Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Sunken Spire

Title: Sunken Spire
Developers: Indra, Fomar0153, MakioKuta and Rachael.
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Sunken Spire is a light-hearted RPG where you start out as a pair of royal investigators traipsing around an abandoned laboratory. They're attempting to find out what the laboratories were being used for before their inhabitants seemingly high-tailed it, but they don't come across a great deal of answers. What they do come across is a slime, as in the common enemy trope, which seems to have been important to the research being performed. They decide to take the slime with them, ostensibly because they want to make sure it isn't dangerous, but it quickly becomes more like a pet. Their actions also somehow cause the titular spire to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, close to a nearby town. The two investigators, along with their "pet" slime, head to the spire to try to find out what its link to the laboratory is; as well as to attempt the rescue of the townspeople whose curiosity got the better of them!

I'll take one pet slime too, please!

From a storyline point-of-view, the two characters that you start with are essentially the only playable characters that matter. One of these characters is Elsa, who is a bratty, rash, violence-loving general who seems incredibly averse to anything that remotely sounds like a reference to her femininity (or lack thereof). The other character is Alma, who is the exact opposite; a serious, logic-loving engineer who has no problem mocking the mannerisms of her partner. These two characters generally stick very well to the archetypes they're trying to represent and, in keeping with the light-hearted nature of the game, the interactions between them are lively and vivacious. 

I suppose you could say that their "pet" slime, the third playable character that you encounter, is also relevant from a dialogue point-of-view, but they embrace an ultra-naive archetype that means they don't really have anything important to say and are mostly there to make comedic interjections. I thought that these scenes usually came at the correct times and, outside of a couple of moments, that they never became too silly or too slapstick. Overall, both the characters and their dialogue fits the tone that the developers were clearly aiming for.

Even the non-playable characters are written in a humorous manner, especially the two main antagonists. Much like the two main protagonists, most of the antagonist's humour stems from the fact that they possess diametrically opposed personalities. It would be easy to believe that their scenes dilute the similar ones between the protagonists, but that isn't the case. Although these sequences are similar in nature, the devil is in the detail and the developers have done a good job of making sure they differentiate the two sets of sequences from one another just enough that they don't end up treading on each other's toes. 

No, really. I'll take one pet slime too, please!

Unfortunately, although the characters are portrayed in an entertaining manner and the dialogue between them is usually amusing, the storyline simply doesn't match up. There was little about the story that really jumped out at me as being significant or unique, because the storyline basically amounts to "thing there, go get!". Although there's nothing really wrong with that in a videogame, and there are certainly plenty of good games that do the very same thing, I think that the depth gifted to the characters caused me to expect a little bit more from this title as far as story development goes.

Nor did the setting interest me all that much, and this is despite the fact that the game definitely tries to get you to invest in both the locales and the lore of the world. To be fair to the developers, I've read that this game is set in the same universe as a bunch of other games (the so-called "Arum Universe"), but I've never played any of those games. This means that there's a chance my lack of investment in the setting is because there are things going on or references being made that are too subtle for someone playing in this universe for the first time. There's obviously no way for me to know whether this is the case, but I'm self-aware enough to know that this is a possible reason why I wasn't really feeling the storyline and the setting.

"person there, go get!"

What I was feeling is the way that the characters aren't just differentiated from one another through their mannerisms; they're also differentiated from one another through their core gameplay mechanics. Each of the three protagonists has a completely different skill system to the others, which applies to both the methods they use to learn new skills and the way those skills are paid for once you get into a battle. This is great because it adds a lot of variety to the game, even if each of the skill systems are fairly simple when taken alone. 

For example, the "research" system that Alma uses is a fairly standard skill system on the face of it; you choose a type of research that you want to her to work on and EXP will be added to that research every time you win a battle. The great thing is that research can do lots of things, from allowing Alma to create equippable items that teach her new skills, to building an autonomous ally that can help you during fights. On the other hand, the "runes" system that Elsa uses allows her to collect four different types of rune based on the skills that she uses in battle. These runes are then used to buy new skills and to craft new items. Notably, this is the only way to obtain Elsa's best defensive equipment, something that the game surprisingly makes you aware of at the very start of the game. One of the more interesting things about this system from a gameplay point of view is that it almost forces you into using skills that you maybe didn't want to use so that you can gather runes faster than you otherwise would do. This means that the game gives you something to aim for other than getting through each random encounter as quickly as possible.

Because the skill systems are so well put together, it's a shame that that the normal battles are incredibly trivial. There are plenty of interesting systems in place that mean the game would have so much depth to it if the enemies were more threatening than they currently are, but this game is ultimately a cakewalk from a combat perspective. There's absolutely no challenge whatsoever to any of the random encounters you'll encounter throughout the titular spire, and even boss enemies will rarely do anything other than scratch your armour. This is made even worse by the predictability of some of the enemies that you'll encounter; there's normally an argument to be made that enemies being somewhat predictable is good because it allows you to make informed, strategic choices, but this argument doesn't work when the enemies you encounter don't pose any threat to you! 

