Monday, March 20, 2017

Nostalgia in all the wrong places

I can appreciate the classics, of course. They're called such for a reason - they make us as gamers want to go back and replay them from time to time. I'm no different in that regard - I'm currently going back through Link's Awakening - a game I came glitch-crushingly close to beating when I was younger and now that I want to finish.

You know the old saying about "too much of a good thing", though. And retreading classic gameplay mechanics is fine and dandy in newer games. There are a number of genres and gameplay styles that have died out of popularity, kept alive by only a tiny handful of indie titles - and I'd love it if these games made a return.

When it comes to the stories though, I'm of a different mind. It's one thing to ape certain basic plot structures - it's another when the exact same plot points and characters come back again...and again...and again. And lately, I've seen too much of this brand of "nostalgia" appeal for me to ignore it. So, let's look at a few examples of new or upcoming games, shall we?

Since I know I absolutely want to have Nintendo hate, we can start with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the newest title in that series While the gameplay represents a new direction, the story is another Link-Zelda-Ganon dance. (If you were spoiled by this, you've probably never touched a Nintendo controller in your life, so it shouldn't matter.) While I get why Zelda has to be there, would it kill certain people to have a different villain, or even a different hero?

Similarly, I'm not looking forward to the Castlevania retread Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. While I have found some Castlevania games enjoyable, I really don't want to be stuck playing as a clone of Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia. Can you come up with a fresh new protagonist instead of "dark-clad girl with a magic tattoo on her back"? Please?

And then we come to System Shock 3. I adore the second game - you can read my prior post on it. But when I learned that they planned to have all the major characters from both the first and second games appear (keep in mind there are forty-something years between the first two) in round three, my response was less than pleased. SHODAN is the only character that really matters - do we have to revisit the casts of the earlier games?

If video games can't tell new and fresh stories, why would I want to play them? I have to conclude that far too many people look for gameplay first, instead of treating both gameplay and story as part of a unified work - a major point of how I see video games. I long for the days of a truly original game in the vein of Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and System Shock 2.

I just don't see the "original" part happening any time soon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

False equality

No, this is not some talk about the golden mean fallacy, or social issues, or anything like that. What this is a fairly quick post on something I've been thinking about.

One of the key features of many video games is the idea of an opposing force (insert Half-Life joke somewhere), one that is actively seeking victory and/or trying to defeat you. In most cases, this opposing force has its own set of rules and limitations, and learning those gives you an edge in beating it.

Well executed, this is not a problem. Even if it's something as simple as the mindless forward march of Goombas and Koopas that get thrown at you by Bowser, there's still a reasonably fun challenge that can be had here. Other games opt for more complex enemy patterns, and thus have a different breed of difficulty.

Alas, there is a problem here, as can be expected when I make a blog post. You see, certain games are designed so that the limitations are those of a human player. This shows up primarily in strategy games (both real time and turn-based), although there are also bots in games like first-person shooters and MOBAs.

Of course, the expectation would be that the AI exists just to prepare you for multiplayer. This doesn't hold, however, when in a number of such games (again, mostly strategy) the AI is flat out not bound by those rules. It gets even worse in the games that appear to be aimed for individual players, like Civilization (in case you hadn't guessed, that is one game series I am not fond of).

That is what I mean by "false equality"; implying that the AI is bound by the same rules as the player when they are not. (I think the technical term might be asymmetrical gameplay, but don't quote me on that.)  It's unfortunately that game devs still lack the ability to make the AI play smarter instead of  getting more resources or other numerical advantages.

Or maybe they should ditch the concept of opposing AI together. I mean, games like the original Majesty or Dungeon Keeper showed you don't need an enemy AI to make a fun and clever strategy game. Maybe that could be the key to reviving the near-dead RTS genre.

Either way, I don't expect it to get any better any time soon. Well, I guess that's why I prefer RPGs, which are much more upfront about this. And there's still plenty of good ones of those out there.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Now playing: Stardew Valley

Let's kick off 2017 with some heavy action...farming.

Stardew Valley is a spiritual follow-up to the classic Harvest Moon titles, where you play as a disgruntled corporate employee who throws that job away in order to take over your deceased grandfather's old farm in the titular village.

