Importance of local Co-Op innovation in modern gaming.

Welp, another E3 has come and passed, and (like every damn year) events have led to me being really bloody delayed in actually getting any writing done about the event. Like, really delayed this year in particular, to the point where we completely missed last week’s upload.

I won’t waste everyone’s time by going over every little thing that was shown: this year’s line up was on the whole pretty decent, and there are quite a few games I’m looking forward to, such as the new Wolfenstein and the ever popular ‘Dad of War.’ Additionally, there were quite a few surprises this year, especially in the area of long dead game series being resuscitated from the brink. I genuinely hope the fans of Beyond Good and Evil can glean some joy from the much awaited sequel, and that fans of Metroid can celebrate the series’ unexpected return, though I unfortunately can’t say I’m a personal fan of either series. One of the three biggest surprises this year for me was the Mario and Rabbids cross-over, because what!? The other two, and the focus of this upload, were A Way Out and Hidden Agenda.

The thing that connects those two games is that they’re both experiments on implementing a local Cooperative experience in unconventional ways, especially considering local Co-Op games aren’t as common as they used to be. First, let’s look at A Way Out.

Coming from the development team behind Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, A Way Out is a story set in (assumedly) the 70’s, of two prison inmates looking for…well, a way out. The duo main characters are as different as night and day, with one being a cool-headed thinker and planner, whilst the other is a violent and reckless scrapper. The partnership they form to escape from their imprisonment, and to deal with the obstacles they face even beyond the prison walls, is the centre of the story. This already sounds pretty interesting, but the big selling point is that the game is a dedicated Co-Op story. That means there is no way to play this single player, you have to cooperate (or at least try to) with a player 2 to get through it. Likewise, it can’t just be a random matchmaking: you have to organise it with somebody else to play the game. This seems to be done to make sure you have to actually communicate and be in contact with whomever you’re playing with, which is likely a necessity when trying to make decisions as a team. This is understandably important as, if the details the developers have discussed so far are true, decisions need to be unanimous, and that different choices have fairly disastrous consequences.

All of this is really intriguing, even if just from the angle that someone is actually bothering to make a dedicated couch Co-Op game in this day and age, but it’s of especial interest to myself. I was lucky enough to be blessed with two brothers and to have a childhood in the golden-age of local multiplayer games, and I try to keep my ear to the ground for new games that will appeal to all of us whenever possible. However, a minor issue to that scheme is that I’m also a big fan of games with strong narratives, and while it’s not impossible to find multiplayer games with good stories, they’re definitely uncommon. So to have a game that has a strong narrative focus, is built from the ground up as a co-op game, and comes from the developers behind Brothers seems like it can only be a good thing.

Actually, let me back up a moment and explain where Brothers fits into this whole thing. Brothers is, officially, a single player game, since you control two characters at once by using the two thumb sticks on a controller to move each, with both having singular ‘interact/do a thing’ buttons rather than more complex controls. However, just for laughs, my brother Max and I managed to make it into a two-player game. All you need to do is hold the controller between the two of you, use only one hand each, and balance the controller via your team effort.  It wasn’t even the first time we’d done something like that: one of the crowning moments in my gaming life was when we managed to beat the final boss of the second Onimusha using the exact same method.

I imagine Brothers was intentionally designed to be playable in such a fashion, considering how the controls are extremely simple and almost more intuitive if you only have to control a single character each. Likewise, it cuts out the worry of not having enough controllers to play together, since you would only need the one. Regardless, a story about two brothers going on an adventure is certainly more effective when you share it with your actual brother, and the ending (which I won’t spoil) hit me like a runaway dumpster truck because of that fact. I think the game has a lot to like about it besides that fact, such as the game being astonishingly beautiful and being able to tell its story using only visual and Simish-esque gibberish. The main point, however, is the same one that I made in the piece on The Last Of Us 2, namely that I experienced the game in possibly the most optimal way. If the assumption that the game was intentionally designed to be two player friendly, it would certainly explain the mandatory Co-Op for this next game, with the only difference being that it’s not optional. While the early trailers and such suggest that the two main characters aren’t exactly as buddy-buddy with each other as the brothers, time will tell if their journey won’t end with them feeling the brotherly love.

I encourage the idea of not getting too hyped before the game comes out, since it’s easy to let your ideas run away with you, but I’m happy to see someone taking the risk of experimenting with local Co-Op. Couch Co-Op has waned in use over the last few years, mostly because the higher definition of modern games make it difficult to integrate split-screens, and there’s money involved in making multiplayer online only (since each person needs a copy, rather than just using a shared single one). While there’s always a few top-down multiplayer games coming out, such as the recently released Alienation, these games tend to put story and narrative on a lower place of importance. To that end, it’ll be interesting to see if A Way Out’s experiment of putting narrative focus and dedicated multiplayer together will pay off.

Interestingly enough, the other game that focuses on a more local multiplayer experience shown at E3, Hidden Agenda, has a lot in common with the above example. Developed by Supermassive Games, the group behind Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda seems to be set during the late 90’s/turn of the millennium, and during a horrifying murder spree. Like A Way Out, there are two main characters, although by sheer coincidence these two are on the opposite spectrum of A Way Out’s male prisoners: one is a female homicide detective and the other is a female district attorney. It’s pretty amusing that fate had conspired to make two games so similar and yet so different in the same period of time. For extra fun, A Way Out’s director has said that he’s not overly fond of the PS4, while Hidden Agenda is a PS4 exclusive. You seriously couldn’t make this kind of stuff up.

Hidden Agenda apparently came about because the developers saw how much their acclaimed horror game, Until Dawn, was enjoyed by groups, as well as individuals. Like A Way Out and Until Dawn, it’s also a very narrative heavy game, and one that will see the respective players trying to choose between different decisions to affect the outcome of events. The main difference is in the fact that, rather than two players controlling one character each, a whole group (up to at least 4, maybe five) all control and make decisions for a singular character at a time. Likewise, each player will have an ‘agenda’ which they need to follow without alerting the other players, hence the title.

