Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Phantom Legacy

Title: Phantom Legacy
Developer: Nightblade
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003

Phantom Legacy is the sequel to the highly-rated Demon Legacy, with a story that is set more than a decade after the original game and that largely focuses on a fresh bunch of playable characters. Although some of the playable characters from the first game play crucial roles as the storyline develops, I largely agree with the developer's claim that players don't need to have played the first game to understand what is going on. Of course, given that I played the first game, I'm not exactly perfectly poised to make this judgement, but I do feel that the game does a good job of recapping important events or characters from the first game when such knowledge is required.

The plot itself is a twisting tale that focuses on several different entities attempting to manipulate (or destroy) the main protagonist in order to further their own schemes. Throughout all this, the main protagonist is attempting to learn more about their past, their powers, their history, and how significant a purpose they're supposed to play in the schemes those around them are trying to execute. This results in a storyline where the group of characters you control are usually less important than the non-playable characters who are scheming in the background, which in-turn results in a storyline containing a lot of plot-twists and surprises since you don't see everything that is going on behind the scenes. It's sometimes said that an over-reliance on plot-twists isn't a good thing, but I feel that Phantom Legacy pulls it off really well as it definitely kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

On top of this edge-of-your-seat storyline is a cast of characters that are really vibrant and that are well differentiated from one another. I don't think I once felt that a character's motivations were disingenuous or unexplained, even if they weren't obviously apparent from the get-go. Even characters present only for comic relief, or present only for minor roles, felt like they were differentiated well enough from one another that they didn't immediately feel like filler characters. The breadth of characterisation on display led to a really enjoyable experience no matter whether the current focus was a life-or-death situation or a situation as benign as attempting to sober up a drunken sea captain; and every interaction seemed appropriate as the characters very rarely broke away from what you'd realistically expect them to do. Given that the cast is so large and features so many different sides, this is no mean feat.

What really amazed me about the storyline and characterisation in this game is the way that the developer managed to avoid the straight up "good vs. evil" situation from occurring for such a long period of time. Despite having so many different sides vying for power, and despite having returning characters from the first game that you'd expect to quickly fall into the "good" or "evil" category, the main character has a hard time rooting against any of the other characters until quite deep into the game. What this does is reinforce how clever the major characters are when it comes to hiding their true intentions; given that the main character essentially starts the game as a blank canvas, it makes a lot of sense that the major characters would operate in this way so that they can try to manipulate the main character to their own end. Even when it becomes more apparent who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, the lines are still very blurred because there are several characters who seemingly have noble intentions and yet are prepared to use quite nefarious means to execute them. The only exception to this is a particularly crazy bastard who very quickly falls into a role that I can only describe as an imitation Kefka. The amusing thing is that this particular character is constantly mocked and ridiculed for possessing that archetype, even by those that are considered to be working for them. It's probably completely unintentional on the part of the developer, but it almost feels as if the developer is saying, "This is how stupid you look when your bad guys are bat-shit insane from square one". I kind of appreciated that and, even if it wasn't intentional, it certainly made me giggle!

There's even time to take a shot at some other highly rated RPGMaker games!

When it comes to the gameplay, the most important part is without doubt the battle-system. Encounters in this game occur by bumping into enemy sprites that chase you down on the area-map, a notable factor being that these encounters do not re-spawn and so can only be encountered a single time. What this means is that there is a limited amount of experience on offer, which in turn means that all players should be at more-or-less the same level at any given stage of the game. This results in a very well-balanced experience, were nearly all battles manage to feel challenging without ever bordering on insane levels of difficulty, all because the developer has made it very easy for themselves to balance the game because they know exactly what stats the heroes should have at any given stage. It's a cool trick, although it does run the risk of disappointing those whose generic response to "challenging" battles is to go and grind out more levels. This isn't the only cool trick on display, as there are a tonne of battles that utilise a range of different gimmicks in order to keep things interesting. Enemies that constantly summon wave after wave of weak cannon-fodder, enemies that utilise shields and barriers to prevent themselves from taking damage, enemies that change their attack-mode and resistance once they lose something important (like a tail or other appendage), enemies that carry items that are important with respect to their ability to deal and block damage, as well as a bunch of other gimmicks that I've probably missed. These gimmicks serve to keep the battles interesting, and they're a welcome addition to the game. 

