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Monday, November 18, 2019

Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land

One of many original games released under the Wizardry label by a Japanese company but one of the few to get a release in the west, Tale of the Forsaken Land is what one would expect from the name - challenging first-person dungeon crawler action.  But does Racjin manage to still manage to make that format fun in the Playstation 2 era, or is this just a forgettable game made to cash in on a popular name?

Wizardry is a quintessential early computer RPG franchise - one of the very first to emulate Dungeons and Dragons in format and design, as well as feature color graphics and a party-based experience.  While it would soon be outshone by games like Ultima and the Gold Box series (mostly because its engine started to look very dated in comparison), the franchise still trucked on for over a decade, getting its final entry in 2001 with Wizardry 8.  Sir-Tech's last surviving branch dissolved not long thereafter, though, and the franchise mostly came to an end in the west.

However, the series found a very different life in Japan, with numerous spinoff games coming into existence under a variety of companies as late as 2017, very few of which were ever localized for the rest of the world.  Tale of the Forsaken Land is one of the few that was, released in 2001 by then-niche RPG publisher Atlus and developed by Racjin, a fairly unknown company that has a few cult classics to their name (probably the best-known being the Snowboard Kids games for the Nintendo 64).

From a quick glance, though, it's plain to see that the feel of the earliest Wizardry games was kept alive for Tale of the Forsaken Land.  As in most of the western games, the game is primarily centered on a single dungeon, there is a hub-town that one interacts with via menus, it takes place in a first-person perspective (albeit now with 3d graphics for enemies and the dungeon itself), and even the familiar character creation elements return - the same classes, stat requirements, alignments all return here.  Basically, if you played any version of the first few Wizardry titles, you'll feel right at home here.

Other iconic elements of the franchise quickly show themselves too.  Leveling up only occurs "between adventures", IE in town, so you'll probably want to make frequent trips back to rest and power up before getting too far in.  Spells are broken up into distinct levels, which each get their own number of castings between rests, so you'll probably want to save them for when you're in particularly tough battles.  Enemies often appear in large groups, and like your own, have a front and back row, with the latter largely being out of reach unless you have ranged weapons or spells to attack them (or clear the front row first).  Enemies will often kill a character in only a few hits, making upgrading armor and shields frequently to get more defense and evasion a key part of strategy.  One can also freely change classes between ones they have the stats and alignment requirements for, with a few more powerful ones (Ninja, Samurai and Knight) having particularly high requirements, but a strong combination of abilities.  And of course, a big part of the game is finding unidentified items that may be magical or otherwise rare/expensive, taking them back to the shop for appraisal, and then selling or equipping them accordingly.  They seem to spawn randomly on any given floor, too, so retreading dungeon floors in search of more loot is often a worthwhile endeavor.

Tale of the Forsaken Land does quickly take steps to make itself distinct, though.  Technology for those old floppy disk based games didn't allow for a huge amount of storytelling within the game itself, but being a PS2 game, that's obviously not a problem anymore.  To that end, there is a running storyline throughout Tale of the Forsaken Land, with a lot of characters to meet and recruit and side-quests to undertake along the way (often going hand-in-hand with one another).  In addition to joining you for quests, characters do have distinct personality traits, and staying on their good side is often necessary to keep them in the party; some will get angry with you if you battle friendly enemies, for example, while others hate particular enemy types and will like you more if you kill a lot of them.  This also quickly ties into a major mechanic called "Allied Actions", which are parties your group can collectively take once their trust in each other is high enough.  These include things like Double Slash (two allies attack a single enemy in tandem, getting a bonus to accuracy and damage), Hold Attack (one character immobilizes an enemy while the other hits them - great for enemies with high evasion) or Warp Attack (removes the entire front row from the fight for a turn, causing any attacks targeted at them to miss).  A lot of these aren't particularly great, but some prove to be extremely powerful and are well worth getting.

Something else new is the spell system, which is a bit of an odd beast but adds quite a lot of depth to the game.  One can find stones within the dungeon that teach spells or, if they already have that spell, upgrade it to make it more effective.  Enemies frequently drop items that can be used in their own right to recover HP, cure status effects or deal damage, but oftentimes these can be taken back to the shop in town to craft new spell stones or Vellums.  Vellums are essentially rarer and more powerful spells, often requiring you to find a recipe and then craft them from three (often rare) components.  They tend to be quite good, though, so it's often worth the effort it takes to track them down.  If you're finding a lot of a particular stone, you can also disassemble it back into its base components to craft something else if you wish, so this does end up being a pretty big component of the game's strategy in the long run.

