Friday, August 11, 2017

Ys III: Wanderers from Ys

(Review is primarily based on the Sega Genesis version of the game)

Wanderers from Ys, like Zelda II before it, was Falcom's attempt to take an established overhead action-adventure franchise and rework it into something more akin to a 2D sidescrolling action-platformer.  But did their attempt fare as well as Nintendo's, or is this a new style that shouldn't have been tried in the first place?

Wanderers from Ys was not only Falcom's first attempt to create an Ys game on 16-bit platforms, but also their first attempt at reworking its gameplay into an entirely new style.  While the first two games in the franchise drew heavy inspiration from Hydlide in their overhead perspective, heavy emphasis on puzzles and combat based on enemy contact, Wanderers seemed to draw much more inspiration from Zelda II, changing the perspective to a side-scrolling one, adding a jump button and a proper attack button to give the game's combat a more active feel.

That would all be well and good were Wanderers as well-polished as Zelda II was, but sadly that was not really the case.  Combat in the game overall feels very loose and unrefined, with no after-hit invincibility for either the player or his enemies.  For much of of the game, and especially its early stages, much of the combat in the game boils down to the player swinging wildly at any approaching enemy, hoping they land enough hits to kill them before they make contact and drain a huge portion of the player's life.  This does get frustrating rather quickly, as if the player ventures just a tad too far into a dungeon or mistimes a single attack, they can easily go from full health to dead in the blink of an eye.  The experience quickly boils down to a show of extreme diligence as the player must always get the first strike on an enemy whilst being extremely careful not to overstep their bounds and engage an enemy they can't easily kill.

However, even this won't always save them, as there are frequent times where they must take a blind drop to reach a lower area, or immediately get attacked by an enemy after going up some stairs or through a door to transition through a new screen, giving them no chance to react ahead of time; in these situations, taking at least some damage is nearly unavoidable.  Boss encounters are equally unbalanced, able to wipe out the player in mere moments through contact damage or with a single barrage of projectiles hitting multiple times and draining all of the player's health in under a second, and the player may not even be able to damage them in any significant capacity without reaching a certain level of power before entering their chamber.

With all of these factors, the game as a whole is seemingly built around savescumming, having the player kill a few enemies, save their progress and move on to the next screen, trying to gradually power themselves up in order to overcome the next challenge.  Enemies tend to only give a pittance in experience and money as well, which turns Wanderers into an overly frustrating experience, particularly in its early hours.  This does ease up somewhat after the first hour or so, but by the end is back in full effect, with enemies that take massive numbers of hits to defeat even with a maxed out level and the best equipment available, and bosses that can easily drain large portions of the player's health in moments.  Simply put, the game is both too easy and too hard in the worst ways possible, with it feeling far less like a contest of skill and problem-solving and more like a gauntlet of farming mixed with tedious trial-and-error.

In spite of its rough gameplay, though, the usual Ys trademarks shine through here.  The game is very well-paced in terms of player progression, with items being appropriately priced-out to prevent the player from buying them early and gaining an unfair advantage, and leveling and gold-farming, while somewhat slow due to overly low payout for much of the game, never feels like an insurmountable task.  As per Falcom's standards, the visuals and music in the game are also fantastic, taking advantage of the platform's capabilities to deliver some very nicely-detailed backgrounds (with impressive parallax scrolling in some areas, giving an excellent sense of depth to the backdrops) and some stellar musical tracks that rank among the finest seen in the RPG genre.

To many series fans, Wanderers from Ys is something of a black sheep for the franchise.  While it attempted to change up the gameplay to that of a sidescrolling platformer, the design limitations intrinsic to that format (with every path in a dungeon either leading forward or to a dead end with a treasure chest) and the overall unbalanced combat in the game made it into an experience that is much more frustrating than fun.  It's not a terrible first attempt at a 2D action-sidescroller, but stacked up against the high standards of the rest of the series, it leaves much to be desired.   Even the series' high benchmarks for visuals, music and storytelling couldn't prevent Wanderers from being heavily maligned by franchise fans and casual gamers alike.

