Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We got one hella interesting ass game goin on right now: Way of the Samurai

at 6:00 PM

That's right. Way of the Samurai for the PS2, the first in a series of four puzzling but presumably niche (and accordingly "budget") samurai games. Widely ranked as one of the five most unsolved mysteries in modern anthropology, the question of "Who is the Way of the Samurai?" piqued my interest enough to prompt an extravagant $6 expedition to the Amazon. Below are my findings - perhaps this new research will lead to the ultimate unraveling of how each game in the franchise could have drawn reviews ranging from the rock bottom (5) to the tippy top (9) of the standard 10 point scale.

I don know if this is Zoness??? [the reason], but it turns out Way of the Samurai is basically "an arcade man's Shenmue". It's a open-world real-time quest-driven dialogue-centric occasional-brawling and cheesy atmosphere. Seems like the game mostly consists of wandering the countryside picking up odd jobs. Chat up a guy, choose to help him or choose to fight him, maybe it'll trigger a story event or point to a longer-term objective. Move on to the next whatever. Sometimes you'll be wrapped up in scripted scenarios ("missions") but it seems more often like individual storyline progress is player-driven (making them "quests"). I can't say I've played Shenmue, but the brawling stitched into this RPG framework looks like what I know of it.

Also a thing I think I've heard of from Shenmue (and if not, at least Majora's Mask): everything in Way of the Samurai  has a daily schedule, so non-player characters can be found at scripted points doing scripted things at scripted game-times. The schedule kicks off in real-time from the moment the game starts and runs for two days (there might be a specific event that triggers moving from one day to the next, not sure about that yet). Dying resets the entire (<2 hour) campaign and there's no saving, so the whole thing is pretty much meant for a single sitting (there is exactly one mid-game suspend point that allows a minor reprieve). For the record, that's what's meant by "arcade-style" - that there's no saving. That word gets used in a lot of disparate contexts. Anyway, just because you only get one life doesn't make the game a rogue-like for god's sake. 

But Way of the Samurai does feel rogue-likey. Although the environment, population, and schedule are identical from game to game, interactions with non-player characters tend to be mutually exclusive - as in, if you fight a guy, you can't also sign up for his club. Even combat provides more than a binary outcome - dying ends the game, but the player can also choose to surrender, allowing them to continue with the story having lost the fight. A player who sucks at combat can still finish the game, even if they'll miss out on most of the story branches. And because the population operates on a schedule, deciding to visit X person at the Y-minute mark might necessitate missing out on something else. With an open world and no overarching objectives, playthroughs can feel pretty completely different and experimentation becomes necessary. Ultimately that's the "Spirit of Rogue-like". Of saaaaalesmannnnn.

A task-based upgrade system spreads that experimentation to combat and character building. New fighting moves can be unlocked in a weapon's repertoire by performing specific actions in certain contexts or sequences. The objectives for learning these moves aren't explicit, so the player needs to explore the combat system to discover them. The reward for experimentation is layered - if the player accidentally lands on some random unlock combo, the bonus is temporary (because the unlocked move goes away when the game is reset), but if they understand what they did they can repeat the unlock every time they start a new game or get a new weapon.

From a couple hours of messing around and completely sucking at combat, Way of the Samurai feels like a pretty interesting game. In the last year or two I've really picked up on the potential of short RPGs - sadly that's generally restricted to redundant rogue-likes, but you get the occasional gem like Crimson Shroud. I like character-building and story-influencing *IF AND ONLY IF* I'm given room for experimentation instead of being committed to every ill-informed choice for 72 hours. Way of the Samurai offers not only that, but also Soul Calibur-esque 1-on-1 brawler combat. That's a good recipe. A good recipe for destruction!


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Let's Listen: Jupiter

at 6:00 PM
Darius II (also known as Sagaia) was initially released by Taito in arcades in 1989, but over the years, it received a number of ports. Taito's Zuntata even performed parts of its soundtrack live. Below are six covers of the same song, the theme to the final stage of Darius II: Jupiter.


The entire Darius II soundtrack is great, but this track in particular goes beyond the scope of the rest of the tracks and ends up as some kind of pop prog thing. It’s also interesting that the final stage—chock full of tough foes and the height of the game’s difficulty—is so energetic and hopeful.

