Saturday, February 29, 2020

Dragon Quest: Your Story

An Adaptation Distillation of the JRPG Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride that definitely doesn't hide its videogame roots, given many screenshots and even the introductory sequence from the game upon which it's based. It follows a young boy, Luca Gotha, son of Pankraz, through a few generations, with the search for his mother proving central. The visuals are stunning, combining elements of realism with Akira Toriyama's anime style, and there's plenty of music from series composer Koichi Sugiyama, mostly from the Zenithian Dragon Quest trilogy, although there are tracks from the Erdrick trilogy and the post-Zenithian Dragon Quests. It deviates very heavily from the game, unsurprising since it would be impossible to cram an entire RPG into an hour-plus film, and while it's enjoyable, though it somewhat jumps the shark towards the end. I definitely don't regret seeing it, though, just be in for many surprises, positive and negative, especially if you really liked the game it's based on.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya

A Japanese-American CG series adapting the 1980s manga, focusing on a teenager named Seiya who becomes a Bronze Knight in the service of the reincarnated goddess Athena and seeks his missing sister. The visuals are definitely good, better than most 3-D videogame graphics, and while there are the typical anime tropes such as characters shouting the names of their attacks, I reasonably enjoyed it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Octopath Traveler

The Hateful Eight

As videogame development advances throughout the generations, some companies yearn to recapture the “good old days” of gaming by creating games that sport significant retro features, largely in regards to their visuals. Games with such aesthetics that come to mind include the System Prisma-developed and Nippon Ichi-published Cladun series. More notable publishers such as Square-Enix would take a stab at retro-style games combined with contemporary features, with the company partnering with developer Acquire to produce Octopath Traveler for the Nintendo Switch and PC. Does its hybrid of old and new RPG features work out?

Akin to the first and third Romancing SaGas, Octopath lets players choose eight different playable protagonists to start, each starting in a different area of the game’s world and having their own backstory. The narrative is the game’s strongest aspect, given the worldbuilding that occurs, that each character has their own backstory and contribution to the action, and quirks such as in-game tracking of the story itself and that NPCs, when “scrutinized,” have mini-stories, as do the sidequests. The only pitfalls are the absence early on of a central unifying plot, and a certain endgame narrative cliché.

The localization is functional for the most part, but very much has its rough spots. For one, the Chaucerian English H’aanit and her people speak is simply atrocious, definitely alien to those not versed in the language’s medieval variant. As with most Japanese RPGs, moreover, the writing is worst in battle, with there being no plausible explanation, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for a character to shout “A torrent of arrows!” among countless other unnatural things, for instance the anime cliché of characters somethings shouting the names of their attacks. Most of the time the translation isn’t abysmal, but is one of Square-Enix’s weaker efforts.

The mentioned storyline trope is one of many pitfalls with the mechanics, but these have their positive aspects and otherwise good ideas. Battles are randomly encountered, with the skill Evasive Maneuvers learned by Cyrus and the Scholar class reducing their occurrence. Fights themselves are turn-based, with each character and the enemy taking turns depending upon agility, and a turn order meter showing who goes when in the current round, and a preview of command sequence in the subsequent cycle of combat. When each round ends, each character acquires a Boost Point (BP), critical to the mechanics.

Each character has a number of commands, first of which is attack with one of their currently-equipped weapons, certain characters and classes allowing them to swap arms. They can also consume Skill Points (SP) to perform their native set of abilities, and when the player unlocks subclasses, a secondary list of skills. Some characters such as H’aanit and Alfyn, have additional abilities segregated from SP, such as the former’s ability to tame monsters for a number of uses in battle and the latter’s to combine ingredients to perform elemental effects on adversaries or benefits to the party.

Characters can further use consumable items, with a limit of ninety-nine per item characteristic of franchises such as Final Fantasy, defend to reduce damage and make their next turn come sooner in the next round, or attempt to escape, which largely works against weaker foes, although failure will cause all allies to slip and fall for the rest of the round, and give the enemy a temporary advantage. In most cases, however, to keep up with the recommended levels of each character’s four chapters, players will want to fight, and victory nets money, occasional items, experience for all participants, and Job Points (JP).

At the end of battle, characters may occasionally level, in which case the game restores all their HP and SP, which can sometimes ease the exhaustion of dungeon delving, and players receive bonuses depending upon their combat performance. One major key to the game mechanics is the ability, after exploiting an enemy’s weakness enough time with a number of hits, they “break” and become more vulnerable to attack and lose their ability to act for one round. Luckily, the game tracks what certain foes are weak against (and Cyrus and the Scholar class’s Analyze spell can reveal more weaknesses).