Proving that there are no coincidences in this world and that fate is guiding me into the perfect position to write these articles, I was involved in one of those group playthroughs that inspired this game. Namely, Max, our older brother Ben and myself all sat down to play Until Dawn together, continuing our trend of never playing a horror game solo. And honestly, I reckon playing it in a group is indeed the best way to experience that game. It invokes the sensation of gathering everybody up to watch the schlocky b-horror movies that inspired the game, and making a decision in a critical moment becomes a hell of a lot more tense when you’re trying to all shout out what to do at the same time. If Hidden Agenda can take the core of that same experience and build upon it to make it into an officially supported gameplay experience, I’m all in for it.

(Slightly off topic, but has anyone else had a chance to play ‘Eon Alter?’ It’s a multiplayer focused RPG that uses a similar system as Hidden Agenda, in that each player uses their phone instead of a traditional controller. It’s actually pretty good, and has some really nice world building mixed with some decent combat; would heartily recommend, if you have a few friends to play with.)

While this is only two out of the mega-ton of games that were talked about and unveiled at this year’s E3, I see this as maybe a hopeful sign of things to come. These two games have a fair amount of funding behind each respectively, and yet both take the risk of being heavily focused on local Co-Op. I’m not saying that this is a sign of the Co-Op golden age coming back to us (unfortunately), but could be a sign of more developers being willing to experiment with an area of gaming that is often overlooked. If nothing else, it might help to show that even having multiple players being involved doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t also have a great story in a game.

Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. If there is any other E3 related stuff we need to catch up on, we’ll get one top of it by next week, otherwise we’ve got another review in the works. Thanks for the read, ya’ll!
Side note: I hope that Sony was telling the truth that they were withholding their best stuff until this year’s PSX, because seriously, I know those gits have Death Stranding SOMEWHERE.

I Am Setsuna – spoiler talk

Well, I said I would do it, and much like the spoiler talk following the Yakuza 0 review, I didn’t see much point in delaying it. In this piece, we’ll take a look at the more spoiler-centric things that we couldn’t talk about during the I Am Setsuna review. So just to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’ll be talking about any and all spoilers of I Am Setsuna (and one brief one of Yakuza 0). If you want to save yourself the spoilers, I wouldn’t recommend reading this until after you’ve completed the game in its entirety. I’m sorry if you were looking forward to this entry, but have to turn away to avoid spoiling the game. As a peace treaty, I offer you this largely esoteric and unrelated video of cats and kittens.

With that done and out of the way, let’s dive right in. Firstly, I want to go into some of the spoiler areas that created some problems for me.

Starting off with something that always bothered me while I was playing the game: it’s pretty crummy that all the choices you’re given throughout the game have basically no effect. Apart from one dungeon wherein choosing the wrong answer will send you back to the beginning (a pretty sizable pain in the ass, so it at least makes you think carefully about your answer), the only things that are affected by your choices are the immediate reactions of your party members.  There’s no hidden counter keeping track of whether Endir is a nice guy or kind of a jackass, and no consequences for either. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. A lot of the old school RPGs that I Am Setsuna is based on also had these kinds of choices throughout, but they actually had an outcome even if it was just something non-consequential like which party member Cloud had an awkward date with. Heck, something sort of light-hearted and jokey like the Gold Saucer date might have been somewhat welcome, since one of the better parts of I Am Sestuna is the party’s banter. But without any actual consequences to your choices, they just feel tacked on and kind of pointless. There’s an argument that these kind of choices help with immersion, and that the illusion of choice is just as important as giving a choice meaningful impact, like what Telltale do with most of their dialogue options. However, that kind of illusion requires more tact and careful planning to make credible, otherwise you end up with a situation like in I Am Setsuna where it feels like the other characters are actively ignoring your choices.
Upon reflection, I should have really brought this up in the review, since it is a fairly hefty annoyance. A part of me didn’t want to ruin the potential immersion of any new players, however: when I was just starting the game and thought the choices had some level of consequence, they were a lot more fun to make. It feels like the mechanic didn’t have enough time/funding/whatever to be fully fleshed out, but they left the half used remains in, which is almost just as bad. It wouldn’t have needed to be anything big, just have a system that tracks Endir’s relationship with the various party members, and add a scene or two that’s affected by which has the highest or lowest value.

Speaking of party members, the game’s late seventh addition of ‘Fides’ (or Reaper) feels like a pretty mishandled one. While the concept of getting the scythe-wielding, brainwashed, maniac to join your party is a neat idea, the execution is pretty confusing. He joins the party literally just in front of the door to the end boss, with the only other content available being the really out of the way and unmarked side quests (which we’ll get to). In addition to not being able to get a lot of mileage out of the guy in the gameplay department, his characterisation of being nearly silent and speaking up only rarely makes his presence hard to feel even in the optional side content. At best, he’s got some somewhat interesting involvement in one or two side quests; at worst, he just kind of clutters up the screen during scenes where others are talking. It’s something of a shame, since his character offers some interesting possibilities, since he was once being mind controlled by the end boss and seems to be blessed with being the only party member to use dark magic. However, apart from a few scattered lines in one of the side quests, this doesn’t get capitalised on nearly as hard as it could have been.
I feel like he should have either a) joined the party earlier, which would have allowed him to get involved in more gameplay and to get some more screen time. Or b) should have been an optional/hidden party member, ala Magus from Chrono Trigger, so as to explain why his presence is rarely overtly felt on screen. As it stands, it feels like the game just kind of shrugs its shoulders and presses the guy into your party just before the very end of the game, again without the player having a say in the matter at all. The fact that he’s brought back from the dead in an extremely easy manner and just sort of moseys into your party without much fanfare is just the icing on the cake.

