Thursday, December 13, 2012


Another game that I played while waiting for Borderlands 2. Vanquish is on speed or something. The amount of stuff that's happening on the battlefield combined with the speed at which it is happening is pretty breahttaking. At its core it's just another third person shooter, but oh boy have they done things right. Some things that should be forgotten from the start include things like plot and characters both of which are ridiculous. That aside, it is really easy to see where the game gets its praise.

A typical sitatuation in Vanquish involves a lot of soldiers on both sides of the battle. The player is usually not alone so friendlies can draw some enemy fire. This is good, because it doesn't take a whole lot of damage to get killed in Vanquish (I played on hard, my new default for any game). It's this deadliness combined with the vast amount of projectiles flying all around the battlefield that separates the game from most third person shooters. One too bold move is all that is needed to get killed. Although staying in cover and carefully shooting from there is basically a sound strategy, your allies will start quickly falling if you take your sweet time. Quick elimination of enemies is the name of the game, and Sam has just the right tools for that. He is armed with an unfortunately named combat suit (ARS) and a weapon system that is mostly a lame explanation for how he can carry exactly three guns at once.

In particular there are two special abilities that empower the player. One is a massive speedboost that allows Sam to quickly travel across the battlefield in a sliding position. He is not immune to damage, but enemies have a really hard time hitting him. This ability allows the player to hit'n'run, flank or even rear enemies effectively and also to reach enemy positions quickly. Using this ability is the key to both eliminating enemies quickly and avoiding their fire. The other skill is just a simple bullet time, which is activated by making a dodge roll. This ability is often necessary to survive encounters with multiple enemies and also to shoot down enemy missiles. Some bosses in particular like to shoot out hundreds of missiles (literally). Both abilities drain the suit's battery and overheating is a serious thing because it makes the player very vulnerable. If cover is not immediately found, death is almost certain.

As far as special abilities go, the ones in Vanquish are fairly limited. The same goes for weapons that are mostly standard stuff with a couple of more exotic exceptions. They are however all that is needed to create one of the best shooter experiences ever. This is largely because the encounter design in Vanquish is top notch. The battlefield is always a living thing and each encounter is clearly distinct. There's next to no filler in this game. In this sense it is quite a lot like Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner that featured excellent mission variation throughout the game. Both games also have their share of tough boss battles. Just when you think one boss was particulary nasty, soon enough you are facing two of the same bastard at once. The environment also has a heavy impact on how battles turn out. There's a lot of variation in every aspect that define the game's encounters.

The enjoyment of playing Vanquish doesn't quantify into single elements. It is simply a really carefully designed whole. It underlines two things: difficulty is good for your game and games should go on only as long as they can. Once Vanquish runs out of real content it just ends. No prolonging, no repetition, just a tight package of high-adrenaline missions with lots of variation. I am looking forward to finishing this game again in the future and, unlike most games, I think I actually will because it is not just that long a game. Furthermore with games like this it is often the second playthrough that is actually more fun because that is when some degree of mastery starts to show.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

I actually didn't intend to play this game at all. However I had already finished Darksiders 2 and Borderlands 2 was more or less around the corner. Not enough time to play any of the games I had particularly planned to (Dragon's Dogma for instance) but enough time for some quick playthroughs and I just happened to find this one for next to nothing in a supermarket. I used to be a Warhammer 40k player so the subject matter did have some meaning to me. In a nutshell, that is what keeps Space Marine going really. The game captures the feeling of the ultra-dark 41st millennium. The protagonist and his two pals feel are very much in canon to the grim lore; getting to massacre orks with familiar tools of destruction like bolters, chain swords and even freaking lascannons and thunder hammers has a certain oomph that generic no-name shooters would lack.

The scene towards the end of the game where reinforcements finally arrive and storm a chaos-infested bridge together with the player almost brought a tear to my eye. It also made me wonder why there wasn't more of this in the game. Most of the time the player hangs with just his two pals (who seem to be immortal) and they explore all sorts of industrial complexes like in any bread-and-butter shooter. Most of the best scenes in the game are ones where imperial guardsmen are involved because it immediately feels more like war. That's kind of what you would expect from a WH40k game: war. There's a plot in the game that kind of justifies the level design. As far as plots go, I guess it is fitting and does give the designers a solid excuse to get the player to shoot chaos marines, cultists and infantry instead of orks for the later part of the game. Oh, and also witness orks and chaos shooting at each other which is also cool.

Still I feel like less plot - more battlefield would have been a better solution for this game. Nevertheless, the bodycount reaches hilarious numbers - I really wished there would have been a kill counter in this game. In many scenes the green stream of orks is almost neverending. Most importantly, they die with satisfying amounts of violence and gore. Melee finishers especially are ridiculously brutal. The Emperor's justice is ruthless. The way theme is handled is the biggest strength of this game. It also means that people who don't give a rat's ass about Warhammer won't get much out of this game. Without the theme Space Marine is just a pretty average action shooter/slasher with huge waves of enemies.

The game's control scheme was a bit weird to my taste. Normally shooter/slashers have a separate aiming mode; outside it, the character faces the way he is moving. Space Marine does this a bit weirdly because the aiming mode is always on and the character is facing at whatever he is targeting. Until you press a melee attack, at which point he slashes at whatever direction the movement stick is pointing. This is really confusing at first. Then again, melee in this game is more or less button smashing, so the controls don't create much frustration. I still have to wonder whether they should have done the usual thing and separate melee and shooting modes from each other.

The game doesn't have any silly things like crouching. Who needs cover when you have a power armor? Health regen is Borderlands-y; armor regenerates but health is only recovered by delivering the Emperor's justice via killing blows. The coolest single gadget in this game was the jump pack. It sounds pretty boring but they've really buffed it up. It doesn't just allow quick vertical movement but also enables powerful dive attacks that are guaranteed to crush anything on the immediate landing spot and push others way back. Most importantly, targeting these dives is easy. It's a great change of pace whenever it gets used in the game (two or three times total I think), and when combined with the almighty thunder hammer the jump pack becomes even deadlier.

While Space Marine offers even less new things than Darksiders 2, it's yet another reminder that subject matter matters. The grim and dark future of the 41st millennium is for many people the ultimate setting for hilarious bodycounts and senseless violence.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Darksiders 2

Oh wow. I have been too busy to even keep this blog. Somehow I haven't been too busy to play games though! I guess there's a slight preference hidden there somewhere. Anyway. Now I have some time to catch up on what I've played. I'm going to go in chronological order because it's easy. The first one on the list is therefore Darksiders 2. It's going to be followed by Space Marine, Vanquish and Borderlands 2. I have also been playing Stepmania because I have no time for my normal exercise-related hobbies.

Anyway. Darksiders 2. This is one of the games that I've actually been waiting for this year. Largely because the first game was amazing in many aspects but felt like it could use a sequel. Many games these days do. In the movie industry sequels are often crap, but in the games industry it seems more like the sequel is often the better game because in a sense the game has gone through one hell of an iteration already with one launched title. The third title in a series might be a mistep again, largely because when there are no huge flaws to fix, new things have to be added into the mix. It's either that or be accused of "beating on a dead horse". You just can't win there. It would probably be an interesting study to look at how many series consist of exactly two titles. Might be interesting to also involve the sales figures of second versus third iteration.

1. Originality, schmoriginality

Let's just get this out of the way immediately. Not a single ounce in the gameplay of Darksiders 2 is original. The game steals from a variety of sources: God of War, Prince of Persia, Diablo/Borderlands and of course Zelda. Most likely a bunch of other titles to boot. Does it matter? No, it does not. It is somewhat of a dick move though - taking good concepts from the wealth of past game design while giving next to nothing back. The one thing that has been done exceptionally well is the combination of so many influences. The core is definitely Zelda. The guys at Vigil clearly have decided that Zelda just isn't manly enough for them, so they replaced green elves with grunting wisecracking horsemen of the freaking apocalypse and made combat bloody as hell. It is a nice take on the Zelda gameplay, something for us grim'n'dark types to enjoy with our adventure.

2. Fighting matters

Actually yeah, I think combat is the single biggest differentiator between Zelda-like titles I like and ones that I  don't. One problem in the first Darksiders was that War was more or less a tank, and tanks are not really interesting to play in solo hack'n'slash. Death on the other hand is a master of agile DPS (you know, like agile programming but with more violence!) There is no guard button in Darksiders 2; the only way to avoid damage is to evade or interrupt attacks. The game also acknowledges the importance of hit stun resistance. Some enemies are more resistant to hit stun which makes them a lot harder to interrupt. Death's combos also have varying hit stun. This forces different strategies against different enemies. Hit stun is one of the most important aspect of hack'n'slash games. The lack of proper hit stun mechanics is what often leads to button smashing.

Games where defence relies on evasion can become evade fests instead but Darksiders 2 also avoids this by limiting the number of subsequent evades that can be performed to three. The last evade has a lengthty recovery which often leads to taking hits and hit stun (also known as quick death). I am not sure whether I liked this mechanic or not, because sometimes the enemies just attack in patterns that are really difficult to get out of with just two evades. On the other hand, this forces the player to seek strategies that avoid getting into such situations in the first place. So the jury is still out on this one. Most important thing is though that combat in Darksiders 2 actually demands some skill, especially against multiple opponents. Single opponents, no matter how strong, were mostly quite easy because of Death's superior mobility.

Here's a theory. It involves the guard button. Thing is, Darksiders 2 has the most enjoyable fast-paced hack'n'slash since Devil May Cry 3. The difference between these titles and titles like God of War and Dante's Inferno? Guard button. The guard button is a kind of fail-safe; it removes the need to telegraph attacks and in general make all attack situations perceivable. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows creating fights where the player has no way of seeing what the f is going on because whenever things get like that, they can just hit the guard button and wait for a clearer situation. But that's bull. Holding a button is not a whole lot of fun. Getting a cue when attacks are coming and avoiding them with carefully timed evades is fun. More so, because often you might even need to learn which way to evade in order to get a good counter-strike opening.

So um yeah, the problem is not exactly the guard button itself. Still, guarding as a mechanic is horribly static unless some dynamics are added into it. See Dark/Demon's Souls to see a guard that works for the game.


