Monday, April 28, 2014

Star Ocean 3's Map Completion

I like Star Ocean 3 quite well, but there are definitely parts of it I am not a fan of. I’m not big on its difficulty curve, for one. It’s not an easy game to start with unless you really have an intimate knowledge of how to abuse it, but after a certain point, if you’re not brutally abusing the item creation system (I hate item creation in general, by the way, should probably rant on it at some point), it gets damn near impossible to continue on with the game at all. Beyond that problem, you may recall that I definitely am not fond of its Hauler Beast minigame. I also think it’s incredibly stupid and tedious that Enix once AGAIN has a significant portion of the science-fiction game just be dicking around on some backwater little fantasy-land planet, ignoring the actual plot (thank heavens it takes a lot less of the game’s time than SO2 and SO1’s pointless camping trips did). Additionally, Albel Nox may be pretty hot,* but he’s a stupid, one-dimensional asshole.

And of course, there’s the Map Completion aspect of the game. Ugh. Ugh many times over.

The idea is that every time you’ve explored 99% or more of any area’s map in the game, you get 1 of 3 possible reward items, all of which are mostly meant to be sold for a rather hefty sum, since they don’t really do anything.** SO3 is one of those RPGs where you’re pretty much always scrambling for enough money to buy the equipment and pay for the item creation you need to keep going, and while the reward items for completing a map are not an incredible monetary windfall, they’re nonetheless definitely a significant source of your cash flow. So if you want to save yourself hours of boring money-grinding, hours you could instead spend by doing something actually enjoyable and/or meaningful with your limited time on this Earth, you’ll want to do this for each map you can.

The problem with Map Completion in SO3, the reason it becomes a real pain in the ass, is how picky the game is about what constitutes “seeing” all the map. See, the game doesn’t just count the area of the map that you can actually see and travel over as its total area. SquareEnix wants you to explore the very furthest reach of every map entirely, from every angle. That means that in order to unveil the outermost edges of the map, you’ve got to run against the entirety of the playing area’s edge, hugging that wall as closely as you can. The game can be so incredibly sensitive about how far you test the area’s boundaries that you can miss uncovering bits and pieces of the map just by running against the area wall at the wrong angle. Does the area map have any nooks and crannies along its edges? A small obstacle like a stone or bush or something along its edge? Then you better SLAM yourself up against that obstacle and keep running over it from all directions, you better cram yourself into every inch of that cranny and press into it from every possible angle, because if you don’t you’re going to miss those precious tenths of a percentage point of map completion that will determine whether or not you make it to 99%. A 1% margin of error doesn’t leave you enough wiggle room to miss that single little pixel on the map roughly 3 miles away from the furthest corner of the play area you can reach!

Hugging the wall? You’re performing osmosis with the wall.

Also worth noting is that a lot of these maps can't be completed anyway, at least not the first time you traverse through them. Several areas have hidden spots that can only be accessed with the Ring of Disintegration, an item that you'll only acquire once you're many hours into the game. By the time you have a chance to return to these areas, the monetary reward matters far less to you, and you'll be constantly harassed in at least some of them by weak, under-leveled enemies who no longer have anything to reward you with but wasted time. As if the process of completing these maps wasn't infuriating enough, SquareEnix just had to throw a dash of mindless tedium into the pot.***

I know it’s ultimately a small irritation, and I wasn’t sure whether SO3’s Map Completion might just be too small and insignificant to deserve a rant.**** But I suppose the real axe I have to grind with Map Completion in SO3 is not just that it’s annoying, but also that it’s an idea I would have actually liked if they’d implemented it better. Bad ideas are a bother, but good ideas turned bad are so much worse, you know? When I played Shin Megami Tensei 4, I went out of my way to uncover all parts and corners of each area’s map. Not because there was any particular reason to do so, but because I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to that sort of thing; I like a nice, clean, fully-revealed map in my RPGs. There was no reward for it beyond the appeasement of my slightly over-compulsive whims.

