Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

A direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts in story, though its gameplay takes a turn into the realms of the collectible card game and dungeon crawler genres.  But does this prove to be a competent and entertaining new take for the series, or does it just become too much of a mess to enjoy?

Originally released on the Game Boy Advance and later remade for Playstation 2, Chain of Memories is the little-spoken-of direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts.  While it retains the action oriented gameplay and a heavy reliance on Disney charm, its overall design was much different, becoming something akin to a dungeon-crawler with some card game elements mixed in.

Yes, rather than having Square Enix's iconic intricately-designed worlds with puzzles and hidden secrets, Chain of Memories is now built around exploring a multi-floor dungeon.  Unlike many games of this type, however, the floors are not "randomly" generated per se; the layouts remain the same across playthroughs, but the player collects "room cards" through battles and inserts them into doors, with the cards they use determining what they find inside.  Each card they find is given a random number from 0 to 9, and its color determines what effect it will have on the newly-generated room - red cards generally give positive and negative effects to enemies found within (causing more to spawn, making them weaker, and so forth), green cards give a bonus to the player in that room (such as making their physical attacks more powerful or increasing the numbers of their combat cards temporarily) and blue cards give "loot" like treasures or a mid-dungeon save point.  These stay constant until the player leaves the current floor or rerolls the room by putting more cards into the door.  Said doors do have semi-randomized requirements, though, often requiring the player to put in a card of a particular number, a higher or lower number than specified, or a specific color of card, so there is still an element of randomness to what the player may potentially see each time.

Unlike the original game, Chain of Memories also has a separate combat system, with the player able to land an early strike on the enemy outside of battle to stun them and gain an advantage once the fight starts.  Combat unfolds in real time, though cards come into play here, too.  Each action the player takes is now done by playing a card - attacking with one's weapon (having to spend one card for each hit in a combo), casting spells, using items to replenish one's deck or restore HP, or summon familiar characters like Simba and Genie for a powerful attack.  Once one's deck runs out, they must switch to the Reload command and hold down the button to refill their deck, with the process taking longer each time they do so (up to three times).  Despite the card game element, however, the player is not reliant on "luck of the draw" to win battles - they are given all of their cards from the get-go and can switch between and use them as they wish.

Each combat card carries a number as well, once again from 0 to 9.  When a card is in play and the player (or enemy) plays a higher-numbered card, a 'Card Crash' occurs and the lower card's effect will be cancelled.  Similarly, if a higher-numbered card is already in play and a lower-number card is played, its effect is negated before it even begins and the card is wasted.  This quickly becomes a key part of the overall strategy, as having too many low-numbered cards can make it difficult to get any actions done at all, particularly in large-scale fights with many enemies attacking you at once; too often one can try to attack with a 5 card, only for an enemy clear across the field to play a 6 and stuff their entire combo.  Having as many higher-numbered cards as possible helps with this, as does the occasional 0 card; these are unique in that they will always lose in a Card Crash when played first, but will defeat any number when played second.  While less useful in mundane encounters with enemies where they can easily be defeated by another enemy in the group, they prove quite valuable in boss fights for shutting down their big attacks.  Defeating certain foes will also unlock special "enemy" cards, which the player can utilize during battle for a plethora of effects, such as extending one's attack range, becoming temporarily immune to attacks from the front or rendering their cards unbreakable for a short period.

Another element of strategy comes in with combos and Sleights.  In short, you press a button to "store" your currently highlighted card, and once three are stored, you press the button one more time to use all three of them in quick succession.  Sleights are essentially your special moves for the game, and many of them are carried directly over from Kingdom Hearts.  Activating these is a trickier endeavor - one must store three cards of a specified type and their numbers must add up to be within a specified range.  While both tend to do more damage than a normal attack, more importantly, the numbers on all three cards will be combined for the purposes of determining the winner of a Card Clash, making them a great way to beat stalemates or shut down particularly strong boss attacks.  Sleights and combos do have a significant drawback, though - the first card used in the combo will be unavailable for the rest of the battle, so relying too heavily on them can leave the player stranded at a bad time, especially in boss battles.

Of course, no card-based game is complete without a significant random element, and this comes in when the player is looking for new cards to build their deck.  While some cards can be earned as rewards from battle and by hitting random objects in dungeon rooms, the majority will likely come from Moogle Shops that can be placed in the dungeon with the requisite room cards.  Each pack contains five cards of a particular type (weapon, magic or item), or for 150 points, one can buy a pack with all three mixed in at random.  Naturally, you'll mostly get duds from this, but as it's the only (relatively) consistent way to get high-number cards, you'll just have to play the odds.  Unwanted cards can be sold back to recoup some losses too, which helps to reduce the grinding element.