Despite all the tricks, the most interesting thing about the battle-system in this game is that it's almost entirely centred around the main character, and becomes more and more so over the course of the game. The reason for this is the main character's "Reave" ability, which allows them to completely refill their mana bar at the cost of a single turn (assuming there are enemies remaining with enough mana to allow it). This is important because the main character is also the main healer of the party, so battles essentially become a case of using other characters to dish out damage whilst the main character focuses on healing the party over and over. The importance of this ability is reinforced later on in the game when the main character learns a skill that allows them to sacrifice a small amount of their own mana to fully replenish the mana bar of a single ally, as that allows you to constantly spam the most powerful spells that you have available to you, without which some of the final battles would be very drawn out affairs! What this ultimately serves to do is to reinforce the importance of the main character to the game as a whole, as they're constantly the focus no matter what you're doing; even when you're battling!

You will use this ability more than any of the other abilities that the main character learns...

Dungeon exploration in this game is largely focused around labyrinthine maps, and you'll spend most of your time looking for keys to locked doors and other such mechanisms that are blocking your way. It's a relatively simplistic gameplay model as the exploration mechanic itself is hardly groundbreaking, but this doesn't end up being such a bad thing. The reason for this is that the maps themselves are beautifully designed; the best way that I can describe the dungeons is to say that they felt incredibly fluid from end to finish, which meant that they never became frustrating to play through regardless of how bad my luck was with the mazes. The developer does occasionally switch things up by throwing in some puzzles, with teleportation and switch-based puzzles being the most frequently encountered. However, these puzzles are largely based on trial-and-error instead of being logic-based, which makes me think that there wasn't a lot of thought put into them. They still serve their purpose, which is to make the player do something other than wander around looking for a way out, but it would've been nice to see some more difficult puzzles being thrown into the mix! I would count it as an opportunity missed, but it isn't really a negative point against the game either.

You're right, it lies with RNGesus.

Another thing that the developer managed to do really well when designing their dungeons was to keep things interesting by making good use of elements other than walking/running to give different dungeons their own flavour; examples being a forest area that requires you to climb up cliff faces, a decaying dungeon where you're forced to leap over holes in the long abandoned foundation, and a dungeon flooded with water that actually slows you down as you splash through it. Although these elements are nothing more than alternate animations applied to the same maze-like gameplay mechanic, they were welcome additions nonetheless. Speaking of the aesthetics, even though the graphics are "shamelessly ripped" (to use the developer's own words), the use of them is absolutely exquisite. The dungeons, towns and other environment all look amazing, which only adds to how well designed those environments tend to be; the little tricks used to add flavour to the dungeons are obviously a good thing for the reasons already given; most of the cutscenes have animated sprites that add a lot of depth to the storytelling; the battle-animations at times border on awe-inspiring; and even the world-map has a very clean design that ensures things are kept simple when you're moving between different areas.

Given that there are no random battles in this game, this type of world map works best in terms of both gameplay and aesthetics.

That isn't to say that the graphics were perfect as there were some mapping issues present, mostly in the form of passability errors resulting in the player being able to go places that they shouldn't be able to. Fortunately such errors were incredibly rare, so you definitely couldn't tag them as game-breaking. Another minor problem I had was with maps that had multiple apparent exits when only one exit was actually usable; this is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to RPG mapping as I really don't see how it's so hard to have the character turn back the other way and say something like, "We don't need to go that way right now". Ultimately, both of these issues are incredibly minor and appear so infrequently that they didn't really affect my enjoyment of the game, but I figured I would bring them up regardless.

(Top) Pretty sure that I'm not supposed to be standing in the middle of an abyss. (Bottom) Why can I stand at the edge of this map if it's not going to teleport me somewhere!?

This game has incredibly polished dungeon-based gameplay; makes really good use of the graphics available; has a solid storyline that will keep you guessing; has a cast of genuinely believable characters; and has a well-balanced, challenging battle-system based around an array of interesting gimmicks...

