Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Dragon Quest Builders

The Dragon Quest franchise, having branched out into MMORPGs, action games, monster breeders and roguelikes, decides to try its hands at another spinoff into the realm of open-world sandbox builder games like Minecraft.  But does Dragon Quest Builders prove to be a competent take on the format, or is this just another iteration of an oft-copied format you can safely skip?

As with any successful and long-running franchise, Dragon Quest has had its share of spinoffs.  From monster breeder games attempting to cash in on Pokemon (Monsters) to action games (Rocket Slime) to rougelikes to even a few games in Koei's Warriors franchise, the series has quite a bit to offer both RPG fans and those used to a more action-oriented style of gameplay.  Naturally, with as huge a hit as Minecraft was (second-best selling game of all time as of this writing), Square Enix saw an opportunity to capitalize on that market as well.

That train of thought brought us Dragon Quest Builders; a game with a plot loosely based on the original Dragon Quest's storyline, though continuing from that game's "bad" ending where the hero joins the villain and the world is plunged into a new age of darkness.  A new hero arises in the form of "the Builder", who has the power to create all manner of useful amenities to ensure survival for the few remaining humans in the world, doing so across five scenarios.

To that end, one must find the site of former towns and rebuild them to attract residents, utilizing materials and crafting benches to build rooms, furnishings and equipment for both themselves and new arrivals.  As a town's level increases (by creating rooms and furnishings), more villagers will come, and with them more opportunities for quests arrive, which in turn unlock new upgrades and furnishings.  Basically, you start with a humble town of little more than a few mud huts and slowly build your way up to a Dragon Quest styled city, earning upgrades the whole way.  These not only come in the form of more crafting recipes for your town, but for your equipment as well - finding ore will let you build stronger swords, armor and shields, defeating monsters earns you new food recipies (necessary to survive, but some also grant temporary stat boosts) while completing quests and felling strong monsters will earn you Life Seeds to boost your maximum health, allowing you to survive longer trips into the wilds.

Of course, being set in a hostile world, one's towns aren't always safe havens.  The game operates on a day-night cycle where monsters becoming more violent at night. with ghosts in particular proving constant pests as they can easily hop over and teleport inside your walls to harass your residents.  As your cities grow, your towns will also periodically come under attack by enemy raiding parties, who can potentially damage your structures and injure your townspeople if left unchecked.  Thus, uprgrading one's city to make it more resistant to monster attacks - generally by replacing earthen walls with stone or steel and setting up monster-deterring traps - quickly becomes an essential step to avoiding a lot of tedious rebuilding after each monster raid.  Upgrading one's equipment to keep pace with progressively stronger enemies, both in town defense missions and to allow further exploration, becomes a major part of the game's overall strategy.

The game is not quite as open-ended as most sandbox games of this type, however.  The player is generally restricted to a relatively small area for a good portion of the running time, with new areas generally being unlocked as they hit certain quest milestones.  These generally come after town defense missions, where the leader of a raiding party will drop a portal item that, when placed in one's town borders, will grant them access to a new island with stronger enemies and materials not present on the starting one.  This means that the game has a generally linear and set progression despite ostensibly being a "sandbox" game, which may upset people used to games like Minecraft and Terraria that are almost entirely open-ended.  However, once the first scenario is completed, a an open-ended sandbox mode is unlocked, allowing players to more fully embrace the creative element of the game with no story-based restrictions.

RPG fans may also be somewhat disappointed that little is carried over between the game's scenarios.  Other than a few crafting recipes, one is essentially forced to start from scratch each time they begin a new arc of the story, with all of their equipment, gained stats and progress reset to bare minimum between scenarios.  Indeed, if not for the fact that a continuous story runs between them, it'd be easy to mistake the game for containing five unrelated mini-games with a similar theme.  Still, the game does attempt to give each scenario some longevity beyond simply completing it.  Each of the five scenarios comes with a list of challenges to complete, such as completing the entire thing in under 20 days or defeating powerful optional enemies around the play area, which adds a bit of replayability for challenge-minded gamers.

