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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Koudelka

A late-generation release by Sacnoth, a company headed by Hiroki Kikuta (who made his name at Square composing for the Mana series), Koudelka was an experimental blend of RPG and survival horror elements.  But did it prove to be a worthwhile combination for those few who played it, or was it simply eclipsed by the Shadow Hearts franchise that followed it?


 A fair number of people enjoyed the Shadow Hearts series on the Playstation 2 - indeed, its second entry was regarded by many as one of the best RPGs on the system - but its origins were not quite as auspicious.  The first Shadow Hearts did relatively well in reviews, but sales were hamstringed by an M rating because of its heavy horror elements.  Even before that, though, there was one other game built on its model. That game was Koudelka, released for the PS1 in 2000 only a few months before the Playstation 2 made its debut.  That unfortunately timed release, plus mediocre reviews overall, led to it being overlooked by almost everyone; indeed, even as a big fan of Shadow Hearts, I didn't know this game existed until several years after the fact.

When I eventually played it, though, what I found was a game that was very well-made on quite a few levels.  Right from the beginning, Koudelka shows off high-quality FMVs easily on par with those in Square games, and even some surprisingly well-done in-engine cutscenes that utilized motion capture and professional actors for voiced dialog (with very little conveyed through simple text).  They definitely show that off in every way they can, too - despite it being a relatively short game (about 10-12 hours for a first playthrough), the cutscenes and voicework ensure that it takes up four CDs.

The gameplay didn't prove to be nearly on the same level, though.  Essentially, this is a slow-paced, puzzle-driven survival horror title, made even slower to experience by a tactical turn-driven combat system.  When you encounter an enemy the screen fades to a 7x7 grid that players can move freely around (though they cannot be on the same line as the enemy, nor even cross through it).  Each turn characters can move, attack adjacent tiles with a melee weapon or cast spells at range, all of which have fairly lengthy animations to endure.  Weapons have a significant chance of breaking each time you use them, and most also have elemental properties, none of which made much sense to me (a hammer that deals Holy damage, yet heals even headless corpse enemies on a hit?).  Strangely, there also isn't any real difference between the three playable characters - all have the exact same pool of equipment to use and spells to cast, and the player is even given full control over what stats they want to increase each time someone gains a level, which is more than a touch broken.  Indeed, once I figured all that out, I just ended up pumping everyone's Intelligence, Vitality and Piety up with every level; Intelligence boosts spell power, while Vitality and Piety boost maximum HP and maximum MP/Magic defense respectively.  Furthermore, putting one point into the latter two on a level will fully restore your current total and both grow exponentially after a certain point, so it became viable to simply rely on spells throughout the whole game.

Despite all that, though, Koudelka still managed to hold my attention to the end, in no small part for its impressive production values and story.  The setting - a creepy, dilapidated castle -effectively dark,  moody, and well detailed, with very few drab rooms to explore.  There are a fair number of interesting (and at times, downright twisted) characters throughout the adventure, and as mentioned, the character animation and voiceover is surprisingly enthralling, giving it the feel of a well-produced horror film.  I was pretty well engrossed in it throughout, and despite my gripes with the gameplay,  I'd honestly say it's one of the most impressive horror tales on the original Playstation.  No small feat given the sheer amount of competition it had from franchises like Resident Evil, Clock Tower, Dino Crisis and the first Silent Hill.

One significant omission compared to those games, though, was its replay value.  As mentioned, the game is relatively short for an RPG, and once you've completed it, there's not really much reason to come back - you don't unlock any new bonus items or hidden things for completing it faster, and while there are two different endings, the only factor determining which you see is whether you win or lose against the final boss.  Strangely, though, you get what I consider the more satisfying of the two endings by losing, so if you hit a brick wall against the final boss, well, it's not really worth grinding out levels to see the other one.