I guess there is not really that much more to say about Darksiders 2 what with it being a sum of mostly other games. The hardest difficulty setting was quite enjoyable to play and many fight scenes in the game took several attempts so can't complain about lack of challenge either. What the game really lacked was interesting boss fights - most of them were too easy because of Death's ability to easily evade anything thrown at his way by a single opponent. The ultimate challenge in the game was also a bit lame: fight 100 rounds of arena battles without dying. Having to start the entire process over after reaching 98 or so was really really annoying. These things are hardly ever acceptable but even less so if the first half of the challenge is more or less trivial but still takes a great deal of time.

All in all, I guess, combat aside, the core message of Darksiders 2 is that theme matters. If it had been a cute game with pixies or silent elves in green tunics I probably would not have enjoyed as much. Furthermore there is always something to do in the game and every dungeon is different. My favorite ability was soul splitter which allowed Death to become a statue and spawn two clones of himself. The best puzzles in the game revolved around this ability. I dunno if this is stolen from another game or not; if not, good job Vigil. Adding looting and simple character development in Borderlands fashion was also a smart move. Hunting better equipment is always much more fun than trying to locate some small upgrades like extra health. As long as you don't mind lack of originality, you could do a lot worse than to pick up Darksiders 2.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Devil Survivor

Devil Survivor is another Shin Megami Tensei spinoff by Atlus. The game was never released in Europe and is a Nintendo DS game, so it took quite a while for me to actually muster up enough interest to play it. I have an irrational distrust towards any Nintendo system games, deal with it. Now that I've finished the game I'm pretty damn glad I did, and I'm going to order the sequel right away. Devil Survivor is a tactical RPG with all the power of Shin Megami Tensei packed into it. It doesn't even contain anything particularly unique or new, but the overall design is just brilliant. The recipe for success here is in fact really simple: it's a very faithful adaptation of SMT into a tactical RPG.

1. SMT lite?

Battles in the game run in a very typical isometric battlefield where units move and fight each other. The terrain is oversimplified: there are no modifiers from terrain, there's just obstacles and open ground. Fighting takes place in the streets of Tokyo so the lack of actual terrain does make sense. It's clearly not a game of map positions. Instead it's a game of unit composition. Each unit in the game is made up of one to three characters, most of which are demons. The player controls up to four humans who each can have two demon allies to form a unit with, whereas most opponents will be teams of demons only. It's worth bearing in mind that these are SMT demons which makes them inherently more multidimensional than your typical standard tactical RPG units. I'll go into the demons in the next section.

During a unit's activation, every member of that unit is allowed one action. In addition, the unit can move and initiate a battle. The way the game relies heavily on correct unit compositions, the leader of each unit can use his or her action to summon a new demon, provided another one uses their ability to withdraw first, or has died in combat earlier. Other possible actions mostly involve healing and certain tactical level abilities possessed by demons. Moving and attacking both affect a unit's turn order. If they do only one of those things (or neither) their next turn will come up sooner so it is not always desirable to fully utilize a turn. The reason the game is so big on unit composition is the combat system, which is basically SMT lite. I think a similar approach was taken in Bahamut Lagoon.

Each battle is a small game in itself with its own screen as the combatant's fight a full round of SMT style combat. There is nothing astonishing about SMT combat: it's just a turn-based system. The player sets a command for each of their combatants, and actions are then carried out in a slightly varied order based on agility. Some predicting ability is needed to figure out a good approximation of the order actions are carried out in. One UI slight makes this a little more annoying than it needed to be: there's no way to view agility scores of combatants while in the combat screen even though it is possible to do so on the main battle screen. Otherwise it works like a charm, mostly because it relies on a tried-and-true mechanical core of turn-based combat.

The SMT twist comes from extra turns that can be scored but also stolen from other combatants. The conditions are quite familiar for people who have played Lucifer's Call, Persona 3/4 or Digital Devil Saga: hitting a weakness or scoring a critical hit guarantees a bonus turn and often steals one from the opponent. Likewise hitting someone's immunity can give the defender a bonus turn. These bonus turns are taken in another round of combat that is fought immediately after the normal round. Only characters who scored a bonus turn participate in this round. This system is simple yet clever because it puts a lot more emphasis on weaknesses and immunities. It's not just more damage, it's also another turn in which to do even more damage.

This is especially aggravating with AoE spells: if there is even a single target that is weak to the spell, then the caster gets another go which can be used to cast the spell again. In this case the attack does more damage to everyone just because one of them was weak against it. See why team composition is important?

2. Demons all around

The reason team composition forms a big part of the game is the way that the game handles demons. Best demons are always obtained through fusion because they inherit abilities from their parents. Devil Survivor has streamlined the inheritance process quite a bit. Instead of 8 general slots where abilities are inherited randomly, demons have 3 active slots and 3 passive slots, and the player can freely choose which abilities to inherit into each slot. The only limitation is that the demon's natural skills cannot be replaced. Inherited skills can greatly enhance a demon's power by giving it a larger range of attacks and even covering its weaknesses with rarer abilities that provide immunity. The entire process of demon raising is about passing along the most important skills and obtaining new skills from demons on the way.

However just mindlessly passing good skills along won't do, because the other half of good demon raising is to pay mind to their natural attributes, their weaknesses and resistances and immunities. If a physically strong demon inherits powerful spells, it often doesn't utilize them very well. Devil Survivor includes another, even more important aspect into this equation: racial abilities. It's a long standing tradition in SMT that demons are categorized into different races which are used to form the rules of fusion. However, in Devil Survivor each race has an important tactical ability that cannot be changed. The fusion process therefore has another goal: not only is it important to match skills to to demon attributes, you often want to have demons from a specific race because of their ability.

The cleverness of the demon fusion system is well-proven by its ubiquity in the series and its spinoffs. As far as character development schemes go, it is special because of the huge amount of variables that go into the system, and the complex dynamics that dictate fusion results. Note that Devil Survivor has actually simplified the process quite a bit, particularly inheritance. It also includes a nifty search system that makes it easier to figure out how to create a demon of a given race. These are necessary amends because the number of demons that are needed in battles is eight at minimum and often more to adapt party compositions to different situations. They have done a marvelous job with this simplification: the system feels as intriguing as more complex systems from other SMT titles.

The reason this all works so well is that while they have made inheritance simpler (free choice instead of random selection with complex rules)  they have at the same time limited its power by putting more emphasis on the demons' natural abilities. This is especially achieved by introducing racial abilities which are tactically more important than any combat abilities. There's also an interesting balancing mechanism: not all racial abilities are equal usefulness, but often demons who have the better racial abilities are either harder to make, especially of desirable components, or generally weaker.

3. Structuring for pacing

If there ever has been one glaring flaw in SMT titles, its pacing. Modern titles have it better: Persona 4 and Devil Summoner 2 have really good pacing. The problem is that the games often have really intriguing plots but they become hard to follow and go into because between every event that moves the plot forward there's hours of running around in dungeons. As a tactical RPG, Devil Survivor is already naturally structured better. Even if the game only contained battle events with some dialogue before and after, it would still have a lot more going on because each battle takes maybe an hour at most. It's not just that though. The game is structured by time limits. The player can often choose from multiple places to visit, and each visit is either a dialogue that deepens one plot line in the game, or a battle.

The nice thing is that this system incorporates choices quite naturally. Each event is only available for a limited time - sometimes even just one single hour in the course of the game - and each event takes the game clock forward 30 minutes. There is never enough time to go to all events so the player has to make choices. These choices mostly affect how other characters end up in the game. A lot of them can die as a consequence of the player's choices. Overall the structure makes the game go smoothly and have meaningful decisions all the way through. Selecting events is a simple matter of choosing where to spend time from a menu so it's also time efficient on the UI side.


I was swept away by Devil Survivor. It should have been predictable, I mean, I love SMT, and I love tactical RPGs. Still I was surprised how smoothly these concepts came together in the game. It's full of elegant design choices. I might actually go as far as to say that it's the best tactical RPG I've encountered so far. This is largely due to the complexity of the system when it comes to units. Raising and selecting demons is a delicate business. Moreover, they've had the guts to make the game hard enough to actually encourage the player to explore their possibilities and pour some serious thought into character development. The icing on the cake is an intriguing plot with a lot of characters that are meaningfully incorporated into the story. That, and the fact that the plot really feels like it's moving forward constantly.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Notable RPG Bosses vol 2

Since I'm still playing Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor I don't want to write about it just yet. Instead, we're going to continue our boss series. This time around you're in for a real treat. This particular boss is pretty notorious and indeed does test the limits of fairness. It is however also a really brilliant design. Here goes:

Demi-Fiend (Digital Devil Saga)

The Demi-Fiend is better known as the protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's Call (Nocturne if you're on the other side of the Atlantic) but makes a cameo as an optional boss in the second playthrough of Digital Devil Saga. Half-human, half-demon, he is able to summon and control demons and also possesses a nasty array of skills. The Demi-Fiend has six different demons which he will summon in order whenever he has less than two demons out. This is the list of demons he uses: Cu Chulain, Girimehkala, Pixie, Arahabaki, Titania and Parvati. He starts the battle with the first two already in the field. All in all, this is an "endless allies" type boss battle which are often difficult due to the high number of turns the opposing side is able to take. This is particularly true in the SMT's press turn system where you get a bonus turn for hitting an opponent's weakness or getting a critical hit. He does the latter a lot.

If you've played this game or taken a look at its skill list, you'll notice that there are skills that allow you to become immune to pretty much everything, so how can this fight be any challenge? Well, that's because this guy doesn't really approve of unfair fighting and rewards your "cunning" with an almighty spell, Gaea Rage,  (almighty, as the name suggests, being the only damage type that cannot be cancelled) that does more damage than it is possible to have hit points in this game. He does generously allow you to have resist skills though, which will be needed to cover any weaknesses of the characters you bring because otherwise his allies will be creating way too many bonus turns exploiting your weaknesses. He also allows you to have two null skills because they don't actually work like the rest of them. I find it just a little baffling that they didn't give them more discerning names.