For what it sets out to do, Dragon Quest Builders proves to be a success, providing some of the sandbox gameplay of Minecraft whilst mixing in the aesthetics of Dragon Quest and a bit of a town-building element reminiscent of games like Actraiser and Dark Cloud.  While I wouldn't consider it a complete success - not being as deep or memorable as the games it tries to emulate - it nevertheless proves to be a surprisingly entertaining game, both for those of a more casual gaming mindset and die-hard gamers looking for challenges to complete and trophies to unlock.  So if you're looking for a more relaxed RPG experience with a charming atmosphere and quite a few callbacks to classic Dragon Quest, I'd say Builders is worth a look.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Switch
Released: 2016, 2018
Recommended Version: All versions of the game are very similar, though the Switch port (the latest to be released) adds in some exclusive content in the form of the Great Sabercub, a rideable monster that can fight enemies and cause them to drop "pixels", which can be used to craft tiles in the visual style of the original Dragon Quest.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Randomized Content, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous, Direct Sequel

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior)

Generally considered to be the forefather to the entire JRPG genre, Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) was a relatively popular title in the NES's heyday, aided by a Nintendo Power campaign that would give many fans free copies of the game and an accompanying strategy guide.  But is this quest still worth undertaking today, or is it simply too dated to retain its charm?

Dragon Quest was originally released in 1986 was a massive hit, bringing a complex RPG experience to home consoles and losing little from its PC and tabletop counterparts - the player still had to gather clues from townspeople, upgrade equipment and overcome massive dungeons in order to succeed.  Inspired by the likes of visual novels and, of course, the genre-defining Wizardry franchise, the game proved to be a success, selling millions of copies in Japan and kicking off a massively popular franchise which continues to this day.

In America, however, the franchise had a considerably tougher time.  While all four of the Famicom Dragon Quest games did get ported over, they saw relatively low sales as the RPG genre's popularity hadn't yet grown much.  The first game was the most prominent example of this; despite a large marketing campaign by Nintendo, Dragon Warrior (renamed due to rights issues) proved to be unpopular at retail.  Facing a financial disaster for this, the game was later given away for free alongside subscriptions to Nintendo Power magazine along with a player's guide that essentially provided a step-by-step walkthrough for the whole adventure.

Still, while it is easy to dismiss the game as "basic" and "generic" these days, Dragon Warrior showed quite a bit of refinement compared to many other games of the era.  The game's translation was actually surprisingly good, with virtually no namespace limitations leading to confusion and a well-written script that uses medieval English without coming off as forced.  This in turn helps the player figure out many of the puzzles on their own power, as some NPC or clue in the game world will usually tell you exactly what needs to be done and where necessary items are found - a very strong contrast to games like Castlevania II and Milon's Secret Castle, where the overall design was opaque and the spotty translations made puzzles almost impossible to decipher without outside help.  Enix clearly put a lot of effort into making the game stand out, and it's a bit of a shame that it went largely unappreciated by gamers of the era.

A few elements of the game can accurately be described as "basic", though.  There is only one playable character in the game and their abilities are more or less set - you get the same list of spells and overall gameplay each time you play, with only a very slight variation in your starting stats determined by the name you input for your character.  While there are several towns and dungeons in the game to explore, the game can only be saved at the starting castle, requiring frequent trips back to record one's progress.  Combat is similarly simple, always pitting the player against a single monster at a time, which gradually grow tougher as the player crosses bridges and enter new dungeons further away from the start point.  There aren't really any elemental weaknesses to speak of, either, and the only two status effects, so combat is fairly generic overall.  Still, there is a relatively large amount of variety in the enemies, from the iconic Slimes to oddities like Drolls and Druins to, of course, the powerful and dangerous Dragons, most of which still appear in franchise entries today.  Much emphasis is placed on level grinding as well, with it comprising the vast majority of game time - even in speedruns of the game, roughly 80% of time spend on the game is done powering up one's character to be ready for the next dungeon.

A few other refinements were made to the NES port of the game as well.  Some extra graphics were added for shorelines, and the gameplay overall saw some tweaking; in the Famicom original, all NPCs would always face toward the screen and the player would have to choose a direction each time they wanted to interact with the environment.  The NES port changes this for the better, giving each character a set of sprites for facing in each direction and having interactions automatically take place where they're facing (or the tile they're standing on).  The Famicom game also utilized a password system to save one's progress, which was just a bit cumbersome; the NES version changes this for the better, utilizing a more convenient battery backup system.

