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Monday, June 14, 2021

Lagrange Point

 A mostly forgotten Famicom-exclusive RPG released by Konami in 1991, which had some relatively unique elements and, as per company standards, a fantastic presentation.  But is this overlooked game one that retro RPG enthusiasts should play, or should it simply be left alongside the dozens of forgettable Dragon Quest clones on the platform?

Lagrange Point was a pretty overlooked RPG in its time (and still is today), but a lot of that can come down to its Japan-exclusive release and for coming out in 1991, at a time when the 16-bit consoles were rising to prominence and the Famicom and Master System were starting to be phased out.  Still, it's a Konami game, and as they were known for making some extremely high quality games on the system, it attained enough of a following to get an English translation in 2014 by Aeon Genesis.

It took me a while to dive into this one proper, but I can say that Lagrange Point is definitely worth the small but dedicated following it has and then some.  Right from the word "Go", the game sets out to impress with its amazingly detailed visuals and a stunning soundtrack.  One of only two games to use the VRC7 memory management chip, Konami definitely put it to use here, creating a soundtrack rich with space ambience and nearly on quality with 16-bit SNES or Genesis titles in quality - it really is that good, and well worth a listen even if you have no interest in the game itself.

The setting and design are also relatively unique, especially by Famicom standards.  While most RPG-producing companies on the platform were just content to make a forgettable Wizardry or Dragon Quest clone and call it a day, Lagrange Point definitely does not take that route.  Instead, the game is set in the far-off future of the 22nd century, when mankind has colonized space and set up colonies at the lagrange points.  Rather than generic hostile RPG "monsters", you're also fighting something a bit more sinister - a human faction known as the Bio Corps, who have launched a campaign to overtake the colonies for themselves.  You begin as a group of soldiers who are sent to the colonies to assess the situation, but you end up being shot down and are one of the few survivors; so you must band together with the resistance factions aboard the satellite and take the fight to them.  Fittingly, your weapons are mostly futuristic in design (from acid guns to laser knives) and you traverse the world map with an escalating variety of vehicles right from the start and never have to go on foot.

The playable cast is actually a fairly diverse one, too, with five human characters, three cyborgs and two robots.  Humans have the unique weakness of having their mental states deteriorate during battle in varying ways, which can cause them to inflict less damage (Nervous) or even outright panic and become uncontrollable; some skills and items can reverse these effects, and even put them in a more positive state of mind (Hype) where they deal more damage than they normally would.  Robots, naturally, don't gain either the positive or negative effects from mental states and are generally more durable, but require specialized healing items to recover from damage taken.  Each also gets a unique skill set and Super move, so it's worth trying them all out as you get them to see which ones you like the best.  As with most RPGs of the time, though, some characters are much better than others, so you're often better off just finding a core team you like and focusing on leveling them up while leaving the rest behind at your base.

Core combat mechanics are pretty much in the same league as games like Dragon Quest - turn-based fare where you target enemies, defend against attacks, use techs to heal up or bolster your status when needed, et cetera, though a few twists are added.  The aforementioned Super attacks are one - each character gets one of these, and their effects vary quite a bit, inflicting differing elemental damage to a single target or all enemies, at the cost of some of their HP.  This can be worthwhile in some situations for characters who have a lot of HP to spare, but for the most part these are of questionable value; generally you only do slightly more damage than a normal attack at a cost of a big chunk of your health, which usually isn't a good tradeoff.  Techniques are not learned by gaining levels, but rather found in chests along the way, and only certain characters can use certain techniques (though you generally won't know who can use what in advance).  Each of the enemies in a battle also has a life gauge visible at the top of the screen at all times, which gives you a good gauge of how much damage you're doing to them and whom you should target next.

The other pervading mechanic is BP, which you'd think would function like MP in most RPGs - casting supportive and offensive spells.  You'd be right in that regard, but normal attacks consume it as well, with more powerful weapons generally eating it up more quickly.  Once it runs out, your attacks will be massively nerfed and you'll be unable to use any techniques until you refill it, either at an inn or by using items to recharge a portion of your meter.  Unlike most RPGs, it also does not increase with your character's level - instead, you buy batteries at the shop with higher capacities to carry you through.  Even that may not be enough if you have a particularly powerful weapon that quickly eats battery power, though, so finding a good balance between raw damage and power consumption is key.  One must also factor in the elements of specific weapons for specific areas - some enemies may be highly resistant to one type of attack but weak to another, so changing up your equipment accordingly (and having a good combination of types) will go a lot further than raw power.

