Miniview: Dino-RPG (Browser)

Dino-RPG

I love:
…interaction-void battles. They’re simplistic – you always know what attack your dino is going to do next, if you can remember the highest-strength to lowest-strength order of its elemental attacks – but they’re just nice to watch.

I like:
…the art. It’s cartoony, yes, but it looks like Pokemon bred with Jade Cocoon; there are races of monsters, and then there are monsters within the races that focus on different elements, and as such have different appearances. The map isn’t bad, either; visitable locations are obvious, even if the routes between locations aren’t always what you expect.

I loathe:
…the slow-as-molasses and/or expensive recovery of HP. Okay. My one dino has 100 HP maximum. It is currently at 10 HP. Recovering to maximum without spending extra gold requires doing nothing for ninety hours. Because you only recover one point an hour. As for the ‘expensive’ part, you get around… 200 to 300 gold for a fight, and healing items cost 700 gold minimum… which gets you 10 HP, and you probably took damage in that fight, too. Apparently eventually you can find an item that lets you recover 5HP at midnight in a specific location. Wow. [/sarcasm]
…the inherent slowness of the game in general, come to think of it. Sure, you could buy extra dinos – at between 16000 and 20000 gold – to direct around, but it’s still only one action – one fight, one movement – every… five hours, now, and still ramping up. I think it’s eventually supposed to plateau around one action every twenty-four hours, barring buying an expensive item that gives you one extra action. From here, we leap to…
…how the game is seemingly designed to make you pay real money to get anywhere in any decently-quick length of time. The three ever-present labelled links on the left bar of the UI? The highest one is ‘Get Coins’, which takes you to a screen where you can spend real money. People moaned about how the Zork online game seemed made to take your money, but this one is worse. Zork, at least, grew on me and became soothing, even if I still can’t decipher how your chance of winning is calculated for a fight. Decent online games allow more than a single action a day – Legends of Zork allows 25 to 30 turns, stacking to somewhere around 99 if you don’t spend them. Kingdom of Loathing offers 30 to 50, unspent turns collecting up to 200 total. Billy vs SNAKEMAN depends on your rank, but can give you over 50 if you plan things well, but they don’t rollover. This game gives you one and one only, unless you buy those potions.

Verdict:
…meh. Initially promising in concept, but the incredibly-low limit on how many things you can do in the day is a real turn-off. Nice art will never save you from that. Go play Jade Cocoon, Azure Dreams or absolutely any other monster-raising game instead; nice art and good gameplay.

Miniview: Orcs and Elves (DS)

I love:
…that I finally have a first-person RPG that isn’t real-time. I have a score of old games for the PC that look similar to this, yet sadly have enemies that act regardless of what the player does. Such as, say, go off to make porridge. Orcs and Elves lets you think a little bit more about strategy than Oblivion does, but in return it throws entire rooms of enemies at you at once, in more confined spaces than you’d get for something real-time.

I like:
…some of the characters. Montague, for instance, or Floofie. Though that’s about it; not much effort went into writing characters, I think. Not much effort went into the story, either, I’m afraid; it’s a pretty generic fantasy.
…that it’s short. I picked this up a few days ago, and I’m already close to finishing. It’s nowhere near long enough to justify picking up at the full price for DS games, but if you spot it going for just short of £5, it’s worth the purchase.

I hate:
…having to buy items one at a time. Gaya’s mood doesn’t go down if you purchase things at a lower price than initially offered, and it doesn’t go down if you fail in negotiations… which isn’t random. So the lack of a mass-purchase option is odd, and annoying when you want to stock up on armour kits.
…the graphics. It’s not pretty. At  its best, Gaya looks like the ice dragon from Noggin the Nog. At its worst, it looks like Doom with medieval stylings. Funny that.

Two Worlds: Initial Thoughts

This game has some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game. Normally when reviewing something, even I usually start with graphics, right? After all, even before you touch the keyboard or controls, you’re seeing the game. However, this isn’t really a review. It’s thoughts on the game

So, yeah. This game has some very, very lamentably-poor voice acting in it. I wish the unnamed main character… I wish he were a silent protagonist, but sadly he is not.
Take a ten-year-old, and ask them to read from any given Superman strip. Note down what they emphasise. Then, notes in hand, turn your attention to the script of the game. Give the notes to the very disinterested voice actor given the main role. The worst thing about the main character is that his voice sounds like
it’d be pretty good for the role. The actor just didn’t bother to
deliver the lines properly, though..
Unfortunately, not only does the main character talk in cutscenes, he also chatters whenever you find an item you can take in the wilderness, too. Whenever you pick a herb or mushroom. Whenever you rip the heart out of a wolf’s rapidly-cooling chest. Whenever you extract a rabbit’s bladder.
Happily, NPCs aren’t usually as bad. Gandohar sounds the most human of the lot. Every other voice runs from ‘mediocre’ to ‘painfully uninterested’.

