Friday, July 23, 2004

Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance

Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance
Action - Game Boy Advance
Backup Memory - 3 save slots
1 Player

After the huge success of Symphony of the Night, the Castlevania series was changed forever. Fusing RPG elements and fluid animation with the tried and true whip-action formula, many people rediscovered the series for the first time. When the GBA debuted many years later, another Konami team tried its hand at a portable CV game resulting in "Circle of the Moon", which got all around excellent reviews. But now the SotN team reassembled to make this 2nd GBA offering. How does it rate?

Symphony of the Night influences are everywhere. While the heart of the game is slaughtering monsters with your whip, exploration becomes a prime element. You get to roam a large castle, and as you acquire more powers/items, you're able to see and open up more of it. Backtracking becomes second nature. And as you kill enemies, you acquire experience points that allow you to level up.

There are some things that make Harmony of Dissonance unique. For starters, this is probably the first game in the GBA library that looked really good. The sprite artwork and vibrant colors are striking. There's a lot of graphical effects such as parallax scrolling and transparencies that show off the GBA's graphical power quite nicely. In the area of gameplay, a new magic system is implemented. You are able to acquire different elementals, which when combined with your secondary weapon (axes, daggers, etc), can perform a unique type of magic. You are able to switch between the different elements on the fly, so it's easy to experiment. You are also given a dash button, which comes in very handy for avoiding enemy attacks. Another nice aspect is that HoD provides some puzzles that break up the monotony. Unfortunately, the puzzles aren't enough to save a sinking ship.

Monotony reigns supreme here. The game is never a challenge because there's so many things that prevent you from dying. From the least of the skeletons to Dracula himself, the enemies are all slow-moving and stupid. There are no one-hit deaths. And if by chance, you manage to get hurt, there are tons of save/healing spots scattered throughout the castle. Enemies will also drop potions which restore your life. All the while, you're leveling up every 5 minutes whether you want to or not, just by walking from place to place and clearing the way. As a result, you're able to kill enemies in fewer hits, and able to withstand much more damage. The balance is entirely screwed up, which makes the game an absolute bore. No risk means no tension.

This irritation extends to what Castlevania has become as a whole. Since all areas are interconnected like Metroid, there are no bottomless pits. If you fall in a pit, you'll simply end up in the room below. Although that makes for tidy level design, it simply removes the platforming aspect from the series. There's little consequence for poorly executed jumps. Another issue is that the series was always action focused. With this RPG fusion, you must now go through weapon/armor equipping screens every time you acquire equipment. This happens often. It interrupts the flow of the game by forcing you to pause in order to navigate through windows. It's this mess of conflicting elements that make it hard to enjoy.

Overall, I thought the game was a long drawn-out chore. While it wasn't 100% awful, the good could not make up for the subpar foundations it was built on. I didn't even get into talking about the awful music either. I imagine your mileage will vary depending on how much you like "Metroid" type of mazes and backtracking. I don't think I have a preference either way on Metroidvania or a linear map. But when fused with a RPG system where your character constantly gets stronger, the backtracking makes an already easy game, much, much easier. True, the game offers several reasons to replay such as a Boss Rush mode, and the ability to play as a 2nd character. But what good are these replay options when you never ever want to touch the game again?

This game exemplifies what's wrong with gaming today.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis

Tactics Ogre Knight of Lodis
SRPG - Game Boy Advance
Backup Memory - 3 save slots / 1 quicksave
1 Player

Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together is a tough act to follow. Considered by many to be THE strategy RPG to play, it really relied on planning. FFT vs TO:LUCT arguments aside, the combination of unrelenting difficulty and the unique timing system, which gives you a faster or slower turn depending on what your actions were the previous turn, makes Let Us Cling Together a classic.