I keep mentioning the game’s side quests, so I should probably explain the issues I take with them in more detail. This is more of a personal issue, but I’m not a fan of offloading all of the game’s optional content into the very end of it. While RPGs both from the golden era and today’s market have games that boast pretty impressive end-game content, I’m of the mind that you should spread that stuff over the entire game. I like being able to take a break from the main story and clear some checklists, not to mention I appreciate that doing side content makes me confident that I’ll have enough levels and stats to clear the main story. While different types of games and franchises benefit from side quests in different ways (Final Fantasy tends to have only a few side activities, but serve as a break for the story, while the Elder Scrolls game is more or less the opposite), the main point is that it’s there for you to clear as you go. Putting all of the side content at the end of I Am Setsuna feels unnecessary and kind of backwards. It means you don’t even get a chance to have a go at them before you’ve already figured out what your end game party is, and the only thing they can offer you are borderline broken skills and equipment. The problem that creates is that, in order for the player to not become too powerful without some work, is that the quests are obtuse as hell to find or activate. There are some really obscure hoops you have to jump through just to activate the quests, and the fact that the game lacks any kind of map/world map function only makes things more difficult. I would sort of accept it if the thing stopping you from clearing them all was the fact you lacked an airship, since that is a major assistance in getting around. However, the quests don’t activate even after you find the obligatory airship, and instead only unlock after Fides joins the party, even if he has no real contribution to the quest in question.
I’ll accept that part of my dislike for these quests stems from the fact they’re not aligned to my own personal taste, and that my personal struggle to complete end-game content fully is probably colouring my view. That being said, I still think hiding away the game’s only optional content in such an obscure way (especially since the game is already pretty damn short) can only introduce more problems than solutions.

And the final aspect of these spoilers that I take issue with is probably the biggest one: the inclusion of time travel and all its elements feels really out of place in I Am Setsuna. For one, it’s only introduced in the final act of the game. Before that point, there’s only really two possible hints to time travel: one is when a member of your party members suddenly disappears into thin air. The second is that once or twice it’s mentioned that character’s need to “let go of the past,” and variants of the phrase, but that seems to be building onto Setsuna’s supposed imminent death rather than anything else. I understand that introducing elements of time travel before this point ruins the surprise and twist nature of the late game revelation, but the lack of more solid foreshadowing just makes seem out of left field. A good example of foreshadowing like this can be found in Yakuza 0, wherein one of the side quests finds Majima helping a man to reconnect with his son, who no longer recognises him. This seems to just be the Yakuza series’ usual affair of wacky side quests, but is actually a pretty artful foreshadowing of a similar fate that befalls Majima by the end of that game. Compare that to I Am Setsuna, wherein hints are few and often lacking.
More than anything else, I dislike how this new development shelves a lot of the game’s previous themes. The game had so far been playing around with the idea that maybe the monster’s growing intelligence meant that the humans and beasts could co-exist, to at least some extent. But with the plot literally going back in time and killing the reason the monsters are getting more intelligent, the entire subplot is retroactively erased from time. Not to mention that the time travel shenanigans eliminate the original need of Setsuna’s sacrifice, which takes away a lot of the tension the game had been building up. Even worse, it bends over backwards to fit in Setsuna making a sacrifice at the end of her journey anyway (in a sequence that I actually quite enjoy, despite some of the issues), and does a poor job of explaining why. All the game would have needed was a dialogue box or two explaining that Setsuna joining with the end-boss and being killed was the only way to permanently end the matter. It would help to sell the idea that Setuna’s actions have meaning, without diminishing the fact that she’s willingly giving up her life. Instead, it seems like she makes a largely pointless sacrifice, just for the sake of making it. Hell, if you really wanted, you could have made a whole new character point about Setsuna if you had had the time to explore it, like Setsuna developed a martyr complex from her position in life and felt the need to sacrifice herself even if it meant very little. But I don’t really feel like anything of the sort is really being employed here. It feels like a somewhat poorly conceived if beautifully executed ending to a game.

Alright, now that I’ve completely bashed the game to the point of needlessness, let’s actually talk about some of the spoiler points of things I actually enjoyed or appreciated in the game.

Like I said above, I actually quite like the ending. I’m a sucker for the whole ‘ending at the beginning’ kind of stuff (returning to the starting village, going back to an area that was only accessible in the prologue for the final battle, etc). While I think the logic behind Setsuna’s sacrifice could have been laid out better, the way that you have Endir kill Setsuna at the very place you meet her is poetic in its own kind of way. It’s like the literal time loop is representative of how we’ve looped around in the game back to the beginning of the story, ending the game with the very action that started if off. I even like that the ending doesn’t answer all of the questions: it’s ambiguous if Endir could return to the present, or if he had been lost ten years into the past, or if he would even want to return. I like how quiet the whole thing is too: after Setsuna’s death, there’s not a single word of dialogue. We’re shown enough of the characters to infer what their next course of actions will be, but there’s not a single word spoken, allowing all of the audience to enjoy the melancholic music playing us out. Hell, even the music cuts out for the final shot of Endir slowing walking off into the snowy horizon, and the spirit of Setsuna fading in to watch him leave (maybe; it’s an ambiguous ending). It has a lot of issue, but I Am Setsuna’s ending is still plenty appealing in its own kind of way.

Another point that I liked but couldn’t go into too much depth on was the party members. I avoided talking about them too much because I consider talking about anyone other than the absolute principle party members to be minor spoilers in and of itself, but let’s talk more openly about them. Like I said in the review, they’re very much archetypes of every classical RPG party members: Kir is the plucky tag-along kid mage, Nidr is the scarred and tanky veteran, Aeterna is the more serious and sceptical girl to balance out Setsuna (at least for 90% of the game, until it turns out she’s some weird time clone) etc. However, they’re still a very likable bunch, and even if you’ve seen the characters before, they’re still very fun to see in motion. It’s interesting to find out just how much they’re connected to the plot in comparison to how they first appear as well, such as the revelation that Nidr is actually Setsuna’s biological father, which re-contextualises his reason for joining your group. Finding out that Julienne is actually part of the failed royal family that were monarchs to the entire continent and that Aeterna is actually a time-clone of some sort of near godlike sorceress are likewise shocking revelations, though I sort of wish some of these concepts had some more room to breathe. While a lot of people appreciate the relatively short length of the game, the shorter run length means these subplots for the other party members don’t get a lot of room to really expand. For example, the problems that Julienne faces because of her monster blood induced berserker state are solved relatively quickly, even though it’s a key part of her design (the tattered nature of her clothes and the rings under her eyes). Still, the characters have super good designs, such as the regal but chipped and flayed appearance of Julienne and Aeterna’s hilarious frog hoddie, and are entertaining to watch develop even if just a little. The characters are definitely one of the game’s stronger points. Let’s just not talk about Reaper’s inclusion, alright?

