Saturday, May 24, 2014

Impressions #5: Transistor

SuperGiant Games has, up until now, only been known for two things: Bastion, and the soundtrack to Bastion. However, that one game on their track record is easily one of the best and most beloved indie games since the initial surge of indies. When the studio announced that they were creating a brand new game, I was completely on board. Fast forward to the present day, and that title has finally been released. Having just completed my first playthrough of this new piece, Transistor, it is still fresh in my mind. As a result, I have much to say about the game. Note: Since the game has only recently come out, this article will be spoiler free for the benefit of those who have yet to play it.

But before that, a brief primer on Transistor. The player of the game assumes the role of Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank. She is attacked during one of her performances, and escapes with her voice stolen and her bodyguard/boyfriend trapped in the mysterious, titular Transistor. Armed with this new weapon, Red goes after the her would-be assassins while being accosted by a mysterious force called “the Process.” Without spoiling anything, the story is a bit hit-and-miss. Personally, I enjoyed the events of the plot. However, some of the people I have talked to found that it simply did not engage them at all, even if they could not point to a specific reason for why that was. With that said, the ending was very beautiful and wrapped up the game quite nicely, so I walked away content.
Despite this, one of things that somewhat disappointed me is that while the game seems to have Computer Science/Programming theme, it does not seem to do much of anything with it. The games finishes the names of all its moves with “()”, like a function in a computer program. As experience is gained, players raise their “User Level” for the Transistor, granting access to new functions and upgrades. The main antagonistic force is referred to as “the Process.” Despite what one might believe, this does not seem to have much overall bearing on the main story. It merely seems like an aesthetic choice. The decision is not an invalid one, but I felt a bit slighted by it as someone studying Computer Science.

Another problem I have with the game is that it leaves too much left unexplained. Details with regards to how the Process, the city of Cloudbank, and the society at large work are left unexplained. This raises an uncomfortable wall between the player and the protagonist. Red and her boyfriend clearly know how this world works, and some of it can be gleamed by their “conversations.” Other details can by gleamed the side content found along the way. The world appears to work in a consistent and cohesive way that makes sense, the problem is I just do not know enough to be sure of that.
(SPOILERS) Speaking of Red's boyfriend, the game seems to go out of its way to obfuscate his personal information for no reason. All we really know about him is that he and Red are in a relationship and he took a mortal blow meant for her, leaving him trapped in the Transistor. Aside from that, everything about him is left unknown. Even his unlockable file in the Transistor does not say much beyond that it is corrupted somehow. Further, all pictures of him leave his face obscured. If there was some grand reveal regarding who he was at the end, that would make sense. However, there no such reveal exists. (/SPOILERS) Like the world, it feels like details were left unexplained. I hesistate to call it an inconsistency or a plot hole, because it seems to be more like a series of omissions. Unfortunately, their gestalt make the overall story difficult to understand. There is a lot going on, and it needs explaining.

The gameplay is the most interesting aspect of the game. SuperGiant's previous work, Bastion, experimented with light RPG elements. Transistor doubles down on them, making it feel a lot more like an action RPG. Players have access to up to four functions, which serve as their move list throughout the game, to use in battle. These functions can be modified by equipped other functions to them as upgrades, granting them new properties. Other functions can be equipped as passive functions, which grant the player extra bonuses depending on which ones are equipped. However, each function, no matter how they are equipped, will take up a certain amount of memory in the Transistor. The total sum of their costs cannot exceed the maximum memory of the weapon. Although, extra memory and upgrade slots can be acquired through gaining experience in battle and upgrading Red's “User Level”.
As for combat itself. Red has to use the Transistor's functions to defeat the Process's forces in real time. Once a Process is defeated, it releases a cell. If the cell is not picked up in the allotted time, the process will respawn and Red will need to kill it again. Aside from her functions, Red also has access to a special technique called Turn(). When in Turn(), time stands still. The player has a bar which can be consumed by queuing up movements and functions. After planning out their moves, they can immediately execute them by exiting Turn(). Afterward, a brief recharge period will be necessary where all functions aside from Jaunt() (or any functions upgraded with Jaunt()) will be disabled and Turn() cannot be used. This inspires the user to think more tactically and consider the options available to them.

