Speaking of Dark Souls…

This turned up on Kotaku today. Odds, huh?

Anyway, this is the kind of manual I’d have wanted with the game. I’m not sure how a friend ended up with a six-page manual; the PS3 European one has- wait, no, it has approximately 6 pages of useful information, and 5 pages of health warnings, content pages, deliberately-blank note pages that no one ever uses, legalese and credits stuff, and advertisements for other games.
That, there, on Scribd is a proper manual. What we got with this and, honestly, most Monster Hunter games was just functional. For a game like Monster Hunter without an emphasis on setting and story, it’s forgiveable, but for a game like Dark Souls it comes across as cheapness, once you see this thing and realise they had something like this and weren’t giving it to the players.
Did they really need to save that much on printing costs? This would have been a far nicer thing to have than the ‘mini strategy guide’, even.

Oh, well. It’s available for everyone to see now, anyway.

…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.

Why I don’t like Phantasy Star Universe as much as Phantasy Star Online or Monster Hunter Freedom 2…

Well, I’m still alive. I’ve just been taking an unannounced-though-obvious vacation from… uh… inspiration. Not relating to ideas for articles, as I have many of those lying around, but relating to how I should write them. What particular games I should reference, why those and not others.
As far as art’s concerned, I’ve just been lazy, though. I need to get back into the habit of both posting and practicing art, really, so… here’s a not-as-small-as-first-intended rant that connects to game design a little.

—–

As much as I loved Phantasy Star Online on the Gamecube, I really don’t enjoy most of Phantasy Star Universe; I didn’t have anything to compare Story mode to the last time I played it, but now I can say the characters and lack of acting are reminiscent of Two Worlds. Ethan is as annoying as the unnamed protagonist from that game, and only shows barely more expression… and that’s simply because the story mode uses emote animations from the Extra and Network modes. Voice-wise, only a few characters show any emotion besides an arbitrarily-determined default setting.
So I don’t like Story mode. I’m also too cheap to pay money to play a mission-based game with very little exploration online.

Why don’t I just play Extra mode? That’s just like the offline mode of Phantasy Star Online, right? Well, in order to unlock Extra mode, a player has to complete up to chapter 4 of Story mode, first; they sort of serve as a tutorial – chapters 1 to 3, anyway, chapter 4 is anyone’s guess as to why it’s a requirement – and you only have to do it once… per install. I’m not on the computer I was last playing PSU on, so I had to go through it all again. Additionally, that only opens Parum for Extra mode. If I want to amble around Neudaiz and Moatoob, or unlock more than the basic four-or-so missions for Parum, I have to complete more chapters. Each chapter drags on slightly too long for me to enjoy, and having to go through the first four chapters with Ethan Waber and his merry men in order to unlock something that should have been

It’s also not entirely like the offline mode. I’ve mentioned it before elsewhere, but there are two very significant differences between Phantasy Star Offline and Phantasy Star Universe. In each case, Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is closer to PSU than PSO, but manages to make their decision work where in PSU a similar mechanic falls flat.