Although he doesn't approve of your unfair fighting, he has absolutely no trouble fighting unfairly himself. He's immune to most damage types with three exceptions, two of which are actually useful against him. He also gets a second turn to start off with. His attack patterns are actually pretty limited, he's just throwing out various physical attacks that deal a lot of hurt to all characters. The most annoying of his attacks is one that causes mute which, if it sticks, makes you unable to cast spells. Another attack causes stun. Curiously this is a blessing more than anything else because if a character is stunned they cannot be muted. Since by this time you'll have access to a healing spell that cures full hit points and all status effects, mute is usually only a nuisance but occasionally can kill your entire turn.

Of course his allies add their own ingredients to this mix of nasty. Stuff like instant kill attacks, petrification and tons of debuffs can be expected. As long as you're prepared, you should usually survive all this. I'm saying usually because sometimes an unlucky streak of attacks can really throw you off. Such is life in the Junkyard. Anyway, so far so simple, so what's the big deal? Remember Gaea Rage, the attack that kills your entire party off if you dare to have any immunities on you? Well, he actually throws it out at specific times during the battle even if you are fighting according to his rules of fairness. This will happen exactly after he has summoned Pixie and after he has summoned Parvati. There is only one way to avoid getting wiped out by Gaea Rage, and that is a skill called Null Sleep.

This may sound a bit weird but it's mostly because of poor naming. What actually happens is that after Pixie and Parvati are summoned, they will cast Dormina, a spell that causes sleep. How's this important if you are equipped with a skill called Null Sleep? Well, that's because the skill doesn't make you immune to sleep. Instead, when afflicted by sleep a character with Null Sleep is guaranteed to dodge every single attack thrown at them. So that's good news, Gaea Rage won't hit you. Bad news is, there's no guarantee that sleep will stick. This is where the fight is borderline unfair, because there's not much you can do besides bringing Cielo who is weak against all ailments, it's all based on luck. The only thing you can do is to minimize the number of times you have to roll this particularly deadly die. Easy right, don't kill his demons, he'll never get to even Pixie.

Right. That's where the other nasty mechanic of this battle comes to play. Whenever a demon ally has taken 30 turns using anything except Dekaja or Dekunda (these skills clear enemy buffs and ally debuffs, respectively) they will cast Recarmdra which kills the demon but heals the other demon and Demi-Fiend back to full HP. Which is typically worse than having to start all over again, so at this point retrying is a good idea. This forces you to kill those demons. You just don't want to do it too quickly, otherwise you're pushing your luck with Gaea Rage. The odds of sleep sticking are by the way uncomfortably low, so you really don't want to do that. On top of that, even if it does stick and you do survive Gaea Rage, the aftermath is messy. There's no telling how long your character will sleep and on whose turn they wake up.


So, this boss sounds mighty unfair, no? I mean having something depend on luck is bad design right? Although that's what it initially looks like, the design can be defended. There is one way to have single-use failsafes against Gaea Rage which will somewhat mitigate the effect of luck. Most importantly though, having it depend on luck is what gives this battle its urgent nature without introducing hard time limits. They could have easily switched to some lose condition that works similarly, like after a total of ten demons are killed, Gaea Rage is imminent. However, selecting that threshold would have been a tough call. Too lenient would make the battle too easy; too strict would have made it even harder.

Actually, having a hard limit might have actually made the battle even more luck-dependent in a paradoxical way because then it would matter a lot more how many turns are lost to unlucky Javelin Rains (the attack that causes mute) and attack combinations. Although these need to occur more often to screw up your battle plan, they also can occur on about every single turn in the fight. But, because there is no hard limit, it is always possible that the next Gaea Rage won't wipe you out and you get more time. It is still infuriating to lose the battle to an unlucky Dormina. There is however also the thrill when everything is hanging on just (figuratively) one roll of a die.

Unfair or no, the two mechanics that make this battle unique, that is Gaea Rage and Recarmdra, are brilliant because they implement a two-sided time pressure. Defeat the demons too soon and you will be getting hit with more Gaea Rages. Defeat them too slowly and you risk redoing the battle. Everything else in the fight mostly serves one purpose: it forces you to think about your skill choices very carefully. There are only eight slots, and there's 5 skills that you'd want to set for every character to maximize survival. After this you're still going to need skills that heal your party and deal damage to the demons and Demi-Fiend. The high damage output also means that maximizing your characters' stats is a requirement for this battle. This consequently means that there is no way to over-level to make this battle easy.

Although the appendix is actually longer than the post itself, I suggest skimming through it just to get an idea how tightly planned a strategy needed to be to clear this fight. It also shows that the randomness of Gaea Rage is in fact a lot less random once you really prepare for it. Controlling the chances in random scenarios by the way is a really enticing game mechanic. That's actually explained by the flow theory's notion of the paradox of control. I quote: "Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control."

Appendix: How I defeated it

First of all, I'm afraid the details might be a bit hazy. It's been quite a few years since I did this battle and although my recall is pretty good, this probably won't be as detailed as the Gilgamesh entry. I actually checked my saved games to see if I still had my skill configuration in one of them but no dice. Overall it took me about half a year to clear this one. Not all of it was spent playing of course, and I did have a four month break from the game after deeming this battle just too damn hard. At some point though I had to get back to it. This time around I gave up my pride and looked up some strategies (well, two) online but, and this is the second time I recall this happening, they didn't really work for me. Both required too much luck to my taste so ultimately I ended up developing my own. I'd be the first to admit those two strategies did affect my own quite a bit of course.

For starters I had to do some more grinding to get all the relevant stats to 99. That's magic and vitality in this battle for all characters and strength for one character. Maxing these stats is important because they reduce damage. Magic also increases magic damage which is by far superior to physical damage in this battle. Cielo had to be in the party because he's more likely to go to sleep than anyone else. Serph, being the leader that you're free to develop, is an automatic choice and finally I chose Argilla because a) I like her and b) she has the highest magic in the game and the least points in useless stats for this fight which means less grinding. Because both Serph and Argilla have an elemental weakness they are going to need to cover that with a resist skill. Everyone needed to have Death Resist, Phys Resist, Null Sleep and Null Critical (which does only decrease the chances for critical hits, huh?)

After trying this battle a lot of times I figured that one really important aspect is to be in good control when exactly the Demi-Fiend's allies die. More specifically, I wanted them to die at the same time. The best way to do this is to have an attack that does a lot of damage to all targets because the higher the damage of a single attack, the less you need to worry about the difference in remaining HP the two demons have. The most damaging attack in the entire game is Black Sun. It does very high and very constant damage (also important) but it's a combo spell that uses up everyone's turn. It also means forgoing the most powerful area of effect almighty magical attack (Celestial Ray) in the game for a slightly weaker one because the weaker one (Megidolaon) is required for the combo to work. The other two required skills, Ragnarok and Salvation, are fortunately necessary for this fight anyway.

With AoE taken care of using Ragnarok, Megidolaon and Black Sun, there's still need to cover healing, single target damage and debuff recovery. I figured out that two characters with Salvation is actually sufficient for this battle if they are the first two characters to act each turn since passing doesn't use up an entire action but two passes in row does. So to account for healing, normally one of the two characters would be able to do it by spending a turn. If the first one is muted, he can pass and the second character can use the passed bonus turn to heal resulting in only one lost turn. If both are muted, there is no way to really avoid spending two turns even if the third character has Salvation. The first character can pass, the second can use a Dis-Mute to cure the first character, the third character can then pass and the first can finally cast Salvation, leaving one turn.

So that left me with one extra slot available for the last character (Argilla) which allowed me to boost her damage potential a lot by adding (I think, not sure) Mind Charge. To cover single target damage I think I gave everyone Last Word which is the only single target almighty magic attack in the game. Finally I gave exactly one character, the middle one (Cielo) Dekunda to clear those debuffs. I left Dekaja out because it can be cast from an item, which I simply harvested lots of. I don't actually remember what I used Cielo's last skill slot for (I'm not even sure if I gave him Last Word or not) but I'm pretty sure it was something important. Could have actually been Rakukaja which increases my defense, and more importantly, forces one of the demons to cast Dekaja (further decreasing damage).

The last piece of the puzzle to reduce my chances against Gaea Rage was Close Call, a skill that allows a character to survive death once per battle. The problem with this skill is that it leaves you in human form* with 1 HP and it's insanely hard to recover from this situation. Besides, there was no space for it, seriously. However, there were two perfectly good candidates for having this skill: the two characters that were in reserve (you can switch active characters during battle). So I set them up with the skill and something else that didn't really matter. Phew, that's quite a lot of setting up but hey, this is the single most epic boss encounter in any game I've played.

Armed with this setup, a calculator, a pen and one sheet of paper I was ready to go. Wait, what? Yeah, because of the 30 turn Recarmdra rule it is highly recommended to keep careful track of demon actions, so I used tally marks. The calculator was for counting Demi-Fiend's hit points, particularly when he was about to enter half HP because that's when one of the demons will cast Mediarahan, healing the entire group back to full HP. This only happens once, but it needs to be timed quite carefully. It also allowed me to know when he was one Black Sun away from dying, which was also very helpful to know. I kept track of demon damage in my head because Black Sun allowed for quite large errors. All this tallying and calculating is why the fight takes a lot of time (even a failed attempt often takes 30 minutes!)

In the fight itself, I would first drop both demons to low enough HP that I could take them out in one turn (don't remember whether I pummeled them to Megidolaon or Black Sun range), and then pound the Demi-Fiend with Last Words until the demons had taken around 25 actions. I didn't want to get too close to 30 because a double mute could disrupt my ability to wipe them out in time. For the first pair of demons I also avoided using Ragnarok because it causes Rakunda along with damage, which in turn causes Cu Chulain to cast Dekunda and leaves Girimehkala to cast Mamudoon (instant death fun all around). Normally most of Girimehkala's turns go towards casting Dekaja after Cu Chulain's Taunt because Taunt debuffs and buffs the player party.

Wiping both out at once was particularly important when preparing for Gaea Rage. When out of demons, Demi-Fiend gets only two turns. One is spent to summon a demon and the second turn goes to the summoned demon, in this case Pixie, who will then cast Dormina. Since it is now my turn I can react to whether anyone fell asleep or not. I got shitty luck and the first two Dorminas in the battle didn't stick so I had to prepare one of my reserve Close Call characters to take the Gaea Rage. I think the procedure was like this: Ragnarok, switch one character out, Rakukaja. This way, when it became the Demi-Fiend's turn and they had 3 actions, one would go to summoning the second demon, and then the demons would spend their turns casting Dekunda and Dekaja. That allowed my measly human form 1 HP character to keep me in the fight.