... but more importantly, despite some areas lacking a little bit of polish, this game possesses such an amazing amount of synergy between all its different elements that this game is far greater than the sum of its parts. Given how much I enjoyed playing this game. there's only one score I can realistically give here. 10/10.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Review: Ankharia

Title: Ankharia
Developer: koaangel
Genre: Arcade
Program: Unity

Ankharia is an arcade game based largely on the concept behind Acia, which was a late 80s/early 90s Commodore 64 game. I'm actually fairly sure that the giant box of C64 games I owned as a child contained Acia, but the only games I really played on my C64 were Impossible Mission, Sid Meier's Pirates, Cricket Captain, and the Shoot'Em Up Construction Kit... and that was only when I could be bothered waiting ages to load a game from a cassette instead of playing on my SEGA Master System!

This is Acia, check those slick graphics!

Anyway, nostalgia aside...

Given that it's an arcade game, the concept behind Ankharia is quite simple. The object is to clear each level of coloured boxes without being impaled by spike traps, cut up by flying razor-disks, falling into lava, being bashed in by rotating spike-strips, or running into any other type of trap that I might've missed out. The "clear the level of x whilst dodging y" concept is pretty ubiquitous within arcade gaming, with games like Pacman (clear the level of pellets whilst dodging ghosts) being obvious examples, but there are a few ways in which Ankharia shakes things up.

The first (and most important) thing is the way that blocks are cleared from the map. The hero of the game, a quite strange looking pyramidal cyclops, can only clear out blocks that are the same colour as they are. Since the only way to change colour is to step on specially placed floor-tiles spread across each map, all blocks that are a different colour to you essentially become part of the walls of the level. This forces the player to think critically about how they traverse each level, because it is quite possible to get yourself into inescapable situations if you're not thinking carefully about the order in which you break down blocks.

The second thing are floor tiles that dictate how you can move around the map. There are two such tiles, the first being arrow tiles (you're forced to move in the direction of the arrow if you step on them) and the second being teleport tiles (you're teleported to a teleport tile of the same colour somewhere else on the map). These tiles reinforce the idea that the player needs to think carefully about the order in which they break down blocks, but they also add an element of timing as both arrow and teleport tiles can push/teleport you into dangerous situations if either your timing or control aren't very good!

If you're not careful about how and when you hop onto these teleport pads (the circular coloured/black pads in the centre), then your momentum is going to carry you into the spikes on the other side!

The final gameplay mechanic that I want to talk about are "shop items", special items that can be purchased using coins that you'll find throughout Ankharia. These "shop items" actually aren't too important when it comes to completing levels, but what they are important for is collecting unique silver and gold ankhs that are required to unlock the last two levels of the game. This is as "shop items" tend to open up areas of the level that don't actually contain any blocks; they instead tend to open up areas that contain either ankhs or a large number of coins. The items in question are bombs, keys, and an item that allows you to see secret passageways. Each item is a single-use deal, so making sure you have some whenever you enter a level is pretty important. 

The main problem with the gameplay is that there isn't really any sense of urgency. There isn't a scoring system that encourages you to take down the levels faster, the traps are either static or on-rails and so aren't going to chase you down and pen you in unless you let them, and there isn't any sort of timer that forces you to complete the levels in a given amount of time. What this means is that you can approach the levels in a slow and careful manner because, assuming that you don't die, you're eventually going to destroy all the blocks without being punished for doing so sub-optimally. The overall result is that even the hardest of the levels isn't too taxing on the brain, and I can't help but feel that this is a direct result of the lack of urgency required. It felt like if I was forced to rush through the levels then some of the more difficult levels would've definitely posed a solid challenge, but being allowed to take my time made it so that even the most challenging sections were far easier to get through than they could've and probably should've been. I'm not someone who likes ridiculous difficulty levels (for example, bullet-hell games are my least liked variety of shoot'em up), but this game could definitely do with a bit more spice. 

Another thing that I found strange is the way the difficulty of the game changes as you progress through the levels. I should probably explain that there are ten levels in total and each of them contains an "easy", "medium" and "hard" stage. New stages are initially unlocked by completing a certain number of the preceding stages, but the stages that make up the ninth and tenth levels can only be unlocked by collecting the silver and gold ankhs that I mentioned earlier. Because of how the levels are laid out, some of the "medium" and "hard" stages will have to be played before you'll unlock new "easy" stages. The problem is that the hardest "easy" stage is easier than even the easiest "medium" stage, which results in the difficult going through a series of peaks and troughs as you bounce between unlocking new "easy" stages and having to play "medium" or "hard" stages. Being someone who is used to arcade games following an upwards curve terms of in difficulty, this was something that I hadn't expected to happen and, although it isn't a big deal, I figured I would mention it as something that I found very weird. 

