absolute power corrupting absolutely.
This chapter of the game is so strange that it seems out of place, but because it is a main quest we can reasonably assume that the developers had some sort of message in mind. This is Fallout, after all.

But what were they getting at?

I fired up the old Xbox and took a trip down memory lane to revisit Tranquility Lane. In so doing, my initial emotional reactions came back to me: the stifled feeling of being stuck in a 1950s-esque black ‘n’ white cheery dystopia. The concept of the place is quite morbid and disturbing: a reality created by by a vindictive monster masked in the face of an innocent child, intent on tormenting people for his own amusement. Despite the sinister undertones, the feeling one gets from this is that of security and, juxtaposed to the adrenaline-filled terror one often finds in the wasteland, this false-reality can seem quite comfortable. This is exactly what Dr. Stanislaus Braun was going for when he designed the program:

“There's beautiful irony with this particular simulation as well. The residents here are naturally at home, naturally safe. When I toy with them, when their suburban illusion is suddenly broken, its that much more satisfying.

I do believe we shall all remain here in Tranquility Lane for a very long time. A very long time indeed.”

-Dr. Stanislaus Braun, Vault 112 Terminal Entries

The allegory that most of us live in some version of tranquility lane is a palpable one. Tens of millions of us have been drawn into the comforts of seemingly the ‘tranquil’ suburban life: pressboard homes with tiny pristine lawns and a plethora of consumer goods. However, lurking beneath this apparently idyllic existence is something much more sinister.

For the condemned souls of Vault 112, this sinister element is embodied in the enigmatic Dr. Braun. As mentioned above, Braun enjoys taking advantage of the peoples’ apparent complacency by ‘toying’ with them for his own amusement. This involves creating conflict by playing on people’s insecurities and even orchestrating their simulated deaths through numerous elaborate plans. What is most important is that Braun always takes the form of the seemingly innocuous, which is in this case a little girl. While some may distrust her or even call her ‘mean’, the blame for these occurrences is never placed on Betty/Braun. The residents of Vault 112 are living in torment without a clue as to why these awful things are happening to them.

What can we derive from this situation? Though it is obvious that we are not subject to the sadistic whims of some hidden little man, but we are subject to our share of torment in our own ‘tranquil’ lives.

One need only look at today’s pop culture to see that we are pushed toward an ideal that encourages self-obsession, willful ignorance, and the exploitation of others. We are taught ‘magical thinking’ by revolting figures like Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen who say if you just believe hard enough, you can achieve all the wealth and prestige you desire. We are given mixed messages one minute saying we are ‘beautiful no matter what they say’, and the next are implicitly told that we need to look a certain way in order to be like one of the images we are bombarded with daily. If you think I’m making this up, I dare you to subject yourself to any of the number of mind-numbing reality shows or the latest celebrity gossip to see which young starlet we will push to suicide next.

While some media figures play superficial lip service to things like friends and ‘family values’ (whatever the hell that means), more often than not the message is clear: cash is king. When we don’t have wealth and nice things to demonstrate our largesse, we become insecure and are pushed to the brink of bankruptcy with credit card debt. When we do have wealth, we are taught to lord it over others because we are somehow smarter and harder working than those who have less. We perpetuate our own cycle of insecurity, and it is insecurity that makes men most malleable.

Eddie Bernays knew this better than most. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays is best known for his work as a pioneer of public relations, the principles of which were drawn from his book “Propaganda”. He drew on his uncle’s research in psychoanalysis and became a master of creating fear and desire for both corporations and governments. He used elements like jealousy, sexuality, and terror to make people rabidly fearful of communism and ready to line up and buy a new Chrysler and a pack of Marlborough’s in the name of freedom. At the core of his beliefs was the idea of control: complacency through comfort, compliance through fear (I urge you to watch the BBC documentary “Century of the Self” to gain a better understanding of this concept – please see below).