For fans of the the Shadow Hearts series, it's interesting to see where the franchise got it's start, and even non-fans can easily easy to be wowed by how much effort was put into telling its story.  However, because of internal strife during the design process, the gameplay ended up being very mediocre and dragged the whole experience down.  This in turn led to poor critical reviews, lackluster sales and the rest of a planned franchise (following other members of Koudelka's family throughout Europe) being cancelled as Kikuta left the company he founded and the remaining staff took things in a new direction.  As such, Koudelka now commands asking prices of over $200 online, ensuring that this one is for only the most die-hard of Shadow Hearts fans and collectors of rare RPGs.


Developer: Sacnoth
Publisher: SNK, Infogrames
Platform: Playstation 1
Released: 2000
Recommended Version: N/A

Tags: JRPG, Historical, Freeform Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Randomized Content, Long Animations, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign, Cinematic Experience

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra

Three years after the second game and five years after the first, Might and Magic III was released and featured significant overhauls in almost every element of design.  But does it prove to be another worthwhile dungeon crawling adventure, or is this a step back for the series?


The first Might and Magic was a good D&D-like set in an open world, which allowed for a tremendous amount of player freedom but also quite a bit of frustration as they could easily wander into places where enemies far outranked them and die.  The sequel was very similar overall in that regard, though the player could also bolster their stats and experience gains to insane levels to offset that, making the game challenging at the start but comically easy once they'd figured out ways to quickly gain levels and gold.

When Might and Magic III came around, though, it saw a significant revamping in almost every element of its design.  While still a first-person, turn-based dungeon crawler, the gameplay was greatly streamlined, with no separate "combat screen" or unseen random encounters - you can in fact see enemies as they approach you, giving you a chance to evade them before they engage or even take pot-shots at them from afar with ranged weapons or spells (though some can do the same to you as well).  Having to input repetitive sequences of keys to cast spells (particularly for healing after a fight) is greatly simplified, having each character equip an "active spell", which is automatically selected each time they press the C button to cast, though they can change it as the situation warrants.  Some relatively redundant abilities have also been condensed into a single spell; the Elemental Arrow spell can function as a lightning, fire, cold or acid attack rather than having separate spells for each, to name one.   Enemies also now largely stay dead when a player leaves an area, rather than respawning each time they leave and return, which cuts down on a lot of redundant battles.

Other facets of gameplay have seen significant upgrades as well.  One that I found very welcome was the fact that cash and gems are stored in a party-wide pool now; much preferred to the clunky and ultimately pointless "automatically divided among everyone in the party" system in the previous two games.  More skills are added and there is no upper limit on how many any given character can have (though some are only useful to specific classes).  Having to constantly disarm trapped chests after each enemy encounter is a thing of the past, with the player now simply being awarded gold, gems and items automatically after a victory.  Notably, this was also the first time that the player could freely save and reload whenever they wished, not just when visiting an inn in town, which helped to cut down on frustrating game overs and restarts.  Going even further, the player could now summon "Mr. Wizard" with a button command, who would teleport them to safety at the cost of some of their experience points and all of the gems they were carrying; useful in a desperate situation, but not something they'd want to do if they could avoid it.  Mapping and navigation functions are now tied to skills and not spells, making them much more convenient too.  Equipment is also generally much less restricted by alignment/class, though it can be broken by repeated combat and traps, so carrying a spare in more dangerous areas isn't a bad idea.

Another big changeup is that Might and Magic III actually has a relatively linear narrative and story to follow.  The first two games, while they did have a few threads of plot throughout, were more based on exploration, deciphering clues and ultimately being more of a big, complex puzzle than a proper "quest".  M&M3, on the other hand, has a button on the HUD that will remind the player of their current objective as well as give a touch of lore on the current area they're in, and it will update each time they complete an objective there.  However, the game is far from completely linear - one is still afforded plenty of opportunity to explore, and after completing the first major quest in the game, the fountains in the first town will give clues to a number of sidequests they can explore at their leisure.

