Monday, September 18, 2017

General RPGs' Collectathons' Bad Rewards

Who’s psyched for a short rant?

Okay, could we PLEASE get some sort of formal, written agreement across the board from RPG companies that if your game has a long and involved collectathon, the final reward for finding every single hidden little collectable object has to actually be, y’know, rewarding?

This is not fucking rocket science. If you have hidden 50 secret magical doodads throughout the game and given the player a sidequest to find them all, there should be an end reward that doesn’t make them feel like they wasted the extra hours of their time that it took to track them all down!

Most games can figure this out. Find every single Normin in Tales of Zestiria, including those rotten little bastards that are hidden in goddamn scenery? You get a final Normin with 1 of the best equipment blessing powers, AND you get him via an amusing scene that reveals a little bit of back lore for Edna, along with a couple of those delightful Tales of series skits. That’s a fairly decent reward. Go through the inordinate trouble of tracking down 4 separate sets of 8 eggs in Lufia 2? You get an ultimate boss fight with a grumpy and now overworked dragon, and then are rewarded with the best sword and accessory in the game (which honestly is not nearly worth the trouble, if you ask me, but it IS an actual reward). Find all 99 dalmatians in Kingdom Hearts 1, and your final reward is the best wind spell in the game, a grab bag of some of the best inventory stuff in the game, and a torn page (which unlocks a part of the Winnie the Pooh sidequest, which, I mean, is plot stuff, so I’m obligated to approve of it even though, as noted long ago, I can’t fucking stand that dopey, staggering heap of urine-colored lint). Oh, and a short little cutscene of all the dalmatians running around their now overcrowded home, which is either adorable and fulfilling to watch, or makes you shudder with rage and wonder if Cruella didn’t have the right idea, depending on how much trouble you had finding all the monochromatic little vermin. But, y’know, since most people are not quite as easily frustrated by small things as I am, nor quite so quick to jump to vengeful thoughts regarding puppies, Imma assume most people like the cutscene, and say that overall this collectathon has a good reward.

But, see, while most games can manage to come up with something actually fucking decent to reward a player’s detailed exploration to find all 80 fabled mystical hot dogs scattered about the land or whatever other crap the collectible mcguffin of the day happens to be, some apparently can’t be bothered. Illusion of Gaia, for example. 50 Red Gems there are, scattered throughout the course of Illusion of Gaia from start to finish. That’s a lot of hidden locations to find, and some are rather challengingly hidden. Not helping matters is the fact that a lot of these are permanently missable--there are a lot of locations in IoG which you cannot return to after certain points in the game. So you go to all this trouble, and what’s your reward? You get to run through a short and frankly pretty uninteresting bonus dungeon, learn that the Red Gem collector was secretly the first boss of Soulblazer all along, and then fight him. That’s fucking it. No actual reward for your effort, just a tiny extra dungeon that’s boring, a fight that’s just a remix of the first boss from a previous game, and, like, I dunno, 5 lines of dialogue? Is the reward just supposed to be the satisfaction of knowing the secret of the Red Gem guy, and the fate of Soulblazer’s first boss? Because I’m gonna be blunt: I didn’t give a damn about the former, and I hadn’t even realized I was supposed to give a damn about the latter.

Or, worse yet, what about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Where was the vaunted Nintendo polish when it came to those fucking Gold Skulltulas, huh!? This massive (for its time; still sizable today) land of twisty dungeons and obscure hiding places, and you’re asked to search it for 100, that’s one-flippin’-hundred, giant spiders* peppered all throughout Hyrule. And if you do stay the course, put in the time and effort, and actually uncover every last damn Gold Skulltula? Your prize is 200 rupees. Now, granted, you can keep coming back and getting 200 more rupees each time, so it's actually infinite money, so this seems, on paper, like it's a pretty good reward. But tell me: what the hell is there, by the point that you can reach every Gold Skulltula, to even buy any more? 200 rupees or 2 billion, it means nothing at the point of the game where there's nothing substantial left to purchase! I'd wager most players' wallets are completely full by the time they even get this reward, having had nothing important to buy for hours and hours already! At least Illusion of Gaia’s programmers went to the trouble to whip up a little bonus dungeon and a rehashed boss fight. They might have been mistaken about what an adequate reward for their collectathon would be, but they TRIED. Nintendo just doesn’t even bother pretending that it didn’t just put you through hours of busywork to artificially inflate the length of the game.

And don’t even get me started on Energy Breaker’s Shiny Pebble situation. At least Illusion of Gaia and Ocarina of Time actually did give you something for finishing their collectathons, terrible though the rewards may have been. Energy Breaker rewards you periodically for finding enough of the Shiny Pebbles scattered throughout the game, but if you actually manage to find all 50, which is no small feat, what happens? NOTHING. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but here should actually be a reward for the player completing the collection quest you asked of them!**

Look, bottom line, if any budding game developers ever happen across this: please, make sure that the game-long collectathon actually has a worthwhile reward for its conclusion. Don’t make the ‘reward’ an extra chore that answers a question no one was asking, don’t make it a condescending pat on the head and some money they don’t need, don’t just forego rewarding them altogether...the players have put effort into finding all that you’ve hidden, so reciprocate with some effort in thinking about and creating a reward they’ll feel satisfied with, yeah?

