Sunday, May 20, 2018

Hoshi wo Miru Hito

An obscure Famicom-exclusive RPG released only in Japan, overshadowed by other releases of its year in Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star and Dragon Quest II.  But does Another's only entry to the genre prove to have some merit, or is this one mostly forgotten for a reason?

I do my best to find something positive in each game I review; even if I don't personally enjoy playing it, there is usually at least one element I can point to and say "well, at least this was decent".  But with that in mind, I feel I can safely say that Hoshi wo Miru Hito (which translates to "Stargazers" or, more literally, "Those who look at the stars") is a rare example of a game that I can find no redeeming qualities in whatsoever.  I make this claim without hyperbole - Hoshi is a fundamental failure of game design in almost every way it possibly can be.

It doesn't take long to see a few of its flaws, either. The rigid tile-based and overly busy visuals give the game a very messy and cluttered look that isn't appealing to look at in the slightest. That, paired with the wretched music that seems to hit a shrill note every other second and loops every twenty seconds or so, puts a bad taste in your mouth right out of the gate.

But unappealing aesthetics are only the tip of the iceberg of Hoshi wo Miru Hito's badness.  The game's design as a whole also shows several glaring flaws from the outset; there is no introductory sequence to get the player acquainted with the game's plot or setting (being entirely relegated to the manual - and inaccurate to boot), and the first town in the game, while only a step to the left of the starting point, is not visible on the map.  The game attempts to justify this by saying that it's a town of psychics who are masking their presence from the outside world, which in itself isn't a terrible idea; Zelda II actually features a very similar invisible at one point in its story, requiring the player to decipher some clues and acquire an item to reach it.  However, having an invisible town as the first major location in the game - one's only refuge from a hostile world in its early hours - is an astonishingly boneheaded move.

But even putting that aside, the game as a whole is replete with amateurish flaws in almost every respect.  Unlike virtually other game of this type, the player begins with no equipment or money whatsoever, forcing them to fight monsters with their fists and pray they survive long enough to buy some equipment and items.  This proves to be a problem in itself as, owing to a bug, the first weapon the player can purchase actually lowers their attack power, making them all but worthless.  Weapons also cannot be unequipped unless a new weapon is purchased, and once it does, the old weapon is discarded immediately, never to be seen again.  Reselling weapons - another staple of the genre - is out as well, as you don't get any of your money back once you upgrade your equipment.

I use the term "pray" in regards to the combat, because it too proves to be messily-designed to the point of inanity.  Again discarding a common RPG trope, there is almost no difficulty progression to the game's encounters - right from the get-go, it is possible to meet enemies well above the player's level who can easily stomp them into the dirt, or hit them with a paralyzing technique that has a 100% success rate, doesn't fade on its own after a few turns, and can only be cured with a spell or relatively expensive item (both of which are out of reach at the start of the game).  There is no Run command and no immediate "Game Over" when all of the playable characters are incapacitated, either, which means that if the player encounters either of these enemies, they're forced to either slowly watch them whittle down their HP to nothing or just reset the game.

But even if one manages to endure all of that, the dungeon crawling experience proves to be just as incompetently handled.  Not only do the ridiculously difficult encounters continue into them, but keys aren't handled in the traditional RPG sense either.  Instead, the player must purchase expensive key cards to open each door they encounter, which are strictly one-use items.  Should you run out of them mid-dungeon, you can easily become trapped with no means of escape, forcing you to reset the game once again.  But more baffling is the fact that items required to finish the game aren't placed in traditional RPG chests, or even visually indicated at all - instead, the player steps on an unmarked space on the dungeon and the item is automatically added to their inventory, with the only clue to this occurence being a small, easily missed sound effect (which, considering how bad the music is, can be easily missed if you mute your television or just aren't paying enough attention).

These on their own are all bad, but not deal-breakers, per se; one could theoretically adapt to them and make their way through the game in spite of its serious problems.  However, some embarrassing and, dare I say, amateurish flaws further mar the experience.  The most noticeable of these is the player's atrocious move speed, which causes them to move about the maps at a glacial space (roughly two tiles every second - ridiculously slow even compared to other contemporary games).  The battle screen inexplicably truncates the last digit from the playable characters' HP meters, leading to confusing moments like having 5 HP, taking 18 damage, and being left with 3.  There is no way to back out of a combat menu once a player enters it, committing them to use an item or spell if they go into that one by mistake (and if they don't have one to use, they end up wasting a turn).  Exiting any location in the world, regardless of where it is, puts you back at the game's starting point, which results in a lot of unnecessary and frustrating backtracking when you're trying to advance through the game in any kind of logical fashion.

