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Monday, September 18, 2023

Star Ocean: The Second Story R (2023) (Demo)

It's admittedly been many years since I played a Star Ocean game, but I did spend enough time on Star Ocean 2 back in the day to vividly remember why I didn't like it some 20 years later.  But with the series having something of a resurgence of late with a successful fifth entry and now a remake of its second in development, I figured it was time to give it another chance; especially as they made a demo available for anyone to try out.  All that said, it's hard to know how to feel about this remake. The writing is just as crap as I remember it, but they have substantially improved the graphics; it retains 2D pixelated sprites on 3D backdrops, resembling other HD-2D Square Enix efforts of late, though thankfully without the excessive blurring and bloom effects that made others such an eyesore.  The combat feels a lot tighter-controlling and far less buggy (and dare I say, even kinda fun), and the voice acting is actually surprisingly good - the actors are honestly giving their all to every line of this Kindergarten-play-level script.  They even appear to have streamlined the skill system considerably and given them more concise descriptions, doing away with a lot of the unnecessary fluff present in the original version.  But despite all these improvements, it's still Star Ocean 2 - substantially improved gameplay, graphics and voiceover combine with what would have been the worst RPG script of all time if someone hadn't unleashed Lightning Returns upon an unsuspecting populace.  I suppose if you can look past the irritating tweeness and fan-fictiony plotting to just enjoy a game with a heavy focus on character building, item crafting and some hidden powergaming strategies buried in all that, go for it.

Developer: Gemdrops
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: 2023
Platforms: Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, PC

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Sea of Stars

A game which makes no secret of its inspirations by a company who already has one acclaimed retro-style game under their belt, Sea of Stars has been heavily compared to mid-90s RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG.  But does it prove to be a legendary title like those games, or is this just another soon-to-be-forgotten game that mimics the visuals of the era and little else?

As tech in the world of games has gotten more and more focused on graphics and making huge, sprawling and beautiful but mostly empty worlds with only the barest basics of gameplay, there has been an increasing demand for games to go back to earlier times with "worse" graphics, shorter lengths, but retaining the polished design, quality writing and creative spark that made many older gamers fans of the medium in the first place.  

Naturally, many developers (mostly small indie studios) have answered the call, making their own "NES styled" or "SNES styled" or "classic styled" games to get a piece of that demand; sometimes quite successfully.  Personally I'm especially critical of games that mimic an 8 or 16 bit style of design, especially RPGs; the overwhelming majority of the time, studios just use that style as an easy in-road to peoples wallets while serving up an otherwise mediocre and uninteresting experience, their developers having no concern for the fact that retro games are almost universally remembered because they were cutting edge for their time, not because they looked and sounded a certain way but had no real substance beneath the hood.  Hell, when games from the '80s like Solomon's Key, Castlevania II, Montezuma's Revenge and Goonies II have leagues more depth than games of similar aesthetic made in the 2010's, there's some serious values disparity going on there.  But hey, if it looks the part and it sells enough copies to break even based just on that, who cares, right?

Obviously, there are outliers to any rule, and I think Sea of Stars is an excellent example of one.  When Sabotage Studio makes a game patterned after classic titles, it's because they love them and want to share their magic with a younger generation.  Not just because they want a bigger install base, but because they want to share the best of retro gaming's timeless charm, immaculate design and sense of fun with the world.  Case in point, while Sea of Stars has an overall similar aesthetic to Chrono Trigger and turn-based, minigame-driven combat not dissimilar to Mario RPG, it blends in enough of its own elements to not feel overly derivative of either one.

The exploration element in the game is also distinctly fresh, putting heavy focus on traversing the environment via handholds, narrow ledges and hopping over gaps and up and down small ledges, so dungeons have quite a bit more going on than just being the typical RPG "empty corridor full of monsters".  They also have a heavy focus on Wild Arms-styled puzzles, as well as ones involving your protagonists' abilities to unlock hidden secrets by manipulating the time of day.  These can get a bit drawn-out at times, but I never became overly annoyed by them owing to the brisk pacing and lack of random encounters; enemies appear in pre-determined places on each map and they do not respawn unless you completely leave the area and return.