A final neat little detail that I appreciated was the use of the game’s save points. While the idea of the game’s save points actually having some in-game lore/reasoning has been done before (while probably not the first time, the most memorable early example would most likely be Xenogears), I always like the addition of mechanics like this. Any time a game goes out of its way to blur the point where the simple mechanical gameplay meets an in universe justification is a good effort in my book. Heck, the idea that time travel is the reason you can save and reload your game is actually a pretty inventive justification, even if it comes with the added baggage of the other time related stuff. Though, this comes back to the point I made before, wherein the game might have benefited from putting some more hints or foreshadowing to these points, since it would have made the third act twist less of a whiplash. This particular example is alike a lot of things in I Am Setsuna: in some ways, it’s pretty derivative of other games in the genre, but there’s no doubt it comes from a point of love and appreciation rather than malicious copying.

In conclusion.

It’s pretty clear, even from a glance, that there’s more negative points in this list than positives. In some ways, that’s a good summary of my feelings towards the game in general. The negative points become harder to ignore because they outweigh the positive points, which is a shame because there’s parts of the game that I do really like. I love the fact that you can feel the love for the genre in every part of the game, and that it’s clear that the team behind it really did put their hearts into the project, even if it didn’t quite pan out.

I think the harshest criticism that I can bring up about this game is just the fact that both this piece and the review, much like the game itself, became something of struggle to finish. Compared to the Yakuza 0 review and spoiler piece where words were just flying almost without effort onto the page, I had to push just to reach the word limit for I Am Setsuna’s content. It becomes much easier to write about a game if it awakens an imaginative or passionate part of yourself. I Am Setsuna, while not a bad game, doesn’t really do anything to stand out in my head. It’s a game with a nice concept, but poorly executed combat system and a kind of dodgy ending. It’s a game I appericate, but not really something I would recommend to others at full price either.

Despite all the criticism I’ve levelled at the game, I’m still eagerly looking forward to see what Tokyo RPG Factory do next in their upcoming game. I’m hoping that I Am Setsuna was their trial by fire…well, by snow, and that they can come together for a more solidly constructed game in their next title.

An exploration of tone in Drakengard and Nier.

Blog01

Or, why let prejudice and slaughter get in the way of a good joke?

Tone is kind of a curious thing in video games, when you stop to think about it. The ‘tone’ of something is (to put it in its simplest form) just how something is presented, with the most common two extremes being a serious presentation and a more comical one. There are a lot of different facets and ways to affect a piece of medium’s tone, from how each individual character affects the tone to how something as simple as the use of colour in the environment affects it.

However, videogames are in a weird place where their tone is partly dictated by the player. Because the player is the one controlling exactly how events occur, they are having a direct effect on what kind of tone is being presented. If, for example, you made an otherwise serious character run and jump repeatedly into a wall in an otherwise serious story, the tone would take a nose dive into the comical. This particular thing isn’t really something a developer needs to worry about, since each individual player will find whatever tone is best for them, but it is worth looking at how certain developers use a particular set of tones in their games. Mostly because, in a medium where they can never be 100% sure what tone the player is currently experiencing, looking at how a developer tries to insure a certain tone is being received is interesting in itself.

Take the tones used in the Drakengard and Nier games as some examples. Both series are the creation of Yoko Taro, a somewhat eccentric Japanese games director/writer, and both have this odd balancing act going on. Drakengard is a franchise known for its extremely gritty worlds and liberal slaughter, and the Nier games are known for their beautiful but also very melancholy stories, and yet both try to inject some levity between their more serious moments. Drakengard 3 is a tale of one woman’s quest to murder her sisters while desperately trying to stave off a disease that will kill her slowly and painfully, but is also the tale of one woman desperately trying to stop herself from strangling the life out of her silly, silly dragon.

Even Nier: Automata gets in some funny jokes, which is pretty impressive considering it’s a game that brings into question where mere artificial intelligence ends and sentience begins, and where humanity factors into the matter. Despite the fact you’ll be spending a lot of time questioning if you’re even doing the right thing, the game still has a couple of light-hearted moments to break things up. A memorable early example is when 2B and 9S (the game’s rather clinically named protagonists) are escorting a robot ‘child.’ Despite the fact that she’s actually bigger than both of her escorts, the girl is just full of questions like a real curious child…including one that 9S is really adamant about dodging.

It makes sense that such serious and tragic games have such silly and comedic moments: if something was serious or dark every second of its runtime, it’s pretty likely that the audience would quickly become overwhelmed by it. I’m an optimist, and I like to think that everybody is naturally caring and sympathetic to some degree, but even I know that a person’s charity can only extend so far. Just asking an audience to sympathise with a character’s crappy situation isn’t enough by itself, you have to give them a reason to root for those characters. By extension, if the tone of something is just unendingly bleak, then you’ll quickly run out of your audience’s good will. But if you sprinkled in some lighter moments throughout, the audience will become more disarmed; a heavy hitting and emotionally tragic scene is made all the more effective because the audience has seen the characters in question in better times. A good example of this comes from the very first Nier, with its unnamed primary protagonist and the supporting protagonist ‘Weiss’. These two really go through hell and high water before the game is over, but you’re already emotionally invested in them before that point because you’ve been won over by their pretty funny banter. If the game had lacked this component, it might have been somewhat harder for the characters to truly endear themselves to the player, and thus making the task of the writing all the harder.

It doesn’t just have to be comic relief that provides these lighter moments. The original Drakengard is pretty devoid of goofy humour (outside of that one time the main protagonist kicked a praying old man just to shut him up, that was chuckle worthy in context), but never the less has moments where it lightens up. In a world with very few ‘good’ people and where the main character is a murderous psychopath, his relationship with his dragon is actually engaging and nice to watch develop. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game’s tone, but it’s hard to not appreciate how the two grow closer despite their initial hatred of each other. Although, that might only be because every other relationship in the game is in a varying degree between ‘screwed up’ and ‘oh god why why why.’