Graphical improvements aside, the game retains a simple but charming style, with simple, tile-based representations of water, trees, grass, swamp and bricks for the locales.  The most detailed elements come in battle, with some surprisingly elaborate enemy designs; still, animation is relatively minimal throughout, with attacks simply represented by vibrating the screen or making a sprite flicker momentarily.  Still, for a game originally released in 1986, it works relatively well.  The music and sound effects in the game are much in the same vein - simple, but iconic.  So much so that they're still used in series entries over thirty years later.

In short, Dragon Warrior/Quest was an icon in its time, as well as a good NES RPG, showing a level of polish that few other text-heavy games of the era did.  It is a bit hard to revisit nowadays, though, owing to its heavy emphasis on level grinding and overall slow pace.  Still, it's at least worth a look as an important piece of history for the JRPG genre.

Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Enix
Platform: Famicom/NES, MSX, PC-9801, Super Famicom, Sattelaview, Game Boy Color, Mobile, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation 4
Released: 1986, 1989, 1993, 2000, 2004, 2011, 2014, 2017
Recommended Version: Most of the game's remakes and ports make attempts to update the gameplay a bit to more modern sensibilities, having enemies award more experience points and gold and updating the graphics and sounds a bit to more modern standards.  Most of these are Japan-exclusive, however, with the only ones to see a western release being released on the Game Boy Color and Android.  Still, these do provide for a smoother experinece overall than the original versions, so those are the ones I'd recommend playing today.

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-based, Random Encounters, Grindfest, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Mega Man X: Command Mission

The Mega Man franchise, while primarily an action-based one, took forays into several other genres, from racing games to Zelda-styled adventures to CCG-RPG hybrids to even a kart racer.  Mega Man X Command Mission marks the X series' first foray into the realm of traditional Japanese RPGs; but does this title prove to be a worthy entry to the genre, or is this one spinoff title that should have never been conceived?

The Mega Man series, and the X series in particular, had fallen on pretty hard times in the early 2000s.  Wanting to take the series in a new direction, Keiji Inafune had intended to end the story of X with X5 and pick it up with Mega Man Zero instead.  But Capcom, never one to let a popular franchise fade, simply continued the franchise with no input from him, resulting in two games that deviated from franchise norms in numerous ways.  More importantly, though, they also saw a significant downturn in quality; X6 and X7 are widely regarded as the worst of the series by fans for their deeply flawed gameplay and overall uninspired design.  X8 was much better-received, but the damage was already done by then, resulting in the game getting only a limited release and capping off the X series for good.

In between all of that, however, there was also another X game that isn't as widely talked about.  While not the first Mega Man RPG (that going to the Battle Network spinoff series), Command Mission was the first to utilize a more traditional JRPG style format, rather than trying to work in strategy and collectible card game elements.  To that end, the game features the familiar cast of the X series, as well as four new characters, on a turn-based adventure that works in numerous puzzles, a turn-based combat system and even some mid-combat minigames reminiscent of the Final Fantasy series.

In spite of this, though, the game still retains a Mega Man X flavor relatively well throughout.  Rather than traditional healing items, the player gets a supply of sub-tanks that can be depleted to restore characters' health at any time, and which get small amounts of capacity restored after each battle, resting at an inn, or by hitting certain item crystals on the field.  Each character's Action Trigger ("Limit Break", more or less) is reminiscent of their action game counterparts; X's allows him to do a charged shot that hits all enemies for moderate damage, Zero can string together long combinations of melee attacks for heavy damage similar to Zell's limit break from Final Fantasy 8.  One notable missing feature, though, is that X does not get new weapons each time he defeats a boss; the closest you get to emulating that is with Axl, whose Action Trigger allows him to morph into defeated bosses for a single attack, allowing him to exploit elemental weaknesses more easily than most characters.  Though I do find it amusing that, in the game's final stages, one finds a series of teleporter hatches that lead to rematches with most of the old bosses again, just like most of the mainline games in the series.

In addition to the three protagonists of the main X series, four new protagonists round out Command Mission's cast.  Massimo is the archetypal tank character, having a lot of HP and able to absorb damage, but having only average attack power and a weakness to elemental attacks.  Marino more or less serves as the "thief" character with a high speed rating and the ability to steal items via her Action Trigger.  Spider is a gambler archetype who attacks with cards and utilizes a Poker minigame as his Action Trigger, and Cinnamon is a healer with relatively minimal attacking capabilities, but a powerful Action Trigger that lets her restore a large amount of HP to all allies without having to spend Sub Tanks.  Overall, they do their job well, rounding out a cast that shows a lot of the traditional JRPG archetypes, but without feeling out of place in the Mega Man X universe.