Some elements of the game's design are also relatively strange for first person dungeon crawlers of this type.  One thing that surprised me is that encounters are actually visible in the dungeon - enemies appear as a hazy outline that you can evade or outmaneuver if you don't wish to fight at that time.  I was somewhat surprised to find that opening chests isn't solely for the thief class, either, instead being governed by a minigame where you have a few seconds to push a sequence of buttons; in fact, I started the game as a Cleric and got a personality trait related to successfully unlocking chests, so I was a little surprised at that. Thieves do still play an important role in disarming traps, though, so you'll still want to have a thief (or Ninja) around for that purpose.

For an early PS2 game running off a CD, TotFL has quite a distinct aesthetic too.  While the dungeons and enemies are in 3D, the game does make use of detailed 2D sprites for story characters and cutscenes, and they all work well with the game's dark setting and overall bleak mood.  Music fits in with this too, keeping the mood dark and foreboding, yet urging you to move on to uncover the story's mysteries.  The translation in the game is somewhat clunky, but it works well enough and never becomes distracting, so I didn't mind it too much.

So, does Tale of the Forsaken Land live up to the legacy of the Wizardry series?  I certainly think so.  It maintains the challenge and dungeon-oriented elements of the franchise while working in some components of Japanese RPGs as well, emphasizing characters and storytelling as a key part of the experience.  Both components are balanced quite well, presenting a game with a lot of depth and challenge and a good narrative to keep the player motivated even when it can be frustrating to make progress at times.  It may not be the Playstation 2's most highly-regarded RPG, but I certainly think it's one worth a look for any serious fan of the genre.

Developer: Racjin
Publisher: Atlus
Released: 2001
Platform: Playstation 2
Recommended Version: N/A
Tags: CRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Dungeon Crawler, Grindfest, Crafting System, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Outer Worlds

Obsidian Entertainment debuts a new game with gameplay much in the vein of New Vegas and writing and direction spearheaded by the efforts of Leonard Boyarsky and Tim Cain, two of the minds behind the 2D Fallout games.  But does the Outer Worlds provide an experience to rival the quality of their former efforts, or is this just another misfire for the company?

Many longtime Fallout fans, myself included, were very eager to have its original writers return to the franchise with New Vegas.  I certainly was, and it didn't let me down, as I consider it to be one of the best games ever made despite its dated engine and a plethora of bugs.  Bethesda didn't feel the same way, though, as it fell short of their ridiculously lofty Metacritic and score stipulations and Obsidian was booted from working on any further entries in the Fallout franchise (and we all know how well that went for them).  Still, the blend of Bethesda's vast, open world design and Obsidian's talent for storytelling left many wanting more, and The Outer Worlds was seemingly made to fill in that void after eight years.

The engine shift away from Gamebryo to Unreal 4 certainly shows though right away, as the game is far less buggy than the 3D Fallouts and gameplay improvements and streamlines are many.  The somewhat clunky VATS system is replaced by "tactical time dilation" - slowing the game's action temporarily to let you perform actions, with each depleting a bar by varying amounts (moving consumes relatively little, attacking eats a big chunk of it).  It slowly refills itself over time, but some perks (like Reaper) can cause it to refill a big chunk upon killing an enemy, letting the player get on a truly impressive killing streak if they do it well.  This also has the benefit of making melee builds much more viable, allowing the player to even hold their own against hordes of gun-toting mobs with an axe, club, spear, and so forth.

Other common-sense improvements show up too.  Stealth is a good example of this, being less of a simple dice roll and instead having you stay out of sight in tall grass, behind cover, etc to avoid being seen.  One can also utilize a silenced gun or melee weapon to stealthily pick off enemies one at a time, unlike in many RPGs of this type where one enemy's death will cause all of the rest nearby to immediately know your position.  You also share a unified inventory and carry weight with your followers (up to two of which can accompany you at a time), and healing yourself will grant them some benefit too, keeping you all in the fight.

Weapon and armor modding return too, though it's not quite as extensive as earlier games' options.  Firearms generally get the most benefit from this, letting the player expand magazines or add scopes and silencers, while melee weapons can have handles that boost crit damage and attack speed, or mods that change the weapon's damage type (plasma dealing more damage to biological foes while electricity does more to mechanical ones).  Both types of equipment do degrade over time, but all weapons and armor can be broken down into generic "parts" that can be used to repair them, so it's rarely an issue.