I’m not saying this is some kind of hard and fast rule that all pieces of entertainment that want to be taken seriously need to do, especially since it’s something that certain products aren’t even going to want to do. A horror game that has more light hearted and comical moments in it isn’t going to succeed in its primary task of freaking out the player. Imagine if Outlast took a break from its pants wetting terror so you could watch some asylum patients do some sort of funny gag, it would take you right out of the tension. While something like a horror product will have moments where it is less scary so it can properly build up to the really terrifying stuff, its tone shouldn’t move too far away from its oppressive and tense atmosphere.

As previously stated, video games are in a strange place where the creator can’t be 100% sure that the thing they’ve created is always going to have the tone they want it to, since a single glitch or exploit can turn an experience into a farce. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an accident: some people don’t really care about the context of a video game and only want to see the gameplay, meaning they’re almost completely out of reach of the designer. However, Drakengard and Nier are good examples of the games where the player might not always know what kind of tone to expect. The games (quite rightly) sell themselves on their pretty grim and morally grey worlds, so it can be kind of surprise to come across their more light-hearted sides. I think it only adds to the appeal of the games, not only because it helps to bring out the darker tones, but because it adds such a strange but appealing variety to them. While he’s hardly the only writer who uses such techniques, Yoko Taro really is a pro at this kind of thing. That, and maybe some kind of wizard. That’s the only explanation I can think of for how he manages to be both a creative lead on multiple projects (despite none of his games making a huge amount of cash) and manages to nail it out of the park every time he does.

In any case, thanks for sticking with this little ramble of thought, which had mostly been born out of wondering why I never felt too overwhelmed by Nier and Drakengard’s bleak tones. Due to Neir: Automata’s recent release and the fact that I’m currently addicted to playing it, expect a few more pieces on the weird and wonderful world of Nier in the future. Thanks and take care!

The Importance of Party Size: mechanics and versatility vs. focus and intimacy in an RPG.

final_fantasy_type_0_hd-wide

Now it’s a party!

In perhaps a blatant show of my gaming preferences and fan boy loyalty, I completed FFXV mere days after posting that Type – 0 review, and playing both games so close together got me thinking about an aspect of RPGs I had never considered: the actual size of an RPG’s party really does have an considerable affect, way more than I had given it credit for.

Before we dive headlong in, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. A ‘party’ in this context basically just refers to the main characters that take centre stage in a story, and in a game the party usually consists of the playable characters. HOW the party is playable usually varies depending on the game; sometimes the entire party is controlled by a single player, one character can go to one player each in a multiplayer game, or only one character is controllable while the rest of the party is handled by AI. To make things slightly simpler to compare, we’ll start with two games that both use the lattermost scheme for the most part (and came from the same company AND even the same series; I really lucked out with this analysis). After that, we’ll look at some more general examples, and how the sheer number of people in the main cast can affect the game they’re taking the limelight in.

With that out of the way, let’s compare the parties from Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy Type-0 from a narrative perspective:

I said in my review that I didn’t feel as if Class Zero from Type-0 ever really developed individually; they made a pretty cool unit of students, but the singular characters from the class mostly remained in the same state that we found them in. While they all went through a few motions as the story progressed (learning to better appreciate each other, and collectively learning that they didn’t have as much free-will as they first thought), their individual characteristics were fairly one-note even by the end. While this is a criticism, I understand the logic behind this outcome, namely that it would have been pretty difficult to fully flesh out and give a whole bunch of characterisation to over fourteen ‘main characters.’

In comparison, the four ‘Chocobros’ from FFXV are at least somewhat more developed by the story’s end, and a lot of that development is shown through their interactions with each other. Without spoiling too much, it definitely feels like the already tight-knit group had grown even closer by the time the credits were rolling, or at the very least the player had been made to understand their bonds by the end. The game goes out of its way to reinforce the intimate comradery between the four, and it really pays off. Likewise, the group feel like they had more character to show off through the run of the game; Ignis may be the most reliable and level-headed one in the group, but even he isn’t above teasing Prompto like the rest of the crew.* FFXV has an almost unfair advantage in this regard, since it only needed to characterise four main characters, but the difference is noticeable. It can also not be understated how much these characters endear themselves to the player, and how much they add to the ‘fantasy road-trip’ tone the early parts of the game has. Their interactions and banter with Noctis is always entertaining, and the game world would have felt much emptier without them following behind the player. Their open trust and appreciation of each other, even when they’re butting heads, creates a real feeling of intimacy with them: by the end of the game, you’re as glad that they travelled with you as much as Noctis is. Heck, the greatest criticism I can think of for the recently released ‘Moogle Chocobo Festival’ (which is otherwise good fun) was the fact that the ‘bros’ weren’t present.

(*I present exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4oLcVnTR_o )

So in terms of story and plot strengths, FFXV’s close-knit and forefront party feel more engaging and involved in the narrative compared to the more thinly spread Type-0’s. However, how do the different parties affect the actual game play in these video games?

While they all follow similar principles and a basic structure (namely, aim for the Killsights when possible, or use magic and abilities as your main source of DPS), the fourteen members of Class Zero all have noticeably different play styles, and a pretty varied set of abilities. To this end, there’s a play style for everyone in here, and you’ll quickly be able to pick out your favourites. If you want a precise ranged fighter that benefits from picking his timing carefully, you would look for Trey; if you want a character that just goes in swinging, and smashing the crap out of everything, Cinque is more your flavour. Likewise, since you can determine the three-person team that goes into battle yourself, there’s a number of team compositions that can be made, and even some effective team-ups that can be created: Cinque’s ability to stun from long range isn’t super useful by itself, since Cinque moves a little too slowly to cover the distance effectively, but having a much more flighty and quick character (like Eight or Queen for example) means that it be a pretty dangerous attack. The game even encourages this, to a certain extent, since you can only use two of a character’s extensive list of abilities, you greatly benefit from making sure your team composition is well balanced. Even if Class Zero’s characters aren’t the most developed ones in the world, you have to admit that the motley group make for some entertaining gameplay options.