Also, there’s a lady that says “papa.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Warrior Within: The Prince of Persia (and his software quality assurance team) plummet to their demise

at 6:00 PM

Above all things, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is probably remembered most as a symbol of a an era of faux-grit, where even a whimsical, sophisticated, and self-assured tale like Sands of Time could be brazenly supplanted by MTV's Godsmacked in a leather bikini cutting a dog in half (with fully real-time BloodParticle (TM) effects) without any justification whatsoever. While the gameplay mechanics were well-received, sales were fine, and an important lesson was learned for the next sequel, Warrior Within still managed to tarnish the perceived integrity of what had been the crowning achievement of the sixth console generation: Halo. Or, um, Sands of Time. (which, and let's not get into this here, but which had a far greater impact on game design-to-come than did the conservative, if blockbusting, Halo). With Prince of Persia: Warrior Within Featuring Godsmacked, Ubisoft reminded everyone (who cared enough to pay attention) that games are soulless entertainment products and that artistic vision is only permitted in commercial media so long as it doesn't conflict with demographic analysis.

Ignoring the stifled critical outcry, I actually don't think there's anything wrong with the concept of Warrior Within as a downer sequel to Sands of Time. Taking a youthful chummy character who went through a seriously traumatic experience and reflecting that in his development is actually... well it's a lot more honest than having Nathan Drake or Max Payne toss off a one-liner after their 1,445th murder. The Prince, and most video game heroes along with him, should be kinda insane. You heard of this thing called PTSD? Even the Ninja Turtles got a bit shell-shocked here and there d;^) The strands of that transformation definitely lurk amidst Warrior Within's story - for instance when the Prince transforms into a wraith and murders himself. For all it's association with baby teenagers, angst can be a sophisticated narrative subject. I think it would've been a mistake to continue in an ever-darkening pattern, but it's only the aforementioned cynicism that would make us assume that would happen. 

The art design of the new Island of Time setting is pretty excellent too. More Persian sandcastles would've been really boring, especially considering sand is generally thought of as not that interesting a thing to look at. Rather than another mystically transformed period backdrop, Warrior Within offers a glance through the looking glass to the reality-defying world that spawned the fantastical Sands of Time, adorned with clockwork machinery (get it? clockwork? like time?), eternal gardens, and demonic inhabitants. The Sands were actually a pretty horrific thing in the first game - the kind of thing you don't want Saddam Hussein stocking up in a secret bunker - so it makes a lot of sense that they come from this haunting otherworldly fortress.

What I'm trying to convey is that the game shows a lot of potential and seems to come from a sensible place. There's no real need to ask "why did they go dark?". There is, however, good reason to ask "why did they go Mature?". It isn't the tone or the concept that feel wrong, it's the weird superficial trappings hinting at a lack of faith in the concept's sales potential. The nu-metal soundtrack, the salacious female foes, the sprays of blood - they're all an escape from the macabre tone of the story, a means of backing down tragic angst to something more teenager-friendly and marketably "gritty". There is nothing challenging or mature about a stripper with a knife moaning in pleasure as the Prince cuts her to pieces. That's abject sleaze. The sad thing is that all of these embarrassing elements are utterly irrelevant and surface-level, as if one of the developer's 14-year-old sons sneaked into the studio the night before release to do a little "tweaking".

And that's probably painfully close to what happened. Warrior Within came out right before God of War, but not right before the God of War two-year hype-train launched into orbit. In fact, the entire development of a Sands of Time sequel probably took place under the shadow of Sony's behemoth brainwashing campaign (iirc as launch approached G4TV was running a 24/7 picture-in-picture live feed of David Jaffe's personal bathroom). So while Ubisoft had Developer A off making his cool Labyrinth fantasy concept art, Developer B was in an isolated room studying God of War trailers and secretly developing a Teenagerizer Ray to convert the finished product into something sure to embarrass everyone.

Unfortunately (again), there never was a "finished product" with Warrior Within. This is of course pure speculation, but holy shit is this game incomplete. The rushed quality makes a lot of sense taking into consideration it was developed in a year and assuredly "guaranteed" (by someone who was not at all a developer) to make a December 2004 release - critical both in preempting God of War and in capitalizing on the final holiday season belonging to sixth gen consoles.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing evidence of the crunch is how goddamn little sense the plot makes. Time travel logic is notoriously difficult to establish and Warrior Within's solution is not to try. At a critical moment in the game, the Prince goes back in time and kills himself to stop himself from creating the sand that allows people to travel back in time to kill themselves. So he returns to the present without the existence of the time-traveling sand and he was very clearly murdered by himself last week before he went back in time to murder himself and extinguish the time-travel-sand and that's a-okay? Is this Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah? It is so fucking lazy it begs the question why bother with the time travel in the first place. The answer is because it doubles the gameplay space (every area has a past and present version) without doubling the development time, so who cares if we can explain it.