The game's HUD is significantly revamped too, and definitely for the better.  Each of your six characters is displayed at the bottom of the screen via a unique portrait, and a gem beneath shows the general state of their health; green indicates they are unharmed, yellow means they've taken damage, red means their health is low, and blue means they're unconscious.  They'll also make a weird face if they're under some kind of status effect, and upon death, their portrait is replaced by a gravestone.  Other portions of the HUD come into play too, like the bat at the top of the screen flapping its wings to show that an enemy is nearby, the gargoyle on the right side moving its arm to denote a hidden passage or secret, and the gems at the four corners of the view window indicating positive spell effects the party is under.  It takes a bit of getting used to after playing the first two games with their largely text-based UIs, but once you've adapted, you'll realize that it's cleverly done and quickly conveys necessary information while also letting the game's art design shine through.

But of course, no sequel is complete without some expanded gameplay beneath everything else, and Might and Magic certainly doesn't disappoint there.  Character races are now made more distinct, with some more resistant to specific spell types, starting with certain skills or gaining more HP or SP at the expense of the other.  Two new classes are added (Ranger and Druid) and a third type of magic is introduced as well - Natural magic, largely putting emphasis on elemental spells and a handful of buffs, generally functioning as a midpoint between Cleric (support) and Arcane (offensive) spells.  Money and gems can be stashed at a bank in town, which can prevent you losing large sums of them to some traps later in the game (and yes, both will gain interest over time).  Loot one finds now has a keyword system, adding benefits or penalties to the item they're attached to (which would later be used in many other action-driven RPGs like Diablo).  Stats and experience, while still able to grow to enormous levels, grow more organically too - secrets and items the player finds will grant permanent stat boosts, effectively rewarding the player for exploration and opening even potentially trapped chests and containers they find.

What it all comes down to is that Might and Magic III is a triumphant third entry in the series, keeping what made the franchise great to begin with while stepping up its game with a greatly overhauled UI, presentation and streamlined design that was engineered for fun rather than frustration.  It was easier than ever to pick up and play a Might and Magic game and genuinely enjoy it, with a good story to follow and no shortage of side-content and hidden secrets in each area they visited.  Honestly, I really can't find too much fault with it at all; it's a great dungeon-crawler not just in its time, but still one of the finest examples of the genre I've seen to date.



Developer: New World Computing
Publisher: New World Computing, FCI
Platform: MS-DOS, Amiga, Mac OS, FM Towns, NEC PC-9801, Sega CD, Turbografx-CD, SNES
Released: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995
Recommended Version: I've only played the DOS and SNES versions, but all of them are surprisingly comparable in quality.

Tags: CRPG, Dungeon Crawler, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Breath of Fire III

After two low-key cult classics on the SNES, Breath of Fire, like many other Capcom franchises, made the jump to the Playstation platform in 1998.  But does it provide enough of the series' unique charm to help it stand out in a sea of other huge RPG names, or does it just get pushed into the background and forgotten once again?



Breath of Fire as a series has always had a dedicated following for its traditional yet imaginative design, but unfortunately that never really translated into raw sales.  Developers for the series have even gone on record as saying that while they enjoyed making the games and they've almost always gotten a positive reception, they've also never really been profitable for Capcom; hence why the franchise has been virtually unheard of since the turn of the millennium.  Probably the closest it ever came to mainstream success was in the Playstation era, where it was among many RPGs to ride the genre's newfound wave of popularity kickstarted by Final Fantasy VII.

Sure enough, Breath of Fire III's first outing on the system really strove to set itself apart from its 16-bit counterparts in a number of ways.  While still set in the same world as the first two games and retaining many of its key themes, the game saw a definite visual upgrade, utilizing an isometric perspective with 2D sprites on 3D-rendered backgrounds.  Surprisingly, it also did not utilize a separate "combat screen", instead having the map screen shift slightly with all of the players' characters and enemies becoming visible on the map itself, making the game feel a bit more realistic and immersive.  It did of course play a bit more slowly than the first two games, with noticeable loading times for many special moves and transitions to and from combat, but it's far from the worst example of such I've seen in this era of gaming.