* Who was the genius at Nintendo that decided to make the collectibles for this quest a bunch of giant fucking spiders, anyway? Giant fucking spiders whose bodies are skulls? Other RPG collectathons have you searching for precious jewels, cute puppies or other mascots, ancient artifacts, special coins, collectible bottle caps...things that you want to find, or at least don’t mind doing so. What’s Nintendo have you scouring every inch of the world for? Abominations. It’s like they were determined that absolutely no part of this sidequest should be appealing.

** I admit that on this point, I’m going on other people’s reports, not personal experience. I didn’t find all 50 myself when I played through Energy Breaker. Nonetheless, multiple other players have reported getting nothing for going to the trouble of locating every single Shiny Pebble in the game, and no one has contradicted these statements, so I’m assuming they are correct.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Cosmic Star Heroine

You know the drill at this point: I play an Indie RPG, I make a rant about it...assuming it doesn’t suck, of course. Or even if it does suck, sometimes. Cosmic Star Heroine was the...I think third Kickstarter RPG I backed, so it was pretty rad to finally see it finished and play what I’d helped make a reality. Here’s what I think:

Cosmic Star Heroine is fun.

Honestly, that is what Cosmic Star Heroine ultimately boils down to. It’s a good time from the word go. If you want a recommendation but don’t want to have to wade through another long, meandering rant, that’s it right there: It’s fun, so go and play it.

For any among you who like hearing me blather on, for some reason, let’s look at the game with a little more detail. First of all, let’s start with an examination into what it’s promised, and what it delivers on. Cosmic Star Heroine proudly proclaimed itself to be an RPG created with 16-bit-era RPGs in mind, most notably Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4 (seriously, I don’t think there was a single promotional ad, article, video, or what have you for the game prior to release that didn’t name drop those 2 titles as its guiding influences). Well, in terms of drumming up interest among lifelong gamers for it, you sure can’t go wrong with dropping the names of the greatest SNES RPG* and the greatest Genesis RPG** every chance you can get. But, that does set a damn high bar for Cosmic Star Heroine to hit, too. Does it do so?

Well, not really, but also sort of yes.

Allow me to explain what I mean by this ambiguous standalone statement (I use those a lot, don’t I?). If you’re going to just compare the 3 titles together on total merit as RPGs, well, Cosmic Star Heroine doesn’t stand a fucking chance. It hasn’t got the emotional power nor the plot substance of Phantasy Star 4 alone, let alone Chrono Trigger. It lacks the narrative genius and creativity of Chrono Trigger, and much of CSH’s novelty in lore and world building is similar enough to Phantasy Star’s that it doesn’t seem especially unique when the comparison to PS has already been drawn. CSH’s cast in general doesn’t hold a candle to CT’s or PS4’s, and its villains are serviceable, but unimpressive when compared to Magus, Zio, Zeal, Dark Force, and Lavos. If you look at Cosmic Star Heroine’s frequent claims of a spiritual tie to Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4 as a promise to equal their quality, well, you’re gonna be disappointed.

From a different perspective, however, Cosmic Star Heroine does deliver on its claims. The setting and narrative methods of CSH emulate Phantasy Star very well, capturing the series’s core atmosphere and style in a way that’s enjoyable, nostalgic, authentic, and yet never uninterestingly derivative. It’s even got PS4-styled cutscene semi-animations (in fact, they’re better quality than PS4’s iconic ones, while seeming to be on the same technological level). Honestly, this game is far more true to Phantasy Star than the actual Phantasy Star series itself has been for many years. Heck, the protagonist’s first name is even Alyssa, which isn’t too far from the names of Phantasy Star 1 and 4’s main characters.*** There’s also a lot of the game’s style of play and dialogue/monologue interactions that feels...well, maybe not directly related to Chrono Trigger, but definitely like a cousin to it. There’s also various bits and pieces scattered throughout the game that are little nods at CT and PS, such as sentient talking multi-tailed cats showing up here and there (as a nod to Myau of PS1...and honestly, Random Cats was sort of a CT thing, too), and a festival in the middle of the first planet’s city that feels more than a little like CT’s iconic Millennial Fair. So while CSH doesn’t really compare to PS4 and CT, it does in some ways capture a lot of their feel, and I’d be surprised if, while playing it, there was anyone who didn’t have at least a single moment of nostalgia for those classics.

The thing with Cosmic Star Heroine is, though, that it’s very much its own entity, more than it’s an homage or spiritual successor, and I think that it should be judged as such first and foremost. And as its own entity, it’s...well, as I said, it’s fun. Sorry, but I don’t have a whole lot else I can really call it that makes sense. To say more of it wouldn’t be accurate, but to say less would also be wrong.