One aspect that can aid in the breakage is Boost Points, where the player can “boost” a character up to three times (with five max BP for each ally), which can empower SP skills or let them strike an adversary up to four times with a weapon. Moreover, characters can use JP acquired to unlock their native class and subclass’s abilities, with each unlocked ability also netting an ally an innate skill, four of which they can equip, and many of which can actually be incredibly useful, with the Cleric job’s ability to let characters be healed above their maximum HP proving critical to my playthrough, especially late-game.

One downside players may find to combat is that BP and overhealing beyond maximum HP are use-it-or-lose-it, but there are other issues. One is that certain skills miss too often, especially those that strike enemies randomly, even against stunned foes. Another is that battles can take a while, particularly those with bosses, some annoying, given their tendency to change weaknesses mid-battle and even shield their weak points. Worst is the Mega Man-esque endgame where the player has to refight eight old, empowered bosses without opportunity to save followed by a cheap ultimate final boss. In the end, the battle system shows promise, but falters in execution.

Control fares somewhat worse, starting with the countless unskippable company logos whenever the player boots up the game. There are a few bright spots, such as the clear direction on how to advance the main storyline (though accessing the postgame story content may necessitate a guide), the fast travel between towns (but unfortunately not among visited fields and dungeons), and the general ease of shopping. However, there are some additional annoyances such as the need to reequip weapons whenever a character changes subclass, the lack of maps for fields and dungeons (except for visited areas of the overworld). In the end, the developers could have given interaction a once-over.

A brighter spot in Octopath, however, is its aural presentation, with most themes starting with that on the title screen being solid, from various town tracks that very well capture the milieu of their respective settings, such as that which plays in seaside settlements. There are also several different pieces that play in battle depending upon the area, and the main boss theme feels epic. Perhaps the biggest downfall in the audio, however, is the abysmal English voicework, with the writing such as H’aanit’s people’s faux old-world speak not helping. Fortunately, there exists the option to switch to the Japanese voicework, so things aren’t entirely bad.

Though the developers have ballyhooed the game’s “HD-2D” presentation, the graphics, aside from the decent art direction (prevalent in the very rare character portraits and the enemy designs, despite plenty of palette swaps), actually don’t look all that wonderful, given the incredible degree of pixilation, dull hues, terrible viewing distance in areas, foes in battle just blinking when executing commands rather than actually being animate, and so forth. There is also a complete absence of CG or anime cutscenes, although the character sprites at least resemble their designs. In the end, Octopath could pass for a PS One RPG, but even then, there are games back then and before that looked better.

Finally, the game is one of the longest this reviewer has ever played, even when disregarding the countless sidequests, which do grant some lasting appeal, along the introductory variations, although odds are players wouldn’t want to revisit it after investing a great deal of time in it.

Overall, Octopath Traveler is at best a middling experience, given the faulty execution of its central game mechanics, the niggling control issues, the inconsistent localization, the lackluster English voice acting, the subpar graphics, and the fact that it requires a significant investment of time to get the most out of the narrative. Granted, not all is bad, given the incredible thought dedicated towards the storyline, the good soundtrack, and the sheer amount of side content. Regardless, there are definitely better RPGs from Square-Enix and for the Nintendo Switch out there, so players would best approach this game with a shaker of salt.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy borrowed by the reviewer, started as H’aanit, played to the end of each character’s chapter, after the ending credits, and without completion of the postgame content.

The Good:
+Battle system has good ideas.
+Fast-travel can be handy.
+Story is well fleshed-out.
+Localization is legible.
+Good music.
+Plenty of side content.

The Bad:
-Execution of game mechanics leaves something to be desired.
-Issues with control.
-Medieval English is atrocious.
-Awful English voicework.
-Subpar visuals.
-Way too long.

The Bottom Line:
An average JRPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 4.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 3-4 Days

Overall: 5.5/10

Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon

A Shining Remake

During the sixteen-bit console era, my older brother got a Sega Genesis that he only sporadically allowed me to play, and it was at a time when videogame rentals were still a thing. Among the various titles he rented for the system was Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention, which I got the opportunity to try, and served as the very first strategy RPG I had the pleasure of playing. I wouldn’t actually finish the game until roughly two console generations later, and when came the announcement that the title would be remade for the Gameboy Advance as Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon, I pounced on the opportunity to play, and wasn’t disappointed.

The original game was among the first RPGs to sport an ancient evil, in its case the Dark Dragon, which vowed to return in a millennium after defeat by the Ancients. The remake’s present follows the amnesiac Max (the Genesis release among the first roleplaying games featuring a protagonist with amnesia), who becomes leader of the eponymous Shining Force when the Kingdom of Runefaust brings war to the land. The story in the remake is surprisingly well-developed, with the use of various characters in battle unlocking background on themselves and the game’s lore, with some good twists that pop up later in the plotline.

