Saturday, November 28, 2009

Muramasa is Great, Backtracking without Purpose is Not

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an interesting game. It elicits interesting responses from me. I usually don't stare at awe of how pretty graphics are - but this game makes me do that. I've found myself stopping several times to look at and appreciate the beautiful art and animation.

None of your "realistic" looking games have ever made me do that - I'm looking at you, Call of Duty, Gears of War, etc.

The battle system calls to mind a sort of 2-D Kingdom Hearts style, without the strange menu system. Of course, the game being 2-D avoids the main problem I and many others had with Kingdom Hearts - a crappy camera! Also, compared to Kingdom Hearts, the enemies in Muramasa are a treat - they are full of personality and animation. You know how many different kinds of enemies the great Castlevania games have? Muramasa seems to have as many as that, with the added bonus of being completely original.

So I'm slowly getting the hang of the combo system. There are a ton of different swords in this game, and although I am not very far, they all seem very different and seem to have unique combos. I tend to prefer the fast swords that let me dance all around the screen, so far, but we'll see how some of the more powerful slow swords turn out.

But my god, what is with the backtracking? As much as I love having the luxury of looking at the awesome background graphics in this game, it is damn tiring spending as much time as you do going back across all the ground you have already covered. It's hard for me to say, too, whether or not this would be helped if they include random battles - it probably wouldn't help very much, honestly. It'd probably frustrate me more. But there has to be a middle ground - how about a warp? Or the ability to let me go to the big map screen when I complete an area and sort of let me "warp" around? Every time I beat a boss, I have to put the game down because I know I'll have to spend like 10-15 minutes wandering through empty screens to get to the next area.

The story so far is confusing. I believe it is intentional, but regardless of whether or not the writers wanted me to be confused on purpose, I still don't enjoy it. Something about a soul, trying to get somewhere, or something, and like another soul is forced out of its body and it follows it around, and some girl with her boobs hanging out is helping you, I don't know. It all seems somewhat dumb. Plus, the voice acting is all in Japanese, which I'm told is for the weeaboo audience who prefer it that way - I'll never get that. Unless you speak Japanese, why favor that language for voice acting? You say its quality? But most people don't speak the language - how can you tell if it is quality or not?

Anyway, I'm only a few hours in at this point. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the game soon enough.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Subtleties: Shining Force II

I would like to talk about subtleties today.

Video game narrative has not yet had Shakespearean-level storytelling. Nor has it had Citizen Kane-level visual metaphor or anything like that. As has been discussed elsewhere (more elegantly than I could, as well), video games are a medium still very much in their infancy. So until they have their big moment that we could point to and say, "This is why video games are art," we have to make do with tiny moments that hint at their potential.

And sometimes, you have to look pretty hard. There are the big moments, the ones that most of the internet will bring up when talking about this topic, like bringing down the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, or perhaps the courtroom set piece scene in Chrono Trigger. And those are good examples! I don't have any quite that grand today, but what I do have is a subtle example of why I love video games and why they strike me as so different from traditional forms of media expression.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been playing a lot of the old Genesis RPG, Shining Force II, lately. It is not a game known for its wholly original story - in fact, it is quite generic in that respect. Cliché, actually. And I am not going to be pulling any examples from the game about how its story deviates from the norm at all, because honestly, it really doesn't.

But within the cliché story, there are some subtleties that strike me as interesting, to say the least. I am near the end of the game at this point; maybe seven or eight battles from the final battle. My army just stole the ancient flying Nazca ship and flew over the ocean, and was shot down on Grans Island by the greater devil Geshp and his Prism Flowers. What strikes me as interesting is Geshp thought my army would die when we got shot down - so when we ran into him, he had to hastily assemble an army of devils to try to stop us. Every battle in the game up until this point has had my enemies strewn strategically around the map, while all of my characters start in a bunch in one place, because at the start of most battles, my characters are ambushed. But in this battle, I surprised my enemy - and, sure enough, they all start the battle in a big, disorganized bunch like I usually do.

This is an extremely small example of how videogames are subtle in the ways they present their narrative - and this example comes from an extremely clichéd narrative in a 1993 Sega Genesis RPG, as well! This is not an example someone would bring up to argue that videogames are "art," of course. This is just one of the ways I think video games are unique in their presentation when compared to other mediums. The battle system had always started one way in Shining Force II, then it is changed for this one battle to reflect the surprise of the enemy. It's subtle, but interesting when you notice it.

Of course, none of this matters to most people. I think when videogames have their own "Rosebud" moment, examples like this small one will become more commonplace and the medium will finally hit its stride. Until then, I will appreciate the subtleties.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pegasus Knights are Worth Waiting For

From the end of my last post on this blog: "Hopefully I don't let the blog be idle again for 4 months." Yeah... it's been over a year since then. So much for that.

Thing is, I really enjoyed doing it, and have been quite busy (read: school) since then, so I never had the chance to continue. (Well, I probably had the chance, but I kind of forgot about this blog until now.)

I have played a lot of games, though. In May and June of this year, I played two PS2 RPGs - Persona 3: FES and Persona 4.

Ladies and gentlemen, they were fantastic. Persona 4 is probably on my top ten list of favorite games - and that list has been fairly static since about 2000 when Majora's Mask first came out. Persona 4 is definitely my favorite PS2 game, at the very least.

But it has been a while since I've played those games. And I will likely play through them again in due time, and write more in depth about them when they are more fresh in my mind. For this post, I will talk about an old standby, another game definitely on my top ten list: the Genesis strategy RPG Shining Force II.

Shining Force II was my first RPG, so it is likely that I am fairly biased when it comes to discussing its quality. I can see why some people might say it's story could be considered weaker than the one in the original Shining Force, but I don't care, I still prefer it. There are a few typos in the game, which do annoy the holy hell out of me, though.

But the battle system in this game is exactly how I want my strategy RPGs to be: nice and light. The closest battle system to Shining Force II is the Fire Emblem series (for the most part - it is a little more complicated and deaths are permanent, so those games aren't as replayable to me). But SFII does not have the Tactics Ogre problem where you have to position your guys behind or to the side of the enemy in order to do more damage or anything stupid like that - you go up to the guy you want to fight, and you attack him or use magic on him or whatever. The strategy in the game comes from who you have fight who, and when and where - but not to ridiculous levels.

Anyway, I've beaten this game several times, but in the past, I always sort of beat it the same way, using the same characters, promoting them the same way, etc. This time, however, I decided to max out my characters as much as possible, and I discovered something about the character Chester: I prefer to let him wait to be promoted to a Pegasus Knight, because he is fantastic when he is overleveled.


I got him to level 28 unpromoted before I finally got to Pacalon and got the Pegasus Wing. When I promoted him, I replayed a battle a few times to level him up to everyone else's level, and now his stats are fairly ridiculous compared to everyone else. He doesn't have the highest attack power (strangely, Slade does, although I'm okay with that), nor does he have the highest defense (Jaha does, as usual). He does, however, have the highest agility on my team, so he always goes first, and his HP is very high as well. He is incredibly well rounded and I love using him, as a flying character is always good to have.

As far as everyone else goes, I got them all to level 23 before promoting them. I did this because I hated getting 1 EXP for every kill I got and didn't feel like playing battles over and over again to level them up. Chester was idle for quite a few battles before I promoted him to the awesomeness he is now.

So anyway, I'm heading to Moun right now, and am currently in the battle where you eventually get Jaro, who I also might use because Taya sucks and Kazin already is amazing. The fact that I've been playing this game since my childhood and still find new ways to get through it amazes me, and proves to me why it is so good.