Rewarding me for this with something practical, like a game item worth some game cash, would have been something I’d have liked, something I’d like in pretty much any RPG I play, particularly since I’m inclined to want to do it anyway. And if Star Ocean 3 had had its Map Completion feature designed better, so that you’d only have to cover the actual play area without humping every centimeter of the wall from every direction like you’re the star of some bizarre geography-fetish gangbang porno, I would have been here making a rant praising the game for this feature instead. Sadly, it was not to be.

* Yes, I said it. So what? It’s true. He is.

** Technically not true. If you have the most expensive of the items in your inventory, you move 50% slower on the battlefield, which of course is a great incentive to sell the thing as fast as you can. If you have 1 of the others in your inventory, you move 5% faster on the battlefield (an effect which does not add to itself; holding any more than 1 does not add more than that 5%), so that’s incentive to keep 1. But with those exceptions and for all practical purposes, they’re just there to make you money.

*** This paragraph thanks entirely to reader Ecclesiastes, who pointed out that I had forgotten the Ring of Disintegration aspect, which is just annoying enough that it really needs mention.

**** Ha! That’s a laugh. As if there’s anything in RPGs small enough and insignificant enough that I won’t waste my time and yours with a rant about it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lunar: Dragon Song's Gameplay

I warn you right now: if you’ve read any reviews for Lunar: Dragon Song, then this entire rant is probably not going to tread any new ground. Everyone has the same complaints about this title’s gameplay, and this is just me adding one more indistinguishable log on that fire. But if you don’t have anything better to do--and let’s face it, if you’re actually here, with the intent to read the nonsense that I incessantly chatter on about, then chances must already be good that you’re pretty hard up for entertainment at the moment--then read on.

Lunar: Dragon Song. It is nothing short of legendary for how horrible it is to play. This game does so many things wrong with its design, making itself utterly unplayable at every turn in so many ways, that I actually think it was designed by a super villain. Really, there cannot be any way for this many completely unique gameplay problems to have come about without malicious intent; this game is a work of an evil, twisted creative genius. You almost have to admire it, as a work of art made to commemorate frustration and human suffering. I’m 30 years old now, so I don’t actually have the time left to me on Earth to really go into every part of why this game is virtually unplayable, but here’s a quick Who’s Who list of the more horrible design flaws:

Experience OR Items After Battle: Yeah, you don’t get both. Items are the only reliable source of income in this game, and the badly designed challenge curve guarantees that you’re eventually going to really, really need every edge you can get, which means that after a certain point in the game you HAVE to be buying every new piece of armor you come across. That means twice as much time wasted grinding against enemies, once for EXP, once for the items you’ll need to make money. Since enemies level with you, you might be thinking that you COULD try for the money alone and do a low-level run of the game, but…

Frustrating Challenge Curve: The game gets too hard, too fast, and never lets up; every dungeon is a war of attrition with the player. This makes it more or less impossible to do a low-level run of the game. Yes, enemies do level with you, so if your levels are lower then they’ll be likewise less powerful, but that isn’t enough--even low-leveled, the enemies’ power will eventually outpace updated armor and weapons’ effectiveness, and you’ll be unable to defeat bosses without gaining levels. So what you have here is a game where gaining levels is almost meaningless because your enemies are gaining them with you so each level only provides you with marginal superiority, but also a game where you also can’t take advantage of low enemy levels past a certain point, either.

Enemies Can Break Your Equipment: There are a fair number of enemies in this game that can break your equipment with their regular attacks. Yeah. That’s annoying in any game, but consider what I’ve mentioned so far. First of all, that you have to spend time battling enemies over and over just for money alone. So if a random enemy attack means that you’re forced to replace that piece of armor you just bought for tens of thousands, you’d best grab yourself a Snickers, because you’re not going anywhere for a while. And then consider what I’ve mentioned about the difficulty curve. After a while, you’re not going to be able to do diddly-squat damage to enemies if you don’t have the best possible weaponry, so if an enemy happens by chance to break your main character’s weapon, that’s really just too fucking bad for you. You’re not going forward until you replace that weapon, unless you want your already tediously long and overabundant battles to take 5x longer. Oh, and if the piece of equipment that breaks happens to be one you got from a chest that’s better than any other equipment you can currently buy? Tough shit.