The level layout of Ankharia, showing how the final level requires eight golden ankhs to unlock.

I suppose it doesn't help that there is the occasional glitch, notably resulting in situations were enemies fly out-of-bounds and no longer pose a threat. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence. 

Well, that's one way to avoid traps...

Some mention should be given to the graphics and music, which do a really good job of conjuring up a thoroughly Egyptian aesthetic. Being someone who was brought up on shows and films depicting ancient cultures as people who constantly filled their temples with deadly tricks and traps, this design choice struck me as an incredibly good fit. You could easily imagine Indiana Jones throwing himself through these environs in search of some ridiculous artefact, the only problem with this image being that there aren't any snakes!

This is a solid arcade romp that possesses the necessary charm and simplicity required for an entertaining experience over the short amount of time it takes to complete. Unfortunately, the experience is somewhat let down by both underwhelming and sporadic difficulty, coupled with slow pacing resulting from the lack of urgency required. 6/10.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Review: Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate

Title: Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate
Developer: Lustermx
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate is not a game that tries to deviate itself from other JRPG titles through the means of a premise that we’ve never seen before. Instead, it is very reliant on a scenario we’ve seen countless times within the genre, the idea that crystals somehow prevent the whole of the game’s world from descending into chaos. It’s actually a bad joke that so many games within the genre seem to revolve around crystals (or in this case, the titular Orbs of Fate), the result of which is that any newer title wishing to walk down this well-trodden path should probably dispense with walking altogether and instead try something slightly more eye-catching like cartwheeling or moonwalking or waltzing. In some senses, it's completely redundant to make such a statement as it's ultimately true that any game in any genre will benefit from adding flourishes to common tropes and formulae (assuming you execute and present these flourishes well), but I also feel like this is multiple times the case in a JRPG genre that is already so full of cliché. 

However, this is also not a game that tries to deviate itself from other JRPG titles through the means of unique gameplay features. The developer has clearly chosen to follow common JRPG tropes to the letter as I didn’t personally manage to notice a single exception or deviation; if they’re there then they’re definitely not obvious. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing when all those common clichés (your random encounters, your turn-based battle systems, your map-by-map exploration and treasure hunting, and your dungeons involving lots of switches and other such puzzles) are executed in a competent manner, because it's very hard and very harsh to criticise a developer for managing to produce a game that replicates all the tropes and systems they intended to replicate. It's even harder to criticise a developer when none of these major gameplay elements seem flawed, imbalanced, or annoying. At the end of the day, the JRPG genre would’ve never taken off so spectacularly if these gameplay elements weren’t fun to play through. However, though it may well be hard to criticise a developer who competently replicates the features they set out to replicate, it's also very, very hard to commend them when competence is all they achieve. None of the features included in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate struck me as achieving a level of excellence that deserved recognition, a problem compounded by the lack of distinction the game's general premise brings to the table. 

What I've basically described thus far is a game that makes few mistakes in replicating the feel of a traditional JRPG, but also does little to amaze or excite the player beyond what mere competence allows. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that this game is average in every way I’ve covered so far, leaving me with little to criticise and little to praise, and the fact is that such games are common in the RPGMaker community given that they're exactly what RPGMaker engines are designed to produce. The problem is that an engine can only take you so far, and one thing that they definitely can't do for you is to write likable characters the player is going to relate to and care about. It is this point on which this game falls apart, and I'll spend the rest of this review telling you why. 

The game starts at the Applon Academy, which is essentially an academy for heroes that instantly reminded me of Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII. Although it may be a little harsh to compare an amateur game to what I consider to be the best Final Fantasy game, such a comparison allows me to quickly point out the biggest problem with the characterisation in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate. What Final Fantasy VIII does to make this setting work is to ensure that the range of characters you meet have instantly distinguishable personalities, whilst also striving to make sure these traits play off against each other in an entertaining manner. A good example would be the bickering between Seifer and Zell throughout the course of the Dollet mission, which gives you a reason to care for Zell (by portraying him as an underdog) whilst also giving you a reason to dislike Seifer (an eventual antagonist). Another good example is the way Quistis' interactions with Squall foreshadow the deeper feelings that she has for him, which makes the revelation of these feelings much more believable and gives you a reason to feel for Quistis after Squall reacts. Ultimately, creating links between different characters by having their personalities bounce off one another allows a writer to reveal much more about their characters than they'd be able to do through the use of other methods, and it's really the interactions between the characters in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate that make them so rapidly easy to hate. Simply put, nearly all of the children who study at the Applon Academy have cancerous personalities; they're constantly bickering, making snide remarks, making hateful comments, and playing practical jokes. 

