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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Might and Magic Book One: Secret of the Inner Sanctum

A relatively late-comer to the '80s CRPG scene, Might and Magic Book One was the first in a long-running dungeon crawler series that continues to get spinoffs to this day.  But is this first-person dungeon crawling adventure worth playing today, or is it simply overshadowed by other, similar games in an already vast genre?

Wizardry is undeniably an influential game, providing the template for not just every other CRPG of the time, but even paving the road for prominent Japanese RPG franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.  Visiting its earliest entries today, though, is a bit of a tall ordeal - not only are they notoriously finnicky to get running (being from the day when one would put a disk into their computer and boot-load straight into the game), but they're also notoriously tough games to play.  Not only is the UI dated in a lot of ways (requiring you to type in spell names every time you want to cast one, for example), but the games are punishingly difficult.  Virtually everything in the game relies on random chance (influenceable by stats but otherwise completely out of the player's control), and even one encounter gone wrong can completely wipe one's party, forcing them to create a new party to retrieve and revive them at a very high cost (and even that can go wrong, resulting in them being turned to ash or lost permanently).  The games frequently auto-save too, so the old trick of resetting the machine to prevent progress loss wasn't a viable one either.

Might and Magic was another game built on its model, though a relatively late-comer to the game (which feels a bit odd to say considering it came out in 1986 - only two years after I was born).  Like Wizardry before it, one rolls up a party of six characters, picks one of six classes for them, which align closely with the four staple classes of Dungeons and Dragons (Knight/Fighter, Robber/Thief, Cleric and Sorcerer/Mage) and a couple hybrid classes (Paladin and Archer), and then they're dropped into the game to try and solve its mysteries by discovering and following in-game clues.

Might and Magic makes a lot of common-sense improvements to the format, however.  One that I found quite welcome was that healing spells have a fixed effect, thereby allowing the player to heal up their party without having to waste numerous spells on bad rolls (that accursed 1 on a 1-8 roll was an all-too-common sight in Wizardry).  Many spells also scale up in power as the character's level increases, keeping even low-level spell slots useful in the long run.  Resting fully heals the party, which is a bit easy to abuse, but is considerably more efficient than Wizardry's cumbersome inn system.  Ranged weapons exist, allowing characters in the back rows that are usually out of an enemy's reach to deal damage while still remaining relatively safe.  Race, gender and character alignment (Good, Neutral and Evil) factor into a puzzles the player encounters, making them more significant choices overall (though the player can change gender and alignment mid-game via certain events).  Finally, retreating from battle is more useful than in most games, as it doesn't simply keep you in the place where you are while making enemies vanish - instead, it places you at the "safest square" on the current map, which is usually an inn or the dungeon entrance; a lot more beneficial for your long-term survival!

Might and Magic also incorporates a few unusual mechanics among CRPGs, especially for the time.  While games like Wizardry and Pool of Radiance tracked a character's age, it effectively had no bearing on the gameplay.  In M&M, aging is implemented as a feature and characters will actively grow older over the course of the game - not just from resting, but traveling the world (which takes much longer without a character versed in navigation) and with some spells causing them to age more rapidly.  Stats weaken as character reach old age and give them a chance to die in their sleep once they are above age 75.  However, there are ways to reverse aging as well, with one of the more prominent ones being the Cleric spell "Rejuvenate" which removes 1-10 years (or, in the event of a failure, adds 1-10).  Enemies will often attack from the side or behind, which can shuffle which characters are in their attacking range; this effectively means that your mages and thieves can't just chill in the back row - their fighting stats should ideally be up to snuff too in case they get caught having to duke it out.  You also have more options before entering battle - in addition to just choosing to fight or flee, you can attempt to bribe an enemy to get them to flee, or surround them first to give yourself an advantage.  Dropping to 0 HP is also not an immediate death; you just get KOed as long as you don't take too big a hit, and can be revived and brought back into the fight by your allies.  One can save the game at an inn and quit, and if their party gets wiped, they can simply restart from the point of their last visit - a stark contrast to Wizardry where dying generally meant redoing the whole game from scratch (at least until such time that you could reach the point in the dungeon where the previous party died and recover their bodies, then shell out a hefty fee to revive them).  Enemy variety is surprisingly good, too, with plenty of different types to encounter and nearly all of them having some unique quirks to adapt to in order to maximize your chances of success.