My tactic also involved a curious healing pattern. If my characters were inflicted with stun I would actually avoid using Salvation and use full recovery items to heal instead to keep the stun. Although stun is slightly inconvenient, being inflicted by it makes characters immune to mute because of the one ailment rule in the game. If I remember correctly it was particularly useful when preparing to cast a Black Sun because that can be easily disrupted by a single mute. All in all, finding the windows to cast Black Sun was hard, but in the end I think it was the piece that was missing from my earlier strategy. In order to safely cast Black Sun all characters need to be in very good condition and preferably free of debuffs.

The fight was over in an hour and a half. The last 30 minutes when I realized I could win the fight were pretty intense. I screwed up at one point because I lost count of some demon actions and had to take them out "just in case" so I actually had to endure one more Gaea Rage that I had hoped for, but I got lucky (finally!) and Dormina did stick to one character who was able to recover my fighting potential which allowed me to bring victory home. The sight of the Demi-Fiend vanishing was probably the biggest rush I've gotten from a game. I think it was actually my first attempt with the Black Sun strategy. It did take a lot of failed attempts to arrive at this strategy though. I haven't tested this strategy again, and I won't because of the 1.5 hours it takes, but I felt that it was pretty stable - I only had to rely on luck for that one Gaea Rage because of my own screw-up, the other two were dealt with the failsafes.

I'm sad about one things though: I've lost the paper that had the tally marks from the victorious battle.

* Characters usually fight in demon form and normally start fights in them as well. Human-form is a lot weaker, and most importantly you can't use any skills. They have two advantages: natural immunity to light and access to the gun damage type. The reason why it's so bad getting stuck in human form is that it takes one turn to transform and you have to do it with that character. Furthermore, if you die in human form, you are resurrected in human form. Switching is often preferable because you can switch out dead team members for living ones using another character's switch command which allows the new arrival to often act on the same turn. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Notable RPG Bosses vol 1.

This blog is drifting more and more towards RPG design. Post-game RPG bosses have been a particular interest of mine for a long time. I guess ever since I fought and defeated the two Weapons in Final Fantasy VII. This series of posts introduces some of my favorite bosses from games I have played. In order to get into this list, a boss needs to be exceptionally challenging while remaining fun to fight and plan strategies against. The ultimate point of these writeups is to collect implications on how to design better boss fights, especially considering post-game and hard difficulties. Let's start with a very recent experience that inspired this entire series.

Gilgamesh (Final Fantasy XIII-2) 

Gilgamesh is a classic adversary in the Final Fantasy series. He was first introduced in FFV as a recurring boss and has since appeared in several games in some role. His latest appearance is in FFXIII-2 as a downloadable post-game boss and he is the toughest enemy in the entire game. He is portrayed as a sword collector and his trademark in battle is the use of multiple swords from fake Excaliburs such as Excalipoor to the real thing and other legendary weapons such Masamune. In FFXIII-2 he starts the battle with firearms instead in what can be called a mock battle before the real thing. After going down pretty quickly he discards the firearms and the real fight begins.

As is quite typical for very hard boss fights, the battle is divided into two sections. I'm actually not such a big fan of dividing lengthy battles into sections because usually dying happens only in the later sections and a lot of time on attempts is wasted simply by getting there. It does serve a purpose on first attempts as it allows the player to learn some of the core mechanics in the fight but after that it's just a chore. This is how it is with Gilgamesh as well. It does allow you to benchmark your strategy against his main gimmick. But yeah, in the beginning he is not that dangerous. He hits with attacks from random sword that are not particularly dangerous and sometimes goes into defense mode. This is a good time to stop attacking because he will launch a rather powerful counter attack with damage based on how much he was attacked.

As boss fights in FFXIII and also -2 tend to do, this one also revolves around the use of stagger. This is also where his main gimmick enters play. I guess a quick reminder of how stagger works is in order. Battles feature a chain gauge which has two purposes: it acts as a damage multiplier and also as a stagger meter. Most enemies in the game have a stagger point, after which they enter a more vulnerable state where their chain gauge can be driven up all the way to 999.9% after which you can deal massive damage. However stagger only lasts for a limited time and after that the enemy goes back to 100.0% chain gauge.You can also lose the chain gauge while you are building stagger if you don't attack often enough. To make it a little more complex, certain attacks (mostly, those by commandos) kind of strengthen the chain but raise it only minimally while others raise it more but make it weaker. The length of the stagger depends in the chain's strength.

Gilgamesh has a ton of hit points so you will definitely want to stagger him to make the fight go in any reasonable amount of time. Staggering him also has other benefits: he loses his weapons while staggered, lowering the threat he poses temporarily. However, staggering him also has a downside: after recovering from stagger, he heals himself for a big chunk of HP. This means that whenever you stagger him, you must be able to deal significantly more damage than this chunk, otherwise you won't progress anywhere in the fight. This requires two things from the player: optimizing party damage output and selecting optimal paradigms. Paradigms are role configurations for the party. You can have only six paradigms, and you can only use three monsters in them (which means your third party member can only be chosen among three roles instead of six). To maximize damage output, you would need to include a commando, a ravager and a synergist.

So far so simple. Using these three guarantees the best damage output. However, once you get Gilgamesh below half of his total HP, the battle gets a lot crazier. Not only does he get Haste which makes him attack more often, he also gets longer attack chains and a bunch of new attacks that are a lot more devastating. To have any chance of survival, you need to have a monster sentinel out at almost all times which seriously reduces your ability to raise the chain gauge and to deal damage. You won't really have time to cast buffs at all because you'll find yourself juggling between building the chain, strengthening it and healing yourself. On top of everything else, Gilgamesh gets a really powerful attack that is not telegraphed (unlike every other mega attack in the game) which in addition to doing a load of damage puts one character into sleep. If you don't have your sentinel out when this attack happens, your lead character is guaranteed to die and it is your monster that goes to sleep (that is, your sentinel!)

Getting a stagger in is now harder. He does still lose his weapons in stagger but gets to keep his Haste. This is important because throughout the battle he can make an attack that causes Fog and Pain statuses which disable a character's magic and physical abilities respectively and this forces you to spend valuable stagger time to heal them. Since he's on Haste for the latter half of the battle, the chances of getting hit by one of these go up tremendously. You are still supposed to do massive damage on each stagger because of his healing ability.


The reason I like this battle is that it (along with some other DLC fights) gives the game the challenge it originally lacks. Since choices in FFXIII-2 are always limited: three monsters, six paradigms, 100 accessory equipment points (with most great accessories costing over 50 points, that's a big limitation), the player is forced to make compromises to deal with all aspects of this battle. It's also a necessity to develop some really kickass monsters, especially in terms of damage output. Resistance to Pain and Fog need to be factored in, because getting hit by these constantly is a severe hindrance. But the element I like the most is the time pressure during staggers. Your party that is geared towards survival still has to be able to dish out a lot of damage on every single stagger. All in all, the fight takes a lot of planning and subsequent development.

It also makes great use of the game's battle system, forcing the player to utilize every aspect of it in order to optimize damage. Especially in the latter half, situations change rapidly and the player needs to swap paradigms frequently and keep an eye on Gilgamesh's chain gauge to avoid losing it and having to start building it up from scratch again. All the planning and battle performance is due to multidimensional pressure. Gilgamesh has all sorts of nasty tricks that will force the player to adapt their strategy to take all those into account. It is important to notice that the huge amount of damage he deals is there to hinder the player from focusing into dishing out tons of damage and the main piece of the puzzle is the healing ability. As we will see in future parts of this series, having multiple sources of pressure is the key to interesting boss fights.

Appendix: How I defeated it

My strategy was far from optimal, since I took an hour to defeat it. The target time is 24 minutes. I'm aware of at least one better strategy that involves using different monsters, but I wanted to try my own first. This section is not particularly explain-y, I'll be using game terms with abandon, explanations in footnotes. I was using the following paradigms:

COM-COM-COM (dish out the hurt during staggers)
RAV-RAV-RAV (build chain gauge rapidly)
COM-COM-SEN (keep the chain gauge alive while shielded)
SYN-SYN-SEN (cast defensive buffs while Gilgamesh is defending, was quite useless)
MED-MED-SEN (for healing obviously)
SAB-SEN-SEN (for taking the biggest blows and casting debuffs at the beginning of stagger)

I used Lightning as my commando for her high damage output and rather lengthy feral link* (to make use of chain gauge locking**). I chose Valfodr as my ravager because he's from the same pack as the other two which gave me a damage boost from Pack Mentality for Lightning and Valfodr. He also has exceptionally high damage for a ravager. Finally I used Snow as my sentinel. He has the highest HP in the game and should have no trouble shielding Serah and Noel. He also has a highly damaging feral link attack which could be used to boost damage during staggers. I equipped Serah with a fog resistance accessory and Noel with a pain resistance accessory.

I was controlling Serah for this fight. The start of the fight was spent mostly in the first two paradigms, building stagger and charging feral links. To maximize damage output during stagger I used the following process: immediately upon stagger I switched to the last paradigm to quickly cast Deprotect and Deshell. They stick on Gilgamesh on the first casting during stagger so then I immediately switched to RAV-RAV-RAV and ordered Serah to attack and then activated Valfodr's feral link so that Serah would reach full ATB while the gauge was frozen to attack again and push the chain gauge to or near 999.9%. Then I switched to COM-COM-COM and pounded the boss for two full ATBs, using items to heal pain from Lightning or Noel if necessary. A quick switch to COM-COM-SEN and, utilizing ATB cancel***, ordered Serah to attack and immediately activated Snow's feral link (again to allow Serah to reach full ATB while the gauge was locked)

Again, immediately after Snow's feral link animation ended I switched back to COM-COM-COM for some final pounding. For Serah's last attacks I switched from magic to physical attacks and timed it to hit when Scourge would be activated (magic attacks can't use Scourge) and finally activated Lightning's feral link to allow Noel to get in more attacks with Scourge. Especially during latter half of the battle I sometimes had to visit more defensive paradigms briefly to stay alive but this process was mostly repeated as it is presented here for every stagger.

