Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / WLAN Town Building

While not the first, Dragon Quest is the influence of what we now recognize as the traditional Japanese RPG. I played the first back in the 80s when it was released. And I hated it. It was completely tedious and dull, so much in fact, that I hadn't played another DQ title since. But because of the cult following, I felt like I should give the series another shot. Enter DQIV. I wasn't really sure what I was expecting going into this DS remake of a NES game, but I definitely developed an appreciation for what the series has to offer.

Dragon Quest IV is actually quite an interesting case study for me. It answers the question: "How would I feel about an RPG that does EVERYTHING right, except for one thing I care about most?" I adore the visual style, with traditional sprites over 3D polygonal rotatable buildings and backgrounds. It reminds me a lot of Grandia's style, and I am completely in love with it. Just like Grandia, the rotating backgrounds makes exploration really fun. In addition to treasure chests, there are plenty of medals to collect, in exchange for rare items. The added bonus of dual screens is very convenient in helping you see what is ahead too. In traditional Enix fashion, the orchestral soundtrack is also very nicely done. And the story? Ok... well... it's as generic cookie cutter fodder as they come (and what RPG isn't?), but I definitely enjoyed the story structure. The game is broken into chapters, hence the title, and makes the plot unfold more like a book, which is neat. One of the series' charms is actually specific to the English localization. Each kingdom has its own style of speech, which adds a lot of personality. One kingdom speaks with a heavy Russian accented English. Another parades its French influences. All of it just adds up to a world brimming with life.

Unfortunately, the best thing I can say about the combat engine is that it's tolerable. It all comes down to this - DQIV's battle mechanics are too simplistic for my tastes. The menu options are tried and true: Fight, Magic, Item, Flee - nothing more, nothing less. It's hard for me to be excited by the limited options, because I really enjoy tactical planning. With DQ, there's little to go on. To its credit, DQIV is the best implementation of this style of gameplay. This is a game in which party buffs and enemy debuffs, in addition to the usual arsenal of attacks and offensive spells, are essential against bosses and even some of the normal enemies. I like that each spell in the game is an integral part of the experience. I also like that DQIV implements enemy groupings so that there is effectively a difference between single-target spells and ones with an area-of-effect. Finally, I'm glad to report that DQIV allows your non-party members to share in experience, circumventing the tedium of rotating members in and out like a lot of other games. DQ may be simple, but at least it offers a focused battle experience. So while other games with similar mechanics drive me mad, Dragon Quest IV manages to be unoffensive.

Maybe that's the key to my overall opinion. DQIV hit all the right notes on everything, except combat. I place such a high value on combat because it is the only aspect of Japanese RPGs that differentiate it from adventure games. It comprises most of the playtime. Hence combat makes or breaks RPGs for me. I couldn't ever say I liked DQIV's combat. Nor could I say I hated it. Dragon Quest IV somehow manages to not offend. In the end, I rather enjoyed the adventure. There's just so much to love. I ultimately wish the fights had more depth to them, but when it comes down to it, I'm eagerly anticipating DQV. Maybe that's all that matters.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sonic Chronicles

Sonic Chronicles The Dark Brotherhood
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / WLAN Chao Trading

Any mention of Sonic these days, and you'll be met with sighs and groans. Sega has done a wonderful job of degrading and stomping on this once respected franchise. With such atrocities as Shadow the Hedgehog and to a lesser extent the Sonic Adventure games, the announcement of a Sonic RPG was met with sharp criticism and skepticism. Then Bioware announced they were developing it. Mass confusion followed. Would this be a return to glory, or simply another swing at the equine's corpse? Well, it depends how you look at it.

Bioware has stated that one of their challenges was getting people excited for Sonic's friends again. On that, they're completely correct. Gamers have not really warmed towards Big the Cat, Cream, Rouge the Bat, etc. When interviewed, Bioware stated that they "think [Sonic Chronicles] is going to revitalize the love of Sonic's friends." Uh... not quite. Although they pulled most of the characters from the Sonic universe into this story, the dialog hardly goes beyond their one-dimensional personalities we've seen thus far. But because of the RPG structure, Bioware has successfully made Sonic's friends an integral part of the game. You need to include certain characters to utilize their strengths in party-based combat. You need to use certain characters to use their special abilities on the world map. You didn't expect to fly around with Knuckles looking for randomly generated gems to hiphop music in Sonic Adventure 2. But in Sonic Chronicles, you expect party travel. It fits and makes perfect sense.