The overall gameplay of the game, however, is very similar to Final Fantasy X, released only a couple years prior.  Combat in  the game utilizes a turn-based system, with the player afforded opportunities to delay their later turns in order to unleash a powerful attack, or inflict certain attacks that can delay an enemy's turn until later in the fight.  Rather than traditional "magic", however, each character makes heavy use of their Action Triggers, governed by an action bar that fills 25% each turn; once it reaches 50% or more, they can then empty it to use their special move, with greater effects being earned the more full the bar is before activation; for example, X's charged shot will do more damage at higher percentages, with a guaranteed critical hit at 100%.  One can also spend a percentage of the action bar to activate "sub weapons", allowing them to do a bit of extra damage alongside their normal attack or activate some extra effects like gaining extra experience or lowering enemy stats temporarily.  These also serve as most characters' primary way to inflict elemental damage on enemies, letting them exploit weaknesses and deal extra damage.  Essentially, much of the combat comes down to managing each character's action bar, with knowing when to use sub-weapons as much a part of the game's strategy as knowing when to utilize one's Action Triggers.

Each character also has a special ability called a "Hyper Mode", which grants them a significant boost in power for a limited number of turns.  For X and Zero, these take the form of the series' traditional Armors and change up their attacks, with X's Action Trigger becoming a much stronger attack that hits only a single target, whilst Zero's is a straight power upgrade.  Others have some more nontraditional effects, with Spider and Axl becoming invisible (and completely invulnerable) for a short period whilst Marino gets a huge speed boost - often enough to take several turns in quick succession.  Two even more powerful forms are available for X and Zero, though as per RPG tradition, these require the player to defeat exceptionally difficult optional bosses to be unlocked.

Mega Man X Command Mission is an overall competent game, though its overall balance leaves some things to be desired.  For example, I almost never used Massimo; being able to tank damage helps at times, but his relatively low damage output, paired with a weakness to all outputs, severely limits his usefulness.  By contrast, Cinnamon becomes extremely overpowered in the late stages of the game; being able to fully heal the party every three turns or so makes most battles into a joke, as does Zero as a whole - his normal attack, paired with a sub-weapon he stats the game with, had me doing an absurd amount of damage by the end to the point where I didn't even need his Action Trigger anymore.  Basically, like many of the Final Fantasy games of the era, Command Mission becomes ridiculously unbalanced in its later stages, with a few members of the cast dominating while the rest gradually see less and less use.

A nice facet of Command Mission is that, unlike the two games that preceded it, this one does not skimp on the presentation.  The game is presented in full 3D as X7 was, with nicely detailed environments and bright, cel-shaded character models that actually look quite good on-screen and in animation.  But more importantly, the game features well-done voiceover by a professional cast - a nice change for a series that quickly became infamous for its awful VO (as many meme videos can attest).  Even the music is surprisingly good, keeping the energetic feel of the X series while not going overboard and becoming grating owing to the slower pace of the RPG format.

At the end of the day, Mega Man X Command Mission is an early 2000's RPG, hitting many of the design tropes of games like Final Fantasy X while working in a Mega Man X flavor to the whole thing.  It's by no means an outstanding example of the genre, but it is an overall competent RPG and a surprisingly decent Mega Man X game, particularly for the time in which it came out.  While there are many other games I'd recommend checking out first, this one is still worth a look for X series fans or just those with an interest in lesser-known JRPGs.

Developer: Capcom Production Studio 3
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Playstation 2, Gamecube
Released: 2004
Recommended Version: Both versions are very similar, though I personally prefer the button layout of the Gamecube version.  Each version does have some exclusive content, however - the Gamecube version utilizes the Game Boy Advance Link Cable as part of a radar function to find hidden items (depicted onscreen in the PS2 port) while the Playstation 2 version has an unlockable demo of Mega Man X8 instead.  Experience penalties for taking too many turns to win a boss battle also seem to occur much more quickly on the Gamecube port for some reason.

Tags: JRPG, Science Fiction, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Mechanical Minigames, Optional Minigames, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music