Sunday, January 28, 2018

Tales of Zestiria's Sorey's Sacrifice

Heroic self-sacrifice is a pretty major part of storytelling, no matter which side of the ocean you’re on. 1 of the greatest and most inspiring acts of good that our heroes can perform is to give their lives for the sake of the well-being and happiness of redeems villains, it cements the good and worth of minor characters, it makes unforgettable icons from our heroes. Heck, 1 of the most prevalent religions on Earth, Christianity, is based on the concept. The selfless greatness of a man or woman who gives up all he or she has for the sake of others, others whom he or she does not even personally know, is something which we are drawn to.

This fact, however, means that we may be a little too eager, sometimes, as creators and as audiences, to jump into this idea more than we should. Villain redemption through heroic sacrifice is so common that half the time it just doesn't make an impact, characters that the writers aren’t finished with can get axed off prematurely because someone wanted a dramatic moment which just means that they need to be half-assedly resurrected later, and sometimes characters kill themselves when a much simpler, non-fatal course of action was readily apparent.* And on the audience’s side, sometimes we’re too eager to get carried away and make more of heroes’ sacrifices than they’re actually worth.

Such is the case, I feel, of the sacrifice made by Sorey at the end of Tales of Zestiria (obvious spoiler alert here, by the way). From cruising through a few message boards and looking in on some conversations between Tales of fans, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that most players of ToZ view Sorey’s sacrifice as having the same gravity, tragedy, and nobility as any other RPG hero’s sacrifice possesses, like, say, Maxim in Lufia 2, or Tidus in Final Fantasy 10. And I think that may be just a tad of an overreaction to Sorey’s case.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I respect the sacrifice Sorey makes at the end of the game. He chooses to leave his friends and world, to chain his spirit to that of the god of Seraphs, so that Sorey can undertake the process of purifying said Seraph and save the world from the malevolence that has afflicted it for so long. This will take centuries to accomplish, meaning that Sorey is going to sleep through the chance to see the good that his actions have brought to the world, and will never again see his human friends again. It’s a heavy sacrifice to have to make, to be sure, and he’s a brave, heroic man to take it upon himself.

But all the same, to view this in the same lens as your typical end-of-adventure protagonist self-sacrifice is, I think, maybe to exaggerate its level of tragedy a bit. Let’s really look at what Sorey’s actually having to give up here.

First of all, the guy ain’t dying, in any sense of the word. It’s a known fact, going into the final battle, that for Sorey to do this is for him to simply be isolated for a few centuries. Barring some extreme outside event, Sorey will be waking up good as new once he’s done with this whole purification hullabaloo. And since he wouldn’t normally have lived centuries anyway, one can only conclude that this act will not shorten his lifespan in any way, like, say, going into a coma would (since one continues to age in a coma). There’s no ambiguity about this: he’s not dying. So that alone cuts down on how tragic this sacrifice can really seem--we rightly make a big deal of Yuri choosing to die for his love of Alice at the end of Shadow Hearts 2, because the understanding is that he’s, y’know, not coming back, but we rightly don’t make a big deal of Bleu/Deis going back to sleep at the end of Breath of Fire 1, because even though it won’t be for centuries, she will, eventually, wake up right as rain.

Of course, one’s simple physical and mental existence are not the only things one can give up, and the weight of Sorey’s sacrifice comes from what else he’s losing. By having to leave for centuries, as I said, it means he’ll never get to see his human friends again, and the world will be drastically different from what he knew. Well, that’s certainly a sizable loss for him, and it does make his sacrifice meaningful and heroic...but even then, I have to say, it’s not quite as heavy a thing he’s giving up as you might initially think.

Let’s look at the friends he loses in this deal. Is it tragic that he’ll never again get to hang with his BFF Rose, or see Alisha again? Absolutely! Very sad on both sides, especially for Alisha, since she doesn’t know what he’s doing in advance and thus has no chance to actually say goodbye to Sorey. But...besides Rose and Alisha, every one of Sorey’s meaningful relationships is with a Seraph. His lifelong buddy Mikleo is a Seraph. The friends he’s made on his journey, Lailah, Edna, and Zaveid, are all Seraphim. And all the people of the town in which Sorey has lived his whole life are Seraphim, too. Given Seraphim’s long, perhaps even outright endless lifespans, this means that nearly everyone in Sorey’s life that he really cares about will still be alive centuries later, when his life resumes! It’s tragic that Sorey will never again see Rose and Alisha, but this is a far cry away from giving up on all the people he loves; at least 2/3rds of them are going to be kicking around when he wakes up.