The first difference is that PSU is exclusively mission-based; you cannot go anywhere without a mission. When you pick a mission in PSU, you are essentially picking a map, the spawning patterns of enemies, and each Free Mission – the only kind of mission available – took place on a different map. I think. PSO, on the other hand, allowed you to go out without a general mission – though you still had an objective – and all missions for a given area (say… Ruins…) took place on the same series of maps. PSO’s maps had a number of possible starting positions, a number of different possible spawning patterns depending on where you started and what mission, if any, you were currently working on, and were much larger than PSU’s maps. By necessity; anyone forced to run through the same area ten times in a row would swiftly tire of the game. A large continuous map allowed a player’s knowledge of the area
from missions – which tended to cover just a small portion of the whole
map – to guide them when just exploring and trying to complete the area, and vice versa, without giving the entire game away. ‘That path leads to a dead end, that other path leads to the teleporter when not on a mission, Delsabers spawned here last time, after poking the item box…’ Missions themselves in PSO were not made to be repeated until a player either beat every mission and the game, at which point they all unlocked again, or until the player starts a game on a new difficulty setting, and begin all the missions from the start; thus keeping players from having the exact details of a mission etched into their very grey matter from sheer repetition.
Unfortunately, PSU’s missions are designed to be repeated, ad nauseum; with just Parum’s initial set of Free Missions unlocked, a player has to run through the first mission three or four times killing everything just to attain the level requirement for the next mission. I can only imagine things get worse as it starts to take longer to level, but despite unlocking Neudaiz and Moatoob for Extra mode in my first install of PSU, I never lasted to the point where my character would have enough levels to survive a single hit on those.
However, Monster Hunter is an exclusively mission-based game. You can’t go anywhere without accepting a mission; which selects map, enemies, alters the chances of picking up certain items around the map sometimes…
So why is Monster Hunter Freedom 2 much better than Phantasy Star Universe, if they’re both entirely mission-based? Well, MH takes the PSO approach to maps and missions; each mission takes place in a region (Hills & Forest, Snowy Mountain, Volcano… and so forth), and that region’s map is the same every time. Missions alter enemy spawn rates and patterns, the chance of picking up certain items, and the goal of the mission, but not the map, beyond occasionally blocking off a few areas… just like PSO. The player does not necessarily have to visit every single area in the region to complete a mission; usually, they’re set up so that is specifically not the case, with target creatures running through just three or four areas, or target items only obtainable in one or two constant areas, out of sixteen. MHF2’s missions also tend to be… short, despite having absolute upper time limits of fifty real-time minutes, in most cases. Either you succeed, or you die three times, hit reward zero and fail automatically, and you usually succeed or die long before time over. Taking close to the entire allotted time is usually a big hint that you should reassess your equipment. Speaking of which…

The second major difference is in your inventory. PSO’s total set of items is, on the whole, much more interesting than PSU’s list. For a very, very simple reason:
I do not like generic gear. I like interesting loot.
Phantasy Star Online had enemies drop equipment. Mostly… yes, it was generic. Sabers (Brands, Busters, Pallasches, Gladius’…), Swords (Gigushes, Breakers, Claymores, Caliburs), and Wands (Staves, Batons, Scepters) for a few examples of weapons and their better-statted counterparts from later areas and difficulties. Sometimes, however, you got a shiny RED box, rather than a dull green or blue thing; a rare item. Like DISKA OF LIBERATOR… which was probably the most common rare I ever saw, but still better than another Cane. Or an enemy part; how about a Rappy Wing? You could also get Mag cells, which changed your already-nifty evolving piece of equipment into something shinier, under the right conditions. There was always the possibility of a very nice drop
Phantasy Star Universe had a Star Trek replicator disguised as a poor replacement for a stay-at-home MAG. Enemies occasionally dropped materials for replication, but more often than not you had to go out and buy those. Usually they just dropped meseta and monomates. Once in a blue moon, you’d find…!
A circuit board. You had the budget MAG-substitute produce a generic piece of gear for you. No legendary rare items, just another generic-though-better-statted piece of probably-mass-produced gear. Or a novelty room decoration requiring drops just as rare as the board was, and with a high chance of failure. So not only could you not immediately use what you picked up, there was even a chance you’d never get to use it anyway.
Which sounds better? Rivetacle, or Heart of Poumn? Burzaihoh, or Snow Queen? What makes a Ryo-Betatore better than a Ryo-Louktore? Even PSU’s ultimate weapons, from boards not found in shops, sound generic. I don’t know what they look like. I never felt motivated to invest the effort to find out.
MHF2 takes a similar approach to equipment to PSU; enemies don’t drop equipment, but instead drop materials for equipment. It’s understandable; in PSO, equipment drops were weakly justified by telling us they previously belonged to a now-dead military, or… well, worse, you’re killing the, um, Jenova’d remains of that military. It’s never quite specified exactly what happened, and it stretches credibility that the monster standing in front of you a few seconds ago was holding a DISKA OF LIBERATOR and is not now dancing in your guts. In PSU, enemies might drop things like Acid or Jelly… oh, I don’t know. It’s never made clear how you GET these materials, as enemies tend to disappear in a cloud of blood once they die. Microscopic SEEDs, perhaps?
In MHF2, however, the material drops make more sense; Genprey can be carved to produce Genprey Fangs, Claws, and Scales, amongst other stuff. The things you’d expect to get when tearing apart a monster’s carcass to salvage anything useful. PSU would just give you ‘Paralytic Venom’, and never tell you that you really have a handful of Genprey Fangs. Sensible naming, whoo… but it doesn’t stop there. MHF2 doesn’t have generic equipment, doesn’t have different names for something that is nothing but a basic upgrade of something you had previously, and doesn’t require you to find a ‘recipe’ for each weapon; if you have the parts to make something, you definitely have the ability to tell the weaponsmith or armoursmith to make it. There’s no chance of failure, either; having a chance of failing at both the point you loot (not getting the necessary item) AND the point you craft (failing to make it and wasting your items) is too much chance of failure, and needlessly frustrating to see all your work at the first stage possibly ruined at the second. MHF2 simply lets you have your item as soon as you have the materials and money to pay the crafter… and materials aren’t in short supply. You just sometimes need a lot of them.

