…so, yeah, I’m playing Spectrobes (2)

…which is, as I mentioned previously, what I suspect to be Disney’s answer to Pokemon.

Then I went off in a long tangent. I initially wanted to discuss Spectrobes specifically. There are a couple of things that bug me about it.

First, the game starts as if you already know the characters; it’s like tuning into the third season of Sabrina – with few exceptions, such as season-end episodes, and season-long arcs, it’s all episodic and features the same set of main characters. The events of one episode don’t affect the next until the season-end, at which point they’re all pulled together and are supposed to mean something. Otherwise the season went absolutely nowhere.
So Kallen and Jeena know each other, and say they ‘need to do well on our next mission’, which suggests they haven’t done too well in the past, which further suggests we ought to know these things, as they don’t say what they did, and generally references to some shady incident in the past are tackled more subtly in other games, or at least not brought up in the first few moments of the game. ARE we supposed to know them from somewhere?
Who knows.

Second… augh, battles are as awkward as I remember. For those who don’t know, Spectrobes is ostensibly a monster-training game; you raise a few monsters, called ‘Spectrobes’, through battle or walking around, they become more powerful, and predictably evolve at some point. There’s a wide-variety of Spectrobes out there in a number of different evolutionary paths, though I think it’s all ‘immature -> mature -> special’ with no branches for any of them?
In battle, you’re on the map accompanied by one or two Spectrobes, as are your enemies. This is probably sounding like Lost Kingdoms or Trapt right now; it is like them, in that you’ll be relying mostly on your Spectrobes to do the damage for you. See, though the main character can attack on command, this starts out doing 1 damage at pitiful range whilst the Spectrobes do 40~. In my previous experience, this didn’t really improve, even when I bought weapons. If an enemy can get at your character, you’re doing something badly as they can deal nasty damage, and you lose if you die.
So, awkwardness. Each Spectrobe has a specific attack with a certain range. However, they’re always located somewhere to the left or right of the main character, one on either side. Essentially, your attacks are launching from a non-centred position, which throws off aiming. Some Spectrobes – the starting one that can charge – does a bit of auto-aiming, but since it’s located somewhere to the right of you, aiming at anything to the left of the screen with that Spectrobe is next to impossible as it never wants to do that. Other Spectrobes might only ever attack towards the upper edge of the screen, or roughly where you’re facing, or have pitiful range in addition to not being the main character, making aiming a bit more difficult, and…
You probably get the idea. Trapt keeps things simple with non-centred attacks by making them stationary. Your traps don’t move from where they are unless you, yourself, move them. Lost Kingdoms, on the other hand, centres every direct-attack card on your own position – the Dark Raven swoops down from above and always passes above or through you on the way to the area it can hit, whilst the lizardmen are all temporarily summoned right on top of your own position and strike in front of you. You still need to aim, in both cases, but you either placed where the thing attacks from yourself, and know where it can hit, or the attack is always relative to the direction you’re facing.
Meanwhile, Spectrobes take some time to turn when you turn, and don’t always go where you want. Battles even a short way into the game get a little… tedious, to say the least.

Speaking of which, high enemy HPs. From the controls and the troubles in attacking, Spectrobes isn’t as much focused on dodging as a game like Monster Hunter is. It certainly shouldn’t have been, if it is. Monster Hunter gets away with high health on some of its monsters because they’re a test of how long you can keep yourself alive, dodging, versus how much damage you can deal in a given length of time. They’re endurance; even if you can dodge perfectly in the beginning, you’re going to get tired eventually. Deal enough damage before you take too many attacks and collapse, and you win. Fail to deal enough damage before Yian Garuga steps on you for the last sliver of health and you lose.
With the low variety in attacks on both your part and the enemy’s part – each Spectrobe can do all of ONE thing in a fight, and you can do two things, charge and attack – battles get just a bit tedious.