I feel like I did when watching that episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in which Rainbow Dash is going through the stages of grief because her pet turtle’s going to be hibernating through the winter--like I’m expected to be devastated by a tragedy that isn’t happening. It’s unfortunate when you have to be separated from someone you care about for a while, but it’s not an adequate narrative substitute for death! It’s sad, but not THAT sad. That turtle’s gonna wake up in a few months just fine, and Sorey’s still gonna be able to continue all but 2 of his meaningful relationships.**

In addition, having to give up on his world, awakening centuries later to a world of countries and societies that he knows nothing of...that could be a big loss, for most characters. A lot of protagonists are defined by a love for their world, and their dreams and ambitions in life. But, uh...Sorey’s case is actually remarkably free of tragedy, here. Sure, it kind of sucks that Sorey won’t be able to witness the kingdoms of Rolent and Hyland as they enter a new golden age thanks to the efforts of Sorey and his friends, attached can he really be to the world as a whole, honestly? Guy only left his super-isolated little Seraph town a few months ago! He hasn’t seen enough of the world to be able to really miss it. The only thing he might lose is his hometown, but his attachment to it seemed more based on his relationship to the residents of his community, rather than the place itself, and as stated above, they all have the potential to still be alive and kicking. Waking up in a new era is going to be little more than just the same experience of stepping out into a new world that Sorey had early in the adventure.

And finally, Sorey doesn’t have to give up on any of his life’s ambitions or interests. Although a decent character, Sorey really only has 1 interest and life dream: to explore ruins. Well, the great thing about ruins is that they aren’t going anywhere, especially not in RPGs, in which leftover locations from lost, legendary eras are usually somehow so perfectly preserved that every damn puzzle switch in the things still works over a thousand years later. So Sorey has every chance once the world’s saved and the land is purified to go back to his life’s passion of ruin-exploring.*** Hell, a few centuries later, there’s probably MORE of the things to go spelunking in, and there’s certainly going to be more history for him to read up on. This sacrifice of his actually does his hobby a favor!

So, ultimately, is Sorey’s sacrifice at the end of Tales of Zestiria sad, noble, and meaningful? Absolutely. I don’t want to imply that it’s not. But should we see it on the same level as other heroic RPG sacrifices? Not really. A character like Lufia 2’s Maxim gives up his life, gives up on a world he’s been a part of for a substantial amount of time, gives up a chance to raise his infant son, gives up on ever seeing any of his friends again. Sorey’s sacrifice just doesn’t compare to that.

* Flash Season 1 Spoilers: Dammit, Eddie, you didn’t have to shoot yourself in the heart to save the world! You could’ve just shot yourself in the balls instead, and actually lived to see Season 2! Hell, a stern promise to get a vasectomy might’ve been enough!

** Not counting the meaningful relationships that were forcibly ended by different circumstances. Sadly, Dezel and Gramps are gone, and I feel for Sorey’s loss on both counts, but those have nothing to do with the losses associated with his end-of-game purification sacrifice.

*** Why does he even want to, though? I don’t mean that archeology and history and all that jazz isn’t interesting, mind you. I mean that just about every ruin you encounter in Tales of Zestiria is incredibly basic and boring! Even by RPG ruin standards, ToZ’s dungeons are dime-a-dozen copies of one another with little to differentiate each from the last. It’s like Bandai-Namco outsourced dungeon creation to Bioware’s Dragon Age 2 team, or those clowns who programmed the dungeons in Conception 2. Just seems ridiculous to me that ToZ would make the passion of its protagonist and his besty archeology, and then put almost no effort into more than half of the historic sites you can visit in the game.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Energy Breaker's Time Limits

You know what’s really annoying? Battles with time limits.

I mean, really. Think back to any and every RPG you’ve played in which you had to defeat your enemies within a set amount of time, or else get a game over. Which of those battles were fun? Hmm? Any of them? Certainly none that I can immediately think of.