Another fairly unique element to this game is that you don't simply buy new weapons at shops and be done with it.  That's fine for the early stages, but in order to unlock the best weapons you must utilize the game's weapon combination mechanic - combining two weapons of similar type to produce a higher tier one with greater power, with numerous recipes being revealed through dialog and books found throughout the game.  A relatively novel idea at the time, and one that later games like Robotrek and Dark Cloud 2 would attempt to replicate with varying degrees of success.  There is a catch, though, in that you can't simply fuse the strongest weapons in the game even if you know how - higher tiers of weapons have higher stat requirements to equip, and characters will typically require quite a few levels under their belt before they hit that threshold.  

Lagrange Point does fall prey to a few common RPG shortcomings of the time, though.  The encounter rate in the game can be irritatingly frequent, though thankfully combat is fast-paced so it doesn't drag things down too badly.  The difficulty is also uneven - you can easily go from an area where you dominate everything to one where enemies will deal far greater damage and quickly wear you down.  One particularly annoying example of this is actually very early in the game - a tunnel that is only a few screens long, yet is one of the most treacherous areas in the game.  Enemies there have techniques that will cut your HP and BP reserves in half and completely ignore your armor and defenses.  Even moreso if you saved on the opposite side of the bridge and have no access to a shop or items that will replenish them, forcing you to just brute-force rush your way through.  Objectives are also occasionally unclear, though you do get maps of the various areas you'll explore early on, which can at least give you a good idea of areas you should check in order to advance; another nice touch is that, unlike in most JRPGs, the world "wrapping" at the top and bottom of the map actually makes sense since you're on a cylindrical space station rather than (ostensibly) a round planet.  You'll also have to stop and grind more than a few times to have enough money for essential upgrades, though I never found it to take so long that it became a detriment to the experience; just as long as you don't die (which robs you of all the money you would have received at a save point when checking in), you'll make plenty of cash on each excusion.

So, Lagrange Point may be recognizable as a JRPG, but it certainly was a pretty novel one for the time.  Not only did it look and sound a cut above virtually every other example of the genre on the Famicom, but it had a relatively unique science fiction setting, worked in some unique mechanics and required quite a bit more careful inventory and character management than many others on the platform.  It may not be a standout classic of the genre, but it's an interesting and fun little title that's well worth a look; certainly much moreso than a lot of the mediocre Dragon Quest and Wizardry clones the Famicom had.

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Famicom
Released: 1991
Recommended Version:  N/A

Tags: JRPG, Science Fiction, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Crafting System, Grindfest, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Slay the Spire

 A deck-building roguelike game that, while not the first of its kind, inspired a slew of similar games over the following years.  But is Slay the Spire still one worth playing, or is it outshined by others that followed in its mold?

Slay the Spire is an indie game that spent a good while in development, first appearing as an Early Access title on Steam in 2017 but eventually being released across a number of platforms from 2019 to the present.  Its premise was a simple one - pick a character, build a deck and tweak your stats from a random assortment of cards and relics you find along the way, defeat enemies and bosses, and eventually, slay the spire after several successful playthroughs.

Of course, getting even one successful victory is an ordeal in itself.  Each character starts with a very basic deck; usually just one or two cards themed to their specific archetype, with the rest being generic "Strike" and "Block" cards.  As you work your way through groups of enemies, random events and shops, you'll be given numerous opportunities to find new cards, upgrade, discard or change your existing ones, and over time, gradually shape your deck to deal with progressively more dangerous threats.   Each of the four characters goes about this slightly differently, with the Ironclad mostly focusing on his durability and strong attack cards to get by, the Silent using a variety of status effects and barrages of shivs, the Defect milling magical orbs and the Watcher relying largely on deck-manipulation.

Battle is of course a big part of this, with the player having to manage a resource called Energy to play most cards.  Each turn begins with five cards drawn and three energy to spend, and as long as they have cards to play and energy to spend, they can do as many as possible within a single turn.  One can also see in advance what each of their enemies will do (attacking, casting status effects, blocking, et cetera), which allow them to adjust their strategies accordingly.  For example, if most enemies are defending or casting a status, that's an opportune time to attack, while if they're defending, they may wish to play cards that build up Block instead (which lasts until their next turn and cancels out damage taken).  All of the cards in one's hand are also discarded at the end of each turn, so making the most of each hand you're dealt is essential.

Of course, as with any good collectible card game, bending the rules in place with your deck is a major element of the gameplay.  Some cards get added effects that let you get more mileage from them, like Retain (cards with this effect are not discarded at the end of a turn); Exhaust (that card is removed from your deck for the rest of the battle after use), Innate (that card will always be one of the first you draw), and Ethereal (that card is removed from your deck at the end of your turn, whether you use it or not).  Others allow you to draw more cards, reduce the cost of other cards, boost damage of other cards, add more energy, recover some hit points, and Block and deal damage at the same time, or add a variety of buffs to yourself and debuffs to enemies.  Fragile will cause anyone affected by it to take extra damage, for example, Weak will reduce the damage they dole out, and Poison will inflict defense-ignoring damage at the end of the turn, counting down by 1 for each turn it's in effect.  Positive effects include Energized (beginning a turn with more Energy), Metallicize (which adds some Block at the end of your turn), Strength (adding to damage inflicted) and Artifact (which blocks one negative effect).