In comparison, FFXV’s four protagonists are more limited. You’re stuck playing Noctis the entire game, and while he does have access to every type of weapon possible, they all function almost identically (and your enemies will always be weak to a particular one, which will often be the deciding factor in which one you use more than your preferences). Aside from some underwhelming ranged weapons, your tactics will ALWAYS be ‘run to the rear of the enemy, hold circle and hope for a Link-Strike,’ regardless of weapon choice. The three bros are similarly more limited in their load outs, being able to equip only one technique out of a middling pool of options, and with no way to control what actions they take otherwise (at least until the DLC drops). While their AI controlled move sets do improve as you sink more Action Points into them, and the game occasionally spices things up by adding a fifth guest character, it feels like your working in a pretty limited environment. There IS an insane attention to detail, such as how every single member of the group have different animations for their Link-Strikes with Noctis and how they all have voice lines for damn near every status effect in the game. This even extends to the guest characters, which are often present for less than an hour at a time. It’s actually a pretty impressive way to characterise the heroes even during gameplay, but doesn’t do much for the otherwise pretty limited system.

Now these are only two, very specific examples. I’m not going to make any broad stroke claims like party size is always going to be indication of where a developer’s focus laid, or that a large party can’t be well developed or vice versa. Heck, just for the record, I came to really appreciate Class Zero by the end of their game; for all their faults, they’re a likeable group, and their story becomes pretty compelling by the end. But there’s no getting around that the number of characters in an RPG’s party creates different problems, and likewise make certain challenges easier. Having more characters accessible at any one give times allows a developer to specialise each character to certain play styles without risking the player getting stuck: if a single character isn’t viable or fun for the player, they can simply be switched out for a different one. On the other hand, having a large cast can make it difficult to give each and everyone an equal amount of plot relevancy. Some RPGs will just have a core cast that actually matter to the story, and all of the supporting characters are there mainly for gameplay purposes (see the Suikoden series, which has you collecting over 108 characters for your merry band).

There are games that have the best of both worlds, in one sense. The old Final Fantasy games and the more recent Bravely Default games use a ‘job’ system that allows the player to customise the four-person party in numerous and often drastic ways, allowing the story to keep a sharp focus on four key characters without sacrificing the possible gameplay variety. This system does offer its own problems, since it can make it feel like none of the four main characters have much of an ‘identity’ in how they’re played, and raises the question of just how the hell these four chuckleheads learn all these different classes so quickly. Still, it’s a happy middle ground that, while not perfect or recommended for every game, I’m glad has made a minor comeback with the Bravely series.

On the other end of this entire spectrum, it’s worth considering the effects that having no party at all can mean in an RPG: the Dark Souls series has your character go through most of their trails completely alone, a single person going up against horrific beasts and fallen god-beings. This ties very well into the games’ melancholic and lonely feeling, as well the high difficulty the games are known for, since having just one travelling companion would drastically change the tone the game has. While you can summon NPCs and other players to help you, the fact that they often appear as extremely out-of-place glowing figures (unless equipped with certain rings and such) helps reinforce the idea that they’re not natively part of the player’s world. The fact that you have to summon someone through time and space just to fight with you creates this feeling that even though there’s someone actively trying to help you, you’re still very much doing this adventure alone.

I’ll freely admit that I made this loose analysis more for my own sake than anything else, since I had never stopped to think about just how much of a game’s entire gameplay and story were affected by the seemingly simple number of characters that make up the playable/main cast. This is definitely something that can only really be judged on a game-by-game basis, there is no inherently superior way of making a party composition. Here’s a fun idea: the next time you’re playing an RPG, try to image the game with a larger or smaller party than the one that’s currently present, and how much that would change. Would the story be any different, or would the gameplay be heavily affected? Would those changes make the game anymore fun to play, or would it take something away from the experience?

Thanks for sticking with this little splurge of thought; next week we’ll return to our usual scheduled review. Get those colourful suits and impractically brutal Heat Moves warmed up, because we’ll be stopping off into the wonderful world of Yakuza 0.

On the matter of The Last of Us Part 2

No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for…


In a darkened room that is lit only by the glare of a TV and the light of a PS4, four figures are hunched in almost reverent silence. I’m sat cross legged on the floor next to the sofa supporting my Pa and older brother, with my other brother sat in a seat just beyond them. My older brother is holding the controller; I’m just holding my breath. We all watch as two characters talk on a grassy hillside, with a vista of a few squat buildings in the distance. Despite the mundane nature of what’s on screen, there’s a tension in the air.

“Swear to me.
Swear that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.”

A pause that seems to last a lifetime.

“I swear.”

A mournful guitar brings to play.

“Okay.”

Roll credits.

That was my experience with the ending of The Last of Us. There’s more to the story, such as the fact that all four of us had been together whenever Ben (my older brother) played the game, making it one of the very few times when all four of us had managed to come together for a full play through of a game. We hadn’t even really intended to play through the whole thing together: Ben had gotten the game for his birthday, and we had all agreed we would watch the first fifteen minutes of it and then leave him to it. But if you’ve ever seen the opening fifteen minutes of the Last of Us, you know that you’re damn well sticking around for the whole ride.

It was perhaps one of the most chaotic runs a game has had to endure. Ben was more than competent on the controls, and we tried to act as rationally as one could, but we naturally devolved into shouting out advice and making various panicky noises when bullets started firing. Likewise, the eternal debate of what the hell to do with the limited supplies we had raged all of the way through the game. It was always in good fun, though, like the time Ben insisted that we really needed to upgrade the pistol’s fire rate, and I pointed out that increasing the fire rate without also upgrading the capacity was a god damn foolish move and he could shove that damn gun right up his-…anyway.

It’s true that pretty much anything is more fun when you do it with more people: watching paint dry is monotonous torture by yourself, but watching paint dry with someone else means you can at least get some good commentary going on. This is especially true of my situation with my bros and Pa, and especially especially true of me and video games.

I have no doubt in my mind that The Last of Us is a fantastic game, from it’s simple but elegant gameplay to it’s completely amazing story and presentation, but I wonder if I favour it even more so because of how I experienced it. If a game is more fun when experienced with friends, then a game must be stupidly improved when experienced with family.

The main point I’m trying to make is that when I experienced the ending to the Last of Us, it was something that I had the privilege of sharing with a number of people I cared about. It made the already extremely effective and gut punching ending even more powerful, especially since the ending raises the question of what exactly would have been the right thing to do in that situation. We weren’t certain if what Joel did was the most morally right thing to do, but I think we were all in agreement as the credits rolled that there was perhaps nothing else Joel could have done.

