Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Review: To Arms!

Title: To Arms!
Developer: Max McGee
Genre: RPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

To Arms! is billed as a tactical roleplaying game because it (is supposedly designed so that it) requires more tactical knowledge than other games using a front-view, turn-based battle system. However, this isn’t the genre I would put it under as I am of the opinion that this game is nothing more than a traditional, turn-based RPG that just happens to have larger numbers of units present in battle. There isn’t any tactical placement of units required, you don’t get to move your units around, your attacks don’t have ranges, your attacks don’t deal damage over a certain area and the game never gives you statistical breakdowns such as the exact chance of your next attack hitting the enemy. These are all things that I would associate with a tactical RPG and, as To Arms! decides to exclude such things, I am refusing to accept that it is one.

Anyway…

To Arms! is set in an unnamed medieval universe and it handles this setting a lot better than most other games set under similar circumstances. This is because a lot of other games that use such settings often gloss over things that wouldn’t go down too well in our day and age and the result is a setting that is more “medieval-lite” than medieval. This isn’t always a bad thing because the developer’s intention isn’t always to create a gritty, realistic universe, but I certainly don’t think that To Arms! is intended to be a light-hearted game. Another reason that it isn’t a bad thing is because a lot of developers are incapable of creating a truly mature setting and end up creating something cartoon-ish when they try to force the issue by using excessive swearing, violence and other such things. To Arms! does not do any of these things. Instead, this game successfully takes unsavoury elements like murder, rape and sexism and turns them into integral and, importantly, believable parts of its storyline. By creating such a gritty yet believable setting, To Arms! makes itself stand out from the “medieval-lite” crowd.

The characters are also a perfect fit for such a universe and, because the characterisation is so consistent, there is rarely a bad bit of dialogue. The auxiliary characters are especially well written; from knights who care more about their honour than getting a job done to mercenaries who are willing to do anything for the right amount of money to apothecaries who are too inquisitive for their own good, all the characters in this game are convincing and compelling. The star of the show, however, is definitely the Lady of Rydony. Her dialogue, especially the words directed at those men who try to rule over her life, is really well written. I found it hard to dislike her, despite the fact that her actions are ones that should make you hate her guts for the situation she puts the main character (and hence, you) in, because she is a character whose back-story is so well fleshed out that it will make you sympathise with her actions. It is rare to see a “villain” portrayed so realistically in a videogame because they are often too one-dimensional, so To Arms! was definitely refreshing in this sense.

So the backdrop is good, but what about the gameplay?

Well, like the tactical games that it is trying to emulate, To Arms! is a game that has pretty much no area map gameplay. There is very little exploration, there are absolutely no puzzles for you to navigate and, as such, most of the gameplay will take place on the battle screen. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t give the illusion that exploration is possible by using mapping more reminiscent of a traditional RPG than a tactical one, in that you’re allowed to walk around the areas you visit as opposed to exploration being left to dialogue choices and simple menus. The result of this is that you’ll encounter enemies who have stolen equipment from a town and yet you won’t be able to steal it back; that you’ll walk past weapon boxes and item chests but won’t be able to loot them and; that when the game finally does give you a chest to loot, it will come across as if the developer was forced to put the items there instead of coming across as if their presence was part of the environment you’re in. The lack of “life” in the environments you “explore” is jarring and results in a lot of frustration, frustration that is doubled when you are low on items and could really use that potion sitting on the shelf. The reason that this was probably done was so that the game could focus on the in-battle gameplay, but if you’re going to let the player walk around then you might as well make the environment feel “alive” while you’re at it!

The lack of life the environs exhibit is only a minor problem, though. The bigger problems are with the way the game doesn’t give you enough time to work out its systems and with the way that the game doesn’t prepare you for how different it is going to be from your normal roleplaying experience. Don’t misunderstand these comments as a slight against the general balance or difficulty of this game, though, because (aside from enemy evasion being a little bit too high and some skills being too ineffective *cough* healing *cough*) I don’t believe that the problem lies with how difficult the game is. Initially I did, but after playing through it a few more times I no longer think that this is the case. Given the right knowledge and the right understanding of the game and its systems, the player is going to find that both quests are pretty fun to play through and that the balance is probably at the level the developer intended it to be at.

