Friday, August 31, 2018

Octopath Traveler - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I was very impressed by Octopath Traveler. No, scratch that—I still am. In spite of all of its shortcomings, there's just something about it that warms the heart and rekindles my love for turn-based JRPGs. There are a lot of reasons for this: the enticing visuals, the monumental soundtrack, the sterling localization, the humble sidequests... but most of all, standing atop Octopath's accomplishments, is the fantastic battle system. I cannot stress how gratifying it feels to win a tense and arduous battle in this game, all thanks to your team composition, wise item use, and cunning forethought. Like Persona, Octopath Traveler has the perfect blend of depth and danger—mechanics-focused RPG fans need to experience this game.

But—and this is important—Octopath Traveler is mired in shortcomings. For me, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but there are definitely a number of things that can grate on the player over the 80 hour journey. Most obviously, Octopath is unapologetically repetitive: every dungeon follows the same formula, every main quest is structurally identical, and every town is built off of a single blueprint. There some minor tweaks here and there, but Octopath's design brush is monochromatic; best brace for bare-bones, naked tedium if you're considering jumping in.

While that's bad enough, what also hurts is that Octopath Traveler isn't a game about camaraderie so much as it's just eight individual stories tied together by brief optional conversations. You'd expect from the sweeping, emotional soundtrack that there would be a lot of character bonding, shared secrets, and commiserating over their loses. Moments like these do happen every now and then (in the optional conversations), but relegating the bonding off to the side makes it feel much less important and impactful. Most of the time, it feels as if the characters set off on their own quests and only meet back up occasionally to discuss their progress. You won't get a cutscene of one character comforting another after a devastating loss, or two of them sharing knowing glances before they rush into a treacherous dungeon. The inter-party dynamic feels very static and sadly immune from growth.

The character stories are fairly hit or miss as well, sometimes diving into some really heavy material (Primrose, Alfyn) and at other times completely skirting depth, content to say nothing remarkable (Cyrus, H'aanit). How much you'll enjoy a story can vary from chapter to chapter (Ophelia's Ch. 2 is lackluster filler while the rest of her story is fascinating), and even then, it might vary from scene to scene (and foe to foe!) Some of the stories that don't have anything noteworthy to say—like H'aanit's—can end up surpassing other more ambitious plotlines because they doesn't fumble their message or get overwrought in repetitive dialogue (Therionnnnn!) Rest assured, there's a handful of neat, exciting moments to be had, but they're in the minority; expect a lot of familiar paths to be tread here.

So far, it doesn't seem like the game is any good, does it? Thankfully, the battle system alone propels Octopath Traveler into the stratosphere of quality with its sublime BP system. You see, every turn your allies get one battle point (BP), and can store up to five each in reserve. When they go to make an attack or use a spell, you can expend up to 3 BP to super-boost your attack/spell's efficacy and longevity. On top of this, enemies have their own elemental & weapon weaknesses that can be struck a certain amount of times in order to reduce them into a defenseless state, wherein they take 50% more damage. So what happens is that, like Persona, battles have very clear pathways to success, especially when you try to time your party-wide BP bursts with buffs, debuffs, and shattering the enemy defenses. What strategy you come up with and classes you use can be the difference between an encounter that takes ten rounds to beat, and one that takes two.

The battle system reveals its strengths best when fighting the bosses in the latter half of the game. The first half has you facing off against very simple foes—you know, baddies that poison you, do party-wide attacks, summon minions—but the second half of the game (and the very final boss in particular) can do some gnarly things to stress-test your team composition. Maybe they'll randomize their weaknesses, obscure turn order, remove a party member, or spontaneously decide, "You know what? I'm going to do seven attacks in a row next round—deal with it." Since I tried to keep my party all the same level, and avoided grabbing end-game gear early, and fought all the secret job bosses with only the main eight classes, the struggle in this game was very real and very fun.

I also need to emphatically stress that Octopath's aesthetic is wonderful. It's a visually gorgeous game with plenty of moody environments, and the spritework for the bosses is downright phenomenal—half the fun was learning their mechanics, and the other half was seeing how they'd look. While the script has a tendency to repeat itself, the localization is worthy of heaps of praise, as they really go out of their way to craft some delicate and nuanced prose (it's not too often I encounter words I don't know in a video game!) And the music! The music! There's gentle woodwinds, invigorating guitars, delicate piano ballads, and some of the most jaw-droppingly-good string-focused battle music I've ever heard. The soundtrack is absolutely captivating and worth the price of admission alone.

