Now Playing February 2019

Beaten

Celeste – Celeste is just about a perfect game. It is one part a meditation on depression, one part maso-core platformer. It does an amazing job of teaching its mechanics in each stage, slowly letting the player learn them in a safe environment before requiring performance in a treacherous setting. It is set up to kill the player a lot, but also to make the punishment for each death minimal. Instead of a death setting you back, it more affects your ‘score’ of deaths in each section. I’m sure someone who spent more time thinking about it than I did can think of a way the story interacts with the mechanics; instead I just found it to be a heartfelt take on dealing with depression. What a great game.

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – I think I am nearing the end of this. It is already the largest Etrian Odyssey game I’ve ever played; I am on something like the 30th dungeon floor. I pretty quickly settled into a solid team; I burn through resources like crazy and am super fragile, but they do some damage. While I apparently have a goldfish memory when it comes to these games, this does appear to be a very heartfelt greatest hits collection of all of the games in the series. I’m at the point where I kind of just want the game to end, but knowing this is the last entry in the series on the greater DS family of consoles, I also kind of never want the game to end.

Dragon Quest XI – slow progress, but some progress. I am still loving this game, I am just not loving the amount of time I have to play it.

Beyond Good and Evil – This is a fun club entry and a game I haven’t played in close to fifteen years. The first two hours reminded me why I liked it so much. This is a really fun world. The game feels like an evolutionary link between Ocarina of Time and Assassin’s Creed. I might have to do a longer write up when I finish this.

 

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei – Either Soul Hackers or 4: Apocalypse. I am in the mood for some Shin Megami Tensei, and I have these two unfinished 3DS games.

Final Fantasy XV – As soon as I finish Dragon Quest XI, I am going to put some serious time into this. Spring break is coming up and I am going to relax a lot.

Epic Mickey – Copy and paste from last month.

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Its a Monster Tale

I’ve just beat Monster Tale, a fun little game from the makers of Henry Hatsworth that should be better than it is. Not that it isn’t good. It’s very good. But Monster Tale does a lot of things so very wrong that I have a hard time not feeling disappointed. It had gorgeous 2D graphics, pitch perfect control and mechanics and possibly the worst map I’ve ever seen in a Metroidvania style game. The map is only the start of the games problems. Still, it manages to be simply fun to play.

Monster Tale is about a young girl, Ellie, who is sucked into Monster world and finds a monster freshly hatched out of its egg. So she teams up with the baby to try to find away home, quickly running afoul of the other children in monster world, who are less eager to return home, instead being content to rule over the monsters with an iron fist. It is fun and childish in wonderful video game tradition. The abilities Ellie gains as the player advances all fit seamlessly into her moveset. In the end she is an easily controlled destructive force.

The game is set up like Metroid or recent Castlevania games, with a large connected map rather than separate levels. While running around is fun in and of itself, the map design is atrocious. Instead of the having some exploration available at all times, Monster Tale forces players along the one path that can open up more of the map. The openness is not there to facilitate exploration, but to pad the game length. The game hides power-ups behind doors that you need another power-up to open. Not a chunk of map that also has a power-up, just a room with a power-up. Meaning that to get power-up A, you must acquire power-up B and then backtrack all the way across the map. The game is about 40% backtracking. But as I said, it is a lot of fun to just run through the world.

At least its fun for the first half of the game. After that the enemies start taking so many hits to kill that it becomes a chore. Maybe its because I never got all the purchasable upgrades (because they cost so much) but the enemies take way too long to kill. My problem may also lie in how little I used my monster companion. I did use him some, but while the idea of the A.I. controlled monster is great, he seemed largely pointless through most of the game. I gave him whatever items I found, leveled him up in forms that seemed useful, but mostly I used him to solve switch puzzles that he is required for.

In the end, Monster Tale is a charming, if flawed game. It is more fun than it is frustrating, but it is somewhat frustrating. At times there are glimpses of the great game this could have been, the second coming of Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid. Most of the time it is hard to escape the egregiously bad map design and hit absorbing enemies. It is definitely a game to grab if you find it for cheap, but don’t expect great things.

Not So Glorious

For some reason I am having a hard time hating Glory of Heracles, an RPG for the DS, even though it is giving me numerous reasons why I should. The game looks ugly, the game systems are bland, standard JRPG fare and every other part of it is obtuse and unintuitive. Yet somehow, I am managing to eke a modicum of enjoyment out of it, though I am having trouble pinpointing just why that is.

Glory of Heracles is a special kind of hideous. It is ugly despite looking exactly how it is intended to, like a ghoulish Wind Waker. Much like the DS Fire Emblem, it uses what appear to be 3D models shaded to look like 2D sprites, which results in nicely animated monstrosities that manage to have all of the drawbacks of both 3D and 2D but almost none of the strengths. It is evident that a lot of care and effort went into making the game look exactly as it does, though I can’t imagine why. Even the DS Dragon Quest games, with their tiny sprites on top of PS1 quality 3D backgrounds look leagues better than this.

