Saturday, June 21, 2014

Impressions #7: Vagrant Story

Since nothing of note has come out this week, I decided to look over my backlog for something to do in my spare time. Turning on my PlayStation 3, I remembered that I still had Vagrant Story installed and ready to play. Having never finished my original playthrough of the game, I figured I would give it a second chance to win me over. Although it took a New Game Plus save stolen from GameFAQs, I have finally finished. Combining the experiences of both playthroughs leaves me with a very mixed opinion on what many people consider to be a classic game from the era of the original PlayStation.

Let us begin by discussing the plot of Vagrant Story. The game takes place in Ivalice, which is coincidentally the setting for Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics (although the events of Vagrant Story happen way after those games). Our protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent working for the Knights of the Peace and candidate for the silliest hair in video game history. Agent Riot is accused of murdering a duke. In order to find out if he really did it, players go through the week of Ashley's life leading up to the murder. During this mysterious week, he was hunting down the leader of a mysterious cult named Mullenkamp. This search leads him to follow their leader and candidate for the silliest outfit in video game history, Sydney Losstarot, to the abandoned, cursed city of Lea Monde, where dark magic runs free. At the same time, knights of the church, lead by a man named Romeo Guilderstern, are also pursuing Sydney and Lea Monde for their own ends.
This set up does its job of bringing the primary cast of Ashley, Sydney, and Guilderstern together in Lea Monde, and with a supporting cast that is just large enough to support them without getting distracting. Unlike most video game stories at the time, Vagrant Story's plot was highly political in nature. Rather than discussing personal problems, most the dialog concerns the opposing ideologies of the three characters and the factions they represent. The one exception is Ashley, who mostly serves as a viewpoint character. Fitting this role, his job is mainly to ask questions and consider the answers he gets to those questions. With a rich and interesting lore backing it up, the story is one of the greater tales of the PS1 era.

The gameplay is a bit more hit-or-miss. Revolutionary for its time, Vagrant Story introduced concepts that were relatively new back in the early 2000s. As an action-RPG, players moved about the world freely, with jumping, climbing, and most basic movement mechanics in place. Instead of going to an abstract “fight zone” to do battle, players would fight enemies in the same field they would explore in. When players encounter an enemy, they can press a button to draw their weapon. Once the weapon is out, pressing that same button again pauses the action to reveal a wire-frame sphere surrounding Ashley, indicating his weapon's range. If an enemy is in range, they are vulnerable to attack. The most unique feature is that player's could target specific body parts, such as the arms or legs. Damaging any limb enough will break it and impact the enemy's capabilities. Since the enemies could also do this to Ashley, a lot of depth was added to the game.
Further, the game also had an interesting timing mechanic. When Ashley lands a blow, he can use a chain technique by pressing that technique's preset button with the correct, and precise timing. These moves can also be further chained into with a different technique, meaning that a combo could go on indefinitely. This is balanced by a stat called Risk. Whenever Ashley performs an attack, his Risk rises. A higher Risk results in a higher critical chance per attack, but lower odds of landing a hit. Therefore, a long combo chain will frequently result in constantly missing attacks. Since Risk lowers gradually over time, players have to decide whether or not they want to go for high hit chains or to take things more slowly. It is a fairly interesting system that no game before or since really attempted, to my knowledge. It merged real-time and turn-based mechanics and forced players to think about their tactics and strategies more than most other games did.

Next, let us discuss another unique element of Vagrant Story. This game is unique in that beating boss battles is one of the only ways to boost Ashley's stats. The game has no system for experience points and leveling up. Instead, when a boss is defeated, a slot reel pops up on screen. When the player stops the reel, the stat boost it lands on is applied to Ashley for the rest of the game. Aside from that, there are also elixir items that apply these permanent stat boosts in a similar way. These are the only two methods the player has to advance Ashley skills. Though I appreciate the experimental nature of the system, it honestly did not work for me. I often found myself underdeveloped thanks to a series of unlucky spins at the wheel on my first playthrough, among other things.

