Monday, June 18, 2018

Breath of Fire 2's Characters' Abilities

Yes, today I’m nitpicking a gameplay issue--something which I believe to be totally inconsequential in estimating the worth of an RPG--of a game so old that its era in gaming history can now be classified as ‘quaint.’ Again. Look, I don’t hide the fact that this blog is totally pointless. The sooner we all accept this, the better.

Y’know, it’s weird. When I wrote that rant about the oddity of Breath of Fire 1’s cast in terms of combat utility, it wasn’t even in my mind that I might make something along the lines of a continuation to it. But afterward, I started thinking about how the sequel handled combat roles for its cast far better...and then I remembered that it also had a noticeable flaw in that regard, too. So, here we are today, about to criticize the gameplay mechanics of yet another RPG so incredibly old, that Capcom wasn’t even completely and utterly evil at the time they published it.

So, Breath of Fire 2 added a little more nuance to its combat system and characters’ roles in it, improving upon the very basic battle mechanics of the first game in many ways, to the point that there was actually some strategy to be utilized in party composition, character placement, and ability use. The best party combination is no longer beyond debate as it was in the first game,* and there are even multiple approaches to combat to choose from, now. It ain’t just “Here are the only 4 characters in the game with useful spells, now go away” like it was in BoF1.

Unfortunately, though, not everything to do with BoF2’s combat is a step up from its predecessor (not the least of which being the overall feel and flow of battles; is it just me, or did Breath of Fire 1 feel way smoother and more polished in its gameplay overall?). 1 of the ways that characters are unique in combat is that each has a personal ability in combat beyond just his or her spells. Sort of like how characters in, say, Final Fantasy 6 all have their own unique talent in addition to whatever magic they’ve learned from Espers. Unlike Final Fantasy 6, however, whose character talents generally stay relevant for 95% of the game until everyone gets the chance to just learn Ultima and equip Economizers...Breath of Fire 2’s characters’ special abilities almost all just suck from the get-go.

First of all, there’s Ryu. He gets the Guts ability, which restores some of his HP during battle without needing to use magic points to do so. This sounds good, but the thing is, the amount of HP restored is greater depending on, A, his Guts stat, and B, how damaged he is. This means that it’s wildly unreliable for most of the game, as you don’t have a very high Guts stat for a while, and without that to boost it, it just doesn’t restore enough HP to be very useful--either you’re not damaged enough, and so it barely does anything, or you’re so hurt that you need something way better to do the job. And once you’re late enough in the game that Guts starts healing a decent amount, you’ve got a lot of other, more consistent healing options anyway.

And that’s actually 1 of the more useful abilities! Sten gets RIP, which lets him do an attack with less chance of enemies targeting him, but its utility is limited since party-hitting attacks aren’t uncommon and this ability doesn’t do anything to avoid them. Jean gets Stab, which hits all enemies that turn, but at such a reduced attack power that it frequently does almost no damage. Spar can call on the forces of nature to come to his aid, which is handy, but it only works outdoors, and nearly all dungeons in the game are, well...dungeons. So aside from traversing the world map, which by the time you get Spar you’re not doing a whole lot of any more, there’s very little use for it. Bow gets Shot, which either instantly kills an enemy or just deals 1 damage, but has such a damn low chance of working that I usually find I can kill the enemy faster just by having Bow attack it normally anyway.

Rand gets Wake, which can either be used to wake up a sleeping party member, or revives them at 1 HP. This sounds far more useful than it actually is. First of all, getting physically attacked wakes up a party member anyway, so there’s a good chance that the enemy is going to do it next turn, and then you’ve just wasted Rand’s chance to act. Secondly, Wake only revives dead party members sometimes, compared to revival spells and items being guaranteed to do so, so it’s really only an extremely desperate last resort.

Nina’s Will is sort of helpful, in that she can recover her Ability Points with it. AP recovery items are both uncommonly found, and annoying in Breath of Fire 2, in that most of them lessen your HP by the same amount that they restore of your AP. What the point is of this trade-off, I can’t guess; it certainly isn’t balancing the game in any useful way. So a magic-user being able to restore her AP without relying on subpar and rare items is good...but much like Wake, it’s a toss-up as to whether this is actually going to work, and it restores a small enough portion of her AP that it’s only really good for 1 spell at a time, if that.

