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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line

The second in the Dragon Quest series, noted for greatly expanding upon the original game in almost every way it was possible to.  But did it prove to be a worthwhile RPG adventure for 8-bit RPG players, or was this just overshadowed by other contemporary games?

Dragon Warrior was a modest success in North America (in no small part thanks to a Nintendo Power promotion giving away copies of the game for free), but a monstrous success in Japan, so naturally, a sequel was inevitable.  Several sequels, actually, as the franchise continues to this day, spawning a number of spinoffs and side-games that all expand upon the original format in various ways.  The core series has remained relatively constant in design, though, only getting modest updates and maintaining the same overall minimal design philosophy.

Still, it had to make significant leaps and bounds forward in some places, and Dragon Quest II may just be the series' most prominent example of that.  This is evident right from the get-go, as the first thing you see upon starting is a fairly lengthy cutscene depicting the fall of the kingdom of Moonbrooke, with a single surviving soldier escaping to tell the king of Midenhall what happened.  The player is then given control of the Prince of Midenhall and sets out on an adventure to defeat the evil Hargon.

A world-spanning one in this case, as the action in Dragon Warrior II is no longer confined to a single island, but a world map roughly four times the size of the original.  The game is largely traversed on foot at first, but later in the game one unlocks the ability to teleport between specific points by unlocking teleporters across the planet, as well as sailing on the ocean via the ship (lending a nonlinear element to the proceedings).  Dungeons are significantly longer too, as well as tougher, with quite a few more traps and puzzles to solve to make your way through.  One also has the option to gamble in a few places too, which can earn the player some extra cash and prizes while giving them a short reprieve from constant battles for that purpose.

Going further, the game is no longer a quest undertaken by a single character.  Instead there are now three playable characters, with the Prince of Midenhall primarily being a melee fighter with the ability to equip heavy armor and the strongest weapons, but unable to cast any spells.  The Prince of Cannock joins later and is primarily a supportive character, being only an okay fighter but able to cast healing and supportive spells.  Finally, the Princess of Moonbrooke is the weakest of the three physically, but can cast powerful spells that quickly wipe out enemies.  This lends a bit more variety to the game than the original, as they also have quite a few more spells than were seen in the original game.

Naturally, enemies now appear in larger groups too - sometimes six or seven in a single battle, with enemies often taking on similar roles to those seen in the party.  Bigger hard-hitting types are often seen with HP-restoring "Healers", and a line of strong enemies can be backed by a caster that deals heavy damage and is generally more of a threat than his protectors.  The Wizardry influence is definitely felt here - both from the variety of enemies you face and just the general design of the UI, which consists mostly of windows and monster sprites on a solid black background.  One slightly annoying element is that the player can only target specific groups of enemies and not individual units within that group, which can lead to you spreading out your attacks and enemies getting more turns in.  Magic that targets entire groups does mitigate this to a small degree, but as in many JRPGs, you'll probably want to conserve the majority of it for bosses.

Like the original game, though, Dragon Quest II is a very grindy experience, requiring you to stop at several points and power up before you're tough enough to overcome a dungeon or a particularly irritating boss - a rather lengthy process as most enemies give very little in the way of experience.  It can also get particularly frustrating in some areas, particularly toward the end.  One prominent example in my mind is the final dungeon, which is a lengthy maze of rooms that one must enter in a very specific way - one wrong turn sends you all the way back to the start to try again.  But even worse than that is the final dungeon itself - while relatively straightforward, it is packed to the brim with encounters containing enemies that destroy themselves to instantly kill one of your characters, and if they happen to hit your healer, your run is pretty much ruined as you have no way to revive him (aside from a leaf of the Yggdrasil tree, which you are only allowed to have one of at a time).  Basically, it doesn't matter how much you level up before coming here - getting to the boss relatively intact is just a matter of pure luck.  Thankfully, most remakes of the game do at least throw you a bone here by giving the Princess a revive spell as well, so you can bounce back, even if at a considerable cost.