Combat similarly draws elements from its inspirations - Chrono Trigger's three-party system with enemy placement and special move effectiveness varying from battle to battle - but also works in timing minigames for attacks, blocks and special moves similar to Mario RPG.  It's definitely not a 1:1 copycat of either, though, mixing in several elements of its own.  For one, characters can act in any order on your turn, but only once per round, which becomes important when enemies start charging special moves.  While they do this, 2-4 icons (termed "locks") will be displayed over them, and hitting them with attack types depicted on those icons will break locks, weakening the incoming attack or, if all of them are broken before their turn occurs, stopping it completely.

The game also encourages you to use skills and special abilities liberally, rather than conserving them for larger battles.  Your characters have relatively small MP pools (and they only grow a small amount with each level), with your skills able to cost easily half or more of your reserves.  Your normal attacks restore MP when they land, though, so you can use them fairly often without having to rely too heavily on restorative items.  Landing hits and breaking locks also fills up your Combo meter, which fuels more powerful moves involving two or three characters - not unlike the combination techniques in Chrono Trigger.  Stored combo meter also does not carry over between battles, so it's worth using them whenever you get a chance to.  Finally, landing blows on enemies with normal attacks causes them to drop orbs; holding down Right Trigger will cause your currently controlled character to gather them up and unleash a stronger, elemental-charged attack; this can be done up to three times in a single turn for an especially powerful blow.  Having a character be KOed in battle also isn't as big a deal as in some games - they will recover 50% HP on their own after a set number of turns (starting at two and increasing each time they're downed), though if all three characters are down at once the game is over.  If nothing else, a nice alternative to many of the Final Fantasy games where reviving allies mid-battle is an annoying ordeal of using a Phoenix Down on them, then watching as they get hit and KOed again right away.

Sea of Stars puts much emphasis on its cooking system, which is your primary means of healing during battle.  You gather various ingredients throughout the dungeon areas, as well as from fishing holes on the map (complete with a Breath of Fire-esque minigame).  Whenever you reach a campfire you can cook up food items to restore HP, MP or both to one person or your whole team, and it's best to weigh your options carefully as you can only carry up to ten meals at a time.

In short, Sea of Stars is a game that, while clearly inspired by the classics, is anything but a cheap knockoff.  Its inspirations are apparent if you're familiar with that era of role playing games, but it brings plenty of its own twists to the overall design and gameplay to keep it fresh.  The charming writing, brisk pacing, gorgeous 2D animation (with some modern touches like dynamic lighting) and wonderful music (with a few tracks contributed by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda) make it not just a memorable tribute to the classics, but a fine RPG in its own right.  I certainly hope it inspires other indie devs to bring a high degree of polish, innovate and set new standards in the way their old favorites did, too.

Developer: Sabotage Studio
Publisher: Sabotage Studio
Released: 2023
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, Switch
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be identical as far as I can tell.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Sea of Stars (Demo)

In an era that's become known for a resurgence of classic styled RPGs (with varying degrees of quality), Sea of Stars is another that seems to draw elements from several 16-bit era titles.  But does it manage to capture the magic of the greats from the mid-90s without becoming overly derivative, or is this just another cookie cutter job to be passed up?

Sabotage Studio is a name I know in passing from their sidescrolling platformer game "the Messenger", which also featured a bit of self-awareness in its design in that you'd travel between two time periods - a "past" resembling 8-bit games and a "future" resembling 16-bit ones, with the latter half of the game changing up format entirely into something like a metroidvania.  That, plus solid fundamental gameplay and a quirky sense of humor, earned it acclaim among retro action fans and metroidvania enthusiasts alike.

Sea of Stars, despite technically being a prequel to that game, doesn't play anything like it, instead opting for a turn-based RPG experience with a focus on puzzles and mid-battle minigames.  Graphically it bears a resemblance to Chrono Trigger with its expressively-animated characters, heavily detailed backdrops and a similar visual perspective, though with a much more bright, colorful and fanciful style overall.  Enemies are also visible on the map and can be avoided similar to that game, though they will actively chase you down and even fire attacks at range to drag you into battle; at one point one even shot me in the back from offscreen as I was hopping across platforms, dragging me back to the screen they were on to start a battle).  On that note, the game's map traversal is also a fair bit more involved, having you hop over gaps, climb up handholds and activate switch and platform puzzles to proceed (even going under terrain layers to progress on several occasions), so you're almost never just running through empty corridors.  Music in the game is passable though not especially memorable, though according to the developers the final product will also feature at least ten tracks by Yasunori Mitsuda, so we'll see how that pans out.