Might and Magic was also notable for the fact that it put the player in a large and contiguous world; towns, the overworld and dungeons are all directly linked in a surprisingly logical way, and while there is a fast travel system, one can easily navigate to almost any area in the game through more conventional means too.  From deserts to caves to dungeons to towns, there is quite a lot of variety in the locations, and with over 50 16x16 maps to explore, there are plenty of secrets to discover throughout.

A few things about the game still do feel a bit dated, though.  There is still a fair bit of grinding involved, particularly early on when your party is weak and armed out of the gate only with clubs and a small amount of food (but no cash).  Something that took me a bit of to figure out is that you don't automatically collect gold or even get prompted to open a chest after a battle, as in Wizardry; instead you have to Search the area to find the bag/chest the enemy drops, then inspect it for traps or just throw it open.  Visually, the game also leaves some things to be desired - there is an overall lack of animation, and combat is almost entirely handled through a drab text-based UI.   Spells are also not listed anywhere in game; you have to consult the manual to find what spells correspond to each level and number, and how many gems they may cost to use.

Despite those hiccups, though, the first Might and Magic is still a fun, solid game.  It may not be as highly regarded as some of its sequels, but it's still a well-made RPG that I had quite a bit of fun playing.  It's much less frustrating an experience than most of the other first-person dungeon crawlers of the time, building itself on legitimate challenge and problem-solving rather than endless RNG-bashing.  There are quite a few puzzles to figure out and mysteries to solve throughout the world, and while a bit dated visually, the sheer size of the game's world is impressive, particularly for 1986.  It isn't hard to see why the first Might and Magic is still a well-regarded game among long-time RPG fans, as it holds up better than much of its competition from this era.


Developer: New World Computing, G-Amusements (NES)
Publisher: New World Computing, Sammy (NES)
Platform: Apple II, MS-DOS, Commodore 64, Mac, FM-7, PC-88, PC-98, MSX, PC Engine, X1, X68000, NES
Released: 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992
Recommended Version: I've only personally played the MS-DOS and NES versions, but they seem to be relatively similar in design overall.  The NES version, being a relatively late release for the system (1992) does have the benefit of nice graphics and music as well as a more polished UI, though you don't seem to be able to roll your own characters and have to use the pre-made ones in each town.

Tags: CRPG, Fantasy, Freeform Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Dungeon Crawler, Voluminous Side Content, Long Campaign, Grindfest, Save Only at Checkpoints

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Soul Nomad and the World Eaters

Soul Nomad and the World Eaters is one of many strategy RPG titles produced by Nippon Ichi, and like most games they produce, it prides itself on having a vast amount of content, randomized dungeons and numerous endings to generate replay value.  But does its unique blend of gameplay elements prove to be a benefit or a detriment?

Nippon Ichi is a name well-known to fans of strategy RPGs, primarily for the Disgaea series; while relatively easy games to pick up and play, they are also deceptively deep, allowing for a huge amount of character and party customization and allowing the player to reach truly absurd levels of strength over the course of pursuing postgame content.  Later games in the serious also famously took advantage of this by amping up the power of the game's optional bosses to absurd extremes, giving them tens of millions of hit points, the ability to destroy one's base panel (preventing further units from entering the battle) and making them immune to particular abilities after being hit by it once, among other things.  Basically, they're games accessible for those just looking to experience the story, but have enough content to keep even the most die-hard of min-maxing stat grinders satisfied too.