The gameplay is vintage Harvest Moon: grow crops, raise animals, and even go mining for metals. Like the Rune Factory spinoffs, you also have to contend with monsters, who drop things you can use. You also get to date, marry, and have kids with a number of NPCs, male and female alike (and yes, even if they are the same gender as you). Most of this is reasonably fun, with a lot of variety in what you can do.

The one problem? The gameplay is vintage Harvest Moon.

You see, the older games in that series had the issue of implicitly steering you into running your farm a certain way if you wanted to accomplish the main goals of the game. Want to run a chicken farm? Grow nothing but fruit trees? Sorry, but if you do that, you'll be locked out of a lot of what the game offers, including the overall main story (or the best endings thereof).

Stardew Valley, in many ways, is actually even worse about it. Your story options are to sign up with the exact same corporation you just left (and then pay them your money to fix up the town), or to undertake a tedious collectathon that requires you to run a farm with a bit of everything, instead of specializing in whatever you choose to. Neither option is exactly appealing, for different reasons.

I think the barn gating is another good example of the regression from Harvest Moon. You cannot raise sheep until you've upgraded your barn to the maximum level. If you want to specialize in sheep farming, you have to spend a ton of money and resources before you can even begin. Whereas in many Harvest Moon games, you just can build a basic barn and then buy whatever animal you want. There's no logical reason for this, other than to justify a "balance" where sheep are more valuable and profitable than cows. (Which is a bit ironic, given that at the time of this writing, real cows cost roughly three times as much as real sheep.)

I'm not saying Stardew Valley is bad; it has its moments, but it's definitely not what I'd call a great game that deserves to stand the test of time. I suspect nostalgia has blinded a lot of people to the flaws of the old Harvest Moon games (and they definitely had flaws), which led to this game being one of the top sellers of 2016. And keep in mind the only version I've played is post 1.1, and from what I've read...the game was even worse when it was released.

While I'm not done with the game (and it's still fun at points), I'm still waiting for the a game that captures the better aspects of the later Harvest Moon games, and their much more open mechanics. Stardew Valley is not that game, and without major revisions (here's my suggestion: why can't you manually rebuild the community center yourself?), it never will be.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Now playing: Blue Dragon

This is going to be the first in a new semi-regular feature, where I talk about a game I'm, well, currently playing through.

So we're kicking this off with a interesting game: Blue Dragon. The debut of Mistwalker Studios, this JRPG is the brainchild of some the biggest names behind JRPGs: Hironobu Sakaguchi (the man behind the early Final Fantasy games), Nobuo Uematsu (famed Final Fantasy music composer), and Akira Toriyama (the creator of the Dragon Ball franchise, and main artist behind the Dragon Quest games).

Gameplay wise, the game is Final Fantasy V, modernized. It's the same idea of each character being able to switch classes at will, and obtain skills from those classes that can be applied to playing other classes. While it's not as deep as the variety in its forebear, it also means that it's much better balanced - it's not possible to pull game breaking tricks like Doublecast Flare or dual wielded Rapid Fire Spellblades. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now.

One interesting tweak is that the areas are full of little unmarked objects you can check to find items, gold, and occasionally even new spells. While this is interesting at first, it does grate a little as you go on, because of the tedium of checking every single object (and I mean EVERY object; even things like ordinary rocks sitting around can hide items).

The story is the game's biggest weakness. Specifically, the main protagonist is one of the most shonen hero to have ever shonened (mister "I'll never give up" Shu), which is kind of annoying. What makes it worse is that the actual story isn't really about him, once you break it down. Really, the entire plot centers around three specific characters and how everyone reacts to them and what they do.

The three are Kluke (the female point of the love triangle among the three initial party members), Nene (the main villain of the story, whose reasons for being such are only explained in the sequels...grumble), and Zola (a mysterious mercenary whose real agenda and story isn't frustratingly revealed into the last hour of the game). Every single plot point comes down to someone reacting to what these characters do. Every. Single. One.

Given the issues of the latter two, this makes Kluke the only genuinely interesting character in the whole game, so...why is she not the protagonist again? Oh, right, got to have your shonen shonening it up. It could have been so much better - a little darker, a little more introspective - if they had taken that route. Instead, the story of Shu is ultimately forgettable.

