Posts Tagged ‘RPG




I’ve been playing LISA for around a month now.  I’ve been taking my time and soaking it in.  I’ve held off on writing up my impressions of it up until now, because it’s a tough game to nail down.  It’s a game where I’ll probably have more to say, and my comments today may be somewhat brief.  I’m making my way through the final third of it, and I’ve been consistently challenged the entire way.  This isn’t a game that you chew up and consume without thinking, or else you’re not getting the full experience. It’s a game that will linger in your mind and have you rolling over what you’ve done time and again.  It’s not a game that ends when you quit out of it.  It’s uniquely the message of Austin Jorgensen, and he’s not simply repeating back to you what other games have told him.

LISA’s strongest quality is its ability to leverage the vocabulary of jRPGs to deliver its message.  On its face, you could be forgiven if you thought this might be a parody of jRPGs past, given it’s outlandish and absurd qualities.  In reality, it asks you to participate in jRPG verbs, spaces, and impressions, and then squeezes your pressure points with them.  LISA will make you contort in gaming pain, and force you acknowledge the true value of what you invest in these games by weighing it against moral choices.  It is constantly asking you to compare and contrast the value of your inventory, your party, your abilities, and your own narrative of the game.  This is not an easy game to be a good guy in.  If you make it far enough to reach some of these harrowing choices then these will not feel like artificial, or trivial dilemmas.  It’s what makes the game interesting though – you are trying to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. It offers a conciliatory and surreal sense of humor to take some of the dismal edge off of the atmosphere surrounding these challenges.  The world is well realized and begs to be explored, and it dares you to try and explain it.

LISA has been affective in ways I’ve not seen very often.  And really, the one example that comes to mind that it reminds me of is the immediate aftermath (spoilers?) of Final Fantasy VI’s world of ruin.  LISA knows despair, and conveys it well.  It can be challenging to consume the game’s message, yet rewarding in completing it.  This may not be a game for everyone, as it includes some rather sensitive themes, but it’s one worth taking note of in any case.  And it warrants a much deeper discussion within our community.



Do you find yourself thinking back to the 90’s and remembering how you played Legend of Zelda/Final Fantasy/Diablo for X hundreds of hours.  Then you think about how tedious it would be to do that over again, which makes you sad.  Evoland is here to bring that feel back for you with only a small fraction of the tedium to overcome.  The game tasks itself with providing the player with a survey of many of the game mechanics and presentation conventions of role playing games.

Make no mistake, this is definitely a game for those who have a sense of nostalgia for years of gaming past.  Many of the jokes are going to directly tied to games of the era, and most power-ups have little consequence on the gameplay itself.  It’s a well crafted guided tour and you can know from the outset whether or not it’s for you.  Shiro Games nails the concept and knows their audience and knows the games they are emulating.  All in all, Evoland will provide you with several hours of entertainment, and then the option to go back and leave no stone un-turned.

There were a couple points where the shortcomings of legacy game mechanics caused me to quit in frustration (perhaps I’ve had it too good recently?) but I suppose that’s part of the package, and shouldn’t deter you from playing.  You can’t really go wrong with it if you’re already a fan of any of the games I outlined back at the start of the post.  Evoland will scratch that gaming itch for you without having to feel like you’re taking on a second job.


Final Fantasy IX Revisited

I’ve almost entirely failed at keeping up on new games this year.  I haven’t even managed to keep up on new jRPGs this year and have instead found myself replaying Final Fantasy IX, just over two years since the last time I played it (this makes it my fourth time through the game.)  I reviewed it in early 2011, and here I am again pretending to know what I’m talking about.  It’s not like the game has changed each time I’ve rolled through Gaia.  I might have since playing the game in late 2000, but since late 2010?  Probably not.  Perhaps I just like it and I don’t need any other reason to play it, but I’ll take another shot at trying to pry out what makes the game enjoyable.


FFIX has three sets of verbs.  The first being the navigation and exploration of the game’s environments.  Much of the time, the player is represented by Zidane Tribal, a thief who belongs to the Tantalus “Theater Troupe.”  The player character can be moved about screens with the d-pad and can use an action button to initiate interactions with NPCs or to inspect the environment.