Aside from both being native German speakers, Bernays and Braun have commonality in their desire for control. The difference is that Bernays saw his work as inherently altruistic: his 1928 book Propaganda states that manipulation and control are necessary for democracy in order to have society led those who know best. However, Braun’s two centuries in the vault seemed to have left him without a shred of altruism, only hubris.

As credit runs dry and American workers are getting squeezed continually, the illusion of their idyllic lives epitomized in 1950s sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver is being ‘suddenly broken’. What happened? Was this ever part of Bernays’ dream for an ideal democratic society?

Bernays’ principles have been used by our elite to effectively manipulate our behavior under the auspices of ‘freedom’, but his desire for good governance has been ignored. It has been conveniently ignored in much the same way Adam Smith’s call for regulations to prevent oligarchies in The Wealth of Nations has been ignored by plutocrats like the Koch brothers who espouse ‘free market principles’ while being among the greatest beneficiaries of corporate welfare in the country. The idea that society must be in the hands of our elite is reinforced with images of the stereotypical ‘unwashed masses’: stupid criminals on Cops or the rabidly ignorant ‘Tea party’ protestors who remind us that we must never leave the country in the hands of the common man. We are taught implicitly trust these elites, if for nothing else than because Oprah Winfrey tells us we can all be rich just like them someday. We wouldn’t want someone else trying to tell us what to do, would we?

For Braun, the effects are obvious: simulated torture for his own amusement. With our own elite, it seems to take the form of greed and hubris: nickel and diming the public, stripping them of their rights, and uncaringly watching as nearly half of all Americans plunge into poverty.

In both cases, the powers that be play on our fears and insecurities. Is my husband cheating on me and why? What if we have another terrorist attack? What if congress passes Obamacare? What if my date doesn’t like my car or my clothes? What if Mitt Romney wins the election? In essence, these are trivial matters that distract us from the truth: the people of Tranquility Lane are getting screwed and so are we.

Most of us have probably found that suburban life, or modern life in general are not so tranquil. Somehow we find escape in games like Fallout, despite their terrifying settings. Perhaps we like the idea of being free of debt, free of thinking we need to buy new things just to get laid, free from the fake-tan douchebags in their entry-level BMWs, free from the persistant chipping away of our civil liberties by governments beginning the resemble the infamous Enclave.

Ironically, the most humane way to beat Tranquility lane is to not facilitate in Braun’s systematic torture, but to inflict catastrophic destruction in the form of a simulated Chinese invasion. With real climate scientists and real economists (not Lawrence Summers or Allen Greenspan) warning us of the potential catastrophic risks of living the way we do, the threat of some awful disaster freeing us of this illusion is a very real and terrifying one.

The good news is that we don’t have to be like the poor folks of Tranquility Lane: we just need to stop kidding ourselves. We need to stop being led by our insecurities and actually get to know those with whom we’ve been told to compete. We need to stop criticizing others for voting for one political party when and realize that the one we vote for is serving the same interests. We need to be like those brave pioneers speckled throughout the Fallout landscape that go above and beyond their own needs to commit acts of profound and selfless kindness in an otherwise brutally unforgiving world. It’s not convenient or glamorous, but I for one don’t want my grandchildren to have to walk something resembling the irradiated expanse of the Capital Wasteland.

For more on this subject, please see:

Bernays, Edward (1928) Propaganda

Documentary: The Century of the Self

Documentary: Human Resources

Smith, Adam (1776) The Wealth of Nations - Free online at:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road's Controls

So Capcom announced a few days ago that there will, after a decade since the last real game in the series, finally be a Breath of Fire 6. And they have also announced that it will be a smart phone/tablet game. Whereas Electronic Arts practices a casual, accidental cruelty in which they don’t care whether or not their pursuit of every dollar in existence leaves the entire game industry a cultural wasteland and destroys video games as an artistic medium, I think Capcom is by this point actively, maliciously attempting to hurt as many human beings as they possibly can.

Anyway, on with the actual rant.