The weird selection of voice actors also reeks of "didn't have time to get the right people". Why is the Prince played by a new actor? The Prince's character from Sands of Time was all about that external monologue performance. He doesn't feel like the same person anymore. And you know someone at Ubisoft knew that, because the original (Sands) actor returned for Two Thrones and Forgotten Sands. Possibly even worse is that new main character Kaileena is played by two different actresses! In the same game! That is some hardcore low budget shit right there. There's also not that much voice-over content. Or at least it seems that way, since...

The bugs in this game are insane. Sound effects and voice-over disappeared from my playthrough PERMANENTLY around the halfway point. Never to return. For all intents and purposes, Ubisoft may as well have saved the time and budget on audio, because I never got to hear half of it. This is a AAA holiday release Gamecube game from a major publisher! Not some bargain bin Christian Bible Big Rigs shit. I continued to follow the story thanks to cutscene subtitles, but if the Prince was externally monologuing the same way he did in Sands of Time, I missed it. I wasn't about to replay the first 8 hours and this time cross my fingers that the game didn't completely shit itself.

Perhaps in an attempt to replace the missing sound effects, the game caused my console to make all kinds of loud clicking and disc-reading noises that it has never made otherwise. I finally decided to queue up some Allman Brothers Band on the iPod and tough it out to the end. I did want to see the credits at least once, as all-told it's a fun game and the only one in the series I'd yet to complete.

Despite my best efforts, Warrior Within shall remain the only game in the series I've yet to complete. That's because the portal to the final boss fight doesn't work. At all. In this game. There is no way to get to the final boss fight and see the ending. The game ends for good at the final save point. I've read online that there is a rare bug that lets you continue through to the conclusion - it requires deleting your save file, playing all 15-20 hours a second time, and saying a prayer that the portal will work this time. If it wasn't for all the other random glitching and audio not working, maybe someday in 20 or 30 years I'd regain the enthusiasm to see through Warrior Within. Looks like it just isn't meant to be.

I'm not going to write a conclusion because it's not like I got one for this piece of shit game. I'd be genuinely pissed if I had bought it for full price in 2004. As is I'm just kinda depressed because my OCD doesn't let me take this off the "games to complete" list.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sonic Lost World Tropical Coast Zone 2: An Essay About It

at 6:00 PM
Critics and scholars alike have long debated whether Tropical Coast Zone 3 is a level in Sonic Lost World. This is an insightful debate. In this five-paragraph essay following the MLA format and citing at most least one source, one aims to convince the reader (you) that Tropical Coast Zone 3 is a level in Sonic Lost World. Tropical Coast Zone 3 is a level in Sonic Lost World because it has bottomless pits, it takes place underwater, and it has the best musical track in the game.

In an interview with Nintendo World Report, Sonic Lost World Tropical Coast Zone 3 producer Takashi Iizuka said, "It really depends on the stage so it's not that 3DS is putting more emphasis on the wall jumping. It's just that the stages we've selected for E3 happen to put more emphasis on that and the Wii U version will have stages that require wall jumping to proceed as well so they're probably about the same in the emphasis of wall jumping" (Nintendo World Report, 2013). There is no wall jumping in Tropical Coast Zone 3. In fact, the walls are made of water, to which Sonic is deathly allergic. Therefore, there is no wall jumping in Sonic Lost World Tropical Coast Zone 3.

Tropical Coast Zone 3 is also a level because it takes place underwater. You (the player and reader) may observe this because there is a lot of blue and nice little patches of coral. Because the level is shaped like a tube, one may believe that this is the one level in Sin & Punishment: Star Successor. But no, careful examination of the disc in the console yields the game's true title: Sonic Lost World, in which Tropical Coast Zone 3 is a level.
This level is a ripoff of Sin & Punishment: Star Successor.

