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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Swords & Serpents

Most first-person dungeon crawling experiences on the NES were relatively mediocre ports of computer games, but Swords and Serpents was an exception, being built exclusively for the system and taking advantage of its capabilities to deliver something relatively unique for the genre.  But does it prove to be a satisfying experience for genre fans, or are they simply better off sticking to MS-DOS?

The NES has several iconic RPGs, but nearly all of them are Japanese in origin.  While most obviously drew inspiration from early CRPGs - Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy being two prominent examples - they took advantage of the hardware's capabilities to create a fresh and new experience that looked and sounded good, as well as making substantial interface improvements and curbing a lot of the overly irritating quirks that made those games difficult to enjoy for all but the most masochistic gamers.  While made for a younger audience, many older gamers found them more fun as well, leading to a split in the genre that drove both camps to up their efforts for later projects.

Most ports of computer games to the system didn't fare quite as well, doing little to tone down the irritating elements of the originals and adding plenty of bugs of their own.  Names were changed, items didn't work as they should, and the push to add graphics and sound mostly just made them slower and less fun to play.  Swords and Serpents was a definite oddity, however; being made by a western company and specifically for the NES definitely set it apart.

Further setting it apart was the fact that it was a slightly more actiony take on the genre, with a simpler UI, relatively fast-paced combat, little focus on stats and even multiplayer support; if one had an NES Satellite or Four Score, they could have up to three friends join them on the adventure, each controlling one of the four party characters.  The game put a relatively minimal focus on stats (paring it down to just Strength, Intelligence and Agility), has only three classes and keeps a minimap on screen at all times, making it one of the easiest games of its type to pick up and play too.

Of course, the game isn't entirely a cakewalk or it wouldn't be particularly fun.  Random encounters are frequent, and locating a temple so one can heal up and restore their MP quickly becomes key to not getting overwhelmed by their sheer frequency.  Finding clues and new spells hidden throughout the game, saving money to upgrade equipment, and finding shortcuts back to earlier floors to solve puzzles are other key elements of the experience.  Floors are also relatively large, so it may pay off to have maps handy (or make your own) regardless of the minimap present on the screen.

Interestingly for an RPG on the NES, Swords and Serpents features no battery backup, instead opting for a password system.  It's implemented in a rather strange way, though, as there is not one, but FIVE passwords - one to track your progress in the dungeon, the other for each of your four characters.  This does theoretically allow each player to power up their characters separately on their own time, but this does come with a couple of drawbacks.  First is that you have to punch all five passwords in each time you game over or turn the console off, and second is that gained experience resets to zero each time you do.  So if you're even just a few points away from a level and get wiped or turn the game off, you have to start from scratch at whatever level your last password recorded.

Swords and Serpents, all in all, is a competent and entertaining dungeon crawler.  It reaps the benefits of being built for the NES console. having some nicely detailed visuals, relatively good music (by George Sanger) and sound, and a simple, easy-to-use UI.  The option to have multiplayer gameplay is a novel one too, if somewhat underfeatured, and while somewhat clumsily implemented, one can also power up their characters separately without having to use the same cartridge.  It may not reach the plateau of being a classic of the genre, but it's a fun, decently-long and well-made experience that won't break your wallet.

Developer: Interplay Productions
Publisher: Acclaim Entertainment
Platform: NES
Released: 1990
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: CRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Dungeon Crawler, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign, Great Music

(There is also an Intellivision game titled "Swords and Serpents", but it has no relation)

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

The original Ogre Battle was a novel combination of real-time strategy and RPG elements with plenty of replay value owing to its random elements and multiple endings. Tactics Ogre, first released a few years after, continued that philosophy but changed the combat up into a turn-based tactical system.  But does it prove to be a worthy sequel to a cult classic, or does it simply pale in comparison? 