Combined with the relative lack of variety in party builds, I've concluded this game is really only worth playing through once. Which makes me wonder why I'm trying again. Oh well, I'll probably still finish it...and then it can just gather dust. Not much else that can be said, other than, hey, I played this game. It was okay. The end.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Single Poké or multi-mon?

My like for Weird Al aside (I wonder how many people remember he actually did a song for Pokémon), Pokémon games are a fascinating subject. Mainly because there's a lot a misconceptions about the focus of the games.

So here goes: Pokémon are first and foremost a series of multiplayer-focused games. The single-player story is primarily a gateway/tutorial to get people into the multiplayer.

While I do know that some people do find single-player playthroughs enjoyable - even me, as I'm working my way through my copy of SoulSilver - the truth of the matter is that the primary appeal of a solitary run through these games is not emphasized by the game design.

There are two factors that tie into this. First, each game usually requires you to assemble a working team of multiple mons before a certain point in each game, or otherwise it would be too difficult to progress. Logically, it follows that any Pokémon that can only be obtained after this point aren't really viable for single-player. You get them too late to actually be able to use them.

The second is the idea of variant Pokédexes versus the national version. Each time, an increasingly large number of the pocket critters are unavailable to you, usually until you beat the game. Again, that's too late to use, so you're stuck with a smaller set of mons.

This may not seem like a problem, but the entire appeal of repeat playthroughs of the games is building different teams and seeing what works. Which get crippled when you realize there's not actually that much variety as you would think. Discounting unevolved ones, your typical game gives you a selection of somewhere between 60 and 90 to use. Which, while not bad, isn't exactly the greatest variety, especially compared to how many possible team combos there could be.

This explains why the games have been steadily made easier and easier. Less dependence on HMs, permanent TMs, reduced gym leader and Elite Four difficulty, the Experience Share buff - it's a long list of changes that all point towards getting players through the single-player faster to get to the post-game, and the multiplayer that comes with it.

Sun & Moon may shake up the formula somewhat, but without evidence they are front-loading the available Pokémon, along with making a much larger variety available from the get-go, they're not addressing the main issue. Nintendo is still making these games multiplayer-first, and will likely to continue to do so.

Not that it stops you from "catching them all", but be aware that if you bought any of these games to play by yourself, you may be disappointed. They aren't bad, but there's a lot of wasted potential there. It's a bit of a shame, really. I suppose at least I can enjoy raising my Bayleef. (What? I like Chikorita better than Totodile, and I was using a different Fire-type anyway.)

Smell ya later! (Gary/Blue's jingle plays as I walk off.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Looking back: Might and Magic, part 2

Well, time for our next meeting...mortals.

Following VI, 3DO mandated a yearly release schedule for the Might & Magic RPG games. The result of this was that the next game, For Blood & Honor, was developed in roughly nine months time. While a rushed development schedule doesn't normally bode well, the fact that I'm obligated to tell you that Majora's Mask was done in about a year should tell how good I found VII to be.

While critics of the time regarded it as fairly good, but not up to the standards of prior games, VII is the game that has aged the best of the entire series. The majority of the class and skill balance issues of VI were addressed while expanding the class system and re-adding race choics, the difficulty curve was made much more smooth (although not perfect), and it actually added branching story choices. Oh, and most of the main quests can be completed while playing pacifist style (although doing so does require a specific party setup).

I could spend a lot more time throwing praise on top of the 7th game, but you get the idea. The downsides are that the short development time forced a lot of the games' locations to be made smaller in comparison to VI, and there were fewer locations overall. And of course, it used to exact same game engine, although this isn't so bad. The graphics, while not perfect, aren't unreasonably bad by modern standards.

And so we come to the eighth entry, Day of the Destroyer, which tried to change up the formula by fusing race and class into one blend - you could be a knight, or a minotaur, or a vampire...these were all mutually exclusive. The plot of this game is actually interesting, because a lot of elements of it would crop up in World of Warcraft of all things - specifically, the backstory behind the character Algalon the Observer is very similar to the main antagonist of VIII, while said antagonist's methods are in line with what Deathwing did during the Cataclysm expansion. (Yes, I know my Warcraft lore.)