In short, Dragon Quest 2 is a logical extension of the first, adding a bit onto everything - a bigger world, more characters, more varied enemies and tactics, and quite a bit more challenge.  It doesn't stray far from what made the original game popular, but that's part of the appeal for its fans, and for a game that dates all the way back to 1987, it was still quite novel to see a game with depth and longevity rivaling a PC RPG on a console.  It may not be my favorite game of the era to revisit or even my favorite Dragon Quest game, but it's a fun piece of history and a decent RPG in its own right.

Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Enix
Platform: NES, MSX, MSX2, SNES, Game Boy Color, Mobile, Wii, Android, iOS, 3DS, PS4, Switch
Released: 1987, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1999, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2019
Recommended Version:  I'd recommend one of the remakes over the original release as they are reworked to be considerably less grindy and more balanced than the original release.  The most easily-found one nowadays is probably the Switch or Android/iOS versions.

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Grindfest, Save Only at Checkpoints, Long Campaign, Great Music, Humorous

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Wild Arms

One of the earliest RPGs for the Playstation to get critical acclaim, as well as one of the first RPGs on the platform in the west, period.  But does Wild Arms still prove to be an entertaining title, or is this one that's simply overshadowed by what came later?

Early Playstation adopters that were fans of RPGs found themselves in a tight spot; Sony, itching to show off the 3D and media playback capabilities of the platform, was famously averse to releasing RPGs on the system and games with 2D graphics, which didn't bode particularly well for genre fans.  However, they did eventually relented on this policy, allowing games like Suikoden, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Wild Arms to be released and finally giving fans something better to play than Beyond the Beyond (shudder).

Because of that, Wild Arms quickly made itself into a fan favorite, as it maintained much of the feel of a good 16-bit RPG in its design.  Colorful and detailed visuals with 2D sprites, a surprisingly strong soundtrack, and dungeons that shared elements with the classic Zelda games, having the player use a variety of "tools" to clear obstacles and solve puzzles in order to make their way through.  Bombs to blow up rocks, grappling hooks to cross over gaps, a lighter to burn things and lamps, and even Jack's sidekick, a mouse named "Hanpan" that can cross over gaps to activate switch and safely open trapped chests.  As one would expect, more of these are unlocked as the story progresses, keeping the puzzles varied and fresh throughout.

Wild Arms for the most part is a linear adventure, though one element that set it apart from some is that its main characters have a small solo introductory quest before the main story proper begins, giving the player an introduction to their character, motives and unique mechanics.  After that they travel together for much of the game, though there is the odd dungeon here and there that requires them to split up and solve puzzles separately so that the others can advance (with the player able to swap between them at set points).  While there are only three playable characters in Wild Arms, they do have quite distinct abilities.  Rudy is a relatively well-rounded character in terms of stats, but cannot magic.  However, he does wield ARMs, which have a limited number of shots and are consistently expensive to upgrade, but are quite powerful.  Jack utilizes a number of sword-based techniques that inflict elemental damage, status effects and have other special traits.  Cecelia utilizes both offensive and supportive magic, though in a somewhat unconventional way - rather than simply learning spells through levels or as the story dictates, one finds "Crest Graphs" as they adventure, which can be used to pick any of 32 spells (which later expands to 64).  These can also be cleared and reused, so essentially, you don't learn new spells as much as you expand how many you can utilize at a time.

Combat is a traditional turn-based system, but works in a few twists of its own.  As an odd contrast to the overworld and dungeons, which use 2D graphics, combat scenes are rendered entirely in 3D, with a constantly-panning camera to give the action a more dynamic feel.  Another prominent element of its design which would become a series staple is the Force meter, which fills each time a character takes an action or is hit by an attack, and enables special abilities to be used.  Rudy can fire his ARMs with 100% accuracy, for example, while Jack can take his turn first regardless of the other combatants' speed (an important tactic in some battles).  Cecelia has an interesting one too, able to pick an item and "draw magic from it" - for consumables, this usually means giving their healing/restorative effects to all allies rather than just one, while with weapons and armor it can cast various spell effects without using MP - dealing damage, putting up defensive barriers and so forth.  More of these are unlocked as the story progresses, though one common to all three characters is the ability to summon Guardians from runes, which often perform powerful elemental attacks in exchange for 50% of the Force gauge.  In addition, once the bar fills up to 100%, this activates "Condition Green", instantly clearing any status effects on the character, so it is beneficial to store power at times and not just spend it whenever you get the chance to perform a powerful attack.