Deck building is another key part of the game's strategy.  Each card has a Card Point value associated with it (higher-numbers and better effects costing more, naturally), and only by gaining levels can the maximum CP value for a deck be raised.  Therefore, the player must constantly balance the cards in their deck to accommodate upcoming challenges, but not leave their options too limited.  One thing that can help with this is that randomly-acquired cards have a small chance to be "Premium" cards, indicated by a separate listing on the card screen and a gold number on the card itself.  These cost significantly fewer points to put in a deck than their standard counterparts, but the drawback is that they can only be used once per battle unless used as the second or third card in a combo or Sleight.  Again, not something that one can rely on too much, but if you happen to get one that's just the right number and type you need for a Sleight, they can come in handy.

In short, Chain of Memories is an odd experimental outing for the series, making the controversial move of continuing the storyline directly from the first game's ending while changing up its familiar gameplay to something almost entirely new.  Once you adapt to its style, though, it proves to be a surprisingly addictive experience, even if it doesn't have the same level of depth and strategy that most card-based games do.  Not the Kingdom Hearts franchise's best game for sure, but one that I enjoyed playing regardless.

Developer: Jupiter
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Game Boy Advance, Playstation 2, Playstation 4
Released: 2004, 2008, 2017
Recommended Version:  Gameplay between the original GBA version and its Playstation 2 remake remains relatively constant despite the shift to a 3D perspective, though the gameplay is somewhat more difficult in 3D as enemies seem to barrage you constantly in some battles.  Still, I'd recommend the PS4 port if you're going to play it today, as it's readily available on compilations with several other games in the series so you can easily follow the storyline (plus it looks great in HD).

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Real-Time Combat, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Optional Minigames, Dungeon Crawler, Randomized Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign

Monday, December 3, 2018

Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel

A spinoff rejected by fans of the PC series and ignored by console gamers who had no previous exposure to the franchise, Brotherhood of Steel is a Fallout game without a home.  But was there at least some merit to be found for the few that did play it, or is this one franchise offshoot that is heavily maligned for good reason?

Fallout is among the most highly-acclaimed of all CRPG franchises, with some even going so far as to credit it for reviving the genre with its emphasis on quests, world-building and gameplay that actually felt like a tabletop RPG and not just devolving into a mindless kill-fest as most RPGs before then were wont to do.  It found a new level of fame and attention in 2008 with Fallout 3, a revival of the franchise now under the helm of Bethesda Softworks; while the gameplay was now reworked to be more action-driven, Bethesda's talent for building huge open worlds and intriguing settings paid off, making it a game that found appeal among old Fallout fans and bringing many new ones on board too.

Among both old and new Fallout players, however, there is one game that is almost never spoken of - Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel.  The only console-exclusive game in the franchise, which was famously released in a period where Interplay was in a financial crisis and putting out quickly-made cashin titles - in other words, the complete antithesis of Fallout, a game noted for the care and attention put into every facet of its design.  That was certainly evident in the game's reception, too - shunned by fans and given mediocre scores overall by reviewers, it sold an abismally low 120,000 copies across both platforms, making it the worst-selling game in the series and the lowest-rated Fallout game until 2018's Fallout 76.  Even Bethesda Softworks barely acknowledges its existence, only commenting to confirm that it is considered a non-canon entry due to many elements of its lore contradicting those of the series proper.  But is it really as bad as its reputation would have you believe?  I was intent to cut through the hyperbole and find out, so I went and picked up a used copy.

The first thing to note is that Brotherhood of Steel plays very unlike any other Fallout game.  Rather than being turn-based or even turning it into an open world action-RPG as the later games do, Brotherhood of Steel can more aptly be described as a "Diablo-like".  Playing in the Snowblind Engine (the same one used for the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance spinoff franchise), Brotherhood of Steel utilizes a top-down perspective and a rather simple real-time combat engine, with nearly all of the gameplay consisting of shooting approaching enemies or taking them out in close quarters with a melee weapon.  The player can also lock on to single enemies and from there can perform a quick dodge while locked on with the Triangle button, though as this also greatly slows their movement speed, its usefulness is dubious in melee combat.  And of course, numerous crates, boxes and barrels exist solely to be smashed open in order to find more ammunition, money and the occasional piece of equipment inside.

