Friday, August 30, 2013

Jeanne d'Arc

I'm continuing my excavation of JRPGs you have likely never heard of (still going through this list). The latest title in this series was Jeanne d'Arc, a tactical RPG from Level-5. As the name suggests, it's a heavily rearranged fantasy version of the famous historical figure's story - i.e. it probably has next to nothing to do with the actual Jeanne. No matter, I didn't come here for the plot anyway - I find this a rather health approach to most JRPGs unless they have been specifically lauded for their story (e.g. Nier). I want to get some stuff out of the way before diving into the game's mechanics: my opinion is probably slightly biased due to the game's artistic style which I found a bit repulsive. I also don't have much love for Level-5 RPGs.

1. Classes, rocks, papers and scissors

Since it's a tactical RPG, we should start by going through some of its core mechanics. The game has loosely classed characters - in other words, classes are primarily defined by the weapon they use and their stats. The classes bear a strong resemblance to Fire Emblem - each weapon has unique properties that defines where it shines. Swords are the bread-and-butter, the most average weapon there is - nothing special to them but no particular weaknesses either. Axes are less accurate but deal heavy damage - certain axe skills can also lower defense. Spears are less effective but they hit two squares in front of the wielder, and also have access to a wide variety of area-of-effect attacks and long range jump attacks. Bows are what you might expect from them while knives are more accurate and have a higher chance to crit. Whips are the only melee weapon in the game that can hit diagonally and so on.

Now, unlike Fire Emblem, there's no rock-paper-scissors between the types of weapons. Yet the game does have a very similar RPS system: spirit skills. These are passive skills that grant the bearer levels in either Sol, Stella or Luna. If you guessed that each of these is strong against one other and weak against the remaining one, you would be absolutely correct. In this case Sol beats Stella, Stella beats Luna and Luna beats Sol. Most enemies in the game have been assigned to one of these aspects. Since the aspect is tied to a skill that can be freely equipped by any class at the start of the battle, actual character classes do not play a role in the RPS system. It is kinda good and bad news for the game. On the one hand, the player can customize their favorite characters to suit each battle while on the other hand, there is no real need to ever level up any extra characters. In Jeanne d'Arc though, I feel this lands more on the plus side.

The reason is that - just like the Fire Emblem RPS - these aspects severely increase and decrease both damage and accuracy. Especially later in the game characters are next to useless against the aspect they are weak against. This means that the player needs to examine their enemies and choose characters that can best deal with each threat - and then distribute spirit skills accordingly. In some battles the player can get away with not having one particular spirit at all, and in most there will be one spirit that is generally more useful than the rest. It is also quite common for the boss of a level to be of an aspect that is different from rest of the monsters so that whoever is designated to take the boss down won't be as useful against the rest. Overall this effect is similar to what you get in Fire Emblem - a careful plan is needed to decide who goes where and who is going to fight who.

Although there are numerous similarities between Fire Emblem and this game, the cost of using things is more akin to Tactics Ogre. Skills are fueled by mana that starts at zero and then regenerates every round. In Fire Emblem every weapon and spell has a limited number of uses. This allows even powerful weapons to be given out sparingly early in the game and using one is always a decision with some consequences because eventually it will run out of uses. There is still a cost to using more powerful skills in Jeanne d'Arc, because only the most basic skills and spells can be spammed every turn. Missing with a costly skill usually hurts quite a bit. I am not saying that Jeanne d'Arc should use Fire Emblem's system (if it did, the games would be really similar) - just that there is a clear difference in how "resources" are used - and that it is caused by the game's economy model.

2. Heroes and heroines

One of the most interesting features in Jeanne d'Arc are armlet wielders - heroes and heroines with a bit of extra oomph. Armlet wielders can transform into more powerful forms during battle. It's not the transformation itself that makes this feature interesting though - it is one of the special abilities all these characters gain in their secondary form. The ability allows them to take a full extra turn every time they defeat an enemy. There's no limit to the number of these extra turns - as long as they can dish out enough damage, they can tear through an entire group of enemies. They can also conveniently "bounce" from one enemy to another to reach an otherwise unreachable foe. It is generally easy enough to figure out when this power should be used. Nevertheless it is that little something extra I feel these games often need to keep my attention.