Summary and Conclusions

Repetition is, to a certain degree, unavoidable in any game that allows you to backtrack and revisit previous areas. Naturally. Painful repetition can be alleviated through a number of methods:
Not requiring the player to visit every single place on the map, every time they visit. This very quickly gets old. Where a single large map is used for multiple missions, each mission could only allow passage to a much smaller portion of that map, and where each mission has its own map, don’t require footsteps over all of it in order to finish the mission, and don’t have only one useful mission at any given time.
Adding a little variety; through multiple start positions, a la PSO, or through randomised (…maybe) spawns of monsters each mission, or even each time you visit the area in a single mission, a la MHF2. Variety in the target of the mission also counts; PSO had you pick up parts of an CAST, at least one miniature stealth mission, hunting a scientist wearing a Rappy costume, and killing 100 monsters with another Hunter before he dies… complete with timer ticking down for the NPC. MHF2 has its large cast of boss monsters, such as the one I took my name here from, and a host of missions tracking down items and hunting smaller things, as well.
Interesting maps; MHF2’s regions look stunning every time I play, and PSO’s maps, with the exception of Forest, were absolutely huge – with, yes, some repetition, but not painful repetition. I always used to get very lost in the Mines.

Non-generic equipment is either easier or more difficult to solve, depending on how you look at it. MHF2 had no generic equipment or models for equipment whatsoever; each weapon-series was never visually repeated. A War Hammer+ looked the same as a War Hammer, but looked nothing like Crystal Hammer, Crater Maker, the Sanctioned Hammer, or Iron Striker… for a small example. However, it takes much more work to make unique models for each distinct weapon than, say, to make a lightsaber, call it a Brand, and vary its colour randomly or based on its element.
The other solution is to come up with significant names; nonsense names don’t cut it, as PSU proved with its ‘Baybari’ and ‘Ryo-Betatore’. PSO had ‘Rika’s Claw’ and ‘Nei’s Claw’, named after famous characters from earlier Phantasy Star games, and ‘Heart of Poumn’, referring both to another earlier character (Alis), and to a significant piece of text within the main game (‘MUUT DITS POUMN’). Hildebear’s Cane, Diska of Liberator, Meteor Cudgel… they stand out from the generic weapons by their name and description – and stats, and rarity – if not always by appearance.

Phantasy Star Online was by no means perfect, or non-repetitive – Forest, though nice, gets repetitive eventually – but it had far less problems than Phantasy Star Universe, where everything became tiresome for me. A lot of PSU’s trouble was probably caused by noticing small maybe-problems in Phantasy Star Online and generally answering them correctly, but getting many small details wrong in the process. MHF2 independently made the same choices, and without (as?) many of those small annoying burrs that turn up in PSU.
I guess that makes PSU an example of what not to do for… well… anything, then.