The translation is passable for the most part, but is somewhat rough around the edges. The main dialogue is legible, with some nice lore, although there are occasional incongruities such as the reference of the ancient evil as “Dark Dragon” instead of “the Dark Dragon”, and one character appears to have multiple mothers. The name of the character Lug was also mistranslated as Luke, with a character in the gaiden games having the latter name, and creating confusion when the former shows up with his actual Japanese name. Finally, in cases where characters gain one experience point or one of a stat when leveling, point is pluralized.

The remake features thirty story fights where the player’s party of up to twelve characters squares off against the enemy in turn-based combat, with the startup formation largely irrelevant towards the tide of battle. Each unit takes their turn depending upon speed, with a turn order meter luckily showing who goes when. Mercifully, unlike a certain exalted Square strategy RPG, movement isn’t ratchet, and there’s no elevation to worry about hindering the execution of commands, although the current terrain can sometimes impact a character’s range, unless a character is skyborne, with certain ground units also easily able to traverse terrain such as woodlands.

Each character can end their turn, attack an enemy with their equipped weapon when in range, cast an MP-consuming spell (with characters sometimes acquiring higher levels of magic, thankfully adjustable depending upon the situation), or use a consumable item, with the limit of four per unit adding to the battle system’s effectiveness. Whenever a unit executes a command, the game takes players to another screen where either side performs their order, and when the player’s characters do so, they receive experience, as high as forty-eight points, particularly when they kill an enemy, or as low as one point, largely when their action misses.

A unit losing all their HP means their disappearance from the battlefield, with no revival magic of which to speak. The player resurrects deceased allies for a price at a town’s church, in addition to curing status ailments or promoting characters, which becomes available once a unit reaches level ten. However, waiting until a unit reaches its initial base level of twenty is wise, especially in instances of magical units, as to maximum stat gain in their promoted state, which also allows them access to more powerful weapons. Should Max perish, the player forfeits the fight, and he revives at the last town’s church with half his money lost (although players can bank currency at headquarters).

Characters level and gain stats, sometimes additional magic spells or spell levels, once they acquire a hundred experience points, their rate of acquisition proportional to their current level and the power of the foes they face. Most battles, moreover, reward players who win within a certain number of turns, with some having objectives such as defeating a specific enemy. New to the remake is that each character, in addition to a weapon, can equip up to three accessories, not to mention the new magic resistance stat, with a certain purchasable late-game accessory providing good boosts in that area.

Also handy in the case a player should experience a real-life interruption is the ability to suspend progress in battle and resume where they left off. In general, the game mechanics serve the remake well, although rushing through the game without spending some time grinding can be a prescription for trouble later on. There are also many missable characters, the player has to center magic on allies or enemies to execute them, and a turbo mode would have been welcome, given the significant downtime during combat. Regardless, anti-frustration features such as the ability to back out of battle and retain progress on death make the remake preferable to many other tactical RPGs.

One of the remake’s weaker aspects, however, is control. While things such as the suspend save in the middle of battle, the easier nature of changing battle formation compared to the Genesis version, and the linear structure serve the game well, there are issues such as the tedium of shopping, when merchants bombard players with endless dialogue and confirmations; the clunkiness of the menu system, the difficulty of managing characters with loaded inventories, and so forth. Regardless, things could have certainly been worse, but the remake doesn’t interact as well with players as it could have.

Perhaps the Gameboy Advance version’s strongest point is its aural presentation, beginning with the theme played during the introductory backstory sequence, which serves as a central theme at points in the game and is pleasing. The main town theme is also bouncy and catchy, and the overworld track, which plays during battles there, has a certain grandeur. The other battle pieces are nice, as well, as is that which plays whenever the player’s characters or the enemy attack one another, the former changing when the player promotes their units. The only real downside is the muffled quality of the Gameboy Advance’s audio.

The visuals also have plenty going for them, most of all being the excellent art direction, with everyone’s character portrait updated for this rerelease. During cutscenes, character portraits occupy the screen, with eyes blinking and lips flapping, and in the combat sequences that play during the execution of player and enemy commands, well-proportioned character models signify both sides of battle. Perhaps the biggest downside of the graphics, however, is that the sprites outside battle have chibi proportions, which doesn’t really fit considering the different races of characters such as humans and dwarves.

Finally, the remake’s playing time ranges from one to two days total, with a replay mode where enemies become more powerful sure to pacify those seeking a challenge, and pre-battle cutscenes vary depending upon the characters chosen for combat, although there is a near-total absence of sidequests.