Alchemy. Taking ingredients from the corpses littering the ground around you is slightly more satisfying than it ever was in Oblivion. Otherwise it’s more confusing and less useful, though I haven’t yet found a trainer to give me the first point in the skill.
Most of the ingredients you… uh… ‘find’, have heavy negative effects attached; such as damaging you for drinking potions made with them. Fair enough; that’s what happens when you eat a poisonous mushroom. I didn’t know wolf meat (… okay, wolf heart) was just as poisonous. It’s also, thus far at my meagre 0 points of skill, impossible to predict the effects of a potion. Odious concoctions that taste like a stab in the gut? Okay, I can make those. Useful things that take advantage of ‘permanent effect’ ingredients I find around the place?
…no, can’t have me making those.

Graphically, the game is… well, it’s pretty good in some areas;
environments are lovely, not quite to Oblivion’s level but just a bit
better than World of Warcraft. Weather effects are stunning; fog
actually looks like fog, rather than a simple whitewash that
doesn’t impede your vision at all. Fog is potentially deadly, for what
it does to your range of vision. Which is a good thing, honestly.
Character models, on the other hand, are… well, they’re where it all
falls apart. Past the intro sequence, I don’t think I’ve seen a NPC
open their mouth to speak; instead, they just… nod their head, and
somehow their voice emanates through teeth and closed lips. The main character, though his mouth actually opens to emit that dull voice, is worse. Entirely independent of the voice, he jerks and gestures like a Muppet. Or a Sesame Street puppet.

Story-wise, the game seems to drop you in the deep end. Our unnamed protagonist is seeking his sister, kidnapped or otherwise-just-vanished a couple fo months previously, and has travelled to Thalmont since receiving a letter suggesting he could find his sister there.
A letter sent by the kidnappers. More of a ransom demand, in retrospect, though they seem to want community service more than gold.
Done well, this would be… um… passable.
Unfortunately, it’s not done well. As mentioned, the game seems to drop you in the deep end. In medias res. As a literary technique, that can be a wonderful thing. Only one book ever handled this poorly enough that I had to check*. In games, however, all it’s ever done is make me feel like there’s a prequel out there I never played. Unlike most stories beginning in medias res, games seldom drop entirely into flashback-mode, where the past becomes the present of the narrative. Instead, if we’re lucky – for a given value of ‘lucky’ – we get exposition, instead. We’re just told.
If we’re unlucky, that vague feeling that there was a prequel we never played never goes away. Writing this, I just checked GameFAQs to make sure I hadn’t skipped something accidentally; this is the ‘Epic Edition’ of Two Worlds I’m playing, and the name of the expansion integrated into the game is the same as the main quest, so… but it doesn’t seem I missed anything after all, hm.

Also, the game seems undecided over whether to take the route of having an identity-less protagonist, or giving him a personality. On the one hand, we get no name for the guy; identity can form without a name, but it’s much more difficult to refer to a nameless person. ‘Him’. ‘He’.
The trouble is, though Two Worlds lets you customise the main character
a little, he has his own personality, and therefore is not yours.
There’s no attachment gained from making his arms slightly longer and
giving him blonde hair.  So they can’t have intended an identity-less protagonist, where in ‘The Elder Scrolls’ style, the character’s personality is defined wholly by the actions of the player.
But it’s all so… so stock, generic personality. He has an identity, but he has such a prosthetic, fake, shallow personality that it doesn’t impact on me at all, beyond ‘you call that a personality? That’s NOT a personality!’
But I’m only a little way in. I might get proven wrong later. His only interactions have been with two non-significant NPCs, Gandohar, and another mysterious cloaked guy whose name didn’t stick.

Controls are… eh. The game is just about similar enough to Oblivion that I keep hitting the wrong key for spells. Turning is unresponsive, too. Mostly just don’t have anything to say on this.

Lastly, difficulty. I’m playing medium because I just don’t like starting on easy; that’s essentially admitting the game’s medium difficulty mode defeated me before I even start playing. But enemies take a long time to kill, and if I ever run into more than one enemy at a time, it’s usually a straight run for the first Health/Mana restoration shrine so I can be more or less invincible whilst I whittle them down, or else the nearest town and NPC who’ll kill stuff for me.
I suspect this is screwing me in some way, though. I don’t know whether enemies in this game respawn yet, and you gain skills by levelling and then spending points, rather than training skills to gain levels. Could be troublesome later on.

Okay, I’ve compared this game to Oblivion enough for today. I really need to get around to installing that and digging up all the mods my last save used.

* ‘Mirror Dreams’, by the way. Constant references by the main character to events that would have also made a brilliant book contributed to this. Otherwise great, both it and ‘Mirror Wakes’, the sequel.