Ogre Battle was a low-key hit on the Super Nintendo; though released in very limited quantities (reportedly only 25,000 copies were released in North America), it won acclaim for its open-ended design, numerous endings and the sheer amount of customizability the player could have for units - not just equipment and class, but they could recruit virtually every unit they came up against in the game to their party.  From dragons to zombies to vampires to werewolves to the Pumpkin Mage, you certainly weren't wanting for options.

Tactics Ogre, later released on the Super Famicom and Saturn, wouldn't see a western release until several years later, when Atlus once again released it in very limited quantities on the Playstation.  While a well-received game among fans and critics, it was overshadowed by Square's Final Fantasy Tactics (another Yasumi Matsuno creation) coming out the same year.  In fact, the series wouldn't get much mainstream attention until more than a decade later, getting a high-quality PSP remake several years after Square bought out Quest and Yasumi Matsuno made several other games under their label (including Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII).

As the name implies, Tactics Ogre trades in the real-time strategy gameplay of the original Ogre Battle for a turn-based tactical combat system.  Battles are also smaller in scale, with skirmishes of 6-12 units on either side duking it out until one remains or a win/lose condition is met (such as defeating a particular unit).  A few unique elements are present, though.  A notable one is that mages don't start with full MP and gradually decrease over the course of the battle; quite the opposite, in fact.  Their MP actually starts at 0 and will slowly regenerate over the course of battle, so if you want to get in spells early, using items is a must.  One can also recruit numerous special units, enemy soldiers and even monsters to their army, though with some restrictions - only two "large" monster units can be in the player's fighting force at a time, and those who directly oppose a player's alignment or reputation will be much harder or even impossible to recruit.

As in the original game, Tactics Ogre's narrative is one that is left in significant part up to the player.  The story does branch out at several points depending on the player's choices, and there are several distinct story paths for the later chapters branching from key choices in preceding ones.  Reputation plays a major role once again - individual units in your army may agree or disagree with your decisions or grow to like you less if you let them fall in battle, and if you become too unpopular with them, they may leave your army entirely.  As mentioned above, others will will be harder to persuade to your side or even refuse to join you outright depending on previous choices, and these of course play into the ending too, showing more scenes or alternate outcomes depending on your choices throughout (though considerably fewer in number than Ogre Battle's 20+ possible ends).

Character customization is once again a huge part of the game, and there are certainly no shortage of options in Tactics Ogre.   Almost any character can utilize basic classes like Soldiers, Wizards and Beast Tamers, but once stat and alignment requirements are met, stronger classes like Dragoons and Terror Knights become available, having unique and powerful abilities and often complementing other units (Warlocks can power up Golems, for example).  Earning new spells (especially ones that sync up with a character's elemental affinity) is also a challenge, and the PSP remake adds another layer to this in the form of Tarot cards - as in the original game, collecting one will raise (or lower) a character's stat, and they can be used as items in battle to grant temporary positive statuses on an ally or negative ones on an enemy.  A new Rogue class is also present in this version - a strong, but rather fragile unit that can turn cards into traps for enemies to spring, and disarm traps on the field to gain more cards.  Figuring out which cards affect which stats, and having appropriate units collect them, quickly becomes essential in this version.

As in most of Matsuno's games, learning the ins and out of the mechanics are mandatory to succeeding in the game.  The difficulty quickly ramps up, with many fights even early on being all but unwinnable unless you've spent a significant amount of time honing your team (particularly ones where you have to defend a single vulnerable unit from death throughout).  This is further enforced by the fact that the AI is almost too good - enemies will do their best to target highlighted characters (costing you the mission or a potentially useful recruit for future battles), mages always target your weakest fighters, and if left alone for any period of time, injured units will retreat, heal themselves and leap right back into the fight.  This might be the only strategy game I've seen where the enemies will try to win by sheer attrition.  This is mitigated to a degree in the PSP version, which allows the player to rewind up to 50 turns in battle, though they were smart enough to disallow "scumming" with this feature - rewinding after a blocked hit and picking the exact same move again will always have the same result, so it's not as abusable as you may believe.  Still, it's also a good idea not to rely on this too much, as fights will only get harder and just barely scraping by in each one with repeated rewinds will make winning in the final stretch of the game all but impossible.