But Hoshi wo Miru Hito's most egregious and fatal flaw has nothing to do with its gameplay itself, but with a fundamental aspect of the genre as a whole.  The game utilizes passwords to save the player's progress through the game; an outdated design element even at the time of its release as games were rapidly moving into battery or disk backup solutions as a means to mitigate player frustration.  But even if the player copies down the password perfectly and puts it in after they die, and no matter where they saved or how far in the quest they'd gotten, they restart at the beginning of the game at level 0.  Oh, they might not have to find a few items or visit some key locations again, but they have to restart the entire game-spanning process of building up their character from scratch again, hoping all the while that a random encounter doesn't wipe them out and set them back to zero.  I cannot stress enough how much tedium, length and sheer frustration this adds to the game experience; it essentially turns the entire game into a very long test of luck, rather than any legitimate skill, problem-solving or patience, and I'd honestly be amazed if anyone has ever completed it without utilizing cheats or save-states.

In all honesty, there's not much I can say to conclude this review that hasn't already been said about Hoshi wo Miru Hito; it's a frustrating, poorly-planned experience with a number of grievous flaws, but its broken save system is easily the worst of all, rendering the game all but unbeatable in its unmodified form.  I should note, however, that in spite of everything, the game is a small cult hit in Japan, inspiring several improvement patches that, among other things, fix a few of the more egregious bugs, improve the graphics to more Famicom-esque standards and put in a functional save system that even tracks the player's equipment and levels.  There is even a full fan remake for the PC, released for free, which polishes up the game to modern standards in every respect and even includes a proper final boss battle - something else conspicuously absent from the original game.  So, while I can personally see no good in this mess, there are clearly some gamers out there who can.

Developer: Another
Publisher: HOT-B
Platform: Famicom
Released: 1987
Recommended version: N/A

"Stargazer", the fan remake of Hoshi wo Miru Hito (currently only available in Japanese)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Shadow Madness

Created in part by Ted Woolsey and Paul Reed, Shadow Madness was their second attempt to capture some of the RPG limelight after Secret of Evermore proved to be unpopular among genre fans.  But does Shadow Madness succeed where their previous effort failed, or does it too get relegated to obscurity?

Secret of Evermore is a game well-known to RPG fans in the 1990s, being billed as something of a sequel to Secret of Mana despite the fact that it was produced by an entirely different studio and, other than the title and several gameplay elements, the two games ultimately shared little in common.  This led it to a mixed reception among gamers and relatively lukewarm sales, and as a result the studio behind its creation was dissolved by Square the following year.  To date, it remains Square's only game to be developed outside of Japan, as well as one of the first to seemingly be forgotten by them, never seeing another rerelease on any format and barely being acknowledged in any form since.

However, two of its developers collaborated once again, taking another shot at recognition among RPG fans.  Ted Woolsey and Paul Reed took the reigns on a new studio (Big Rain), attempting to develop their own RPG for the Playstation platform.  Financial troubles with their first publisher led to the game being picked up for publication by Crave Entertainment instead, leading to Big Rain changing its name to "Craveyard Studios".

Finally, after three years in development their game was released; a very Playstation-esque RPG named Shadow Madness.  It seemingly tried to mimic the visual style of Final Fantasy VII with its low-poly models on detailed 3D-rendered backdrops, as well as a number of full-motion videos conveying the story; however, this ended up looking dated even by 1999 standards, as Square had spent the previous two years making leaps and bounds in visual technology with games like Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy VIII.  The budget limitations the game faced are also much more apparent, with the most emblematic example being the map screen - a literal flat paper map which the model of your character walks across to reach new destinations.

Taking further cues from Final Fantasy VII, Shadow Madness attempts to work in a number of minigames over its runtime to add some variety to the proceedings.  The player is introduced to a lockpicking minigame early on, and later briefly takes the helm of a submarine in a first person shooting segment and helps to destroy a dam with a catapult.  As with its inspiration, these are ultimately nothing spectacular, but do at least add some variety to the game.

