Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Grim Grimoire

Grim Grimoire
Real Time Strategy - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 4 save slots
1 player

I have never really been a fan of Real Time Strategy games. I do not like how speed is of the utmost importance, where the ability to quickly manage groups/abilities with hot keys and fast clicking determines victory... or defeat. I do not like how you can only be attentively involved in one place at one time. In short, I don't enjoy the real time-ness of it. But as soon as I saw the trailer for Vanillaware's Grim Grimoire, I knew I had to have it. It would be very much the typical RTS if it weren't for one thing. The action pauses when you issue commands, "fixing" the very thing I didn't like about RTS. Little did I know that Grim Grimoire would be absoutely amazing all around.

The main character is Lillet Brau, a new student to the Magic Academy. There she meets some interesting folk, and being the new student, doesn't really get beyond introductions. It's all fairly typical anime-type stuff. Then it happens, and the plot is turned up several notches. You get thrown in an escalating crazy story, and nothing initially makes sense. But the mystery is very effective in establishing a connection between the player and Lillet. Events are occuring all around her, and as she learns why, we learn why. Lillet also gets to learn a lot about the other characters, their backgrounds and their motivations as time goes on. It's very rare that video game storytelling appeals to me, but Vanillaware has nailed it with Grim Grimoire.

Then there's the actual game mechanics. In RTS games, you need to build bases, upgrade them for additional skills and bonuses, mine for resources, be prepared to defend your bases, and create armies to destroy the enemy. All of these are present in Grim Grimoire. But there's a few differences. Instead of races, there are four realms of magic - Glamour, Necromancy, Sorcery and Alchemy. But unlike other RTS games, you are not confined to one particular realm. There are still advantages to building upon the same realm, because stat upgrades only apply to creatures within that realm. But Grim Grimoire offers additional flexibility by allowing you to make everything if you can afford it. From the seemingly useless Grimalkin (cannot attack) to the almighty Dragon (has best HP/defense in the game, and an attack that can wipe out an army in seconds), all of the units have a purpose in the game. In fact, the Grimalkin can singlehandedly render a Dragon useless by putting it to sleep.

As suspected, the ability to pause the action when you issue commands is much appreciated. For me, it means I can pause the action, look around the map, and plan what I want to do for that particular moment. Two simultaneous battles going on in different areas? Not a problem. Issue a command, pause the game, move the camera to the other battle, unpause, and issue commands. It is the most control I've seen in a RTS, and that, to me, makes it the most strategic.

Perhaps even more impressive than the gaming mechanics is the game design. Every stage is a meticulously planned scenario. The first several stages are introductory type stuff, where the game walks you through basic tasks. As you complete stages, you gain additional grimoires or upgraded grimoire abilities. Grimoires are books that allow you to summon buildings. So after completing each stage, you have new abilities to look forward to. But it also means that each stage was made with your present abilities in mind. This is taken to the next level with the "Trial Stages", which are bonus stages not related to the main storyline. Some trial stages will allow you to use all 12 grimoires. Others will limit you to two specific ones. It forces you to figure out how to overcome the stages with what you're given.

There are some annoyances with the game, but they are very minor. When you power the game on, the startup time is pretty lengthy. It takes a good minute or more to get to the title screen. Also, the trial stages are unlocked along the way as you play the main story. But they are not in synch with what you've learned in the main game. When I unlocked the first Trial Stage, the only thing I learned how to do was mine for mana. So I tried the Trial Stage, and was overwhelmed by having all grimoires unlocked. I didn't know what any of the units did, so I thought it was weird that they made it the first Trial Stage. But with Grim Grimoire's colorful 2D presentation, whimsical soundtrack, 25 bonus trial stages, and a game that is a pleasure to play, these complaints hardly drag the game down.

