RPGreats now has a Discord! Come on in to talk about game music, games in general, submit reviews or just hang out!

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Eiyuden Chronicle Rising

A prequel of sorts to the long-awaited spiritual successor to Suikoden, Rising is a pretty forgettable experience overall.  Its visual style is a nice blend of 3D environments and drawn 2D sprites, though the overall presentation is marred by the cheap "broken joint" style of animation reminiscent of an early 2000s Flash cartoon.  Gameplay-wise it's pretty basic, just being a simple sidescrolling platformer hack-and-slash with a leveling system added, and a few combos you can perform in tandem with well-timed button presses after you recruit more characters to your team serve as the only means to spice it up.  Quests are pretty mundane item-hunting chores with the odd boss fight thrown in, and while rebuilding a town bit by bit, gradually unlocking more services to enhance your adventure is a pretty great concept that's been done successfully in many other games, it's not particularly fun here owing to how flat the gameplay is.  Even the plot feels pretty superfluous, mostly just serving to set up a few characters and maybe a plot point or two they could just as easily exposit in a throwaway line in the full game.  So, a pretty bland gameplay experience that just highlights a few cool character designs and doesn't really have much of an impactful story to tell.  Even if you're someone who's excited for Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes' launch in 2023, you're probably not going to miss anything of consequence by skipping this one.

Developer: Natsume Atari
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: 2022
Platform: PC, Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, XBox One, XBox Series

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura

The debut game of the short-lived studio Troika, founded by three core alumni on the original Fallout games.  Fittingly, Arcanum is a game that follows closely in its mold, having a heavy focus on role-playing, character customization and even a similar interface and visual style overall.  But does Arcanum show off the talents of its developers, or did it only set them on track for their downfall?

Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson became pretty well-known names in the RPG community in the late '90s, working on the fan-favorite Fallout.  They'd also completed initial design on Fallout 2 before becoming dissatisfied with the direction their parent company (Interplay) was taking, departing to form their own studio.  Troika Games, as it came to be known, created only three games in their brief existence before an inability to secure funds for future projects forced them to close in 2005, only a few months after the release of their final title (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines).

Their first game to be released was Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura; a game which, like Fallout, placed heavy focus on storytelling, player choice and character customization.  It even surpasses those of its predecessors in some ways, with the character creation being a notable example.  Being set in a fantasy-inspired world, it of course has the requisite choice of races (Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc and Half-Ogre), each with their own starting stats and dispositions toward other races.  For example, Half-Ogres start with low intelligence and beauty but are physically quite strong, though most people (elves and dwarves especially) are reluctant to interact with them; even those that do often have difficulty as their low Intelligence severely hinders their conversational skills.  Dwarves have a bonus to Strength, Constitution and technical aptitude, but suffer penalties to Dexterity, Charisma and while they can still cast spells, all fatigue costs for them are doubled.  Elves are the opposite, being physically more fragile and averse to technology, but also better attuned to magical arts.  Humans, per usual, are a relatively neutral race, with average stats all-around; they can do anything pretty well, but don't excel at any single thing either.  One can also play a male or female character, with slightly differing starting stats (Females have one less Strength, but one more Constitution), though oddly female characters are restricted to only four races - Human, Elf, Half-Elf and Half-Orc.

One can further customize their character with a surprisingly vast selection of backgrounds (64 in total, though some are restricted to particular races/genders), which have significant effects on their starting stats and loadouts; some are relatively subtle, while others are surprisingly major.  "Raised by Snake Handlers", for example, grants you greater resistance to poison but gives a -1 penalty to Beauty, "Sent to Charm School" (available only to human females) starts you with more Charisma and Beauty but less Strength and Dexterity, and "Rare Half-Ogre Birth" allows you to play a relatively eloquent half-ogre, with +2 Intelligence but slight penalties to Strength and Constitution.  "Ran away with the circus" is a more extreme example, giving a whopping +6 Strength in exchange for -2 Intelligence, -3 Willpower and -1 Perception, making you a much more physical combat-focused character regardless of your race choice.  If you're determined to play a 'good guy' character, you can similarly pick "Child of a Hero", which starts you with a powerful enchanted sword but causes evil actions to reflect much more poorly on you (double their normal negative effect), or even Special Person (-2 Intelligence, but you get double the positive reaction from good actions).  Similarly, one inclined to play an evil character can choose "Sold Your Soul", which grants you significantly more magical aptitude in exchange for a permanent negative reaction modifier and low alignment.  These are definitely fun to experiment with and lend the game quite a bit of replay value.