In conclusion, Tropical Coast Zone 3 is a level in Sonic Lost World because it has bottomless pits, it takes place underwater, and it has the best musical track in the game. My side on the debate is that Tropical Coast Zone 3 is a level in Sonic Lost World, and I feel this because it has bottomless pits, it takes place underwater, and it has the best musical track in the game.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Final Fantasy XII, Dragon Age Origins, and Xenoblade Chronicles - Real-time Tactics A to Z

at 5:00 PM

Since I've been enjoying Final Fantasy XII recently, I decided to give Dragon Age Origins (that's the first one, $4.49 on XBL) a try, just for point of comparison on combat systems with customizable AI. My first observation is that DAO's "tactics" are literally a carbon copy of FFXII's "gambits", and I mean literally literally. Same wording, same organization, same numbers, and the exact same goddamn menu (i.e. visual presentation and settings). It is weird to the degree that I now suspect Yasumi Matsuno sold BioWare the FFXII source code after his falling out with Square Enix.

Plagiarism aside, Dragon Age might be the first BioWare game I like without reservation. It comes from the same mold of real-time tactics RPG that spawned Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles, not to mention BioWare's own games since the Baldur's Gate II days. People sometimes call these kind of games single-player MMOs since they involve indirect control of party members, but that's kind of a stupid way to categorize a game. "It's just like a massively multiplayer game except that it isn't massively multiplayer". It makes sense that this style of combat is popular in MMOs for reasons so obvious I could be sued for repeating them, but hey, no reason it can't work solo.

Within this particular real-time tactics portacanado, Dragon Age Origins lands closer to the MMO-standard (Xenoblade-standard to me) rhythm of "do a bunch of actions then wait out a bunch of timers", in contrast to the Final Fantasy Action Time-Battle flow where a charge period separates a command from the designated action. I'm not gonna get too deep into that distinction because it's a pretty detailed topic of its own. Xenoblade's and Dragon Age's instant feedback suggests strategy through reservation and punishes rash overaggression, while Final Fantasy XII's action delay permits adaptation through cancellation, but requires prediction for timing. The former is more accommodating to a safe, passive play style, while the latter smiles on (TM) the risk-taker, though generally they accomplish the same strategic depth.

As in Xenoblade, space is the foremost resource of the battlefield in Dragon Age. The player can influence enemy spacing with skills that cause aggro, blocking, movement penalties, and knockback, and can take advantage of position with ranged attacks, flanking bonuses, and area of effect. AI-controlled party members can even be assigned range/movement tactics (e.g. "if enemy is elite rank stay out of melee range"). Final Fantasy XII kinda doesn't give a shit about space, leading the action back to the cinematic nature of turn-based battles. It gives lip service to the concept with ranged weapons and area of effect spells, but provides only the most minimal means for the player to control allied and enemy spacing (if it uses aggro it's too subtle to notice, there's definitely no blocking, and there's only a single spell for immobilize). Though the party leader can be freely controlled with the joystick during battle, they won't execute skills while under direct player influence, and when they do return to their script they'll automatically reposition. It's a bit arbitrary - a bit Chrono Triggery, if you will - that there are means to take advantage of spacing, but very few to set it up.

Then again, Final Fantasy XII's small-scale battles (rarely more than 3v3) tend to be either far too short or far too long for dynamic spacing to play a role. The game is more a traditional dungeon-crawler, challenging the player to manage expendable resources (HP, MP, and items) over a long span of battles. Defense isn't all that important when you're not at risk of dying in a single encounter. Every fight in Dragon Age and Xenoblade is one for survival, with HP and MP refreshing after every victory (for what it's worth, Final Fantasy XIII picked up this trend). The high stakes and tactical density do make a lot of sense for standard WRPG pacing (1 battle, 8 hours of walking around talking to people, the first third of a battle, 19 hours of one character reading his Lord of the Rings fanfiction), though luckily one of Dragon Age's great advantages over most BioWare shlock is that is has actual dungeons. Like, mazes where you have to fight strings of battles! They're still pretty scripted, but there's a bit of exploration that allows the player a risk/reward balance on choice of engagement.

When it comes to actually surviving those encounters, Xenoblade offers the least combat micromanagement of the group, with no scripting of companions and only a preset subset of player character actions available for orders. FFXII and DAO sport interfaces for the issuance of any command to any allied character on any target, thus theoretically allowing the player to control every single party action that transpires. They also allow the player to swap leads at any point, with FFXII going one step further to allowing full mid-battle party reconfiguration. While combat can be approached at a fully explicit level, the control and default behavior of the player-controlled character ultimately distinguish the systems beyond their basic rules and timing mechanics.