Over the course of the game, one will also undergo a number of events that can change up their stats.  These primarily come in the form of Relics, which grant a number of effects that are mostly beneficial, but can also prove a detriment to some builds.  While a few of these are relatively mundane (just boosting max HP or having your first attack deal extra damage), others will drastically change up the way you play.  One example is the Unceasing Top, which will cause you to draw an extra card each time your hand is depleted; a very useful thing to have for builds that rely heavily on 0-cost cards like Shivs or Claws.  Some that can be a double-edged sword include Ectoplasm, which boosts your maximum energy but makes it so that you cannot earn any gold for the rest of the run.  The Calling Bell is another example, giving you three other random relics but also sticking an unplayable Curse card in your deck that cannot be removed; not too big a deal for most builds, but if you're planning on using the effect of the Unceasing Top to keep drawing cards... it can definitely be a detriment.

Other events may give you "colorless cards", which are cards usable by any character and generally have effects more powerful than mundane cards, or potions.  Potions can be used at any time during your turn and also have a wide variety of effects, from adding a buff to dealing damage to letting you draw cards.  However, you can only carry three of them at a time (five with a certain Relic), so using them sparingly and knowing when to trade a lesser potion for a better one are both important.

Like any good roguelike, Slay the Spire pulls no punches with its difficulty; getting through the game is punishingly tough and monsters will beat you down time after time, yet it's rewarding enough to keep you coming back for more.  Playing rounds of the game, whether you successfully get to the end or not, will gradually unlock new cards and relics for your characters to use, and learning to adapt to whatever the game throws at you is a gradual but enjoyable process.  But even after you've unlocked all the characters and cards and successfully slain the spire, each day brings new Daily Challenges, putting the player into a preset scenario and random seed and challenging them to get the highest score on a worldwide leaderboard.

Slay the Spire may not have been the first deck-building roguelike ever, but it's easy to see why it became such an influential one.  The roguelike hook of being a relatively short game (about 40 minutes per run), but having high challenge is there in spades, and tweaking and upgrading your character and deck quickly proves to be an addicting experience.  One Step from Eden and Hades expertly mixed action into the format, but it's nice to have a roguelike that's just build on strategy, execution and improvisation once in a while, too, which Slay the Spire does expertly.

Developer: MegaCrit
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Platform: Windows, macOS, Linux, Playstation 4, Switch, Xbox One, iOS, Android
Released: 2019, 2020, 2021
Recommended Version:  Having played the Android and Xbox One versions, I see little functional difference between them save for the slightly clumsier controls on the Android port that require dragging cards onto a target to activate them.  The Steam version seems to be the one to play, though, as it supports player modding for extra replayability.

Tags: Roguelike, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn_Based, Random Encounters, Optional Minigames, Randomized Content, Extreme Difficulty, Automatic Saves, Very Short Campaign, Humorous

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Breath of Fire IV

The fourth Breath of Fire game and the second on the Playstation 1 was released at a time when the platform was being largely phased out in favor of its successor and thus it went largely ignored by critics and audiences.  But does Breath of Fire IV prove to be a worthy RPG despite its low-key release, or is this just a lackluster last hurrah for the series on the Playstation 1?

Breath of Fire III is probably the most successful and talked-about entry in Capcom's RPG franchise, but I personally didn't enjoy it all that much.  While it did have some great and interesting elements to it, the dragging story pace and arduous combat and minigames, paired with a general lack of balance in the gameplay, made it a game that felt more like a slog than a compelling RPG experience.  Because of that, it was a long time before I really gave Breath of Fire IV much of a chance, especially as it was said to borrow many of 3's design cues.

That much is true, at least; much of the design philosophy here is taken straight from 3, though thankfully given significantly more polish.  Learning skills from enemies returns here, though the luck element is drastically toned down and it doesn't require a separate command to "watch" them for a chance to learn it; using Defend gets the job done now.  The Master system returns too, letting the player shape characters' stats and learn new skills by apprenticing them to Masters throughout the world, but has also seen improvement - skills learned are no longer dependent on just levels, but have other conditions too, tying into mechanics like the combo system, having enough play time racked up on the clock, fighting enough battles or even having enough fishing points.  Basically, they reward you for playing the game, not just stopping everything to grind out more battles; that alone is a major improvement over 3.

