Monday, July 28, 2008

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Action Adventure - Nintendo 64
Battery - 3 saves
1 player

If this reads a bit like my take on FFX, it's unintentional. I've always respected the care that went into the Zelda games, particularly the first one. But I never really thought they were any good, aside from the more action-oriented The Adventure of Link. Traditional Zelda was a mixture of action, adventure, and puzzle. The problem is, it did not excel in any of those areas. Simply fusing elements from different genres doesn't really cut it for me. But Ocarina of Time has historical significance. Being the first game to receive a perfect review score in Famitsu, it generated a lot of buzz. Now that I've come around to playing it, I went into it with lots of skepticism. Turns out, Ocarina of Time is so much more better than the old Zelda games that I actually enjoyed it.

Ocarina of Time is the first 3D Zelda, and it's much better for it. First of all, the combat is much deeper than ever before. In 2D Zelda, it was just a simplistic hack 'n slash type of affair. Just point Link in the direction of the enemy and jam on the A-button. Not so in Ocarina. The 3rd dimension allows for consideration of height. Some enemies will be slightly higher or lower than you when they toss projectiles. But to compensate, you have fine control over your shield angle with the analog stick, so you can reflect projectiles wherever you want. The 3rd dimension also allows for more interesting enemy patterns. Some of the enemies have shields and will only lower when they attack you. They'll even do some jumping attacks that do more damage. This could get disorienting in 3D, so Ocarina employs a lock-on system that has influenced 3D action design today (DMC3, ZOE2, etc). While locked on, you now have a lot of evasive maneuvers in the form of a side-stepping, rolling, and hopping backwards, etc. It makes the fighting much more engaging than the older games. One negative aspect is that the controls feel a little bit clunky. The Z-trigger activates lock-on and if there's an enemy in your view, it will snap the camera to them. But the Z-trigger is also the same button for recentering the camera. So sometimes you are trying to do a camera reset so you can see what's ahead of you. But if the game picks up an enemy, it'll snap to them instead, which is not what you want. Some of your commands are available when locked-on, and another set of commands are available when lock is not activated which complicates this matter further. There have been many times in which I want to camera-reset, then roll, to escape an attack. But then the game picks up an enemy in my field of view and then because now it's locked onto the enemy instead of camera reset, I do a jumping attack instead of a roll. The game has an option to change default Z-trigger behavior from LOCK to HOLD, which means lock-on only happens when you hold down Z. But because the option screen is only available before you start up a game, not during a play session, I keep forgetting to change it and am reminded only after I've started the game and become frustrated with the controls. Aside from that, the combat is much improved from the older Zeldas.

One area in which Ocarina of Time really shines is its puzzles. Because of its transition to 3D, Nintendo got very creative with its puzzle design. Many puzzles require using projectiles to trigger events, so the 1st person view when wielding a slingshot, for instance, is very natural and accurate. The game also takes full advantage of height differences of crates and platforms, so box puzzles and minor platforming segments are well integrated. I never thought much of the old Zelda puzzles, but here in Ocarina, I've had to stop and observe my surroundings, consider what's in my inventory, talk to characters for hints, and logically deduce my next step. I've been stumped. But usually, when I figure out the solution, I end up appreciating its cleverness. I'm also glad they kept the "Puzzle solved!" chime from the old Zeldas, as it adds a touch of personality. The puzzles also extend somewhat to towns too. There's just a lot of optional things to do in the game, and some of these tasks require experimentation and thinking, just like the dungeon puzzles. The puzzles are very much the highlight.

Some of the minor things I didn't like were mostly related to the dialog. First of all, the text scrolls at an abnormally slow pace. Your only options are to bear with it, or hit the text fast-forward button, which is so fast that it doesn't allow you to read any of it. The other thing is, the actual dialog is pretty bad too. Girls will add "teehee" at the end of their sentences, there are some awkward transitions from a tragic event that just occurs to a character being immediately super happy afterwards, etc. It just seems childish and not very well thought out. Finally, it does the Dragon Quest thing where the game will ask you to do something? Yes/No. No. "Oh! But you must! Can you do this for me? Yes/No" No. "Oh! But you must! Can you do this for me?" Why do they even give you a dialog option at all if you're forced into a decision anyway? It's really stupid, and Ocarina does this at many points in the game.

