Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Elemental Weaknesses

Well whaddaya know...a short rant. I almost forgot what these looked like. Special thanks go to Ecclesiastes, for pointing out a part of this rant in which I was, to quote the great Dr. Clayton Forrester, stupid and wrong. So incredibly stupid! And wrong! So anyway, thanks for keeping my rants up to code, sir.

Oh, also, before we begin, I just want to note that I've updated (and, in doing so, finally completed) my Undertale theory rant from over a year ago. If you read the rant before, and have a bizarrely powerful memory for the rantings of an RPG-obsessed idiot, you may recall that I couldn't figure out how Undyne served as a reflection of Alphys in terms of tying to the game's theme of dangerous depression. Well, my mind may not be of much use for anything important, but sooner or later it works through all things RPG, and I finally found the solution that made my theory properly fit. So, uh, yeah, just thought I'd mention that if you want to check out Point F of that rant now, it's finally fully baked.

Anyway! On with the rant that's relevant to today.

Y’know, elemental weaknesses in RPGs are usually a pretty basic affair. Fire is Ice’s weakness, and vice-versa, Earth and Wind are usually at the same odds, Lightning is Water’s weakness,* Light and Dark repel each other, etc. Often there are a couple extra, semi-unseen rules, like Nature-based enemies being weak to Fire,** and mechanical enemies being weak to Electricity, but overall, the majority of RPGs have a weakness system so mindlessly simple that it’s basically color-coded.

It’s actually kind of surprising, really. I mean, with all the completely unnecessary gameplay complexities that developers are so fond of heaping onto what should be a functionally simple genre, it’s shocking that there aren’t more absurdly overcomplicated systems of elemental weaknesses in RPGs. I mean, there is Pokemon, where half of the weaknesses of over a dozen elemental types make sense and actually are surprisingly thoughtful, and the other half seem like they were drawn from a hat, but that’s about it.

This state of affairs makes the Weaknesses of the various demons in the Shin Megami Tensei series stand out as praiseworthy. Now, yes, the SMT series does play by the simple elemental rules I’ve mentioned in many regards. Surprise surprise, the fire giant Surt, who can be seen wielding a giant flaming sword, is weak to Ice. Huge shocker, the Earth elemental Erthys is weak to Wind. And you’ll never guess what Hel, the goddess overseeing the frozen afterlife of Norse mythology whose lower half is literally encompassed in ice, is weak to!

BUT, what Shin Megami Tensei does in addition to the more obvious elemental weaknesses in its bestiary, is to give weaknesses to its demons that are not so obvious, but make sense if you know that mythological figure’s background. Prometheus, for example, is a titan from Greek mythology, who gave the gift of knowledge (symbolized by fire) to mankind. For this act of evening the playing field between humanity and the gods, Prometheus was punished by being chained to a rock, and tortured by having his liver devoured every day by birds...sort of a reverse foie gras situation. Since he can’t die from such a thing, being a titan, his liver just keeps growing back and getting eaten again. Not pleasant.

Well, Prometheus is, as you might expect, weak to Ice in the Shin Megami Tensei series, what with him being clearly associated with Fire. But, Prometheus also has another weakness--he is extra susceptible to the Bind status ailment! In mythology, Prometheus is chained to a rock for his so-called crime, and so SMT translates that detail of the character’s history into a gameplay weakness that a crafty player familiar with the legend can take advantage of!

And this sort of thing is present all over the Megaten bestiary. Jeanne D’Arc, though clearly having no particular affinity with Ice, is weak to Fire attacks, which traces back to the fact that she died by being burned at the stake. Lanling Wang, a fabled Chinese general, died after he drank a cup of poison sent to him by the paranoid emperor he served, and so his SMT equivalent is particularly vulnerable to the Poison status ailment. Beldr/Baldur was a figure in Norse mythology who was killed by a spear or arrow made from mistletoe, and so in SMT4-1 and 4-2, he’s weak to Gun attacks, which essentially encompass all types of piercing strikes. And so on.