Combat in Sea of Stars also looks a bit like Chrono Trigger superficially, but plays out more similarly to Super Mario RPG, with timed hits, blocks and minigame-based special moves - deflecting a boomerang to hit multiple enemies potentially multiple times (getting faster with each hit), charging a fireball by holding down a button and releasing it (doing more damage if you release it at maximum size) being two shown off in the demo.  Simple timed button presses are also used to deal a second hit with the attack command for a bit of extra damage, or block an enemy's strike to reduce the damage you take.  Characters can take their turns in any order but cannot act more than once per round, allowing you to get a healing move in or break Locks accordingly (more on that in a bit).  One similarity to Chrono Trigger are Combination Moves, which, similar to Chrono Trigger's Dual Techs, have two characters combine their special attacks for greater effects - inflicting multiple types of damage in a single turn, healing the entire party, or other effects.  These run on "Combo Points" (built up by inflicting damage and breaking locks) and more can be learned by finding technique scrolls throughout the game.

A couple of relatively fresh mechanics do show themselves quickly, though.  One is that each enemy displays a stopwatch with a number next to it, showing how many actions you can take before they get their turn, which allows you to adjust your strategies accordingly.  When an enemy is preparing to use a particularly powerful move, they'll display anywhere from two to four "Locks" with icons pertaining to certain weapon damage types or special moves; using one of these moves removes a lock, and if you manage to break all the locks before the move executes, it will be canceled entirely.  Landing physical hits on enemies also knocks out gems, which you can hold R2 and press X to have your currently-selected character gather; these will power up your next move accordingly, with up to three charges being collectible at once.  MP management is also a major component of strategy - each character has a relatively small MP pool (with one spell able to take upwards of half of it), but normal attacks will regenerate 3 MP.  Downed characters also seem to automatically recover after a turn or two, regaining half HP, though this may just be a demo feature as there were no revival items in the demo that I could find.  Another small, but welcome feature is the fact that your party has a collective experience gauge rather than separate tallies so that you all stay on the same relative power level (and don't miss out on a big chunk of experience if you die during, say, a boss fight).  The pacing is also solid, with combat never becoming too overused, puzzles being well-designed without becoming overly tedious or frustrating, and battles lasting just the right amount of time, neither too long nor drawn-out to the point where boredom starts to set in.

The game also utilizes a fishing minigame somewhat reminiscent of the Breath of Fire series, though I don't know if it's a direct reference to that.  It's simple enough - drop the bobber near a fish, reel when they're in the light-blue "sweet spot" that shifts around the center of the lake, and maneuver them somewhat with the stick or d-pad to jigger them into said sweet spot (though once they get close to the dock they'll also start weaving around like crazy, resulting in a rather annoying trial of tapping the button to real in a tiny bit at a time until they finally give in).  Fish, as well as harvested plant materials in outside areas, culminate in a crafting element where you can visit a campfire and create food items to carry into battle for HP and MP recovery (of which you can carry up to 10 at a time).

Sea of Stars does contain a couple of accessibility options as well.  One is the "Amulet of Storytelling" , which eases combat with free heals after battle and gives all of your characters a significantly higher base HP value.  The other is "Sequent Flare", which provides greater visual feedback with timed hits and blocks - handy for getting the timing down.  Presumably there will be more (plenty of space left on that menu), but I'm not yet sure what they will entail.

As is standards for demos, Sea of Stars's is a short experience that you can finish in about an hour, so of course we're only getting a very small portion of the final product.  From what they're showing, though, I see solid effort from people who have a genuine passion and love for classic styled RPGs and sought to put their own spin on the format with considerable success - while clearly inspired by the style and humor games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG (with a bit of Lufia or Alundra style puzzle solving), it's not overly derivative of any one of them and has some quite charming identity of its own.  It also never tries to feel overly self-important or self-referential, which earns it a lot of points in my book; retro RPGs never had to give constant sly winks or cram in a sloppy pretentious 'artist's signature' to stand out, after all - they just got by on the merits of good storytelling and solid design, which Sea of Stars does too.  So, if you're a fan of retro RPGs and want a game in that format with a charm all its own, I also urge you to give the Sea of Stars demo a go and see for yourself what they have cooking.

Developer: Sabotage Studio
Publisher: Sabotage Studio
Released: 2023
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, Switch
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be identical as far as I can tell.