During latter half of the fight I mainly stayed in COM-COM-SEN to keep the chain gauge alive and to do some damage. Every two full ATBs I switched to RAV-RAV-RAV for one quick burst of chaining (using ATB cancel) unless I suspected a Divider might be coming (that's the non-telegraphed mega attack). I also took his telegraphed mega attack in SAB-SEN-SEN to reduce its damage. After Divider I typically had to go to MED-MED-SEN for a while to heal (I dropped the gauge a few times because of this actually). Whenever Gilgamesh went into defensive mode, I switched to SYN-SYN-SEN to cast some defensive buffs, particularly Veil which reduces the chances of getting hit by status effects. Although Gilgamesh can dispel these, Serah usually got to keep her buffs because she was nowhere near Snow (who took practically all the hits in this battle).

After an hour of constant juggling between paradigms he was down. It didn't feel like such a long fight because it demanded constant attention and although my stagger process sounds a bit repetitive there was a bunch of timing issues to constantly stay aware of. Of course I didn't take him down on my first attempt, no, it took several just to figure out this strategy and then a couple more to perfect implementation.

* Feral links are unique special attacks monsters have and work like limits etc. in older games of the series. They can be used at intervals and have varying effects (most do damage though). 
** Enemy chain gauge is frozen during feral link animations but rest of the world moves normally, allowing more attacks during a stagger and also more hits with Scourge, an attack that activates when the enemy has very little stagger time left and deals a lot more damage than normal attacks. 
*** Whenever you have used to full ATB gauges before switching paradigms, you'll start the new paradigm with full ATB gauge instead of empty. This accelerates damage output (among other things) a lot. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Persona 2: Innocent Sin

I've been a fan of Atlus since I played Lucifer's Call (that's Nocturne for the US crowd). Since then I've played all of their RPGs I have gotten my hands on to and I've never experienced much of a disappointment. Well, the first Devil Summoner aside, but even then they corrected their mistakes in the sequel. Atlus has a tendency to do two things really well: deep game mechanics and intriguing plot. Storytelling on the other hand was a clear weakness before Persona 3. So um anyway, enough with the context. Although I knew from the start that Persona 2 would be in no way comparable to its successors I think that a lot has gone wrong with this game.

Actually, the only thing the game really has going for it is its plot which is primarily hindered by the f-ing long and numerous dungeons in the game that have random battles bursting out at approximately five second intervals. Talk about old school. These are pretty common errors and not worth a blog post really, so let's take a look at some of the more specific screw-ups in Persona 2.

1. Demon contacting gone horribly wrong

This has been a stable in the Shin Megami Tensei brand for quite some time. Especially in the main series. Normally contacting is done to obtain new demons for the player's party. The core mechanic is quite simple: the player chooses a communication skill to use and the target demon reacts to that. The reactions are predetermined and often predictable because they are based on a fixed set of personality traits. All this makes contacting less of a random selection and more of an actual decision. The mechanic is overall just fine and in the main series it actually demands decisions from the player because recruitment skills take space from battle skills.

Persona 2 turns the occasional demon negotiation into a grind. Instead of immediately gaining new allies, the player now has to collect tarot cards from demons which can then be spent to summon personas in the Velvet Room (a blue room with creepy people in case you're wondering). This system effectively means that to obtain new personas you'll be contacting the same demon over and over again to get that bucketload of cards you need. What grand fun. Before that though, you'll spend some time figuring out what the f all those contacting skills actually mean regarding demon personalities. The protagonist for example has the amazingly useful skill of imitating the sound of construction equipment and can also initiate a discussion about manliness with the demon. Based on my experimentation, if a demon is "wise" and "forceful" it will be intrigued by a  good talk about being a man. Mind = blown.

Although this contacting business is quite the grind there is actually a silver lining. Once you get a demon to become eager, the battle immediately ends after you get your cards. This typically takes a fraction of the time it would have taken to actually kill the demons so it's a good way to skip lots and lots of battles. I found myself doing this a lot in the longer dungeons.

2. Let's drop this demon fusion business...

Hi. What? In case you're unaware, one of the biggest hooks in the entire Shin Megami Tensei brand is the ability to raise demons (or personas) and then fuse them together to get more powerful demons while inheriting the more useful abilities from the "parents". The beauty of this mechanic is that every raised demon serves a purpose and often the lineage of end game demons is amazingly long. The fusion mechanics have all sorts of interesting rules and properties which people have written very long guides about. So what's the genius move in Persona 2? Oh they dropped demon fusion altogether (actually they might've done this in P1 already, I haven't played it).

Basically they kept everything else which makes about as much sense as keeping the stuffing and throwing away the bread from a sandwich (on a second thought, the analogy makes more sense). Because personas are leveled and higher level personas learn more powerful skills, the player needs to upgrade their persona arsenal after pretty much every dungeon. The player also cannot summon personas that are 5 levels higher than their characters. A newly summoned persona starts with a grand total of one ability and another can be added by throwing a skill card into the summoning process. Personas open new abilities by gaining ranks which involves using them in battle. At least they had the decency to show which skills a persona will learn.

Since you need experience and levels to summon new personas, and you also need to use personas to make them actually useful, you're faced with a choice in each battle: grind for cards or grind for levels/ranks. That means double the grind, yay! Not to worry, the game gives you a lot of time to do both because the number of battles is overwhelming. All in all, this system is just incredibly stupid. Every persona you raise is essentially worth nothing in the long term. Sure, you get a small gift for releasing a maxed out persona, but they are very rarely worth the trouble. Second, a new persona starts out really crappy but you are forced to use it if you ever want to make it better. Completely and constantly replacing something the player has spent a lot of effort into developing is a fucked up mechanic.

3. Fusion spells

This is the only "new" mechanic in the game that actually makes sense. Well, almost, and it comes with a cost. If certain spells are cast in succession, their effects are replaced by a fusion spell, which is typically more potent than the individual spells would have been. To make this possible, commands to characters are given in advance and then executed by hitting "run". The player then needs to decide whether to start a fusion spell or cancel it. Starting a fusion spell cancels the individual spells as characters wait for the final participant to cast the final component and then the fusion spell itself is unleashed. Figuring out the most effective persona configurations and battle order to effectively utilize fusion spells is the best part of this game. Sadly the combat UI is a bit lacking and makes this often rather tedious.

UI problems are nothing new though, they are pretty common in old RPGs. What's amazingly stupid about the fusion spell system is that the player has to discover the recipes by trying out combinations of spells. Oh my god, what were they thinking? I have never ever been a fan of "try everything" puzzles or systems. Including such a system in the game's already tedious combat mechanic is just plain wrong. Hidden information that is in no way hinted is an annoying trope in Japanese RPGs and I don't really find it excusable ever, but it gets a several magnitudes nastier when applied to the one core mechanic that makes the game's battles go in decent time. Fortunately for us modern gamers fusion spell lists are nowadays available on the web.


The theme in Persona 2 game design seems to be "everything is a grind". I didn't find the game particularly enjoying to play. It was playable though, partly because for an Atlus game it was ridiculously easy. I played on hard difficulty and I got a grand total of one game over. I would usually complain about this, but with all the screw-ups made in the game's design I was just happy to get through it in good pace. I'm not certain if this is just a quirk with the PSP re-release though. Despite all this thrashing, I'm still going to play Persona 2: Eternal Punishment when it comes out in Europe. It uses the same system, so at least I will be familiar with all the quirks. I'm also dying to see how the story develops. The quirky humor is also a bonus.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

RPG Design: Three Ways to Fight

This topic is based on my experience playing RPGs - mostly Japanese, granted, but it applies across the board. I have observed that turn-based or somewhat turn-based RPGs tend to have three different high level strategies. In fact, I'd go as far to say that all three should be supported. I'm going to call them "Just tank it", "tricks and deceit" and "kill him first". Although the names are pretty self-explanatory, there's a bunch of details concerned I'd like to discuss. They are applicable when the player encounters a fight they cannot outright win. This usually implies a boss fight, so for brevity's sake I'll be talking about them.

1. Just tank it

This is a very traditional approach. The concept is really simple: if the boss does too much damage for you to handle, grind levels until you can handle it. Handling it can mean a couple of different things, depending on the game's exact mechanics. Either having high enough defense and hit points to last the entire fight, or having powerful enough healing abilities to keep up with the damage. Typically a mixture of both since more defense means less healing. The purpose is not just to survive, but to actually negate all threat from the attacks - i.e., there is simply no way to lose. It's the safest way to go and it always works (well, unless the boss is designed to be challenging for maxed out characters - hello Atlus!) but it's a really really boring way to go. It sucks all the fun out of the boss fight. Oh and it involves all that grinding.

If this strategy is the only one supported in a game, that game is going to suck. It typically means the game is too simplistic and doesn't allow any actual combat tactics. This can also be a syndrome of too resilient bosses - when fights go on too long, using other strategies might not be feasible. So there's yet another reason to avoid designing boss fights that drag. It can also happen a lot with bosses that use nothing but area of effect attacks that hit everyone (and cannot be prevented). Although this strategy is boring, it still needs to exist in games. It's a useful fallback strategy, especially for less experienced players. The emphasis is on the word fallback. Designers should take care to incorporate the next two strategies as possibilities in their games. 

2. Tricks and deceit

Incorporating this strategy in a game means offering the player all sorts of means to gap differences in power level. This can mean a myriad of things. Protective spells fall under this category as do various immunities. Games often provide abilities to become temporarily more resistant or offer more resilience as a tradeoff. Protect (FF series) is a standard issue example, a spell that halves physical damage. One-time immunity to a given element in Digital Devil Saga is another good example. The effectiveness of defensive tricks is often but not always dependent on the boss. Most importantly this typically means that the player needs to tailor his defensive tactics against each boss individually. By doing this a lot of grinding can be avoided. Even when the player does not have access to the abilities, there's often a lot less grinding involved in obtaining one ability than overleveling the entire party.

Instead of defensive tricks, players can also employ all sorts of measures that prevent the enemy from attacking. This gets especially intriguing if the boss can one-shot the entire party if it gets just a single turn. Although bosses often are immune to most debilitating status effects, they should not always be. This is actually what's led me to believe that status effect spells are useless in many RPGs - now I'm pleasantly surprised to find a boss that's not immune to everything. Negative effects are not the only way to go though. Some games have abilities that allow the player to delay their enemies' actions or make them miss a turn. Although we're now mostly talking about turn-based or similar games, stagger in real-time combat systems also falls in to this category.

