Friday, April 18, 2014

Impressions #3: Final Fantasy X HD

As a Final Fantasy fan, it would be against the law for me not to buy the HD remake of Final Fantasy X and X-2. Final Fantasy X in particular holds great significance to me. It was the game the introduced me to the RPG genre way back when it was released in 2001. Sure, I had played demos of other RPGs before on those old PS1 demo discs, but this was the game that cemented what would grow into a great love for the genre. With that in mind, I was eager to see both what additions the International release brought on, since that content was added to the HD version. Also, I was curious as to how the game holds up in the context of modern game design.

One of the most striking changes the International version of the game added was the new Expert Sphere Grid. As most people know, in all versions of Final Fantasy X, character development is handled by the Sphere Grid. Characters gain “Sphere Levels” by participating in battles and acquiring AP. With Sphere Levels, they can advance along the grid, spending Spheres in order to increase stats and acquire new abilities. The Sphere Grid that most Final Fantasy X players are familiar with in the “Standard” Sphere Grid that came with the North American release. While that grid is still in the International (and, by extension, the HD) release, the option exists to switch to a new “Expert” Sphere Grid at the start of the game. This grid allows for significantly more customization of the cast.
A problem with the Standard Sphere Grid everyone is familiar with is that it basically partitions the grid evenly between all the character, dividing them into very distinct character archetypes. It was less of a grid and more like a series of corridors, where each character had their own to traverse. Though it was technically possible for characters to go into other characters' sections of the grid, that would be rare and mostly occur towards the end of the game when players had high level Key Spheres to break the locks separating them. Each character would mostly stick to their defined roles.
While the cast still have their own classes in the Expert Sphere Grid, there are gray areas where some paths along the grid intersect. As an example, Lulu's and Yuna's paths in the Expert Sphere Grid frequently have points where the ladies can encroach on each others sections. This means that Yuna can gain a bit of Black Magic and Lulu can gain a bit of White Magic while they both still generally stay on their main paths. (In my current playthrough, Yuna currently has all first and second level elemental spells.) The physical fighters also have similar intersections along their grid paths, which leads to them all being able to visit and borrow from each other as much as the player wants/needs.
I personally like this a lot better as this seems to really utilize the full potential of the concept of the Sphere Grid. While the Standard Sphere Grid might as well have been a standard leveling system for all of the customization it allowed players, the Expert version delivers on the promise of using a grid to let players more strongly control how characters develop. However, it exacerbates the problem in vanilla Final Fantasy X where Kimahri was the most useless character by far. In the Standard Sphere Grid, Kimarhi's section is the center of the grid. His gimmick is that the starting points for all other characters Sphere Grids are right next to his and blocked by low-level locks. Therefore, he can gain the skills and assume the role of another character. However, in a game where every character is a specialist against a specific enemy type, this is not all the useful. With the extra customizability found in the Expert Sphere Grid, Kimahri's gimmick is even more useless.

Another minor addition was the addition of new “Distill” abilities. Like the “Distiller” items in vanilla Final Fantasy X, these skills force an enemy hit with them to drop a specific type of sphere. (For example, “Distill Power” forces an enemy to drop Power Spheres.) These skill cost 1MP, so they are inexpensive to use. New weapons found in the game are also imbued the the property to inflict Distill statuses on the enemy. This helps players better control the spheres that are dropped by enemies. This does not help much in the late game, since spheres of all types are very common. However, this is a great help in the early game, where specific sphere drops can be more/less scarce depending on how far the player is in the game.

Surprisingly enough, Final Fantasy X holds up surprisingly well, despite some clearly dated game design principals. I think part of the reason for this may be that while modern Final Fantasy games seem to be aiming for a more action-oriented, cinematic style of combat, this one is purely a turn-based game. I do not mean to imply that real-time combat systems are intrinsically bad. (I will defend the battle systems for Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns.) Rather, that a purely turn-based game in the context of modern RPGs is a refreshing change of pace.
One of the things that was best about Final Fantasy X was that players can switch between members of the party at any time, even during battle. This means that if the player finds that another party member would be better suited to a particular enemy, they can swap them in to better fight them. Thanks to the way combat works, this is necessary. With the exception of Kimarhi, every character has a set of foes that they are uniquely suited to fighting: Tidus can handle agile enemies. Wakka can take down flying enemies with his magic soccer ball. Lulu can dispatch elementals and flans. Yuna's summons can take on large, tough foes. Auron excels against armored monsters. And lastly, Rikku can easily disable machines. The fact that every character has specializes in taking down specific enemies helps to sell that every party member is necessary in order to complete the journey to Zanarkand. It is a nice, small touch that adds to the game.