Developer: Nihon Falcom, Advance Communication, Alfa System, Riot, Taito
Publisher: Nihon Falcom, Renovation Products, Victor Musical Industries, American Sammy, NEC Technologies, Taito
Platform: Famicom, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx CD, Playstation 2
Released: 1989, 1991, 2005
Recommended version: Each version has some minute differences that distinguish them from the rest, but the definitive version of the game is generally considered to be the Turbografx-CD version, which features additional cutscenes, CD-quality music and tighter controls than most.  The Playstation 2 remake of rebuilds the game entirely into a much more smooth and polished one in addition to updating the visuals and music, though it is only available in Japanese. Of course, those looking for a much less frustrating experience overall should probably just skip Wanderers and check out its modern remake, Oath in Felghana, instead.

Review by spoonshiro © 2017

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished

(Review is primarily based on the Windows version of the game available on Steam)

One of the earliest examples of the action-RPG genre, as well as one of the first Japanese RPGs to get a western release as well as numerous ports and remakes.  But does the first entry in Falcom's flagship franchise still hold up today, or is this just a piece of history that should remain such?

Falcom's flagship Ys franchise has always been a bit of an unsung hero in the RPG genre.  If nothing else, one certainly wouldn't expect a franchise whose gameplay drew inspiration from Hydlide (a heavily-maligned RPG in the west) and whose games have always been built on a relatively low-budget to endure as long as it has; as of the time of this writing, the franchise has endured for over thirty years and spawned enough sequels, remakes and spinoffs to rival the biggest names in the genre.  It even marches on to this day, with Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana due for release in September across multiple platforms.

Despite its longevity, however, Ys has never attained nearly the same level of success as many other big names.  At first, this can be attributed to it only getting a series of relatively low-key releases; its first game only saw a western release on the Sega Master System, then as part of the two-game compilation "Ys: Books 1 and 2" on the Turbografx-CD.  Finally, after the unpopular Wanderers From Ys, the third game in the series released on both SNES and Sega Genesis, the franchise fell into dormancy in the west for over a decade, making a return with yet another low-key release on the Playstation 2 and PSP in Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim.  It was only a few years later that a string of remakes and sequels released on the PSP, Vita and Steam finally allowed it to gain a small foothold in the west.

However, despite many of the later games taking on more traditional RPG elements (such as a party system) and even drawing design philosophy from Zelda and Metroid by giving the player new items, allowing them to reach previously inaccessible areas they could only glance at before, the first two Ys games and their remakes have remained relatively constant in their design, retaining the touch-based combat of Hydlide and being relatively short and linear overall.

Yes, one of Hydlide's most hated elements - its combat engine, based on making contact with an enemy and hoping the dice roll in your favor - is also on display in Ys.  Thankfully, they have at least taken efforts to make it slightly less annoying.  As in Hydlide's version, one can heavily tilt the odds in their favor by attacking from specific angles; rather than coming at the enemy head-on, one generally achieves much better results by making contact with the enemy from the side or from behind.  Some of the later remakes add in the capability for diagonal movement, which makes things easier as well - attacking the enemy from an odd angle makes it much more difficult for them to immediately hit back, basing the game's combat around finding a favorable angle to strike from.

Boss fights, on the other hand, change this up considerably.  While they are still damaged with direct contact, the problem is not the angle at which you approach them, but rather weaving between their waves of projectiles to get in close enough to do so.  This tends to get progressively harder as the game goes on, with the final few fights almost resembling something from a bullet hell shooter at times.  This eventually culminates in a particularly fiendish final boss that will destroy the floor beneath you each time he takes a hit.  If you fall down a pit he creates, it's an immediate death, and if he destroys too much of the floor, he can easily box you in and pelt you to death with his projectiles while you're unable to hit him.  It's a rather nightmarish experience, especially on the higher difficulty levels.

Ys was ahead of its time in some other ways as well, requiring the player to analyze clues given to them by various NPCs in the game and carefully read item descriptions in order to solve puzzles at several points.  There are even some rudimentary sidequests in the game, such as returning a missing ring, that grant the player both extra money and even some experience points, making the experience slightly akin to a tabletop RPG that puts much more emphasis on solving problems than sheer combat (though only slightly, as the latter will still account for the vast majority of the player's gains).  There is also a relative minimum of level/money grinding in the game; the player's experience level maxes out at ten, and they're likely to reach that in relatively short order over the course of the adventure, and equipment upgrades are appropriately priced out to lend a smooth flow to the game as a whole.