The game also has a set of management verbs which allow the player to build and customize characters, manage the inventory of items, and change each character’s equipment.  At any given point in time, the player will have control of four characters, and they are rotated in and out of the party as events progress.  This can make management of characters tedious, since your stock of equipment is limited and when a character is removed from your party, their equipment becomes inaccessible.  This is mitigated to an extent by the fact that many characters use different types of equipment.

And the final set of verbs revolve around the game’s battle mode.  The battle mode is entered at semi-regular intervals while exploring the environments.  The shift in and out of battle mode can be frustrating since there is no indication when it may occur.  And having the entire active verb-set switched so frequently detracts from the value of both.  In any case, once in battle mode, each character the player has control of will have a timer which runs down.  Once it has, they can take an action against any of the targets on screen.  This is also operated entirely through menus, which is adequate but does not serve to highlight and differentiate between your options very well.  Characters act by attacking, defending, using magic/abilities, and items.  Battles are exercises in managing your party’s health and functionality while simultaneously dispatching all targets.  The rotation of characters in and out of your party continuously tests your ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

In all honesty, verbs are probably the weakest point of Final Fantasy IX and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.  They are games that were very well designed for what is now obsolete technology and


Spaces on the other hand are where the game shines, and are the reason why Final Fantasy has embedded itself so firmly in the collective consciousness of gamers.  IX takes place in the world of Gaia, initially on the “Mist Continent,” an area with several quasi-medieval societies.  Players begin in the Kingdom of Alexandria as part of a plot for the Tantalus gang to kidnap Princess Garnet.  This sets off a series of events that have Zidane traversing the continent from kingdom to kingdom while exploring dungeons in between.

IX establishes a pacing to the game that consistently introduces new content and reinforces its systems to the player.  In each town you will have the opportunity to shop for new equipment, start side quests, learn more about the town, or participate in completely diversionary card game.  Every location offers sights and sounds that are still memorable 12 years after the game’s original release.  Backgrounds are presented as snapshots and animations of 3D renderings that, even if technologically obsolete, are artistically cohesive and interesting.  At times, playing the game can be like running through a series of paintings, set to a soundtrack by the ever-talented Nobuo Uematsu.

When the player feels ready to move the game forward, they will generally need to clear a dungeon first.  In addition to opening up more of the world map, clearing dungeons will offer opportunities to hunt for treasure and test your party’s configuration.  The game will constantly provide feedback through battles as to how you are managing characters. And as might be expected, each dungeon is generally finished with a boss fight.  While there are ways to efficiently dispatch these enemies rather than simply relying on brute-force, battles are not puzzles and are more about managing situations rather than solving problems.

Eventually the entire world is opened up and free for the player to explore for as long as one might care to before completing the game.  Gaia offers a great deal of content and challenge both inside, and outside of the core plot of the game.  And even if the verbs are lackluster, IX’s spaces more than compensate for that.  At least in my own experience, Gaia is a game world where you can just enjoy being there.


The player has a number of opportunities to make impressions in the game.  First among these opportunities being what you choose to unlock in the world.  While player’s will inevitably unlock all of the key locations on the map associated with the plot (this is satisfying in its own right), you will also be able to unlock purely optional areas as well.

Another key opportunity to make impressions in the game is by how you choose to build your characters.  IX does not have an open ended class system.  Each character is bound to a specific class, but never-the-less how each character is equipped and how their individual abilities are unlocked is up to the player.  Choosing how to invest your currency is always an interesting choice when visiting towns.  Abilities must be learned by equipping different items and then using them for a predetermined number of battles before the character memorizes the ability.  If it is unequipped any sooner than that, the ability is no longer available.  Some equipment is only available to specific characters, while some can be shared among them.  It can also be synthesized into new equipment.  In other scenarios, a more powerful item will be available to a character who is still learning the abilities offered by older equipment.  Balancing these options can be challenging and lends itself to subsequent play-throughs, but the option always remains to fight additional battles to obtain more money.  Final Fantasy IX is a linear experience, but there’s a lot of leeway granted to the players to control the pacing and revisit earlier locations.