Shadow Madness also feels more than a bit dated in the gameplay department; while games like Parasite Eve, Suikoden and Final Fantasy VIII were attempting to put new twists on the familiar RPG formula, Shadow Madness unfortunately lagged behind, with its combat and overall gameplay ultimately feeling rather stock.  Items, equipment and elemental affinities all fit the usual RPG tropes with little to set them apart from any other game of their like.

Combat in the game draws inspiration from Final Fantasy as well, taking part in a system reminiscent of the Active Time Battle system that was a signature of that series at the time.  However, it does at least introduce some new twists.  Battle scenes operate on a grid, and the player's characters are required to be adjacent to an enemy in order to attack them with a melee weapon, requiring them to Approach before they attack.  However, enemies can also surround and gang up on the player, putting them at a disadvantage, so using the Retreat command to back up can spare them from heavy damage at times.  Three different types of melee attack are available as well; Guarded attacks do relatively little damage but give your character a higher chance to dodge enemy strikes for his next turn, Aggressive attacks do heavy damage but leave your character vulnerable, and Normal attacks fall in the middle, doing average damage but not leaving your characters as open to attack as an Aggressive strike.  Later in the game the player unlocks Twitch attacks, which allow for heavy damage if they are relatively adept at button-mashing.

What hinders Shadow Madness more than anything else, though, is its general lack of polish and challenge.  The game is just too easy, with overpowered accessories, spells and attacks being common sights in the game and enemies that generally pose very little threat for much of the adventure.  The maximum level in the game is also a very low 15, which you tend to hit long before the game is over; this in turn has the unfortunate effect of making the game's combat into a literal waste of time, since you have nothing to gain by fighting anymore.  Even the developers were seemingly aware of this, as they give the player the option to avoid battles entirely by pressing the L2 and R2 buttons when they hear the telltale enemy roar that signals a battle, which nullifies most (but not all) random battles the game throws their way.

All of that said, Shadow Madness is not without merit.  While its gameplay is generic at best and mediocre at worst, its writing is surprisingly inspired.  Playing on the jokier elements of the 16-bit Final Fantasy titles and Secret of Evermore, Shadow Madness effectively delivers a narrative that revels in its own silliness at every turn.  The bizarre atmosphere of the game, and the fact that it's very aware of its own ridiculousness, are what truly set it apart more than anything else and make it into something memorable.

When all is said and done, Shadow Madness is nothing if not ambitious, with Craveyard seemingly attempting to make their own Final Fantasy VII on only a fraction of that game's budget.  The end result is a very uneven experience, with clever bits of writing masked between a lot of just-passable gameplay and overall dated design.  If one can endure all of that in pursuit of its stronger points, then Shadow Madness is probably worth a look.  But if not, those looking for a more satisfying experience on the whole have plenty of better options on the Playstation platform.

Developer: Craveyard Studios
Publisher: Crave Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 1
Released: 1999
Recommended version: N/A

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

A sequel to a collaborative RPG project between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, which takes its overall design philosophy and gameplay in a much different direction.  But does Ni no Kuni II manage to provide the same sense of wonder and fun as its predecessor, or does this shift drain the franchise of its magic?

2013's Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was a treat for fans of classic JRPGs, combining a relatively straightforward storyline with the charm, gorgeous animation and child-like imagination of a good Ghibli film, and even restoring some long-neglected early elements of the genre like a dedicated "world map" to explore between major locales.  Its emphasis on monster-gathering and training also gave it a slight Pokemon vibe, introducing strategy in utilizing the right monsters in the right situations and quite a lot of depth as they attempted to, well, collect them all.

However, it was not without its problems.  The game's party AI was very lacking, with frequent instances of characters running headlong into enemy attacks or quickly wasting all of their MP, leaving them without the use of spells when they desperately needed them later (ie boss fights).  It also quickly got steeped in busywork, particularly in its postgame quests that were centered more on empty level grinding than anything else.  For that reason, while it was a game I enjoyed playing, it wasn't one I cared to get 100% completion on (and to date have still not revisited).

Its sequel, on the other hand, seemingly takes the opposite approach of its predecessor on almost every front.  The monster training aspect of the game is now greatly downplayed, with the wide variety of monsters being pared down to several variations on "Higgledies" which generally play a minor role in combat - providing party buffs, dealing minor damage to enemies, or healing characters as long as they remain within a small circle (or, on rare occasions, tossing the player a powerup that will boost their damage output and give them unlimited MP for a short time).  The main characters are now the main combatative force in the game, utilizing their own sets of skills and elemental affinities primarily granted by equipment.  A traditional spell system is also absent here, instead having the player build up their magic gauge through physical attacks, which they can then spend to utilize a powerful special move with their melee weapons (which also have their own charges that build up over time), or attack from afar with a ranged weapon.  Melee weapons have their own meters to charge as well, and once they are at 100%, that character's next special attack will get a "Zing, adding extra damage and an elemental effect.