It's not hard to get tangled up in Octopath Traveler's failures—there's plenty here to hem and haw over. There's a lot of asterisks one has to apply when they talk about how good the game is, but man, besides the stale dungeons and some ambivalent storylines, what Octopath has going for it is great. There were multiple points throughout this game where I realized I was having a better time than I've had with over half of the Final Fantasy franchise, and perhaps had there been a chance to allow the characters grow together, this would be a serious contender for my game of the year. As it is though, I'll just say it's a meaty RPG with amazing sprites, an unmatched battle system, and a soundtrack that's like an aural hug. And that final boss!—I need to end the entry here before I go on for three more paragraphs about how amazing that battle is! Octopath Traveler is a lovely game with a lot of heart... that I just wish had been better.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Momodora - Thoughts

There's a small, quiet quaintness to Momodora that I wasn't really expecting. The first time you play an indie game by an unfamiliar designer, it can run the gamut from lovably peppy (Joakim Sandberg) to oddly fascinating (Jason Rohrer) to downright oblique (Stephen Levelle). On the surface, Momodora is a very clearly a love letter to Cave Story, but after reaching the credits, it... well, is very similar to Cave Story—but focused on a more direct, arcadey experience.

... And that's about all there is to the game.

Which is fine!—short experiences act as nice breathers between larger titles (like say, Octopath Traveler and Wasteland 2). Plus, Momodora's gauntlet of stages & secret treasures were plenty enjoyable on their own. The controls are snappy and J.W. Hendricks' score is both catchy and surprisingly deep (check out Stage 5). The game can be a bit tricky at times with its enemy placement, but it's nothing that a simple retry won't remedy. If there's one thing I feel "iffy" on, it's that I wish the hitbox of the enemies/projectiles/player character were just a few pixels smaller, as I often felt like I was safe from the arc of a boulder's throw... but I clearly wasn't. It's not that big of a deal though—it's a minuscule problem in relation to the size and price of the game (it's free, by the way).

One of the aspects that really stands out to me—besides the intense Cave Story aesthetic—is that Momodora flips its gameplay on its head early on in the adventure. At first you're given a swift-striking leaf to melee enemies with (it's a tremendous weapon!) but soon you'll find both a gun and boomerang, which cements your domination over the entirety of the x-axis. rdein wisely designs around this by placing plenty of nasty projectile-oriented foes above and below you, but it's still weird to go from playing the game somewhat cautiously with a melee weapon to a guns-blazing style where you can obliterate unsuspecting foes through walls. There's multiple weapons you can switch between (as well as unimpressive shield ability), but it doesn't change the game nearly as much as the leaf -> gun transition.

Momodora is a fun excursion for those in need of a platforming appetizer. Though I wasn't motivated to sniff out all the hidden treasures, I was plenty amused by the sharp level design and varied ocular opponents (every enemy is an eyeball of some sort—very cute!) Momodora was nice—tiny, humble, and nice. I'm very interested to see how the series develops from here, given that rdein has shown that he has the chops to make a decent platformer.

Also look at this guy!:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Mega Man Battle Network - Thoughts

It's somewhat strange that I never got into the Battle Network series. On the surface it ticks off a lot of the boxes I like: strategic action-RPG gameplay, fierce boss battles, and a Mega Man coat of paint—what's not to love?

Well, a dirty secret of mine is that I've always struggled to get into CCGs (collectible card games). There's nothing I hate about them per se, but deck balancing has always felt tedious to keep up with, especially considering that your opening hand is usually random (plus I've always shied away from PvP-centered games). I understand that a lot of enjoyment can be found in carefully hand-crafting your deck so that you get a lot of synergistic combos, but I find myself focusing more on the unpredictable variables; I bemoan not knowing my opponent's hand and detest waiting helplessly for specific cards to show up. But in a lot of ways, Mega Man Battle Network is a really friendly gateway into the CCG domain, especially since its 3x3 movement grid allows the player a lot of freedom from the restraints of the "battle chip" system. The game is still obnoxious in plenty of ways, but it's an admirable first attempt into a fairly untested domain.