The overall design of the game has been much refined too; evident right away in the presentation and cinematography.  Right from the word go, Breath of Fire IV opts for a more movie-like feel with dynamic camera angles and staging and a greater focus on characterization and worldbuilding while relying far less on corny humor.   The pacing is vastly improved, with dungeons feeling focused and loading being virtually unnoticeable, especially in combat.  Minigames are well-integrated into the narrative, and while still not amazing, are fun little diversions rather than irritating chores standing in your path.  Most mundane NPCs in the game have portraits in dialog, which is quite a nice touch, and the solid animation of 3 is even better here, with fluidly-animated sprites and a surprisingly good framerate in the thick of battle (though you can hit occasional slowdown while wandering towns and dungeons).  Even the movement is tighter now - you still move on a set graph and it uses the same isometric style, but I didn't find myself struggling to position myself in front of a switch or sign nearly as much.  Hell, you even have the option to offset D-pad presses to move in diagonal directions if you wish, which is very nice (though I didn't end up using this).  Even the fishing minigame has seen some upgrades, adding some free-roaming around the fishing spots to find the best places and even letting you reel fish in easier by timing button presses to the drums in the music.  Hell, if you happen to own a Playstation 1 fishing controller, it is fully supported by Breath of Fire IV, showing that they really did go the extra mile in every way they could.

Town and dungeon design is much tighter this time too, with small, focused maps instead of huge sprawling ones.  They went slightly overboard with this, though, as the halls and corridors you traverse are very narrow and, paired with the isometric perspective, you'll have to frequently rotate the camera to see where you are and where you have to go.  They did attempt to offset this somewhat with Nina's action command, though - she floats up into the air and looks down on the area from above, which can help you get your bearings at times.

Of course, they do add some new twists onto the game too.  Combat has been overhauled substantially - not just in pacing, but mechanically too.  You get a party of six with a maximum of three active in combat at a time, but all of them are with you at a time - no exiting to the map to swap characters when the plot dictates.  One can even switch characters in and out of the active party mid-fight, with those on the sidelines slowly regenerating AP each turn, and while they're sitting out they're also burning turns of status effect duration; quite handy as you can imagine.  Switching characters to deal with particular foes is important too, as each character now has an elemental affinity - they're usually given spells of that element to cast, take less damage from it and more from an opposing element.  Characters don't ever really become obsolete, either; unlike 3, attack magic isn't rendered useless by poor scaling, and particularly powerful skills (like Ryu's dragon morphs) are toned down considerably here.

Another major factor in combat is the new combo system.  Essentially, what this does is let the player chain together skills and spells to not just deal more damage (growing higher as the combo count rises), but to create entirely new attacks.  Elemental spells, cast in proper order (Fire -> Wind -> Water -> Earth -> Fire) will create bigger and more powerful attacks, and some other, less conventional options exist, like combining a healing spell with a fire-element attack to create one heavily damaging to undead enemies.  Even status-inflicting abilities play into this; useless in most RPGs, here they score two hits - one dealing light damage and the other having a chance to inflict the effect.  The latter hit can also combo with other attacks, giving them another chance to inflict that status on top of their normal effect.  There are a ton of possibilities with this new element, which makes combat more engaging than in any prior BoF game - every time you get a new skill you'll find yourself experimenting with it, seeing what you can combo it together with and trying to work towards the damage and combo chain goals that some Masters require.  A big achilles heel of older RPGs is the stale, repetitious combat, but Breath of Fire finally crawled out of that hole with IV and made battles something I looked forward to rather than started to groan at.

Breath of Fire IV doesn't break a lot of new ground; in fact, in terms of overall design it's remarkably similar to 3.  However, it also stands as proof that polish can make all the difference between an arduous RPG experience and one of the best on the platform.  The cinematography, environments, pacing and writing are all a massive improvement on 3's, creating a brilliant and compelling adventure that plays great to boot.  The game looks gorgeous, with visuals that manage to hold their own against even the almighty Square; beautifully realized and expressive character designs, smooth combat animations, and creative, sharply rendered environments. The music, as in any good RPG, carries the mood perfectly, creating an experience that's often grim and depressing, but also very compelling.  Simply put, 4 is the best Breath of Fire game ever made, as well as a criminally overlooked PS1 classic; part of that can probably be attributed to it having such a late release on the platform (2001), but it still feels criminal that so few people bring this one up when great PS1 RPGs are the topic of discussion.  If you have a PS3 or Vita, go on Playstation Network and download this gem immediately.

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Playstation 1, Playstaiton Network
Released: 2001
Recommended Version:  The PSN version is a direct port of the PS1.

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Mechanical Minigames, Save Only at Checkpoints, Long Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, Missables