The characters of Bravely Default

Bravely Default

Posted in Games, Reviews, Uncategorised

Everyone else has already established that Bravely Default is amazing, so if you haven’t played it and have any love for JRPGs or the good Final Fantasy games you owe it to yourself to check it out. The game made an extremely positive impression on me early on, and actually elicited the comment “This game is perfect” about 30 minutes in, once a particularly great piece of music began playing. It also has a very strong ending, and a slightly less amazing but still good alternate ending. The only negative criticism I can think of is that in the back third (we’ll call it Chapter 5) the game slows down quite a bit and becomes repetitive as you have to repeat a very similar cycle over and over, and the game could’ve handled things differently. It is still fantastic, and although not offically in the Final Fantasy series, it does a better job of being a Final Fantasy game than any other FF game has in the past decade (except FFXIV A Realm Reborn – that game was solid).

Here’s the lightning overview of what it makes Bravely Default special:

  1. It’s a classical JRPG in the mold of Final Fantasy IV meets Dragon Quest (puns included), but in a 3D environment with occasional pre-rendered backdrops (similar to FFVII) and with better art than either
  2. It has a job system similar to FFV/FF Tactics. This means it has an implementation of the best job system ever
  3. It has a decent plot that turns into a bit of a mystery towards the end, and an extremely epic finale (even considering that video games generally set the bar for “epic ending” pretty high)
  4. It has very, very good music
  5. It has two good characters and two annoying ones. By the end everyone becomes more likeable.
  6. It knows people may not like grinding, so you can double or quadruple the speed of the random encounters
  7. It also lets you turn off enemy encounters entirely. Or you can double them. You can also change the difficulty of the game whenever you want. Overall the game gives the player a lot of control over their experience.
  8. Lots of cool twists on game mechanics like importing super attacks from other people playing the game, stocking up turns, and interrupting enemies part way through their turn (even in the middle of an attack animation) to take an immediate action

In my opinion Bravely Default really represents the modernization of the classical JRPG, and it gives me lots of hope for the genre, and for the future of Final Fantasy. Square Enix finally published a good RPG again!

But the Future Refused to Change

It’s the End of the Overworld as We Know It

Posted in Game Design, Uncategorised

In 1986 a video game named Dragon Warrior was released. They called it Dragon Quest in Japan, but under either name it single-handedly established the JRPG genre and was a landmark achievement for gaming. May of the conventions it established are still used in many games today, even outside the genre. Games have evolved since then, and many features have since been improved upon (most obviously: graphics), but one critical thing has been getting neglected recently, and it’s not okay. I speak of the Overworld Map.

To clarify what I mean when I refer to an overworld, I am defining it as the big, continuous world that links all of the towns, dungeons, super robot statues, etc. in the game’s world together. Typically major destination were represented with icons on a very large map. Your character could wander that map, and whenever your character wandered onto an icon the town or dungeon or whatever would load. It managed the scale of the game where literally travelling the entire world would be pretty boring if scale were preserved. By using iconic representations of locations the world suddenly came into existence while still be practical to explore and geographically interesting, all without breaking the bank on development time.

The advanced 1986 overworld system of Dragon Quest.
1986: The advanced overworld of Dragon Quest.
The primitive 2001 world map system of Final Fantasy X
2001: The primitive world map of Final Fantasy X

In Final Fantasy X there is a big world with lots of screens and the game does create a bit of an illusion of connectedness when it allows you to travel from one to the other by going through fundamentally linear areas, but in the end, any concept of a world is destroyed when you get your airship. In every other Final Fantasy game you get an awesome flying airship that can take you virtually anywhere. In FF 1 – 9 you get on the airship, fly to where you want to go, and then land and get out. It’s great. In FFX you get in it via a menu, once inside you don’t fly it anywhere, you look at a menu and a map and select where you want to go from the menu (not even from the map!) and then you appear there. It’s a lot like navigating a website, but not much like exploring. In Final Fantasy X you explore the world by inputting passwords into a computer that add new locations to your menu. Despite this being less fun, this system of menu-based travel and exploration is becoming reasonably common in gaming, and it sucks.