However, there are negatives aspects of the game as well. One of the biggest complaints that I have regarding Final Fantasy X are the Cloisters of Trials. In the world of Spira, summoners acquire new summons, or Aeons as they are called in game, by praying to the fayth, souls trapped in stone. There is a temple for every fayth. In order to reach the fayth of a temple, the summoner must attempt the Cloister of Trials to get to their chamber. (These are mostly mandatory and required by the story.) Each Cloister takes the form of an annoying puzzle that both halts the flow of the game and wastes a large portion of the players time. Usually, the puzzles are pretty easy to solve. Unfortunately, they are usually so slow to solve because of the number of steps involved in the solution. Virtually every one of these puzzles feel unnecessary and halts the flow of the game.

As for the HD graphical upgrade, it is interesting to behold. Although it is certainly pretty, it seems incomplete in a way. Though the major characters have very nice models, the secondary case and the town NPCs all still use fairly low-resolution models. Since the environments have also received a nice upgrade, this makes all the minor characters stand out for the wrong reason. There are also some interesting results obtained from the HD upgrade. As an example, Yuna's model in particular makes her look surprised at everything, thanks to the wideness of her eyes. Also despite the new visuals, the game makes it clear that it is a PS2 game at its core because of the way the characters move on screen. This is not surprising, given that it is just a visual update. Overall, the game looks really good.

As of the time of writing, I have not yet finished the pilgrimage to Zanarkand. Because of this, I have not yet fought many of the new bosses like Penance or the Dark Aeons. Perhaps when I have finished a more through playthrough of Final Fantasy X HD, I will write an addendum piece to this describing any further thoughts I might have on new content. However, I do not hold me to that as I might change my mind. Based on what I have seen though, there is enough here for both old fans of Final Fantasy X and JRPG fans who never played the original game to give it a shot.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Impressions #2: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea: Episode 2

Warning: Though I try to be vague, there may be general spoilers for the game. I take no responsibility for this. Read at your own risk.

Continuing my impressions series, this week I will talk about another game that has been on my mind since I finished playing it. Recently, I used my Bioshock: Infinite season pass to get Burial at Sea: Episode 2. Partly to see the conclusion of Burial at Sea, and partly to see how the new stealth-based gameplay altered the overall experience, I braved Rapture one last time.

One of the things that surprised me the most was how competent the stealth mechanics of the game were. Enemies have decent cones of vision, so players need to be fairly aware of enemy positions and the environment in order to avoid detection. Further, the game does a decent job of giving players the tools to sneak around. Lockpicks can be found all around, and sleep darts can incapacitate enemies non-lethally. Groups can be handled with knockout gas darts and noisemakers can be used to lure enemies away from their usual patrols. There are also hazards like shattered glass that will create lots of noise and attract enemies to the player's position if they are stepped on. The Hand Cannon and Shotgun also make their return, but I cannot comment on them as I played in 1998 Mode and did not have access to them.

Even the plasmid selection has been changed to favor more indirect approaches. The one I ended up using the most, Peeping Tom, has the dual effect of cloaking Elizabeth and allowing her to see enemies through walls. Possession also returns, except the upgraded version knocks-out enemies when it runs out instead of killing them like in the previous episode. Old Man Winter makes an appearance, allowing players to freeze enemies in place. Lastly, Ironsides is a new plasmid that makes its debut in Burial At Sea: Episode 2. That plasmid can be used to catch projectiles in mid-air and add them to the player's own ammo pool.

However, while all the stealth mechanics are there and fully functional, the game itself still falls victim to the AI of the original Bioshock: Infinite. What I mean by this is that when players do get detected, the AI does not seem to know exactly how to handle that. Enemies do fire weapons and launch melee attacks when players are noticed, and they do a good job of quickly alerting the entire room to your presence. However, I never found getting away from them to be too difficult. Vents and grappling hooks seemed to be everywhere, allowing for easy escape since foes had no way of inspecting these areas. Also, no matter how tough the enemy was, a simple sleep dart would almost always knock them out. It was trivial to incapacitate the foe that detected me before they alerted everyone else. Most of the time, I could even reclaim the sleep dart that I used off their corpse for late reuse.

In later half of the DLC, the gameplay became even easier once I obtained upgrades to the Peeping Tom plasmid that negated its otherwise massive Eve cost when standing still. The enemies knew I was there and they knew I was cloaked, but proceeded to march forward anyway because they did not have an exact line-of-sight. This left them wide-open to a sneak attack, especially since when cloaked, a sneak attack from the front is a viable option. Even with the extremely limited health and offensive options inherit to 1998 Mode, it became extremely easy to knock out entire rooms of guards without breaking a sweat. I would cloak, knock a guard out, cloak, watch his friend come to inspect the body, knock HIM out, and then rinse and repeat.