Final Fantasy IX Concept Art

Perhaps it’s just me, but 2012 felt like an underwhelming year for games.  There have been some gems, but I get the impression that things are starting to change – be it with KickStarter, the ubiquity of mobile and free-to-play games, or that we’re at the tail end of the current generation of game consoles.  We’re in a transitional period for games, and it’s given me an opportunity to revisit some earlier favorites (even if I do have other games to catch up on still.)

I still feel that Final Fantasy IX has much to offer when it comes to fundamentals.  I would hope that someone at Square-Enix is continuing to look at games like this and trying to find ways around its 20th century limitations.  It’s re-release for the PSP and PS3 is a worthy half-step forward.  It doesn’t need to be radically updated, just re-packaged in terms of how the experience is delivered and how players interface with it.

Download at PSN or purchase at Amazon

Note: For more information on the context that I use the terms “verbs”, “spaces”, and “impressions”, please see the post titled I’m going to take the fun out of games.


Impressions: The Last Story

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally got my mitts on Hironobu Sakaguchi’s “The Last Story.”  While it’s been released in Japan for the better part of 2 years, and in Europe for the past six months, it wasn’t until Xseed Games agreed to publish the game that it was released in North America.  I’ve consistently enjoyed Sakaguchi’s games over the past 10 or so years, so I was eager to see what he had done this time around; enough to take the Operation Rainfall approach of pre-ordering/purchasing Xenoblade Chronicles to try and convince Nintendo to publish The Last Story in NA.  I suppose the strategy worked well enough, as Xseed did pick up the game and so I’ve sat on my pre-order for it since April.  Much to my dismay, I checked out Destructoid’s review of the game, which was less than favorable, but I kept my pre-order because of the otherwise positive reviews that it has garnered.

Now that I’ve been able to spend four hours in the game, I think I’ve seen enough to start forming my own opinion on it.  The first thing to strike me was that this is more along the lines of what I wanted from Final Fantasy XIII after it’s debut trailer at E3 2006.  You are part of a party of characters who, other than the protagonist, are controlled by the game.  The Last Story allows you to move about the field at will, doing lots of flashy dives and flips over characters, and otherwise chopping up targets with swords large enough to be the envy of Pyramid Head.  The game slowly introduces more complex verbs that actually affect the flow of battle, such as the gathering ability which brings all enemy targets to attack Zael, the protagonist. This is useful to take the heat off of your party’s mages who require long, uninterrupted, casting times.  Zael can also enter a first person mode to fire his crossbow, but also to identify advantages in the environment.  You continue to gain useful individual abilities, but eventually you are given the option of issuing direct commands to other party members.  This isn’t to change the game to become a real-time strategy experience, but to allow you to exploit the strengths of other party members at key times to gain an advantage in battle.  While the game follows many jRPG patterns outside of battles (levels, equipment, town exploration, etc.) the battle system is an interesting take on jRPG combat.  I haven’t seen enough of the game yet to gauge whether this continues to build in an satisfying way, or devolves into a chaotic mess.

Outside of combat, the game reminds me in some ways of Chrono Cross.  Both are aesthetically pleasing games which encourage players to just plunk themselves down and enjoy the world around them.  The primary caveat to The Last Story’s presentation would be the character outfits, where men wearing hot pants and chaps aren’t given a second look in a world that takes much inspiration from medieval Europe and Japan.  The story definitely makes use of jRPG tropes (the protagonist is an orphan whose parents died in a war, whose town was destroyed, and whose love interest is a princess) and I would have thought that would be enough to turn me off to the game, but then again I am playing a game and not reading a book, so it can be easier to overlook some of this if you’re enjoying the game itself.  The Last Story is a game that’s simultaneously novel and familiar in such a way that I don’t really mind sitting down in front of the TV to play a jRPG again.  I’m not sure how or if this translates to a more mainstream appeal, but for those out there who are still looking for jRPGs, I don’t think this will disappoint you.


