Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Yggdra Union

Yggdra Union
SRPG - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 3 saves, 1 quicksave
1 player

Developer Sting is one to look out for. The last time they made a game, they created a different interpretation than others in its class. Riviera was that game. And what Riviera did for RPGs, Yggdra Union aims to do with SRPGs.

Like other SRPGs, Yggdra Union has many of the same basics. There's grid movement, the usual rock-paper-scissors unit types (knights, archers, mages, swordsmen, axemen, etc), and stat progression via experience points. In most turn-based combat, a viable strategy is to attack an opponent with multiple units. While the units trade blows, the assumed end result is that the opponent's health is chipped away until one of your units finally kills them. Not so in Yggdra Union. The entire philosophy of combat is completely changed in this title. Here, each turn consists of one or more fights. To damage an opponent, you have to win that fight. That means that in the typical 6-vs-6 fight, if you kill 4 of their soldiers, and they kill all 6 of yours, you are the only one to lose health (morale in Yggdra). It also means that if you attack that enemy on a subsequent turn, you face another 6-vs-6 fight. With this battle system philosophy in place, you should ONLY attack an enemy if you know you will win. Simply throwing all your units at an enemy usually won't work. That means that you absolutely need to take every opportunity to gain an advantage - terrain bonuses, weapon affinity bonuses, aggressive attacks, and card powers.

Wait, card powers? Nope, it's not what you think. There are cards in the game, but there's no deck, and no randomness in drawing cards. Instead, the cards serve 4 purposes:

1. They determine your number of turns. Before each scenario, the game will tell you to choose 4 or 12 or 14 or however many cards Sting thought you would need for the stage. When the battle begins, you choose a card each turn. Once you use that card, you can't use it for the rest of the battle (unless it's a multi-part battle).

2. They determine your movement for the turn. Each card has a number on it indicating how many boxes your units can move on a grid. Some of the more powerful cards allow up to movement 12, which you can split among any or all of your units.

3. They determine your attack power. Each card has another number indicating how well you'll fight with the card and how much morale damage inflicted. This number increases as you win fights.

4. Finally, each card has an ability associated with it. Some of these cards are good in the right context, ie elemental magic, but others are tide-shifters. Use them correctly, and you can turn your attack that was sure to lose, into a win.

This interesting card system is only the beginning of Sting's bag of tricks. Not only are you allowed one card per turn, but you're only allowed one attack per turn. That's where the concept of "unions" come in. If you arrange your squad into specific shapes with respect to your attacker, they form a union and attack the enemy together. Each unit in the union will face off sequentially against the enemy. If the enemy is isolated, they will experience "battle fatigue" and will start each subsequent battle with one less unit. That means if you have a 5-unit union vs 1 enemy, the first fight will be 6-vs-6, the second 6-vs-5, and so on until the fifth fight you will be battling 6-vs-2. Manage your formation units well, and you can easily stack the odds in your favor. But be aware that the enemy can form unions too. Therein lies the core mechanic of the game. Since each stage has a limited number of turns, you have to make the most of your opportunities. Attacking with unions is the quickest way to progress through a scenario, but sometimes it's better to fight as smaller unions or individual units if you risk losing a fight, and hence unit morale. The choice of strategy is up to you.

The last thing to mention are the battles themselves. Once you enter a fight, as I mentioned earlier, usually it's 6 soldiers against 6 enemy soldiers. The fight takes place in real-time, and without any input, they will play out mathematically based on weapon affinities (sword > axe > spears), unit attack strength, land bonuses, etc. It's sort of like Dragon Force's 100-vs-100 battles. But even as you watch the fights play out, you have quite a bit of interaction in the form of an aggression meter. If you drain your aggression meter, your unit will inflict more damage than normal for as long as you drain it. If your unit has any elemental bonuses (ie fire damage), they will added in. If you charge your aggression meter, your unit will be more passive and hence weaker than normal. In addition to charging the meter to go aggro later, if you charge your meter to 100%, you can use your card's ability. Both aggressive tactics and using card abilities can sway the fight in your favor, so interaction with the aggression meter is a huge role. The enemy has a Rage meter that acts in a similar fashion.