In order to maximize the number of extra turns and thus the damage output of your entire party, other allies should weaken targets for the armlet wielder. There is a downside to this strategy though. Just like in Fire Emblem, in Jeanne d'Arc bulk of the experience is granted to whoever deals the finishing blow. Furthermore experience gains are scaled by level, which means that constantly finishing enemies off with armlet wielders is going to result in diminishing returns. Therefore mopping groups of enemies at once should be preserved for situations where it is absolutely necessary. Fortunately such situations do exist are even somewhat frequent as a result of quite solid level design. A downside to the armlet wielders is that they are quite simply superior to every other character in the game which makes them too obvious picks to pass. Perhaps it would have been better to limit this power to the main heroine who has to be in the party anyway.

The less-advertised benefit of armlet wielders is their ability to heal themselves to full HP through the transformation. Curiously enough, this is actually one of their strongest attributes. After all, healing always costs momentum - lots of it in Jeanne d'Arc - but transforming is free and subsequently increases momentum. Transforming also increases defensive attributes, thus increasing momentum even further. It is a definite tide-turner. Although it's just one feature, it defines much of the gameplay experience.

3. Formations

The importance of formations varies between tactical RPGs as do the mechanics involved. The basic concept of formations is to keep squishy characters protected and as much is true in most games. Jeanne d'Arc does go an extra mile to emphasize formations and positioning in general. This is achieved through two systems. The first and most useful of these systems is the unified guard. As long as characters are adjacent to each other they all gain a defense bonus that is relative to the total number of characters that are linked together. There is a drastic difference between being alone and standing somewhere in a chain of six characters in terms of damage taken. It even increases evasion, allowing characters to negate damage entirely. It is often more desirable to leave an action unused than it is to break a formation to down one extra enemy.

Another system that sees less use but is very powerful when it is used is called burning aura. Any normal melee attack against an enemy creates an aura directly behind the enemy. Attacking from this aura grants bonus damage. Auras only last until the end of the turn in which they were created which makes them sometimes hard to utilize - especially the super aura that is created when a character with an aura also makes a basic attack against an enemy. Once again the difference in damage output is quite drastic. This is especially useful against certain bosses in the game. Curiously enough, the AI of these bosses typically tries to put itself next to a wall to minimize the player's ability to surround it and make use of these auras. It is important to prevent them from doing so, because they typically have high HP regeneration.

As a side note, very high HP regeneration is an interesting mechanic to set the pace of a fight - the player needs to be able to sustain their damage output until the boss is dead. Basically all of the toughest fights in the game were reliant on this mechanic and I think it worked out fairly well.

4. JRPG bullshit rant part 1

As much as I love the genre, it has its share of bullshit. Jeanne d'Arc does not do any better. Let's talk about character development first because it's something the game shares with Fire Emblem. Here's the beef: stat growths are hidden information. Why this is bullshit? There's no way for the player to know the true potential of characters. Sure, there is a rule of thumb: the worse a character looks like when you get them, the more powerful they'll be by the end game. The problem is this is not a hard rule, and it is impossible to know when it holds. Even if this information was transparent this would still be bullshit because characters would not be very equal. Given that difficulty generally ramps towards the end or at least that's what you would expect (usually it's actually not the case - but in Jeanne d'Arc it is), choosing the characters who get most powerful by the end game is a no-brainer.

Then again, poor balance between characters is such a common problem that I've mostly given up on it - and I do prefer imbalance to too much balance any day. That said, hiding such crucial information from the player is just plain bullshit. At least the growth rates are granted in contrast to Fire Emblem where the rates are simply probabilities to have gains in a stat. Doesn't get much more bullshit than that. In Jeanne d'Arc I only learned about this by reading a guide after finishing the game and it turned out I had chosen my characters very poorly (more or less the worst wielder for each weapon). I still managed to beat the game but this still infuriates me because I could have just as well rolled a die to see how difficult the game is going to be for me. An uninformed decision is not any different from blind luck yet somehow I see this bullshit coming up in JRPGs time and again.