For example, in one scene a character kills a fellow student's pet rabbit, kicks the carcass into a body of water, and then neglects to tell them about it. In the process of doing so, they show far less remorse for having done this than they show concern about being found out. This wouldn't be so bad if this character went on to be an antagonist, but they instead go on to be the focus of the main character's affections and thus a character we're supposed to care about. I suppose that it also doesn't help that the character to whom the rabbit belongs is the only person at the Applon Academy who seems to be a caring, likable character, a fact that I find incredibly telling and incredibly ironic! 

A later example of how callous the characters at Applon Academy are is a scenario that has the headmistress of the academy split the students into two groups in order to go through a practical assessment. The assessment is a competition between the two groups, with the winning group receiving what is made out to be an important honour. To ensure their safety, two older students are sent to supervise them over the course of this exam. Throughout the course of this assessment, several distasteful things occur:

  • One of the students who isn't in the player's group does not enter the assessment area with her own group, instead deciding that it's better to fight the player's group in an attempt to prevent them from being able to complete the task first. This action simultaneously shows her complete disregard for her own safety, the safety of her own group, and the safety of the player's group. 
  • The supervisors fail to supervise the task properly because they are too busy making out (an action that is heavily inferred and heavily foreshadowed, despite never being seen). This clearly shows a complete disregard for the young students they're supposed to be protecting, which is despite the fact that some of the students are related to the supervisors. 
  • After being saved by the player's group, members of the other group show no gratitude whatsoever and instead try to steal completion of the task for themselves. They're only stopped from doing so by the sudden appearance of the supervisors, who "saw the whole thing" and yet didn't attempt to help out. Not only does this add to the second point I made, it also shows what awful people the members of the other group are. 
  • The headmistress decides to award the whole class with the honour she was keeping for the successful team, something that she presumably chooses to do after hearing everything that happened.
Basically, the whole of this scenario is sickeningly terrible and, given that it takes up the period of the game that's supposed to hook you in by giving you a reason to care for the characters, I almost stopped playing the game immediately after its conclusion. I didn't stop immediately, though, instead deciding to play a little bit further. I suppose what I was hoping was that things might change once the party starts to meet older, more mature characters. I probably should've realised this wasn't going to be the case given how badly written the "headmistress" and "supervisor" characters were, terms that I now put in speech marks as their actions are far displaced from what their titles might suggest. 

What eventually made me stop playing were the very first exchanges that you have with a character named Gummi, who is referred to as a very famous inventor. This scene, a scene in which said character shows no regard for her dead bodyguard, no regard for her knocked out bodyguard, and shows no sympathy towards the party for helping her (going as far as to snap at them after she goes back on her offer of giving them one of her gadgets for free), made it clear to me that I was never going to care about the heroes in this game. 

Despite realising that this guard is dead, the characters don't seem to react in a very caring manner, which is strange given their age. Moreover, they make no attempt to awaken the knocked-out guard, who will presumably be killed by monsters shortly after the "heroes" leave.

Characterisation clearly isn't everything in a videogame but, given that the rest of the game is merely a JRPG that doesn't really try to stray away from tried and tested formulae, the lack of a likeable cast or meaningful storyline means that this game really isn't worth playing. 3/10.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Blog: Just Some Maps...

I don't really have a good reason why, but I've been doing a lot of mapping recently. I felt an urge to make some classic maps using the RPGMaker 2003 RTP and I just ran with it. I think they came out okay, although it has been a while since I used the RTP to make anything. 