The correct way to go about involving tricks in the game is to avoid too broadly applicable ones. Using them should always involve creativity from the player. It is always satisfying to complete tough battles in creative ways with characters who are way out of their league. This is what makes hardcore RPG fans play all sorts of crazy challenges where typically the first strategy mentioned here has been forbidden to a ridiculous extreme (e.g. no leveling up at all during the game). The need for tricks also often comes up when playing a game in an accelerated fashion, skipping a lot of leveling up possibilities and resources. Sometimes though, a boss is immune to all sorts of trickery and his attacks cannot be defended against. That's where the third strategy comes into play.

3. Kill him first

The name really says it all. If your healers cannot keep up with incoming damage, sometimes it's best to not heal at all and focus 100% on offensive. This is also known as a DPS race (damage per second, although damage per turn is more appropriate here). Some defenses might be set up in the beginning but after that everything is done to maximize damage. A well-designed game should not allow this strategy to dominate though. It needs to be risky. Typically the success of an all-out attack strategy depends on the boss pulling off somewhat favorable attack patterns and/or certain random effects triggering. That, and careful calculations. To make matters more interesting, the formula should not be the same for all encounters. This is relatively easy to achieve by varying the defensive capabilities of bosses. Another design consideration is to avoid bosses with too high HP because that is guaranteed to invalidate this strategy.

Although it is often to some degree up to chance to win with this strategy, the intriguing part is manipulating the odds to make that chance big enough that the time consumed by attempting the battle is on average clearly less than time it would take to grind for better characters. Various means should be available for the player to utilize. These can roughly be categorized into manipulating the odds of random effects and buying time to get more opportunities to trigger effects. This strategy is also very common in various challenges, especially towards end of the game where the level gap grows huge. It can also be present within longer battles. It is not rare for RPG bosses to assume stronger powers when they drop to low health. When that happens, it sometimes is more fruitful to switch into this strategy instead of trying to keep up with increased incoming damage. Likewise it may be the result of having limited recovery items.


Most of the time, all this is achieved by just design intuition. The third strategy here is perhaps a bit rarer than the others. In some ways, it is the hardest to integrate into a game - there's a real risk that it can become dominant if not kept in check. It demands that the system is complex enough. Also note that although this entry was written about turn-based or similar games, the same principles do apply to real-time games as well. They do however typically incorporate one very strong trick: a skilled player can evade most attacks. This also applies to turn-based games where attacks can be avoided by careful positioning of characters. Real-time games are also more likely to have stagger mechanics to prevent enemies from attacking during attack chains. These can often be utilized as stagger loops to prevent attacks.

In their respective order, these strategies go from the safest strategy to the riskiest. Likewise, the time spent grinding goes from highest to lowest. If the game is properly designed, the knowledge and planning required should go from lowest to highest, again in respective order. The strategies are also often attempted in this order. The first is pretty much the default because it's pretty steady. If it doesn't work, then it's time to look for tricks that can be used. If there aren't any available, then it's DPS race time. If none work, then it's time to check which strategy would involve the least amount of grinding. This is typically either 2 or 3, and I think this is as it should be. Player experience also determines how deep they are going to dig. Beginners might only try strategy 1, then immediately grind for experience if it doesn't work. In most games though, strategy 2 is often advertised enough so that even new players can pick it up.

I know this stuff is hardly news for anyone, but I've been wanting to put this in writing for some time now. So here it is.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy

I briefly mentioned Dissidia in my previous post on Crisis Core. I realized that I haven't actually written about it, even though there's some stuff there that does deserve mention. In case you haven't guessed yet, Dissidia is yet another Final Fantasy spinoff. In a sense it's the ultimate fan service game for the franchise. It brings together heroes and villains from all games in the main series to fight epic duels in an endless conflict between good and evil (such an original plot there!) Although it's about Final Fantasy characters facing off, it's not really a fighting game in either 2D or 3D tradition.

1. Full 3D Combat, Anime Style

Dissidia is truly three dimensional fighting. It is more reminiscent of third person action games than fighting games in this sense. All in all, it's a strange fighting-action-rpg hybrid. By saying that Dissidia is truly three dimensional, I mean that every dimension is used in almost equal fashion. On average characters tend to spend as much time in air as they do on the ground. Considering all the insane crap these characters do in their respective main series games, I think this is highly appropriate. Most importantly, it portrays the characters as truly powerful individuals who literally defy the laws of physics. For a game controlled with just six action buttons the range of movement is pretty amazing.

The characters run quickly across the ground, they jump high and can do fast evasive maneuvers. They cannot exactly fly, but evasive maneuvers can be done in the air and they work a lot like air jumps. On top of this, some characters' aerial attacks help them stay afloat. Terra for instance can pretty much stay in the air for the entire match, using her long range spells to harass her opponent. While characters cannot fly freely, they can use dashes to cross distances along the ground, across air, from ground to air or air to ground. It's a simple mechanic: as long as the players holds the dash combination, the character charges towards his locked-on target. This allows melee characters to quickly close in on spellcasters. The dash can be modified by certain skills to charge away from the target or even to allow dashing into chosen direction (I'm not sure how this works though).

A lot of attacks also knock the opponent all around the battlefield. Ground attacks can send the opponent flying forward or into air. Aerial attacks can also send them crashing down. Smashing opponents against walls, roofs or floors opens options for more damage. Finally there's the chase mechanic. Some attacks that launch opponents into the air allow chasing. A chase is always a 50-50 guessing game. Guessing wrong can lead to more chasing (or crashing into something). Guessing correctly opens the option to counter with a similar guessing game. All in all, these mechanics combined make sure that combat really moves across battlefields.

2. Brave New Damage

Instead of going with the traditional way of trading blows for direct damage, designers of Dissidia have chosen a different approach. Yes, characters still have hit points and eventually these will be reduced to zero. However the way there is a bit different. The game features two kinds of attacks: HP attacks that deal the actual hurt, and bravery attacks that are used to power up HP attacks. Characters have a bravery gauge. This is a number that indicates how much the damage next HP attack that connects will inflict. Unless nothing special happens, bravery is a zero-sum game. Each bravery attack that hits gives the attacker bravery and takes as much away from the defender. It's an interesting concept - no matter how much you connect with bravery attacks, damage only realizes when you connect with an HP attack. If you guessed that HP attacks are slower and therefore hard to connect with, you are right.

The system is not just a simple zero-sum game though. Connecting with an HP attack uses up all accumulated bravery. Although it raises back to the initial level fairly quickly, there is a serious risk in spamming HP attacks: getting hit while at zero bravery inflicts a 'break'. Whenever an attack breaks the opponent, the attacker immediately gains a huge bonus to their bravery. The bonus comes from stage bravery which is also reset when it's collected. When stage bravery is high it is especially important to avoid breaks. Gauge resets and breaks cause the total amount of bravery in the game to fluctuate. Finally, a lot of summons affect bravery in some way. Summons are once per battle effects that are equipped and can do a wide variety of things (multiply, freeze, reset etc.)

Overall, the system allows for two types of builds. Characters that have high initial bravery can try to connect with HP attacks often, taking advantage of the fact their bravery resets into high number soon after connecting. Alternatively characters can build for bravery damage and aim to score a few charged up HP attacks. The choice between these two strategies depends a lot on what kinds of attacks a character has. Some characters have HP attacks that are really hard to avoid and/or safe to use while others rely on solid bravery attacks. While HP attacks don't differ in damage, there's still a lot of reason to have more than one - they differ in speed, hit area and other stranger factors, all of which dictate what kinds of situations it can connect in.


Although the game has other aspects - what with being an RPG and all - they are not particularly interesting. Character development is pretty standard. Abilities are gained in a linear fashion. Learned abilities are equipped using a point cost system. Each character has a limited number of attack slots. Characters can also wear equipment and choose an assisting character who can be summoned into the battle. But yeah, all that's pretty standard, we've seen it before. Overall, the game is really good at portraying battles in hyperpowered anime style - a style highly suitable for Final Fantasy characters. The combat system is something that should be looked at when thinking about real-time RPG systems, especially when trying to make it really flashy. Dissidia is fast and has insane attacks but at all times it remains easily controllable. For a fighting game I am pretty sure that it is not balanced enough to be really taken seriously.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII

Crisis Core is one of the three big productions from the Final Fantasy VII 10th anniversary compilation. With the mediocre-at-best fanservice movie Advent Children and the horrible third person shooter Dirge of Cerberus, the compilation looked a lot like a big money grab. What distinguishes Crisis Core from the pack is that it's actually a roleplaying game - something where Square-Enix is still relatively strong. Action-oriented with real-time combat, sure, but roleplaying game nonetheless. It's a prequel with lots of familiar characters and appropriate amount of fan service, but it is also a pretty solid game. The main character is Zack, who was mentioned on several occasions in Final Fantasy VII.

1. How hard can hard be

Knowing that I was about to play a Square-Enix RPG, I decided to finally break my habit of playing most games on normal for the first time around and chose hard mode instead. Little did I know that the hard mode was in fact added to the North American version as an afterthought and the game failed to mention how hard the hard mode is. When I finally got pretty badly stuck in the game maybe halfway through, I got curious and checked from the source of all gaming information (GameFAQs). To my shock, the hard mode was no small adjustment - they had multiplied all monster stats by the average factor of 3.5 and up to 5. Whoa. A small mention in the difficulty selection menu might have been appropriate, huh?

Anyway, challenge is usually fun. What was not fun was that save point placement was sometimes very frustrating. But wait, it gets better! This game features unskippable cutscenes, yay. They are just unacceptable in this day and age. The game also does a really poor job of explaining its most important non-combat mechanic but I'll write about that under its own section. On hard mode players are really expected to really use that system to their advantage so a little more information would have been nice. Sure, it's kind of a JRPG standard that you'll need GameFAQs as a complementary game manual to actually understand how the game works. Just for future reference, not all standards are good.