The game’s ending by itself is already one of the strongest in recent times, and the way I viewed it only made it even stronger.
And now, in a move that I’m am simultaneously absolutely shocked by and not at all surprised by, the Last of Us Part II has been officially announced. On one hand: OH SHIT, THE LAST OF US PART II!? On the other: Oh shit…the Last of Us, Part II.

This move should be, in many ways, no surprise at all. The Last of Us is one of the most highly acclaimed games of the decade, and was definitely one of Naughty Dog’s big sellers. Anyone could look at the kind of reviews and sales the game pulled in and say with confidence that a sequel was a no brainer.

But when I stop to think about the very idea of making a sequel to the first game, I can’t help but feel kind of worried. The ending of The Last of Us was pretty much perfect. I wouldn’t have changed a single line, moved the camera an inch, or made the game last even a second longer than it did. It is definitive enough to make it feel like Joel and Ellie’s story really had reached a natural conclusion, while leaving just enough room for interpretation that the player could make their own thoughts about what exactly it means (such as the ‘Ellie knows Joel is lying’ theory).

It really is a conflict between my heart and my brain. My brain is saying that a sequel isn’t necessary, and even might be at risk of cheapening the fantastic ending that The Last of Us had. My heart, meanwhile, reminds me of how much fun it was to play through the first game with my bros and Pa, and is holding out that it can relive that golden time.

To give credit to the game’s creators, Naughty Dog very rarely make a bad game. Even their weaker creations (Uncharted 3 on release and the Last of Us DLC) are still pretty bloody great. And even more credit goes to them because they know how fans are kind of worried about the prospect of a sequel to a game that ended on such a strong note. Neil Druckman, a writer and programmer that works for Naughty Dog and was one of the creative leads for The Last of Us, said that

“So much thought went into this – I know there’s trepidation about going back to these characters. We feel that as well. No-one loves these characters more than we do, and we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t have the right idea. I had ideas with different characters and it didn’t feel right. The Last of Us is about these two characters. All I ask is that fans of the first one put some faith in us – we’re going to do right by you.”

I’m confident that Druckman isn’t lying, and that the team behind the first game really has put a lot of thought into this; knowing how highly rated the first game was, it would be a permanent mark against the company if the sequel was a rushed out and poorly conceived job. And hell, even if it was, Naughty Dog’s ‘rushed out and poorly conceived’ is still probably a really fun game. But I think a healthy level of scepticism needs to be maintained until the game is actually out, since allowing myself to over-hype it before it’s even finished is a possibility.

One of the reasons The Last of Us hit like a meteorite and burned twice as brightly was because no one saw it coming. It was a completely new IP, and no one went into the game expecting it to be the emotional-roller-coaster-disguised-as-a-game it turned out to be. A sequel, meanwhile, will always have a high expectation, and it’s not always easy for even the best development team to meet that expectation.

So, to sum up this rambling torrent of thought: I’m not sure what to think, and can’t be sure until the actual game comes out. I know that I’m worried and excited in equal measure. And I know that I’m going to do everything that is humanly possible to get my bros and Pops to do the four person play through that we somehow managed to do for the first game again. And the final thing I know is that, even if the sequel isn’t the best thing in the world, this wonderfully heart-breaking series gave me something to bond over with my bros and dad.

Maybe it was only natural that a game so steeped in the importance of familial bonds would also bring one set of brothers and their father just a little bit more together, and that’s something no lackluster sequel could possibly take away.

The Final Fantasy Formula!

(Or The Final Fantasy Recipe)

Halleluiah and praise the Nine Divines, progress has been made!

Or, more specifically, Max and I have finally reached a point in Final Fantasy IX that we didn’t reach as kids OR see our older brother play to. We finally don’t know what the hell is going on (who bloody sweet Mary is Garland!?), and it is glorious!

Now I could very easily dissolve into a puddle of rampant fan-boy-ism at some of the stuff we’ve just seen (Alexander and Bahamut are so cool!!), but let’s avoid that for as long as possible. Instead, let’s talk about something that popped into my head as we started seeing some of these later plot developments, namely the ‘Final Fantasy Formula.’

As well as a good example of alliteration, the Final Fantasy Formula is the idea that all the mainstay/numbered Final Fantasy games share a series of common elements. Certain events or characters can be seen to at least some degree in nearly every FF game, and even some of the spin offs. This is hardly a new concept, and has been brought up in past by far more intelligent and eloquent folks then me (for example, it is brought up in TheRocketeer’s brilliant ‘travel-log’ review of FF12*).
*For those who are curious/have a LOT of time to kill.
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.853286-Final-Fantasy-XII-A-Travelog-of-Ivalice-by-a-Raving-Madman?page=1

Before we dive into the particulars, however, it needs to be said that this isn’t a formula that’s written in stone: one of the main appeal of the Final Fantasy games is that every universe is different (barring the sequels and spin-offs), and thus each instalment operates on different rules. It should hopefully become clear as we progress that each game uses these common themes creatively, rather than just using them like a “winning formula”. Hell, “formula” might not even be the best word for it, since it’s more like a recipe. Yes, the cook book SAYS these things have to be included, but as long as the meat is cooked through and you don’t add rat poison, there’s a lot of leeway.

Anyway, I thought it would be a fun little exercise to go through some of the more noticeable themes and similarities. So, without further ado:

THE INGIDENTS OF A FINAL FANTASY GAME

A man (?) named Cid: expert engineer, and your main source of transport (sometimes)

Featured image
(Cid has really changed over the years*)

Cid is an odd character in the Final Fantasy series. He is most often associated with technology in some way or form, which usually translate into him being the playable party’s source of transportation (when he isn’t actually in the party as a playable character). However, his actual role and depiction varies widely.
His first appearance in Final Fantasy II had him simply piloting an airship, while the very next game had him be the actual inventor of airships in general. IV sees him be a kind of over-the-top madman engineer, while VIII has him as a much mellower headmaster. This seems to suggest that, apart from a link to technology, there are no hard or fast rules regarding Cid’s role. Hell, in Type-0, he’s actually the leader of an expansionist empire that murders the hell out of people with Magitek.