Lastly, the game featured a semi-Metroidvannia style of exploration in the game world. Some doors were locked with magic sigils or keys. In order to progress, players needed to look for these items in order to break the seals on the doors. More often than not, players would find these items behind either a block puzzle or a boss fight, possibly both. At first, the game's level design is pretty straightforward. Towards the end, it often becomes hard to keep one's bearings while traveling through the world. I found that I often got lost, not knowing if the direction I was going was the one the game intended me to go. The game does provide maps, but they tell players where they are, and not where they need to go. As an example, in the game's final dungeon, I had reached the door to the final boss chamber only to find that it was locked. I had looked for almost twenty minutes until I looked up what went wrong online. As it turns out, my mistake was missing a hard-to-find, well concealed lever in one of the earlier rooms. This switch just happened to open the final door. Needless to say, I was a little upset.
The puzzles also had a similar problem for me. Most of the puzzles in the game are block-based. Being an lifelong gamer, you would expect me to be pretty good at block puzzles. I expected me to be pretty good at block puzzles. However, most of the late game puzzles are either too devious or too tedious for their own good. Again, I found myself leaning much more towards checking the FAQs to solve the puzzles. Alternatively, I would just use the jump boost spells to bypass them altogether. In a game that was breaking the mold in so many ways, these sections seemed almost like a waste.

Lastly, the game had a crafting system. As a Knight, Ashley has training in the maintenance and creation of all kinds of different equipment. With this knowledge, he can use the various magic gems and weapon/armor parts players acquire and put them together at workshops. Each workshop specializes in different material type. A shop that can work leather items might not be able to do the same with steel. Weapons and armor can also be taken apart to salvage their materials. Mastering the nuances of this system is critical to the success of a playthrough of Vagrant Story. Personally, I do not understand it enough to go into any further detail, which is partially why I did not get terribly far into the game on my first playthrough. Most of my knowledge of this system comes from second hand sources.

Vagrant Story is interesting because it was one of the most experimental games I have ever played. Most of the mechanical concepts, gameplay, and even the nature of its plot were wholly unique at the time, and remain so today. Still, that experimentation has its drawbacks. The game expects a lot of the player, and if they do not learn the mechanics quickly, they will find themselves struggling throughout the game. It is designed to cater to the more hardcore gaming crowd: The kind of gamer that stereotypically loves Dark Souls. Until I realized this, I honestly did not like the game all that much. Sure, it was a breath of fresh air, but it was a breath that frequently resulted in a Game Over. Were it not for the save I took from GameFAQs, I probably still would not have finished. Considering how great the story is, that is a bit sad. Still, for all the gripes I had, I understand why critics adored it. For the $6 asking price on PSN, I would still say it is worth it to check out, if only as an examination of game design.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

#71: Kingdom Hearts 2: Why Does It Irk Me?

(Warning: Kingdom Hearts 1 and Kingdom Hearts 2 spoilers are present.)
Kingdom Hearts 2 is to be re-released on the PlayStation 3, along with several other games in the franchise in Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Re: Mix. As a direct result of this, I have begun discussing the game with some friends of mine in anticipation. This can sometimes lead to conflict. You see, I am a huge fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Despite that, I have very mixed opinions of Kingdom Hearts 2. Although I generally enjoyed the game, I also feel that it was where the series started to accumulate many of the problems commonly associated with the series. For this reason, I consider it to be one of the weaker games in the franchise. This is seen as strange to many fans of the series, perhaps rightfully so. However, I do have my reasons for thinking this.