I didn't heal once in this boss battle, so this represents all of the damage that one of the bosses did to me throughout the whole of their lifespan. Pitiable.

Another annoying thing about the battles is that there isn't any real indication as to the current status of the enemies. As far as I could tell, there was no way of knowing what status-effects were currently applied to any of the enemies that I fought. I didn't even see a single "miss" come up when I used a status-effect, which meant that I had no way of knowing whether or not my skills were even working. The existence of enemies that use "Reflect" makes this especially annoying because how the fuck is the player supposed to know when an enemy is capable of having spells cast at them again if you don't let the player see that enemy's status-effects? Finally, it's really jarring not to see damage indicators when enemies are poisoned; it makes poisoning enemies very unsatisfying if I don't know how much damage the poison is doing and whether or not it's still in effect. All of these things are pretty big oversights in my opinion, and they would be a massive problem if the enemies were even remotely challenging.

Speaking of status-effects, one thing that's nice about the enemies is that they're certainly not afraid to use them! The way that status-effects stack is also interesting because healing items are normally capable of healing several "stacks" of a given status-effect at once. This means that you might not always be getting the most out of your healing items if you use them immediately, which adds a little bit of extra thought to how you should approach healing your characters. Another interesting thing is the way that being stunned grants a few turns of stun resistance, which is a novel solution to the problem of stun-locks being easily one of the most annoying (or overpowered!) things that can be present in an RPG. So not everything about the battle system is bad, but this does come with the proviso that the enemies being pathetic overrules everything that the battle system does well.

I really can't stress just how incorrect this line of dialogue is.

The out-of-battle gameplay is varied well, consisting of a decent mix of both puzzles and exploration. On the exploration side of things, most of the maps are laid out in an intricate manner that makes them non-trivial to traverse, with full examination of each area being encouraged by there being plenty of treasure to find and lots of townspeople to rescue. On the puzzle side of things, there are definitely some straight-up puzzles that need to be solved before you can progress through certain areas of the spire and, although none of them are particularly difficult, they're usually entertaining. My favourite was a puzzle involving a band of skeletons, who want you to work out how their song should be played based on riddle-like clues. There are also a lot of puzzle-esque gimmicks, such damage tiles that move around or turn on-and-off so that your full attention is required if you're going to dodge them, and ice-sliding puzzles that need to be solved if you're going to get to the other side of a given room. These factors mean that you're usually required to pay attention whilst wandering around the maps, and that you're not just walking from battle-to-battle as you explore the spire. 

I must admit that it did occasionally feel like the developer ran out of ideas and this led to some areas falling below the standard that the others had set, but this didn't happen all that often. An honourable mention goes to the forest sections that appear before you reach the spire itself, because they struck me as being very well made. A dishonourable mention goes to the option to turn off dashing because why would I ever need to do that!?

Everyone likes ice-sliding puzzles, right?

Concerning exploration, I liked the way that "hint arrows" were used to make hidden treasure and useful objects apparent to the player. The game will display an arrow over anything that can be interacted with in the environment but, instead of having useful items shown up at all times, the arrows only show up once you get close to the object in question. This isn't exactly a unique system but, because of how the maps in this game are laid out, this system's use ensures that people explore the maps thoroughly in order to find those arrows.

Imagine having to search all those bookcases one-by-one to find the hidden switch!

I didn't really notice anything particularly special about the music, so I guess the most I can say is that it wasn't annoying? What I will say about the aesthetics is that this is an incredibly charming game from a graphical point-of-view. The character sprites are really well-drawn, and I also really liked the character portraits. Most of the mapping is spot-on as far as the aesthetics go, and even the weaker maps are only average at worst.

The only thing that I would criticise about the graphics are the in-battle character sprites. They come across as very strange, but not because they're badly made in-and-of themselves. The reason they come across as strange is because the in-battle backgrounds are made using the same tilesets as the area maps, which makes the difference between the in-battle and out-of-battle character sprites very stark. I would've preferred if the battle backgrounds were made in a style more befitting of the in-battle character sprites, or if the out-of-battle character sprites were also used in-battle, because the way it is at the moment is quite jarring and comes across as incredibly sloppy.

Out-of-battle those trees are twice as high as my characters, but in battle they're the same height?

This game has a lot of good things going for it. Exploration is well-worked, the graphics are cute, the characters are entertaining and the skill-systems are interesting. Unfortunately, although I can overlook the storyline being somewhat shallow, I can't overlook how mind-numbingly boring the battles are. They really do make this game a right chore to slog through! 5/10.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Devblog: What Inspired Your Game..?