The stat and skill system is fairly similar to Fallout's as well, though rather simplified in comparison.  One has the basic RPG attributes of Strength, Perception, Intelligence and so forth, which determine one's starting aptitudes, and they can further pick a "background" to get a leg-up in a skill or stat at the start of the game.  Leveling up and allocating points causes all skills under a particular heading (melee weapons, firearms, stealth skills, and so forth) to all power up, though once one hits 50 points in a single skill under that heading, they must then spend points on it individually to progress further.  Every 20 points in a skill unlocks a benefit, like doing extra melee damage or requiring fewer picks to open a lock, and "Perks" are gained every two levels that grant flat bonuses; disappointingly, though, these don't really tie in to your character build in any interesting way, but are just flat benefits like extra health, a boost to carry weight, and so forth.  Though once nice addition is that your recruited allies get their own sets of Perks and will progressively earn more after they travel and fight with you long enough; this makes you feel more like a cohesive team instead of just "the main character" and others just along for the ride.

A more interesting element of both the role-playing and character customization element is Flaws.  After your character fails skill checks too many times or endures enough injuries (being hit in the head, taking too much plasma damage or being harmed by a particular enemy type often), you have the option of taking a permanent disadvantage in exchange for a Perk point.  For example, you can take 25% more Plasma damage for a bonus Perk, or take a penalty to Perception and Temperament while being attacked by Canids, or, if you fail at sneaking, you'll lose a point of Personality during further attempts.  While you're by no means obligated to take one, it is sometimes worth it to gain that extra perk as well as shape your character more toward your particular playstyle.

The Outer Worlds does fall short in some respects, though.  Most prominent among these is that exploration is disappointingly limited for a space game; while you do get a ship relatively early on, you don't get to freely explore in space or even pilot it directly.  Instead, you just pick a pre-set destination and immediately go there to explore on foot.  Each planet has multiple destinations to land and explore, though these are relatively small - usually only a couple of square miles each, surrounded by tall mountains.  Granted, there is a lot to see and do in almost all of them, with NPCs to talk to, quests to undertake, enemies to fight and stuff to steal, though I'm always a little let down when a game set in the final frontier doesn't let you fully experience said frontier.  Combat does also start to feel a bit repetitive after a while, with a lot of the same small handful of enemies in any given area and little variation in their attack patterns or the strategies required to defeat them.  It does start to feel padded too, especially when you see the same handful of raiders and robotic enemies show up in almost every mission with only the most tenuous explanations given for their presence.

As is standard for Obsidian games (as well as the works of Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky), the Outer Worlds' greatest strength is in its writing.  Set in an alternate future that combines the feel of a mid-century space opera with the rampant atomic age feel of Fallout, the atmosphere is utterly fantastic.  Load screens and environments alike highlight the facetiously optimistic atmosphere while the player gets to explore the seedier side of the glam firsthand, experiencing a setting that is superficially impressive but quickly gives way to some very grim themes of human oppression and the devaluing of life in the name of profit.  But as with their previous works, it's all highlighted by a sharp wit and some very well-written characters, backstories and general lore.  Experiencing the grim joviality of this universe, getting to know your allies and their motivations and seeing the consequences of your actions unfold on the screen through the game's many branching story paths is a thrill, letting you really feel like your choices actually make a difference in this world and to these characters.

So while it has some hiccups, I think The Outer Worlds is definitely a success for Obsidian.  Its gameplay is definitely streamlined compared to the games it draws so many elements from, which aids it in some ways and hurts it in others, but its roleplaying element is fantastic; your character's choices really do have consequences, and the story will play out very differently depending on who you make friends with, what factions you ally with or betray and, of course, what skills you use to further your ends.  The sheer imagination of its setting and the depths of depravity (and dark humor thereof) are great, and the quality acting and writing behind all of its protagonists makes it a journey well worth undertaking.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Private Division
Released: 2019
Platform: PC, PS4, XBox One, Switch
Recommended Version: All versions released seem to be more or less identical, though I have only personally played the PC version.  The Nintendo Switch version is not yet released as of this writing.
Tags: CRPG, Action RPG, Science Fiction, Freeform Characters, Disturbing Themes, Crafting System, Collection-Fest, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Pool of Radiance

The first in SSI's famous "Gold Box" series, a short-lived but prolific franchise of RPGs that ran on a common engine and quickly became famous for their very faithful implementation of Dungeons and Dragons rules.  But is Pool of Radiance still an adventure worth undertaking today, or is it simply too dated to provide fun for D&D fans and RPG gamers in general?