Another consistent feature of Ys 1's many rereleases and remakes, and indeed almost every game in the series, is its fantastic soundtrack.  Composed by gaming music legend Yuzo Koshiro, every song in the game is very distinct and memorable, whether the low-key, relaxing atmospheric tracks of the towns or the intense, hard-driving themes of the boss battles.  For an era in which game music was still in relative infancy, Ys was arguably one of the pioneers of pushing it into something more akin to a television or movie-like experience.  It may also be one of the first instances of a "power metal" sound in gaming, which was no mean feat for the limited technology of the 1980s and early '90s.

All in all, Ys remains a very distinct and enjoyable RPG experience, serving as an important piece of history as well as just an enjoyable action-driven experience on its own.  While it does have some annoying aspects in its uneven difficulty (with some fiendishly difficult boss fights) and occasional unclear objectives, it's a short enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome or force the player into feeling hopelessly lost.  Any fan of the genre definitely owes themselves to check it out in at least some form.

Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Nihon Falcom
Platform: Sega Master System, Famicom, Turbografx-CD, PC-8801, X1, PC-9801, FM-7/77, FM-77AV, MSX2, X68000, Nintendo DS, Playstation Portable, Wii Virtual Console, PC
Released: 1987, 1988, 1989, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015
Recommended version: While all versions are the same game at their core, the later ports to the PSP and Steam (under the title of Ys Chronicles) are arguably the definitive ones, adding in numerous graphical enhancements, high-quality music and more polished analog movement to the experience.  The DS version makes substantial gameplay changes, such as utilizing an attack button setup rather than the touch combat of the other versions, and is disliked by some purists as a result.

Review by spoonshiro © 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Parasite Eve

On a platform that became famous for having games that delved into dark themes and used its media-streaming technology to effectively convey horror through video and high-quality sound, Square throws their hat into the ring with an Action-RPG inspired by games like Resident Evil.  But does this title manage to provide some fun of its own, or is this combination just too unwieldy for its own good?

Resident Evil was arguably the Playstation's most important game, kickstarting the trend of "survival horror" games which gave the player a very limited supply of resources as they attempted to solve puzzles, defeat boss monsters and make their way to safety.  This, paired with a creepy atmosphere made possible by the video and audio-streaming technologies of the Playstation, truly made the player feel as though they were trapped in a bizarre horror movie, staying alive only by the grace of quick thinking, avoiding danger whenever possible rather than trying to take it head-on and always being fearful of what dangers would come for them next.  Even with its cheesy acting, unwieldy inventory system and awkward "tank controls", it proved to be a massive success and helped steer gaming into a new era, spawning numerous copycats, spinoffs and eventually becoming Capcom's highest-selling franchise, as well as one of the best-selling video game IPs of all time.

Naturally, with a hit that big on the public consciousness, there would be many copycats of varying quality.  Square threw their own hat in with Parasite Eve, which they touted as a "cinematic RPG" that would combine elements of horror, science fiction and action into one title, as well as provide a movie-like experience with the high quality CGI that brought them fame with their earlier hit on the platform, Final Fantasy VII.  It also drew some clout by being the sequel to a well-received horror novel of the same name, continuing its themes of body horror with a supernatural bent (though the original story would be relatively unknown in the west until it was translated several years later).

The survival horror influence in Parasite Eve's design is clear from the start, with the player moving about on prerendered backgrounds, scavenging a limited supply of items from chests and locations in the environment, and having to solve the occasional puzzle in order to proceed, such as hunting for keys or finding fuses to repair a fuse box.  Of course, there are also segments that fall into predictable video game cliches, such as the similar-looking sewer maze and the story getting increasingly silly and implausible as it goes until by the end it resembles a kaiju movie much more than a survival horror title.

