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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Suikoden V

After a few entries that attempted to rework the gameplay and storytelling format with decidedly mixed results, Suikoden V was a return to form for the franchise, going back to a linear narrative and a more traditional style of gameplay overall.  But does Suikoden V bring back fans that were driven away by the series' new turn, or does it just go too far in this direction and feel like a retread?

Suikoden's leap to the Playstation 2 was a mixed bag; for newcomers to the series, the third game provided a relatively fresh RPG experience with its multiple-path narrative and engrossing storyline, though long-time series fans were somewhat let down by its flagging pace and changed-up gameplay mechanics.  Suikoden IV, created after long-time series director Yoshitaka Murayama left Konami, proved to be an overall mediocre entry with a generic story and little connection to the rest of the series (being a prequel set 150 years prior to the first game).  Suikoden Tactics, while a competent spinoff, proved to be short and, again, a mixup in gameplay that more traditional RPG fans didn't care much for.

So, as franchises often do when they begin to drop in sales, Suikoden V attempted to take things back to basics with a design philosphy more in line with the first two games - traditional turn-based RPG combat, a crisper pace and a more focused storyline.  It does admirably well on the final point, showing a queendom divided between two rival factions and strife among its populace as their queen slowly slips into madness.

But while the game does go back to the style of the originals in many ways, some elements of the later games are retained as well.  The player now has the choice of several formations in basic battles, allowing them to arrange their party in various ways to gain stat bonuses and put fewer characters in harms way.  For example, the Cross formation puts only one character on point, making them the target for most enemy attacks, but grants everyone in the party a bonus to their attack.  Double Arm puts two characters on point, gives all characters in the party a small defensive boost, and enables the use of the Guardian ability, which boosts the party's defense further for a single turn.  The player starts with just one basic formation that grants no bonuses, but more are found throughout the game, both in chests and as rewards for meeting certain requirements during war battles or particular quests.

The "Convoy" position of early games (here called "Entourage"), formerly just a place to put story-relevant characters until they could serve their plot purpose, now plays a more significant role in Suikoden V.  One can have not just their basic party of six in combat, but up to four more can be part of the Entourage, with the player able to swap them with active characters mid-battle to give their party more longevity in boss battles, or versatility in dangerous areas.  This also affords ways for non-combat characters to prove useful, as several will grant bonus effects when placed in the Entourage.  Egbert, for example, will cause the party to gain more gold from combat, while Marina will allow them to restore a small amount of HP each turn.  Not all necessarily pertain directly to battle, either; for example, Shinro's ability replaces the "Drop" command in the item menu with "Trade In", allowing the player to earn money for items they drop as if they'd sold them at shops.  In various ways, all of these things make life easier for the player, allowing to earn cash and battle enemies more efficiently.

Skills are another returning element from the newer games, this time from Suikoden III.  As in that game, one can spend points earned through battle to bolster specific stats or, in the case of certain characters, unique abilities like Long Throw (giving ranged attacks a chance to hit an entire row, rather than a single target).  One also has a pool of "Party Points" that are stored separately and can be spent on any character, even those that haven't had an opportunity to see much battle yet, which can help to get weaker characters caught up (particularly later in the game).  Throughout the game, one can also find "Epic Skills" that effectively serve as all-in-one skills, bolstering multiple stats at once instead of one at a time

As in prior Suikodens, the game has three different combat systems for one-on-one duels, small-scale battles and large-scale battles.  While duels and small-scale battles remain relatively similar to the first two Suikodens (save for a few aforementioned differences), duels do have a couple of small changes.  First is that there is a time limit per turn; if no action is input within 3 seconds, the player will take a random action, which can prove hazardous to them.  The other prominent change is that if both players choose to Attack or Special attack, their attacks will clash; the player can then mash the button at this point to overpower the opponent and damage them without being harmed themselves.  Regardless, the overall strategy remains much the same - try to predict what the opponent will do based on their words, then counter it accordingly.

War battles are relatively similar to Suikoden II's, with a defined rock-paper-scissors weakness/strength hierarchy for units, though battles now work something like the Active Time Battle system in Final Fantasy, being in real-time save for when the player brings up the menu to take an action (at which point time pauses to let them make their decision).  Sea battles from IV return as well, though in a simplified format - similar to ground battles, there is a defined rock-paper-scissors heirarchy, with a few special units mixed in and individual characters' special abilities lending them unique tactics (such as healing some of their injured soldiers or damaging foes over an area of effect).