The DS and 3DS have become pretty much the signature RPG systems of the current age. Sure, you get some RPGs for the Wii, Playstation 3, and X-Box 360, and a decent number for the PC, but as a general rule, the RPG system of the current day is Nintendo’s handheld, at least as far as JRPGs go.* This is just fine by me, since it gives me a chance to get my RPG on during my break at work and generally any other time I’m sitting around waiting for something whilst out of my house and away from my other consoles. The list of RPGs in each of my Annual Summary rants that denote what RPGs I played in the past year would have been cut almost in half in the last few years if I hadn’t had my DS and 3DS available to me.

There is, however, one potential problem with this situation: the Stylus.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stylus-oriented gameplay can be pretty awesome for most game genres. Nintendo’s seemingly never ending gameplay creativity has brought about a lot of awesome uses for the Stylus in gaming, and many other companies making DS games have also creatively and effectively incorporated the stylus into their works. And even in the case of RPGs, the stylus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when used effectively. The general pace and play style of RPGs doesn’t fit that of a stylus-oriented game very well, but there are plenty of occasions in an RPG where stylus input can be a good way to do things, like with minigames, or certain puzzles, and so on.

Unfortunately, when a game developer isn’t using the stylus effectively in an RPG, it can get messy. And when they’re doing a REALLY bad job with it, well...then you get The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.

First problem with TWoOBtYBR’s control system: EVERYTHING is controlled with the stylus. The buttons on the DS don’t actually do anything. Now, this is the problem with the stylus when it comes to RPGs: a developer may look at this highlighted gameplay device of the DS and think, “Well gee, that sure is nifty! I think I’m gonna make my RPG ONLY use the stylus for input!” What I wish they would also think is, “Wait, is the stylus actually going to be the BETTER input choice for every part of an RPG?” Because the answer is that it definitely will not be. Most RPGs, regardless of what side of the ocean they come from, involve a heavy amount of menus in their gameplay. From inventory screens to character abilities screens to dialogue boxes to battle menus, a huge part of most RPGs’ gameplay is handled through selections on a menu. It’s the reason why RPGs are boring to actually play. And here’s the thing: it is faster, less work, and more accurate to select things in a menu using your direction pad and the A and B buttons than it is to tap your way through said menu with a stylus. If the menu is complex enough, hitting the exact menu selection you want is difficult with the stylus simply because that selection is small enough that you may need to be very precise with where you’re hitting the screen to get it. If the menu has enough choices for each selection, you’ve got to be moving the stylus to several places and tapping over and over again just to perform one action. And if it’s a heavily menu-based game, you’re having to do this literally thousands of times through the game’s course. Yeah, in the end it’s not all that big a deal, I suppose, but compared to simply hitting a directional button a couple times to highlight your selection exactly and then hitting the confirm button, it’s quite inconvenient and annoying.

However, that is only part of the problem with this game’s controls. If I were going to rant about a game whose gameplay was annoying for being entirely stylus-driven, I would have more than just The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road to rant about. I wasn’t a fan of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks doing it, either, even though Nintendo did a great job at making the system work mostly adequately. And the controls for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, another all-stylus game, are just plain lousy.

What really sets TWoOBtYBR apart from other all-stylus games, however, is the way you move Dorothy around. Now, you won’t hear me praising Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood about anything any time soon, but I’ll give the game this: directing your character by holding the stylus down in the direction relative to said character that you want them to move in at least seems sensible in theory. It sure as hell didn’t wind up working out very well, but the thought of having your character move toward where the stylus is pointing is, at least, a rational way to go about character movement if you’ve already stupidly decided to only allow the game to be played with a stylus, no buttons. Here, however, is a considerably less obvious and straightforward idea: they’ve put a crystal ball on the bottom screen, and the player drags the stylus across it in the direction that they want Dorothy to move in. The ball will roll for a bit, the character will move forward for a bit, and then as the crystal ball slows its roll, so will Dorothy slow until both halt. This necessitates the player to repeat the stylus stroke incessantly to keep her moving.