Arcanum's setting is a relatively unique one - it's a world of fantastical races and monsters, but one entering an industrial revolution, with sights like electric generators, steampunk weaponry and armor, early aircraft and even crude automatons providing a juxtaposition to the more fantastical elements (and indeed, the conflicting nature of the two is a prominent motif throughout the narrative).  This also serves as a prominent game mechanic - boosting technical aptitudes (Medicine, Mechanical, Chemistry etc.) will make you more efficient with those, getting more effect from them.  However, you'll also skew your alignment away from Magic, causing any spells you may possess to become less efficient.  Fittingly, magic has a greater chance of failure against technological-aligned enemies and vice versa. Finding whatever balance you prefer as you progress through the game becomes another major component of building your character.

Mechanically the game operates very similarly to Fallout, with a similar isometric perspective and visual style (right down to the gory combat deaths), and even the HUD is pretty similar overall; there are a lot more icons to memorize, but hovering over almost any button will give you a quick tooltip of what exactly it represents as well, so you'll get used to it before long.  Some changes are made, though - combat can be toggled between a real-time mode or a turn-based one at the press of a key, though given how difficult some fights can be, the latter is generally preferable.  The world is not broken up into several distinct maps, instead occupying one large world; however, stretches of land between towns tend to be vast and empty, so it does thankfully have a fast travel system that lets you visit areas you've had marked on your map, whether through visiting them or uncovering them through dialog or quest completion.  One can even do a sort of "fast travel" within a familiar area, setting down waypoints that your character will follow at the press of a button, which saves you a fair bit of tedious screen-scrolling and clicking.  Managing NPC allies is more convenient here too, with HUD icons that can be clicked to give basic commands, view their character sheets and manage their inventories.  The inventory screen is a bit like the Diablo games, with a paper doll for gear your character is wearing and a 'backpack' grid you store items in and each one taking up a varying amount of space, though there is also an auto-sort feature for when you want to quickly add more items to your inventory without having to micromanage.  Also similar to Diablo, there are ten quick slots on the HUD that can be assigned to whatever skills, spells or items you wish to have quick access too, which cuts down on tedious menuing.

Another clever mechanic is the use of "Fate Points".  Basically, for completing certain missions - usually ones relevant to the main storyline - you'll get a Fate Point, which can be spent for a variety of powerful benefits - an instantaneous full heal, a guaranteed positive reaction in the next conversation, your next spell will be cast as if you had 100 Magical aptitude, a guaranteed critical hit on your next attack (or critical miss for your enemy), or a critical success with any of several skills.  Fate Points are very limited, though, so saving them for when you have few (or no) other good options is the best way to go.

So, all this sounds pretty good on paper; even like it should be every bit the classic that the '90s Fallout games are considered to be.  So, why is Arcanum relatively unknown while Fallout is so beloved?  Well, its roleplaying element is brilliantly executed and ahead of its time in many ways, but the gameplay itself doesn't quite match up to that standard.  While there are quite a few NPC allies to recruit throughout the game and enemies to fight, they all share the common trait of having very mediocre AI; they employ little in the way of tactics, usually just running straight toward enemies and attacking them repeatedly until one of them dies, which is rather irritating when you're trying to be stealthy, and forming any kind of defensive line is out of the question too.  They tend to wander aimlessly even out of combat too, stumbling right into traps you're methodically trying to spot and disarm or triggering enemies you don't want to fight just yet.  Dungeons tend to be pretty monotonous, with few to no puzzle elements in favor of just being stuffed to the brim with enemies and traps.  Your equipment also degrades with use, and certain types of enemies will wear it down very quickly - earth-based ones will damage your melee weapons, and fire-based will damage both your weapons and armor on every hit.  Critical misses will cause them to decay too, and though there is a Repair skill to offset breakage, using it will lower your item's maximum durability unless it's trained to Master level (which requires a substantial investment of levels and money).  The overall balance leaves something to be desired too - while tech skills (which largely involve combining items together into medicines, traps, bombs, guns etc) sound awesome and are quite fun to play with, they tend to be rather underpowered compared to Spells, which can be cast as many times as your Fatigue meter allows and generally gets comparable, if not superior, results.  The game was also notoriously buggy at launch and had quite a few compatibility issues with hardware of the time (to say nothing of modern machines), though subsequent official patches and a few fan-made ones have eliminated most of the worst offenders.  I still encountered quite a few crashes as I played, though, so I'd advise saving often.

Since their inception, CRPGs have tried with varying degrees of success to create an open-ended, choice-driven roleplaying experience with varying degrees of success.  Arcanum: of Steamworks & Magick Obscura is among first to do it legitimately well, providing a rewarding, fun and substantially differing experience depending on what character you begin with and what choices you make throughout.  Being able to fine-tune your character to such a strong degree, seeing your choices have palpable consequences, and having a built-in, powerful campaign editor lets you make your own stories as well, all add a ton of replay value.  Sadly its comparatively mediocre level design and clunky combat hamper its enjoyability, so it doesn't quite hit the heights of greatness that the Fallout games did.  Even so, it's a brilliantly written game that's worth a play, so scale down the difficulty to get the sucky combat and dungeons over with quicker and enjoy an adventure through a brilliantly realized world.