Suikoden V is a well-made game on the whole, but a few elements may be off-putting to some.  Probably the most prominent of these is the game's overall pacing, with a relatively slow start to the storyline proper (taking ~10 hours before you have a proper war battle and even longer before you get your castle), frequent load times and a rather irritating encounter rate.  Second, while the game overall has quite good production values (with nearly every character having a unique voice actor and well-animated cutscenes), the game does have a fairly drab color palette overall, with a lot of rather bland gray and brown towns and dungeons.  Even the more colorful cities, plains and forests have a relatively washed out palette, making the world feel bleaker than was probably intended.

In spite of a few shortcomings, though, Suikoden V proves to be another worthwhile entry in the series, returning its design to form for fans of the original PS1 games while working in elements of the later titles to give it broader appeal.  Its engrossing story, a large yet distinct and fun cast of characters and a surprising amount of variety lend it much appeal, as does having multiple endings and plenty of hidden secrets for diligent RPG players to enjoy.  It really is a pity that this was the last proper Suikoden game and, aside from a mediocre spinoff game on the DS, the franchise hasn't really been heard from since.

Developer: Konami, Hudson Soft
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: 2006
Recommended version: N/A
Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, ATB-Like, Random Encounters, Mechanical Minigames, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Voluminous Side Content, Long (Frequent) Load Times, Save Only at Checkpoints, Long Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Missables

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep

After two outings on the Playstation 2, a card-based spinoff for the Game Boy Advance (later remade for PS2) and a co-op multiplayer experience for the DS, Birth By Sleep marks the Kingdom Hearts franchise's first outing on the PSP, as well as a return to basics of sorts for its gameplay and overall format.  But does Birth By Sleep prove to be a worthy entry to the series, or is this just another Kingdom Hearts game that will be played once for its story and then quickly discarded?

The fifth Kingdom Hearts game in eight years (not counting rereleases and one remake) was, if nothing else, proof that a concept as weird as Disney meets Square Enix could work.  And while opinions on individual games and their mechanics are sharply divided, the franchise has remained consistently popular, with each entry selling copies in the millions and continuing its running narrative, ensuring that even if a particular game isn't to one's tastes, they're likely to buy and play through it anyway just to avoid missing out on events of the narrative.

Birth By Sleep is a very good example of this, being a prequel that takes place ten years before the first Kingdom Hearts and setting up several story elements that would become key elements of later games.  Three new protagonists take up the reins for this game - Ventus, Aqua and Terra, with each somewhat fitting the character creation archetypes of the previous games (with Ventus as a faster character, Aqua as a magic-user and Terra as the fighter, though these are certainly not set in stone).  While only one can be played at a time, each character follows a separate narrative that interweaves with the other two, effectively creating a triple-faceted narrative comparable to something like Suikoden III.

Mechanically, Birth By Sleep also goes back to basics to a large degree.   The heavy emphasis on over-the-top, juggle-heavy combat from 2 is largely gone, and the Drive ability is exhumed completely.  Instead, combat is Something of a hybrid of Kingdom Hearts 1 and Chain of Memories, though with considerably more polish.  Basic movement and attacks feel significantly more crisp instead of irritatingly sluggish, and the basic block and dodge moves are integrated into one's moveset by default (with the latter having a much larger movement range and being far more useful as a result).  Sadly, one still cannot cancel most actions mid-animation, so some diligence must be employed to ensure  you don't get stuck taking damage when you commit to an attack animation and are unable to dodge.  One also has a useful new ranged attack mapped to the R1 button; pressing this temporarily puts the player in a first-person perspective, where they can lock onto up to ten targets at once and then press the X button to launch a fast, unstoppable combination attack; while not quite as abusable as it sounds (running off a limited Focus meter that one must recharge through normal attacks), it can prove extremely handy in dealing with larger crowds or persistent, annoying enemies that like to attack at range.

Instead of the rather cumbersome command menu interface for spells and special moves, the player builds a 'deck' of commands that they can quickly cycle between via the D-pad, then activate with the Triangle button.  This allows one to quickly, for example, cast a Slow spell on a newly-spawned enemy group, then follow up with a Strike Raid ability to damage several of them before they can separate.  Others can be chained to basic actions such as Block to enable new abilities, like the ability to parry an incoming attack and then immediately follow up with an invincible counter-move.  Rather than running off an MP bar, each individual command in one's deck runs off a cooldown meter, with more powerful commands generally taking longer to recharge.  Landing hits and using commands will fill a gauge at the top of the HUD, and once it fills completely, one will enter a "Surge" mode that bolsters the player's attack and grants them a powerful finisher at the end of a combo; however, failing to attack enemies for a short period will rapidly deplete the gauge, so the player is encourage to constantly keep on the move, defeat enemies and use their commands efficiently to maximize their damage output.