My first such reason is the apparently lack of gravity in the world. To be clear, this is not referring to emotion gravity. Rather, I am referring to the physical force which pulls people downward. Kingdom Hearts 2 came out at a very interesting time in Square-Enix's history. This was the period when the company stared leaning towards the more “cinematic” approach to game design. Sometime during the production of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, SE began to try to make their games more movie-like. Though I can only speculate, this is what I suspect is behind the “Reaction Commands” present in the second entry of Kingdom Hearts. For the unaware, this was the system of contextual, God of War-style QTE prompts, all mapped to the triangle button. Often, these “Reactions” would result in bombastic and over-the-top action sequences in major boss battles.
This had two effects on the game's fundamental feeling. First, it reduced the level of interactivity inherent to the game. Instead of using the game's combat system to do battle, the game would occasionally make players take a break at certain points in a given boss fight in order keep pressing the triangle button so that a cutscene can play, transitioning to the next phase of the boss fight.
The second, and more important effect, is that it took away the weight the combat in the original Kingdom Hearts game had. This is one of those intangibles that crop up in game design. In the first game in the franchise, there was a very real sense of weight when fighting. Though players could stay in the air for fairly long, there was a sense that a force was always pulling them back to the ground. It felt like Sora and company were doing the fantastic things that they do despite being weighted down by the forces of nature.
Contrast that with Kingdom Hearts 2, and that sense is nearly gone. The QTEs, especially later in the game, have Sora and his friends no longer bound by the laws of reality. We see them cutting down skyscrapers in a single slash, punching boulders into enemies, and staying in the air for so long that they can practically fly. Rather than being bound by the forces of nature, they seem more like demi-gods, capable of feats far beyond anything that seems remotely plausible even in the context of a Disney/Final Fantasy crossover. Again, this is difficult to explain in words. It is far easier to just ask you to watch these clips of combat scenarios in each game, and compare how they feel. You can just sense how float-y and bombastic Kingdom Hearts 2 feels to its predecessor, removing the weight of its combat and world.

The other reason Kingdom Hearts 2 earns a fair degree of my ire is the writing. I know for a fact I am going to get a lot of grief for this: However, the second main game in the franchise is where, in my humble opinion, that the series began to develop many of the issues people typically associate with it. To fully understand this, I would like to once again return to the original Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts 1's story was, as befitting its Disney-inspired roots, a relatively simple tale of the struggle of light versus darkness. Villains in the story has relatively simple motivations, if they even have any motivations at all. The heroes are very clearly in the right when it comes to most situations. And at the end of the day, the bad guy is defeated and the world is saved thanks to the power of friendship. Cliche as it is, the story works for the most part. It is consistent in tone, fits well with the subject material and, most importantly, makes logical sense to players of the game.
Kingdom Hearts 2 does not always meet all of these conditions. The biggest hit that it took in the narrative department was in the introduction of far too many elements to the overall plot of the series. This game introduced the concept Nobodies, creatures composed of the body and soul of people who lost their hearts to darkness. To that end, the writers created a group called Organization XIII, which is a group of thirteen (or less) people who have lost their hearts and became Nobodies. Then, it introduced that these people, without hearts, cannot feel human emotion. At the same time, their behavior seems to indicate that they feel emotions, but the game says it is a crude facsimile of actual emotions. Further, we learn that the antagonist of the previous game was an impostor who took someone else's name and that his nobody is the leader of the organization. We also learn that there are special nobodies formed from special circumstances, that have special powers because of those circumstances.
None of this is particularly hard to explain one piece at a time. The difficult stems from having to store the gestalt of all this information in memory. So much stuff needs explaining that I usually defer friends who ask to the Kingdom Hearts Wiki. Later games would build on this database to the point where it is hard to talk about any one element of the franchise's overarching story without first going into at least ten different other concepts. Eschewing the Disney-inspired simplicity of the original title, this was the point where Kingdom Hearts began to favor the style of writing more associated with the Final Fantasy side of this crossover. The game simply bogged itself down too much in the details, losing part of what I found charming in the original game.