I’m sorry, Media Vision, but which focus group was it, exactly, that said they wanted an RPG in which the simple act of just moving a character forward replaced the Up Button with a fucking bowling minigame?

One which doesn’t work all that well, I should mention. Dorothy takes a second or 2 to pick up any real speed, which I admit is only annoying to a player who wants her to get to her next destination quickly--but that would be presumably any player who’s trying to make her run in the first place. She also has to skid awkwardly to a halt after running, rather than stopping just meaning stopping, and her changes in direction are a bit sluggish at times. That said, when I say that these things make this ball-spinning process not work all that well, I don’t mean it in the sense of faulty coding or anything like that. I’m fairly certain that each of these little irritations I mention are intentional, as they make Dorothy’s running realistic. Unfortunately, this is the Totally Unnecessary, Annoying, and Reeking of Stupid Lack of Common Sense brand of RPG realism, like when you have to constantly take the time to repair your weapons to keep them functional (like with Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, and the Dark Cloud series), or RPGs with Sprint Meters, where characters can only run for so long without getting tired and having to stop (like with Lunar 1 and 2, or Baten Kaitos 1). This sort of tiny bit of realism typically adds absolutely nothing of value to the game,** and would not be missed if they were not present--I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall ever having heard a Final Fantasy player groan, “Aw, man, this game would be so much better if my sword were disintegrating faster than Dan Slott’s dignity! And why isn’t my character getting winded from 10 seconds of movement? I’m really sick and tired of being able to travel to places in a timely manner! And where’s the “Breathe” button? How can my character possibly stay alive if I don’t press a button to make him breathe every 2 seconds?” Part of the core principle of Suspension of Disbelief is that we, the audience, are willing to let some tiny, irrelevant details of reality slide if it justifiably improves the storytelling process and quality of the product, and this “realistic running” business is exactly the sort of tiny, irrelevant detail that is acceptable to trade away for the sake of the product’s quality--in this case, basic playability and convenience. No one expects an RPG character’s inn stay to actually last a realistic 12 hours instead of the customary 5 seconds, and in the same spirit, no one expects an RPG character’s running to require buildup, gradual turns, and skidding halts.

Even if this stupid ball-rolling-based movement style controlled more pleasantly, though, it’s tedious and dumb in nature. The Crystal Ball barely has a connection to The Wizard of Oz to begin with, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the Oz universe--isn’t it basically only a small prop of the fortune-teller in Kansas, from early in the story? And that connection isn’t even relevant to the game, since part of TWoOBtYBR’s departure from the original Wizard of Oz’s story is to eliminate the fortune-teller (and pretty much everything else in Kansas) anyway. And tap-dragging a stylus over the thing over and over again, once per second or so, for half of a roughly 20 to 30 hour game, can be described with many words, but “fun” is not among them. I don’t know who it was over at Media Vision who decided how the gameplay of The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road would be set up, but whomever you may be, if you ever happen to read this, I would like you to know that you are an idiot.

* Although I have to say that for all the many new RPGs that have come out for the DS and 3DS, there are unfortunately few great ones for the system. Of the 36 I’ve played, I’d say only 5 of them (Radiant Historia, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 1, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and The World Ends with You) were truly exceptional. The rest range anywhere from pretty decent (Infinite Space and Pokemon Generation 4, for example) to just fucking terrible (Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood and Megaman Starforce 1, for example), with most falling right into the middle of that range and being kinda okay but not really worth playing (Pokemon Generation 5 and The Glory of Heracles 5, for example). I can’t help but feel that the previous signature RPG systems, the Super Nintendo, Playstation 1, and Playstation 2, all had significantly better ratios of quality games per capita. Maybe the newly released Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers and Shin Megami Tensei 4 will tilt the DS/3DS library a little more in the direction of quality, though.

** I guess you could say that the constant decay of equipment in Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas ties to the setting of post-apocalyptic decay...but that’s still a bit of a stretch to justify forcing the player to constantly handle this meaningless maintenance busywork.