Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Breath of Fire 1's Party Members' Battle Functionality

Time for another rant that even I admit doesn’t matter in the slightest. That's, what 3 in the last month? Or 336 in the last 11 years, depending on your perspective? But what the hell, I have thoughts and the screen has space for text. Let’s do this.



You know what’s weird? Breath of Fire 1’s cast.

Well, okay, I mean, obviously it’s weird. It’s made up of a human dragon, a winged princess who falls through time and gets amnesia (hurr hurr spoilurz for the 20+ year old game), a fox ranger, a fish man who can become a super fish, a big ox man, a naga sorceress who voluntarily spends 99% of her existence in a coma, and a tiny mole man. I think the last job the lead artist held before being hired by Capcom might’ve been an art booth at a furry convention.

So, yeah, obviously Breath of Fire 1’s cast is weird. I mean, sort of. Weird from most people’s perspectives. From the perspective of a guy who’s played over 300 titles of the gaming genre with the highest saturation of Weird Characters per capita, though...well, this motley assemblage of Deviantart refugees is just my Monday morning.

What does make them odd for even me, though, is how most of these characters function in combat. To whit: they actually just don’t. Half of the party members of Breath of Fire 1 actually don’t really serve a purpose in combat.

Here’s what I mean. On the 1 hand, you have Ryu, Nina, and Bleu (or Deis; personally I liked the original translation name better). Ryu is combat-relevant, because his special ability in combat is to turn into a big honkin’ dragon and tear enemies’ shit up. Nina is combat-relevant for the game’s entirety, because she has a whole gaggle of healing and status effect spells that she keeps learning throughout the game’s course. And Bleu/Deis is combat-relevant, because she learns combat spells over the game’s course that put the hurt on enemies nearly as much as Ryu’s dragon forms.

But then you have the other half of the cast, and they’re...well, they’re really only good for attacking. Like, okay, Bo, the Ranger Rick wannabe? He seems pretty good when you get him early in the game, because he comes with a set of offensive spells, and a Cure spell. Handy! Except that, much like the Genie from Defenders of Oasis,* Bo never learns any spells beyond this initial set. For context, that’d be like a character never learning anything beyond Fire 1, Ice 1, Bolt 1, and Cure 1 in a Final Fantasy game. They’d be handy for a short amount of time, but it wouldn’t take long before they fell to the wayside, and that’s what happens with Bo as a spellcaster. Hell, it’s been a while since I played, but I seem to remember that even before the plot arc involving Bo’s hometown is finished with, his spells are starting to lag a bit. Pretty soon, Bo’s only real utility in combat is basic attacking. Which he’s good at, mind you, his physical attack stats are high. But that’s not serving a combat role that any other character couldn’t.

Similar deal with Gobi. Gobi has some attack spells that are actually pretty useful, and he learns a few more as he progresses in levels. But the problem is, they all only work underwater! I mean, okay, yes, makes a certain amount of sense, him being a fish man, but...well, there’s a decent-sized part of the plot which takes place on the ocean floor, so he gets a good amount of time in which he’s useful in combat, but once you’re done with that part of the game, you’re, well, done. From then on--and this is the substantial majority of the game--you’re encountering enemies on land only, and as such, Gobi’s only combat utility is to poke things with his trident. Like Bo, he’s only there to hit the Attack button, or maybe use an item now and then.

And it just gets worse with Mogu. Mogu’s a little mole man, and the game didn’t even try to pretend that he can do anything special in combat, like it did with Bo and Gobi. Mogu’s 1 and only ability outside of regular attacks is that he can use Dig, and dig a hole out of combat. So, basically, he can guarantee that your party can run away from battles. Uh...great. Yeah, Mogu’s 1 defining trait as a party member is to do what most games accomplish with an equippable accessory. It makes even less sense when you consider that Mogu is the final party member to join you! The guy joins, what, halfway through the game? 60% of the way through? Being able to guarantee an escape from combat is an ability for early in the game, when you’re still getting the hang of the game’s balance and battle system, and when you have fewer resources and options to draw on to survive random encounters! Unless a game has outright flaws in its balance, by the time you’re halfway done with a game, you should be pretty well past the point of needing guaranteed escape abilities! So once again, you have a character who, if he’s in the active combat party, really is just there to do basic attacks and nothing else.