Despite the annoyances I have with the dialog and the clunkiness associated with having camera-reset and enemy lock-on be the same button, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time has much to offer. Its combat system has influenced modern 3D action games. The puzzles are really well done - probably the best of any game I've played yet. And it offers a ton of things to do besides the main quest. I would hardly call Ocarina perfect, but I can definitely see its appeal. It's a well constructed game that ultimately impressed me, despite initial reservations.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X
Role Playing Game - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 99 saves
1 player

Final Fantasy and I don't go well together. The first one was great, and actually got me interested in the genre after the original Dragon Warrior bored me to tears. Then I noticed that as I completed IV, V, VI, and IX, not a whole lot had changed. Yes, Square added ATB, job systems, weapon/item customization, melodrama and awful minigames. But they were all built on the same type of basic structure that the original followed. It had the same repetitive, brainless fights it always did. The extent of strategic depth was limited primarily to casting LIT on a water enemy. While other developers were making strides, FF remained essentially faithful to its simple roots. Given that history, I wasn't looking forward to playing FFX at all. Well. Color me surprised.

Final Fantasy X is Square's most progressive FF yet. As far as the actual fights themselves, there's a bunch of new systems. The first is that ATB is out, and a new graphical representation of turns is on display, a la Grandia. It definitely helps in planning out a strategy, because it will show you how many turns you have until an enemy gets a turn. It will also show you the effects on turn order if you use agility effects. In addition, you can swap party members in and out mid-turn. What this means is that if your party member is low on hp, you can swap in a fresh character. More significant than the systems themselves is that Square actually built the entire game around these systems. There are basically six types of attacks you can do - physical, fire, water, lightning, ice, and non-elemental magic. Every single enemy in the game has strengths and weaknesses. For example, one enemy may be weak in fire, but ice heals them, water does 0 damage, lightning does 1/2 damage, physical does normal damage. Every enemy is unique. Equipped items or spells will allow you to see these strengths/weaknesses. Because of this entirely new concept, you will be switching characters in and out, as well as switching weapons and armor mid-battle to maximize your opportunities. You absolutely cannot play FFX with just "Fight", like you could in previous FFs. To also facilitate this strengths/weaknesses concept, you will find stations in towns that will teach you about some of the monsters in the areas. The last thing you want to do is it be face-to-face with a new monster, with no idea what tricks they have up their sleeves. This is a FF where you can easily die, as a lot of monsters have special attacks and counterattacks. Boss battles are also far more interesting than FFs of old. Sometimes bosses will have different body parts, like Grandia, and will do devastating combos if those body parts are allowed to go in sequence. Other times, you will have special options called Trigger commands, that incorporate positioning. It reminds me a lot of Panzer Dragoon Saga in that regard. It's as if Square FINALLY realized how to make combat fun.

A lot of mention usually goes to its Sphere Grid system. When you level up, you don't necessarily gain any stats or skills. A level up merely gives you some traveling power on the grid. Think of it as a boardgame, with multibranching paths. Each character starts in a certain part of the grid that leads to their "natural" path, ie. Yuuna's section has stats and spells that are beneficial for a white mage. But there are junctures where you can leave that path. The advantage of the Sphere Grid is that it allows you to customize a character to your liking. But if you wander around aimlessly, your character could be pretty disadvantaged vs a dedicated path.