The nice thing about designing board games is that you cannot hide rules from the players because if you did, they could not play the freaking game at all. Here's another example from Jeanne d'Arc. There are several battles where enemies spawn and then get to act immediately. Naturally these are the very same battles where you have to protect a fragile NPC (one hit kills him). The game is giving you the finger, there's just no other way to describe this. There is no way to predict this happening at all, and if there was, there would be no information of when or where the new enemies will spawn. The only way is to take that guaranteed failure, wasting 15 minutes of your time and then doing the battle again from start. Fun times. This is like a douchebag board game owner who "remembers" a rule just before he is about to abuse the shit out of it. Seriously, game designers, some transparency plz.

This rant will get a sequel once I have finished what I'm currently playing. Stay tuned.


The usual JRPG bullshit and horrible graphical design aside, Jeanne d'Arc is tactical RPG that proudly stands on its own two feet. It has its share of distinctive mechanics, but most importantly its level design follows an optimal difficulty curve. Maybe, or maybe that was just because I had the worst possible characters in my party. The game does get a bit repetitive at times, largely because the pool of actually useful skills is very small, and most of the enemies can be dealt with using the same strategies. Still if you are looking for a solid TRPG and have already gone through the obvious choices, you could do a lot worse than Jeanne d'Arc.

There will be bit of a break in updates at least as far as digital game are concerned... the game I'm currently playing is effing long. I might write about some analog games next though!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ninja Gaiden Sigma

Talk about unfinished business... I started Ninja Gaiden Sigma over two years ago. I stopped playing it around halfway through because it was kind of frustrating. Furthermore, Mirror's Edge happened. I never got back to NGS, and actually lost my save when my PS3 hard drive died. Yet for some reason I decided to pick it up again quite recently and managed to complete it. There's not actually that much to write about NGS, especially since not-so-long ago I did a piece on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. That piece pretty much contains the most important things to say about the genre in general and Ninja Gaiden Sigma is no exception.

The game is notorious for its difficulty and to a large extent this is true. Unfortunately, as usual, some of the difficulty comes from bad usability. We already covered bad camera. Although the problem is not as agravating in NGS as it is in Revengeance, it still gets pretty bad. Unlike Revengeance, NGS has a 360 degree block which means even stuff that comes from outside the camera angle can be guarded against. At least mostly - there's a bunch of unblockable attacks. The fair amount of unblockable attacks is also what makes a simple guard more interesting in NGS than it is in most other games. Any extended period of guarding gets punished with damaging unblockable attacks like throws. This prevents the game from getting too static. Overall, static is definitely not a word one would use to describe NGS. Staying on the move is the best defense.

It is therefore a bit disappointing that controlling movement is effing frustrating at times. For some reason it often feels like Ryu just plain refuses to register directional inputs correctly, leading to disastrous evasive moves. The feeling of being in control of the action sometimes just is not there. Unlike Devil May Cry or Revengeance, NGS also feels more like designed in such a way that taking damage is not entirely avoidable. Because of these reasons, the game just was not as sharp as those two. It is however much sharper than God of War or Dante's Inferno. Towards the end of the game it also seemed like the enemy designs mostly competed for unfairness rather than trying to provide more interesting challenges. Nevertheless, the game's difficulty peaked around midway, precisely where I quit the last time. This is where most enemies had ranged direct-hit attacks (i.e. not avoidable projectiles).

Although sometimes I felt the player's ability to control Ryu was not what I expected, Ryu's ability to control the pace of combat was pretty much top tier. This is where the game's strength lies: there's tools for everything. Ryu's ability to stay on the offensive is superior, and is achieved through a couple of means. First of all, enemies are staggered properly which makes it possible to actually control even crowds of enemies. Second, certain moves have built-in invincibility frames which allows Ryu to do stuff even when cornered. There's a downside of course: some enemies are best defeated by spamming invincible attacks. Against most enemies, even defense can be quickly turned around into offense with well-timed counter attacks. I'm not the most skilled player so I can only imagine how effective a really good player will be with these tools. My streaks mostly ended when I got tangled up with the controls.