As the company's name implies, Strategic Simulations was known for producing quite a lot of in-depth simulation games spanning any number of topics - wars, presedential elections, pinball games, and a numer of fictional scenarios like a post-apocalyptic battle for territory and, of course, turn-based fantasy adventures.  The last of these are best-known to RPG fans, in particular their "Gold Box" franchise (named as such because of the boxes they came in) and the surprisingly faithful adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons rules it provided.  Despite the franchise's relatively short run (lasting from 1988-1992), it spawned over a dozen games and continues to be highly regarded among fans of both D&D and computer RPGs.

It isn't hard to see why, either.  As Ultimas 4 and 5 were already out and set a staggeringly high bar for design and storytelling, they naturally had a tall order to compete with.  Thankfully they do a surprisingly good job of that, even if many of the plot's elements are relegated to a paper manual owing to disk size restrictions.  The player controls a party of six adventurers as they arrive in the city of New Phlan, which faces all manner of threats and dangers.  Naturally, they are commissioned by the local government to do things like clear slums of monster, find documents from before the fall to find out exactly what they're up against, and even perform a stealth mission or two to discover their enemies' plans.  Through all of this, they slowly unravel the mystery of Phlan and seek out the source of the evil that plagues it.

Not amazing stuff by genre standards, but it certainly gets the job done and keeps the player motivated toward completing the game.  D&D fans also found themselves right at home with its gameplay, as the engine strives to replicate almost every minutiae of the tabletop experience.  Completing quests and finding treasures gives far more experience than simply fighting mundane monsters, which sets it apart from most D&D adaptations (and RPGs in general) and discourages grinding, as there are only so many quests to complete in the game and encounters in most areas are finite.  Additionally, fighting doesn't have to be the solution to every scenario - often one can avoid battle by parleying with enemies, and their tone and spoken words can often cause them to leave peacefully.  When one must fight, combat is honestly very fun, with a top-down view, turn-based combat and surprisingly faithful adaptation of many of D&D's iconic spells, monsters and status effects, for both good and ill. 

Some less savory elements appear too.  D&D's high difficulty is evident from the get-go, with any number of things can instantly kill your characters - missing a roll for poison is immediate death, and being disabled by Hold Person, Sleep, et cetera leaves you completely helpless for an immediate killing blow.  Level Drain quickly becomes a problem too once undead enemies show up, with the only way to cure it being a spell scroll (which are in limited supply throughout the game).  Battles are staggeringly huge in scale at times (with over 50 enemies in some), so even well-equipped parties can be overwhelmed without a significant amount of luck on their side.  Other complications not implemented in many later RPGs apply too - money has weight and comes in five different values (Copper, Silver, Electrum, Gold and Platinum), which quickly makes buying jewelry, gems and so forth a necessity to free up inventory space for other items.  The game operates off of 1st Edition rules, which severely limits the level growth of non-human races in everything but the Thief class, and some iconic D&D classes like Paladins, Bards and Rangers are not implemented in this game but would appear in the sequels.  The UI can also be somewhat unwieldy, particularly at first (utilizing the numpad, several letters and the Pageup/Pagedown keys to cycle menu choices), but it becomes second nature before long.  Finally, the game does still use a first-person, grid-based perspective for much of its navigation, which may be a turn-off to some; particularly those who dislike drawing their own maps out on graph paper.  However, there is a third-party mod called the Gold Box Companion that adds an external HUD and map to the game for easier use among many other features, so this isn't as much of a problem if playing on a modern system through DOSBox.

In short, it isn't hard to see why Pool of Radiance is a beloved classic and the Gold Box engine remains so highly regarded.  There is a staggering amount of content for discerning D&D fans and RPG players alike, and the fact that it's still quite a lot of fun to play today despite its more frustrating elements speaks to its quality.  And of course, its emphasis on telling a story over endless, brain-dead combat and skill micromanagement makes it hold up much better than most games bearing the D&D license.  Definitely worth a look, especially as you can get almost the entire Gold Box series on GOG now for a token sum.

Developer: Strategic Simulations/Marionette
Publisher: Strategic Simulations, Pony Canyon, FCI
Released: 1988, 1989, 1992)
Platform: Amiga, Apple II, C64, DOS, Mac, NES, PC-9800
Recommended Version: I've only personally played the DOS and NES versions, but most of the computer platform releases seem to be comparable in quality.  The NES version is somewhat simplified in its interface and UI design and lacks some features (like certain character class creation elements), but does a surprisingly good job retaining the feel and challenge of the computer versions.

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