Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Costume Quest

Double Fine branches away from the two genres its big names are best known for - point-and-click adventures and quirky action games - to craft a turn based RPG experience with a heavy emphasis on collectibles.  But does Costume Quest deliver the goods, or is this just another forgettable outing for the genre?

Double Fine's first foray into the RPG genre didn't draw too many eyes at first, seeming to deviate from their usual style of writing and design to deliver something a lot more "kiddified" and simple, which was seen as a disappointment given the fact that this was a company known for genre-defying titles like Brutal Legend and Psychonauts, which combined innovative gameplay with a unique, quirky sense of humor that lent them a lot of charm in spite of their technical shortcomings.

Those who actually played Costume Quest, however, found a game of considerable worth.  While the game does obviously draw inspiration from 16-bit RPGs in its overall design, it does not fall into the trap that so many "homage" titles do by limiting itself to that era's design sensibilities and refusing to distinguish itself in any way.

Case in point, the game's primary inspiration is evident right off the bat.  Your character is tasked with collecting parts of various costumes which, when fully assembled, often grant them the ability to reach new areas through the use of map abilities, slightly reminiscent of games like Zelda or Metroid.  For example, the spaceman costume has a glowing sword that can light up dark areas and allow you to pass through, while the knight costume has a shield that allows the player to move through hazardous areas they normally couldn't.

In combat, however, these costumes serve a very different role, with the playable characters transforming into their costumed counterparts (with an anime-styled transformation scene, no less) and granted different stats and special abilities depending on the costume they have equipped.  The robot costume, for example, has a strong physical attack and a special move that hits all enemies in play, while the statue of liberty costume has an ability that heals the entire party for a moderate amount.  The player can also collect and equip "stamps" that grant extra abilities or stat boosts, such as increasing one's attack power, boosting maximum HP or granting abilities that can stun enemies for a turn, making combat in the game somewhat reminiscent of like Final Fantasy V by fitting the playable characters into distinct archetypes, but also allowing them to customize their party to a degree in order to give themselves an edge.

Combat is somewhat more limited in Costume Quest than in most RPGs, however.  There are no items to use to heal the party or damage enemies, nor is there a dedicated "defend" command to reduce damage enemies inflict at the cost of being able to take no action.  These equivalents are instead limited to specific costumes, which makes one's chosen loadout before a fight able to easily make or break one's success in any given battle.  Thankfully, the player can run from any battle they encounter (even bosses) in order to change up their loadout or, in extreme circumstances, gain an extra level or two to defeat a particularly stubborn enemy group.  Of course, mastering the minigame mechanics for each costume to deal extra damage or reduce damage taken (typically timed button presses or rapid button presses/stick movements to fill a bar) and landing preemptive sneak attacks for a bit of extra aid tends to help as well.

Of course, being a downloadable game originally built for the Xbox 360, it was designed with the platform's achievement system in mind.  To that end there are more than a few collect-a-thon quests in the game; some required (like trick-or-treating at all the houses in an area) while others are optional (finding six kids in each zone and completing the apple-bobbing minigame three times).  These add a bit of longevity to the game, as well as granting some bonus experience points and occasionally a new stamp or costume component to collect to expand one's options for combat.  Unlike most games built around achievements, however, Costume Quest's side missions never feel overly padded or annoying and mostly serve to complement the experience rather than dragging it down into the realm of tedious "content for the sake of content", so I never minded doing them.

In the end, Costume Quest is a simple, yet charming and entertaining game that carries a sense of fun throughout.  While it utilizes some elements of 16-bit RPGs in its design (most particularly Mario RPG and Final Fantasy V), it does quite a bit to set itself apart as well, and the end result is a short but engaging title.  It's certainly not going to set the world on fire, but ~$10 gets you a few hours of silly, light-hearted entertainment that's perfect for the Halloween season.

Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: THQ, Double Fine Productions
Platform: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Mac OS X, Linux, iOS, Android
Released:  2010, 2013, 2015
Recommended version:  All versions seem to be more or less identical, though the mobile ports obviously use a touchscreen interface rather than a keyboard or controller, and the DLC chapter "Grubbins on Ice" is a free inclusion in all but the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 releases.  Fans of physical releases can track down a DVD copy (released through THQ's Valu-Soft line) that contains the Windows, OS X and Linux versions on a single disc, all DRM-free.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Phantasy Star Online

The first game to offer an MMORPG-like experience on a home console, built by the ever-ambitious but headstrong Sega and released on the system most emblematic of that philosophy, the Dreamcast.  But does this game still deliver some dungeon-crawling fun, or is this one product of its time that should be remembered only as exactly that?

(This review will primarily address the original Dreamcast release, as that is the one I'm most familiar with.  Later versions added in extra classes, missions and various gameplay tweaks)

Sega's Dreamcast brought a lot of firsts to the table, but its most prominent feature was that it was the first home console to feature online play in an official capacity; for the first time, players could log onto servers set up by a major game company and play their games with other players across the world.  By allowing players to experience titles simple arcade action-puzzlers (Chu-Chu Rocket) to games like Quake 3 Arena on a more affordable platform, the Dreamcast was instrumental in bridging the gap between PC and console gaming.

Naturally, the next step in this process was to deliver an MMORPG-like experience on the system, and for that, Sega turned to their most well-known RPG franchise, Phantasy Star.  While largely unconnected to the classic Phantasy Star series on the Master System and Genesis, Online nevertheless carried on its science fantasy theme and general aesthetic style, changing up the gameplay to be more action-oriented and allowing up to four players to party together and fight their way through the game's dungeons and quests.  Better still, characters could be carried over between online and offline play, allowing the player to still level up their characters and gain resources offline when the servers or their friends were unavailable.

Like many early MMORPGs, however, the underlying experience was a bit lacking outside of the appeal of playing with friends online.  PSO's gameplay is rather simple overall, basically being a simplistic beat-em-up with some RPG elements on top.  Melee attacks are especially emblematic of this, mostly consisting of simple combinations comprised of weak and strong attacks that can hit up to three times in a row with timed button presses.  Gun weapons operate on a similar principle, but hit at range, while spells can be used as healing, defensive boosts or single large-scale attacks that deal damage to groups of enemies at at a time.  Of course, they also require plenty of magic-restoring items to make them a viable build.  Enemy AI isn't much for strategy either, generally just slowly advancing toward the players and launching attacks whenever they're in range.  Bosses are slightly more complex, but still rather one-note and predictable, making the overall gameplay rather generic.

Character customization is another major part of these kinds of games, and Phantasy Star Online actually does offer a fair bit in that regard.  There are nine playable classes in the base version, each of which has several different cosmetic options and skins to utilize, and the player is given one of ten "section IDs" depending upon their name input, which in turn affect what rare item drops they are eligible to receive from certain enemies.  While these characters still fall into one of three relatively flat archetypes (fighter, ranger and mage-type characters), there are some minor variations between them; the RAcaseal (android) variation of the Ranger, for example, cannot use any spells, but can see traps without the use of items and generally has higher HP and defense, while the HUnewearls have generally lower stats than other fighter types, but are the most versatile as they can cast almost any spell and use a wide range of weapons.

One can also tweak their gameplay style slightly through the use of a particular piece of equipment.  Each player begins the game with a "Mag", a creature which can be fed items in order to power them up, which in turn boosts the player's stats and gives them the ability to occasionally release a special ability with a variety of effects; generally either dealing significant damage to all enemies in the area or temporarily boosting one's entire party.  A few hidden variants on Mags also exist in the game, generally resembling other Sega characters (such as Opa-Opa or Doctor Robotnik).

With such simple gameplay, the player's primary motivation in the game isn't necessarily to just win it, as there really isn't a lot to the main quest; it primarily consists of four large, semi-randomized dungeons and a few optional side-quests along the way (with more available as free downloads, though most were only available if the system's language was set to Japanese).  Much like Diablo II and similar games, much of the game's higher-level experience consists of farming specific enemy types and bosses in search of stronger equipment in order to make one's character build as powerful as possible.  And since some item drops only appear at very specific times of day, or require certain rare enemies to spawn, and even then have odds of one in several thousand to actually appear, one can imagine how tedious and frustrating this can get to be after a while.