That's the entire battle engine in a nutshell. There's so many different elements to it that it's hard to be concise, but it comes together quite nicely. Yggdra Union also has a little bit of interaction outside of the battles too. On each battlefield, there's a grid of possible locations. Sometimes if you stop on a particular square, you'll find a hidden item. Items are also very important because they can boost your unit stats and grant additional abilities. Alternatively, they can be used to heal morale of your units. Units can only equip one item at a time, and items only last for 1 to 3 stages. So item management is a critical planning aspect of the game. That's not all. The battlefield will also contain towns and castles. Sometimes, depending on the character, what items you have in possession, and what time of the day it is, you can obtain items from townsfolk by landing on these icons. Some will give you items freely, while others will only give you an item in exchange for another. Because all of these item discoveries are hidden, they're either a pleasant surprise or a completionist's worst nightmare. In addition, items can also drop from defeated enemies, or can be stolen during battle.

I absolutely love that Sting consistently tries out new ideas. Although the elements vary in their degrees of success, you have to commend a company that will not succumb to laziness and status quo. Here in Yggdra Union, the game systems are actually quite innovative and well implemented. The game is difficult, and - unless you utilize the wealth of items, weapon and elemental affinities, terrain, the aggression meter and card powers, basically everything available to you - Game Overs are not uncommon. That's quite a fresh breath of air compared to the stale "surround and pound" tactics of other SRPGs. There definitely are some design flaws here and there : the in-game tutorial is inadequate, causing confusion early-on; there are no help menus like Riviera; you cannot view enemy units prior to choosing your characters for a stage; battle conditions will change without warning ie. sudden appearance of enemy back-up; questionable pacing; the script has typos and is a bit hokey despite its serious content. But these things do not diminish what Sting has accomplished. Yggdra Union dares to shove past its stagnant peers. It's totally my type of game.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Grandia Xtreme

Grandia Xtreme
Memory Card - 8 save slots
1 player

Do you ever get the feeling that some games were made just for you? The art, the characterization, the gameplay - everything about it seems perfect. Grandia was that game. And Grandia this is not.

Although this is the third game, they chose not to call this Grandia III. If you came expecting it to follow the same conventions as the main series, you'd be in for a shock. What we have here is a blend of RPG and dungeon crawler. Sadly, many of the things I liked about the Grandia series are removed. There is a bare-bones story to give GX a framework. It's hardly as ambitious as the other Grandias, but it's workable. What is a loss is the lack of characterization. There are 8 characters this time, and none of them are ever fleshed out. You never really end up caring for their causes. Grandia has always been character-driven, but Xtreme de-emphasizes that. Grandia also sported really nice locales - dungeons & towns had very unique and imaginative designs. I always looked forward to finding the next place to go because the locations were so creative. In GX, there is a total of two towns. Two. But one of them doesn't even have shops. That's where the dungeon crawler aspects intrude on my enjoyment.

Everything centers on a single town. There you have the only shops and the only save point in the game. Think about that for a moment. That means that even if you've been in a dungeon for two hours (which is minimal for GX), you cannot save your progress until you head back to town. There is no quicksave offered. This is probably GameArts/Enix's idea of pushing the survival aspect of the game. But it ends up being impractical. A quicksave wouldn't compromise their vision of difficulty, but it would make GX a lot more playable. Instead, they limit sessions only to those times where you can dedicate 3 hour blocks to it.

Their attempt to alleviate this is pretty irritating. Scattered throughout dungeons are Geo Points that allow your party to warp back to town. Some Geo Points allow only a one way trip. Others allow you to go back to town, and then warp back. The problem is, everytime you re-enter a dungeon via Geo Point or otherwise, all the enemies respawn. So using the Geo Point allows you to save. But the penalty is you have to wade through another hour or so of fighting again. There are no Geo Points right before a boss.