Another thing that is noteworthy in NGS is the usefulness of different weapons. Variations aside, there's basically four different weapons in the game, and each has a distinct use. The basic sword (or the dual katana variant) is your default weapon and it excels in mobility, allowing Ryu to quickly move from enemy to enemy no matter how scattered they are. Staff is a solid choice against groups of enemies because of its wide hit areas and excellent counter attacks. Another good crowd control tool is the heavy sword, but it really shines with its ability to stagger even some of the biggest enemies in the game. Finally there's a nunchaku type flail which is superior against massive swarms of weak enemies and generally good when being static doesn't hurt Ryu too much. All in all, different weapons don't exist just for flavor - a feat a lot of games can't boast about.

Although I felt at times that the game was difficult for the wrong reasons, most of the time it is difficult for the right reasons: everything in the game - Ryu included - hits hard and goes down fast. Even bosses have pretty short life bars, all the way to the final boss. This is something we have gone through time and again, so I won't go into any more ranting about it. In conclusion it can be said that Ninja Gaiden Sigma is mostly deserving of its reputation as a difficult game and is mostly definitely a true game of skill. It might not be my favorite because ultimately it doesn't feel as thought-through as some other titles and also because it's a bit too fast-paced for me. Regardless, although I'm not looking forward to playing it again, I might at some point play the sequel.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Last of Us

Every once in a while even I play hyped titles. It comes down to quite random things, and in this case I largely picked The Last of Us up because of two things: it felt like a game that will be discussed so I had to get it early to dodge spoilers; I just happened to have an empty spot in my gaming schedule since I had drastically decreased my Dota 2 playing. Despite being a horrorish game, it actually felt like a decent summer game due to lots of well-lit environments. I would have probably jumped on this game even harder had it not been for the zombies. Goddamn zombies. I'm not a big fan of post-apo either, but at least The Last of Us is the better kind of post-apo - i.e. not that frigging boring-as-a-brick-wall desert shit. Yeah, there's some things in gaming I *really* don't like.

1. Realism is overrated... again

In a way, The Last of Us is a spot-on example of how Ian Bogost described the persuasive power of games in his book Persuasive Games. In the book he defines the concept of procedural rhetoric: whereas verbal rhetoric appeals to us through logic and compelling writing, games persuade through modeling processes. Through the model, the player can experience the circumstances and interact with them. For instance, Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus teaches asthma management through simulating it - the player controls a dinosaur with asthma. The model can be based on reality, but typically is not realistic as such. So it is with The Last of Us - its gameplay is a compelling model of scarcity. The model is not compelling because of realism - rather, it is compelling despite its lack of realism. Allow me to explain.

The Last of Us uses several different mechanics to simulate scarcity. Since it has a post-apocalyptic setting, guns are expected as is scarce ammunition. Survival games in general use this mechanic to create suspense and force the player to seek alternative ways to defeat enemies. Generally the next best thing would be melee weapons, and they too have been made scarce. A typical melee weapon is only good for a few hits and the most effective melee weapon is the shiv - a single use stabbing weapon. The shiv is especially important because it is the only way to silently kill clickers, a type of enemy that detects the player based on sound. Normal enemies can also be taken down silently by surprise with unarmed attacks, but it takes time. Generally going stealth is the only option when the player has no ammunition left and usually shooting is plan b in any case.

Of course none of this makes sense from the perspective of realism. After a firefight with even a handful of enemies, the protagonist would have weapons and ammunition to last a small lifetime (at least considering how carelessly the enemies fire their weapons - which means they must have no worries about running out). A good melee weapon lasts almost forever with proper maintenance and shivs are just poor replacements for knives, which are clearly ubiquitous in the game world. Thing is, had the developers considered the realism of each game situation, encounters would be rather dull - in order to avoid giving the player too much equipment, they would be facing unarmed opponents for the entire game or only zombies. Simply put, there would be so much less variety. Instead the developers have chosen to model the economy of scarcity through artificial resource limitations - and it works phenomenally well.