I suspect throughout my Battle Network retrospective that I'll be hard pressed to say anything noteworthy about any of games' plots. The grim, nearly nihilistic storyline of Mega Man Zero was extremely my style, which was part of the reason why I veered away from the Battle Network—why would I want to play as some elementary school dweeb when I could slice open an army of robots with a laser sword? Naturally as I've grown older I stopped correlating "violent" with "mature", but the plot of Mega Man Battle Network is straight-up cartoonish: an evil old scientist wants to destroy the world because of a petty grudge, so only a bunch of kids with cool robots in their PDAs can stop him. Like Pokemon, the most interesting bits are the strange comments from nameless NPCs that shed light on the world's bizarre lore, but those instances are usually few and far between. The plot is quite boring, the characters are predictable and goofy, and the themes are as cliche as can be—I'm clearly not the target audience for this game.

There's not much I can complement about the level design either, sadly. I appreciate Battle Network's rigid isometric viewpoint because it often makes the scenery feel more dynamic and lively, but the dungeons are very oldschool in that they're as bland and monotonous as can be. One floor doesn't differentiate itself from the next, and while each dungeon's "gimmick" adds some much-needed variation, trail & error is an inextricable part of most of these gimmicks. The net in particular is a tangled mess of pathways and dead ends, which really begin to grate on you when you're constantly running into low-level foes. You do acquire pass codes that let you skip ahead to areas deeper in the net, but you're still required to traverse a "floor" to access the shortcut, so there's not much time saved there.

I'm hesitant to claim that "a lot of the Battle Network feels designed to waste your time", because I recognize the repetitive and labyrinthine structure of the game is meant to provide the player with plenty of combat experience & loot (as well as make the game harder to beat on a single rent). And for what it's worth, combat is designed to be so fast-paced that it's not that much of a chore to slog through the game's high encounter rate. There's a surprising amount of enemy attacks you'll encounter, and some of the enemy combinations can be downright dastardly, which makes balancing your chip deck an important, necessary, and fascinating part of the game. While at first it feels like not much can be done with a 3x3 player space, Battle Network frequently whips out surprises against the player. The biggest takeaway from my experience is that this system shows a ton of nuance and longevity, which makes me glad that it wasn't merely a one-off.

Because—let's be honest—there's a lot of improvements that Battle Network could make.

Now, not only is it important to keep in mind that I have not played any of the future installments, but that I am also by no means adept at Battle Network's battle system. In fact I kinda stink at it, which is why these issues stuck out to me:

1) The "Add" button is a waste of time. I really like the idea of essentially going into battle defenseless in order to acquire a larger chip hand later, but the bonus chips disappear in one turn! One! I suspect that this is to done to make setting up super powerful combos trickier, but the custom meter builds up so quickly and enemies are so weak that it's frankly better to use the chips you're given rather than wait for better ones. Speaking of...

2) There's way too many chip letters. As far as I can tell there's over a dozen or so, which makes balancing your folder for synergies meaningless unless you grind for specific letters. And the game doesn't even let you see what letters a chip is capable of holding! This led to me just shoving a bunch of the same chip into my folder (since you can bring multiple same-type chips into battle), especially since...

3) Almost nothing is better than sheer offense, and because of this, some chips are going to be tremendously more valuable than others. Case in point: Quake chips and DynaWave! Why ever go for anything else? Either the range is short, the damage is poor, or it's too situational/fiddly to use (Ringzap, Dynamyt, TimeBom, Dash) that you're better off sticking with something simple, direct, and powerful. Don't even get me started on the awful guard and X-Panel abilities; had I encountered more durable foes I would've found the defensive abilities more valuable, but why waste time slotting a RemoBit when I can just flatten fools with 5-panel crushing Quake? And lastly...

4) Let me make multiple chip decks! Seriously!