Adding further to this, using certain commands in sequence will put the player into a powered-up state known as a Command Style, with more being unlocked as the game progresses.  For example, Terra can enter a style called Critical Impact by utilizing several physical attack Commands in sequence; this powers up his normal attacks and gives him a powerful combo finisher that emits a large shockwave, damaging anything in its range.  Later on he will unlock the Diamond Dust Command Style, which is triggered by utilizing ice-based commands (spells and otherwise); this one puts more emphasis on dealing damage over a larger radius, making it better for dealing with groups of weaker enemies.  Many of these exist, and while some are exclusive to particular characters, it is fun to try them all out and see which ones will suit you best in any given situation, customizing your Command deck accordingly.

In addition to one's own Command decks, progressing through the story will have characters forming "Dimension Links" with other characters.  These essentially serve as premade command decks that temporarily replace the player's, giving them a tie to various Disney characters (and the other two main protagonists) as well as new, unique finishers and the ability to do things like heal oneself without having to spend one's own limited Command Deck slots on potions and/or healing spells.  However, one cannot rely on them too highly, as D-Links run off of their own gauge and can only be activated once it is filled completely.

Individual commands each have experience meters and levels that go up with repeated use, and once their levels are maxed, one can combine them together to create new commands.  One can also add in synthesis ingredients to give commands additional properties, such as dealing extra damage or boosting the player's chance of landing a critical hit.  Once a command with an ability has its level maxed out, the skill is permanently added to the player's repertoire and they will permanently gain its benefit (up to the maximum level that skill allows).  One can freely combine almost any two abilities in their inventory to make a new one, though they will not be able to preview the result until they play through the game and acquire recipe books from various chests.

One need not just repeatedly battle enemies or grind cash to buy and power up Commands, though.  While there is no Gummi Ship element this time (despite featuring a similar world map to 2), Birth By Sleep features a minigame called "Command Board" where one can instead play a board game to accomplish the same effect, with new board layouts being added as the player completes worlds.  Playing very similarly to Square's Fortune Street franchise, the game operates on a similar principle to Monopoly, with the player moving about the board, purchasing spaces (by placing their Command cards on them) and stealing points when other players land on their purchased spaces, with the goal being to reach a set number of points to win.  Similarly, each time one makes a lap around four checkpoints on the board and returns to the goal they earn points, and a number of bonus panels and traps will help or hinder them as they move around.  Furthermore, one can play combinations of cards from their hand to gain an advantage, such as forcing one of their opponents to sit out a turn or allowing them to roll multiple dice at a time to move further.  Whether the player wins or loses, they will gain some experience and a new Command or two, though naturally winning the game results in a more profitable outcome.

Another optional venture comes in the world of Mirage Arena, a world that has no bearing on the main plot and, in the PSP release, serves as a hub for multiplayer content.  Here, one can face off against other players in a combat arena, battle rounds of enemies, play Command Board against other players, or even take part in a racing minigame slightly similar to Mario Kart.  In the HD ports, however, this element has been substantially reworked to be a strictly single-player experience, with victories in events granting coins that can be spent on rare items and commands.  Essentially, it's BBS's version of the Gold Saucer - a largely separate but entertaining diversion from the main game that can nevertheless grant the player a significant advantage if they spend a lot of time there.

Birth By Sleep is a bit of an odd case, taking a few steps backward in its design theory from where Kingdom Hearts II left off and even retooling a few unpopular elements of previous entries; however, it all works out surprisingly well, with the combat in the game being well-balanced and quite enjoyable, the storytelling taking a new turn with its three-pronged narrative and even most of the optional content in the game proving to be extremely well-crafted and fun.  It does take a hit in the aesthetic department due to being a game designed for substantially less powerful hardware (leading to unintentionally funny moments like an audible cheering crowd in an empty stadium), but all in all, Birth By Sleep is one of the franchise's best games, and for me at least, a significant step back up in quality after the aggravating combat and design of 2 and CoM.

Developer: Square Enix Product Development Division 5
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PSP, Playstation 3, Playstation 4
Released: 2006, 2014, 2017
Recommended version: The HD ports of the game (Released on the II.5 Final Mix compilations) feature HD visuals, tweaked controls and a reworked, single-player Mirage Arena, which I vastly recommend over the cramped setup of the PSP hardware.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Mechanical Minigames, Optional Minigames, Crafting System, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Long Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Humorous

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Zelda franchise's third entry made the leap to the new generation and became the first (and only) Legend of Zelda on the Super Nintendo.  But does Link to the Past successfully capture the magic of its predecessors, or does it just stop short?