The overall gameplay, however, bears only a moderate resemblance to the survival horror genre.  While this is evident in the exploration aspect of the game (lacking the iconic "Tank controls" that dominated the genre), it's much more prominent in the combat system.  As in most Japanese RPGs, the game often breaks away from player wandering to take them into a combat phase with its own set of mechanics.  Parasite Eve's combat operates somewhat like a Final Fantasy game, with the player getting turns each time an "active time bar" fills up, allowing them to take a shot at an enemy with their weapon, use an item or cast one of several "Parasite Energy" spells with varying effects.  Between turns, however, the player has free movement around the field, which is important as it allows them to move about and evade enemy attacks.  These can even unfold a bit like a shoot-em-up game at times, as the player has to carefully  move their position between two enemy laser beams or position themselves behind an enemy to avoid a sweeping attack, for example.  Thus, the overall game is less about survival and much more action-driven than most games of this kind (at least until games like Resident Evil 4 became the norm).

Parasite Eve's combat finds a decent middle ground between the scripted fights of Chrono Trigger and the random battles of most RPGs of the era.  Battles occur on set screens, though the enemies within them are somewhat randomized, and another fight will not occur until the player leaves that screen and returns, giving them a bit of reign to freely explore the area and search for items.

Of course, being a Square RPG, the game puts heavy emphasis on character and equipment customization.  There are various types of weapons and armor found throughout the game, each with slightly different effects.  Pistols, for example, have decent power and ammunition capacity, but overall poor range, while rifles have longer range but much slower firing time and grenade launchers, while rather slow and only average in terms of damage, have additional effects like having a burn or freeze effect, making the more effective against certain types of enemies (and less so against others).  Armor similarly comes in multiple varieties, which have effects like "pockets" (giving the player extra inventory space), granting resistance to status effects or giving a bonus to one's maximum Parasite Energy when equipped.  Each of these can also be augmented with upgrade items one finds throughout the game - weapons get bonuses to damage, range or ammo capacity while armor gets extra defense, PE bonuses and resistance to critical hits.

The customization aspect comes in the fact that one can remove these properties from weapons and armor and snap them onto others via the use of Tools.  So if you find a new piece of armor with an effect you like but aren't impressed by its stats, you can take that ability off of that armor and attach it to your current one, effectively getting the benefits of both.  Leveling up earns the player "bonus points" that they can spend to further upgrade weapons, giving them a single point in a category of their choice at the cost of 100 points. The tradeoff to this is that when properties or bonus points are removed from a piece of equipment with a Tool, that gear is destroyed; thus, a significant part of the game's strategy is figuring out which pieces of gear are worth keeping in the long run and which ones should eventually be scrapped in favor of something better.  In instances where one piece of gear has multiple effects the player wants to carry over, they can use "Super Tools" to transfer them without destroying the original piece of gear; however, these are very few and far-between (with only three to find in the main game), so they should be used wisely.

Parasite Eve overall is a rather short game, particularly for an RPG; it clocks in at about ten hours for a first playthrough.  However, it does have another nod to its survival horror inspiration in that it attempts to introduce some replay value by unlocking new features once the main game is completed.  This comes in the form of the "EX Game", allowing the player to carry over their bonus points, keep one weapon and armor of their choice from their previous playthrough, making the enemies significantly stronger, and unlocking a new area to explore.  This comes in the form of the Chrysler Building, a 77-floor dungeon with numerous boss fights and powerful gear to collect, as well as sporting a slight "roguelike" feel in its randomized floor layouts.  The top floor is also home to a secondary final boss, and defeating them will unlock an alternate ending to the game's storyline.  This affords some extra fun for both power-gamers interested in maxing out their character's stats and more casual ones who just want to see an alternate ending for the game's story.

In the end, Parasite Eve is an odd middle ground between a survival horror title and an RPG.  While it doesn't prove to be exceptional in either area, it is nevertheless an entertaining experience and a fascinating look at the odd, experimental nature of Square and gaming as a whole in the era of its release.  If you're looking for an unconventional take on the horror genre or just a decent action-RPG title with a horror bent, give it a look.

Developer: Squaresoft
Publisher: Square Electronic Arts, Square Enix
Platform: Playstation, Playstation Network
Released: 1998, 2010
Recommended version: The Playstation Network version of the game is a direct port of the original Playstation release, so all released versions are essentially identical.

Review by spoonshiro © 2017