Soul Nomad is another experimental outing for them, attempting to work in some elements of the Ogre Battle series into the mix.  One prominent example of this is that the player does not control individual units, but rather groups them into "rooms" of up to nine, with each unit automatically performing an ability depending on their position in the front, middle or back rows.  Generally, these are fairly common sense - melee characters do the best from the front rows, being able to take more damage and deal it in turn, while putting them in the middle row will cause them to do a weaker attack, while in the back row they may not even get to take an action at all.  Conversely, ranged units like archers and mages are better suited to being in the middle or back rows, where they can attack without readily putting themselves in danger.  Some units provide other interesting benefits from being in a particular row, though - for example, the Schemestress unit will prevent enemy counterattacks while in the center row, while back-row Bards will buff a random character's attack by 30% for that attack only.  Each group also gets as set of special attacks, referred to as "Tactics", depending upon who leads the squad - these can be used a set number of times per battle (increasing with levels) and often provide temporary buffs to that unit or allies, debuffs to enemy units, or just a single-use powerful attack combo (with animations of Nippon Ichi's trademark over-the-top style).

Because of this setup, combat and party equipment in the game is largely automated, so it's not quite as combo-oriented and satisfying as some of Nippon Ichi's other titles.  Terrain does factor in to battles as well, granting bonus and penalties depending on the terrain a clash takes place on.  Desert tiles, for example, grant a 20% penalty to all stats, while towns and castles will not only boost them, but cause units within them to heal HP every turn.  Basically, it really does feel less like a Nippon Ichi title and more akin to something like Ogre Battle or Advance Wars, which works both for and against it in different ways.

Perhaps as a result of these limitations imposed on individual units and their development, more emphasis is put on building and customizing your various team rooms; available slots and innate bonuses are randomly determined when they are created, and can easily be randomly "rerolled" via the Change command at the player's discretion until they get setups that they like.  As the game progresses, more rooms can be "locked", causing them to remain in place when the Change command is selected.  Rooms may also randomly contain "Bad vibes" - enemies that can be cleared out in battle to earn some extra items or power up your room.  Rooms can also be assigned items in the form of "Decors" that grant various benefits, like debuffing nearby enemies, boosting the squad's stats or giving them a bonus for a few turns, such as unlimited usage of skills.  Most of these aren't too great, particularly in the main campaign, but when one goes diving into random dungeons to upgrade their rooms and power up their units they can prove very useful.

As per usual for Nippon Ichi games, much emphasis is also put on replayability.  The main campaign itself has several opportunities to get a bad ending, though you are at least warned which options will bring you to one via a skull icon on the menu so you don't unintentionally lose your progress.  Numerous endings to the campaign exist, depending both upon the choice of your protagonist's gender and whom they build the closest relationship with over the course of the journey (with dialog choices and team attacks performed with them factoring in).  After finishing the campaign at least once, some interesting new mechanics unlock too - one has the ability to interact with villagers via certain items - beating them up for money, bribing them, or strangest of all, abducting them, which adds them to the party as a playable unit (generally with slightly higher stats than an unnamed generic unit).  Unusually at the time, the game also features an entire alternate campaign that can be experienced after completing the story once, having the player lead most of the campaign's villainous characters instead, which is quite a clever twist.  As per Nippon Ichi standards, the game doesn't skimp on cameos, either.  By completing certain optional events, the player can recruit not just a number of characters who surface in the main storyline, but guests from other games too, including  the long-suffering heroine Asagi (from the cancelled "Makai Wars") and even Lujei from GrimGrimoire.

In short, while it may not be the most highly-regarded Nippon Ichi title, it's certainly an interesting experiment by them, meshing the basic gameplay of games like Ogre Battle together with their usual brand of highly-randomized, stat-crunching design with plenty of secrets, alternate endings and intricacies to discover.  Even if that's not really your thing, though, the story and presentation is a definite highlight, foregoing the more light-hearted, cartoony feel of the Disgaea series for something significantly darker and more twisted in tone.  It wasn't one I was keen on revisiting much, but I certainly don't regret experiencing what Nippon Ichi's writers could do when they were trying for a bleaker tone and a heavier atmosphere than their usual norms.  Give it a try for that, at least, then come back for more if you enjoy the gameplay and want to hone your ragtag band into the deadliest army in the universe through weeks of random dungeon diving.