Oh, and… ‘3D on the DS, bleh’. The DS should stick to sprites and pixels; the contrast between how good character portraits in dialogue look, and how outdated the 3D environments and models look, is immense.  Dragon Warrior Monsters: Joker was the same; it looks ugly in battle by itself, and hideous compared with the pixel renditions of monsters in the DS Dragon Quest remakes.
There’s something odd here, though; Spectrobes tends to use both the top screen and bottom screen to display the environment, somewhat like what Animal Crossing does but without any view of the sky – it’s just the normal environment to the north of you. The DS Dragon Quest remakes do this too, but it’s slightly more useful there as you can rotate the viewpoint, and hence change what you see on the top screen.
Instead of considering the top of the lower screen to be the bottom of the upper screen, they put a blindspot there that’s approximately the same size as the DS hinge. Weird.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things I like about Spectrobes; the whole excavation thing, for example, and some of the designs of the Spectrobes. It’s just they’re not what the game actually focuses on.

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So I’m playing Spectrobes… (1)

…which seems to be Disney’s attempt at answering and/or leeching from the success of Pokemon.

Not that Pokemon was the first or the only successful monster-training game out there; the Shin Megami Tensei series has apparently always been popular in Japan, but most of it didn’t arrive over here due to censorship-type concerns – apparently people get offended if the Judeo-Christian God is obviously the true final boss of a game. Come to think of it, what changed that they brought SMT3 over here? The success of spinoffs like Persona?
Persona’s another game that fits under a broad definition of ‘monster-training’, but that series is odd in that a character’s Persona determines a portion of a human character’s statistics, so the monster is really just a piece of equipment that can level up. Then there’s Digital Devil Saga, which completely dodged the whole issue of monster-training by making them plain ordinary characters; part of the whole ‘monster-training’ mechanic is that you potentially have a very large pool of monsters unlocked – by capturing them, or by befriending them, or… whatever system the game uses to justify more becoming available – and tailor your selection in order to deal with the enemies you encounter. For instance, putting a lot of fire-element creatures in a hypothetical party if you’re about to go somewhere flammable that you don’t really care about.

But then there are games like Lost Kingdoms 1 and 2 on the Gamecube – your main character could temporarily summon all kinds of monsters to fight for her… which was kind of necessary due to the utter lack of a direct attack on her… but could only summon the ones in her hand, drawn randomly from a constructed deck.
But is this a monster-training game? The cards the monsters are contained in expire as they’re used – use some once, or a certain number of times, and they’ll run out. Likewise, monsters that are summoned and walk around for a time expire when their health – the ‘health’ of the card, displayed in the same way uses-left are, as the card gradually burning to ashes – falls to zero, and it drops every single moment they’re on the map. If you pick up any cards in an area, you can replace cards in your own
deck with them, even cards that are already expired due to use, but if
you run out of cards in an area, you’re still screwed, so there’s that
element of tactics; it results from a limited number of cards in the deck, a limited number of uses or length of use for each card, and only limited opportunities to refresh existing cards by either replacing them, or restoring them with another card – heavily limited in the second game since most players worked out how to have a five-card ‘infinite’ deck in the first game. Running out of cards tends to be an automatic fail on any area with a boss at the end, as you can’t do anything to enemies or bosses when that happens, and you tend to need certain cards to navigate certain areas, so… strategy, yeah. And that’s without factoring in how certain cards are better at beating certain enemies due to elemental weaknesses/strengths, the area the card effects, odd things like how fast the attack happens or whether it ignores defenses… or whether it’s one of the rare and expensive card that lets you capture enemies defeated with it…
Additionally, cards you use in battle gain experience, and with enough experience you can duplicate the cards, or turn them into more (or… less) powerful cards – essentially, breeding and evolving from the Pokemon games. But a single card does not gain strength with experience – a card cannot become more powerful as itself.
So, is this a form of ‘monster-training’ game?