Sonic Chronicles is pretty much what you would expect from a "Sonic RPG". It has a hokey story. It has action-y gameplay. It has its own style. And it's got bursts of speed (amidst a few lengthy fights). For a Bioware game, it is strange that the biggest weakness is the dialog. Perhaps they didn't have much freedom with the material, but the story comes off being simplistic and childish. I guess it's a Sonic game after all. Gems are stolen. Sonic and friends have to get them back. Blah blah blah. What was a little odd was how much sci-fi was thrown into the story. There are space ships and laser cannons and aliens - quite a departure from Sonic's early days of animal-controlled robots. Oh wait, I guess it was always a bit sci-fi. Known for their dialog trees, Bioware does little with conversation here. Instead of having multi-branching paths, most of response options are there to clarify and provide additional information rather than affect the story. The only thing I could see was that at one point, Amy Rose came up to me and thanked me for being so nice to her, which I presume she wouldn't do if I had chosen otherwise.

The game operates almost entirely off of stylus controls. Wandering around the overworld simply requires you directing your character with a stylus. Press down on the touchscreen and your character will start heading that same direction. Sometimes you'll encounter objects that you can interact with, such as talking with a NPC, opening a treasure box, or doing a spin-dash through a loop. In these situations, an icon will pop up and you can perform that action with L or R - the only buttons you can utilize in the game. You're holding onto the DS with your other hand anyway, so the L/R shoulders make the perfect action button. Although Sonic has never been stylus-controlled before, it actually manages to feel natural. Just like how most of 2D Sonic is moving in a direction and jumping at key times, Chronicles' movement mirrors that kind of flow. The game also offers quite a bit to explore. There are rings to find and chao to acquire in each world. There are also puzzles which require input from each of your characters to solve. And in true Bioware fashion, you'll be able to trigger quests, and a log is provided to keep track of them and your progress.

Combat, on the other hand, is as non-Sonic as you can get. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. For the most part, the visible encounters, menus and options resemble that of a Japanese RPG. You select commands for party members, and the turns will play out according to Agility/Speed attributes. Instead of magic spells, Sonic and friends have POW moves which require POW Points. When you execute a POW move, you have to do some work. The mechanics resemble Ouendan/Elite Beat Agents where circles will appear on-screen, and you'll have to tap them and follow their motions to a specific timing. On the flip side, your enemies will also perform POW moves that you can defend with the same types of motions. This type of system encourages more interaction in the battles, and I welcome it. True, having this system can slow the game down and force battles to be long. But as a player, I'm now a participant in what would otherwise be a monotonous endeavor. Another interesting aspect of battles are the escape sequences. If you flee from battle, or an enemy does, your party members will begin a side-scrolling running stage. Obstacles and speed-ups will be scattered along the ground to impede or aid your running. Your interact by tapping on characters to make them jump. The running is automatic. This resembles the forced-scrolling stages seen in the Sonic Advance games.

There are definitely some downsides though. Chronicles has the weakest music of any Sonic game. The original Sonic the Hedgehog had amazing tunes. And Naganuma re-imagined Sonic music with his take on Rush. I was not a fan of the Sonic Adventure soundtracks. But in Chronicles, it's so generic and forgettable that I don't even have an opinion. That's even worse, in my book. Also, for some reason, there is lag when pulling up the option menu. You'll face it whenever you want to use an item, equip a Chao for its special abilities, check you quest log or save your game. Another irritation is in the way the game is structured. Sometimes you'll accidentally trigger a story advance, with no way to go back, robbing you of exploration opportunities. Finally, the game manual and in-game help menus are inadequate. There's no documentation anywhere of what the status icons/effects do. Despite finishing the game, I still have no clue what some of the attacks are.

In the end, Sonic Chronicles feels very different from other RPGs I've played. I didn't really care that it wasn't the pinnacle of storytelling or user interface. I didn't care that some of the battles dragged on and on, as I alternated between using POW attacks which broke through enemy defenses, and defending to fill my POW Points back up. I didn't care that the ending was a complete tease. Flawed or not, Sonic Chronicles was completely entertaining to play. It's been a long time since anyone could say that about a Sonic game.