Developer: Nippon Ichi
Publisher: Nippon Ichi, NIS America, Koei
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: 2007
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: JRPG, Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Strong Language, Turn-Based, Dungeon Crawler, Randomized Content, Multiple Story Paths, Voluminous Side Content, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous, New Game Plus

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The first entry in the Zelda franchise crafted specifically for the Wii and its hardware, it is also regarded by a number of fans as one of the weakest games in the series.  But does Skyward Sword prove to be a enjoyable if flawed adventure, or is it really as much of a black sheep as many people claim?

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was a game caught between generations.  Beginning development not long after the release of Wind Waker on the Gamecube, it saw numerous delays and setbacks, only finally being released in 2006 - at the dawn of Nintendo's next console, the Wii.  As a result of that, it was ported to both platforms, with the Wii version having motion controls pasted on top to take advantage of the platform's much-touted Wii Remote functionality.   Both versions of the game proved to be quite popular, though many were left wondering what a game built more fully around the motion control element would play like.

For better or worse, Skyward Sword set out to answer that question.  Being one of the handful of games to require the Wii Motion Plus peripheral, which provided a much tighter brand of motion controls than the standard controller could allow for, it really did incorporate that element into every facet of its design.  Sword-fighting, aiming one's bow, navigating menus, playing various minigames, and flying and swimming all incorporate the 1:1 movement from the Motion Plus into the game.  Some even take it slightly too literally, like having enemies whose shields can only be destroyed by slashing at them from specific angles (and frequently rotating them throughout the fight).

For the most part the Motion Plus controls do work relatively well, though it can be frustrating at times to get it to register exactly what it wants you to do at exactly the right moment; I recall more than a few instances of Link doing a straight-downward or straight-sideways slash rather than a diagonal one I was trying to perform, for example.  Navigating in 3D, particularly during the swimming segments, was also irritating at times, as the close-in camera and direct-aiming movement end up being more frustrating than intuitive, getting me snagged on walls frequently.  I also failed more than a few times at the roller-coaster minigame for the same reason - having to quickly switch between "left" and "right" with no tactile feedback or the convenience of quick button presses to do so sent me plunging to my doom every time I tried, and I eventually just gave up on it out of frustration.  Aiming in general was also a pain, particularly as the cursor frequently wanders out of the screen, forcing the player to re-center it by pressing Up on the D-pad.  I did adapt to it for the most part after a fair bit of trial and error, but I still couldn't shake the idea that motion controls aren't a good fit for an action-oriented game of this type (or at least, not for being used in every element of their design like this).

It's pretty hard to make a good impression with the rest of the game when fundamental elements like controls aren't nailed down, but Skyward Sword definitely tries its best to live up to Zelda standards.  In addition to swordplay, bombs and bows, there are quite a few creative new items to use too.  The whip is one of the more prominent ones - while it can be used in battle to defeat weaker foes and steal items from stronger ones, it sees quite a lot of use in puzzles too, doing things like flipping over platforms, swinging from branches or grabbing switches that are otherwise out of reach.  Digging mitts allow Link to burrow in sand and dirt to reach items, activate switches or break rocks.  The Beetle is a relatively creative one too - a travelling device steered by motion control that can grab distant items or activate switches, or even sever the stems of Deku enemies.  As per series standards, these all get put to quite a lot of creative use throughout the game and end up being a lot of fun to play around with.  The dungeon designs are certainly up to series standards too for the most part, requiring quite a lot of puzzle-solving and having some very inventive elements to them.  My personal favorite being the ruins in Lanaryu Desert, where the player must activate "timeshift stones" to transform small areas of the dungeon back to their pristine, new state, but only as long as that stone remains in proximity to them; seeing these elements transform in real time as the stone travels past them is honestly really cool to see and lends to a lot of creative puzzle-solving.