And lastly, there’s Ox. Ox sort of has a use in that just being a big lug who absorbs damage and hits stuff is meant to be his thing. The tank of the team, as it were. Unfortunately, BoF1 was made back in the days where you couldn’t really do much of anything to direct your enemies to attack a specific character, so the utility of a tank character isn’t really all that impressive--having him there won’t cause the less durable characters to be hit any less. Also, he does have a couple of very useful healing spells, but he has so little MP that he can cast them like twice before he’s out of juice. So in the end, Ox seems at first like he’s sort of properly designed for a role as a basic attacker and damage sponge, but the game itself isn’t advanced enough that he’s actually substantially more than Bo, Gobi, and Mogu.

So yeah, that’s 4 members out of 8 who, in combat, don’t really have any specific role in their party. They exist solely to hit the Attack button, and nothing else. It’s very weird, honestly. Usually when you have a party whose members can be swapped out during battle and allows you to reconfigure its makeup as you like, there’s, I dunno, some difference between what they can do. In Final Fantasy 10, for example, every character has a clearly defined and unique skillset and function, at least until you’re, like, at post-endgame level of Sphere Grid unlocking. Even in Final Fantasy 6, some characters do maintain useful individual skills through to the end of the game, even if most of them let their skills fall to the side in favor of everyone getting Ultima.

And yeah, there certainly are plenty of characters in RPGs who also intentionally exist solely to use basic attacks. Aguro in Lufia 1, for example, does literally nothing but attack and use items for the entirety of the game. But this isn’t just a single boring party member in a game which doesn’t offer the player a choice in which characters to use (and frankly, Lufia 1’s not usually a good game to model yourself after in any regard, anyhow). This is half the cast who don’t have a reason to be in the active party except to fill in when Nina, Ryu, and/or Bleu get knocked out.

Also, I should just mention for the record, I’m just criticizing the cast on their value in terms of gameplay mechanics (which, if you know me, is just a minor nitpick which in no way actually affects my opinion of them or the game itself). As characters, they all have adequate reason to be on the journey, several do fulfill decent plot and interpersonal roles, and all of them do have their gameplay purpose outside of battle (Gobi is useful for traveling under the ocean without running into enemies, Mogu can dig through certain spots to find treasures and pathways, etc). Basically, what I’m saying is that this is JUST an inconsequential nitpick of an odd design decision that occurred to me.

So, it’s weird. But is it a flaw? Well...I’m not actually sure it is. See, if you’ve been doing the math, you’ll realize I’ve spoken of 8 characters, yet have only described 7. There’s 1 other member of the party named Karn. Karn’s a thief, and at first seems to be the very least combat-relevant of all of them. Even Mogu has his stupid escape ability, but Karn learns not a single spell or ability on his own! But, Karn CAN learn 4 abilities from some NPCs hidden throughout the game. Each of these abilities power Karn up (and give him some out-of-combat abilities, too), making him incredibly powerful. Sure, he’s still just a physical attacker, but with one of these abilities activated, these regular physical attacks of his are the equal of Bleu’s spells and Ryu’s dragon form!

What does this have to do with Bo, Gobi, Ox, and Mogu, you wonder? Well, Karn’s abilities are all fusion spells. Essentially, each of his 4 abilities fuses him with a combination of Bo, Gobi, and/or Ox, making them unavailable to the party, but using their stats to enhance Karn as he shapeshifts into various hybrids of fox, fish, and ox people.** Karn’s final and most powerful fusion, Puka, is a fusion of himself, Bo, Gobi, and Ox all at the same time, which effectively removes those 3 from the party, and makes Karn absurdly powerful.

Mogu is still useless.