Painfully Slow Walking Speed, But Running Costs HP: The pace of your characters when walking is best described as “plodding,” but your characters lose HP when they run. Want to get anywhere in a timely fashion in this game? You’d better stock up on those healing items. But oh wait, you have to waste twice as much time fighting enemies for the money you’ll need for those healing items, won’t you? So either way you’re going to be wasting that much more time. Awesome.

Jian’s the Only Useful Attacker: Jian the protagonist does more damage in one of his attacks than any other character does in one of theirs. This wouldn’t be a big deal (pretty standard for RPGs, really), except that Jian also does 3 attacks for every round, while everyone else just does your standard 1 attack. This means early on that Jian is overpowered and the rest of the party are just some fumbling, nearly useless support. Later on, when the game figures out what’s going on, this means that Jian is just 1 competent fighter against groups of enemies designed to challenge a full party of competent fighters, and the rest of the party are still just some fumbling, nearly useless support. Not helping this problem is my number 1 complaint, which is:

Oh My God Are You Serious, You Can’t Target Specific Enemies!?: Self-explanatory, really. When you tell your party to attack, they randomly select their target from the enemy party. Did Jian spend his turn attacking one enemy, whittling its HP down to nearly nothing? You can’t tell your weak supporting characters to finish it off, so more than likely they’ll just ineffectively attack something else (probably a weak enemy that Jian could 1-shot-kill a minute from now anyway), and Jian will waste his next turn finishing off the weakened enemy instead of being free to go to the next. Remember when I said that every dungeon is a war of attrition in this game? That’s because in every single battle, enemies get several more turns to attack you than they should due to the game’s random AI having no concept of attack strategy. You simply watch, powerless to do anything, each battle dragging on that much longer and costing that much more HP. Unbelievable. What is even the point of having a battle system at all if you only half control it? You have about as much say in what happens in battle as you would if you were watching someone play it on Youtube.

There’s plenty of other terrible things that make playing this game agonizing, like very low starting MP values, MP restoration items not being able to be purchased, weird map object-collision detection, the fact that money-making delivery sidequests often have the name of the supposed receiver and the name of the actual receiver not match up due to translation errors, the fact that a lot of your money comes from stupid delivery quests to begin with, and so much more, but the ones above are, I think, most of the really big ones.

Now you look at those, and you tell me that a game this perfectly designed to suck, where its gameplay flaws all coordinate with one another to strengthen each one’s dysfunction, was not MEANT to be as painful a playing experience as possible. Sorry to get all Intelligent Design on you, but there is no way something this horrible happened accidentally.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei 4-1's Downloadable Content

3DS RPG DLC! Besides being way too many abbreviations all at once, it’s a subject I haven’t touched on yet. This is partially because most add-on content I’ve seen so far has been for PC games, which traditionally are more used to DLC and expansions and so on than Japanese RPGs are. This is also partially because there was not one single bit of Dragon Quest 9’s DLC that was even worth ranting about, so I didn’t bother. Fucking Dragon Quest.

Anyway. This will be the first time I’ve seen an add-on for a Shin Megami Tensei title (unless you count The Answer for SMT Persona 3, which does sort of count, but also sort of doesn’t since it was less an add-on than it was an expansion that you’d have to re-purchase the entire game for). Let’s see how Atlus does. I can only hope they’ll outperform some of the games I’ve seen in the past.

As usual, I’m not paying any attention to anything that doesn’t have any particular story content. You can just assume that the DLC packages for different armors and Experience/Money/App Point grinding are wastes of money.

Clipped Wings 1 and 2: There’s no point in separating these 2 DLCs, they’re each half of a whole. Uh...nope. Nope. Don’t like’em. They’re each about $2.50, which is not very much these days, but even then, you are not getting your money’s worth. All they are is a tiny bit of plot dialogue, and a series of fights against the Archangels (Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael). They’ll take you 10 minutes each at the very most to complete, assuming you’re victorious--and I don’t think it’s fair to count it if you have a longer experience just because you lose a few times. As fights go, they’re fine, but it’s not like the game isn’t already filled with plenty of decently challenging fights already.