So, I posted this in the "What Inspired Your Game" topic over on the forums, but I figure I’ll post it here as well since I think it says a lot about both this project and its sequel, Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl.

I guess I can talk about the two Sore Losers games a bit…
Both Sore Losers and Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl have a setting that is heavily inspired by the movie Escape From New York, in that all criminals have been sent to a locked-down urban area to fend for themselves as opposed to the state maintaining proper prisons. Secondary inspirations for the setting include Final Fantasy 7 and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter because both of these games have dystopian societies where slums feature prominently, although in those two games the slums aren’t there for the sake of criminals. Another inspiration would be the Streets of Rage games, a game that is referenced heavily in the original Sore Losers in homage to how much I love that series(1).
That the original Sore Losers has lots of "one-off" minigames (sniping, chase sequences, helicopter flying, a Frogger minigame(2) and others) is inspired by the three PS1 Final Fantasy games (7, 8 and 9). All of those titles contained plenty of "one-off" minigames that broke up the standard JRPG gameplay. FF7 was especially great at integrating those segments into the storyline (snowboarding, motorcycling, marching, the hypothermia section etc.) and so that’s what I sought to emulate with Sore Losers. I think the result was hit-and-miss based on reviews, but I’m going to try to take those criticisms and use them to create better "one-off" minigames for Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl, which will follow in the same tradition.
Both Sore Losers and Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl also focus quite heavily on "recurring" mini-games (lockpicking, hacking, hotwiring, smashing and others(3)) and this was largely inspired by the minigames seen in Fallout 3, where lockpicking and hacking also feature prominently(4). My original concept for the hacking minigame in Sore Losers was actually a complete rip-off of the hacking minigame in Fallout 3, which based on reviews might have been a better choice than the maths-based minigame I ended up with! Fortunately for you guys, the hacking minigame in Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl will be vastly different based on the those same reviews!
Graphically, I’d say that the original Sore Losers was mostly inspired by another RPGMaker game, The Burning Grail. The credits sequence at the end of Sore Losers is an homage to the excellent, excellent opening sequence contained within that game. You could also say that the movement system in Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl is inspired by The Burning Grail, although it probably owes more to multiple point-and-click adventure titles (without the actual point-and-click because RM2K3). The graphics used in Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl aren’t inspired by anything other than my wish to make the game look more "cyberpunk" than Sore Losers did; I never really got across the "cyberpunk" stylings I wanted in the original Sore Losers, something deftly pointed out by Darken in his review of the game.
(1) Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl was originally thought-up as being a cross between a JRPG and a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, but it somehow ended up as a cross between a JRPG and a point-and-click adventure game. Probably because I wanted to use RM2K3 and the idea of making a side-scrolling beat ‘em up in RM2K3 scares the pants off me. It is still something I’d like to do though!
(2) The "Frogger" minigame in the original Sore Losers eventually evolved into Frog, The Collector, which is one of my other titles. That game also takes inspiration from Pacman and similar arcade classics.
(3) Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl is actually going to have loads more "recurring" minigames thanSore Losers.
(4) Did you know that the Bethesda Fallout games were originally going to have a surgery minigame for healing crippled limbs? Imagine Surgeon Simulator but via a Pipboy. It was cut to help the pacing of battles, which was probably the correct decision.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Devblog: Riot Grrrl's Lockpicking and Hotwiring


It wouldn't be a Sore Losers game without a lockpicking minigame... right? Well here it is, and I'm sure people who played the original Sore Losers will recognise most of the graphical assets used. 

I originally only made the control overlay at the bottom, but it thought it looked kinda silly since it covered up parts of the puzzle being attempted. That's when I decided that intentionally cutting off a significant portion of the puzzle would probably look more aesthetically pleasing, whilst also making the minigame more difficult without me really having to change anything! 

The chipset needs updating to fit the Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl style a little more (it's still the same as it was in Sore Losers so it does need a change) and I'll probably do that next. Then I'll need to apply the changes to all the other lockpicking puzzles in the game, as well as adding more of them since the game definitely doesn't have enough of them. 

... workworkwork. 


Some people said they didn't like the hotwiring minigame from the Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl demo so I decided to modify it. I didn't want to take a completely different direction with the minigame because I still wanted to keep the key element (picking "wires" from one side and matching them to another side) and so I went with something that should be a familiar concept to people: 

I think it speaks for itself. The game lets you pick a tile from the left and then lets you try to match it with one on the right. The tiles on each side are completely randomised each time you attempt (or re-attempt!) the minigame in a given area, and the process repeats until you've either matched all the tiles or you've ran out of attempts (attempts only deplete if you give a wrong answer!). The game will give you 12 attempts initially, but this will be reduced as the game goes on. It's basically a memory test, I guess :) 

*You have no idea how many lines of eventing it takes to randomise the bloody tiles. Holy fuck. I'm glad it's completely copy-pastable now it works else I might've had to shoot myself.