Final Fantasy IX

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Final Fantasy IX managed to lodge itself into my heart.  I can’t say it has a fantastic story, or an exceptionally creative game play system.  Final Fantasy IX is typically characterized as a sort of swan song for the PS1 and the classic style of Final Fantasy.  After playing it for the first time, it was easy for me to see that as being fan service for people who played the pre-Playstation entries in the series.  Playing through it now, I’m enjoying it for the character of the game itself.  It’s visually, audibly, and interactively enjoyable.  As far as Final Fantasy’s take on the jRPG genre is concerned, Final Fantasy IX really is as good it gets.  Which isn’t to say it’s free from flaws — there’s a reason why this was a swan song, and the series has been left searching for its soul ever since.  (That’s my sentiment anyhow.)  Regardless, Final Fantasy IX is an incredibly endearing experience, and still worth picking up at PSN if you have a PSP or PS3.

In lieu of any constructive thoughts, here are other people’s constructive thoughts on the game.

Sakaguchi posts old Final Fantasy IX developer memos

Final Fantasy IX’s Mechanics of Identity

Narrative Viewpoints and Perspectives in Final Fantasy IX


The Past Success of jRPGs

I’ve recently finished replaying Chrono Trigger, and begun playing Final Fantasy IX again.  The last five or so years haven’t been good for jRPGs (I can’t say I’ve played any newer ones, save for Lost Odyssey, or maybe Crisis Core) and they are easy pickings for criticism.  Their flaws have been made very clear by an exasperated community.  And even genre behemoths like Final Fantasy have had to do some serious soul searching to keep up with other more recently popular genres.  But when I’ve picked up older games from the genre (e.g. Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy IX) these flaws seem to be besides the point.

It’s my own opinion that neither gamers, nor developers really understood what made jRPGs popular.  Gamers were so engrossed with these games that they even became fanatically devoted to some of them.  From my own experience in that particular corner of the community, characters and “epic” stories allegedly drove their popularity.  The character’s struggles were adopted as the player’s own, and developers cranked out a ton of jRPGs based on what gamers claimed that they wanted.

Final Fantasy XIII struggled to appear like it followed the same bloated, overwrought formula, that jRPGs had become notorious for, while introducing new action oriented elements to simultaneously modernize it.  It really made me rethink whether my own fondness for earlier jRPGs was warranted.  I was surprised that over the past two years I’ve been able to replay Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy IX with a renewed sense of engagement.  I was happy to pump 40+ hours into each one.  And for all but Final Fantasy IX, I played for the first time well after their original release dates.  Even if the genre has been flagging for the last decade, it had done something right in the past.  The question in my mind is: what happened?

The genre had a boom and bust from which it might not recover.  It’s still fashionable to pick apart the genre’s flaws after years of jRPG fanatics going on, and on, and on, about how great these games are.  With some time behind the boom and bust though, I’d like to suggest an another idea of what exactly made these games successful.  While described as “role playing” games, I have begun to see them more as a variety of exploration games.  It is true that in most jRPGs you do not actually adopt the role of any particular character, and the game doesn’t respect your choices about how that character should behave (outside of some stat building.)

Earlier jRPGs provided what felt like vast over-worlds with the challenge to the player being to construct a party with the right set of skills to be able to effectively conquer it.  Each town and dungeon represents an explicit challenge to how the party is designed, which ultimately culminates with a confrontation with a villain who is trying to take the world over.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the player is trying to take it over instead.  Each leg of the journey is a puzzle to determine what combination of skills and stats will enable to you proceed forward.  Some of the solutions could be rewarding in and of themselves, but the world’s themselves could be fun to explore as well.

This was certainly one of the technical limitations of the genre.  Building a high-definition world is exponentially more resource-intensive than during the low-fi eras of the previous three generations of gaming consoles.  I am still surprised by how much detailed artwork there is just in the backgrounds of Final Fantasy IX.  Games like IX had a great sense of pacing between the puzzle solving elements of dungeon crawling and the time you’re given to relax and explore towns.  The player can enjoy music, artwork, and sub-stories, while planning how to more effectively take on the next stage of the game.