Knight of Lodis was known as "Gaiden"(side story) in Japan. I'm not sure why it's known as a side-story, because there is a definite connection between the events of this game and Let Us Cling Together. But not all elements from both games are related. Several members of Quest, the creators of the Ogre games, have joined Square, leaving this franchise with newcomers and a handful of the old staff. Can they duplicate the efforts of old Quest?

In a word: no. Knight of Lodis is absolutely boring. I do not claim to be a SRPG fanatic, but I've played a variety of different titles in my lifetime. This is easily the weakest one I've tried.

You know the drill. You pick units and place them on a grid. Every turn, you move each individual unit, attacking or healing if necessary, with the goal of terminating the enemy units one by one. So you use your melee units to take them straight on, and use spellcasters and ranged units to clean them up from afar.

But where KoL fails is that it's nothing more than that. Shining Force 3 has a friendship system where each character gets bonuses based on vicinity and assistance. Super Robot Wars and various others have defense settings where you could defend, counterattack or dodge. Black/Matrix has you consider the effect of dead corpses on the ground. TO:KoL just strips the SRPG down to its basic nature of moving and attacking. It removes the brilliant WT system from Let Us Cling Together, and instead allows you to move all your units at once. This reduces the game to the only strategy of surrounding an enemy unit and hitting them til they're dead. Since you can move your 8 characters all at once, it's simple to kill whoever you want during your turn. Also in games like Langrisser and Advance Wars, there are consequences to sticking a particular unit next to an enemy so it's actually a risk. Here, it's pretty negligible whether you stick a wizard or a knight to block an enemy's path.

Herein lies another of TO's faults. It's easy. The AI is dumb as a brick. Sometimes they could be in range to kill one of your party members on their turn, but instead do something absolutely illogical. Sure that means less frustration for you, but if you wanted a game to hold your hand, why do you play games in the first place? Even later levels are not much harder. I've come across one level where I actually had to plan out what I'd do. One level out of the 40 odd scenarios they throw at you.

And worst of all, the pacing is extremely slow. You can't choose to skip animations, nor can you do anything to speed up the slow walk speeds of the characters. Due to lack of GBA buttons, there's no shortcut buttons for anything, so you must navigate through menus to do every little thing. Everything moves so sluggishly that it's no wonder I'm so bored.

The main draw of the Ogre series is how you can change classes. There's about 12 or so classes in the game. Some are pretty similar (Cleric vs Priest for instance), and some are completely different. In order to become a specific class, you have to fulfill a set of invisible requirements. In general, one of these requirements are medals. That's the only thing new in this outing. Depending on what you do, you are rewarded with medals that either help your stats or can allow a class change. But unfortunately, obtaining these medals also end up being fulfilling a list of invisible requirements. Invisible meaning without, you wouldn't know how to get many of the medals, and thus many of the classes. How silly is that?

Even more ridiculous is the last part of the game. It's so ridiculous that I have to mention it. The game forces you to fight 5 fights in a row with no ability to save, aside from the 1 quicksave. In the final battle, if you just happened to not have a specific item equipped, you cannot damage the last boss at all. They don't tell you this until you try to attack the last boss and by then you can't switch chars/equip anymore. So the game "story" continues and has the last boss annihilate your party, and you get the bad ending with credits and all. That means if I want a chance at the good ending, I've got to fight 5 more 1-hr long battles from the last point they let me save. Brilliant game design.

This is junk. A strategy game without difficulty is no strategy game at all. Add in painfully slow animations, a stripped-down-to-minimum SRPG engine, and some truly terrible decisions in game design and you've got Tactics Ogre Knight of Lodis. I honestly can not see any redeeming factors to this game. It took me over a year to finish and I only got there because I forced myself to, in hopes that I would find something others were seeing in it. But alas, my frustrations just grew as the months went by. If there's any plus to it, the storyline is quite elaborate. A little too elaborate for me, as I lost track of it way early in the game, but people familiar with the Ogre universe will probably get it. Recommended only if you like the Ogre saga story. Otherwise, don't bother. It's a disgrace to what the original stood for.