You find these clever little nods to the mythological history of the demons of Shin Megami Tensei all throughout its bestiary, and it’s really quite neat. And that’s really all I wanted to say today...I just think that this little quirk, which rewards a player for their knowledge of the mythological figures they’re battling against, is worth taking note of and appreciating as just 1 more of the countless little details that make Shin Megami Tensei so awesome.

Oh also Mara the giant penis demon is weak to Ice because the cold causes shrinkage HA HA SO FUNNY.

* This is often not scientifically accurate, incidentally. Pure, basic water does not conduct electricity! It’s actually impure water, notably salt water, that conducts electricity. The reason it’s dangerous to get water and electricity together for a date is simply because human skin contains salt, so as soon as you come into contact with water, it becomes, to some degree, salt water, and thus adding electricity WILL then zap the hell out of you. So, like, in a lot of cases, water-affinity creatures in RPGs should be weak to electricity, since they themselves add impurities to whatever water essence they have...but purely H2O enemies, like water elementals and the like, actually should be completely immune to electricity.

** The reasoning, of course, being that wood burns. Which I guess makes sense. But frankly, shouldn’t most RPG characters also be weak to Fire, then? I mean, most of them are wearing clothing, which is just as flammable as wood, and have generous amounts of hair, which can also, I believe, catch fire.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Whisper of a Rose

You have probably noticed this, but I tend to pull my punches a bit with Indie RPGs. I usually temper my criticisms of crowd-funded or personally produced RPGs with the reminder that they’re usually honest attempts by people who are passionate about the stories they want to tell. That’s not to say that conventionally developed bad games can’t also be works of passion, of course--The Last Story is surprisingly bland for being a work of pride and love, for example--but still. So I tend to make rants highlighting and endorsing good Indie RPGs I find, and try not to be too much of a jerk about their shortcomings.

But fair is fair, so when an Indie RPG leaves me feeling really annoyed, there will be a negative rant.

Whisper of a Rose, an RPG by Roseportal Games, is, in a word, disappointing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s bad, I think, but it’s certainly not good, and it just promises way, way more than it can deliver on. I want to like this game, I really do, because its ideas have so much potential, but that’s as far as any of them get: potential.

You take the cast. The protagonist, Melrose, is a prime example of Whisper of a Rose’s tendency to disappoint. Melrose, a teenager, lives with a mother and father who are shown to be mentally abusive to her, and has no friends to speak of. Now, see, this is a situation not often utilized in RPGs which has a lot of potential to create a well-developed and interesting protagonist, and to shape the story’s direction significantly...but it just doesn’t stick. When we’re shown Mel’s home situation, it seems, somehow, both exaggerated, and not nearly harsh enough to be believable. It comes off like what someone imagines an abusive home is like, more than a genuine example. And Mel’s character just doesn’t seem to gain anything interesting or worthwhile from it. I mean, you’d expect her to have a negative personality, and she does, but there’s just not really any depth to her negativity. She’s not angry at the world, she’s just sullen and selfish. Mel’s listlessly standoffish and rude personality seems less like that of a troubled young person, and more like, well, just an average teenager when she’s in a bad mood. Reminds me of Final Fantasy 8’s Squall, really, although far less frustrating and dislikable.

Don’t get me wrong, there ARE pieces of character development for Mel, and she doesn’t stay the exact same the whole game long. But the bits where we learn a little about what formed her into who she is are few and far between (pretty much just the 1 flashback to the time she tried to save a ladybug from a bully), and once she’s done being perpetually selfish and uncooperative, there really isn’t any other personality that takes the negative one’s place...she just kinda becomes a plot chess piece, moving where she has to because the plot says so. Ultimately, Melrose just never becomes a character that we can connect to or contemplate.