And then there’s Katt. What the hell was the reasoning for giving Katt the Dare skill? Dare uses that turn’s action to make enemies more likely to hit her, instead of other allies. That’d be a useful ability...if it was given to Rand, or Ryu, or Bleu, or pretty much any other character in the game. But Katt is a low-HP, low-defense glass cannon whose role in the party is very specifically to kill enemies as fast as possible! I know that these were the earliest days of the aggro-control gameplay concept (for all I know, this game invented it), so one should expect a few bugs to work out, but Capcom picked the absolute worst possible party member to give this to!

The 1 character who gets a personal skill that’s actually undeniably helpful is Bleu, whose Shed power restores her to full health, no questions asked. Sure, it lowers her defense, but that mild detriment definitely doesn’t stop it from being useful now and then. Unlike every other character-specific ability, this is a case of the downsides balancing the ability’s use, rather than destroying it.

Now, there are some abilities that are unlocked by fusing characters in certain ways, and those tend to be a lot more viable in combat. Hell, some are even overpowered; Demon Katt gets an attack-enhancing ability that is absolutely devastating, and Holy Jean gets this crazy insta-kill attack that targets the entire enemy party and actually has a high success rate. And that’s great and all. But powered-up forms should have powered-up abilities; the fact that Capcom got that side of it right doesn’t make up for the fact that almost every member of the party has a shitty ability that isn’t even as useful as just the regular Attack command. And it’s not like this was some revolutionary idea on their part or anything--Final Fantasy 6 came out 8 months prior to BoF2, and Final Fantasy 4, which also featured this idea of unique abilities specific to each party member, and employed this concept quite competently, was 3 years old by the time BoF2 was published! There’s just no 2 ways about it: the character abilities of Breath of Fire 2 were poorly handled.

* I say this objectively, but in my heart of hearts I know that there’s no way someone could convince me that anything other than Katt, Bleu, Rand, and Ryu is best.

Unless the game were coded so that you didn’t have to have Ryu, that is. I’d totally go Jean over him. To hell with this game’s shitty 1-and-done dragon abilities.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Millennium Series's Characters

Man, it’s been a while since I did 1 of these character rants. Let’s see if I still remember how to make them funny. Assuming they ever were to begin with.

Marine: Our protagonist Marine is a wonderful, positive, beautiful dreamer whose vision for a greater world makes everyone around her better.

She’s also the kind of person who will, in fact, set your house on fire while you’re in it if you’re in the way of that vision.

Jeanne: Say what you want to about how great Marine’s persistence and determination and positivity and whatnot is. The fact of the matter is that the success of Marine’s epic journey, her political revolution that changes the realms of Mystland forever, was only made possible by the mere happenstance that she one day just up and tripped, and fell face-first onto a fairy.

Benoit: A whiny, pessimistic martial artist whose talents could benefit countless people, yet who refuses to step up and commit to doing so for like 30 hours of game time? Great, like I didn’t get more than enough of Fei Fong Wong the first time around.

Karine: Does anybody find it odd that arguably the most down-to-earth, reasonable person in the cast is a woman who fights crocodiles for a living?

Hirado: Basically the most stereotypical monk ever. What do RPG martial-arts-practicing monastic orders have against shirts, anyway?

Merline: This 5-year-old who likes playing with dolls and whose weapons are mostly just various toys is straight up more deadly in combat than at least half the rest of the cast.

Dee: “Hihihihi” is not how you write laughter, Aldorlea Games!

Abu: Actually, real-talk? Joking aside? I like the fact that as the series goes along, Abu’s English gradually but noticeably becomes better as he spends more time around his new friends and hears them speak it. That right there is a touch of realism, not to mention respect for the character, that I’ve never seen grace an RPG before, and I like it. How long does Ayla hang out with the gang in Chrono Trigger without picking up a single auxiliary verb? Or Gau, in Final Fantasy 6? “Eyes shining with intelligence,” my ass. Learn a pronoun, kid!

Jezebel: Just...kind of a bitch, overall. The height of Jezebel’s decency as a human being is that at one point, she changes her mind about letting two of her friends climb a treacherous monster-infested mountain in a raging blizzard alone, and decides to go back and help them after all, which is what she’d agreed to do in the first place. What a saint. I actually had Jezebel lose matches in the tournament finale on purpose, just because she was so needlessly insulting to her opponents--opponents who are, I’ll remind you, the bad guys of the series.

Gravitron: As with any machine, you don’t realize how much you desperately needed Gravitron in your life until you get him, and when he inevitably stops working or isn’t available, you have to scramble madly to figure out how you were managing to get by before him.

What do you mean you don’t let axe-wielding laser-spewing steel automatons into your martial arts tournaments, Mystrock!?