I have some other niggling complaints, but I've spent so much of this entry ragging on poor Battle Network that I need to take some time to reiterate that I enjoyed and appreciated what the game brought to the table. It was a bold, new, dangerous direction to take Mega Man, and thankfully it works. Due to the length of the dungeons, Battle Network feels like a complete experience, and the experience is at its best when you're squaring off against its numerous challenging bosses. Suffering a defeat and being forced to sift through your chip folder for a good balance of recovery, utility, and damage chips (ie Quake chips) is a lot of fun. And testing out new chips and contemplating their utility helps to motivate you whenever the story fails to do so.

I feel as though I've been overly critical of Mega Man Battle Network, but I think that's in large part due to my own personal struggle with CCGs. The game didn't really change my thoughts much: I still dislike the RNG of your initial hand, feel that a lot of the chips are either useless or fiddly, and have yet to find a strategy more optimal than prioritizing brute strength. But the groundwork laid here is solid, and I'm definitely intrigued to keep trucking along, wondering if the series will ever fix the "Add" system or condense its plethora of letters. Mega Man Battle Network is an admirable game, and had I played it in my childhood rather than my post-adolescence, perhaps I would be singing a very different tune.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Super Mario Odyssey - Thoughts

Ya know, it was about time Super Mario 64 got another sequel. After the initial foray beyond flatland, the 3D Mario titles have found themselves torn in two directions: large, sandboxy playgrounds or more linear, meticulously crafted environments. From Galaxy onwards, Mario has traditionally been loyal to the latter, with every stage designed primarily for going from point A to point B, where straying off the beaten path will only reward you with small goodies. But now in Super Mario Odyssey, the beaten path is the main course! So let your penchant for goofing take hold, because Odyssey is one hell of an enjoyable (and relaxing) collectathon.

I have to give props first to the programmers that tweaked the way Mario moves and jumps in Odyssey. Like with UI, the controls of a game are supposed to be so second nature that the player isn't supposed to think about them most of the time—a designer needs them to be unobtrusive so as not to distract from the more prominent aspects like art and story. But sometimes the smaller touches can be so profound that they deserve recognition, like in the buttery smooth response of Mario's turning, flipping, and diving. If there was one word to describe how it feels to pilot the stout Italian plumber, it'd be comfortable.

This is important to note because you're going to spend a lot of the game wandering around. A good portion of the levels in Odyssey are fairly open and require a lot of snooping and scrounging to find every moon, which means you'll spend minutes on end jogging from one corner to the other, all while wrangling the camera to spot secrets. It can feel tiresome at times—the first post-game kingdom is a dull snoozefest—but since Mario remains fun to pilot it takes the edge off of the tediousness. Plus looking for where to go next only becomes a problem when you're a good chunk of the way through the game; from the start to the credits, Super Mario Odyssey is jam-packed full of awesome visuals and nifty ideas.

The level of imagination present in each of Odyssey's exotic kingdoms is downright intoxicating. It's hard not to act like some slack-jawed tourist at times, panning the camera around to catch every detail, whether it be reading all the billboards in the Metro Kingdom or doing inventory of all the food present in the Luncheon Kingdom. The art style between worlds aggressively clashes, but this is done purposefully: Odyssey's message is one of unity and of appreciating cultural differences. I'm usually very pro-art cohesion, but this game is just so wacky and amiable that it doesn't bother me to see Mario interacting with gardening robots, dapper men, and poncho-clad chibi skeletons, all within hopping distance of one another. Plus Odyssey remembers to never take itself too seriously—the dialogue, outfits, and quests are all quietly charming, routinely eking small grins the player.

Perhaps the only aspect I take umbrage with is the game's difficulty. About 95% of Odyssey is a cakewalk—moons are fairly easy to get your hands on when you know where they are, and the majority of the "linear platforming level" zones barely do anything to jeopardize your life. It's only at the veeeery end that Super Mario Odyssey ratchets up the intensity to 11, which can feel somewhat out of place in relation to how carefree the rest of the game is. I would've preferred a lot more "highly tricky but not punishing if you lose" challenges sprinkled throughout the adventure. Odyssey has so many low-effort moons that I needed something more to tantalize my masochism.