One of the major conceits of the story is that the Transistor gains new functions from either coming into contact with people or “integrating” their souls into itself. As a result, every function comes with it a file on the person it came from. Players can unlock these files by using the functions associated with these files in various different capacities. This gives the player a sense of the world and its inhabitants. Further, it is a really interesting way to use lore to encourage players to experiment with different functions and function combinations.
The health system also helps encourage this experimentation. When Red's health reaches zero, it does not necessarily mean she will die. One of two things will happen. If Turn() is fully charged and ready for use, it will automatically be activated before the final blow defeats Red. This gives her a second chance to retaliate and turn around a bad situation. Otherwise, a function equipped to the Transistor will overheat, saving the player from defeat at the cost of needing to find two access points (which are used to customize the function layout and save the game) before the overheated function can be used again. Should all equipped functions overheat, it is Game Over. In this way, players are forced to figure out new loadouts and tactics that do not involve the overheated function(s). Combined with the lore unlocking I mentioned earlier, the game clearly wants the user to continually think about how they can best combine their assets to make powerful combinations.

While the combat and the experimentation definitely held my interest through the entire game, some of the UI elements left a lot to be desired. In particular, the menu where Red can change her equipped functions controls fairly poorly, at least on the PC. What should be a simple click-and-drag interface is marred by a case of having to go through too many menus to complete an otherwise simple task. For example, if I want to change a function's upgrade from one function to another, I have to first go into the menu to remove the originally equipped upgrade. Then, I have to go back to get the upgrade function I want and equip it. The reason for this is that the “remove function” button in the insert menu will remove the function and its upgrade, rather than let the player specify which one they want.
Another UI issue in this menu is that when the player goes to inspect a function's file and back out into the main function menu, the cursor returns to the last function equipped and not the one the player just inspected. This frequently resulted in my removing functions I did not intend to, spending excess time rebinding them to my setup. The menu serves its purpose, but can lead to some unnecessary frustration.

Lastly, it would be criminal to talk about this game without mentioning the soundtrack. As one might expect from the developers of Bastion, the soundtrack is absolutely top notch. The music by Darren Korb and its vocal accompaniment by Ashley Barret is beautiful. There is even a button to make Red hum to the background music. Fans of the Bastion soundtrack should be sure to listen to the music of Transistor, because it is comparable in quality.

Overall, Transistor is an excellent game in its own right, even if it does not reach the level of its predecessor. Though I expect the game to be a bit more divisive than Bastion was, there is no denying that I enjoyed my time with it and plan to play through it again in Recursion Mode, aka New Game+. Anyone who loved Bastion will also enjoy their time with this game. Even if you did not like Bastion, it is still worth checking out because Transistor is a beautiful, powerful game that on its own.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

#70: Factions in Video Games: Skyrim vs. Final Fantasy X-2

I am a person who likes RPGs of many sorts. As a result, I see many different implementations of the same ideas by multiple companies. One such concept many RPGs utilize is a faction system, where multiple groups of opposing ideals go against one another, usually having fairly drastic effects on either the main plot or the world at large. I tell you this because I am about to make a bold, controversial assertion: Final Fantasy X-2 uses the concept of opposing factions significantly more effectively than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I know that will come across as absurd to many of you, because Skyrim is very well loved and Final Fantasy X-2 is... not. However, I do have my reasons for thinking this.

My first reason for saying this is that the factions in Final Fantasy X-2 are a lot more relatable. In Skyrim, the game does a very good job at explaining the negative sides of each faction. However, the positive aspects of each faction are a lot more hidden from view. At the beginning of the game, a captain of a group of soldiers belonging to the Imperial Legion attempts to execute the player for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This tells the player that the bureaucracy of the Legion can often lead to corruption and overlooking simple mistakes, without much of a need for exposition.
The Stormcloak introduction does not fair much better. When arriving at Windhelm, the Stormcloak capital city, players find that Stormcloak soldiers are mocking and oppressing the Dark Elf and Argonian populations of the city. Through this interaction, the game informs the player that the Stormcloak faction discriminates against other, non-Nord races. When it comes to the good sides of these factions, we do not have similar scenes. All of it is gleamed through exposition told to the player by characters who are in those factions. The player is not shown these strengths, they are told. This makes in that much more difficult to envision these strengths. So, when it comes to time to select a faction, players choose between the lesser of two evils rather than which one harbors beliefs more in line with either their philosophy (or that of their character's).
This is not the case with Final Fantasy X-2. In that game, both of its major factions are presented in more positive spotlights. When players first make contact with each faction, characters from that faction come up to talk about their group and what they believe in. There are friends, both new and from Final Fantasy X, who are on each side. This gives players, especially ones who played Final Fantasy X, legitimate reason to invest their time with each faction and getting to know them. Reaching the Youth League headquarters in rewarded with a discussion on channeling youthful energy towards progress and building a better future. On the other hand, the New Yevon members talk about how apprehensive they are towards the accelerated pace of change, and their wish to take things more slowly. In this way, players are left to ponder which faction they support based on what beliefs each group holds rather than which one is the lesser evil. Although both factions have scenes where they are shown in more “villainous” lights, those are few and far in-between when compared to Skyrim's factions.