Oh, to be sure, there are times when it’s narratively sensible to put a time limit on battles. When you’ve gotta beat a boss before a time bomb goes off, then sure, a timer on a battle makes some sense. When you’ve gotta take out some guards as part of a heist before the next part of the plan is set to start, restricting how long a battle can go on can draw the player a little more into the situation, engross us a little more in the story’s events. Shadowrun seems to do this pretty well, for example. When you’ve gotta battle hostile sewer rats who inexplicably make their home not in the sewers but in the rafters of an opera house so that you can reach a narcissistic purple talking octopus before he drops an anvil on top of a military general masquerading as a performer so that she can trick a gambler into giving her a dirigible ride...well, in a situation like that, the time limit may very well be the only part of it that makes sense. But regardless, even if it helps sell what’s happening in the game’s plot at that moment, having to work against a timer is a gameplay mechanic that’s invariably annoying.

So what in the world was Taito thinking when it put a time limit on every single battle in Energy Breaker? From bosses on down to random encounters, every battle in this game has a set number of turns in which it must be completed, or else it’s game over. It’s incredibly damn annoying; even if you’re capable of defeating your foes, you may still lose to them over and over again because you can’t do it quite fast enough.

And besides the basic irritation of it, it’s also a really stupid idea given that Energy Breaker is a tactical RPG. Now, not every tactical RPG absolutely has to have battles that take a long time complete. Live-A-Live manages to have its battles go about as long as regular battle systems take, for example. But generally, tactical RPG battles are a longer process, for the simple reason that planning out what positions and strategies of advancement you want to adopt is inherent to the system. Sometimes just finding the right position for your units is more important than actually doing anything with them immediately, like getting an evasive tank into a bottleneck spot in any given Fire Emblem title, or grabbing the high ground when you’re a Jedi in an unspeakably shitty movie. But if you put a time limit on the battle, then a huge amount of your strategy goes flying out the window! In Energy Breaker, you don’t have the luxury of creating a formation, testing enemy movement reach, seeking out advantageous have to get in there and kill your enemies pronto! The turns you have to spend only moving toward your enemy are suddenly frustrating time wastes when you know they’ve cost you 20% of your time budget!

Always having a time limit on your battles also limits a player’s interest in exploring strategies in terms of party setup. Now I’ll grant you this isn’t too big an issue with Energy Breaker, since it, early RPG as it is, doesn’t have a lot of room for party customization, but on a conceptual level, it’s a problem. Because, you see, it narrows a player’s focus on character building down to over-valuing a specific kind of team member: the glass cannon. True, I trend toward glass cannon setups myself (I’m not the patient sort), so it wouldn’t be as big a problem for me, but still, anyone who might have enjoyed experimenting with creating defense-oriented setups is going to forego all versatility possible in favor of party members who hit as hard and as fast as they possibly can to end the battle within the turn limit.

Putting a time limit on some battles can add a gameplay dimension that requires the player to explore different strategies, and it can get you more invested in a particular scenario, story-wise. It’s annoying, but it has benefits. But putting a time limit on every single battle in the game? That’s just a frustrating, pointless gimmick with no benefit, and doing so in a tactical RPG undercuts a huge portion of the strategy component to the combat, which is the entire point of having a tactical battle system to the begin with. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to do this with Energy Breaker, but they were, quite frankly, dead wrong.

Monday, January 8, 2018

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels 2

Happy New Year, all! As I and so many others have mentioned, last year was a hell of a good year for RPGs, and right now, I feel like the best we could hope for from 2018 for this genre would be a sequel of 2017. And I'm willing to do my part toward this goal: by making a sequel to 1 of my 2017 rants. Specifically, the 1 about RPG sequels. Yes, this is a sequel to my sequel rant. Yo Dawg forever, suckas!

Not long ago, I wrote a rant about the unusually high success rate that RPGs have in terms of sequels, in which I pointed out that the genre is perhaps the most likely of any storytelling venue I’m familiar with to have a continuation of a series be good. Which is all fine and good, but having made this observation, the question then arises:


Is there anything we can attribute to this seemingly miraculous positive tendency? A particular aspect of RPG sequels that helps make them so much more likely than continuations of other genres’ franchises to do decently? Well, possibly. First of all, I’m sure that simple good luck plays its part. More than that, though, I’m sure that RPG sequels must more often have a large amount of genuine effort and care put into them for this to work--my suspicion is that RPG developers probably just take their creations seriously more often than the creators of sequels in Hollywood and so on. Perhaps the gaming industry, or at least this corner of it, is actually just more concerned with its art than other storytelling businesses in general. You certainly don’t get a true classic like Shadow Hearts 2, with its creative and well-paced story and its rich and compelling emotional impact, by half-assing it, while sequels in the cinematic world seem to have a 50-50 chance of being solely a cash-in on their predecessors. Disney’s done it so often with its direct-to-DVD animated sequels that it’s basically the poster child for the concept of lazy cash-grabs.