Ultimately this type of design drags down Grandia's greatest selling point - its battle engine. First, the good. Xtreme has the most sophisticated iteration of it yet. It's still as strategic as the previous entries, where everything plays out in semi-real time. The action pauses everytime it's a party-members turn, but timing and position heavily influence your attack effectiveness. Some interesting changes are all related to your SP attacks. In previous Grandias, everytime you enter a dungeon, you would get HP, MP, and SP. In Xtreme, your SP starts at 0 every time you enter a dungeon. But it builds up with time, and also whenever you hit or get hit. This is nice because it allows you to use your SP attacks frequently, and believe me, you'll need it. In addition to the way it builds up, you're also able to do combination SP attacks. Similar to Chrono Trigger, there are double SP attacks and triple SP attacks. Once you initiate the attack, it needs to wait until all members involved in the attack are ready (ie all members have to have their turn available) before it executes. And finally, you learn SP attacks mid-battle. When you use your SP attacks, you build levels for that attack. When you hit a certain threshold, you'll execute (and thus learn) a new attack. You'll be fighting an enemy and executing an attack in your arsenal, and then suddenly, you'll be doing something completely new and usually more powerful. It's a pleasant surprise, and you'll be able to use the special attack thereafter.

Xtreme also takes skills and mana eggs to the next level. Similar to Final Fantasy IX, you need to equip skills in order to build their levels. Skills range from getting attack bonuses toward certain creatures, to boosting your agility rating to being able to counterattack when hit. Skills play a critical role and can decide life and death. In GX, enemies actually drop skill scrolls, so they are plentiful. The key is in leveling up those skills so that they can be useful. On the magic side, I really did not like how mana eggs were simplified in Grandia II. Luckily, Grandia Xtreme is a step in the right direction. Just like skills, mana eggs are relatively plentiful. But instead of leveling the eggs through fights, eggs are leveled by fusion. Mix a Level 1 Stone Egg with a Level 1 Fire Egg and you create a Level 2 Burst Egg. Mix a Level 2 Burst Egg with a Level 1 Fire Egg and you create a Level 3 Bomb Egg. Each type of egg has its own set of spells, so you may want to keep a lower level egg around for what it can cast. When you fuse eggs, sometimes you get random bonuses such as 1/2 casting cost, extra damage, etc. Conveniently, the game keeps a log of what types of eggs are required to make other eggs.

But as great as these systems are in improving Grandia's gameplay, it's the overall design decisions that bog the game down. There will be times where you will need to leave the dungeon in order to save. And as I said, all the enemies respawn when you go back to where you left off. So you're constantly fighting over and over again. To make matters worse, some bosses are unfair in that if you have the right equipment, you'll do fine. But if you don't, you'll only last a couple of turns. You'll probably know what to do the next time, but that means going through the dungeon again (or Geo Point, if you saved) and fighting an hour or three's worth of battles again.

To top it all off is what I believe to be the game-breaking flaw. Consider this: You can choose your party. Evann has to stay constant, but you can choose 3 of the remaining 8. In certain parts of the story, you are forced to use certain characters. But characters that are not in your party do not gain experience. So if you want to keep your party balanced, you have to go back to town and keep switching characters. If that wasn't bad enough, the enemies are scaled to be at a level around your highest party member. Since Evann is always in your party, he is easily 10 levels above your other party members. That means that although he can fight normal enemies ok, your other members are struggling. Some of them can only hit enemies for 1 point of damage. Sure it keeps the game challenging at all times, but battles end up taking a long time to fight. But when you consider that bosses can also slaughter your underleveled party members, it forces you to level grind. But wait, even the weakest enemies take 5 minutes to fight, and give you minimal experience... and if you eventually level your underpowered members, Evann ends up leveling in the midst of it as well, which makes the enemies more powerful and the whole cycle repeats. Absolutely tedious.

And that's what Grandia Xtreme is. It turned what would otherwise be a great system against the player. Consider this: I've owned Grandia Xtreme since its Japanese launch date. That's 6.5 years before I could finish it. The boredom of going through the same dungeons over and over, as well as the irritation of fighting the same enemies over and over drove me absolutely mad. Many have wondered if Grandia could stand alone on its fun battle mechanics. Grandia Xtreme proves that it cannot.