Outside of game systems, there's some pretty cool stuff as well. FFX features some of the best puzzles I've encountered in a traditional jRPG. Most of them involve taking a sphere here, inserting it there, push a stone tablet over there, and experimenting with all these things to unlock doors. The best part is they designed these puzzle sequences without any enemies to disrupt you. They are pretty challenging in of themselves, so it's better that they're focused experiences. I also enjoy the attention to detail throughout the game. Townsfolk will walk around, sit down, get back up, and walk in a different direction. The spontaneous behavior of the people brings about a sort of realism and livelihood to the towns. There is a foreign people in the game world, and the way FFX handles their foreign language and your learning of it is really cool too. FFX is also the first FF to feature voice, and there's lots of it. It is somewhat controversial, but I really like its addition. It accentuates dramatic scenes, and makes comedic scenes funnier, infamous laughing scene excluded. But a huge irritation for me is that character lips are not synched with the voice. It causes a disconnect, and I played the game in its original language! It's an unfortunate oversight on Square's part, because they payed attention to other details in the game.

Still, for all that FFX did right, there are many aspects of the game that are worst-in-series. I understand that Final Fantasy has been striving to be the de facto cinematic RPG out there. But FFX really goes overboard. For instance, the first 10 or so hours of the game, you play very little of it. It's all walk here, 5 minute cutscene, walk there 2 minute cutscene, fight a 1 minute battle, watch a 10 minute cutscene. That sort of pretentious crap pissed me off in Kojima games, but FFX is even worse. One time, the game shifted to a cutscene where a character said 2 lines of dialog. Then it switched back to the overworld. Not every piece of dialog deserves its own cutscene, Square. It's like they finally make a FF that's fun to play, but they won't let you play it. It does get better in that regard, but FFX is still saturated with cutscenes overall.

Even though I really like the battle engine, there are some poor design flaws. First of all, unless a party member performs an action in battle, they will not receive exp. So what that means is that you will be trying to fight each enemy, rotating your 7 members in and out so that they can all share the experience. It doesn't make the game any more fun or challenging - simply tedious. But most frustrating of all are the cheap deaths. Sometimes an enemy will ambush you, get first strike, do a special attack that immobilizes all your party members, and then it's game over before you can perform a single action. Once again, this doesn't mean the game is hard. It means it's cheap. If you don't have the right party members or equipment when a battle starts, you could be caught in that situation. Even if you have the right equipment, many defensive options only increase your chances of resisting those attacks but do not guarantee it. So you can still be in a no-opportunity, insta-death situation even if you have proper equipment. It has pissed me off on more than a few occasions, causing me to shelf the game for a time.

Finally, there are some general game problems that also detract from the experience. For one, equipment management is awful. Imagine you can hold up to 200 weapons/armor. The list fills up in the order you obtain them (via purchase, discovery, or enemy drops). There is no auto-sort, but you can manually sort if you'd like. Now imagine you've picked up your 201'st piece of equipment. Do you keep it? Well. First you look at what the weapon offers. Then you look through your list, scrolling down 200 entries to see if the weapon you picked up is better or not than what you have. Now repeat that every time you pick up another piece of equipment. Or what about selling items? How do you know which piece of equipment is crappy enough that you wanna get rid of it? Same thing. Is weapon #25 better than 26-200? You have to manually scroll back and forth through the list to compare your items. It's horribly implemented to the point where I would spend an hour of my time every now and then to manually sort all the items to group them by character. The game is also broken in its customization. You can fuse abilities to weapons/armor, and the summon creatures at the cost of certain items. Problem is... those items are generally only obtainable via Rikku's Steal command or Bribe. If you use Steal, you can only get 1-2 items per fight. Most of the items, especially rare ones, are a lot more accessible via the Bribe command. But even at the very end of the game, to bribe a single enemy, I would lose my entire savings built up in the last 60 hours. It is utterly ridiculous. Oh, there are ways of farming lots of money, by perhaps bribing the right monster and selling the proceeds to bribe some more. But unless you cheat and use a FAQ, no sane person is going to use all their money to bribe a random enemy, get the proceeds and then see if they're worth it to use/sell, document it, then reset the game, reload from save, and repeat for the 500 types of enemies in the game. (I tried it a couple times and then promptly gave up.) The design decisions in the game are baffling.

