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Monday, January 20, 2020

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

Built as an "RPG for beginners" owing to disappointing sales of the first two Final Fantasy games to be localized for the west, Mystic Quest was also notoriously released in lieu of one of the franchise's well-regarded games, Final Fantasy V.  But does it manage to appeal to more experienced RPG players as well, or is this one you can safely skip if you have any familiarity with the genre?


Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was the first proper spinoff of the Final Fantasy franchise (and the first in the franchise to be released in Europe), and it remains a controversial one among fans to this day.  While somewhat favorably received in its time, it was not a big seller for Square, as it didn't accurately represent the design of the series for newcomers, nor hold appeal for those who played the first two Final Fantasies and expected another epic adventure in that style.  But perhaps most crushingly of all, Square passed on localizing Final Fantasy V (a favorite among many) in favor of this one, thinking the reason for low sales were because they were made too hard for American audiences.

The titling of the game is somewhat confusing too.  In Europe it was called "Mystic Quest Legend"; not to be confused with "Mystic Quest", which was the name used for the first Seiken Densetsu game when it was localized for Europe (released in North America as "Final Fantasy Adventure").  Probably not helping either was the fact that the in-game enemy designs and overall style were much closer to the SaGa series than a Final Fantasy title (no surprise, as it shared much of its development team with the third SaGa game).  Because of all this, it isn't hard to see why Square decided against any future title alterations once the PS1 era rolled around.

That's certainly evident from the get-go with Mystic Quest.  Featuring a brighter, cartoonier style than the two earlier games, as well as a simpler plot and a more prevalent jokey tone, it's definitely not in keeping with the darker mood or twist-laden storylines of 1 or 4.  In fact, it actually resembles Zelda more in some respects, as the player often has to solve puzzles in dungeons by pushing objects, blowing things up with bombs or crossing pits with an extending claw, or just leaping over gaps (with a dedicated jump button, no less) to proceed.  Heck, one of the first areas you go to is a forest, and to get through, you have to mow down trees in your path with an axe as you would bushes or grass in a 2D Zelda game.

Combat in the game is overly simple too, with most enemies the player encounters dying in only one or two hits, and those that don't are often because you didn't use an attack that particular foe is vulnerable to (which it will inform you of each time you attack them).  Health meters can be displayed as yellow bars that empty to red as you take damage or a numeric display, though I don't imagine too many people found the bars too useful for gauging one's health; I certainly didn't.  Equipment isn't handled as in a traditional RPG, either - as soon as you get something stronger, your old stuff is immediately discarded, never to be seen again, and it always occurs during a scripted event - you never buy new equipment in shops, save for replenishing expendable items like bombs or potions.  But perhaps most insultingly, you only get two playable characters at a time - your main character and a computer-controlled second character who comes and goes at the whim of the plot, and who is always higher-leveled than you are.

Another element of this was that random encounters are a non-factor in Mystic Quest.  Instead, enemies are clearly visible in dungeons as sprites, and they will only engage you when you walk up and touch them, meaning you can easily just leave a dungeon, heal up and come back if you ever get too beat up to continue.  On the overworld, foes only appear at specified "battleground" tiles that can be freely skipped over (though clearing them out often gives you rewards like extra money or experience), and in both cases, you can almost always run away from battle on your first attempt, so combat feels more like an inconvenience rather than a true obstacle to overcome.  One detail I did like, though, is that there is actually some visual feedback from your enemies during fights - as their HP decreases, they will visibly show damage, which serves as a handy indicator (and something curiously absent from the series proper for many years after).

One big plus to the game is its soundtrack.  Nobuo Uematsu didn't work on this particular game, but it's nonetheless unique and well-composed, with some catchy tunes for towns and dungeons and a driving hard-rock sound for combat (both enemies and bosses).  The composer this time around was Ryuji Sasai, who would also compose music for Final Fantasy Legend III, Rudra no Hiho and Bushido Blade 2, as well as the first two games in the Xak franchise.  While it's certainly a departure from Final Fantasy's grandiose and orchestral pieces, I imagine it lent Mystic Quest more appeal to the western audience it was aimed at, and is definitely worth a listen.

When it's all said and done, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is what it is - a simple RPG made for beginners to teach them the basics of the genre and get them better prepared for later challenges.  It certainly does its job for that audience, though its appeal for more serious gamers is severely limited - other than some amusing features and a solid soundtrack, it's a short, very easy and only mildly entertaining game.  Later Final Fantasy games would do a much better job appealing to a wider audience with accessible design, better pacing and inventive, yet intuitive mechanics, though I doubt Mystic Quest had much to do with that.