And in the bogging down lies a bit of irony. While the overarching story had a lot going on in Kingdom Hearts 2, the plots for the individual worlds were much lazier in their writing. Though there are one or two exceptions to this rule, by and large the story-line of a given world is ripped wholesale from the Disney film the world in based on. Only instead of just the hero of the film, it is the hero and three people (Sora, Donald, and Goofy). This results in narratives that really make the protagonists of them look dumb.
One of the most egregious examples of this comes from the Atlantica level, representing The Little Mermaid. In the first game, the story is much more about Sora, Donald, and Goofy trying to blend into the world under the sea. The three have to stay incognito so that they can find and seal the keyhole, saving Atlantica from impending doom. Characters from the Little Mermaid are true to their personalities in the film. However, the story is squarely written around Sora and company. In the end, they discover Ursula is planning to use King Triton's trident to take over Atlantica and stop her in order to gain the trust of the world's inhabitants, neatly resolving all the issues brought up in that scenario.
Fast forward to Kingdom Hearts 2, and Atlantica is again a world in the game. Rather than build off the relationships and aftermath of what happened in the first game, the writers decided to just retell the tale of The Little Mermaid, as seen in the Disney classic. (And yes, I am going to ignore the whole “musical level” element to this. It is annoying, but not important to my overall point.) Despite establishing that Ursula is an evil villain in the first game, Ariel still blindly accepts her offer for help, as she did in the movie, without even thinking for a moment about the consequences. This might make sense if they had pretended that Sora never visited Atlantica in the original Kingdom Hearts. However, when the player first arrives, the initial cutscene acknowledges the friendship Ariel forged with Sora in Kingdom Hearts 1. Nobody even calls her out on her blatant stupidity. Beyond sheer laziness on the part of the scenario designers, there is not much of an excuse for this in a game that took five years to develop in the PS2-era.

Ultimately, all this together leads me to appreciate the original game more than Kingdom Hearts 2. Before I wrap up, I want to point out that none of this makes Kingdom Hearts 2 a bad game. It is a very solid action-RPG that I would wholehearted recommend. It is good even by the standards set by other games in the series. It is simply that I feel it began this trend in the franchise that I do not like. That is why I wrote this article and why, despite my liking the game, I cannot help but be bothered by it.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Impressions #6: Murdered: Soul Suspect

This week, I purchased one of the most unique games that I have played so far this year: Murdered: Soul Suspect. Set in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, Murdered has players assume the role of Ronan O'Connor. Ronan is a detective working for the Salem Police Department. At the start of the game, he is killed attempting to apprehend the “Bell Killer”, a mysterious serial killer who marks his victims with the symbol of a bell. Unfortunately, our hero is unable to move on to the next world without settling all of his unfinished business in this one. Therefore, the quest is on to solve the mystery of the Bell Killer. Because the game just came out and the mystery is a big part of the game, this article will be spoiler free.

It is pretty simple to understand the basic premises of the story. The game poses a mystery and asks the player to join the main character in solving it. Honestly, the case of the Bell Killer is pretty easy to solve. I figured out most of it by the end of my first hour into the game. Honestly, I expect most players with even a passing familiarity either with mystery tropes or the history of Salem to figure out what is going on. Having said that, I acknowledge that it could have been really easy to throw this in the other direction. It would be trivial to hide the whole case behind some last minute reveal or piece of evidence that no person could be reasonably expect to see coming, like a typical CSI episode. Out of those two choices, I would rather the approach taken in this game. It is a hard balance between these two extremes to maintain. While the writers did not fully succeed, I must applaud the effort.

Despite having many of the trappings of a classic noir story like a gruff detective with a bizarre case falling on their lap, the game is nothing like that. Ronan seems a little gruff, but he does not go overboard in these traits. This extends to most of the cast as well. Every character feels believable. None of them are incredible near-superhero people with amazing abilities. While Ronan's partner is a medium, she behaves in a way one might expect a fifteen year old girl who can see/talk to ghosts to act. Overall, I actually related fairly well to the cast. This was partially the reason why I stuck with it well after figuring most of the case out myself. By the time I solved the case, I felt a strong enough connection to the cast that I wanted to see how they resolved everything.

In terms of gameplay, it is tempting to believe that Murdered: Soul Suspect is just another “story game” along the lines of some of David Cage's work. This is again not the case. In actuality, Murdered feels more at home with games along the lines of LA Noire or Monkey Island. By that, I mean that it is very much a point-and-click adventure. When it is embracing this style, the game is very good. In a given investigation area, the game will pose to a question to the player like (as an example) “What was the killer doing here?”. With this question in mind, players have to look around the area for clues that could help them answer this question. The game helpfully says how many clues are in a given area and points out when the player has left an investigation zone, so it is unlikely for players to get lost. Further, all the clues and story information gathered are conveniently stored in a menu to view at any time. Once the player feels like enough clues have been collected, they can use them to answer the question and discover their next lead in the investigation.
Unfortunately, the game, like most point-and-click adventures, tend to suffer from problems inherit to the genre. That is, instead of using what seems to be perfectly logical, the player is forced to think about what the designer considers to be logical. To demonstrate this point, after following a lead, Ronan heads to a church. One of the clues in this area prompts him to ask “What clue that I picked up lead me to the church?”. Rather than selecting the clue that lead to the deduction, the player must instead choose Ronan's revelation than he needed to go to the church (because story information and deductions are treated like any other clue). Luckily, this did not come up too often for me in the later segments of the game. However, this presents an unnecessary learning curve for players that might not otherwise exist. Still, this is clearly where the game is at its strongest and most comfortable.