This first image is a small town and the surrounding area, including the farmland that provides food for the townspeople, a dense forest, and a small section of river. The next map I'll make in this sequence will be directly above the town and will probably include a small dock on the sides of the river, so I'll probably remove the house at the top-middle of the town and change it into a path down to the docks. The original link to the image is here:

It's hard to see on the image above because of its small size, but there is a cave near the side of the river. Here is the map for that cave:

I also made a snowy mountaintop, which obviously doesn't link to the maps shown above:

I don't really have any plans to turn these maps into a functional game, but I figure I'll try and make a fairly large landscape with them. Nothing compared to the scale of a game like Skyrim, but a similar (if more cartoony) feel. I find putting maps together quite relaxing, but maybe once the whole map is complete I'll consider making a game around them. Making the maps first and then building the game around them will be a nice twist on the usual approach!

Friday, June 07, 2013

Review: Star Stealing Prince

Title: Star Stealing Prince
Developer: Renove, Diedrupo.
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Star Stealing Prince is a JRPG that's best described as being incredibly traditional. I certainly wouldn't say that it attempts to do anything I haven't seen before as all the mechanics and gimmicks used throughout the course of the game are things that experienced JRPG players will have seen before in other titles. However, this fairly generic gameplay is just a framework upon which a very compelling storyline is built, as in this game it's definitely the storytelling that is the main focus.

It's obvious from the get-go that the developer has put a lot of effort into creating a world that is both entertaining and believable. A brilliant example of this are the NPCs, as even the most meaningless NPC in this game's world will have something interesting to say, an item to help you along your way, a piece of knowledge that will make things easier, or interactions with the titular Prince - who is the main character of the piece - that expose features of his character that couldn't be better highlighted using any other method. Pretty much all of these interactions, short in duration though they are, go a long way to fleshing out the game's universe, and this should be respected as maintaining such interesting NPCs throughout a whole of a game is something that's really difficult to do.

That I choose to talk about world-building first shouldn't take anything away from a storyline that, even without such elegant world-building, would still be deeply entertaining. The plot moves forward at just the right pace, using well-developed characters that never step over into farcical melodrama, and using devices that are sensical, readily believable and, most importantly, entertaining. The storyline will grip you very early on and manage to keep you entertained until the very last.

 The storyline is often told through images such as this, which really adds something different to the piece.

That the storytelling grips you so early on is fortunate, as without the storytelling it's likely that I would have given up on this game before it could properly get started. This is because many of the early gameplay elements are very frustrating.

The place where this is most prevalent is in the early-game battles in the game, and this is mostly because of very jarring jumps in difficulty level between the first few areas you encounter. The main problem is that being able to swiftly dispatch enemies in one area doesn't always necessarily mean that you're ready for the next area, which makes it very difficult to judge when you should move on. This is exacerbated by the fact that you often can't backtrack early in the game, which makes it impossible for you to go back and grind weaker enemies ready for more difficult encounters.

What makes this problem worse is that the start of the game features only a single party member for an extended period of time, and so you often lack the breadth of strategy required to overcome enemies that are stronger in terms of raw numbers. This is obviously an easy error to make as "developer difficulty" is a common problem in the amateur community, and it isn't as if these areas are completely unbeatable, but it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with. 

Speaking of only having one party member, another annoying thing about the start of the game is the way that several enemies are capable of dealing status effects like "Stun" or "Sleep", effectively leaving you with no course for redress. Given a bad run of luck, it's possible to lose fights against such enemies without getting a single attack in, and that's definitely not good design. This may have only happened to me once or twice, but that's once or twice too many times as far as I'm concerned and, were I not already hooked by the game's world, I could've easily given up on this game very early on.

Admittedly, after the initial hiccups the battles do get a lot better. They remain very challenging, and do still tend to jump in difficulty quite erratically, but once you've gathered more party members there are enough strategic elements available to you that you're usually able to overcome them. This is especially true of the boss battles, which deserve a special mention as they're legitimately amazing; these battles will test even the most hardened JRPG veteran and that's definitely a good thing as I've encountered far too many games where toothless bosses spoil the drama surrounding their appearance. Truth be told, the depth on display is quite impressive as far as traditional JRPGs go, and it's a shame that the early-game spoils what does become a very well developed battle-system.

As I said at the beginning of the review, this game tends to rely heavily on gimmicks that have been used elsewhere, and this isn't a problem when these gimmicks are used properly. After all, there are only so many ways to skin a cat, so we can't expect every single gameplay mechanic used within a title to be a new invention. When gimmicks do become a problem, however, is when they're used far, far too often.