Developer: Squaresoft
Publisher: Squaresoft
Released: 1992, 2010
Platform: SNES, Wii Virtual Console
Recommended Version:  The Virtual Console port is a direct emulation of the SNES version.  But as the Wii Virtual Console is no longer available, the only way to play it at present is on original hardware.  Curiously, there is also a fan-made remake in RPG Maker titled "Final Fantasy Mystic Quest Remastered", though I haven't tried that one out.

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Save Anywhere, Short Campaign,

Monday, January 13, 2020

Secret of the Silver Blades

The third in SSI's Dungeons and Dragons series makes some modest improvements to the engine and continues the running storyline once again. But is the third time around still fresh and new enough for discerning fans, or is this a sequel that can safely be skipped?


Another entry in the prolific Gold Box series, and while not too much has changed from its predecessors, there are some marked improvements apparent right from the get-go.  The intro itself shows this off in fine form, with some gorgeous, detailed artwork that shows off some genuine talent and makes you forget that there are still only 16 colors being displayed at a time.  It's accompanied with a surprisingly decent musical track by John Halbleib, though sadly there is still no music during the actual gameplay.

The UI has seen some overhaul too.  This was one of the first Gold Box games to implement mouse support, though it's largely academic; while you can click menu options at the bottom or select characters during the navigation screens by clicking their names, it's still more efficient to simply use the hotkeys for this purpose.  Moreover, it is unfortunately not possible to quickly target enemies in combat with the mouse, which largely defeats the purpose of even having the cursor onscreen there.  The keyboard interface has also been somewhat reworked; rather than using the archaic method of pressing PageUp or PageDown to cycle through menus, you now simply use the arrow keys, having to enter and leave a dedicated Move mode to maneuver around dungeons; not a big deal once you're used to it, but it took some adjusting after playing the first two games.

As with the previous game (Curse of the Azure Bonds), one can still import characters from the previous titles, allowing them to carry over their stats and experience points but disappointingly none of their equipment.  There is a slight bug with this, though - equipping an item that boosts a character's stats before transferring them over will cause that stat boost to become permament, which is more than a bit exploitable; passing the Gauntlets of Ogre Power around among your party before transferring will give them all 18/00 Strength and a significant advantage for the rest of their careers.  The series' common problem of giving you far too much money is still present here, with even random encounters granting enormous amounts of gold and gems.  The latter are necessary to a point, being required to activate the Well of Knowledge to get your mission objectives, but you'll still be leaving quite a few magical items and piles of platinum coins behind as you travel.

Still, at least some attempt to mitigate this is introduced; the hub town you revisit frequently throughout the game allows you to spend quite a lot of money to get some powerful magic items (Darts of Hornets' Nest, magic scrolls, wands, et cetera), and any particularly valuable things you find that you don't want to use right away can be put in storage in another building for later retrieval.  While a relatively minor feature, it nevertheless comes in handy for keeping your party's encumbrance down and maximizing their move range in battle.

Silver Blades definitely ups the ante for challenge, too.  Many maps can no longer be "cleared" of enemies, so you'll still be getting random encounters no matter how many you've faced before.  Some maps you encounter (particularly the mines) are staggeringly huge and will basically require you to make your own maps.  The level of challenge picks up right where the previous game left off too, pitting you against high-level Clerics, Magic Users and Dragons right from the start, ensuring that you'll have to make good use of your resources right from the get-go.  There is a fast-travel system in place, though as is common for video games, you must venture through a lot of dangerous territory to unlock the portals going back to the Well.

In closing, Secret of the Silver Blades is another standard sequel, with much the same gameplay as its predecessors but some slight improvements to its UI and presentation, a new set of enemies appropriate for the game's recommended level, and some minute tweaks here and there.  There are a few clever callbacks to earlier games, and though its narrative may not be the most gripping the series has seen, it's nonetheless a logical continuation and a pretty good tale to be told, especially for 1990.  If you enjoyed the first two, you'll probably continue on with this one and not regret a thing.


Developer: Strategic Simulations
Publisher: Strategic Simulations, WizardWorks
Released: 1990
Platform: Amiga, C64, MS-DOS, Mac, NEC PC-9801
Recommended Version: I have only personally played the DOS version, but they all seem to be pretty comparable in quality.  The Amiga and NEC PC-9801 versions contain some slightly higher-res graphics, sounds and short musical cues, however.

Tags: CRPG, Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Random Encounters, Dungeon Crawler, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Eye of the Beholder

Westwood's third attempt at a Dungeons and Dragons game, taking on a more traditional format after attempts at an action-driven design with Hillsfar and Dragonstrike.  But does Eye of the Beholder prove to be a worthwhile dungeon crawling adventure, or is this just another forgettable effort from Westwood?