(I still think that Pocahontas 2 is better than the original, though).*

Beyond the likelihood that RPG developers more often give a shit about their sequels, though, I think that there is a factor that contributes to RPG sequels’ unusually high rate of success. See, it’s like this: I want you to think of Final Fantasy. And Grandia. And Wild Arms. And Star Ocean, Castlevania, Shadowrun, Shining Force, Fallout, Tales of, Breath of Fire, the Nippon Ichi games, and Shin Megami Tensei--to name a few RPG series in which this works. Just how much connection between titles do all the installments in these franchises have?

Some, like Shadowrun, Fallout, and Castlevania all take place in the same world, and have some characters make multiple appearances over various titles (such as Jake Armitage, Harold, and Maria Renard). The events of 1 title frequently affect that world and sequels in various ways (the events of Shadowrun Returns are mentioned in Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the Brotherhood of Steel’s victory in Fallout 3 leads to their faction role in Fallout 4, and Dracula’s unlimited respawns necessitates a family line of vampire slayers to keep taking him out, along with some far more interesting and awesome outsiders on occasion like Alucard and Shanoa). But honestly? These games, while definitely connected, are not nearly as directly tied as we tend to think of when we think of sequels. None of the protagonists for Shadowrun and Fallout are present in any but a single title, and their companions and antagonists are almost all completely new with each game, as well. The same is mostly true of Castlevania, too. The many sequels of these 3 series do build off of their predecessors in many story elements, but each one is ultimately its own story, borrowing lore and a few characters but not being shackled to what came before.

Then there are series like Breath of Fire, Star Ocean, and the Nippon Ichi titles. They’re franchises in which most or all of their titles take place within the same universe as previous ones, but ultimately only use those predecessors for lore-related purposes. Breath of Fire 2 builds on BoF1 in that its antagonist, DeathEvan, came about as a result of the battle against Miria/Tyr in the original game, and it takes place on the same world, but DeathEvan is his own evil who furthers his goals in his own way, and since BoF2 takes place centuries after the first game, the people and society of its world are tied only loosely to those found in the first game--you get cameos of some of the important characters of BoF1 here and there, such as a message Nina 1 leaves for her descendants, and admittedly the immortal Bleu is a secret party member again, but overall, BoF2 has all the space it needs to do its own thing and only take tiny bits of legend and lore from the original. Likewise, Star Ocean’s games all take place in the same universe, but its titles are frequently separated so vastly in terms of time and distance that their only real connection is lore-based, rather than anything hard and fast like recurring major characters. And while Nippon Ichi titles take pleasure in connecting to one another in fun ways, most of the time they’re still decidedly their own entities in a similar fashion.

And then, finally, we have cases like Final Fantasy, Grandia, and Tales of. These are franchises in which the majority of their titles aren’t even connected by taking place in the same universe! There’s nothing to my knowledge that suggests that Final Fantasy 4, 6, 7, and 12 have any connection whatsoever in terms of their worlds, for example. For all intents and purposes, they’re completely different stories taking place in completely different universes that have no overlap whatsoever. Likewise, there’s nothing that connects Grandia 1, 2, and 3 together at all, and while some Tales of games do connect directly to one another, most of them are distinct entities. The only thing that connects titles in franchises like these are aesthetics and style, really--Grandia’s comforting rainbow save points and lovely dinner conversations, Final Fantasy’s recurring systems of magic and summoned monsters, Tales of’s elemental creatures and skits, that sort of thing. Just connections of approaches to gameplay and story elements, rather than of lore or characters.

My point here is that RPG sequels are very frequently only loosely tied to their predecessors, if at all. And I think that helps give them the breathing room to excel. Most of the time with sequels, we expect to see most or all of the same characters returning, in the same settings, building off of the events of the preceding story. And while that can certainly work, I think it must nonetheless be more challenging to return to characters and story elements that you thought you have developed to their conclusion, and have to find something new to do with them. That’s not to say it never happens in RPGs, nor that it can’t be done quite well in them--Shadow Hearts 2 explores Yuri’s character and gives him depth and pathos beyond anything SH1 even attempted, and Knights of the Old Republic 2 finds powerfully philosophical story qualities to explore and expand on from the more basic plot of its predecessor, for example. But overall, RPG sequels tend to be almost entirely new stories, able to tell themselves without the burden of having to use anyone or anything from the previous story that isn’t useful to them. Is it any wonder, then, that they have a higher rate of success, when we do not burden them with the same expectations we have of sequels which more directly tie to their predecessors?