Piu-Piu: Because every game needs a small fuzzy mascot, but not every game can get one that’s actually appealing.

Salome: Hold up there, friend. Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you’re transforming into a cool-looking mermaid with exceptional physical and magical combat prowess, who apparently has no issue whatsoever navigating the land so there’s really nothing about this transformation that would prevent you from being able to still live in your village, and you...want to stop this from happening?

It almost doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of the narrative. Like, I know that the warriors Marine assembles are all supposed to be human, but Mystrock worships a sea god! Chances are pretty good that if Salome the mermaid showed up and said, “Lemme at that fighting tournament, dawgs,” they’d see her as a divine messenger and give her the A-OK. Hell, it’d probably make them take Marine’s cause more seriously!

Jack: “Isn’t it hilarious the way I think I’m a ladies’ man and harass them in a stupid manner? No? Well, how about if I do it 8000 more times?”

James: James’s entire character can be summarized by “Lazy,” and “Likes his hat.” Congrats, Aldorlea Games, you’ve managed to create a guy who makes Zell Dincht’s singular character trait of “Wants to eat cafeteria hot dogs” look legitimate by comparison!

Wolfgang: Rather than having gotten personally swept up in the plot’s events, or requiring you to fulfill some trial/quest that takes several hours of game time to complete, Wolfgang just joins your party because you ask him to and he’s a nice guy.

Is...Is that allowed? Someone better check the RPG Rulebook; there’s gotta be an infraction here.

Mom: Marine and Merline sure are quick to get over the fact that their mom left their family to go find a magic flower that grants her eternal youth. Oh, right, she was doing it “for them”, because she wanted to make sure she’d always be there for them. Yeah, okay. That’s definitely why anyone ever goes searching for eternal youth. Uh-huh.

Hey, here’s a thought, girls. Maybe if your mom’s priority really was making sure she was always there for you when you need her, she wouldn’t have gone on a cross-country trip into a life-threatening swamp while you were still children who needed her.

Bokden: Oh, man, you know your cause is getting desperate when you start recruiting NPCs whose only role up until this point is being the focus of gimmicky Where’s Waldo sidequests.

The Bear: The Bear is perhaps the only non-villain RPG character I’ve encountered in years who is so unreasonably hostile and insulting, so frustratingly devoid of any emotional state beyond anger, that Marine’s decision to try to burn his house down while he’s in it actually doesn’t seem too out of line.

Suzuki: Man, he may not look like much, and his Skill Points actually decrease on each level up to indicate that he’s losing his mind in his old age (I can’t determine whether this is in poor taste or hilarious), but give Suzuki a little decent training and a couple speed boost items, and this geriatric murder-factory might just be able to win a round at the end of the game against Lord Dragon. On Hard Mode.

Just what the hell kind of crazy super-genes are in Marine’s bloodline, anyway? I mean, between her, her sister, her mom, her cousin (Benoit), and gramps here, Marine’s family fills out a quarter of the entire party. More than a quarter, in fact, if you don’t count Jeanne as a party member!

Blondie: You know, when you think about it, the fact that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the settlement which adopted a white, fair-haired girl all decided to call her ‘Blondie’ is actually kind of messed up.

Borgon: Basically what happens when you mix Jafar and President Snow together.

Lord Dragon: Okay, I know that Millennium obviously wants us to believe that Dragon is a decent, wise ruler and an upstanding human being in general, but I contend that this guy is a moron. I mean, come on. How on-point of a ruler can he possibly be when he has no idea that the entire countryside surrounding his town, whose residents Mystrock does business with and, I think, technically rules over, is existing in crippling poverty, is overrun with monsters in like 2/3rds of its regions, and totally hates his entire town’s guts?

And how wise, just, and decent a man can he be when he staffs his government with bigots and asswipes? Not every member of his political team is evil (Mai and Giselle seem quite decent human beings, actually), but dude, come on. 1 of your most trusted generals is a scowling monosyllabic bloodthirsty troglodyte who may actually be under a spell that prevents him from opening his mouth if it’s not to either insult someone or demand more violence. The guy straight up has fucking fangs!

And even if we’re charitable enough to assume that maybe Borgon does a hell of a job hiding the fact that 75% of Lord Dragon’s staff are complete assholes, there’s still the tournament itself to consider. While Dragon has enough presence of mind to rebuke his underlings for their stream of verbal abuse during the tournament, it never seems to once enter his head that, gee, maybe the peasants are upset and saying that he and his administration are morally wrong because every word out of his administration’s mouths to these people is a prejudiced slur.