Tactics Ogre, like all of Matsuno's works, is one that shows a love for storytelling and the mechanical elements in every facet - the narrative is a dark and complex one, the gameplay pulls no punches with its difficulty, and it's a very deep, complex experience that will require a lot of experimentation and fine-tuning to find your niche in.  Still, it's an ordeal you're glad to undertake because it's all so well-done; his passion shines through and gets you invested in the world he's weaved, ensuring that you want to puzzle out a road to success and see your way to all of the possible story paths and endings it has to offer.  Definitely not an ideal choice for beginners to the genre, but those who want to see an intricate, brilliantly realized tactical experience and one of the most well-crafted worlds in all of video gaming will find a lot to enjoy in Tactics Ogre.

Developer: Quest, Square Enix
Publisher: Quest, Riverhillsoft, Atlus, Square Enix
Platform: Super Famicom, Sega Saturn, Playstation 1, Playstation Portable
Released: 1995, 1996, 1998, 2010
Recommended Version:  The only two versions released outside of Japan were the Playstation 1 and PSP ports.  The latter is my recommended version; not only does it provide a significantly overhauled version of the game, but it gets right everything the FFT port botched - it runs great, the new features are well integrated, and the game's Middle English sounds natural instead of cringey (though as Matsuno also returned as lead designer for this version, I'm not too surprised by any of that).

Tags: Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Randomized Content, Crafting System, Multiple Story Paths, Voluminous Side Content, Extreme Difficulty, No Saving in Dungeons, Long Campaign, Great Music, Missables

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

The first official sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics was helmed by a very different team from the first (though Yasumi Matsuno returned as producer), and was controversially made for a younger audience, with more cartoonish visuals and the grim tone of the original mostly absent.  But does Tactics Advance prove to be a worthwhile return to Ivalice, or is this just a misstep for a sequel to a Playstation 1 classic?

Final Fantasy Tactics was a big hit on the Playstation 1, taking the innovative class system of Final Fantasy and combining it with the complex and challenging turn-based strategy gameplay of Tactics Ogre, as well as a grim storyline on the backdrop of a country torn apart by war and famine. It is still a favorite of many to this day, myself included; in fact, I consider it to be the single best game to ever bear the Final Fantasy moniker.

Being a popular game and a successful spinoff for an already huge series, demand for a followup was high.  Another entry was announced five years later, though you can imagine the surprise at the announcement that it was being made for the Game Boy Advance, especially after Square's famous split from Nintendo years prior.  Not only that, but it was a sharp departure in tone from the original, set in an alternate Ivalice with several other races and a distinctly lighter, almost cartoony feel. In fact, like most Final Fantasy sequels, the only direct link to the original were its similar concepts and themes. Notable also is the fact that the game does lay a lot of the Ivalice Alliance series' groundwork -  numerous elements featured here would later be integrated into the mainline Ivalice with Final Fantasy XII, and Montblanc, first introduced in this game, would become the series' most prominent recurring character.

While a stark contrast in tone from the first game, Tactics Advance opens with a similar framing device to the original - the events of the game telling a story chronicled in a book - though it quickly goes more meta with the concept.  The game's three main characters are drawn into the story and end up in a fantasy world where they find their deepest desires coming true, though as the story unfolds, the implications of this steadily become more and more sinister.  A relatively archetypal concept, but it manages to put a clever twist on the idea while working in a few self-referential nods, so I ended up enjoying it regardless. 

The gameplay remains mostly similar to the original game's, though with a somewhat simplified UI and mechanics. Like the first, the main story unfolds through a series of battles throughout the game, though there is much emphasis put in the game's mission-based layout here.  Besides the story quest, one can undertake numerous side-quests for various rewards (usually bonus items), generally placing restrictions on what units the player can utilize or requiring certain items to be undertaken first.  There are a total of 300 missions in the game, so it's certainly not lacking for content or longevity, and completing all of them will even earn the player an alternate ending.  Interestingly, as new locations are revealed by undertaking missions, the player can freely place them in empty slots on the map, effectively customizing Ivalice's layout.  Certain locations placed in certain slots can also unlock hidden items via "treasure hunts", though I'm unaware if the game itself provides any clues to this fact. 