A good example of this is the way that the game makes extensive use of "hidden passageways" to lead the player to new areas. This is all well and good when these passages are used to lead the player to non-crucial treasures, or when crucial "hidden passageways" are hinted at in some way, but when these passageways constantly form the basis for solving puzzles or navigating through areas then it can become very annoying. It's incredibly frustrating to have to bump your character into every single wall whenever you can't find a more obvious solution to a puzzle as such an inelegant solution doesn't give you a feeling of joy or accomplishment the billionth time around; the only thing I can't decide is whether it's more frustrating to find a passageway ("This again? Really?") or not to find anything at all ("I just wasted my time doing that and I'm no closer to solving this puzzle!").

These problems are somewhat outweighed by several elegant, thought-provoking dungeons and puzzles that make up the rest of the out-of-battle gameplay. They range from simple switch-based puzzles and labyrinths to puzzles of a more complex nature, and they're usually very entertaining... when they aren't broken up by secret-passages!

Every. Fucking. Time. This is one of the more obvious ones, and it is quite early in the game, but it was already older than old.

As for eye and ear candy, this game is definitely pretty to look at and nice to listen to. That both departments are exactly what you'd expect from a JRPG does take away a little in terms of originality, but this isn't a problem since this game isn't really trying to revolutionise how a JRPG should look or sound. You'd have to be incredibly harsh for penalising a developer for achieving exactly what they set out to do, and I don't think any frequent JRPG player will be disappointed with the graphics and the music unless they were being ultra, ultra picky (and even then it would be difficult). Special mention should be given to major cutscenes as these often take place in a beautifully illustrated still-frame format that neatly breaks up the use of an otherwise standard 3/4 viewpoint!

Overall, this is a game that has been very competently put together by the developer and its one that should manage to keep a hold of you through the use of very good storytelling and characterisation. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the gameplay that can't be overlooked, especially early on. This makes it difficult to rate this game as it is hard to tell just how many players are going to be put off by such problems. For instance, if it wasn't for the storyline and because I knew this game had won several awards, I'm not sure I would've bothered to stick with it and that's clearly not a good thing. At the end of it all, I am glad that I did stick with it and I heartily recommend that other players do the same.

An ambitious effort deserving of all the awards that it won for storytelling, world-building and direction, and if it wasn't for the early-game battle problems and annoying gimmicks then it'd be damn near perfect... but it isn't, as any game that almost drives you away before it has a chance to get going doesn't deserve that accolade. 7/10

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Blog: Rhapsody!

I've been playing the DS version of this again:

I bought it for my DS ages ago, but I only really play my DS when I'm travelling and I hadn't been doing much of that until recently. Now that I've relocated to Bangor for work, I find myself getting the train back to Manchester quite often, giving me ample time to play with my portable consoles!

The first thing I'd point out I'm really annoyed that they changed the battle-system for the DS remake, because the tactical battle-system was the main reason I liked the PS original. Fortunately, the turn-based battle system they replaced it with isn't completely terrible, though I have to admit that if it was an amateur game then I'd have gotten a little frustrated with how easy the battles are initially. I probably only stuck with it since I'd paid for it and since I have good memories of playing the original, and fortunately they do get more entertaining as the game goes on. I guess it's just that the pacing is a little too slow for someone whose played a lot of JRPG games over the years!
I couldn't find a decent screenshot of the English version T_T Anyway, the turn-based battle system is pretty intuitve, I just wish they'd stuck with the tactical battle-system used in the original!

What hasn't changed from the original is the storyline, which remains really funny, heart-warming and deeply entertaining, at least if you can bare the overly cute cutscenes :3 The characters are really vibrant and very easy to identify with, which is obviously a good thing, and this is most obvious in the early scenes involving Cornet and the Prince. I'm sure that anyone who ever had a crush as a youngster will immediately associate with how both of these characters deal with these early exchanges, and especially with the internal dialogue that both characters express, because I highly doubt that it was just me who was so paralysingly shy/awkward around crushes as a kid.