Luckily if we need a shining beacon to show us the way to do things right, there is one: Dragon Quest VIII. That game gave exploration the best treatment it has ever had in video games to date. It has an overworld that is wide and open and continuous but it doesn’t have to scale down the towns to mere icons or avatars: the world is simply that big. This is often employed in MMORPGs, but said MMORPGs typically feature zones that are still largely self enclosed, which is something that should be avoided in areas that are allegedly outdoors. In Dragon Quest VIII the only zoning that exists is gates that allow entrance into towns or dungeons – and this is makes sense in the context of the game. The game also lets you fly around the world, and there is no menu nonsense. You actually soar above all of the areas you explored on foot and get to look down and them and try to find places you couldn’t reach before or identify cities you want to revisit from the sky. It’s great. And if all of those makes it sound like it would be a pain to backtrack (after all, clicking on a menu option is very fast and convenient) we must also remember that every Dragon Quest game also features the zoom spell, where you can instantly teleport to a city you have already been to by selecting it from a menu. But you don’t need to find an arbitrary “airship spot” like in FFX or FFXII. You just go whenever you want. All of this is wonderful.

Dungeons were just as confined as the great outdoors in Final Fantasy XII
Exploring the world in Dragon Quest VIII is about as good as it gets.

Now it is no secret that DQVIII needed (and received) a lot of time, manpower, and money in its development, but not every game needs to have an overworld that is simply that good. If exploration is supposed to happen there needs to be a world map though, and there is no shame in using iconic representations of cities and simplified geographies like in Dragon Quest I. It’s not a step forward from 1986, but at least it isn’t the step backwards all those others took.

Storytelling in Video Games

Posted in Gaming Commentary, Uncategorised

A lot of games have stories to them. And by “a lot of games” I mean “virtually every title nowadays”. Back in the day it used to be only RPGs that put much effort into storytelling within the game proper, but even the others still tried to sneak some story in through alternate pathways like the manual. If you read the manual to the original Metroid you’ll find all sorts of crazy backstory that could never have been known by simply playing the game (e.g. Samus is actually male).

Samus Aran
Samus Aran…
The primitive 2001 world map system of Final Fantasy X
…is apparently a dude. ‘He’ also absorbs enemy powers, just like Mega Man.

This is particularly amazing because at the end of Metroid the game reveals that Samus is a woman. I guess they didn’t read the manual.

Nowadays I think standards have gone up a bit. Not to say that every game is Shakespeare, but, generally speaking, everyone who works on a game now can agree on the gender of the main character (the occasional JRPG notwithstanding). It may not sound like much but is actually a huge step, and incidentally also one Shakespeare had to go through what with the only-male-actors thing.

I digress. Stories are in games, and they are generally a significant part of the gameplay experience. Unfortunately, due to the requirement of also being a “game”, video games tend to lend themselves towards story conventions that often weaken the story. The majority of video games, from FPSs to turn based RPGs, derive their gameplay from violence. This in itself isn’t the end of the world but it has two major implications: the storylines in video games must be action oriented (there will be no Citizen Kane for us, unless it is a game about trashing a room), and that they tend to involve a lot of fight scenes, which also tends towards lots of impersonal conflicts.

The important thing is not to miss out on the fact that characters are what matter from a storytelling perspective, not the faceless horde of cannon-fodder. Sometimes you can mix the two by throwing a really badass villain that can keep coming up whenever a faceless horde appears (Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers) and develop some characters and story that way, but that path only goes so far. What is more important is to centralize the characters into the climaxes of the story, and not to allow the epic scenes to become impersonal as well. If the story us about the fate of the world hanging in the balance of an epic battle, then that is a great story for having a huge fight where your character can kill a lot of Storm Troopers or Orcs or whatever. But the odds are the player doesn’t really care about “the world” so much as a few of the characters in it.