Speaking of Dragon Quest, if you’ve played any entry in that series then you are about 85% of the way to mastering Glory of Heracles’ battle system. Dragon Quest gets something of a pass for being very vanilla in its battle system because it was first and it generally does something else interesting, like a job system or monster recruiting. Glory of Heracles, though, does nothing interesting. Its only deviations from the generic are tedious. It puts the enemies in rows, but the only purpose for this appears to be to make random battles last twice as long, with the back row inaccessible to attacks until the front row is defeated. There is also some sort of field element system, but it has affected me exactly one time in 15 hours of play, so I’m not exactly sure how it works. Overall, the battle system is a blander, emptier version of Dragon Quest’s.

Then there are the simple things like exploring towns, which the game also manages to muck up. Take opening doors, for instance. When you walk up to a door, you push the ‘A’ button to open it. Not just run into to it, like most games, or push a button to enter. You push a button to open the door, but it doesn’t take you through it. There has yet to be an instance where I would want to open a door, but not to enter it. It is a small thing, but that extra step of tedium is indicative of my entire experience with this game.

Despite its demonstrable ineptitude, I am somewhat enjoying Glory of Heracles. I have a history of enjoying mediocre (Magical Starsign) or even terrible (The Legend of Dragoon) RPGs, but right now I have a backlog of supposedly very good DS RPGs to play, like Radiant Historia and SMT Strange Journey, that I should be playing instead. But I keep coming back to this piece. The story is bland and the Greek setting is squandered. I guess I keep playing because in a lot of ways Glory of Heracles reminds me of second tier 16-bit RPGs that I never got to play. It has that same sort of copycat with a touch or originality that those games seemed to have. Maybe this is my way of showing myself that I do not need to play Lufia or Breath of Fire. Or maybe I should, I doubt they are worse than this.

Musings on Death (in video games)

It is the 25th Anniversary of Dragon Quest—in Japan, the first game took three more years to get to America—and since I’m currently playing Dragon Quest VI, I thought it might be a good ides to celebrate one of the series best features. Dragon Quest is the bread and butter of the JRPG genre, with nearly every other game using it at as a starting point or inspiration. For as much as the series is copied, too few other games use Dragon Quest’s no game over strategy.

In most RPGs, as well as most other types of games, if you die you get a blood red “Game Over” screen and it kicks you back out to the title. However, Dragon Quest, even as far back as the first game in the series, just tosses the player back to the last—or only in the case of DQ1—church. All experience and items gained stay with the player, though the gold the player was carrying is cut in half. It doesn’t quite take all the penalty out of dying, but it does severely lessen the blow. Most importantly, it assures the player that they are never wasting their time. In the normal death model, being wiped by a boss means that all the progress through the dungeon has been lost, where in Dragon Quest all is means is you have to fight the boss again. It allows the game to up the difficulty of fights without frustrating the player since progress is never lost.

How do games like Final Fantasy get around to loss of progress problem? By adding more save points, an imperfect resolution at best. With more save points, frequently one just before boss rooms, there is less loss of progress, but it still wastes time. It takes the player out of the game. Sure, you’ll just reload your save and try again; nothing has changed from the last time other than any knowledge of the boss gleaned from the failed attempt. Instead of distressingly punitive consequences, there are none. Why games refuse to adopt Dragon Quest’s elegant death mechanic is puzzling.

Many ill-informed critics don’t seem to grasp the Dragon Quest system and instead deride the series for its draconian saving policy (i.e. at churches, only at churches). That is a feature, not a bug. Though a quick save feature like the DS games have is a welcome feature. By restricting permanent saves to town, it encourages players to reevaluate their approach after a death.

Playing Dragon Quest just really makes me wish more RPGs considered what they are penalizing on death. I love Persona 3, but its death mechanics are unfriendly for the sake of being unfriendly. In the game, there are two separate battle situations. There are the full moon story segments, usually a boss and maybe a small dungeon with a few random battles, where a game over makes sense. There is little progress lost and the fate of the world rests specifically on that time. However, Tartarus, the randomly generated grinding pit, is the opposite. A game over loses all progress on the long trek to the next safe floor. Everything is stacked against the player. If the main character dies game over, many enemies like to spam instant death magic. The battles are not really random, but the enemies in each are.

Very little challenge would be lost if instead of losing everything upon death the player was instead forced out of the dungeon for that day. The floors a randomly generated, so there is no memorizing the layout. The player would still have to start from the last safe/boss floor and make it to the next safe/boss floor in one go. All the player would keep are the levels from the battle that they already won. There is no loss of challenge, just a loss of time wasting bullshit.

I’m not sure the same could be said of the Etrian Odyssey series, where the challenge is to survive in the maze-like dungeon. If dying merely sent the player back to town, with say the loss of all items being carried, most of the challenge would be lost, turning the game into one long tedious, toothless grind. Of course, Etrian Odyssey is much less dependant on gotcha deaths than Persona, at least after the first couple of floors. Instead of no penalty, it could use a rescue system, where the player uses other characters from the guild to go get the ones who fell, but as it is I think it works. While Etrian Odyssey could undoubtedly be friendlier, it at least seems well considered in its hostility.