Second, RPG elements in the game are rather minimal on the whole.  There is an experience system in the game, and by defeating enemies and completing quests, the player earns "Perks" that give them small bonuses for future combats - from getting more health back from stimpaks to bonus HP to a slight boost in melee combat damage or critical hit chance.  Still, these really don't add a lot of variety to the game, as it is almost entirely focused around combat and chances to "role play" are relegated to doing sub-quests for a bit of extra resources.  Equipment upgrades are equally utilitarian, with armor and weapon upgrades becoming available in a strictly linear fashion with no opportunities to "sequence break" and even relatively few hidden secrets that may give the player an early advantage.  Probably because the game's short length (three overarching chapters, which are divided into a handful of sub-areas) and lack of free-roaming exploration simply don't allow much wiggle room.

There was at least an attempt made to give the experience some variety with its playable characters.  There are six in total - three to start and three more unlocked over the course of the game.  Cyrus is a stronger but slower character who can wield heavy weapons, Nadia is weaker but speedier and can dual-wield small arms, and Cain the Ghoul is the oddball of the group, being relatively average overall but having resistance to radiation - in fact, once he has a certain perk, coming in contact with radioactive hazards will actually heal him (a mechanic which conspicuously resurfaces in Bethesda's Fallout games).  Each also has a unique perk or two, though there isn't a huge amount of difference between them from a gameplay perspective.  The unlockable characters don't add much to this either, with two just being stronger variants on Cyrus and Nadia and the final being a nod to Fallout 1's protagonist (though as he is exceptionally powerful, he is only available on a second playthrough or later).

Some other trademarks of the series are conspicuously absent.  Ron Perlman's iconic narration is gone (replaced by Tony Jay) and the 1950's comic atmosphere is largely lost, with tunes of the era now replaced by ill-fitting hard rock and metal songs (including tracks by Skinlab and Slipknot) and the aesthetic overall bearing very little resemblance to the franchise proper, with the only tenuous tie being occasional load screen art or a snippet of an FMV ripped straight from the earlier Fallouts.  The closest it comes is the design of Jane, the game's first major villain, who is a lewder (and much crasser) caricature of Bettie Page, but even that feels like it was done just for cheap T&A rather than trying to match the setting.

"Crass" could also aptly describe the game as a whole, as it seems more intent on showing sleaze than building anything resembling a story or atmosphere.  Between near-constant appearances of women in skimpy clothes, a rather juvenile sense of humor, plentiful cursing and combat seemingly built around splattering foes as messily as possible than anything resembling mental engagement, it feels like a game meant to get cheap reaction and sales from kids whose ages have barely hit the double digits.  Given Interplay's finances at the time of its release, it probably was, too.

But for all of its faults, Brotherhood of Steel isn't a bad game when judged on its own merits; it is at least a competently made top-down hack-and-slash with a few RPG elements beneath the surface, and it can easily provide a few hours of mindless entertainment, especially with two players working in tandem to clear it.  But the fact that it carries the name of a franchise that built its name on intricate lore, an immersive roleplaying experience and deceptively deep gameplay where one's choices actually had a tangible impact makes it a very disappointing end to Interplay's involvement with the franchise.  There is little wonder why Brotherhood of Steel failed to find an audience, as fans of the Fallout series and gamers who were fans of Diablo-style action-RPGs both had  better options available that didn't make them feel like they were being pandered to by cynical marketeers who were on the verge of losing their jobs.

Developer: Interplay Entertainment
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 2, Xbox
Released: 2004
Recommended Version:  Both versions seem to be identical, so just pick your platform of choice.

Tags: Action RPG, Science Fiction, Customizable Characters, Brutal Violence, Dungeon Crawler, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Diablo II

The followup to Blizzard's smash hit Diablo was four years in the making, adding numerous new classes, features, new environments and a massive upgrade in production values.  But does Diablo II step out of its predecessors' shadow, or is this just a standard sequel that amounts to little more than an easy cash-grab?

Diablo II is a game that remains well-regarded among PC gamers to this day, often being cited as one of the finest examples of the overhead action-RPG genre.  It certainly isn't for nothing, either, as not only does Diablo II make efforts to improve upon its predecessor's design in almost every way, but it introduced many staples of the genre that persist to this day.

The first change you're likely to notice upon starting is that Diablo II moves at a much faster pace than its predecessor.  While the first Diablo used its slower pace to build tension and a sense of dread at the looming hordes of enemies in the darkness, Diablo II goes for a pure action feel, with enemies frequently pouring into the screen in droves and the player having to react just as quickly to keep them under control before they become a problem.  That, compounded by frequent boss monsters (both scripted and randomly-generated) which can easily flood the screen with fire, ice, poison and other nasty things, makes health and quickbar management an indispensable part of the overall strategy.