The other half of the main gameplay loop is noticeably weaker. The spiritual world that Ronan inhabits is a sort of limbo that is overlaid on top of the real world. In this realm, other ghosts who have their own baggage dwell. Some of these spirits have given in to their intense negative emotions and become demons. These demons have lost any form of humanity, believing that they can regain it by absorbing other human souls. Ronan cannot fight these demons head-on. What he has to do is hide, either in a human's body or in the ecoplasmic remains of another spirit. When the opening presents itself, the player can sneak behind the demon and exorcise it. Through triggering TVs and radios poltergeist-style, it is also possible to create these opening by distracting the demons.
These sections of the game are not particularly offensive. However, I found that I died to them a lot, often for stupid reasons. They proved to be easily the worst and most frustrating element of the entire game. Worse, they do not seem to have a real purpose in the game beyond serving as an arbitrary obstacle. Considering the game can already be beaten in an afternoon, it feels weird to call it out for needless padding. However, that is how I would describe the ghosts. In fact, the game might be stronger by removing quite a few of their sections out.

Overall, Murdered: Soul Suspect is one of the most unique games I played this year. I am really glad that I bought it. While I do have gripes about the game, I cannot deny that it has the kind of charm that comes from a really good B-movie. I am not entirely sure that it is worth the $50 asking price, I would easily recommend this to anyone with even a vague interest in the point-and-click genre. It works in a ways that many other games do not. Moreover, it is a nice breath of fresh air. I am saddened because despite how much I like the game, I do not expect it to do well. I expect it to inherit the same space Alpha Protocol does for me, where only a small cult following will buy the game. Considering that the people who made it, while far from perfect, were definitely on to something, that is truly a shame.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Character Analysis #3: Aiden Pearce (Watch_Dogs)

As many of you are no doubt aware, Watch_Dogs has finally been released by Ubisoft. I purchased my copy on release day, spending most of my free time since its release playing the game. Having finished it, my thoughts and opinions are still fresh in my mind. After investing so much of my energy into the game, one thing keeps entering my mind: Protagonist Aiden Pearce is an asshole. I am not the first person to say that. Several well-known gaming critics have also made that charge. However, I wish to articulate to you, the audience, exactly why I think that Aiden Pearce is a complete, unrepentant asshole. Because this article is coming out so quickly after the release of the game, all spoilers will be marked for the benefit of the reader.

One of the biggest reasons I think Mr. Pearce is an asshole comes from the way he handles the randomly generated “Potential Crime” missions in Watch_Dogs. To the unaware, a major conceit in Watch_Dogs is that the whole city of Chicago is connected through a system called ctOS, which Aiden can hack into using his phone. With this technology, the player, as Aiden Pearce, can monitor the system and use its algorithms to track potential crimes that might occur in the area. When one such tip is received and the player arrives at that location, the phone's Profiler can be used to identify either the likely criminal or victim.
This is where the asshole part comes in. In order for a potential crime event to count as a success, the player mist wait for the criminal to commit the crime. Then, they must either knock him out or kill him. Should the criminal see Aiden coming, he will be scared off, and the event will count as a failure. Let me repeat that for emphasis: Preventing the crime from happening at all results in a complete failure. Apparently, it is not enough for Aiden Pearce to stop criminals in their tracks. No, he will not be satisfied until his lust for violence is satiated. Even if the victim dies, the mission still counts as a success. Clearly, Mr. Pearce must not care too much about the people, so long as the criminal gets a whack in the face.