Final Fantasy VII may have been the best example of how a jRPG can give the player not just a virtual world to explore, but a game play system to explore as well.  One could plow through the game simply beefing up the power of materia stones individually, but there were many opportunities to create inventive and powerful combinations of materia as well.  The acquisition, enhancement, and configuration of materia was an engrossing way to personalize the game to your preferences while still tying back into the world itself, and the story being told.  Taken on its face, the characters and narrative are absurd, but try to put the game down once you begin to tinker with the materia system.  You could care less if Cloud is really a clone of super soldier infused with the DNA of an alien life form.

This is precisely the element that was sacrificed in the design of Final Fantasy XIII.  The pacing was streamlined to eliminate the “town” portions of the game.  Combat was simplified to eliminate details and increase the perceived speed of battles.  The illusion of freedom was eliminated entirely to focus on, and more tightly control, the game’s sub-par narrative.  All of these changes were made to address the complaints with the genre during its “bust” phase. But these complaints were made about jRPGs that were later cargo-cult imitators of more successful entries in the genre, during a time when there was an excess of them.  Final Fantasy XIII was an awkward game play experience that was both ashamed of its predecessors and hopeful that long time fans of the series would still come along for the ride.  It was an insecure game that was awkward to play.

Perhaps in the future, if we see a resurgence in the genre, there will be less emphasis placed on the narrative and role playing aspects of the games, and more emphasis placed on all the ways players can explore an elaborately designed game space.  Or perhaps, we will continue to see other genres adopt the broken pieces of jRPGs and integrate them into their own games.  In any case, I hope the gaming community will remember them fondly, and not just the endless cash-ins of games past.


Minecraft and Genre

Minecraft’s popularity just seems compound itself at a baffling rate.   Especially when few people (if anyone) can really put their finger on what makes it so much fun.  There are plenty of videos of star ships, computers, pig canons, super highways, and castles.  They are super cool to look at, but the compelling nature of Minecraft isn’t observed in the final product.  Going from a terrified little block man, to builder of amazing things is where the magic happens.

Margaret Robertson spends “five minutes” with the game to try and explore what makes that magic happen.  Her description of the first night is right on target, if a bit lengthy for describing how she made a box to sit in and accidentally dug herself into into a cave.  But that’s why Minecraft is a game and not literature.  It’s exciting, but awkward to put into words.  The confusion she conveys is also spot on.  There is no real indication of how the fundamentals of the game work, or what you should expect.

I can’t think of any way where having an in-game tutorial would be would be appropriate, but having a reference to the Minecraft Wiki ahead of time makes all of the difference.   I could see where having a game manual that comes along it would make a world of difference.  Just a bit of primer, like you would see with the 8, and 16-bit era games that couldn’t technically include in-game tutorials. (Dear Notch: Please make a Minecraft box/manual, even just a digital copy.  I would pay money for it, in addition to the game’s price.)

The most interesting point in the Gamasutra piece would have to be Robertson’s thought that “despite often being referred to as an open-ended sandbox, [Minecraft] is actually a mission-based RPG.”

It could be overwhelming, but the dependency structure within the game assures that it’s not. I need wood to make a crafting table, I need a table to make a pick, I need a pick to get stone, I need stone to get coal. The tech tree becomes the mission structure, as I seek out each thing to get the next, each a manageable, discrete task.

And each task I complete levels me up, not by adding a number to my profile, but by changing what I have in my pockets.

It makes enough sense based on the definitions we’ve given for video game genres.  But it feels so counter-intuitive that the concept of genre in Minecraft loses its meaning.  And while I’d agree that the mechanics which have been implemented in the game are mature and well planned, I don’t know if Notch was thinking about how Minecraft would be a clever twist on RPGs.  Minecraft is just Minecraft.  Which is to say it is great, regardless of what genres it might resemble.

If you’re still trying to understand what the deal is with Minecraft, then Robertson’s post will take you a long way in understanding it.  But the best way to figure it out is to just play it.

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