So in the end, I come away with mixed feelings. Without question, Final Fantasy X is the only FF I really enjoyed playing. The challenging enemies, wealth of strategic combat options, and sphere puzzles all make X stand out from its generic predecessors. But the constant interruptions via cutscenes, poor equipment management, and ridiculously cheap game-overs are absolutely infuriating. Still, I'd much rather play another FFX than another FF I-IX, which says a lot about FFX's progress. Or maybe it says a lot about the others' lack-of.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Guitar Hero On Tour

Guitar Hero On Tour
Rhythm - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player / 2 player WLAN

With the widespread success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band in the US, it was only a matter of time before someone set their sights on the portable market. Activision & Vicarious Visions became that someone. And the DS became their platform of choice. The story goes that Guitar Hero On Tour was an experiment for Activision. Would they be able to reproduce the console experience on a portable? I'd say: very little. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

First of all, Guitar Hero On Tour comes with a Guitar Grip that fits in the GBA slot. By default, it fits the DSlite, but the package also comes with a converter for DSfat owners like me. The guitar grip is designed to mimic pressing fingers on the fret buttons a la the console guitar controllers, and aside from dropping the 5th button, it works really well. Tactile feel of the buttons is good. The grip also comes with an adjustable velcro strap for your hand, so you can simultaneously hold the DS and play notes at the same time. Although the guitar grip controller allows you to play notes as intuitively as the console versions, there is a major problem. Ergonomics are a sour point. Up until you find a hand position that works comfortably, you will likely be in a lot of pain. Between the fast fingerwork required to play higher level songs, supporting the weight of the DS on the same hand, and angling the DS so that you can actually see the note charts, the game puts a lot of stress on your weaker hand. Immediately after a couple of songs, I felt sharp pains shooting through my left wrist. It's a system of trial and error to find a playable position, and that's a big let down on a game like this.

But things aren't all wrong. The biggest selling point for me was that the game also comes with a pick-stylus. Since the DS has a touchscreen, it's only natural that they utilize it. With a pick in hand, it feels more like real strumming than that silly guitar controller flap. Just stroke the touchscreen with the pick left or right, and it plays the notes you've fingered. It's intuitive and has the right sensitivity. To use the whammy bar for long notes, you simply slide the pick left and right rapidly. Your touchscreen might not like the scratches, but it sure does feel natural. And when you're not using the pick, you just slide it into the guitar grip, where it has its own storage space. It's details like that where you realize that Activision and VV were serious about making a quality product.

The audio and visuals are also very high quality. The game contains 25 songs, and the bulk of them are exclusive to On Tour. The songs are a mix of genres, from Pat Benatar to Nirvana to Santana - mostly from the last decade though. As expected, many of the songs are covers, but I was surprised to hear Maroon 5 blasting from the speakers fully intact. The game sports four difficulties, with Easy being for the truly rhythmless, and Expert for ... well... experts. The song pattens I've gone through in Normal and Hard have been pretty fun, and are pretty much in line with all other RedOctane/Harmonix releases. No complaints there.

The game also offers 2 player modes, assuming you have a friend with the guitar grip. There's competitive play, where you can actually attack your opponent with DS specific options... and the normal co-op from the console versions. I don't know anyone with the game, so I did not get a chance to test out these features.

If the goal of the game is to simply duplicate the feeling of left hand/fret buttons - right hand/strum to rhythm and music, On Tour is a decent attempt. The addition of the pick/touchscreen for the DS actually makes it better than the console versions for the strumming experience. But if the goal of the game is to feel like a guitar player, On Tour falls completely short. Having to balance the DS with your palm while frantically hitting buttons with fingers from the same hand is not the challenge Activision aimed for. In addition, even though Star Power can be activated in three different ways, all the methods interrupt the flow of rocking out, versus the guitar lift in the console versions. Make no mistake. Guitar Hero On Tour is a unique and fun rhythm game that takes full advantage of the DS' capabilities. But it does not at all emulate the feel of performing. For me, it doesn't have to. The cool guitar grip peripheral and being able to strum are reasons enough to warrant its existence. It's a Guitar Hero that offers not a lesser, but a different experience altogether than any of its console counterparts.