So, you see, it’s kind of hard to say whether Bo, Ox, and Gobi’s lack of combat relevance is really a flaw, so to speak. After all, if they were actually viable combatants, it would be a tough decision, whether to risk losing their versatility in exchange for empowering Karn. But since they’re all basically just Attack machines by the time Karn can start playing with fusion, there’s no conflict--fuse the spindly little pickpocket up, and fill that fourth spot in the party with someone who can actually break some skulls! Maybe it was planned that way, or maybe Capcom just wanted to cover its own ass after it realized that half of its cast was never going to see active duty past a certain point, but in the end, it does work toward a functional purpose for 4 of the 5 otherwise useless characters (counting Karn, since he’s pointless on his own).

Still a weird way to set up your party’s combat dynamic, though.








* Somewhere, a hipster just got a boner and doesn’t know why. That’s how obscure the reference I just made is.


** Is it really any wonder why there are so many furries online these days? My generation and the generation after me were fucking bombarded with anthropomorphic animals from all media angles. You don’t put this pantsless wonder in the instruction manual for your game and then expect a kid to grow up with no interest in catgirls.

Oh, and while I’m at it, thanks a fucking lot for Bleu, Capcom. I really needed to be a lifelong snake woman enthusiast.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

General RPG Lists: Greatest Examples of Battle Systems

Kudos to Ecclesiastes for letting me shoot some ideas at him while I was writing this rant. You’re a proper righteous chap, good sir.



If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you’ve probably come to know 2 things about me. The first is that despite RPGs being my preferred gaming genre, I find the actual process of playing them invariably tedious, and see the large majority of battles in RPGs as being meaningless filler that distracts and distances the audience from the only reason to play the games at all: the story. You know that when I judge the worth of an RPG, combat is a complete non-factor, as it should be for a genre whose gameplay mechanics are so repetitive, and frequently can’t be distinguished from the process of ordering breakfast from a Denny’s menu.

But the other thing you know about me is that I like the sound of my own voice (such as it is in text form) enough that I have no problem whatsoever chattering on about things that don’t matter in the slightest. And so here we are.

Battle systems! They may not matter a lick to me, but even so, I can tell when they work and when they don’t. And even if it doesn’t make a difference to whether or not a piece of interactive art should be experienced, a programming team’s good work on making a battle system whose repetitive mediocrity is as low as possible deserves some credit. So today, I’ll be looking at the very broadly defined types of RPG combat I know of, and judging which RPGs are the very best examples of these different battle systems.

Enjoy! Or don’t. I make the same amount of $0 either way.



Turn Based
The most traditional, iconic battle system of the RPG genre, utilized in countless titles going as far back as the original Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and even Phantasy Star titles, and still going strong today in major series like Shin Megami Tensei, Pokemon, and Indie RPGs like Shadows of Adam, released just this year.

It’s also the reason I find RPGs so fucking boring to play. This is a battle system built on the same premise as navigating through the Windows operating system. How the hell this genre managed to take off with this as its starting point, I’ll sure never know.

Winner: The Shin Megami Tensei Series
Although not every SMT game employs traditional turn-based combat (SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha, for example, is an Action RPG), the majority do, and, quite frankly, this series has got a simple-to-understand take on Turn Based gameplay that manages to allow for complexity and strategy without abandoning even the slightest functionality. With most RPGs, the constant addition of nuances and complexities to battle systems is a detriment, cluttering an already annoying play experience with superfluous crap that feels more like an attempt to stand out than an attempt to build something actually enjoyable to play. The press turn nuance of SMT games, which encourages you to understand enemy weaknesses by rewarding you with more attacks per turn when you exploit them and punishing you with fewer when you fail to account for enemy defenses, makes even regular battles more interesting as you play a game of balances against your opponents, seeking to maximize your turns and minimize the turns they get. In addition, beyond the press turn function, SMT games are generally made with enough care that their difficulty curve keeps you on your toes for the majority of the game, and strategy beyond manipulation of press turns is a must. To say nothing of the effort that Atlus puts into the weaknesses of its bestiary! Yes, the Shin Megami Tensei series is the best possible example of Turn Based battle systems: a straightforward, functional, intuitive system that naturally allows for complexity and strategy rather than trying to artificially inject it as a gimmick. Kudos to Atlus on this one.


