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.