(Review) Portal: Prelude – Torture

So, yeah. Portal: Prelude was released recently – yesterday? – and thus far, opinions about the game seem to be in two camps.

First, there’s the camp that sail through. This seems to be populated by veterans of Portal‘s advanced maps; they have the absolute precision required to beat certain maps.
Then there’s the camp I’m sitting in, populated by people who can’t make the jumps, maneuvers, or aim the portalgun in midair whilst being fired on by at least two turrets in a window of opportunity lasting less than a second… in the first chamber.
I don’t doubt they had some people test the game, but my guess is that their sample group wasn’t exactly representative of Portal’s entire audience. It’s been mentioned by one of the designers on the mod’s forums that none of the testers got stuck for more than ten minutes, but isn’t that too long anyway? If I was attempting a puzzle for ten minutes straight, I’d quit the game for then and do something else to take my mind off things.

But it’s not the puzzles. I think the problem is that the designers of Portal: Prelude got things the wrong way around; Portal had puzzles; spotting the answer was the difficult thing. Portal: Prelude, on the other hand, has what are for me very difficult maneuvers and tricks; the answers are very obvious – you can very easily tell you need to take out the turrets before you can get to the exit, though it’s just a few metres away, but that’s not the same as doing it.
Note: I only reached part way through 02 before giving up. This is not actually representative of the rest of the game, but judging from the moaning on the forums*, it’s a good guess.

There are a couple of other things I found irritating, but they pale in comparison to the sheer frustration this game caused me. Not even the final boss of Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a hideous monstrosity entirely dependent on sheer luck to defeat, forced me to give up so quickly or risk hurting myself trying.
Frustration of this kind makes me feel sick to my stomach, and it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t want to risk it… or even go through it for a game like this.
See, nothing about Portal: Prelude makes me want to stick around, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all important. The two humans… using synth voices in English… are nowhere as compelling or interesting as GlaDOS. What GlaDOS has isn’t exactly charisma, but it’s something – maybe it’s her insanity…? – and these two technicians just don’t have it. Not even slightly. The two puzzles I managed to solve – I’m not counting the test chamber, as that almost happens automatically – demonstrate two things puzzle-wise:
1. How to kill a player (me) over twenty times with the same set of blasted turrets, and…
2. Crouching? What? Crouching in the middle of a jump? Chell never needed this; Portal never even hinted it would do a thing. Apparently you get a hint about it… in 03, though.
I understand understanding we don’t want to go through learning to use the portalgun again; we have proper Portal for that. But…
Why. So. Difficult?

For nine months’ worth of work, it seems like a waste; I estimate this mod is unplayable to a moderate-to-large portion of the people who played and enjoyed the original Portal, either due to the lack of anything compelling from the original game to keep players’ interest, or earnest frustration reaching breaking point at being unable to solve something no matter how many times you quickload, maybe tweak a portal’s position, and try again. Even someone who reputedly breezed through the advanced maps had problems.
If the target audience of Portal: Prelude was purely the ‘hardcore’, solved-every-advanced-map crowd, then the designers succeeded. If the audience wasn’t just the ‘hardcore’, they made serious mistakes; underestimated the difficulty of the maps, severely overestimated the appeal and drive to continue through hardship and rampant death on the part of the players, I don’t know. Mistake, or mistakes, plural.
But, since they don’t rely on this mod as their significant source of income – though they have set up a donation page since so many people asked** – they can make whatever they want of it, without fear; they don’t have to appeal to a wider audience, or even think about being appealing at all.

It’s tempting to think they never did, in the first place.

Verdict:
AVOID!

* To be fair, it’s more-or-less balanced on the forums; some love it, some hate it. Some think it easy, more (?) think it difficult and/or impossible. Some write rave reviews, slightly more write ‘what Portal: Prelude did wrong’/condemnation. I figure whatever I have to say has been said there already, so I’m posting here instead.

** Needless to say, I haven’t donated. Plus, who knows that they didn’t plan it after all, and would have put the page up even if virtually no one asked? That’s just my Internet skepticism and cynicism, though.