Wild Arms is also noteworthy for having more bells and whistles than many other RPGs of the period.  Taking the window customization options from Final Fantasy even further, one can actually edit them pixel-by-pixel with the game's built-in editor and even save them to their memory card, keeping it throughout that entire playthrough if they wish.  This even extends to the UI icons too, so if you find the standard ones to be a bit hard to read, you can go ahead and make your own.  It's also the only RPG franchise I know of to have its own built-in screensaver, which the player can even set the timer for (defaulting to five minutes).  Between that and the quite well-composed music, it is a little odd that Wild Arms also utilizes so many stock sound effects, though I was rather amused at hearing a lot of sounds also featured in games like Doom and various cartoons from the era.

It isn't hard to see why Wild Arms retains a considerable following.  While it would soon be overshadowed by the monstrously popular Final Fantasy VII, it provided a solid, entertaining RPG experience for early Playstation adopters.  Its mechanics had enough new twists to set them apart but stayed familiar enough for those who got into the genre in the 16-bit era, while its strong presentation and a fun, surprisingly detailed story were enough to engage those looking for a game to take advantage of their expensive new Playstation console's hardware capabilities.  I hadn't given it much of a chance until relatively recently, but I can see that I was missing out on something great.  And with the advent of the Playstation Network and the Playstation Classic microconsole, other RPG fans can give it a shot too for a very affordable price.

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 1, Playstation Network, Playstation Classic
Released: 1997
Recommended Version: The PSN and Playstation Classic rereleases are direct emulations of the original game.

Tags: JRPG, Science Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Optional Minigames, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music

Monday, February 3, 2020

Dragonball Z: Kakarot

Billed as an action-RPG for Dragonball fans, and it certainly does its best to deliver on that, though some of these elements were overstated in marketing.  But is this still a game worth a look for genre fans, or is this one just for the die-hard fans of the manga/anime franchise?

There have been many Dragonball games over the years owing to the franchise's explosive popularity in the '80s and '90s, and due to its subsequent international releases and a recent revival of the series in Dragonball Super, it remains one of the most successful anime franchises of all time even today.  The most recent of these, and one that saw a fair bit of hype before its release, was Cyberconnect2's Dragonball Z: Kakarot.  Billed as an open-world RPG, and utilizing their flair for over-the-top action and animations as seen in games like Asura's Wrath, it certainly generated quite a bit of buzz.

The gameplay is not quite as open-ended as that description would suggest, but they did make efforts to have it feel like such a game in many respects.  The story is primarily based on the second series, Dragonball Z, though some moments from the original are viewable as collectible items strewn throughout the world (primarily in key story locations).  While not one large contiguous game world, the maps you're taken to are quite expansive and have plenty of things to do in them, and there is a fairly extensive crafting system, allowing you to hunt and fish in order to collect components to create meals for temporary stat boosts.  One also curiously has the ability to find spare parts and assemble a hovercar  - not particularly useful as transportation seeing as you can fly at rather absurd speeds, but they can be used in a racing minigame at least.

