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.)