Breath of Fire always sold itself on having a distinct and memorable cast of characters and abilities thereof, and 3 certainly is no different there.  Each character has their own ability that are used in various puzzles and opening hidden paths.  Rei can pick open locks, for example, while Garr, being by far the largest character, can push heavy objects the others cannot.  Each also plays very differently in combat, getting a variety of spells and vastly different stats; for example, Momo has a powerful bazooka weapon, but it tends to miss a lot, so equipping her with items to boost her accuracy is generally a good idea.  Rei is speedy but not particularly strong, while Ryu is a well-balanced character physically but has relatively low MP.  Throughout the game, one can offset many of these weaknesses (or accent a character's strengths) by training under a Master.  Masters are found throughout the game and will influence your characters' stats as they level up, and can even grant some extra abilities they wouldn't learn normally.

Another interesting addition are "Skills".  Essentially, these work like blue magic or Enemy Skills in the Final Fantasy series, allowing you to learn moves when you're hit by them while using the Defend command.  Also like blue magic, many of these skills are built on specific stipulations like dealing more damage to specific enemy types or having extra effects based on the user's stats (such as having damage based on the Agility stat, rather than Strength).  A lot of these end up being surprisingly useful, so it's worth it to feel out what new enemy types can do (and take the occasional turn to defend so that you can attempt to learn their skills for yourself) rather than mindlessly blasting through everything in your path.

Another iconic element of the series - Ryu's dragon morphs - returns as well, and like many other things in the game, it has seen a substantial overhaul and puts emphasis on player customization (perhaps an apology for the very watered-down version from Breath of Fire 2).  Throughout the game, one will find a plethora of "Dragon Genes".   Up to three of these can be mixed and matched when the Morph command is used, and the result will be a dragon with the properties of all three.  Some affect stats, generally raising some while lowering others, while some change the dragon's elemental property to one of the five elements in the game (Fire, Ice, Electricity, Shadow, Light).  Certain combinations will also unlock larger and more powerful forms that get big-time stat multipliers, so it's well worth it to experiment with combinations of genes throughout the game.  Interestingly, one gene in particular (the Fusion gene) even retains some elements of the Fusion mechanic from the first Breath of Fire, allowing Ryu to combine with one or more party members to create a powerful new hybrid form.  This definitely ends up being one of the game's most interesting mechanics due to the sheer number of forms you can create, and as mentioned, it's a massive improvement over the first game and especially the second's dragon mechanics.

Of course, Breath of Fire III also doesn't skimp on side-content.  A small management sim exists in the game in the form the Faerie Village, where the player can assign tasks to faeries in order to influence the growth of their town, unlocking benefits like shops that stock rare items, minigames and a sound test.  Fishing returns as well, letting the player catch fish that have a number of different effects, as well as tracking the largest of any given type they've caught.  Saving outside of towns is now possible too via the "Camp" option, which opens up a screen allowing the player to interact with party members and rest at their leisure.

Breath of Fire III is considered the best in the series by a lot of fans, and it isn't hard to see why.  It really did bring the series into a new console generation in style, keeping its interesting mechanics, characters and overall setting intact while making significant leaps forward in design.  Being able to customize one's party via Masters, Skill learning and a huge pool of Dragon morphs keeps the gameplay fresh, while its strong story and a plethora of hidden secrets and optional content ensure that it never just feels like a mindless monster-slaying simulator.  It was one of many RPG franchises playing second fiddle to the juggernaut that was Square, but that didn't stop Breath of Fire III from being a great example of the genre of for the platform.  Or being the only game in the series to get a port to the PSP platform years later.


Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom, Infogrames
Platform: Playstation 1, Playstation Portable, PSN
Released: 1998, 2006, 2016
Recommended Version: As usual, the PSN port is a direct emulation of the PS1 game.  The PSP port is also quite good, though it features significantly longer load times than the PS1 game.  You may be better off just downloading the PSN version to a Vita and playing it on there instead.

Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Combat Minigames, Optional Minigames, No Saving in Dungeons, Long Campaign, Great Music, Humorous