August 26, 2010

Playing for Time: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Nintendo DS, 2010

As I've been playing the game, the fusion system has begun to bug me in a small way. On the whole it's a brilliant gameplay device that neutralizes the need for excessive grinding: you take two of your demon allies and combine them to make a new demon with, optimally, better skills and a higher experience level than its predecessors.

I have several problems with the system, but before I get to them I must say I don't want to sound like these problems were "real" problems, something that people would universally encounter while playing SMT: SJ. These are my personal failings, and not flaws in the design as such.

Problem 1:
You know the ageless rule of RPG gaming? The one about how you never ever use expendable items like elixirs and mana potions even if your game life depended on it? It's an exaggeration, of course, but it does have its roots in reality. For example, I've never heard of anyone using elixirs in FFVI – the elixirs are rare and they are effective. That means you might need them sometime later, and so you shouldn't use them EVER! Sometime later always means sometime later. The same logic applies to FFXIII where I've kept a plentiful stack of performance-enhancing Aegisols and Fortisols just in case I'd need them. Looking back I can identify several occasions where I should've used them and made my life so much easier (and I'd still have more than enough of the damn things when the game ends.) Incidentally, this very rule accounts for most of the deaths in any given roguelike. Lethal stuff.

In Strange Journey this rule manifests strongest via the Demon Sources. Each demon basically gives you one Demon Source, an expendable item that contains the particular skills of that demon. When fusing demons, you can exhaust a Demon Source and grant the new demon some or all of the skills embedded in the Demon Source.

Sounds simple. But combine that with the aforementioned rule of RPG gaming and you get a handful of unusable items.

But wait, this brings us to...

Problem 2:
In conjunction with the fusion system, there's also password registering. You can choose a demon, output its password and then enter that password to summon the demon anywhere, anytime. This was essentially meant as a method for people to exchange their demons, but the primary function people seem to be using it is to circumnavigate Problem 1. Fuse demons, use Demon Sources, export password, reset the game, load your save, input password and you have the new demon plus your old demons and, most importantly, all your Demon Sources. How delightfully munchkin!

But this is a problem. I'm sure the game designers knew about this when they released the game. Which makes me wonder how much the fusion system actually relies on this exploit. I feel that if I don't hoard my Demon Sources I'll soon extinguish my stock of awesome demon abilities and end up fusing suboptimal demons in hopes of creating something useful. Maybe it's not so. But it feels like it, and knowing about this option makes me want to rely on it. It wouldn't be there unless it was meant to be used, right? Right?

Problem 3:

I am getting perplexed. Using the fusion system is not as carefree and fun as it was in the beginning. It feels like more and more work, exporting passwords, inputting them and managing my increasing flock of demons (in normal fusion two demons make one demon, in this password exploit two demons turns to three demons). I also doubt myself all the time. I keep wondering if I should use the password exploit exclusively or only now and then. I also ponder a lot about when to use the damn Demon Sources and when to just make simple fusions.

I need to solve things soon if I want to keep on playing this game without losing my drive and momentum. My compulsive urge for minmaxing, something I'm usually very good at suppressing, is also trying to interfere: I often don't fuse demons unless I am totally sure I get the best possible outcome.

And to crown this pile of self-caused stoopid is...

Problem 4:

I love the demon illustrations. In fact, I'm obsessing over them. Combined with the personal speech patterns the different demon breeds have, the supernatural NPC's become really intriguing. This is great! But also somewhat problematic. I've found I've skipped many useful fusions just because I haven't liked the demon's portrait. I choose cats over dogs, humanoid over animal-kind, angel over demon and so forth. And my party is a mess in terms of alignment (the game ranks humans and demons on a scale of law-neutral-chaos and there are huge benefits if you have a single-alignment party) because my protagonist is neutral but I tend to favour the manners and visuals of the law-aligned demons.

What to make of all this? Maybe that I should let go of my neuroses, make more fusions and save the damn Earth already!

(If you're wondering what Playing for Time is, see this explanatory post.)

August 04, 2010

Playing for Time: Final Fantasy XIII

PS3, 2010

Haven't advanced much on the gaming front. The heatwave that has enveloped Finland for the last month or so made me disinclined to turn on the PS3. My apartment gets hot enough without a black monolith fuming hot air for hours at an end.

In fact, since I last discussed the game I've only progressed through Taejin's Tower. But that segment of the game certainly deserves an entry of its own.

Up until now FFXIII has been strictly linear, save for the brief spell of freedom just after arriving on Pulse. And the game has been rather coy about limiting your movement and options: you run on roads, paths, ledges and corridors but the reason for staying on that path is obvious. I've rarely wanted to choose a different path from what the game ushered me to, and it was rare that a path being cut off felt unnecessarily forced. The routes travelled are well within the margins of my suspended disbelief.