Unfortunately, the rushed development time finally showed itself. The difficulty curve is really jagged in comparison to the prior game, alternating between fairly easy at most points and extremely hard at a few critical ones. The lack of sidequests really shows too, with most of your time spent on class promotions or main story quests. It didn't help that RPGs as a genre had made a resurgence at the time, so the game faced poor reception compared to its counterparts.

And then came the disaster known as IX, aka Writ of Fate (the working title, but not actually used for the release). The game was released in an unfinished state with many bugs and quite a bit of missing content, and the story was not well tied into the overall mythology of the earlier games. Combined with poor sales of its other games, this would mark the end of 3DO, which closed its doors in 2003.

The Might and Magic license was sold to Ubisoft, who abandoned the RPG series and the original setting, but continued to release games in the Heroes of Might and Magic series (which they eventually re-titled Might & Magic Heroes). At least, until 2013, when Might & Magic X: Legacy was announced.

This game was released to mixed reviews, but was generally solid in terms of gameplay, although the annoyance of Uplay rankled quite a bit. It borrowed many elements from the prior games in the series, and in many ways was a love letter to the games of old, even if it did have some performance issues. Unfortunately, Ubisoft proved they had no real faith in the game by pulling funding and support soon after release, leaving it with a single DLC and little hope of further bug-fixes.

I sincerely doubt we will get another game in the series, as much as I would want one. (At least, unless Ubisoft sells the rights - ha, almost no one sells rights unless bankruptcy looms). Still, it was a very influential set of RPGs, and I would love to see more like them.

Catch you on the flip side Darkside of Xeen. (Yes, I brought that back, just this once.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking back: Might and Magic, part 1

One of the classic RPG series. And one of my favorites back in the day. Worth talking about, isn't it?

Might and Magic was the brainchild of Jon Van Caneghem. He created the company New World Computing in 1983,  and the first game in this series came about three years later. It and its sequel...well, to be honest, they were bad, like many games of the time. The control schemes were just too obtuse, in the days before mouse controls and better keyboard setups like WASD came into being.

The third game was where the series finally hit its stride. While the graphics were still crude - a trait all of the games in the series shared to some degree - the use of mouse-based gameplay finally made it worthwhile.

The followup is what most people remember, for a few reasons. First, the fourth and fifth games (Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen) were designed as two halves of a single story, with a bonus extended ending for those who installed them both. The second was that while the graphics were mostly the same, the game's art style took a huge leap, becoming this colorful and cartoony world that few other games even tried. And it worked; I still think this was the greatest strength of the combined World of Xeen.

Shortly thereafter, a pair of spinoffs were launched. One was basically an expansion pack RPG called Swords of Xeen, which is mostly forgotten. The other was a set of turn-based strategy games, a spiritual follow-up to NWC's earlier strategy game King's Bounty. This was Heroes of Might and Magic, and it would eventually eclipse the original series that spawned it in terms of popularity.

However, in the wake of World of Xeen, New World Computing was bought up by 3DO. Following this, they announced that the RPG series had come to an end. A shame, but it made sense, due to the main villain of the prior games getting killed off.

...yeah, you're not buying it. Eventually, they changed their minds, leading to the release of the sixth game in the series, The Mandate of Heaven.

For this game, they revamped the original style of the game, moving from turn-based and tile-based into a free-roam system with crude (I warned you) 3D environments. They also tied the plot of the RPG games more tightly to the HoMM series, by setting them on the same world of Enroth. Finally, they introduced a skill-based character system.

The result was relatively popular, although not for the obvious reasons. You see, VI came out at a time when RPGs not made in Japan were a rare breed. The five year gap between it and its predecessor had seen the genre die off. About the only competition it had was the first Baldur's Gate (impressive, but it's just one game). Thus, it did very well.

However, in retrospect, it was not a very good game. The character progression was heavily limited due to the high difficulty curve (due to poor damage scaling versus the health of enemies), forcing most players into predictable builds. The limited class variety - only six classes for a four person party - did not help either. Coupled with somewhat clunky controls (WASD had finally started to catch on, but the game didn't use it), it has not aged well.

So, where did the duo of New World Computing and 3DO go from there? You'll have to come back in a week or so for the next not-so-exciting installment of this blog.

"Until our next meeting, mortals..."