What’s also interesting about this is that it’s one of the only genres where this is even allowed by the audience. You can’t get away with this sort of thing in cinema, for example, at least not often. When we hear of a movie sequel, we expect to see the characters of the first movie return, we expect to see them doing their thing in the same world, and we expect the characters and world to be in a state in accordance with how the last movie ended. Sometimes a movie can trick us by using a bare minimum of its predecessor while still telling its own story--Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, is generally agreed on to be a pretty rad movie, even though the series’s titular character wavers between the roles of secondary character and unconnected observer--but generally, we go into a movie sequel with the expectation that it’s gonna be a direct continuation of its source.

And if you think I’m full of it on this point, well, hell, just look at the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within! Now, I’m not saying it was a great flick by any means, but there’s really not a lot that’s terribly wrong with it; it’s a decent movie to watch once. Yet the thing was a staggering flop, kept Squaresoft on the verge of bankruptcy for years and years--have they, in fact, fully recovered from it even now? I remember reading only a few years back that they were still, amazingly enough, recuperating from their losses from a movie they’d released over a decade before! Real, actual shit movies like the Star Wars prequels, or the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, or the Transformers franchise have managed to make serious bank, while this mildly decent film turned into a financial black hole. Why?

Well, because Square was following its own damn formula and expecting it to work, that’s why. Well, okay, there are lots of reasons FFTSW didn’t connect with audiences, but it’s a fact that one of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard levied against the film is that it had nothing to do with Final Fantasy. Well, yeah, it has no recurring characters from the games, doesn’t take place on any of the games’ worlds, no chocobos or moogles...all it’s got is a Cid, and his name isn’t even spelled right. But, uh, so fucking what? That’s barely any less than ANY given Final Fantasy has with its fellow titles! Practically every Final Fantasy until that point and since tells its own story with no more than aesthetic connections to its peers! And while The Spirits Within doesn’t exactly stand shoulder to shoulder with the quality of, say, Final Fantasy 10, or Tactics, or especially 9, at least it’s not so generic as FF5, or obscenely confused and boring as 12, or just an outright idiotic fucking mess like FF8! In terms of quality, I don’t think The Spirits Within is even in the lower half of the Final Fantasy series canon! And yet, we all--myself included!--scorned it for having nothing to do with its series, even though, story-wise and character-wise, that’s the standard for Final Fantasy. If anything, FFTSW would have been less true to its franchise if it HAD tried to directly connect to it.**

And why did we make this complaint? I don’t know for sure, but I personally think that maybe it was because we’re just naturally geared to expect direct ties in our sequels outside the realms of RPGs. What was never a problem for the games in Final Fantasy suddenly became a huge obstacle for the series when it made a try at cinema. What might have been given a chance in game format and recognized as a pretty okay story--again, nothing great, but okay--was dead on arrival in movie form.

So anyway, that’s my theory as to 1 of the factors of why RPG sequels have the unusually good fortune I mentioned in my previous rant: the simple fact that our expectations for what an RPG sequel can and should look like are more open than our expectations of sequels in other genres and formats. We wouldn’t want to see a fighting game sequel that had none of the previous title’s characters come back again, we wouldn’t want to see a movie sequel that had virtually none of the story elements as its predecessor, and so on...but for whatever reason, we’re totally fine with this sort of thing in our RPGs. And I think that helps give game developers the space when continuing a series to write something worthwhile, and it helps us to give that writing the chance it deserves.

* Come at me, uh...some Disney fans? Everyone? Only a few people? I actually don’t really know where Pocahontas 1 and 2 lie in terms of the public’s overall feelings.

** And frankly, going by FF12: Revenant Wings, the FF7 spinoffs, and that unspeakable abomination FF10-2, we didn’t know how good we had it back when Square wasn’t making direct FF sequels. Hell, look at that Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children garbage. I never knew how much I would miss The Spirits Within until I saw what happened when SquareEnix decided to try making a movie that was directly tied to its franchise.