Now, you might think that just saying that Cosmic Star Heroine is “fun” doesn’t really mean much, and that it doesn’t highly recommend it. But I do want to clarify that, to me, this actually means that CSH is a rather rare RPG experience. Because, well, “fun” isn’t really something that the stories, characters, and atmospheres of RPGs actually reach for very often. That’s not to say anything against the genre, of course; if anything, it speaks well of it. RPGs, plot-based as they are meant to be, are almost always far more concerned with telling a story that conveys a message, or provokes thought and consideration, or analyzes an aspect of our consciousness, or evokes strong emotions. RPGs usually have a direction they want their story to go in, and simple, surface-level fun is rarely it. That’s not to say that one does not enjoy the games, that one does not have fun with this genre that comports itself somewhat more seriously than most...but that’s not the same thing as a game that’s just out strictly to be an enjoyable, light romp. Only a handful of RPGs successfully choose this latter course, titles like Super Mario RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch, Startropics, and Paper Mario 2. And hell, sometimes an RPG that seems like it’s meant to be a lighthearted bit of fun ends up ambushing you with meaning and strong emotion just when you think you’re safe, like Okage: Shadow King, Disgaea 1, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, and Makai Kingdom.

And don’t get me wrong: I am extremely happy with this situation. I have no complaints whatsoever that RPGs almost always carry themselves with the intent to be serious, meaningful, and poignant.**** The result is a genre where the storytelling quality of, say, Final Fantasy 4, which is just a solidly well-written venture all around, is the average, rather than a high note. And I’m also extremely pleased when an RPG that has an approach that seems lighthearted turns out to be deep, meaningful, and/or emotionally complex, too. In fact, looking at Undertale, Okage: Shadow King, Disgaea 1, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, Makai Kingdom, and Mother 3, it seems to be a remarkably consistent way to craft an excellent and compelling story. It seems in many cases that a lighthearted hook, premise, and/or cast can actually make the heavier content to come all the more gripping, somehow. I can only think immediately of 1 example where it failed (Disgaea 2), where it just seemed to be trying too damn hard on all fronts of humor and emotion.

With that said, though? We all need a little pure, basic levity, now and then. We cannot survive on drama and tragedy forever; every now and then we must sprinkle some comedy and simple, straightforward action and excitement into our mental diet. I don’t really advocate things that turn your brain off altogether, mind you, since the implication with that phrase is that the thing you’re watching or playing or whatever doesn’t have to try at all. But if not outright turning it off, we at least all need to give our brain a chance now and then to sit back on a comfortable recliner and take a load off its cerebellum for a bit.

And when that time comes, that even your RPG hobby could use a slight break to loosen up a bit and just have fun? Cosmic Star Heroine’s the game for you. It has a consistent, enjoyable undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout its course. It’s got a fun, exciting feel to it. It’s paced very well so that any time it might start to feel a bit repetitive, it throws a quick new event your way (like a brief break to pilot a giant mech suit in a classic anime/monster movie battle, or a mission to infiltrate a social event held by a mobster) to break things up and keep them fresh. It’s funny, without having to actually be a comedy RPG. It has a generally exciting and engaging stride with a lot of action and adventure. It’s got a cast which may not be especially deep or dynamic, but is weird and creative in that classic Genesis RPG way--between psychic gun monks, giant ant cyborgs, and an alien ghost detective, you’re never wanting for a colorful and weird character to adventure with. And, well, I mean, it’s a game about a science fiction secret agent superstar going rogue to save her star system from a mysterious alien mind control device! What can I really say about the game that its own premise doesn’t effectively communicate?

In the end, Cosmic Star Heroine is a fun RPG. It’s made to be an exciting, enjoyable adventure from the start, and its writers know how to keep it that way through to its end. Do I encourage you to give it a try? Sure! I’ll of course more strongly advocate for other, more compelling Indie RPGs first, ones like Celestian Tales 1 or Dust: An Elysian Tail, but as a simple, fun break from the typical, serious approach of the genre, Cosmic Star Heroine can’t be beat. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find it an appealing, pleasing venture.

* Sorry, Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2, Final Fantasy 6, and Lufia 2.

** Sorry, uh...Pier Solar and the Great Architects, I guess? Wow, the only competition Phantasy Star 4 has for the title of greatest Genesis RPG is a game that came out over a decade after the system was dead. 16-bit-era Sega really just didn’t have a whole lot going for it RPG-wise, did it?

*** Yeah, okay, Chaz turned out to be the protagonist of Phantasy Star 4, not Alys. Well, much like Hot Ice Hilda to Outlaw Star, Alys feels like the cooler potential hero whose story was stolen from her by a narrative mistake. I really feel like the game up until Alys’s death feels much more like the story was designed with her as the lead in mind. Hell, even afterwards, Chaz’s role as leader somehow feels off more than a few times, like the result of a script that’s been altered from its original, intended vision.

Not that I dislike Chaz, you understand. He’s fine. PS4 just never felt to me like it was supposed to have been his story, that’s all.

**** This intent does not always work out, of course. Still, I’m glad that misguided efforts like Xenosaga aimed high and missed, rather than missing while not trying to do anything meaningful. Hell, even complete fucking garbage like Wild Arms 4 and Shadow Hearts 3 acted like they had something say with their stories, even if they were gravely mistaken.