But Taejin's Tower kind of dropped the ball by forcing me to do repetitive tasks through a multitude of very similar floors and simple spatial puzzles. But before I go into that, there's something you need to know about me, jRPG's and Taejin's Tower.

Taejin's Tower represents a dungeon type I've started to get tired of: a puzzle tower.

It's pretty much a staple in JRPG's. From the top of my head I can come up with Golden Sun, FFXII, Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy all having a boring tower segment in them. It's a very typical dungeon structure and I can understand why. It's easy for the player to keep track of their progress when ascending a tower, and it's easy for the designer to use very simple variations of the tower's basic object and texture library to quickly craft a long and winding labyrinth that offers easy moments of awe when the player is presented with views down the tower's structure or out from windows.

And I like that! Rather easy for the designers yet awe inspiring for the player! A puzzle tower offers a multitude of design options aesthetically, as well as in terms of puzzle and game mechanics.

But the downside is that you get fed up with the basic pattern very quickly. Even if you take each tower-dungeon as a separate entity, and restrain yourself from comparing them to the various towers you've already scaled in other games, after a couple of floors it's often obvious that you've seen all the variation there is to this particular tower. If the level design doesn't throw in variations and pace-changers, the excitement soon turns sour.

Without surprises thrown in to the tower's design, the player realizes soon enough that they now know how the tower functions, and that all there is to look forward to is the boss battle or cut-scene reward at the top. The ascension becomes boring in a way flat dungeons rarely are. When developers rely too much on the awesomeness of the tower shape to keep the player interested, the actual level design becomes horribly plain. On horizontal dungeons the level designers know they need to cultivate the player's interest with varying dungeon elements, puzzles, mazes and vistas, but tower-structures are often left to fare solely on their architectural characteristics.

With towers, it's too often just a tedious climb punctuated by moments of "Hey, look how high you are!" And of course spatial puzzles that mess with the tower's architecture or teleports that fling you all over the floors don't help much either.

In Taejin's Tower the concept of rotating the separate floors of the tower to gain access to different rooms along the tower's outer wall is intriguing. Having a flying boss enemy circle and dive ominously in the tower's central shaft as you climb upwards is also a nice touch, and using elevators as makeshift bridge-tunnel-contraptions is interesting as well.

But my disbelief suspenders snap the instant the mission-dealing warrior statues arrive.

While running along on a linear path, the boss enemy inhabiting the central shaft attacks you in a short cut-scene, blowing a hole in the tower's wall. As the path is cut off, you have no choice but to go through the hole to a room on the other side. The room, luckily, contains a huge statue that has a mission for you (kill a sub-boss enemy, basically it's FFXIII's optional mission system made temporarily obligatory) and offers you the information that you need to complete the mission and find two other statues in order to complete their missions as well. Once you do all that, the statues rotate the floors so a path opens to the upper tiers. The statues also protect you from the boss enemy's attack, wound it and temporarily fend it off. This pattern repeats on the upper tier until you reach the top of the tower.

Why? You would have been completely trapped by the dead-end path you were following, had the boss monster not punched a hole to the wall. But it did punch a hole to the wall, which felt way too convenient. You could practically feel the game designers ushering you forwards on a path they have laid out. The thinly veiled non-linear structure of the game suddenly lost every last shroud of its camouflage. Blowing a hole right where the first mission-giving statue could be found is beyond convenient. It's annoyingly patronizing. A cut-scene where the party flees the huge monster by rushing through a door would have achieved the same result but with much lighter sense of railroading.

And what's up with the statues anyway? Why are they protecting the player party? Ok, that I can stomach easily, but their missions ("This particular enemy has locked away my powers. Kill it so I can have them back and help you.") are so utterly inane. Having voluntarily completed some 12 side missions at this point of the game, forcing me to suddenly do several more seems very cumbersome. The very least they could've done is have the statues just narrate the mission to the player instead of using the official in-game side mission-system with its monster difficulty ratings, location markers and item rewards. Or at least offer some variation in the missions. The voluntary side missions include various little backstories with themes like revenge and cowardice. When the player has (potentially) gone through several of them it seems weird to suddenly force them through 6 identical "get my power back" missions. Repetitive missions combined with repetitive level design detach Taejin's Tower from the game so far. Up until now, the linear level design has emphasised the narrative: the player party has had to keep running, either from something chasing them or towards something they themselves are chasing. In Taejin's Tower narrative grinds to a total standstill.

(If you're wondering what Playing for Time is, see this explanatory post.)