Of course, one also cannot speak about Phantasy Star Online without also mentioning what a nightmare it was to play online.  In its heyday, the PSO servers were absolutely rife with hackers and exploiters; through Gamesharks and save editors, weapons were hacked to have absurdly high stats, "player killers" ran rampant by abusing a glitch that caused their healing spell to do negative amounts of healing (effectively damaging everyone in its range enough for an immediate kill) and, most deviously, character files were hacked to have 0 HP or be completely overwritten with those of a weak NPC named "NOL", effectively taking characters that took hundreds of hours to build up and wiping them out in an instant, or making them completely inaccessible.  Worse, Sega made no attempt to rein this in whatsoever, only banning the systems of people who were guilty of lesser crimes like giving themselves banned weapons (Egg Blasters and hacked Spread Needles) and letting the rest run rampant.  Well, unless you bought "Version 2", of course... which also had a $10 a month subscription fee.  Basically, unless you played exclusively with close friends, PSO's online functionality was a minefield; not a good prospect for the long-term enjoyment of any online game.

At the end of the day, Phantasy Star Online is what it is - the first MMORPG on a major home console, and an interesting piece of history as a result.  However, its simplistic, grind-heavy gameplay and nearly twenty years of improvement since its release have effectively quashed its long-term appeal.  Genre fans may wish to give it a brief look for its historical value, but those looking for a massive multiplayer online experience have many better options today, whether they prefer a cooperative, competitive or storyline-oriented experience.

Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Dreamcast, Gamecube, Xbox, PC
Released:  2001, 2002, 2003, 2005
Recommended version:  If you can find a copy, Blue Burst (PC) is the definitive release, adding in a new episode as well as improved visuals and controls over the others, and it can even still be played online through third-party servers.  Otherwise, your best bet may be the second Gamecube version ("Episodes 1 and 2 Plus"), which features four player local co-op in splitscreen mode, several new quests and a handful of bug fixes.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Undertale

A small-budget indie RPG made in Gamemaker Studio that draws much inspiration from Earthbound and even has some CRPG-like elements to its design. But does Undertale provide a memorable experience on par with the game that inspired it, or does it just fall prey to its engine's limitations?

In an era where the term "innovative" gets thrown around to describe any weak gimmick a generic first person shooter uses to distinguish itself from the 347 other FPSes released that year, it probably doesn't immediately draw anyone's eye when Undertale is touted as an innovative game.  That said, Undertale is one of the few games truly worthy of the moniker; while it does follow the JRPG format with its heavy emphasis on character development and the overall style of its combat system, it puts so many twists on both elements that it creates something truly distinct and memorable.

This is probably most prominent at first in the game's combat system.  While at first it appears rather mudane with its basis in random encounters and its turn-based nature, the actual mechanics of it quickly show themselves to be very unique.  The ability to do more damage with well-timed attacks (with the player pressing them as they sweep across the center of a large target) isn't particularly new, but the means by which the player avoids damage certainly is.  Each turn, the player is placed in the center of a "bullet board" and must evade patterns of projectiles for a few seconds; each time the heart representing them touches one, they will take damage.  These projectile patterns for each type of enemy the player encounters, and when encountering two enemies of a different type their bullet patterns will often be combined together, making their attacks more challenging to avoid.  Other elements are gradually introduced as well, such as green projectiles that will actually heal the player, blue projectiles that the player can only avoid by keeping their heart icon still, or orange projectiles that require them to be moving in order to avoid damage.

This element gets played up in various creative ways throughout the game, most especially in the boss battles; not only do these frequently force you to contend with fast-moving waves of bullets (oftentimes reminiscent of a bullet hell shooter), but they work in other gimmicks as well; the battle with Undyne, for example, locks your icon in place and forces you to "block" incoming attacks by placing a shield between yourself and them.  These are inevitably easy to pick up at first, but the game quickly ramps up efforts to keep the player on their toes; while it is easy enough to block a series of incoming attacks from four directions, Undyne will quickly start firing "backwards" projectiles at you as well, forcing you to quickly switch to the other side in order to successfully avoid damage.  The patterns also progressively get faster as the battle goes on, with projectiles and backwards ones being intermixed together, requiring some truly honed reflexes and memorization to succeed.  Numerous gameplay change-ups occur throughout the other boss battles as well, and I'd be doing a disservice to list them all, as they give each of the fights a very distinct challenge and feel.