Probably the greatest example I can think of is in Lunar: The Silver Star. The solution to the epic, large scale, video-game-sized problem was unified with a threat to the main characters. Luna, a major character throughout the game until she is abducted part way through, turned out to be the incarnation of this goddess that the big bad guys wanted to use to rule the entire… never mind, you get it. In reawakening this goddess aspect of herself her own personality was erased, or at least buried underneath another personality. She is now hostile towards Alex, the hero, and threatening him. She also is a threat to the world. The important thing is that the player can’t just kill her to make the problem go away because that would be killing Lunda, and somewhere in that soul Luna is in trouble. There’s a great moment where you approach her after killing the villain and she shoots lightning at you (great video game moment: she’ll actually kill you if you don’t do something to reawaken her memories of you). It’s awesome because you know you want to save the world, but you really want to save Luna too, both for her own sake and for Alex’s. It combines the best of the epic and the intimate to create an emotionally engaging moment, and it is a template for how to do things right.

Genres that Just Died Out

Posted in Gaming Commentary, Uncategorised

Yeah, I’m a bit of an old school gamer. The last game I played was Mass Effect, but the game I played before that was the original Ogre Battle for Super Nintendo. Whenever someone whines to me about how hard Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry was I throw Contra in their face. As a side note: Contra being stupidly difficult is one of those things you can count in in life. I’d even say it’s a constant, like the speed of light. Let it be a rock to you in troubled times. When your world crumbles, your beliefs are tested and you are filled with self doubt draw strength from the knowledge that Contra is, and always will be, very difficult.

I like the old games a lot, so I may come across as one of those “things were better in the good old days” types. Universally they weren’t. But there were some things that were better back in the day, and that’s what I want to talk about. You see, back in the day video games didn’t take teams of 200 people 2+ years to make. The average kindergarten student could produce about 4 NES video games in a year. That’s how low production demands were. Am I using hyperbole? You tell me. The bottom line is that the advent of 3D gaming and production costs (among other things) have combined to murder a lot of good genres, or at least push them towards extinction.

Certain genres are doing fine. It’s the glory days of the FPS (you can tell this is the case because lots of terrible FPSs are being produced, trying to ride on the coat-tails of the good ones). Back when GoldenEye came out every FPS was almost identical and there were only a few standouts, but now there’s actually a difference between Gears of War, Kill Zone, and Left 4 Dead. They aren’t all the exact same game. Good for the video game industry. The bad news is that genres that used to be well represented are dying out.

“Platformer” used to be what “video game” was synonymous with. If you liked video games it meant you like Mario, and possibly Mega Man. Now Mario evolved into 3D and still has 3D platformers, so I’m not too disappointed in him. Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy were both awesome, so he had a solid transition to 3D platforming, and hey, that’s a great evolution of the genre. Nintendo also went retro and released New Super Mario Bros for the DS (which, as a console, tends to get a lot of retro stuff on it) which was an awesome 2D platformer. The problem is, aside from that there’s not a whole lot else out there, and we’re talking 3 major games in a span of several years. Sure Mega Man has been trying, but that series has been refusing to change it’s formula and is getting punished for it. It’s foray into the X-Box Live Arcade was successful but only as a retro game. The genre needs to evolve and can’t keep spitting out the exact same 8 robot masters and 4 Dr. Wily stages every game. Consider the gap between GoldenEye 007 for N64, and a more modern shooter like Left 4 Dead. Things have changed, and they have mostly improved by quite a bit. This is where platformers like Mega Man are in trouble. They haven’t bothered thinking of a better way to make a game within the same genre. No 4-player co-op, no formal time attack modes, no 9th robot master. Nothing.

It’s just not interesting enough or making good use of what’s available anymore. But that doesn’t mean that the entire genre is obsolete. Quite the opposite, many of the most fun games of the past were platformers and it stems from the fact that the premise is good. It just needs to be brought up to speed by keeping what was good about the old and incorporating entirely new elements as well as some of the components that are expected from all games nowadays such as decent story, collectibles, and character advancement.