Skyward Sword is also one of the first games in the series to heavily emphasize its crafting system.  Link can collect items from certain foes, plants and fauna to create potions with varying effects - not just a standard healing potion, but also some beneficial ones like Air Potions (which increase the amount of time Link can remain underwater) and Guardian Potions (which temporarily halve damage taken).  In addition, components can be used to upgrade almost every type of equipment at his disposal.  For example, the Slingshot can be upgraded to the Scattershot, letting it fire a handful of pellets at a time instead of just one.  The bow gets two upgrades that boost its power and range, while Link's shields can all be upgraded several times, granting more durability each time.  These ideas would later be more fully fleshed out in Breath of the Wild, but it is interesting to see them get their start here, if nothing else.

Some clever new twists on norms for the story appear too.  While Link remains a mostly-silent protagonist, it is nice to see him interacting on a personal level with characters in Skyloft, and even having a rival of sorts in Groose, who frequently antagonizes him in the early stages of the story but later becomes an ally.  Zelda herself plays a more active role in things too, undergoing her own journey concurrent to Link's instead of being a passive part in the story's events.  Being a prequel set before every other game in the series, it is also interesting to see where the story goes in absence of the series' iconic villain, Ganon, and how it ultimately ties itself into the later games and their iconic themes.

That stuff is all good and even treads some ground that prior games in the series didn't before, but other key elements of the design definitely feel lacking in comparison.  The world design in particular is underwhelming, with its areas generally feeling a lot smaller and more cramped than your average Zelda world, and many of them don't directly connect, instead only being accessible by going to the sky area and flying there. The sky-based exploration is also a bit of a letdown; there simply isn't a lot to do that isn't strictly plot related, and it somehow feels even more barren than the overworld area in Ocarina of Time, which is not a good thing.  Many actions in the game, such as dashing and carrying things, are now tied to a stamina meter, which can get a bit annoying to deal with since in practice it mostly just forces you to stop and wait a few seconds, sometimes several times over, before you can complete whatever task you're trying to do.  The game also begins to feel padded, particularly toward the end; dungeon elements start to get recycled wholesale and you end up repeating the same overly long boss fight three times throughout the run, as if they just ran out of ideas for things to do but still had to meet a length quota.  There is also a well-documented bug in the game that can bar progress if you do things in a specific order, which required Nintendo to send a patched savefile to players (or, if that wasn't an option, simply restart the game), which is more than a bit odd for a company with such exacting quality standards in their products.

As with most of the Zelda games before it, Skyward Sword reinvents the aesthetics once more, with a brightly-colored visual style inspired by impressionist art.  There is a touch of cel-shading too, though it's nowhere near as overt Wind Waker's and almost very few instances of cartoonish slapstick are involved.  Characters are once again very expressive in their animations, lending a lot of personality despite the lack of voice-over, and bosses are, as ever, enormous and intimidating (with the notable exception of the Sealed Beast, which just looks and acts too goofy to take seriously).   Honestly, my only major complaint is that the whole thing hampered by the Wii's low resolution; this game would look absolutely gorgeous in HD, but when viewed through the port of the system's low resolution and grainy Component output, it definitely loses some of its magic.

So, is Skyward Sword really the worst Zelda game?  I don't think so.  It's definitely one of the series' more odd and experimental entries, with some of those elements definitely working in its favor.  I honestly enjoyed the motion-based combat once I adapted to it (though the focus on using the Motion Plus for literally everything else got old quickly) and the dungeons, puzzles, enemies, aesthetics and overall world-building remain as strong as ever.  However, many elements of Skyward Sword's design feel underdeveloped and/or underutilized, making it feel like it's simply not living up to its full potential, and that's a pretty grievous sin for a franchise that is almost uniformly praised for its games' immaculate quality.  What we get is far from a bad game, but one that could definitely benefit a lot from an HD upgrade and mechanical retooling along the lines of those received by other entries in the series.

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii
Released: 2011
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Optional Minigames, Dungeon Crawler, Crafting System, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Humorous, Bugs and Glitches