2. Let's fight in real time!

In the Final Fantasy franchise, real-time combat has been reserved for spinoffs. Curiously they - at least the two instances I have played (Dissidia and Crisis Core) - have mechanics that are better than the main series' active time battle (prior to FFXIII). The system is not particularly special. It is more or less Final Fantasy VII transformed into real-time action. Actions are chosen from a menu using shoulder buttons and performed with X. This is system is okay and pretty much required given the number of available buttons on the PSP. It really only falls on its face with items. The item submenu should have used a unique icon for each item. Items are used relatively rarely so memorizing their positions in the menu does not happen automatically while playing.

Attacks in the system are very simple and in this sense the system was quite disappointing at first. However attacks do have appropriate hit stun, evasion is not overpowered, physical attacks do critical damage from behind and guard only covers the front sector (although rather generously). Because of these factors, movement and timing are essential to survival in Crisis Core, especially on hard mode where enemies really dish out the hurt. Because of hit stun, it is possible to pin enemies or be pinned by a chain of attacks. It's also a good idea that they gave evade a proper recovery time. In many action games, evade is generally quite powerful get-out-of-jail-free card, but in Crisis Core a poorly timed evade can lead to a nasty chain of back hits.

On hard mode the game really is surprisingly defense-oriented. A lot of the harder fights require preparation to guard against the most common element attacks and most debilitating status effects. Even poison is nasty in this game because poison damage causes stagger and interrupts Zack's actions. All in all, it is very important to not get hit. Zack can often pin down single enemies simply with his attacks but multiple enemies can get really troublesome really fast. This is often typical for games that have hit stun as a mechanic. For the delight of Devil May Cry fans, attacks are properly telegraphed, giving the player an opportunity to react before getting hit. Evades also have invulnerability frames during the animation.

I have one complaint. The game's auto-targeting sucks. Zack doesn't target the closest enemy, he targets the enemy closest to his line of sight. This is a rather poor mixture of targeting the closest enemy and manual targeting (hitting where you're facing). For example, let's say there are two enemies. One is really close and the other is behind it, on the other side of the battlefield. You evade the closer one's attack, getting behind its back in the process and try to hit it, only to realize that the targeting has switched to the far away enemy instead and Zack starts running across the battlefield. Fortunately you can cancel your attack by doing an evade but really, this should not happen. It also makes targeting specific enemies a bitch sometimes.

3. How random can we make this?

(Almost) every JRPG tries to add its own tricks into the combat bag. Crisis Core introduces Digital Mind Wave (DMW) which is essentially one big slot machine that's constantly running. Sounds very random, and it is too. There's actually two modes: normal and Activating Phase. The DMW has multiple roles: it controls the flow of battle with buffs; it acts as the game's limit break system; and finally it even controls character development to some extent. The most common are the buffs. They are short time advantages such as removing casting cost from spells or invulnerability to one of the two damage types, or even complete invincibility. These buffs are mostly to add a little variance. With zero MP cost you can go crazy with spells for a while. Immunity to damage is less useful than it sounds because the attacks still cause stagger but it can be useful in a tight place.

Activating Phase is more interesting. It is basically a limit break system that activates when the same character lines up on both left and right slots. If the third slot also comes up with the same character, a limit break is activated, resulting in a damaging attack or a bigger buff. They also give Zack a varying amount of HP, MP and AP back upon triggering. This is an interesting mechanic because it lends a hand to the player by restoring Zack at random intervals. Finally, before unleashing the limit break, Zack is invulnerable against all attacks for a short while. This has been done so that all attacks that were already coming out are carried out against Zack's invulnerability before the limit break activates. Although the player cannot directly affect this, it is a neat mechanic because it often opens up opportunities for attacking or getting out of trouble.

To make it just a little more complex, there is a chance for Activating Phase to change into one of two special modes, summoning and, well, special. Especially the latter one has even wilder effects which can give the player free items are level up their materia. The DMW is in charge of leveling up materia in another way: if two of the same number line up in Activating Phase, the materia in that corresponding slot gains a level. Zack gains a level if three sevens line up but this is not in fact completely random - the game runs a hidden experience calculator which eventually forces level ups to happen. Materia development on the other is completely random.

From the description it might seem that the system is truly too random to be of much use. It would be so if it weren't for DMW materia. These handy things can be equipped to make specific effects a lot more probable. There is one DMW that actually makes Activating Phase in general a lot more probable for a while. I found making that DMW more probable be equipping its materia a solid strategy for some of the harder encounters (remember, even limit breaks that you don't really need give free restoration and a breather). This sort of indirectly controlled randomness is in fact a quite interesting mechanic. By sacrificing some flexibility (materia slots), the player can manipulate the odds of getting free goodies to his favor.

4. Fusing for win

To my experience, when a development system is named Fusion it tends to be great. Atlus has demon fusion, there was monster fusion in FFXIII-2 and there is materia fusion in Crisis Core. It's a surprisingly complex system so it is very weird that the game doesn't really reveal its true importance to the player. It's portrayed mostly as a way to create new materia. However, it has a much more important function: raising materia stat bonuses. These start at very low values which makes fusion seem rather useless. This couldn't be much further from the truth - materia stat bonuses are the most important avenue for stat development. The system has a bunch of rules that are left for the player to discover (i.e. read from GameFAQs). It actually needs one key item from a side quest before it becomes really useful. That item allows using items as a component in fusion, which strengthens stat bonuses further.

Once the player actually figures out the system, it is quite clever. Because materia can only gain levels when they are equipped, there are also some serious considerations about which ones to wield - farming levels for materia reduces the number of more useful materia that can be equipped. The reason I like this system is that like Junction in FFVIII, it gives the player a powerful parallel development lane. Leveling up is just a general indicator of progress while real leaps in power are made by crafting materia with solid stat bonuses. This imbues character development with a lot of really meaningful choices for the player. It is what truly distinguishes action RPGs from plain action games.

Although I like the system, there is one particular problem with tying stat bonuses to equipped abilities. Because transferred stat bonuses in fusion are always halved, moving stat bonuses between materia is not feasible. This makes endgame builds rather rigid. At some point the player needs to decide which materia they will ultimately equip, and stack the big bonuses on those materia - and keep them there. There is still some flexibility: in fusion only one materia loses half its stat bonus (the weaker one). So by manipulating fusion results, it is possible to transform materia into other materia, but there are limits because of the system rules. Most importantly, the most powerful materia in the game cannot be transformed from any other materia type and fusing almost anything with them transforms them into other, weaker materia.

Overall, all the systems combined, the game does allow for quite a lot of builds. However, it does suffer from the Final Fantasy Syndrome. I just named this syndrome, but it is very prevalent in the series so the name is fitting. In short, a game that suffers from the syndrome has certain skills / equipment / whatever that are so obviously more powerful than anything else in the game that not using them would be stupid. In Crisis Core there is one peculiar materia called Costly Punch that is ridiculously overpowered. Immediately upon getting it, I reached the increased damage cap with it. It also ignores pesky things like enemy defense which makes it an ultimate weapon against, uh, everything. Curiously hard mode didn't become a steamroll with this materia because even normal enemies can stand and deliver ridiculous amounts of damage.

5. Bonus: Not so random encounters, or wallhuggers unite!

There was another curiosity about Crisis Core I forgot to mention. The game doesn't exactly feature random encounters. It also doesn't show the enemies on the map. So what does it do? Well, the environments in the game have these invisible zones where battle (with random enemies) commences. Usually, not always. Confusing huh? It gets better though: the zones typically do not go from wall to wall. Zack can avoid most battles in the game by tightly hugging walls while moving. It's uh... a very interesting solution. I kind of appreciate the fact that it's possible to not have to fight every single encounter in the game but really, invisible zones?


Crisis Core has surprisingly lots of depth. This seems to be a common trend in Final Fantasy spinoffs - the riskier ideas are realized in them instead of the main series. I guess it's a sound strategy from SE because the spinoffs are typically played by their core fans who are prepared to tackle more complex systems. It's still not Shin Megami Tensei complex in Crisis Core, but enjoyable enough to warrant full post-game experience all the way to the ultimate boss. I haven't gotten there yet but I have a good feeling that I will. The game also goes to show that SE really should include a hard mode in every single one of their games. Only difficulty demands players to learn and use various systems in these games.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

RPG Showdown: Abstract vs Simulative

More generally known as western vs Japanese RPGs (WRPG and JRPG respectively). I have been meaning to write this piece for some time now. After viewing the three Extra Credits episodes on the subject I got even more fuel into writing this. Mostly because I greatly disagree with episode 3. In short it claims that Japanese RPGs did not evolve in gameplay whereas western RPGs did (by taking influences from other genres). They make up the term "menu-based combat" to describe JRPG combat systems and go on to claim that it is old-fashioned and outdated. I have two problems with this statement: 1) I can point out numerous JRPGs that have very clever combat systems and 2) some of these are "menu-based combat". Combat system cleverness is a matter of opinion but trying to make a distinction between combat systems with some "menu-based combat" ridiculousness is flat out wrong.

Disclaimer: MMORPGs are left out of this.

Abstract and Simulative

It is true that Japanese style RPGs are falling out of favor. A big problem is their horrible quality of late. It is also true that they employ very different gameplay than their western counterparts. However saying that one has evolved and the other hasn't is not unlike claiming that only American board games or only European board games have evolved. The distinction between combat systems J and W RPGs arises from entirely different design perspective and is in part explained by the differences outlined in episode 2. In other words, WRPG combat systems have evolved into a form that supports the player's fantasy of being the character - they are simulative in the sense that they, like American board games, are rich with content matter. They want to evoke feelings that are relative to the overall game experience.

JRPG combat systems on the other hand are more like European board games in that they are often very abstract rules-first theme-later in design. The way the combat system plays out has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the game. This fits with the general approach that the player of a JRPG is a puppet master who is observing and controlling pieces in the game instead of trying to experience the world through a single character. Because of this, a lot of stuff that would make no sense at all from a simulative point of view are perfectly valid design choices for JRPGs. Stuff like giving commands from a menu to a bunch of character standing in a static formation and taking turns to hit each other. This removes a lot of limitations from system design.

Neither approach is better than the other. However, taking sides is really easy. Want an immersive in-character experience? Play a WRPG. Want to tinker with an abstract system? Play a JRPG. Let's take a closer look though. After that I can tell you why I prefer the JRPG.