On the positive side, the focus on stealth and avoidance actually encourages exploration in order to look for resources and supplies, especially in the early game. Money is extremely rare, and even large stashes of it will rarely have more than 10 coins. Players can also only hold a maximum of 4 sleep darts and 2 gas darts on their person as well, so poor aim will be punished severely. Health kits can be carried on hand (up to a maximum of 5), instead of being use immediately on pickup. Since, especially on higher difficulties, Elizabeth takes a lot of damage on hit, this is almost necessary.

Eve cannot be carried around in the same way, so that resource ends up being much more precious. All the Plasmids take up a great amount of Eve, so they need to be used conservatively. Instead of being something players rely on, they are really designed to be used in order to turn otherwise terrible situations around at the last minute. While it is overall not as good as Thief or some other high-profile stealth games, it is pretty surprisingly well done on the whole.

As for the story, it leaves me with a weird feeling overall. It feels like many elements to the game's story feel like they specifically put in to address criticisms towards some aspects to both the vanilla campaign of Bioshock: Infinite and Burial at Sea: Episode 1. Did you think Daisy Fitzroy's actions in the later half of Bioshock: Infinite made no sense? Burial at Sea explains exactly why she did what she did (and the explanation is honestly pretty bad). Did you cry foul at the fact that the plasmids in Burial at Sea: Episode 1 were of the drinkable variety seen in Columbia? There is an explanation for that too. Other, more spoiler-y elements explain other inconsistencies in the DLC make it come across as, to quote certain others, very “fix-fic-y”.

At the same time, Burial at Sea: Episode 2 does a lot of things right with it's story and world. For example, whenever Elizabeth picks a lock or plans out her next move in the plot, the game changes the visuals to look more like the pages of a book. This helps players better enter Elizabeth's mind and understand how and where she obtains all of her knowledge. There are also numerous instances where Elizabeth finds codes and ciphers. As she cracks the code for their hidden messages, the cipher is decoded into plain English in real time before the player's eyes. When combined with the tone and feel of general gameplay, this really helps sell sell Elizabeth as a more thoughtful character than Booker.

Another thing that is done well is the character-focused nature of the plot. Although the game is set in Rapture and ultimately leads into the original Bioshock, the story itself is clearly one about and centering around Elizabeth and her thoughts and actions. Story events early in the game rid Elizabeth of her powers. However, the nature of what it is like to be all-seeing and all-knowing thanks to having the combined knowledge of every possible incarnation of yourself is explored. Characters from the original Bioshock, like Atlus, Suchong and Andrew Ryan also play large parts in the narrative. Others from Columbia, like Fink, also make appearances. One of the more interesting subplots involves a bit of a trans-dimensional partnership and idea stealing between the two as they continue to one up each other in their fields of study. On the whole, these characters really add to the game and tie up both the original Bioshock and its Columbian successor quite nicely. Though the ending can be seen coming from a mile away, it is satisfying in its own way, especially to fans of the first Bioshock.

Overall, fans of the Bioshock franchise are bound to get a kick out of Burial at Sea: Episode 2. Stealth game enthusiasts might find what they are looking for here. Although better implementations of these systems exist, the underlying mechanics are solid enough to derive enjoyment from. Odds are by the time this comes out, those who were going to buy it already have and those who were not have already definitely decided to skip out on it, but it is still worth it to think about how this DLC came together. It gets some things wrong as most games do, but it gets so much right that it is hard to think badly about it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Impressions #1: Persona 4 Golden

So, it has been far too long since I have written anything about video games. In order to remedy this, I am going to stop holding myself to the standard long-form Press Start to Discuss articles you have all come to expect from me. I still hope to produce those on occasion, but in order to make sure something gets produced at some point in time I will start trying to post articles discussing game-related things that are on my mind. These articles will not need to be tied into a specific overall theme, presented in a more “stream of consciousness” style. With that said....

Lately, I have spent an inordinate amount of time playing Persona 4 Golden, the Vita remake of the original Persona 4, released on the PS2. This new version of the game added a lot of new features and almost totally changes that game. I decided to spent this article detailing the biggest of those changes and how they affect the overall experience of the player.

One of the biggest new additions to the game come in the form of changes to the Persona Fusion system, a mainstay of the franchise. In vanilla Persona 4, when players fused personae together to create new ones, the resulting persona would inherit skills from its “parents” based on an algorithm that took the skill list of the parents' and the child's affinity for different skill types into account, with a degree of randomness thrown in. The Golden version changes this in a very fundamental way. Instead of an algorithm determining what skills get inherited, the player gets to make the choice directly. When the player selects personae to fuse together, the result will be displayed as always. Based on the affinities of the “child” persona, a list of possible skills to inherit is created, and the player selects from the list what skills will be passed on.
The end result of this change is alleviating many of the frustration that were built into the original system of fusing personae. Before, it was quite common for players to spend literally hours of time canceling and reselecting fusions in order to ensure that the child persona received, if not an ideal, than a decent set of skills from its parents. This would cause undue frustration on the player's part because often the algorithm would favor skills that players had no use for, like status ailment skills. Even worse was when a lot time would be spent to get the right skills, but a fusion accident resulted in a different persona than intended. Many hours of time could be wasted thanks to scenarios like the ones listed above. Now that inheritance is a choice made by the player, these problems are no longer an issue.