Active Time Battle
It wasn’t long into Turn Based battles’ run that some bright young man or woman realized that they weren’t actually fun. In a (futile) attempt to remedy this, the ATB system evolved from traditional Turn Based games, offering ever so slightly closer an experience to actually playing a game, and not just cruising through someone’s My Documents folder. With ATB, there is no overarching turn in combat--rather, each combatant receives their turn individually, determined by how their Speed stat (or its equivalent) matches up against that of everyone else in battle. This was Squaresoft’s bread and butter during its iconic years of the SNES and first Playstation, and it, like its Turn Based predecessor, is still going strong today, particularly with Indie RPGs like the recent Cosmic Star Heroine.

Still boring as hell, though.

Winner: The Grandia Series
In a manner not entirely unlike Shin Megami Tensei, Grandia makes the most of the ATB system by implementing mechanics that encourage “juggling” your enemies as much as they do actually harming them. With Grandia, your attacks and your exploitation of weaknesses don’t just do damage to your foes, they also halt them for a moment, delaying their turns from arriving, or even stun them, outright stopping and setting back your foes’ approaching turn. Your foes can, of course, do the same to you, and so the game adds an element of strategic budgeting of your attacks to its battles that keeps you engaged. It’s a good idea that’s executed well enough that I actually, incredibly enough, found myself enjoying most of the battles in Grandia 1 and 2. And sure, there are plenty of other ATB RPGs that make some use of juggling enemy turns, to varying degrees of success...but it’s rarely so well and essentially incorporated as Grandia’s system, and certainly it’s never been as satisfying to hear see and hear you soundly smash your foes down the turn order as it was with Grandia.


First Person Slasher/Shooter
You know, we tend to think of FPS/RPG hybrids as being a newer concept, introduced by games like Fallout 3, the Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect, but actually...this has been around in RPGs for ages, when you think about it. What else would you call all those old first person dungeon-crawling PC games from back in the day? You know, the ones that Orcs + Elves mimics? This is actually an old and storied type of RPG, which has simply gotten a facelift in the last decade.

And thank goodness for that. If Orcs + Elves is anything to go on (I don’t pretend to have played the old school hack and slash titles), FPS systems used to be boring as hell. Heck, they still can be; the Elder Scrolls titles do absolutely nothing for me. But Mass Effect and Fallout are actually legitimately fun to play, so the system has evolved in a very positive direction.

Winner: Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas
It’s hard to believe that the engine the recent Fallout games use was developed for Elder Scrolls, and not the opposite way around. The system that just never feels quite right, a little inescapably clunky, for the series it was created for, by contrast fits Fallout like a glove. But it goes beyond just providing a good First Person Shooter experience--otherwise, Mass Effect would be here. No, what really makes the Fallout series shine is the way they incorporated the turn-based battle system of the original Fallout 1 and 2, with its great feature of targeting specific places on enemies’ bodies to cause various effects. With its VATS system, the Fallout series has become the absolute perfect blend of RPG and shooter, seamlessly letting you go back and forth between relying on your stats to turn the tide and dominate difficult battles with selective Turn Based pauses, and relying on your own capabilities in real time for the rest. Beyond Undertale’s incorporation of Bullet Hell into its menu-dependent Turn Based system, I can’t think of another RPG that even comes close to Fallout in blending substantially different combat types into a single, efficient entity


Action
Eventually, someone somewhere figured out that there really wasn’t any law in place that said RPGs had to be patience-testing slog-fests of selecting the same commands from a DOS simulation about a thousand times per playthrough--it was, in fact, legally possible to incorporate stat-based gameplay and still have characters do things. From this groundbreaking concept that video games could actually involve movement came Action RPGs, RPGs whose battle systems allow for free and generally continuous movement. Menus may and usually are still involved, but pressing a direction button does more than just move a cursor.