It would be a while yet before the franchise moved away from the gold-colored motif on the boxes

Link to the Past was of course one of the most anticipated games when the Super Nintendo was first announced; the first two Zelda games being as popular as they were, it was little surprise that Nintendo would want to keep one of their most popular franchises going.

They certainly made every effort to have it take advantage of the new hardware, too.  While the first two Zelda games were relatively light on storytelling with only a minimum of in-game dialog, Link to the Past makes efforts to have its world feel like a living, dynamic place.  The game is now replete with NPCs with numerous pages of dialog apiece, and the world as a whole feels much more alive, with locations like a sprawling lake (fed by a river and waterfalls), fields full of grass and bushes (which the player can cut down with their sword), a foggy forest with a shadowy canopy overhead (complete with parallax effect) and even a desert with cacti, vultures and bleached bones.  While previous Zelda games (2 in particular) had similar locales, the player didn't get to see and interact with them on anywhere near the same level.

Storytelling for the series has taken a definite upturn too.  While in the first two games the backdrop for the action was mostly told through the manual (and a number of colorful illustrations therein), Link to the Past instead opts more for an in-game narrative, with a gorgeously-illustrated storybook intro, a running narrative throughout with a few creative twists, and the aforementioned characterizations lending the game an epic, movie-like feel.  This only gets compounded further when one considers the soundtrack, which took full advantage of the SNES' capabilities to deliver an orchestral score that only compounded the cinematic presentation further and lent a lot of emotional weight to all of the in-game locales and events.

As Zelda II's change in gameplay style proved controversial among fans, Link to the Past opted to return to the top-down view and four-directional action of the original game, and even returned many of the familiar enemies that were left out of Zelda II, such as the Like-Likes and Zoras.  Things are certainly not constrained to single-sized square screens, though - maps can scroll both horizontally and vertically, and the world doesn't feel at all like it's built on a static grid, with nicely-rounded corners on cliffs, trees and even a lot of buildings.  Exploration is somewhat more constrained than in the original game, but this lends way to a much greater variety in LTTP's puzzle-solving - by completing dungeons and finding various hidden items, new paths will open and new methods for dealing with almost every enemy will be found.  For example, finding the Power Glove will let the player lift up rocks to open new paths and uncover secrets, while finding the Ice Rod will allow them to freeze enemies, letting them pass by unperturbed.  Others have a variety of effects - using Magic Powder on the normally invincible "Anti-faeries" will turn them into regular Faeries that restore the player's health, while the Flippers enable travel in the water.  The series staple of reusable bottles also debuted here; once the player acquires an empty bottle, they can use it to store purchased potions, captured faeries or even bees that, once released, will attack enemies for a short while before flying off. In total, there are over thirty items to be found in the game - quite a few more than any prior Zelda - and many have multiple purposes, leading to a lot of fun and rewarding exploration and experimentation for the player.

Expanding upon this, after a set point in the game, the player is thrust into the "Dark World" - a twisted mirror of Hyrule whose inhabitants and monsters alike are twisted into new, bizarre forms.  The world itself is in the same state, with a number of subtle changes between the two hindering the player's progress at times (with many open paths in the Light World leading to dead ends in Dark World) and leading to secrets in the other.  For instance, an inaccessible high cliff in the Light world may be a flat piece of land in the Dark world, so if the player warps to the Light world at that point, they can appear atop the cliff and access the item within it.  As in previous Zeldas, uncovering clues and having a keen eye for subtle tells to the location of secrets are key skills to have, both for progression and for finding non-vital but useful items such as Heart Pieces and Bottles.

Link to the Past, like the two games before it, proved to be a monumental success, and it's easy to see why.  Its excellent presentation, epic feel and hugely expanded gameplay and design over the originals made it into something both familiar and very unlike anything seen prior for the franchise.  Its puzzles are many, but never too cryptic to figure out, and its smooth gameplay, creative bosses, enthralling world and overall satisfying design make it a joy to play.   It speaks volumes that, despite playing this game since the 1990s, I've still been finding new mechanics and design elements each time I revisit it, and I've also never once grown bored playing it.  A true masterpiece.

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Super Nintendo, Game Boy Advance, Wii Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console, *New* Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console, Super NES Classic Edition
Released: 2019
Recommended version: Most later versions of the game are direct ports of the original SNES version, though the GBA version does have some slight changes, most prominently adding Link's voice from the later 3D Zelda games when he swings his sword or takes damage.  This version also has an exclusive multiplayer component called "The Four Swords" where up to four players work together to solve puzzles and defeat bosses in three short dungeons exclusive to this mode.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Optional Minigames, Dungeon Crawler, Voluminous Side Content, Save Anywhere, Short Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Humorous