But the sundry of moons are part of the appeal of the game. Super Mario Odyssey rewards you for being curious as well as aimless, ensuring that you'll walk away from each play session with scores of moons bursting from your pockets. It might feel a bit condescending at times, sure ("you got a moon for looking under the bed!"), but it's a great game to unwind to, letting you play however you see fit. Think you'll get something for stacking nearby goombas? You're right! What about going fishing in the sand? That too! How about jumping down this suspicious-looking hole that's probably a pit? Well, more often than not it is a pit, but sometimes it's not!!! For some, Odyssey's moons felt like artificial validation, but for me they were a neat checklist to kick back and complete, bit by bit.

The big gimmick of Odyssey—invading another creature's body with your soul & mustache—is thankfully one that doesn't dominate the gameplay. I really like that each world has its own particular enemy to inhabit, but the game is at its most pleasant when you're steering Mario around the obstacle course-like nature of the geography. That said, a lot of the transformations are clever and wholly different from one another; my favorites were the uproot, tropical wiggler, and pokio, all for their unique traversal mechanics. The body invasion animation lasts like a third of a second too, which makes alternating between Mario and your target a breeze. Before I played the game I was dreading the use of Odyssey's manipulative Mariohood mechanic, but I walk away humbled and impressed; as arrogant as this sounds, Nintendo rarely disappoints.

Super Mario Odyssey serves as an amazing introduction to the core principles of a Mario title: namely jumping, exploring, and having fun. The gentle difficulty curve of the game isn't to my liking, but I still respect the hell out of it, and every time I sat down to play I found myself enthused to scour yet another land for moons. From the colorful worlds you'll visit to the outlandish outfits you'll don (the wedding dress and pirate garb are smokin' on Mario), the sojourn to Odyssey's quirky universe is one that's well worth it. You'll see a lot of gnarly sights, long jump headfirst into a lot of walls, and find your heart warmed by the good vibes emanating from this lovely, lovely game.

Title screen obtained from:

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) - Thoughts

[preamble begins]

The undying fervor for the Sonic franchise is perhaps gaming's greatest enigma. Rare few properties receive the same unbreakable support that the blue hedgehog is showered with, a fact which becomes considerably more perplexing when you account for the series' poor track record. It's a franchise with a prolific resume wherein every title feels like a second chance, and every step forward finds itself countered by a baffling step backwards. Sonic's legacy is one of clarifications and conjunctions—it's difficult to talk about its games without needing to address a bevy of complaints, all of which will be defended by someone somewhere. It almost prides itself on how often it can let down its fans, a bullish sentiment which suffers no consequences because the goodwill garnered by the kinda fun titles will always outweigh the sloppy, unrefined, and often painful design of its numerous lesser entries.

The Sonic franchise is a Lovecraftian abomination for kids—it is one that is simultaneously steeped in boundless optimism and multifaceted madness. To that end, I'd argue that its most ardent fans aren't merely just supporters of the series, but thralls of nostalgia to the community and culture that surrounds it. The blood sacrifices from their wallets keep its decrepit blue heart beating while the world looks on in awe, wondering why their own beloved 90s anthropomorphic icon died—and yet Sonic somehow continues to shuffle on. But none should yearn for Sonic's fate, for he is eternally doomed to wander a limbo of ambivalent feelings, perilous platforming, and troubled fanart.

As you may have guessed, my relationship with the Sonic series is one that's been dominated by disappointment. I want to clarify beforehand that I actually liked a lot of the games growing up, and always held a special sort of reverence for the speedy scamp. Despite being a Nintendo-consoles-only kid, there was a magical quality to the Sega Genesis that always made me savor the brief occasions I got to play it at a BJs kiosk or friend's house. I was envious of Genesis owners, having to make do with PC ports that frequently crashed (Sonic CD) or were downright subpar entries (Sonic 3D Blast). But my prayers were answered in 2002 thanks to the Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube, which allowed me to finally sit down and play through the series' revered roots for the first time at my own pace. So know that my disdain doesn't stem from a fanboy vendetta or aversion to gloved mammals—it's the unyielding death spiral of quality that continues to vex me.

[preamble ends]

There's no hyperbole in claiming that the 3.5 Sonic platformers on Genesis remain the best in the series. After all, this was when Sonic was at his simplest and most formative, exposing a number of young minds to the inchoate concept of speedrunning. The first entry in the series is the roughest of the 16-bit era, as evidenced by its slower levels and lack of a spin dash. But at its core, Sonic the Hedgehog is a solid game that leaves plenty of room to build off of its noteworthy blueprint.