This is the only RPG battle system that I find to be consistently fun. Well...mostly consistent. Lagoon still managed to be ass.

Winner: Kingdom Hearts 2
Honestly, there’s a lot of competition here. Kingdom Hearts 2 is competent, functional, and fun, incorporating stats into its free-moving gameplay well, involving menus in a simple and effective capacity while leaving the meat of combat to remain the player’s actual movement and attacks...it’s solid stuff. But a lot of other RPGs can say the same, to the same degree of competence...hell, a few of them, like, say, SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, do it slightly better. But KH2 has 1 important feature that pushes it into the top spot for me: its triangle button actions. I covered this a while back, but a quick refresher: You don’t just have the option to fight enemies normally in KH2--with each foe, you have an opportunity in combat to react to their movements and pull off a special attack or defense that’s singular to that enemy. For normal foes, this can be as simple as a quick dash behind them, which isn’t that interesting...but when you take advantage of triangle reactions against bosses, the results are frequently exceptionally cool and fun to watch, bringing the battle to a whole different realm. Who can forget how awesome it was to have Sora ride the Heartless chandelier thing in the Beast’s castle, smashing it against the columns of the ballroom? To make him leap atop Cerberus’s heads, grab the Keyblade, and dive-bomb them? To watch Sora run up the walls of the Master Control Program’s chambers, and use the height to hurl himself straight at the giant Sark? Every boss can be unique for what strategy must be employed to beat them, but Kingdom Hearts 2 takes it a step forward, and makes the choreography of its epic battles just as singular, lending a sense that this really is a special battle of its own. Very enjoyable.

Of course, this isn’t the only RPG out there to do something like this, I should note. Recent Legend of Zelda games, for example, also have many reaction commands. Nonetheless, KH2 stands apart for how thoroughly it incorporated them, and the fun and epic nature of them is still unmatched, to me.

Action battle systems are generally fun, but even they get repetitive when you go through an RPGs’ typical hundreds of battles doing the same thing each time, even for most bosses. Kingdom Hearts 2 goes out of its way to make its epic battles a part of its cinematic experience, and that pushes it to the top.



Tactical
The Fire Emblem series, Nippon Ichi’s canon, most Shining Force titles, Live A Live, the early Fallouts, the recent Shadowruns...you know the drill with Tactics battle systems. They’re sitting around, waiting for your turn, much like Turn Based and ATB, but your turn also involves moving where you are on a battlefield, and your placement affects what you can do and who you can attack. From ancient titles like Crystal Warriors and Fire Emblem 1, right on up to this year’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tactical RPGs have been around for ages, and they’re going nowhere anytime soon.

They range in terms of how boring they are. Some are very boring. Others engage one’s mind enough that they’re kind of less boring...until you realize that each battle takes like 20+ minutes to get through. I’m not really a fan, but I guess that they’re better than the standard battle systems of RPGs.

I originally thought I’d separate Tactical RPGs into 2 types: Turn Based, and ATB, in the sense that some RPGs (like Vandal Hearts 1 + 2, Bahamut Lagoon, and the Fire Emblems) strictly follow an order of everyone on 1 side getting to move and act, then everyone on the other side getting to move and act, back and forth like a regular Turn Based system, while other RPGs (like SMT Devil Survivor 1 + 2, Hoshigami Remix, and Project X Zone 1 + 2) are more like an ATB system, in which turn order is about individual units and their stats and actions. But honestly? I kind of feel like the differentiation doesn’t matter all that much...whereas it’s a huge thing on its own, Turn Based vs. ATB in terms of Tactical RPGs comes off as more just one of many potential features and approaches to how it works, a part instead of the focal point. The focus with Tactical systems is on the strategies of troop placement and all the details that go along with it, so I don’t see the point of splitting this category up.

Winner: Final Fantasy Tactics
As if there were ever any doubt. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but the method of Final Fantasy Tactics’s gameplay is sensible and engrossing, with a staggering level of complexity built into it. There are dozens of different ways to use dozens of different units in dozens of different scenarios of terrain, formation, stats, angles of fire, turn order, and various other interacting details. If most other Tactical RPGs are checkers, this is chess, the ultimate cumulation of tactical aspects that the genre aspires to.