Whatever you think, then what about Tecmo’s Deception/Kagero series of games? This has somewhat-similar mechanics; you have a hero or heroine who can’t physically attack by themselves, who needs to rely on something external to defend themselves from attackers. In this case, rather than monsters (…mostly), they rely on traps; things like boulders rolling down stairs, or trapdoors in the floor, or wall-fixtures that breathe fire. In most games, the player needs to trigger these themselves through a buttonpress, rather than have them automatically trigger on enemies; one or two of the four games in the series had the option to add something to the traps to add that functionality, but it was apparently rather limited through either availability, or other things you could add to the trap instead.
In these games, killing enemies through traps nets you currency; between levels, this can be used to buy new types of traps, like invisible boulders or wall-mounted lasers. Depending on the game, buying certain combinations of traps or combining certain items would produce new, otherwise-unobtainable traps.
Is this some kind of ‘monster-training’ type of game? There’s definitely strategy in there – you can only ever have three different traps active in a room, one on the floor, one on a wall, and one on the ceiling. Certain enemies are immune to certain traps or entire kinds of traps, and have different patterns of attacks, so some types of traps are going to be more or less effective at hitting them in the first place, or at dealing damage even when they connect. It doesn’t just rely on luck, as generally the same types of enemies have the same attack patterns, and the games tend to warn you ahead of time of immunities. That didn’t always make sense, but served to keep you from using the exact same combination of three traps through the entire game.
However, I don’t think individual traps ever gain in strength – once they’re made, they’re fixed at the same level of power and always will be that strong. You can make a more powerful otherwise-identical trap, and you can make a new kind of trap that, say, electrocutes the enemies in addition to picking them up, but the original cage isn’t going to do more damage, ever. You’re not ‘raising’ your traps, you’re always replacing them. They still exist when you switch to something similar but more powerful, unlike Lost Kingdoms and its cards – if you ‘evolve’ a card, the card you evolved changes into the new card, and isn’t available for use any more unless you buy another version of it. This series’ ‘pool of experience’ is essentially the currency you get from enemies ,and rather than being specific to anything, it’s used by everything. You can still focus on developing a certain type of trap over all others, if you want, but you’re a bit more screwed in this game if you spend everything on something that just won’t work on an enemy; in Lost Kingdoms, each specific card-type – like the Dark Raven, or the Hellhound – has a pool shared only with other instances of the card, and in most games, experience is specific to one instance only.
So despite having similar mechanics, I think the Lost Kingdoms games are monster-training games, and the Deception/Kagero/Trapt/whatever series isn’t; being able to improve a specific monster or creature after using it for a length of time is just as important as the collection aspect, or the strategic aspect.

I don’t think I’m playing Spectrobes any more. I’m just musing about
the nature of monster-training games. I’ve probably missed out key mechanics somewhere, and I’ve deliberately kept away from most of the traditional monster-training/raising/taming/whatever games, like Monster Rancher, the main Pokemon games,  Jade Cocoon 1 and 2, and the majority of the Digimon-themed games (Digimon World Championship (DS) is a nice… Tamagotchi), in the name of keeping this from growing to proper essay-size. It’s fairly large as-is, really, so I’m glad I didn’t go into more detail.
I’ll… write about Spectrobes in
a different post, I suppose, for neatness, since this turned into a talk about something else. I still have things to say about it.

Miniview: Fathom (Browser-based)

I love:
…the atmosphere; the music, the surroundings, what the game looks like it’s a copy of. It’s lovely in the same way that Cave Story or Shadow of the Colossus are. Or, well, Eversion.
…the final area of the game, though I’m still not sure what on Earth happened.

I like:
…that boss. That fight is interesting on a couple of levels.
…what happens after that. It’s difficult to tell with only the small visible area, but pay close attention to the areas you’re exploring.

I loathe:
…the controls for the ‘main’ part of the game. Controlling your movement is difficult when you can only see clearly in the direction you came from, and can’t clearly see yourself, let alone what’s ahead.
…how the ending is a bit ‘…what on Earth just happened?’ Scratch that. See: the second point I love.

Verdict:
Go on, just play it. It won’t take long.