What's kind of interesting about Sonic the Hedgehog—and is also a trait that will almost entirely define Sonic CD—is the focus on platforming. Nowadays we rightfully correlate Sonic with speed, but the hedgehog's inception was a decidedly more cautious outing, where "going fast" was only viable roughly half of the time. The way the game breaks up its pacing by zone works adequately well in isolation, but compared to what the series would eventually become, it's hard to deny that Sonic the Hedgehog is... kind of obnoxious. The sweet satisfaction that comes from blazing through a level can only be found in Green Hill Zone; a considerable portion of Sonic's first adventure is designed to impede your momentum as much as possible.

The amount of speed bumps Sonic the Hedgehog uses weren't really apparently to me until I replayed through it looking for them—and there's a lot. Marble Zone is full of spike lifts and slow block riding sections, enemies like Orbinaut and Bomb are nettlesome time-wasters meant to punish you for rolling, and Scrap Brain Zone is chock-full of rude pitfalls thanks to the strict timing of its bridges and platforms. This isn't even touching the molasses-like mess of Labyrinth Zone, where the notorious oxygen timer is a lesser threat compared to wading past spike traps while your acceleration is hamstrung. To safely reach the credits you have to constantly play the game at a snail's pace, tapping the right button in one second bursts just to make sure you can spot an upcoming enemy or hazard. Often when it looks like you can go fast, it's a trap; in Star Light Zone Act 1, if you take the lower path and roll into a ball, the road will maliciously fling you off into a pit.

This isn't to say that constant obstacles are an atrocious design choice—it's just that they don't play to Sonic's strengths. I think there's a time and place for momentum-based platforming challenges (I kind of like Labyrinth Zone in a masochistic way) but there's no comfortable balance between the mindless gratification of holding right and nervously inching your way forward. Placing Green Hill Zone first was a smart move because of how smooth, fun, and friendly it plays compared to the rest of the game; the verdant introduction gives the impression that Sonic has always been about speed and not strictly platforming. Yet if you jump ahead to the latter half of the game, it'll suddenly feel like every act is doing all it can to rob you of rings.

Brushing aside the lack of speed, the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog is alright. The colorful visuals and hip music are its best assets and would continue to be the only two features that remained consistent across most of the series. The bonus stage is uh... wonky and awkward, but the Sonic games rarely have good bonus stages anyway, and at least this one isn't too frustrating. I like the idea of requiring the player to be holding 50 rings to access it, but I'm less keen on how 'continues' are gated behind the bonus stage. A lot of 1-up/Continue systems can make or break platformers, and had Sonic's system been a little more lenient, perhaps I could more easily forgive it for its impenetrable rudeness.

Thankfully, countering the Continue drought is the hilariously generous ring system—which is kinda crazy to consider that it's still around. I've never been a fan of the ring system myself: it's both too punishing and too lenient. Losing all of your rings for taking a single hit when you're hoping to get to the special stages or gather 1-Ups is severely disheartening, while on the flip-side it's super easy to scoop up at least one ring afterwards. This also makes boss fights oscillate wildly in difficulty, since attacks on the sides of the screen are way more dangerous than those in the center. Sonic the Hedgehog at least accounts for this fact in its boss fights by either letting you only hit Robotnik at the edges or threatening you by routinely denying space, which is surprising given that the series completely abandons trying to adjust for this later on.

Kind of like the franchise itself, I have a lot of conflicting feelings for Sonic the Hedgehog. There are times where I find myself thinking "oh man this is kinda neat"—like with some of the alternate routes through slower zones—and then I find myself ducking underwater for an Orbinaut's tortoiselike projectiles to pass by, wondering, "Was Sonic doomed to mediocrity from the very beginning?" The answer, of course, is no: there's a lot of novel ideas present in Sonic that hadn't been done until the blue blur sprinted onto the scene, and unlike a lot of other Sonic games down the line, the first entry is a must-play for people seeking to understand Sonic. It might be kind of clunky in retrospect, but Sonic nevertheless owes its legacy to the strength of its Genesis debut.