The real problem is that the player simply isn’t given enough time to familiarise themselves with the game’s mechanics, and this results in the game seeming more difficult than it actually is. The reasons for this are many.

To start with, the first quest is fairly simple and it isn’t that long, which means that you aren’t going to be pushed into finding good class combinations. Equally, you wouldn’t have enough time to experiment with them during this quest anyway as you only get the option to choose classes about half way through this quest. As a result of these factors, by the time you do get to some difficult fights you’re going to have to figure such things out on the spot, without a chance to experiment. The product is that it is easy to paint yourself into a corner and this means the game seems much harder than it actually is the first time you play through it. Once you’ve played through the game once you will probably have a good idea of what classes can do what and how you want your party to fight, making the game easier, but a new player is not in a position to know such things and so will assume the game is too difficult.

The second reason is that the player will inevitably base their class choices on the party available to them during the first quest as they will want to maintain a good balance. This is all well and good… except that they may end up without a vital class for the second quest when the party splits up! Once you’ve played through the game once and know that this is going to happen you are in a position to pick a party balanced towards the resulting “two party” system you end up with, but a new player won’t know that their party is going to be split up and so will end up without proper balance. This is obviously not a good thing and it is also something that is unexpected as, in most games where you get to pick classes, you have that same party available to you throughout the whole game (or get to pick and choose your party throughout the whole game).

Another reason is that the tutorial that tells you about the classes doesn’t actually give you a lot of good information. It is very basic and doesn’t go into much depth. Even if you’ve been following the development of this game and have read the blogs the developer has written about the classes, it is still difficult to determine what class is good for what sort of role in your party.

Finally, the game just has so many things about it that are different to normal RPGs. There aren’t many RPGs where you are able (or required) to buy a lot of items at the start of the game and nor are there many RPGs were evasion and accuracy are more important stats than defence and damage. By not giving the player enough time to get used to these elements and the requirements such elements place on your party, this game sets itself up for a massive fall.
 
Trust me, you’re gonna need them…

The result of all these problems is that people are forced to play the game through at least once in order to get anything out of it. Most people who are familiar with RPGs and move onto this game will not want to play it through a load of times just to learn how to play because this isn’t a gameplay mechanic that is common in RPGs. Moreover, it is a game mechanic that is being phased out in other genres too, even those that were traditionally focused on making a player play early sections of a game over and over just to get back to the part that stumped them (cf. SNES-era Mario games and Mega Drive-era Sonic games). This mechanic needs to be removed from this game in order to keep new players playing; if it isn’t sorted out then this game is never going to garner much of a following.

As for the visual and audio stuff, this game definitely isn’t anything amazing. The mapping is competent and I’m glad that the game doesn’t use the character sprites that come bundled with RPGMaker VX because they are ridiculously poor, but the game certainly doesn’t stand out in a graphical sense. Nor does it stand out in a musical sense as the only thing I can think of that is worth commenting on is the use of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” as battle music; it was something that made me smile despite the fact that it didn’t quite fit. I understand that the game is supposed to have a custom soundtrack, though, so I guess I’ll have to wait for that to be released before passing true judgement on the music.

In summary, it is obvious that the frustrating gameplay will (and has) quickly drive new players away from the game despite the storyline and setting being executed really well. This is a shame because the gameplay in To Arms! is actually pretty good once you’ve gotten the hang of it; the game just doesn’t do enough to ease new players into the action.

Amazing characters, a realistic setting and, if you have enough patience, a fairly decent game. However, by doing too little to get new players initiated, this game is likely to annoy too many people to actually make an impact. 5/10
 

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