Westwood took a couple of experimental turns with the D&D format, attempting to create something that would, at the very least, make their contribution to the franchise distinct.  Hillsfar was an interesting idea with a lackluster execution, while Dragonstrike opted for a more action-oriented style of gameplay, becoming something more akin to a medieval flight simulator.  It was better received than Hillsfar but not a strong seller for SSI, so it didn't really do much for either company involved in it.

Eye of the Beholder went for a more traditional format in many ways, being a traditional first-person dungeon crawler like many popular RPGs from the 80s, many of which were directly inspired by D&D itself.  The game actually moves in real time for the most part, though combat is still broken into distinct "turns" with players and enemies' actions locking the another out until the current animation is finished.  It also largely uses a mouse-based interface, so getting good at manipulating spell/equipment menus and clicking icons efficiently is a very essential part to winning battles.

Make no mistake, however; Eye of the Beholder is an old-school dungeon crawler in every other respect.  It's viewed from a first-person perspective and largely based around solving puzzles in between battles - finding keys, searching for hidden walls and scarce equipment to utilize and solving a plethora of puzzles to advance.  Traps come in many forms, from tiles that discreetly rotate your party's facing to pit traps (which damage you and can dump you into further danger) and, of course, enemy ambushes, which can be dangerous even for a very well equipped party.  Saving frequently is highly advised, as is utilizing basically any equipment you find - even a humble sling, dart or dagger can save you from some damage by taking out an enemy from afar, or press a switch you can't walk to by throwing it through a window in a gate.  There is no automap feature, however, so it would be wise to either have the hint guide handy or make your own on graph paper; it's very easy to get lost among the mazes of similar-looking walls.

Of course, the game is still quintessential D&D at its core.  You can create up to four characters at the start, with the usual class/race restrictions applied.  Most non-human classes have far fewer options than humans for classes, but often get bonus stats and resistance to some effects to compensate - Dwarves are more resistant to poison, for example, while elves are resistant to charm and sleep effects.  As usual, having a variety of classes will quickly prove essential - fighters or paladins or rangers for the front line, Clerics to heal and turn undead, Magic users to kill enemies, and Thieves to disarm traps and pick locks (which can skip some puzzles).  Amusingly, the generator also includes a Modify command that lets you tweak your characters' stats however you like with no repercussions.  Allegedly this is included as a way to import your characters from the tabletop game, but let's face it, nobody ever used it for that.   Experience is earned through combat, but the majority of it is gained by completing objectives and solving puzzles.  Each floor also has "Special Quests" that grant some bonus XP and useful items; these are often quite obscure and may require a guide (or a lot of trial and error) to figure out, but are very often worth doing.

This isn't always strictly enforced in-game, though.  Clerics can wield non-blunt weapons with no repercussions, for example, and almost any class can utilize throwing knives, darts and slings to attack from afar (useful as at least two of your characters are always relegated to the back row and out of direct attacking range).  You're also allowed to do things like change equipment mid-fight or pick up used projectiles and use them again, which is pretty uncommon for games of this type.  It's somewhat necessary given that the game gives you very limited resources to work with, but still a strange thing to see, especially in a D&D game.

Despite a few rules tweaks, though, this is a quintessential D&D experience in computer game form - you're put into a dungeon, given an objective, and the rest is a bunch of solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles in your path until you achieve just that.  Those who are accustomed to top-down perspectives or more action-driven design may not find a lot to appeal to them here, but for fans of old-school RPGs with a lot of emphasis on the journey rather than the overarching story, Eye of the Beholder has plenty to enjoy.



Developer: Westwood Associates
Publisher: Strategic Simulations, Capcom, Sega, Pony Canyon
Platform: MS-DOS, Amiga, PC-98, SNES, Sega CD
Released: 1991, 1992, 1994
Recommended Version: Most editions of the game seem to be relatively similar, though the computer versions are considerably easier to play with a combination of mouse and keyboard inputs.  The Sega CD version is notable for having an exclusive soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro that, while not really fitting the mood of a medieval adventure, is of high quality and worth checking out in itself.  The Game Boy Advance game called "Eye of the Beholder" is actually a loose remake based on 3rd Edition rules, with combat taking on a top-down perspective and tactical gameplay slightly similar to the Gold Box games.  It's also not particularly fun, so I'd say skip that one.

Tags: CRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, ATB-Like, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Dungeon Crawler, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music (Sega CD)