And another thing…

…upon reflection, De Ragan is almost as pitiable as a Basarios, when it comes to difficulty.
Yes. De Ragan, the obligatory dragon boss in Phantasy Star Universe, is almost as easy to beat as the Easiest Wyvern Ever. The only reason it isn’t easier is it has homing fireballs that you must rely on luck for dodging, and spades more health, making tapping it down with a lone Force an exercise in the durability of your digits more than anything. De Ragan moves and attacks so slowly that the only thing that ever hit me was the aforementioned homing fireballs, which are a little cheap.

In every other way, it’s more pitiable than a Basarios. Its model looks ugly, and its feet don’t actually line up with the floor. I also think it’s supposed to be coloured ‘realistically’, as it may not be infected by SEED, but… well, in that case, it’s naturally in possession of neon-green lines.

I suspect Monster Hunter Freedom 2 has broken ordinary bosses and models for me. Why can’t more games look nice?

Phantasy Star Portable: Initial Thoughts (PSP)

Immediately better than PSU, but only by virtue of two things; letting you make your own character, and actually being able to receive weapons and equipment as loot. I’m wandering around a free mission at the moment, having dodged the story mode (…bleh) in favour of practice, and I’ve already looted… uh… two swimming suits, in addition to a weapon.
Okay, so if that’s the extent of it, the problem isn’t really ‘fixed’, but it’s worlds better than inexplicable components and circuitboards. It seems closer to PSO’s loot, instead.

There seem to be no new assets, at least to start with. The mission I’m in is Clyez Linear Line, and it looks pretty much exactly the same as on the PC. Props for getting that working on the PSP, I suppose, but it would have been nice seeing something new.

Oh, on that note, I worked out another few reasons to enjoy Monster Hunter over PSU/PSP; reasons missions look better in that game than this. First, PSU’s missions, and all one of PSP’s missions I’ve seen thus far, take place in locations that look made of ‘corridors and rooms’, even in the areas that are supposed to be ‘wild’, !landscaped. PSO’s first area, and all of MHF2’s areas, look like they could be real places. It’s the difference between something that’s well-designed, and something that looks the last place you were in with different graphics. Though there are less areas to explore in Monster Hunter Freedom 2,
Furthermore, though both PSU and Monster Hunter have a small set of enemies – compared to any random proper online game, or any RPG – Monster Hunter’s creatures look much more alive than PSU’s creatures. Their AI makes them seem much more intelligent when attacking – they hop around to get into better positions, they try to attack where you’re going to go in addition to where you are, some flee whenever an apparent predator turns up, some just leave you alone, some mistakenly attack each other when you dodge in the right way, others deliberately attack each other… whilst PSU’s monsters never actually interact with each other and, with few exceptions, just tend to waddle towards you to attack. The exceptions, of course, just move faster or slower towards you. They all tend to have only a single attack or two, to boot. Not very interesting to fight, especially when you fight fifty of them in a single mission. MHF2 can afford to be more sparing since its enemies fight intelligently; if you have bad luck, you might get taken out by a group of three Genprey, but it’s hard to imagine losing to even twenty Pannon at once unless you put the PSP down, given they just waddle towards you and slap.
Finally, though it’s not actually in slowdown, Phantasy Star Portable certainly looks like it. Well, I’ve been playing Monster Hunter Freedom 2 lately; I spotted this in the shop today and picked it up. Right now I’m playing it for a break as I keep losing to Kushala Daora – it’s easy to dodge everything except its icebreath whilst flying. PSP just does not play anywhere near as smoothly as MHF2; it looks jerky, it doesn’t look as clear, it isn’t quite as responsive, and it’s slightly more difficult to judge distance and aim well with it. Ergo, it currently looks like it’s perpetually in lag. As I’m not liable to stop playing Monster hunter Freedom 2, this feeling is probably going to persist.
Amazing how they managed to simulate lag in a handheld game, isn’t it?

This game has mixed reviews on Metacritic, but I think I’m going to like it more than I did PSU, as it seems a little truer to PSO’s gameplay.
Don’t see why they just don’t rerelease PSO Eps. 1, 2 and 4 on the PSP, honestly.