Thankfully, this new emphasis also comes with game balance geared much more toward it.  Party AI is much less of a detriment this time as the player can freely switch between their three active characters on the fly, and inactive ones are rarely actively targeted by enemies (but can still be damaged, particularly by their larger spells).  They also will not spend magic or weapon charges without the player's input, keeping them available for later in the fight where they will be needed.

Not content with just one type of gameplay, though, Ni no Kuni II also works in elements of games like Suikoden, Dark Cloud and Diablo.  The latter is particularly evident in the game's equipment system; enemies frequently drop various types of weapons and armor with randomized elemental properties or resistances to certain status effects, with the most powerful ones generally appearing as either quest rewards or just especially lucky drops.  One of the primary quests in the game is to build up the player's own kingdom and staff its various facilities accordingly, which leads to a large number of sidequests to recruit various characters.  This in turn allows facilities to continually generate revenue and items, as well as do things like craft new weapons, armor and items of quality well beyond what can be purchased in shops or found at random.  This actually culls a bit of design from the real-time strategy (or, less auspiciously, mobile games) at times, as researching new technologies at your facilities is all governed by a clock that counts down in real time, subtly encouraging the player to turn their attention to other pursuits until it's finished.  Impatient players can spend more money to speed up this research, but as this quickly depletes your limited money reserves (particularly early on), it's generally better to undertake sidequests or advance the story whilst you wait.

This is not particularly hard to do, either; not only are there plenty of story and town-building quests to undertake, but there are a number of randomly-generated minor tasks to undertake as well, usually in the form of gathering X amount of a particular resource or defeating a number of minor enemies.  These grant the player special coins which can be exchanged for uncommon resources, or simply traded in to get clues for new characters to recruit for their kingdom.  This also never felt particularly chorish, as every time I checked in I had plenty of extra resources to trade from just fighting various battles around the world, which allowed me to quickly gather leads on characters and devote my game time to more productive pursuits than simple resource farming.

The Suikoden influence expands into Ni no Kuni II's combat as well, with a number of story scenes (as well as optional ones) taking place in full-fledged war battles.  These play out largely in real-time like the main combat system, though with a strategic bent somewhat reminiscent of the Fire Emblem games - melee units utilize a rock-paper-scissors styled system of weaknesses and strengths, with spearmen having an advantage over swordsmen, swordsmen strong against hammer-wielders and hammer-wielders strong against spearmen.  Other units appear as well, generally utilizing ranged atttacks that can deal heavy damage at a distance but are weak against all melee attacks, and shield-bearers, which are strong against all attacks and primarily serve to draw fire away from other units.  Throughout these fights, the player must manage a resource called "Military Might" which can be spent to replenish the ranks of weakened/defeated units, or spent in moderate quantities to utilize Battle Tactics that can give the player an edge - erecting cannons, providing a temporary attack boost or dropping a bomb barrage on distant enemies just to name a few examples.  Generals must be leveled up as well, which at times can mean fighting a few warm-up battles at respawning war battle points in order to get them up to speed; however, I didn't particularly mind this as, like most things in the game, war battles are well-paced and rarely take more than a few minutes to complete.

In the end, Ni no Kuni II is a definite oddball among RPG sequels.  While it keeps the fundamental feel of a Ghibli project quite well, its gameplay and premise is almost entirely overhauled from the first game.  Its focus on building up towns, funneling resources into more useful ventures and undertaking huge amounts of side-content is much more reminiscent of a modern western RPG than a traditional JRPG, and its focus on large-scale war battles is certainly unlike anything undertaken by either Ghibli or Level-5 to date.  However, it plays well to Level-5's strengths - providing plenty of content while remaining well-paced enough to be addictive rather than tedious - and as a result, I find it to be a much more fun game overall, if not as memorable on a storytelling front.

Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: Playstation 4, PC
Released: 2018
Recommended version: While I have only played the PC version, the game seems to be almost identical on both platforms.  I've also encountered no major issues with the PC port - occasional minor framerate hitching in the more bustling towns is a nuisance, but not a deal-breaker by any means.