Etrian Odyssey, and Difficulty (written 30/6, revised 04/7)

So I beat the boss of Etrian Odyssey several days ago; saw the credit sequence. I’m not going to spoil it, but the fifth stratum was beautiful, and pretty much entirely unexpected, to boot.
However, it turns out the game isn’t done with me. Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard arrived today. I decided not to make the mistake I did with the first game; I ordered this one when it was released and easy to get, rather than waiting until a year later and then having to jump through hoops to find it from anyone who’d deliver it to the UK. But… I still can’t play it. See, it promises extras if you input a password the original Etrian Odyssey produces on completion, but… I haven’t beaten the game yet. Not really.

See, Etrian Odyssey has six strata, not five. Each stratum – each floor, really, but floors in a stratum are usually variations of the same problem – has a different trick or combination of tricks, and these usually aren’t replicated as the focus of a future floor. In essence, each floor, and therefore each stratum, has a different atmosphere to it.
The first stratum introduces you to the game’s elements, and as expected of an introduction area, isn’t difficult to navigate, or more difficult than usual to beat.
The second stratum forces you to walk long distances to simply reach the stairs to the next floor; you learn your time in the labyrinth is essentially very limited to the TP of your characters, barring a well-stocked inventory or a TP-restoring skill. It also has the first major non-boss FOE that is guaranteed death to encounter, at least until you gain 30 levels, and gives you little space to dodge if you screw up.
The third stratum is packed with winding, turning paths, pits behind doors, and FOEs that seem to revel in making existing fights worse.
The fourth stratum requires a lot of searching for secret passages, and careful mapping, before presenting a boss that’s more puzzle than any one encounter.
The fifth stratum has you following a winding path across four floors before you can make your way to the last floor; the one you think is final. Oh, and it doesn’t warn you when you’re on a path that eventually reaches a dead end.

Then there’s the sixth stratum, accessible only after beating the not-quite-final-after-all boss. The sixth stratum’s theme, or atmosphere, seems to be in encouraging frustration. Assuming you survive the enemies – tougher than the fifth stratum’s, of course, and pretty much requiring skills, and thus valuable TP, to defeat even at the highest possible level – your first problem is testing teleport points until you find the one – if any, that doesn’t set you back to the beginning. Then again, with secret passages. Again. Then again, choice of three. Any wrong choice means a lot of wading back to where you were, through enemies and FOEs (also worse). That’s the first of five floors.

At the time of writing, I was confused by B29F. One floor from the end. Well, one floor, and then the 30th floor’s hell of a single, winding, long path and three locked doors at the end.
B29F required all but 1 member to be at or around level 70 to survive; B30F killed you half the time if you had that but didn’t have a good stock of items in inventory, too.
I worried that my current party build was unsuitable, and that I’d have to train up one or more members from 60 again, after reallocating skill points. It was, and I had to defeat three very tough bosses outside of the sixth stratum, to boot.
But I still had two floors to solve.

I like Etrian Odyssey, because unlike some (more popular?) RPGs, it’s difficult to simply overlevel to solve a floor’s enemies – weaknesses need to be noticed and exploited in ‘fair combat’ to survive, sometimes, and it’s difficult simply getting enough experience to gain a single level, let alone get to the point where one stratum’s enemies aren’t a problem before the last floor of the area. The different floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth are all puzzles, too, as are quests; solutions to either may be hinted at, if you’re lucky or observant, but for the most part the whole game just lets you discover things for yourself. The FINAL final boss is painful like that; that’s how far they take it.
Difficulty throughout the game is carefully calculated, however; it ramps gradually, such that you don’t notice except when travelling to a new stratum, and you’re always at best struggling against a stratum’s enemies until the final floor, when you’re fully equipped with what the stratum can provide. Maps grow more complex and difficult to navigate, different status elements crop up, FOEs and bosses possess more intricate and fatal combinations of attacks, skills, resistances.

I prefer a calculated challenge; I’d rather spend an hour attempting to solve B29F (and I did – much more than an hour) than fighting through encounters with ShinRa guards, mutants and robots in Midgar and watching long FMVs. La-Mulana sits in a similar spot for explorational platformers – in the end, I’ll play it rather than Cave Story, as it has a balanced, ramping difficulty, whislt Cave Story in comparison has erratic spikes of difficulty, ridiculously easy in places and insanely difficult in others. Remember that cat-tank boss? Lots of people I know complained about that one being difficult. (Personally, I hate Omega – that jumping robot in the Sand Zone. The cat-tank is easy, but I died tens of times to Omega’s feet.)
It doesn’t help that I have the plots of FF7 and Cave Story memorised. Without discovery – of story, of environment, of nuances in difficulty – to drive me on, those games have little to offer me beyond the sudden odd urge to beat them again every year or so. Knowledge, in those cases, defeats the game. However, knowing everything – or as much as I’ll ever know – of a game like La Mulana or Etrian Odyssey does not eliminate the draw of the game; the difficulty remains unchanged, though I may be better prepared.