The class system in the game is massively overhauled from the first too.  Rather than having three characters with only a single unique skill and some stat levels to differentiate them, Diablo II has a grand total of five (seven in the expansion), each with their own unique equipment choices and skill trees that have virtually no overlap with others.  Barbarians are the nearest equivalent to the original game's Warriors, though they also utilize a variety of special attacks like a jumping stab, a spin slash and a number of buffing totems and war cries to aid the party.  The Sorceress' three skill trees have her specializing in fire, ice and lightning magic to varying degrees, while the Amazon is a ranged fighter that utilizes bows, crossbows and even thrown javelins.  The Necromancer is a novel new class that focuses on poisoning enemies and raising fallen foes to fight for him, while the Paladin focuses playing more defensively with skills that focus on buffing the party and dealing heavy damage to individual targets.  The Assassin is a class based around setting up traps and fighting in close quarters, while the Druid can become a powerful werewolf or werebear and summon some elemental abilities of his own (mostly in the form of tornadoes and volcanic rocks).

Further compounding this are a staggeringly large amount of new weapon types, unique weapons and armors, and some new (at the time) novelties like Set items and Slots.  Simply put, set items grant significant bonuses to the character wearing them, but only if multiple or all of the items in the set are worn; equipping all four parts in the Arctic Gear set (Armor, belt, gloves and bow) will give a bonus to strength, life and immunity to Freeze status.  Slots, on the other hand, can occur on any piece of equipment and can be fitted with gems that grant either bonuses to attack or defense.  Putting a ruby in a slotted weapon will give it additional fire damage, for example, while putting that same ruby in a piece of armor will give fire resistance instead.  The expansion adds another new element to this in Runes; while they do grant bonuses on their own, putting particular runes in an armor in a set order will create a "Rune Word" that gives a substantial bonus to that piece of equipment.  For example, adding Ral, Ort and Tal runes in that order will give the Ancient's Pledge bonus to a shield, giving it significant bonuses to defense, elemental resistances and mana replenishment when the player takes damage.  All of these things further add to the game's depth and strategy and quickly become essential to surviving on the higher difficulties, particularly in Hell mode where elemental damage is at an all-time high.

Diablo II was also among the earliest examples of its genre to implement a crafting system, this time in the form of the Horadric Cube.  While commonly used to combine health and mana potions into Revuvenation potions (which restore both) and combine gems together to create higher-grade gems which grant bigger bonuses, it also serves to reduce inventory clutter in a number of ways.  Combining three perfect gems and a piece of magic equipment with it will reroll the enchantments on that equipment, while combining two quivers of Bolts will create a quiver of Arrows and vice versa.  Various combinations of runes and gems will also create stronger runes, while specific runes and magic armor will grant higher-grade versions of that armor.  Basically, it works both as a useful utility to reduce inventory clutter and as a means to further customize your character's loadout, though with a heavy reliance on random chance for most recipes.  An elegant way to add further to the game's strategy and replayability.

Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the original game - its lackluster online experience - has been addressed in Diablo 2 as well.  Players can form parties of up to eight online in both "Open" and "Closed" realms, with the latter having characters stored server-side to address cheating and player hacking.  Additionally, players can now only turn hostile within towns, making unwanted player killing a less frequent occurrence.  Those interested in competitive play have options too, playing either on competitive Ladder games or even in Hardcore mode, where a single death will make that character permanently unplayable (though the player has the option to let others in the game loot their corpse for items if they choose).  Though the game has been overrun by spam bots in recent years and cheating is still a frequent occurrence despite frequent crackdowns on it, it is still reasonably easy to get together a group of players in a short period of time and play the game.

In short, while Diablo was Blizzard's first big hit and defined many key elements of action-RPGs with roguelike elements, Diablo II remains the gold standard for the genre to this day.  While it loses the dark, brooding horror atmosphere of the original, it gains much in overall gameplay design and strategy - the sheer volume of items to find and craft, character builds to experiment with and the vast scope of the game make it endlessly replayable, and its polished gameplay makes for an intense, fast-paced experience that will provide a ton of fun for you and a group of friends to this day.

Developer: Blizzard North
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platform: PC, Mac OS Classic, macOS
Released: 2000
Recommended Version:  I have only personally played the PC version, but I imagine the game is similar across all platforms.  If you wish to play online today, however, you may want to look into playing it in a virtual machine program that supports screen scaling, as the game is fixed at 640x480 or 800x600 resolutions and using third-party resolution mods may get you banned from servers.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Cusotmizable Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Dungeon Crawler, Randomized Content, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Short Campaign, New Game Plus, Direct Sequel