The storyline for the DLC is mildly interesting, but too light and too lacking explanation. Oh, to be sure, I appreciate that this DLC provides us with some information on how 3 of the 4 Archangels were captured prior to SMT4’s opening, and that it provides us with some background for Mastema’s role in the game. But that information is rushed, and frankly, I’m not sure that randomly throwing time travel causality loops in was really the best way to handle this scenario. While the passage of time in SMT4’s a little difficult to get a firm grasp of at times due to inadequately explained differences in time flow between Tokyo and the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, the game hadn’t had any time travel until this moment, so it feels forced and out of place.

Plus, this DLC introduces a plot hole (besides the standard logical paradoxes of time travel to the past): if protagonist Flynn did indeed go back in time to defeat the Archangels and allow Mastema to capture them, why in the world does Gabby not recognize him during the game proper’s course of events? Once the other 3 are freed, why don’t they recognize Flynn, for that matter? Yeah, you can argue that they realize that the past events are set in stone and they shouldn’t attack him in the present before he’s traveled back to set the past events in motion, but even accepting that answer, it makes no sense for Gabby, or any of them, to trust Flynn as much as she does and they do. She charges him and his companions specifically with rescuing the other 3 Archangels in the middle of the game, and if Flynn follows the Law path, all of them will completely trust him to fight Lucifer alongside them. Do they somehow think he isn’t the same guy as from back in the past? Even if they’re not sure, wouldn’t they say something, ask something, do some sort of investigation or take some kind of precautionary measures?

There is 1 criticism I’ve heard for this DLC that I don’t share in, though. Some people have complained that since the Archangels are significant parts of the main storyline, they should have been fought in the game proper, not as optional add-on bosses. I actually don’t agree with this criticism. I mean, taken at face value, it’s logical, but the plot of the game kind of makes it hard to make that happen. By the time you reach the point of the plot where you may actually be opposing the forces of God, the Archangels have already fused with Jonathan to form Merkabah. Until then, there’s no reason they would attack Flynn, and at that point, they’re no longer individually in the picture. Still, that’s just one small thing that isn’t a problem with this DLC. The facts remain that it has too little story and play time, the story isn’t done well, and it is WAY overpriced for what it is. Considering how little you get from this DLC, I’d say paying even a single dollar would have been an unfair price.

Ancient One of the Sun: This one is a little better. It actually relates to the main plot of the game without mucking about with time travel (granted, it uses dimension travel, which isn’t much better, but at least that’s an established part of the game already), and furthers one of the main plot’s story arcs. In this DLC, you’re brought back to Blasted Tokyo to defend its citizens from God’s wrath once more, this time by defeating an actual piece of God, the Ancient of Days. Essentially, it’s pretty similar to Clipped Wings in that it’s short, doesn’t have an actual gameplay area, and is just a battle with some dialogue before and after it, but at least it seems somewhat relevant to the game. It develops a little further the fate of the Blasted Tokyo survivors, and ends with a little better closure for them, with uncertainty but hope that they’ll be able to greet the new culture of Genesis and live with them peacefully. I kind of wish poor Kiyoharu didn’t have to be disillusioned during the battle, since he would probably have been able to quite happily embrace these new people of God and easily maintain his fanatical faith, but ah well. So is this DLC worth it? Well...more than Clipped Wings was, but overall, no. Again, even if $2.50 isn’t much to spend, we’re talking about 15 to 30 minutes of game time total. To me, a dollar should equal at least 1 hour of play time in a DLC. If Atlus lowers the price of this one to 50 cents, I’ll buy it, but I’m sure as hell not paying any more for it.

The Eternal Youth: Meh. Since Sanat kind of comes out of nowhere with no background to precede him, this DLC, which is again just some dialogue, a fight, and final dialogue, feels contrived and doesn’t particularly draw one in. It’s nice to help Infernal Tokyo’s Akira again, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like any particular step has been taken by the end of it. I guess the idea is that now that Akira has supposedly beaten Sanat, all the demons think he’s hot shit and awesome and all that, but why the hell didn’t they already think that? The events of the main game have Akira taking the credit for beating Kenji, the guy who was previously the strongest individual in Infernal Tokyo, so this is one of those annoying cases of characters forgetting what they’ve learned solely so they can re-learn it. Sanat’s story and powers and role and motives and whatnot are too vague and mysterious, Akira’s side of things is too much a repetition of before, and nothing seems to have really been accomplished by the DLC’s end. Even if this one were long enough that the cost ($2.50, again) were tolerable, it wouldn’t be worth it. Pass.