What I'm also really glad about is that, even on a vanilla DS screen (which isn't exactly the best screen in the world), the graphics remain really vivid. It does sometimes feel like they are trying to squeeze a little too much out of the small sprite-size they're forced to use on the DS, but it's never so bad that it becomes detrimental to the rest of the experience. The music is also really amazing, which you'd expect from a game that has "musical" in the title, although some of the sound effects during battles leave a little to be desired. I'd really recommend using earphones if you want to get the best out of the music, since the songs can sometimes sound a little tinny on the native DS speakers (although that might just be because my DS is getting very old!)

The graphics are really bright, vibrant, and ultra-cute. They really fit the mood that the game tries to generate.

Overall, I really recommend this game to anyone whose into JRPGs. Just make sure you don't give up on it too quickly, because it really does get better as it goes on!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Hype: Star Stealing Prince

I don't actually think this game needs any more hype because it already won most of the yearly awards over at and it's already had a TV Tropes page made for it... but it is the RPG that I've been playing over the last few weeks so I thought I'd talk about it anyway. 

Obligatory title screen shot...

Star Stealing Prince is a JRPG that focuses on the titular Prince of a small kingdom perpetually covered by snow. It contains most of the systems and tropes that you'd expect from a traditional JRPG, with anything slightly different from the norm being thoroughly explained throughout the course of the early-game, and the detailed execution of these systems is something that has really impressed me as I've played through the early-game.

A good example is the in-depth characterisation that even the most minor NPCs are given. Each conversation you'll have with someone in the Prince's kingdom is a far-cry from the crude one-liners that littered most early JRPG outings (such as the early Final Fantasy games). It's rare to see a game try to inject so much life into the environment that its heroes find themselves in and, since it's something that I've always aimed to do in my own games, it's awesome to see other people trying this out as well. It's a simple idea, even if it is incredibly difficult to execute throughout the course of a game (it can be difficult coming up with things for irrelevant characters to say), but it adds so much to the game. Even more so in this game, where the obvious love the Prince has for his subjects (and vice-versa) goes a long way towards fleshing out not only the kingdom itself, but the personality of the main character as well. When seemingly meaningless interactions add so much to the development of the main characters, it's definitely a good thing.

The environments in this game really are pretty.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this game and I've only beaten a handful of the areas, and since I'll eventually be writing a review of this game (when I finally find the time to finish it, work and Starcraft 2 are taking up most of my time!) this will have to do for now. Trust me though, if you're into JRPG games, this game is definitely worth a shot!

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Devblog: Getting Out Of Riot Grrrl's Development Hell

Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl is a game that I've been working on for a very long time. Originally intended as a short project into which I could dump ideas that didn't fit the JRPG formula I used in Sore Losers, it soon sprawled into a much larger project than I had intended. Unfortunately, real life eventually managed to get in the way and I wasn't able, nor willing, to work on the game for over a year. That's obviously a long time, and so getting back into the flow of things has been very difficult... but there's nothing I can do about that other than to work hard. I've promised myself, and the friends who've helped me out, that this game is eventually going to get finished and so finishing it is what I'm going to do. 

So, where am I up to? I returned to the game to find that three out of the planned five levels were complete (which had been the situation for longer than my hiatus had lasted), and that I was in the middle of bug testing those levels. This meant that I spent the first couple of months or so bug testing, fixing bugs, and then bug testing over again. Fortunately, I didn't find as many bugs as I'd found when I was making the original Sore Losers, so I'm obviously getting better at this game development thing!

Admittedly, bug testing can sometimes be a very annoying process because it usually ends up feeling like you're taking away from the game rather than adding to it, but in this case it was actually a very therapeutic process. This is as it as it allowed me to familiarise myself with how many of the game's most important systems worked and how they were linked into one another, which in turn made it much on me when I eventually started creating new levels and content.

After finishing the bug testing, it was time to get on with making the fourth level, and that's actually going well so far. Several stages are already complete, and I have a well developed plan for how the rest of the level is going to pan out. All I really need to do is turn my plans into both code (which is actually the easy part because of the clever, modular system I've set-up for generating new levels) and sprites (which is by far the more difficult part because I'm so slow when it comes to drawing out all the level backgrounds, monsters and characters I need). 

Overall, it's good to be making progress, so I'll leave you with some screenshots and continue my work! 

The final level takes place in a government building, throughout which stand many militaristic statues such as this one (I'm still not sold on the shading; probably needs a touch up).

Given that government in this game are a very paranoid group of people, there are lots of secret passages and security measures to deal with in this particular level!