I would also highly recommend grabbing the Unofficial Patch, as it addresses many of the game's bugs and adds in some extra content as well.

Developer: Troika Games
Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Platform: PC
Released: 2001
Recommended Version:  N/A

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Shin Megami Tensei V

After a number of spinoffs, side-games and remasters of varying quality, Shin Megami Tensei V marked a return for the mainline franchise, going back to its dungeon crawling, demon-recruiting roots.  But does Shin Megami Tensei's fifth numbered entry capture what made the series great to begin with, or is this just another gimmicky, overdone flop?

Atlus is a company with a long history and a definite place in RPG fandom.  Fittingly, Shin Megami Tensei is a series with appeal for fans of tech-heads with its focus on high difficulty and character management, but it also has enough spinoffs and side-games to make it appeal to almost any type of RPG fan.  Whether for those who enjoy action games with a slight RPG bent (Raidou Kuzunoha), school-life/dating sims mixed in with the dungeon crawling element (Persona) or even turn-based tactical combat (Devil Survivor).  Even within each of those branches they've experimented quite a bit, though for a while I felt they had a lot more misses than hits; whether due to overreliance on DLC and having to purchase features that came standard in earlier games (SMTIV), a premise that mostly just grated on me (Persona 5) or just generally mediocre design (Tokyo Mirage Sessions).

So, Shin Megami Tensei V became the first game in the series I picked up in nearly seven years, hoping that Atlus had finally gotten their game together and not just turned into another soulless shlock factory after being bought out by Sega as I'd long feared.  Within only minutes of starting it's clear that V is trying very hard to run things back to their early games - the overworld uses the same pegs-on-a-map art style as the Super Famicom games, and it wastes little time jumping right into the dungeon crawling experience - in fact, right after the intro (and some tutorials) end, it's almost all business.  You're in an enormous 'dungeon', surrounded by demons, managing scarce resources and forging alliances with demons through negotiation to give yourself a chance to survive.

In terms of design, SMTV mostly draws from Nocturne, working in a few elements from Persona and SMTIV (though fortunately, none of the terrible ones that drove me away from that game).  Heavy focus is placed on elemental strengths and weaknesses, and the Press Turn system returns once again - basically, you get one turn pip for each character in your party (up to four), and getting a critical hit or striking a weakness turns it into a flashing pip, which effectively grants another action before your turn ends.  Using this to your advantage, you can effectively get up to double the amount of actions per turn by making good use of elemental spells and/or attack items.  However, the opposite is also true - missing an attack or having it blocked costs you a pip in addition to the one you would have normally spent, and an attack being absorbed or reflected causes you to lose ALL of your remaining pips, ending your turn immediately.  Enemies can also just as easily exploit Press Turns by hitting your allies' weak points or getting criticals, which can quickly turn the fight in their favor if you come unprepared.  Having the right team setup for whatever area you're going into, as well as whatever bosses you're facing, is essential to victory.

You can do some things to offset glaring weak points in your team, though.  The aforementioned items are one - you can use them to block attacks of a particular element or exploit an enemy's weakness, though as they're relatively tough to come by in the field and expensive to purchase, this option is best used sparingly.  Another option is blocking, borrowed from Persona 4 - this uses a full turn pip, but puts one of your characters into a defensive stance, letting them withstand one attack without it counting as hitting their weak point; you'll still take damage from it, of course, but it's a better option than giving your enemy more turns to wreak havoc with.  Managing one's turns efficiently helps greatly too - if a demon's going to be a liability in a fight, it's often a good idea to switch in one without their particular weaknesses, even at the cost of a turn pip and maybe bringing in a weaker monster.  It's a good idea to never let enemies get the jump on you - landing the first strike before the fight even starts (borrowed from IV, as well as the Persona games) will give you a much better chance of getting a free turn, or at the very least, starting the fight on even footing with your opponent.  And of course, if all else fails, there's no shame in running - better to cut your losses and survive than to risk losing a big chunk of progress.  The game also helpfully shows a percentage chance of your team successfully running from the fight you're in - something I wish more RPGs would do!  Encounters are also visible on the map as in SMTIV, giving you a chance to avoid them if you don't wish to fight at that time.

Something else that can help turn the tide in a fight is Magatsuhi - a plot point in Nocturne, but here it also plays a role as an in-game mechanic, somewhat similar to limit breaks from Final Fantasy or the Pep Skills from Dragon Quest XI.  As you make your way through battles, you'll see a meter labeled "Magatsuhi" on the screen gradually fill; once it does, you can spend it to perform many different effects.  The one you start with and keep throughout the game is "Omagatoki: Critical", which turns every hit made that turn into a critical strike, letting you dish out heavy damage.  Others, unlocked later and often tied to a specific Demon's race, include buffing up the party for a turn, earning extra Experience and Macca from that battle, making all attacks Pierce (ignore defenses) for a turn, or even restoring some MP to the entire party.  Demons can likewise use Magatsuhi buffs, though, so it's best to end the fight quickly (or prepare to defend against a heavy onslaught) when they're about to use one.