In this sense, Cid successfully avoids becoming a predictable character: rather than being a one-note cameo in each game, Cid can be whatever the writers need him to be. In one of looking at things, it’s almost more like a name being attached to already pre-determined characters, but that can be fun too. You can get a certain enjoyment from seeing how Cid’s character is going to be different in each instalment: take FFXV for example. I was super hyped on that idea that we’d actually get to see a FEMALE Cid (called Cidney, which shows someone at Square has a sense of humour close to my heart), despite that idea falling through.
Cid has a lot of interesting theories surrounding him: some joke that he might be the reincarnated soul of the same person in different lifetimes, or that he’s the same person in each universe (but shaped by said universe, hence the differences). Some have even used him in the argument that each Final Fantasy game is set in the SAME universe, arguing that Cid is just a common name that gets used through the ages, though that theory is quite an odd duckling already.

Regardless of how he’s depicted or how his character stands for each individual game, there is one solid fact that can we can be certain of: Cid is small but important part of Final Fantasy as a whole. He may just be a single character, and he always varies in role and importance, but he’s a familiar name in each new universe. By everything that’s holy, he was retconned into the first Final Fantasy game! He’s so well recognised that Square felt the need to make sure he was in EVERY game, even the only one he was originally absent from!
Sometimes friend, sometimes foe, Cid is definitely a name you’ll need to keep an ear out for.

Fun fact: The Cids from VII, VIII and IX all had severe issues relating to women close to them at least once in their lives! Might be why some of the later Cid characters seemed to avoid the topic of relationships…

The next ingredient for Final Fantasy is-
…Something that we’ll talk about next time. Because seriously, there’s a lot to talk about and we were never going to get through everything in a single entry. I’m not sure how long this will go on for, but look forward to my next set of ramblings in:

INGIDENTS OF A FINAL FANTASY GAME: BIGGS AND WEDGE

*It’s still seems to be a little in flux, but by the sounds of it, she’s not actually going to be the Cid of FFXV, and her name’s actually Cindy. Bit of a shame, since that Cidney joke gave me hearty chuckle.

Months later, and nothing has changed…

Featured image

Where does the time go, eh? In that same vein, where the hell have all the updates been?

First things first, I’m super, super, sorry (again). The checking and editing process of making updates has been slowed considerably thanks to some employment woes on my end, and I was struggling for a while to find someone to check them over for quality control. Now that both of those things are (more or less) on their way to being solved, updates should be resuming before too long.

As usual, I don’t like to leave the “oh god please forgive the lack of updates” posts too short, hence here’s another quickie for ya:

The importance of customisation, AKA more of that ‘player choice’ thing Oliver bangs on about most of the time.

I swear, I just need to make a master post about all the stuff I keep harping on about when I bring up the importance of player choice…Anyway, I’ve been musing about the Fable series, namely that it became an RPG where armour became a purely cosmetic thing. I remember getting the plate mail set in Fable I, and thinking it was the bees-knees. Who doesn’t want to look and feel like a walking tank, decked out in so much metal it’s a wonder you can even walk, let alone fight?  (Well, I mean, the mages and thieves probably wouldn’t want to, but details…)

In contrast, getting the ONLY armour set in Fable III was an odd experience. Yea, the armour did have effects on your reputation and how the world saw you, but that was it. You were just as vulnerable to damage decked head to toe in armour as you were running around the nude, and to be fair that’s a good summary of the Fable series’ sense of humour. However, it was quite jarring: Fable I was a pretty traditional RPG experience, since you improve your character’s equipment and stats from ‘rank and file’ to ‘saviour/destruction of the free world.’ While that is sort of still present in the later Fable games, the omission of armour having an effect on stats presents an interesting situation, namely that players could choose their attire nearly without consequence.

The Fable games are hardly the first series to do this, but they are one of the only examples of a game series where the stats were ditched over time, rather than just starting off as consequence free.

This is both kind of a good thing AND a bad thing. On one hand, this does mean that the player has as much choice as they want: rather than being forced to wear armour for the sake of the stats, I can just wear an over-sized chicken outfit and watch the game’s story turn into a farce. However, the opposing side of the argument is that that game may become a lot shallower ESSPICALLY in a series that started off as a stat based RPG. Getting a new outfit in some games hold some weight because that armour may give you a cool buff or just make you that much harder to kill, all while also looking badass. The lack of stats or armour that affects stats can make the impact of a new outfit a lot more limp if you have no reason to be excited other then it makes your character look like an idiot.

However, there is a reason MMO’s make a tidy sum of profit by selling purely cosmetic items. There is nothing unreasonable about wanting to make your player character look how you desire them to look: this is the guy/gal/horrible-demon you’ll be spending hours with, and so the least the game can do is let you dictate what colour of boots they’re wearing. This is especially true of games that let you decide the character’s dialogue, alignment, favourite Abba song; basically allow you to build the entire character. To that end, having no consequence to the appearance of your character allows you to have a lot more creative freedom.

This is something that is going to be largely a personal preference, though I would argue for a happy middle ground. Take Fairy Fencer F, for example: there are stat effecting items that might as well be armour, but your choice of cosmetics have no bearing on the character’s ability, and thank goodness: if Fang wasn’t running into battle with a slice of toast firmly in his mouth, what point would the game have?

There’s a good argument for both sides of the equation, and I think the type of game will be a fairly hefty factor  in whether it’s a good idea or not, but we can all agree that if such customisation is present, we BETTER be able to make our characters look at little silly. Yea, looking bad-ass is important as well, but dressing up in garish pink never quite stops being amusing.

—————————————

Just to tack on: Fable Legends continues to make me produce curious but worried noises, like a timid mouse considering whether the cheese before me comes with a free metal bar.
– “It’s free to play”
Yay!
– “But exclusive to the Xbox One and Windows 10 (and you definitely aren’t running this without some work, Oliver)!”
Boo!
– “But has interesting asymmetrical multiplayer!”
Yay!
– “But it’s a combat focused game (one of the weakest parts of nearly every Fable instalment)!”
Boo!
– “But the website made a reference to Chicken Chaser!”
Y-yay?

I guess we’ll see how it pans out…