Another thing that causes me to think Aiden is an asshole comes from the game's hacking mechanic. As the player crosses the paths of passers-by in the world, they can use their phone to hack in and steal bank account data. Using that information, our protagonist can then hack into ATMs to steal all the money from those accounts and add it to his own cash total. There is no criteria with regards to who the game allows the player to steal from (and make no mistake, it is stealing). A random woman is suffering from terminal cancer? Who cares? Let us take all $1200 from her account. No punishment or consequence will be delivered to the player no matter what kind of person is stolen from. Further, Aiden will never take anything less than the full value of these accounts. Not a single penny is left untaken. In order to continue living the way he does, our protagonist is happy to plunder the life savings of all civilians unlucky enough to be anywhere near him on the streets. This kind of behavior is present in only one kind of individual: an asshole.

The brazen amount of damage Aiden Pearce inflicts on the world is also immense evidence of his being an asshole. During the course of the game, there will be numerous occasions where our “hero” will be chased down by another group, usually the police. In order to shake his pursuers, Mr. Pearce will often hack the city infrastructure, taking down the opposition. Blockers and road spikes can be triggered, bridges can be raised, traffic lights can be manipulated to cause pileups, and steam pipes can be exploded. Pay close attention to those last two options. Aiden can hack a 4-way intersection to make all lights on it turn green at the same time. Though the ensuing accident can incapacitate his foes, our protagonist is endangering the lives of all the people at that intersection with his action. And once again, there are no consequences for it. Blowing up steam pipes can also endanger lives and damage property in much the same way.
Continuing this line of thought, these types of chases frequently spill off road. As a result, it is entirely possible, even likely, to run over civilians in the middle of a chase. City infrastructure like power lines, fences, signs, etc. can also be rammed over. One anecdote of this I can recall comes from an optional mission. At the start of the mission, Mr. Pearce states that he detects that a group of mobsters is about to perform a drive-by shooting. In response, he traces their path and decides to take them out before they arrive at their destination. I had failed to completely head them off, and there were stragglers left. As a result, they needed to be chased down. During this chase, I must have run into and destroyed several thousands of dollars worth of property, along with several people. Sarcastically, I remember saying to myself “It's okay because I am a 'HERO'.” At the same time, I noted that it might have actually been more worthwhile to let the drive-by happen, because the net damage from the drive-by would have been less than the damage I inflicted trying to stop it. Combining all the damages from these actions, Aiden Pearce is exhibiting signs of reckless abandonment in his pursuit of “justice”.

With regards the story, I will attempt to speak in broad strokes to avoid spoiling any one specific event. What I can say is that Aiden rarely acts with kindness, even towards those he considers an ally. Some of it can be explained by the (admittedly justified) paranoia that comes from being a vigilante. However, most of the time he comes off as unnecessarily cold and calculating: The markings of a textbook sociopath. He is unpleasant and almost disdainful of most of the characters in the game, even when an non-asshole approach is would clearly be more efficient in achieving his objectives. Also, whenever our protagonist has an enemy at his mercy during a story cutscene, he has a frankly disturbing tendency to gloat. One scene in particular is absolutely chilling. In this scene (SPOILERS), Mr. Pearce is walking circles around a mob boss that he just shot in the leg. To get the boss to talk, he opens up his phone and starts to ask about the man's family and how he balances his double life as a mob boss and family man. This is to subtly imply that if the man does not talk, his family could be put in danger. Considering that the guy cannot run and is at Mr. Pearce's mercy, this seems completely unnecessary and almost evil (/SPOILERS). Quite frankly, only an asshole could engage in this kind of behavior.

All the evidence is in. Given Aiden Pearce's lust for violence when fighting crime, theft from innocent people, reckless abandonment, knack for property damage, and unlikable demeanor, the conclusion is inescapable. The protagonist of Watch_Dogs must be a complete, unrepentant asshole. This is all despite the game's attempt to portray him as a sympathetic, yet flawed character. If anything, this shows how silly it can be to write such a serious, grim story over such an open playground for users to do as they please. It always results in this kind of dissonance that simply cannot be explain away. I think the game might have been better had they opted for a more lighter fare in terms of storytelling. As it stands, the character we see is a jerkass, borderline sociopath.