Which brings me to my second point: The faction-based choices players make in Final Fantasy X-2 have significantly greater impact than similar choices made in Skyrim. When participating in Skyrim's Civil War questline, players are forced to choose between one of the two major factions and side with them in the war. However, regardless of the decision, most players will end up performing the exact same tasks for each faction. Forts will need to be taken over, cities will need to be captured, crowns will need to be obtained, and enemy faction leaders will need to be eliminated no matter which side is selected. Further, there are no real changes on the world when players finish the questline for either side. A few guards might comment on it when running around in the city, but the world at large does not seem care about the outcome. Players might see more/less Imperial/Stormcloak troops in certain areas, but they will look and act the same as any city guard would. Nothing happens and nothing changes in Skyrim's static world.
But in Final Fantasy X-2, players actually see the consequences and effects of choosing to throw their support behind one of the two factions. After getting about 1/5 through the game, the game forces the party to decide which group is worth their time. This choice is actually a very crucial one. Side-quests open and close depending on which group the player sides with. For example, the Youth League has a quest where players can assist them in fighting off fiends if they decide to align with that group. Characters in the story will comment on the choice the party makes. Certain aspects of the game's main story will even change to reflect this one decision. In the finale of Chapter 2, the group is required to infiltrate the New Yevon headquarters. If they sided with New Yevon, then they just stroll passed the guards. Otherwise, they will need to fight their way through. It feels like that one choice has a big impact. Compared to how Skyrim mostly ignores the choice of faction, this is a huge step up.

While many people would scoff at the idea of Final Fantasy X-2 being superior to Skyrim, even if only in a single aspect. However, a close look at the details behind these games reveals that my assertion at the beginning of this article holds merit. Though many people are right to enjoy the intricacies of Skyrim, the game has its flaws and this is one of them. Not to say that Final Fantasy X-2 is a perfect game either. No one in their right mind would say that. This is just one thing that the game gets right. Factions are a great way to quickly establish conflicts, plot, and gameplay elements. Done well, they can add to a world and player interactions with it. Done poorly, they cannot accomplish much of anything. Those of you interested in game design would do well to keep that in mind.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Impressions #4: Final Fantasy X-2 HD

Of course, after playing Final Fantasy X, I just had to jump into the other game in the HD collection. Final Fantasy X-2 presents an interesting time in the history of the Final Fantasy series. This game was the very first in the main franchise to be a “true” sequel. Up until its release, each main installment of the Final Fantasy series took place in an entirely different world with an brand new cast of characters. Final Fantasy X-2 changed that by taking place in the world of Spira two after years of Final Fantasy X, and even had one of the game's two leading characters reprise her role as protagonist. For better or worse, this is the game that helped pave the way for the Final Fantasy XIII sub-franchise. Having played through more than half of the game at this point, I have quite a bit to say about it.

One of the things I love most about Final Fantasy X-2, and was preserved in the HD release, was the revival of the ATB system from prior games. Though FFX's turn-based combat was still very solid even by modern standards, I vastly prefer the combat in Final Fantasy X-2. I have said, and will always say, that Final Fantasy X-2 represents the pinnacle of the ATB combat system. The ATB allows combat to have the strategy of a turn-based game, but with the real-time mechanics. Enemies and allies make move in real-time, with various gauges representing when they can make their moves. This gives the overall impression of more of a brawl between two parties than a tightly structured, “line-up” battle, which really adds to the game's verisimilitude.

While the ATB system was good, it is not the reason I like X-2 as much as I do. No, that reason is the Dressphere system. One of the main conceits in Final Fantasy X-2 is that the three party members have devices called Garment Grids that allow them to utilize special spheres called “Dresspheres” to change classes. Though this is similar to previous Job Class systems like in Final Fantasy III, V, and Tactics, it is fundamentally different. In previous games, players had to select classes before battle. FFX-2 allowed the three characters to class change in the middle of combat. Players can choose to assign different Garment Grids to the character and the positions of the Dresspheres in the grid. At any time, the girls can change to a Dressphere that is adjacent to their current one on the grid. The character will immediately switch classes in a Sailor Moon-inspired transformation sequence. This allows players to react to changing situations on the fly by switching to a Dressphere that is more advantageous to the current situation. The sheer freedom this system offers in combat feels a lot cooler than the turn-based combat of the previous game.