Overall, Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon, is, for the most part, a solid remake that hits most of the right notes with regards to things such as its straightforward strategy RPG mechanics with anti-frustration features such as the general riskless nature of grinding, along with other positives such as the well-developed storyline and aural presentation. There are areas, however, that leave room for improvement such as the clunky menu system, the weak localization effort, and the rough spots of the graphical presentation, although the rerelease definitely ranks among the few tactical RPGs I’ve actually thoroughly enjoyed.

This review is based on a playthrough of the European version of the game.

The Good:
+Good straightforward mechanics with anti-frustration features.
+Excellent plot and character development.
+Nice soundtrack.
+Colorful visuals.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Can be a little grindy.
-Clunky control.
-Weak localization.
-Visuals have some rough spots.
-No sidequests.

The Bottom Line:
One of my personal favorite strategy RPGs.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Gameboy Advance
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 10/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 7.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.5/10

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Fall of Gondolin

Christopher Tolkien, son of Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R., opens this tale that occurs towards the end of Middle-earth’s First Age with warning that it doesn’t have much of the power and immediacy of the fabled fantasy trilogy. He notes in the prologue that follows that his father penned the tale of The Fall of Gondolin during sick-leave from the army in 1917, and the original version of Beren and Lúthien in the same year. The younger Tolkien notes Middle-earth backstory such as the dispatch of the Nine Valar for governance of the world, and the rebellion by Morgoth, the Demon of Dark, against their overlordship.

Next comes the tale of The Fall of Gondolin proper, beginning with the description of Tuor as a man who lived in a northern land called Dor-lómin or the Land of Shadows, to whom Ulmo speaks. Tuor arrives at the city of Gondolin on Amon Gwareth, which has very vivid description, and where he receives a house built upon the southern walls. Tuor dwells among the Gondothlim for years, and Gothmog, the lord of the Balrogs, captain of the hosts of Melko, threatens the city. The story ends with the exiles of Gondolin dwelling at the mouth of the river Sirion by the Great Sea.

The younger Tolkien describes important elements in the evolution of his father’s text, and describes a short prose piece with the title Turlin and the Exiles of Gondolin, where Tuor, son of Peleg, son of Indor, son of Fengel marches to the East with his folk. Following this is the story as told in the elder Tolkien’s Sketch of the Mythology, beginning with a lively description of the river Sirion and its delta, where Tuor leads his company into the frozen pass of Cristhorn, the Eagle’s Cleft. There, Orcs ambush them, although the valor of Glorfindel, chief of the house of the Golden Flower of Gondolin, rescues them.

Afterward comes a version of the story as told in the Quenta Noldorinwa, where scouts of Turgon’s people fleeing from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears discover the vale of Gondolin. They come first into the Land of Willows, Nan-tathrin, hydrated by the Narog and by Sirion, with plentiful flora and fauna. Ulmo appears before them, and they take to the seas. In yet another version, Rían, wife of Huor, lives with the people of the house of Hador, although when rumor comes to Dor-lómin of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, she wanders the wild alone.

The younger Tolkien goes on to describe the evolution of the story, which his father would abandon for some time, and where the Quenta Silmarillion tells of Turgon, leader of the Noldor who dared the Helkaraksë, the Grinding Ice, whilst crossing to Middle-earth. He alludes to another lost tale that followed The Fall of Gondolin chronologically, the Tale of the Nauglafring (the Necklace of the Dwarves, upon which is set the Silmaril). Then comes the conclusion of the Sketch of the Mythology, where Elwing, daughter of Dior, receives the survivors of Gondolin.

After that is the conclusion of the Quenta Noldorinwa, where in Valinor Ulmo speaks to the Valar of the need of the Elves to seek salvation from Morgoth and win back the Silmarils. Eärendel sees no help in the lands of the Sirion, and seeks to go to Valinor with Elwing at his side. Little is known of the march of the host of Fionwë to the North, with the Silmarils left to be recovered out of the sea, earth, and air. Ending the book is a useful list of names, as well as additional notes about terminology such as the Ainur, the Holy Ones, and other things such as the prophecy of Mandos, after which come family trees.

Overall, this was definitely an interesting read, incredibly deep and descriptive, although the younger Tolkien was certainly right in mentioning that it doesn’t have nearly the action or immediacy of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. It definitely gives a good look into the creative process the elder Tolkien underwent when formulating his stories, not just The Fall of Gondolin, but beyond it as well, although the book somewhat lacks cohesion without a single unifying narrative, and feels oftentimes fragmented and inconsistent. Hardcore Tolkien fans are certain to get the most out of this book.