The game is also mostly linear from a storytelling point, though you're given some opportunity to free-roam between missions and complete side-quests - some in the form of side-stories, but most in the form of roaming the map to find collectibles.  Orbs, crafting items and destroyable Red Ribbon towers that grant some bonus items can also be discovered.  One can also visit training grounds to unlock new moves once you're powerful enough to overcome the battles within them, though these tend to only become available between significant moments in the story.  It is even possible to grind a level or two by fighting random enemy spawns, though these tend to be relatively inefficient for leveling; generally you're better off just buying a few recovery items and then fighting story battles, as characters tend to gain several levels from those instead of having to fight a couple dozen random encounters on the overworld.  Moreso as character skill growth is quite stifled by this - the overwhelming majority of skills aren't unlocked (or upgradable) until you hit certain story beats, so there's little point to grinding.  Once nice touch, though, is that dashing into an enemy significantly weaker than the player will cause an instant defeat, awarding the player the experience without a fight (a similar mechanic was employed in Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance).

A relatively creative element of the game is the Community Boards, which are the main incentive to complete the various sidequests one encounters in the game.  By doing so one will frequently earn character tokens, which can then be placed on one of several "Community Boards" to unlock bonuses - generally a small boost to all characters' stats, slightly lower prices in shops, extra bonuses from cooking meals and healing items, and so forth.  Each token has different starting and maximum stats (boostable by using items), and when certain combinations are placed in linked slots on the same board, one can earn a substantial number of bonus points.  Befitting the universe of Dragonball, there are quite a large number of these (over 100 at a quick estimate), and maxing them all out will take quite a bit of doing, so it's a large and game-spanning sidequest.

But of course, no Dragonball game would be complete without over-the-top, high-flying combat, and Dragonball certainly delivers on that front.  The action takes place in real-time, though if you press a button to bring up the special attack or assist combo menu, it goes into slow motion to give you time to read and select what you want.  One can block and dodge attacks, as well as spend a significant amount of their energy meter to perform a quick counter - breaking away from a blocking state to zip behind the enemy and land a heavy blow on them.  Firing energy attacks around constantly isn't a good idea as enemies will frequently dodge them - instead they're best used as combo finishers, or when you whittle down an enemy's stun bar through persistent melee attacks.  While you only control one character at a time, others may help you out in a fight, and you can team up with them once their gauge fills to do a combo animation or multi-pronged energy attack for significant damage.  While most of the weaker foes can simply be mashed through, story battles generally require a bit more thought - oftentimes they'll unleash lengthy attack animations that you'll simply have to avoid and wait out, but more often, they can go into an unstunnable state and, if you keep attacking, they'll generally knock you back, cause a stun and then do a big attack for hefty damage.  Basically, knowing when to attack, attack at range, and retreat are all key factors.

So yes, combat certainly matches the feel of the show overall, and is quite a bit more strategic than I expected it to be.  Terrain even gets deformed while you fight, with some parts (mostly mountains and trees) getting smashed to rubble as characters and attacks collide with them, so that's a nice touch.  However, I think some key parts of this could have been better implemented.  One can enter one of several powered-up states (Kaioken, Super Saiyan, etc) as they become available in the story, though these often tend to be more trouble than they're worth, as they rapidly drain your HP and energy meters for only a marginal boost in damage output.  As they also don't seem to significantly affect enemies' stun meters or hamper their ability to launch into their lengthy attacking animation states, I found it was more practical to just stay in base form and use standard combos and the occasional beam attack as a finisher.  Many beam attacks also feel underpowered for a good portion of the game, costing large amounts of energy but doing relatively little damage; I still used them as finishers, but it's a little strange to see Frieza shrug off so many Kamehamehas and Spirit Bombs, for example.

But regardless, I had quite a bit of fun with Dragonball Z: Kakarot.  While I wouldn't deem it an amazing game, it's one that has quite a bit to offer for die-hard series fans, paying homage to its story and huge universe of characters on a backdrop of humor and plenty of optional objectives to complete, as well as containing plenty of the over-the-top action that made the franchise famous.  If you're a fan of the series it's one you'll probably want to check out, but if not, well, it's one you can safely skip.

Developer: Cyberconnect2
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platform: Playstation 4, XBox One, PC
Released: 2020
Recommended Version: All versions seems to be relatively identical.

Tags: Action RPG, Science Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Real-Time Combat, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Humorous