Final Fantasy's famous job system returns here too, with a grand total of 34 classes for the player to use.  However, there are now five playable races as well - Humans, Bangaa, Moogles, Viera and Nu Mou, and several jobs are exclusive to a particular race.  Nu Mous, for example, focus on magic and are the only ones who can utilize powerful classes like Alchemist, Sage and Morpher, while Bangaas are almost exclusively geared toward physical fighting.  Humans, as in most RPGs, are the versatile jack-of-all trades, able to do a little of everything but lacking many highly specialized classes or abilities. 

The skill system is a slight departure from the first game's, however, and bears some resemblance to Final Fantasy IX's.  Many pieces of equipment have skills associated with them, and earning AP through actions in battle will distribute points among them; once the player has acquired a set amount of AP toward an ability, it is "mastered" and permanently added to their repertoire, allowing them to continue using it even if they change classes (though with some restrictions - obviously, one can't use a gun-based skill with a class that primarily uses swords, for example).  Mastering abilities is also required to unlock new classes; one cannot change class to Paladin unless they've mastered at least two abilities for the Soldier class, while the Alchemist can only be unlocked after mastering three White Mage skills and five Black Mage skills.

Another controversial gameplay change comes in the form of the Judge system.  Almost every battle in the game is governed by a Judge, who imposes bonuses and penalties on certain actions depending on the date.  For example, White Magic spells may be listed as "forbidden" while attacking with bows or swords could be encouraged.  Forbidden actions will be punished with a yellow card (imposing a penalty after the battle) or a red card (causing them to be imprisoned until freed by the player, usually at hefty cost, or a game over if the main character is red-carded).  As the game goes on, more and more laws are in play at once, encouraging the player to vary their team composition and strategies to prevent being locked down.  On the other hand, most enemies are bound by the same rules, so it can be to your advantage to take certain missions when certain laws are in effect to stop them from using their best moves. Performing an encouraged action will earn the player "Judge Points"; collecting enough of these will let the player do a Combo with all adjacent units, or summon a Totema, both of which can do hefty damage to enemies.  Sadly, even though the Judge is an active unit on the field at all times, one cannot target and defeat them to remove them from the fight.  However, the player can randomly earn "Law Cards" through battles that allow them to add or negate laws for a single fight, and there are a few lawless areas called "Jagd" where Judges will not appear, leaving the player to use whatever strategies they wish; however, any units that are KO'd at the end of the battle die permanently, so they come with significant risk as well.

Tactics Advance was one of many games to jump on the Game Boy Advance's multiplayer bandwagon too.  As one expects, they can pit their teams against one another in combat and win a few extra prizes, but players can also trade units and items, and even earn a few exclusive items and undertake missions not available when playing solo.  Nothing you'd sorely miss if you skipped it, but if you're really into the game, it can provide a few interesting new twists.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is an odd beast, carrying on the distinct gameplay style of its predecessor but bearing little resemblance to it in terms of storytelling or tone. If you're looking for a direct follow-up to the grim themes and high difficulty of the original Tactics, well, this isn't it. However, if you judge it on its own merits, you'll find a fun turn based strategy experience that tells a good tale in its own right, with some interesting and creative elements strewn throughout. It's worth playing whether you're a newcomer or a long-time Final Fantasy fan, but either way, you'll get the most mileage from it if you keep an open mind. 

Developer: Square Enix Product Development Division 4
Publisher: Square Enix, Nintendo
Platform: Game Boy Advance, Wii U
Released: 2003, 2016
Recommended Version:  The Wii U version is an emulated port of the original GBA game.

Tags: Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Randomized Content, Save Anywhere, Long Campaign