Grim Grimoire is without question, the standard for console RTS.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Egg Monster Hero

Egg Monster Hero
Role Playing Game - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player / 8 player WLAN

For those who have followed the Nintendo DS when it first came out, Egg Monster Hero might sound familiar. Being Square Enix's first DS game, it gathered a bit of attention, no doubt due to it showing up on Nintendo.com's US release list. But it's been several years now and still no translation. That's a shame, because EMH is a pretty interesting game for many reasons.

The story begins with a prince being dumped on a foreign island, in order to train and learn responsibility. Along the way, you'll meet the residents of the island. One of them will even develop some feelings for you... The island houses the Katori Kingdom, and being there envelops you into their war.

Egg Monster Hero was developed by Neverland Co. (Lufia series, Chaos Seed, Lodoss DC, even some involvement in Grandia), whom I have great respect for. In EMH, you walk around in typical jRPG fashion. If you bump into the visible enemies, an encounter is initiated. But they did away with the traditional RPG systems in favor of something only the DS can do: touch & scratch. Your prince and the enemy are on opposite sides of the touchpad screen. Surrounding each of the characters is an army of <= 20 (depending on your health). So in this enclosed arena, you play bumper cars until one of you remain standing. This is done by brushing your character/army in the direction of your opponent. Faster brushing is rewarded by doing heavier damage. The formation of your army can be customized to match your style.

But this game isn't Touch & Scratch Hero. You also have EP (egg points?) to summon an Egg Monster. When you do this, the game switches to a turn-based style of play. A portrait of your Egg Monster is displayed on the touch screen, divided into 9 sections. Touch one of the 9 squares to initiate an attack. Some of the squares will do nothing. Others will unleash massive damage. Enemies are also able to summon Egg Monsters. In that case, you will also need to select which of THEIR nine boxes to attack. Each enemy has at least one weak point. They also have a strong point, where they immediately counterattack. By playing around with your attacks and targeting different points of the enemy, you will become familiar with the ins and outs of the Egg Monsters. But watch out... if your Egg Monster dies, its corresponding Egg is destroyed, meaning you can no longer summon. There are only two places in the game where an Egg can be restored, so use them wisely.

The Egg Monsters are key to the game, because they are much more powerful than your army. When you use an Egg Monster to defeat an enemy, you will actually gain experience points for that Egg. When an Egg is leveled, you gain an additional monster for that Egg (up to 10). There is no leveling for your army, however you will be able to boost your stats by collecting items.

Egg Monster Hero is part of the Square's Hanjuku Hero parody series. As such, EMH has very wacky humor. The dialog choices can be pretty amusing - one of the story items you'll need to find is an Axe to cut wood. But when you come across it, you have a choice of picking it up, ignoring it or JASON. Jason? Think hockey mask serial killer. That's the kind of game EMH is. The style of the game also is meant to mimic a performing arts theater. There is an audience on the bottom screen, and the audience will randomly chatter constantly while you move around on the top screen. Bosses, once defeated, will also join the audience and make comments. It's really quite amusing.

But there are some drawbacks: The touch & scratch battles are just asking to put real scratches on your touch screen. You think Ouendan circles are bad? At least Ouendan doesn't demand heavy scratching every couple minutes. The user interface could also use some work. You can only move with the D-pad, and can only interact with objects with the buttons. That means you'll have to be playing with both hands, with a stylus between your fingers. It's constant switching between regular controls and stylus controls. In addition, the Egg Monster battles all come down to strict trial & error/memorization. There is some logic to the strong attacks and enemy weakpoints, but it is not always apparent.

Egg Monster Hero is great for what it is. It's a unique take on a DS RPG, with some gaming additions not seen before in other jRPGs. There's a lot of Egg Monsters to play with and figure out. Also the scratch battles are a bit more interesting than the usual type of action RPGs where you just jam on the attack button. And the humor here really made me realize that Square is so much better when they don't take themselves seriously. The dialog is definitely a high point. Sometimes the jokes were corny, but it sure beats the pretentious emo stuff they have in their main games. I imagine a lot of the nifty details would be lost on someone who doesn't understand Japanese. If you do, get ready for a fun romp.