The only flaw, really, is that the level of possibility and detail in the battle system is so nuanced and expansive that the developers didn’t really seem to even know what to do with it, as there are few battles that really strive to explain to you or push you to try various facets of the system’s possibilities--like they developed a supercomputer and then had no idea what to do with it beyond using it as a calculator. Still, there’s enough opportunity and different scenarios to sink your strategic teeth into this insanely detailed battle system to appreciate it.


Automated
I don’t know what else to call this style of battle system. Maybe there’s a term for it, and if so, let me know. This is that weird thing where it’s not so much characters following your direct commands, so much as it is you setting the pace for them and directing them from afar. Hard to explain...like, Final Fantasy 12, or Dragon Age 1, where it’s less you directly controlling your characters’ actions than it is pointing and clicking to set their target, and they follow a set action automatically. Setting up the gambits of FF12, auto-attacking in Xenoblade Chronicles 1 when you’re near an enemy, ramming into foes in Eternal Senia and the Fairune series, that sort of thing.

To me, this battle system has the capacity to be the most boring of all of them--and it lives up to that potential more often than not. It works out okay enough when it’s the ram-into-stuff variety, I guess, like the Witch + Hero series and Eternal Senia, but in the more common MMORPG styles of this battle system, things can get really asinine. The only thing I can imagine that’s more mind-numbing than repetitive Turn Based combat is spending 20 - 40 minutes messing around with combat command orders and priorities, and then for the rest of the game just watching every battle happen on its own, with you occasionally directing someone to use a potion. Set up your little automated combat strategies well enough in some of these systems, and you can just sit back and read a book while the game plays itself without you and Jontron freaks out. This is the only battle system so ass backwards, it’s guaranteed that the better you are at it, the less you’ll actually play. You can play some of these RPGs in the background while you’re doing something else.

...

...Someone did remember to tell the Final Fantasy 12 development team that video games are generally regarded as an INTERACTIVE medium, right? A memo clarifying what products SquareEnix made did circulate around the office at some point between 2001 and 2006? Then again, maybe the FF12 team designed the game the way they did as an apologetic mercy to the player. Maybe they fully realized that their game was a self-important coma-inducing wad of garbage, and in a last-ditch effort to mitigate the damage, Final Fantasy 12’s developers designed its battle system to be so excessively automated that you could actually play a different, better game while playing theirs.

Winner: Defender’s Quest 1
Okay, so, this is kinda cheating, because Defender’s Quest isn’t so much an Automated RPG as it is a Tower Defense RPG, and Tower Defense games just naturally have units which are automated. Look, I don’t know what to tell you. The best that Automated battle systems ever seem to produce are either things like Xenoblade Chronicles 1, which is functional and fine but also would have clearly worked better as an Action RPG, which isn’t something I’m gonna congratulate, or things like the Eternal Senia/Fairune/Witch + Hero thing, where you just spend the game ‘attacking’ enemies by body slamming them and hoping they die first. That works just fine, but can I really glorify something that careless and basic with a winning spot?

Anyway, cheating or not, DQ1 is an Automated RPG, and it works damn well, incorporating the RPG concepts of leveling up and stat/ability-building into the naturally addictive (if perhaps kind of stupid) Tower Defense genre’s gameplay smoothly and effectively. There’s not a lot to say about it, really. Just imagine a Tower Defense game that is an RPG, imagine that it’s done exactly as well as you’d think it should be, and you’ve got Defender’s Quest 1. I can’t for the life of me figure out why we haven’t seen more games try merging these genres since DQ1 came out, because it’s strong proof that they have a natural chemistry.



And...that’s it for now. I can’t think of any other really major RPG battle system types that aren’t just somewhat varied versions of the above, although if you can, you’re welcome to share your thoughts with me. Barring that, though, this is the end of the rant, and I have no closing thoughts to share, so have this awkward paragraph, instead! Thanks for reading.