Another unique element for the game, and especially for Japanese-styled RPGs, is the fact that the player can effectively be a pacifist throughout the adventure and not kill a single monster or person they encounter.  This extends even to the game's minor enemies, who can all be "spared" through various dialog interactions.  One example is Aaron the seahorse; the player defeats by flexing, eventually causing him to "flex himself out of the room" and fly offscreen, effectively leaving the fight.  The process of sparing varies heavily for each enemy one encounters, but all of them (even bosses) can be defeated non-lethally by puzzling out a selection of dialog choices, or simply lasting long enough in the fight.  During the Undyne fight, for example, the player cannot run away while their heart icon is purple, so they must avoid attacks until Undyne releases them from that status, at which point they can flee from the fight.

Fitting the general quirkiness of the game's design, Undertale is replete with a very colorful cast of characters.  Fitting the Earthbound inspiration, they each manage to be very over-the-top and silly while also retaining a surprising sincerity and charm to them.  From the pun-cracking skeletons Papyrus and Sans (who each talk in their respective typefaces) to spiders that run a bake sale to dogs wearing huge suits of armor (somehow...) to murderous flowers, Undertale's world is a wild one that is a joy to experience throughout.  Also similarly to Earthbound, the game retains an overall simple visual style seemingly inspired by newspaper comic strips but still puts it to great use, utilizing the minimal color palette and a sense of depth to deliver some very distinct and eye-catching visuals throughout.  The soundtrack draws much from its inspiration as well, delivering a plethora of simple, yet distinct and memorable songs for each location as well as some amazing battle tracks that perfectly complement the crazier fights (my personal favorite being Muffet's).

Undertale takes another unique step by offering a true sense of freedom and consequence that few other RPGs do; even big-budget games that claim to offer such choice these days rarely do, usually not even garnering an alternate line of dialog from NPCs in most circumstances.  However, Undertale most definitely succeeds at this experience; the game tracks all of your actions throughout the game, giving you some very different dialog in some scenes.  Similarly, characters will react differently to you depending on dialog choices you've made and whether you've spared or killed past bosses, which can result in some fights and scenes you wouldn't normally see if you'd made the other choice.  Ultimately, this tailors the experience quite differently to the player's game style and giving them one of three distinct endings (with a few different variations of each).  Choices the player has made in previous playthroughs will even carry over into new ones, resulting in some different scenes and lines of throughout and giving an otherwise short game some significant replay value.

In an era of cookie-cutter JRPG games that prey on nostalgia and "choice-driven" RPGs that mostly just boil down to which character you're going to romance in a particularly cringe-worthy manner or what color the screen will be tinted during the one ending cutscene, Undertale providing a gaming experience that beats out both camps' defining features.  While still recognizable as a Japanese-styled RPG, it provides enough of a fresh twist on the format that it remains a fresh and engaging experience throughout, and it never falls into the trap of forcing the player into tedious grinding to pad out game time.  Big-budget "choice-driven" games are equally beaten at their own gimmick by giving the player the freedom to explore this world as they see fit, with their choices having a genuine change on the story they see unfold and even allowing them to drastically alter the fate of the world they find themselves in.  Hell, it even effectively lampoons the awful, stilted romances of other games with some ridiculous "dating scenes" of its own, turning that entire lousy trope on its head and providing plenty of laughs to boot.  A game that perfectly balances the "video gamey" element of its design with its strong storytelling, Undertale is a standout title and, I dare say, one of the finest games in the genre.

Developer: Toby Fox, 8-4 Ltd (PS4/Vita ports)
Publisher: Toby Fox, 8-4 Ltd (PS4/Vita ports)
Platform: PC, Linux, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita
Released: 2015, 2017
Recommended version:   The PS4 and Vita ports have a slight bit of added content in the "Dog Shrine", an optional area that just provides a few extra jokes as well as the majority of the game's trophies.  Otherwise, all versions of the game are pretty much identical.