The rest of the cast are no better. Hellena the witch is basically just a voice for explaining the plot lore, like Fran from Final Fantasy 12, only more one-dimensionally upbeat. Diamond is a ladybug who is, I guess, a manifestation of Mel’s memory of that ladybug from her past, or something, but there’s just nothing said or done with this idea, and by himself, Diamond isn’t interesting. Every single plot-relevant NPC is just a featureless plot device. And then there’s Christina.

On paper, Christina is an amazing character. You meet her as she’s traveling through a maze of her own insecurities while in a coma, she has a burning hatred for 1 of the villains in the game for the fact that he resulted in the loss of her baby, she’s a secret agent, and her mind created the final antagonist of the game as a mental manifestation that represents the man who raped her.

And yet, somehow, all of this is boring.

No part of this character should be less than compelling and interesting! But she just isn’t! Oh, to be sure, she’s more genuine in emotion than the other 3 party members, but not enough to sell it, and these major parts of her character are just kind of brought up, dropped, brought up again, and dropped again. Nothing is developed! None of these facets of Christina’s personality are used to explain or develop her character or her relationship to the others, nor make any particular impact on the story itself. She’s angry about it when it’s spoken of in front of her, and then the rest of the time, it’s like none of this stuff really even exists to her.

And that’s the way of this game: great ideas, being told by a writer who just isn’t equipped to execute them well enough. The ideas don’t connect to one another well enough, they don’t develop far enough, they often don’t even seem to ultimately have a point. And it’s not helped by the fact that the dialogue usually feels either clunky and unwieldy, or lacking spirit. When characters speak, it’s often like they came from an early SNES JRPG translation--it’s technically correct, but stiff, lacking feeling, or just a little awkward.

And what’s with the villain situation in this game? They just keep tossing 1 villain up after the next! Oh, the villain is the scary grunting marionette that’s attacking the fairy godmother somewhere in dreamland! Whoops, hold on, it’s the generic scary little girl who has an inadequately explained grudge against Mel! No, wait, it’s the evil witch mother, who wants to kill the wizard father and curse the protagonist! No, hold on, Farah the emotion-snubbing iron angel of rapists just escaped the dreamworld and is out to kill the world! But hold the phone, before you deal with that guy, it’s important to take down the CEO of the corporation that made the iDream, because he wants to use it to pull superweapons out of the dreamworld. No, hang on,you’re back in the dreamworld before you could do anything about that, and look, you’re cursed by that same witch as before! Better go rescue the fairy godmother from the grunting marionette that is now apparently super important! THEN deal with the witch, THEN the CEO, THEN the world-destroyer.

Multiple major villains in an RPG is a standard for the genre, and perfectly fine, but you have to PACE these things. You can’t just sub in a new villain even though you’re supposed to be dealing with something immediately important from another villain, over and over again! It just gets too damn confusing when you jam them all together like Whisper of a Rose does. It’s basically just Spider-Man 3 again. Worse, really.

And while we’re on problems with the villains, here’s a question I’d really like answered: Why is it that the mental representation of Christina’s rapist is a supervillain motivated by a wish to purge the world of emotion? I mean, how does your mentality construct a representation of your RAPIST as a standard JRPG anti-emotion villain archetype? What connected these things?!

Likewise, a lot of the good ideas for the story and themes are there, but not developed far enough, or explained well enough. I get the gist of the dream world’s workings, but the explanations are shaky enough that I don’t feel I know as strongly as I should. The role of Erasers, and the notable fact that technically Christina becomes an Eraser herself toward the end of the game, need more follow-up. The fact that the monsters of the dream world are phobias is good, but nothing much is really made of this, and how each of the phobius monsters connects to Melrose is utterly ambiguous--the most connection we see on this level is that the final boss is Virginitiphobia, which makes sense since it’s the mental representation of Christina’s rapist, but that’s the most any of these phobius enemies connect to anyone.