For the Past...For the Future: Now see, this is the kind of DLC I hate the very, very most. In this DLC, you’re transported once again back in time, this time to the day that the land above Tokyo was created that would later be the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado. You get a bit of dialogue beforehand, which explains a fair bit about several important parts of SMT4’s past history, including the disaster whose results separated the 3 dimensions we see during SMT4 (the home dimension, Blasted Tokyo, and Infernal Tokyo), a little background for the Yamato Reactor, how things went down with Masakado, of course part of the origin story of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, and we even see that the whole day of fate relates very strongly to similar cataclysms in other SMT games (the missile strike is just like the one from SMT1, and the conflict of angels and demons and humans in the streets of Tokyo is similar to the events of SMT Devil Survivor 1), which is a nice touch. Admittedly, Masakado is stupidly overpowered during your fight with him which doesn’t really fit the SMT lore,* and this DLC once again brings in time travel where it’s not wanted and REALLY opens a can of worms as far as cyclical event time paradoxes, but overall, this DLC has a lot of really good, really critical backstory for the setting and history of SMT4.

And that’s the damn problem. Why the HELL is such a critical part of understanding how events led to the current situation of SMT4 a Downloadable Content package!? There is just absolutely no denying that this is important, story-relevant narrative that absolutely without a shadow of a doubt should have been in the main game! This is important backstory that is just outright missing from the game, and whose absence is most definitely felt! At most the main game gives you vague hints and impressions of the things this DLC shows us, things that are incredibly relevant to understanding and appreciating the major plot events of Shin Megami Tensei 4! Holy hyper hell in a hamper, I hate it when a game has content in its add-on that obviously belonged in the main game. You wanna sell me Downloadable Content, then give me additional, unrelated aventures, give me character side stories, give me special epilogues and ending adjustments, give me expanded stories on minor things I’ve heard about in the game...but you sure as hell better not give me significant parts of the main plot that you just messily ripped from the game so you could charge me more money! If I want to understand the primary plot, the core story, of a game to the fullest possible extent, I should NOT have to pay extra! I paid for a full, complete story when I purchased the game, Goddammit!

I do not take kindly to being swindled, and that’s what this DLC is. At $3 for 20 to 35 minutes of play time, it’s not worth it anyways, but since its content is relevant enough to the game proper that keeping it separate is obviously a ploy to take advantage of you to make a quick buck, I wouldn’t pay for this thing if it only cost a single cent. Definitely go find a Let’s Play video of this add-on, because it’s certainly content that you should experience if you’re playing SMT4, but don’t waste your money supporting this kind of disingenuous scam. Shame on you, Atlus. I thought you were better human beings than Bioware. Perhaps I misjudged you.

So what’s the verdict for my first true foray into JRPG add-ons? Not good. Only a couple of SMT4’s DLCs have any plot content worth your time, they’re all way overpriced for the piddly amount of game time they add, and the last one is a classic example of how disgustingly dishonest the add-on business can be. If Atlus does another set of DLCs with its next SMT game, I sure hope they’re better than this.

* He’s supposed to be the ultimate demon of Neutrality in the SMT series, but as such he is, power-wise, way below the high iconic demons of Chaos and Law. That’s how it should be, because Neutrality is supposed to be all about humans finding their own way through their own strength, so it makes sense thematically for Masakado to be less powerful than Lucifer, Merkabah, Ancient of Days, even perhaps the Archangels, because that way the hero who chooses the path of Neutrality must compensate for the lesser power he receives by using his own abilities to see himself through--a human being’s abilities. Making Masakado into clearly the most powerful boss in the entire game just tosses all that thematic consistency out the window.