The addition of Skill Cards, which were present in Persona 3 Portable on the PSP, also adds to this streamlining of persona creation. Each skill card has a specific skill imbued on it. Using a Skill Card on a persona will give that persona the ability associated with it. Taken with the above addition of inheritance choice, persona creation seems to be moving away from the random chance in favor of player choice and consequence. If a fused persona ends up being useless in the new system, then it is the player's fault for making poor choices, not the fault of the random number gods.

Going on with this theme of reducing the random chance element in the game, another big change is the new Shuffle Time. In both versions of Persona 4, when players do particularly well in a battle, the game awards them with Shuffle Time. Vanilla P4 presents persona cards, blank cards, and penalty cards to the player, and then makes them pick one via a mini-game. These mini-games can take the form of picking a card as they are moving, face down, in a circular pattern, a type of concentration-esque game where players keep the first matching pair they find, and a slot machine. Picking a persona card would let players keep it for use in combat or fusion. A penalty card would take away all the rewards from the battle, and a blank card does nothing.
Golden replaces this with an entirely new system. During Shuffle Time, the game creates a hand of cards for players to select from, each with their own reward like extra money/experience, healing, a skill card, or a new persona among other effects. Once they select their card, shuffle time comes to an end and they win the rewards obtained during the selection. However, there are also penalty cards that would encourage players to forfeit certain rewards in exchange for being able to pick more cards. (For example, picking “The Tower” will reduce the money earned in a battle to 0 in exchange for allowing the player to pick 3 more cards from the hand.) Drawing all the cards in a hand will guarantee that the next battle will result in a Shuffle Time, and allows players to select 3 cards from the next Shuffle Time instead of only 1.
This new Shuffle Time encourages players to make choices instead on using their reflexes to get the best results. It is now important to consider the options available during Shuffle Time to try to maximize the potential gains. Players have to look at the trade-offs and think about whether taking certain penalties in exchange for multiple benefits and/or more chances to draw from the next Shuffle Time hand. There is a degree of randomness involved, as the hand generated might not always be beneficial to the player, but it is an interesting way to force players to make bigger considerations during an otherwise small element of the game.

Another guiding philosophy that presents itself in Persona 4 Golden is online social integration with other players. This is not the usual kind of social interaction like pointless Facebook integration and other social networking features common in big name games. Rather, the game use the internet for two new features that allow users to passively interact with each other in new, interesting ways. The first of these features is the “Vox Populi”. When players are exploring the town on their in-game off days, they can access the Vox Populi, which will show the 5 most popular uses of that in-game period of time, on that particular day. Once a player finishes their day, and they are in Online Mode, their activities are added to the Vox Populi for that day. This forms a sort of guide that new players can use when they are confused about how to use their time in-game, letting them see the options they may have available. Later in the game, this is less useful because other players may have different social links unlocked, but it is very handy in the early game.
The other new social feature in the Emergency SOS system. When players are online and exploring dungeons, they are able to use this system to send a request for aid from other players. Every player that responds to this request before the start of the next battle will restore 5% of every party members HP and SP once the battle actually begins. Sending and responding to requests costs nothing in-game, so there is no reason not to constantly request and give out aid to other players. Having played with this system a lot before my own HP/SP restoration became too high to bother with it, this system creates a Journey-esque mutual cooperation where players are not directly communicating with each other with words. However, they are aware of each other's presences and work together to build up enough HP/SP to climb higher in the dungeons than any one of them could by themselves. Though both of these features are completely optional, they add a new layer of depth to the game never seen before.

Overall, it seems like Persona 4 Golden is a sign that even now, ATLUS is continuing to refine their craft despite being masters at it. None create JRPGs in quite the same way they do, and despite that they still do their best to improve the design of their games. I look forward to seeing if these changes will be reflected in Persona 5 when it gets released. It is fascinating to think about how only a couple of changes can dramatically affect the overall experience. And these are only a few of the many things added to the Vita version. Despite this, while it is clear that Persona 4 Golden is the definitive version of the game for fans and newbies alike, it may not be enough to justify the purchase of a PlayStation Vita by itself. Still, it goes a long way, especially for series fans.