Also, I’m sorry, but how the iDream works is completely nonsensical. So, like, once it’s connected, the iDream needs a shot of adrenaline going through your system before it activates, right?* But this plot point never makes sense when it’s relevant. The first time Mel uses the device, she’s running from the police through the city streets, and it doesn’t activate, not until the police goon shoots at her.** She’s running in a panic through the streets as the fuzz chases after her, so shouldn’t Mel already have adrenaline pumping through her system like crazy? Why isn’t the iDream activating? Are we supposed to take from this scene that the shot of adrenaline came when Melrose heard the sound of the cop firing at her? Because I am pretty damn sure that a bullet’s speed is such that the average human being cannot react to hearing the gunshot before being hit by the bullet! There’s no way Melrose should have been able to hear the gun fire and then process the fact that she was now in mortal danger fast enough to spike her adrenaline before the bullet hit.

It’s much worse later on. After defeating Farah, the villain who’s trying to destroy the real world because he doesn’t like emotion, Mel needs to get back in the dream world to finish the job, and thus needs a hit of adrenaline again. Her solution? Well, obviously, since they’re on the roof of a building, she decides to jump off. Yeah, okay, plunging to your death will surely give you a good rush of adrenaline, but there are other ways to get yourself agitated, damn it! Her friends are with her--she could just start a fight with one of them, and that would do it. Heck, getting to the edge and looking over, with the honest intention of leaping off, should have been more than enough to get the adrenaline flowing. And she’s doing this because Farah has returned to her mental landscape, meaning that she’s in mortal danger from within--shouldn’t the panic she’s clearly feeling at this moment from that fact be more than enough to provide the necessary adrenaline? For that matter, they all JUST got done with 1 of the most difficult battles in the entire game--shouldn’t her system already be drowning in adrenaline?

In fact, thinking about that...I don’t seem to recall seeing Melrose ever visibly activate the iDream after the first time, so I can only assume it’s always on, in which case, shouldn’t any and every battle she engages in while in the real world send her to the dream world? Does she just feel absolutely nothing every time she’s in life-or-death combat, or something?

This frequent lack of attention to detail does not help with the game’s tendency to not explore its ideas to any satisfactory end. And speaking of that, 1 last thing about the story overall: what’s with the fairy tale references? You’ve got a fairy godmother as a major plot NPC, and that makes sense given the abusive family element--it’s drawing off the tale of Cinderella. But that’s as far as that reference goes--there’s no parallel between the WoaR Fairy Godmother and Melrose, and the Cinderella Fairy Godmother and Cinderella, in terms of actions, relationship, relevance, or purpose. Similarly, Hellena’s parents are clearly references to the Wizard of Oz, but beyond simply having superficial similarities to the Wicked Witch and the Wizard, there’s nothing else done with it--purpose, interrelationships, theme, character traits, there’s no correlation between the Whisper of a Rose characters and the Wizard of Oz ones. It all breaks down past the basic appearance.

Anyway...I think I’ve ragged on Whisper of a Rose enough now. Look, I want to make it clear that I respect the hell out of what this game is trying to do. It’s trying to get you to think, and it has some really interesting, creative starting points for its ideas. But great ideas and good intentions just aren’t enough on their own, and Roseportal Games just didn’t have the writing talent to make good on them. It’s too bad, but the only thing that Whisper of a Rose really made me think about was how much more thought-provoking it should have been.

* Why does a device that puts you into an unconscious state to access the dream world require adrenaline, incidentally? Isn’t adrenaline usually something that, y’know, keeps you awake?

** I’d criticize how trigger-happy this cop is to be attempting to kill a fleeing teenage girl whose crime is just stealing a technical doodad from a museum display...but an idiot police officer deciding to use lethal force against an unarmed, nonviolent offender is probably the most true-to-life part of this game. Really, the only logical inconsistency here is that the helpless suspect-turned-victim that he’s trying to murder is white.