As in most SMT games, there is a heavy focus on resource management in this one.  Item drops from battle are somewhat uncommon, enemies give fairly little macha (Cash) as well, and healing is quite expensive (charged by the point), so even staying topped up is a bit of a struggle.  Your main source of income this time are Relics - otherwise-useless items generally found by searching vending machines.  They also seem to replenish themselves after a time, so it's often worth it to fast-travel around the maps and search all the vending machines again if you need some quick cash.  Items can of course be used to heal or attack, but their main use is in demon negotiations - talking to various monsters mid-fight and trying to convince them to join you; often requiring that you answer questions correctly and pay them money, items or some of your HP or MP first.  Demons themselves can level up in battle and even earn some new skills, but they rarely gain much beyond their first few levels other than some minute stat boosts.  So once a demon starts to fall behind, it's best to make use of another iconic series mechanic, demon fusion - combining two or more demons together into a new powerful form, carrying over some of their attributes and abilities to a fused, say, Angel is much more useful than one you could just recruit in the wild.

A new strategic bent here is Skill Potentials - how well-attuned a demon is to a particular element.  Those attuned to it will get a bonus to any spells of that element (shown with a +1/+2/etc. by the spell name), while those who are attuned against it will similarly get penalties (with a minus sign before it); you can still learn those spells and cast them without issue, but they'll be significantly weaker than normal.  These can be improved on the protagonist by purchasing Miracles, while on demons they are largely fixed; however, one can also acquire rare items called Sutras that will improve a Potential by one tier, up to a maximum of +9.

Another new one is Essences - items that work on a similar principle to demon fusions, letting you take the 'essence' of a demon and apply it to another, earning some skills or, for the protagonist, adopting their elemental strengths and weaknesses for himself.  You can pick and choose whatever skills you like from these, but elemental strengths and weaknesses are a package deal, so once again, consider carefully before you use one in this manner.

Some more distinctly "JRPG-ish" elements show through too.  One that caught my eye right away was a game-spanning collectible sidequest in the form of Mimans; somewhat similar to the Tiny Medals from the Dragon Quest series, collecting enough of these and returning to the in-game shop will earn you free items, many of which are difficult to come by otherwise.  A pretty clever, if somewhat cheesy, way to encourage the player to search every nook and cranny for goodies.  Finding Mimans earns you a small bit of Glory - a currency you can spend at the Dark temple to unlock Miracles, which give you all sorts of useful bonuses and new abilities - more Magatsuhi gains, slow HP/MP regeneration when the Magatsuhi meter is full, gaining stat bonuses on fused demons, more skill slots on your protagonist and his demons, and Potential boosts, to name just a few.  Glory is a fairly scarce resource to come by (otherwise mostly just found in limited quantities from scattered containers throughout the game), but you can also farm it by by defeating rare, fleeing-prone enemies called "Nigi Mitamas" with randomized weaknesses; not dissimilar to Metal Slimes and similar monsters in many JRPGs.  (There is also an optional DLC that causes Mitamas to spawn slightly more frequently, but this is by no means required.)

SMTV also looks and sounds quite good, though I felt a bit more polish could have been dedicated to it in this regard.  Graphically it's very clean, sharp and stylish per series standards, though the game's framerate does dip a bit at times; particularly in wide-open areas with a lot of monsters around or during some of the flashier screen transitions and spell effects.  The audio mixing is also a bit off - voices and sound effects seem excessively loud by default - though you can tweak every aspect of this to your comfort level.  It also made my Switch run quite hot - the fan was blasting almost the entire time I played - so I ended up taking a break every couple hours or so hoping it wouldn't damage my system.

So, with Shin Megami Tensei V, has the series finally come around full-circle and become good again?  For the most part, I'd say it has.  It's a quintessential return for the core SMT franchise, with a fairly minimal story but heavy focus on dungeon crawling and party management, and mechanically, it's polished and fun to play.  The punishing difficulty of the early games is there if you want it, but there's also an easier option for more casual players (and an even easier "Safety Difficulty" available as free DLC for newcomers).  The lousy design choices in 4 have almost all been cast out, and the DLC this time mostly makes sense - giving you better odds of finding rare money/glory/XP-tank foes rather than just handing them to you as a pay-to-win feature, as well as providing new combat challenges and powerful demons for the most dedicated players.  All in all, a game that I'd recommend for those in search of a fun, polished dungeon-crawling challenge.

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus, Sega, Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Released: 2021
Recommended Version:  N/A