Character advancement also works in ways similar to older Job Class systems. Though the main party levels up as they would in a typical RPG, they do not learn abilities in the same way. As they use skills and dispatch enemies in battle, they gain AP which is used to learn skills for the currently equipped Dressphere. (The game presents a list of skills a given Dressphere can learn, and players can choose, within limits, which one to allocate future AP to.) This gives players the ability to truly customize their battle tactics and have each player character specialize in Dresspheres of their choice. Combined with the ability to change Dressphere's mid-battle and the revamped ATB system, Final Fantasy X-2 was a delight to play because it truly gave players freedom to do as they pleased.

This new-found focus on player freedom seems to have affected the storyline in Final Fantasy X-2 as well. Though the story will generally follow a similar course and reach the same final boss no matter what the player does, players are encouraged to explore the world at their own pace. The game expressly marks which areas in the game absolutely needed to be completed to advance the plot, but players are encouraged from the get go to put them off for a bit to explore and look for side-content. Further, some scenarios and situations will play out very differently depending on the things players choose both to do and not to do. It is a very reactive game at its core, both in the way players choose to develop their characters and in the way it gives players options.

One of the more contentious points of Final Fantasy X-2 is the overall tone of the story. Compared to its predecessor, the tone of this game is much more lighthearted. The female lead from FFX, Yuna, takes center stage as the protagonist along with her cousin Rikku, who also in the original party with her. Joining them is a new character named Paine. The fact that all three characters are female gives the game a distinct “Charlie's Angels” feel. Some people may be put off by the games “cutesy”-er nature compared to other Final Fantasy games, but those who are not can find plenty to enjoy here, despite a fairly mediocre overall plot. It is fairly campy and does not take itself all too seriously, which in my opinion improved the experience. I can see where people has a problem with it, but I personally did not mind.

As with the HD version of Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2 brings the extra content from the International version with it. However, unlike the case with its predecessor's Expert Sphere Grid, the content does not change the game in a very fundamental way. The game adds a few new dresspheres, the Festivalist and the Psychic. These both add some new and interesting skills to the overall skillset, but they are hardly game-changing and could be safely ignored by most players. Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but still a nice addition.

The other new feature brought into the game is the new Monster Capture mechanic. By completing certain main story events and participating in Monster Arena tournaments, players can earn “Monster Pods”, which can be use to capture monsters and event some human NPCs to use in combat. Once a pod has been obtained, the player can lay them down in specific areas to catch monsters. S-size pods capture small monsters, while M- and L-sized pods capture medium and large monsters respectively. Once captured, monsters can be swapped into the party in the place of one or more of the three main characters. A small monster only needs to replace one member, a medium will replace two and a large will replace all three. Players do not have direct control over a monsters action, but they can control a monster's moral. High moral will make them act more aggressively and low morale will cause them to be more defensive.
Monsters will level up just as a normal party member would, but only if they participate in battle. They can be further developed by feeding accessories to them to boost stats and learn abilities. Abilities can also be learned by monsters Blue Magic-style, where getting hit by certain abilities will teach them their own variant of it if they have one. Because of these limitations, it is highly unlikely that most players will even take notice of or use this feature. When a party member is replaced by a monster in battle, they do not gain experience or AP towards their equipped dressphere. This gives the player little incentive to utilize monsters. After all, every battle that a monster fights is one that a party member is not gaining anything from. Since the dresspheres offer enough variety in the way party growth/development can occur, there are almost no reasons for players to even think about using creatures. There is a “Monster Arena” that players are told can be used to test their creatures' abilities. However, since the main three protagonists can fight in there as well, monsters will still get neglected. It is extremely bizarre because I honestly cannot think of much of a reason why anyone would use them.

Lastly, it would be criminal to talk about an HD release without touching on the updated graphics. The HD update seems to be even worse here than in the HD release of Final Fantasy X. It is truly bizarre to see such low-resolution models and movements of many of the NPCs juxtaposed on this otherwise higher-res environment. The main character models fair a bit better since they have more detailed models that were easier to up-res. However, since most characters in the game are minor characters, it is easy to notice the lower resolution compared to Final Fantasy X HD. I am normally not a graphics snob, it would have been nice to do more of a touch up here because of how obvious and jarring the problem is.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy X-2 is a hard game to recommend. While I would say that it certainly plays better than most games in the franchise, the story is divisive. Further, it requires some knowledge of the previous game to truly understand the significance of many of the events of the game. People who dislike the new, extremely lighthearted tone of the plot might also have trouble getting into the game. Still, there is a lot in the game for people who do like Final Fantasy, or at least did during the PS2-era. The value here is extremely subjective, but I would say it is worth trying out at least.