Final Fantasy XII allows the party lead to be scripted with the same tactical gambits as companions, providing a true hands-off auto-battle experience. With gambits enabled, the only thing that distinguishes the lead is that they're the focal point of the camera. If the player disables gambits on their leader and sets the timing to "Active", they can bring up a full menu of commands as battle progresses in real time, queuing actions up to one in advance. Navigating the menus and timing orders in real-time so they queue properly can be a bit cumbersome. If the timing is set to "Wait", the game will pause any time the menu is activated, removing the challenge of timing orders... but also slowing battles drastically. Thus the player is encouraged to stick with gambits and the choice between "Active" and "Wait" is more just minor difficulty tuning.

Dragon Age Origin requires the lead character to be controlled manually. They won't act autonomously, though if the player switches to a new lead, the previous one will pick up their scripted tactics where they left off. As in Final Fantasy XII, the player can bring up a menu (that here will always pause the action) and dictate actions, though again, it's cumbersome and slows down the pace. To speed things up, the command menu is supplemented with a handful of shortcuts, just like the preset action list from Xenoblade. Since a shortcut order can be initiated in real time with a single button press, it's to the action-seeking player's advantage to organize and prioritize their skills to fit into this schema.

Prioritization as determined through experimentation provides the fundamental structure of tactics scripting as well. DAO lays out all of its tactics behaviors from the onset, but is stingy with tactics slots. Each character starts with only two tactics slots and far more individual actions than that (even ignoring items and just looking at skills). As any actions not scripted will need to be manually ordered, this provides an optimization challenge on benefit vs. practicality for tactics. The player will want to cover risky scenarios that will relieve them of distracting monitoring in battle, e.g. "if health<25% use: potion". They'll also want to structure opportunistically ("if enemy-is-stunned use: melee attack") and to eliminate redundant micromanagement ("if enemy-is-any use: raise shield"). The diversity of tactical combinations (conditions multiplied by actions) that have to be pruned down to fit a few slots offers a great deal of customization. Defining class roles in the party is more a matter of tactics assignment than skill point distribution.

Final Fantasy XII's gambits are almost identical in setting and function. The biggest difference is that each gambit (i.e. tactical condition) must be acquire in the progression of the game. A few are found in chests and most are bought in shops, though they won't appear til fixed points in the story. I get the point of meting out gambits to tutorialize the player on mechanics before they start thinking too hard about strategy (learn to play the game before you let the game play the game), but the same process is accomplished more elegantly by the slot limits alone in DAO. Skill growth generally outpaces tactics slots, so if a character picks up a new skill, the player can't throw it at the AI without sacrificing something else. This will inherently trigger manual experimentation (with the new skill or the replacement of the sacrificed one), encouraging the player to learn their combat functions one at a time. Ironically, Final Fantasy XII ends up with a much harsher introduction because the player is forced to remember all of their strategies instead of saving them to a script. It is no surprise that I didn't like Final Fantasy XII at all until around the 15 hour mark where any but the most useful gambtis became available.

Overall Dragon Age does a great job of emphasizing the interplay between manual player orders and AI scripting, making the combat feel like one integrated system that requires both pieces to function. Final Fantasy XII stretches hybrid all the way to its extremes - at the starting point you've got nearly 100% orders-based combat that may as well be Final Fantasy VI, then through a really slow process of gambit introduction the game works its way all the way to full automation, with even the player character dependent on scripting. It's actually an interesting and unique scope, fittingly symbolic for the game that popularized AI-scripted auto-battling. It's just that the system without gambits (the Final Fantasy VI battle system) is kinda lame and sucky. So Dragon Age Origins feels more nuanced for trimming it down to that good middle part of the spectrum.

I realize I didn't talk a lot about Xenoblade here. My original concept was that Dragon Age Origins merges the rhythm, flow, and enemy interplay of Xenoblade's combat with the free-form tactics of Final Fantasy XII. What I came to realize is that as far as these high-level tactical structures are concerned, Xenoblade is mostly just a subset of Dragon Age. That's not to say it's redundant gameplay-wise - the absence of mid-battle pausing and character-swapping makes a pretty huge difference when it comes to conceiving strategies. Xenoblade builds on that challenge with systems for attack chaining, syncing, interrupts, and Distant Early Warning, so it's a more structured kind of depth. But let's cut this here where it's already really long.