Simulative RPGs

If we look at the evolution of Bioware games we can observe the simulative design approach pretty clearly. Baldur's Gate is pretty damn close to a pen and paper RPG played with figures - you can even see the die results! Although combat in Baldur's Gate does look more "realistic" than any Final Fantasy of its time it's still pretty abstract. Baldur's Gate plays more like a small scale tactical game than anything else. The game even runs a turn-based system underneath its real-time surface. Knights of the Old Republic implements a rather similar system but with less NPCs under the player's control. Unlike BG which had a very old school static alignment system, KotOR places the main character's alignment as a consequence of their actions in the game.

Jade Empire involved more direct control of the player's character and made the game real-time. Mass Effect, considered a paragon of modern roleplaying games by some, shows how far Bioware has come from Baldur's Gate. The player's control is quite tightly limited to one character. Allies can still be ordered to use their special abilities and to follow some generic orders but all in all they fight on their own and often out of the player's sight. The bird's eye view has been replaced with more personal participation. The game's mechanics reflect this; they've been designed to be plausible in their context. This is why Mass Effect plays a lot like a first person shooter. First person shooters have been the standard for simulating a firefight since, uh, Wolfenstein?

All of these games have a lot of situations where the player has the ability to choose the outcome of certain events. Likewise, they all allow the player to create their own character - their personal avatar in the game's world. The choices reinforce the player's ability to roleplay their character. Although the range of freedom is naturally more limited than in pen'n'paper games it is usually sufficient to give a decent illusion. Notice also how everything in the game mechanics has been given a plausible in-game explanation. When they changed weapon overheating to plain old ammunition in Mass Effect 2, they didn't simply change the mechanics - they also provided an in-game explanation for doing so.It's still stupid, but hey, at least the explanation exist.

Other titles reflect similar design principles. They all derive their mechanics from a more action-oriented genre. Deus Ex Human Revolution is a first person shooter at its core. The Witcher 2 uses a combat system that could be directly from a number of hack'n'slash games like God of War. Conveniently both of these games, just like The Elder Scrolls series, feature a lone protagonist. I don't think this is a coincidence. AI is tough and giving orders to AI characters is often an annoying burden to the player so it makes a lot of sense to not have a party at all in game that is first and foremost about the player's fantasy of being the protagonist. Having a lot of NPC characters around also takes attention away from the player's avatar. E.g. Baldur's Gate is not a game about just the protagonist, it is a game about the entire party. The story is about the protagonist, but gameplay treats all party members equally.

Character development systems are typically more artificial. It is not really possible to make such systems plausible, at least not in all contexts. Human Revolution gets away with it because new abilities are just new or enhanced implants which kind of explains how the protagonist suddenly gets a lot better at doing something. Most games are not as fortunate. Although some games kind of aim for realism with systems where skills get better as they are used, the time frame will never be anywhere close to realism. But that's okay, we're talking about games after all. There are two development systems that clearly form the mainstream in western RPGs: ability trees and use-based progress.

Since development systems are almost always artificial in some respects, it's not exactly clear why most western RPG titles land on one of these schemes. Ability trees can be mapped back to pen'n'paper systems where point distribution is a very common character creation and development mechanic. Systems where abilities go up when they are used have more base in reality, especially if we ignore the time frame it takes for the character to improve. One advantage with both of these systems from the simulative perspective is that they typically don't get in the way of gameplay. Advancing is simple and relatively straightforward. Relatively, because in some games (e.g. Diablo 2) the huge amount of synergy between abilities and equipment in the game requires serious consideration (although D2 does this in a rather fucked up way since there is no way to correct poor choices later).

Abstract RPGs

As was established in the Extra Credits episodes, Japanese RPGs should be considered a different genre altogether because they are not about roleplaying the player's personal avatar in a world but rather following and controlling the story of a group of characters. They can be considered abstract in the same sense that European board games can be considered abstract. It would be perfectly possible to take the entire gameplay mechanics of a fantasy JRPG and swap them with the mechanics of a scifi JRPG and the end result would probably work just as well. In other words, gameplay mechanics are very loosely tied to theme or game content. It's not that this abstractness naturally follows from being group-oriented. It's more like it is allowed because there is less emphasis on creating a roleplaying fantasy. Designers can throw in-game plausibility right out of the window.

Because gameplay does not actually need to make any sense at all from the thematic perspective, it is perfectly justified to have all combatants stand in a line and take turns to hit each other. Since the systems of modern JRPGs are making as little sense as ever, this tendency is clearly not just a consequence of technical limitations of the first gaming consoles. It's just a design approach where mechanics come first. Although the approach has not changed, it is rather lopsided to say that gameplay in JRPGs has not evolved. Even Final Fantasy main series  - which is pretty much among the least innovative series in the genre when it comes to combat mechanics - has quite recently revamped its combat successfully. The series is also known for its hybrid approach to turn-based combat. While personally  I consider it a disaster (except for the newest version) it brings about another interesting aspect of JRPG systems.

The stereotype of JRPG combat is the classic one that is completely turn-based and static (i.e. no movement). However, the active-time battle in FF series is not exactly turn-based but also not real-time. It's a temporal hybrid. Likewise, spatial hybrids exist. Shadow Hearts uses a fully turn-based system where the player cannot directly move any characters. However, all sorts of attacks and effects cause combatants to move around. This is relevant because area effects cover a specific shape only instead of hitting either just one target or every target. In Valkyria Chronicles and Resonance of Fate, only one character moves at a time - in full real-time in fact - while everyone else stands still but reacting by shooting at the active character. Resonance of Fate in general is a really good example of a unique and very gamey combat system. It's not perfectly executed and does get a bit repetitive towards the end, but it's definitely worth checking out.

Whether it is turns or real-time, JRPGs often have some gamey mechanics on top of the basic system. Modern Shin Megami Tensei games use press turns, extra turns granted by critical hits or hitting an opponent's weakness. A bunch of other games (e.g. Xenosaga, some FF titles) also use turn order manipulation schemes for great tactical effect. Shadow Hearts uses the judgement ring as a reaction micro-game for activating abilities and it is notable that it's not just a random addition but rather a full customizable subsystem in itself. Players who are really good with the ring can gain significant advantage in combat. Shadow Hearts also features combo systems which are another rather common mechanic. Typically unleashing attacks in a combo is far more powerful than simple trading of blows. Stagger systems are pretty much the same. These systems generally make timing of attacks an important factor in combat.

I could go on about examples for several more paragraphs, but let's just stop here. If you're not going to take my word for it, know that I can throw more examples at you. I mean I didn't even go into The World Ends with You or Valkyrie Profile here. So, point? The point is that these combat systems distinguish themselves from each other by using unique mechanics. It may seem that there has been no change on the surface. The real charm is in the details and subsystems which create a combination of game mechanics that is more often than not rather unique. Overall the design space is very board-gamesque in the sense that having a novel system is almost a requirement. This goes for character development schemes as well. More often than not, JRPGs have some kind of parallel development schemes. Level advancement is still quite common but typically it is not the only means of character development.

There's no need to go further than the Final Fantasy series for examples of this. Almost every game in the series has a drastically different character development system from the rest. The job system takes a new approach to character classes, allowing players to change classes and learn new abilities. Learned abilities can be equipped by other classes (but there is only one slot, you cannot have everything). The Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X starts out like a multiple path skill and attribute tree but special spheres allow characters to teleport around the grid and learn abilities learned by other characters. In postgame, players can replace attribute bonus nodes with better ones, reconstructing pretty much the entire grid. One of my favorites is in FFVIII where the player can attach stacks of spells to character attributes in order to boost them. This system, called Junction, is a lot more central in developing characters than leveling up.

Again, these systems are very gamey. In games like Pokemon and the Shin Megami Tensei main series, developing characters is a game in itself with very detailed rules. GameFaqs is full of JRPG guides that show just how much detail has gone into these systems. The big downside is that these games rarely bother telling the player exactly how complex these systems are. Crisis Core for example has a materia fusion system that the game makes sound rather straightforward. Near the end of the game I looked at a materia fusion guide (in GameFaqs) and was pretty much blown away by it. So. Many. Rules. These are games for tinkerers. People also play them for their story, sure, but that's just to draw the masses in. The real game in JRPGs is tinkering.

Sidenote: Yes, I do realize that one reason why JRPG sales are plummeting is that their western counterparts have caught up and gone past in storytelling. A lot of people did play them for their story, especially the more mainstream titles like Final Fantasy. However the amount of detail in the game systems is a pretty clear sign of what the core audience plays these games for. That, and the fact that especially in some titles the story is clearly just an afterthought.

And the winner is... 

It shouldn't be a big surprise that I favor JRPGs. I'm a tinkerer and I like games that have very clockwork-like mechanics. I find that by releasing themselves from constraints like realism and full immersion, system designers can come up with much more compelling gameplay. I do enjoy the stronger roleplaying in western RPGs and understand why a lot of people prefer it. I also see how the linear nature and naivete of JRPG stories is unappealing to fans of more adult roleplaying. However, I feel that the western RPG in its pursuit of  fantasy has left behind the really gamey side (yes, the one where spreadsheets are involved). The playing experience is simply very different in, say, Mass Effect than it is in Resonance of Fate. The western RPGs I've played lately are a lot like games of another genre (usually shooter or slasher) but with more story and more freedom and some math in the background (but then again, character development is common in all games these days). There's absolutely nothing wrong with that but I just miss the more unique nature of JRPGs.


Although I stand behind this classification, it is mostly true for relatively modern games and even then there are exceptions. Dragon Age: Origins is reminiscent of Baldur's Gate - one of the gamiest Bioware games. Then we have Legend of Grimrock which is another blast from the past. Diablo, a game with tons of number crunching, now in its third incarnation. These games are generally further from pure player fantasy and closer to the abstract. It's also worth remembering that although the two genres have rather geographic names, western style RPGs have emerged from Japan - especially recently with the Souls games and even more recently with Dragon's Dogma. Western attempts at Japanese style RPGs are admittedly rarer but most likely not unheard of - especially if you are willing to look outside retail.

But to really summarize the point of this rather lengthy piece: the difference between the two RPG genres is their level of simulation. Western RPGs favor simulation and freedom to power the player's roleplaying fantasy. Japanese RPGs favor abstract gameplay to create nonsensical yet delightful and complex systems for players to tinker with.