The same goes for the game's crafting system. It is very simple with only six or seven items that can be crafted, but it serves an important purpose. First of all, it adds to the survival theme: useful items are very hard to come by, but materials to make them are slightly more available. Second, it does force the player to make some choices about what to do with their resources. The system is simple enough to not get in the way - at the same time it is not too simple to the point it would be redundant. Is it even remotely realistic? Not likely. Instead it's a functional subsystem in the game's repertoire of mechanics. Resources are also scarce enough to make scavenging always worthwhile, which adds value to exploring corners of the world. It also does not feel out of place, because it is consistent with the game's story - unlike excessive looting in certain other genres!

Games often don't follow the WYSIWYG paradigm when it comes to loot. Although it is from time to time called out as unrealistic, it is important to understand that realism would actually make things very though. Anyone who has tried to run a tabletop campaign where scarcity of resources is an important element has likely run into this problem. In tabletop RPGs players are much more likely to play the realism card if they cannot loot stuff enemies were using. Some settings allow for workarounds with varying credibility but others do not. It can become a major challenge for the game master to prevent their players from gaining too much power while still creating challenging combat situations. It helps that mechanics in tabletop RPGs are less rigid - in videogames the designers cannot adapt on the fly.

Finally, let's talk about stealth. Often when sneaking around, at least one other party member is following you. It seems a bit out of character at first, because they are actually entirely invisible to enemies as long as the protagonist has not been detected. Sure, the AI does its best to make it look like they're also sneaking, but very often they end up running around - even bumping into enemies - while the player is trying to sneak as quietly as possible. It sounds pretty awful, but ultimately didn't retract much from the experiene at all. Imagine if, instead, they had made it so that allies can also trigger enemy awareness. The sheer amount of frustration would have caused a massive outcry as yet another stealth attempt fails because the AI-controlled characters accidentally revealed themselves. Considering that stealth in the game is quite demanding, I don't think it would have been possible to implement an AI that could navigate the situations well enough.

In general it is far more important to consider what is the aesthetic experienced by the player than it is to consider its realism. Likewise the actions taken by the player are more important than how they look. Thus Dark Souls can incorporate a lot of the mentality of actual fencing even though it looks completely different. Likewise, The Last of Us incorporates the dynamics of surviving in a world of scarce resources without taking into account the realism of scarcity. The most compelling games do not impart their message through narrative or graphics - they do so through gameplay. This is essentially Bogost's message in his book. Instead of considering realism, designers should consider whether the game's dynamics are able to model the process they want the player to explore. Making sense is voluntary.

2. About segment lengths

I basically have only one complaint about The Last of Us, and it is one that applies to a bunch of other titles too. I guess I just truly pinpointed the problem while playing this game. In a nutshell, a single segment in the game is way too long. Several times it feels like it is ending and the game is about to move forward, only to start yet another thread that prolongs the experience. Although it is only a single segment, it can have far-reaching consequences to the gameplay experience. The player only needs to get bored once. After one segment that drags, I started to be far more critical towards the game and the length of its segments. Fortunately the problem was not repeated but its shadow still retracted from my enjoyment. I recall this happening in other games too; a single long segment severely affects my playing mentality. The entire games feels more boring only because one segment lasted too long.

I would like to say I know a psychological basis for why this happens, but I actually cannot recall having read anything directly similar. However, since I like to do some guesswork, it might have something to do with how expectations affect our actual experience of something. The same phenomenon that makes wine taste better from a finer glass is just as likely to affect a gameplay experiene. For instance, if I consider a game worth preordering, chances are I will like it more just because I had high enough expectations to opt not to wait. Expectations during gameplay are a living thing. Players usually arrive with some expectations, and will build upon them after experiencing the game itself. A single instance of bad experience can then set the (possibly false) expectation that similar instanced might occur in the future. The player will become suspicious of the game in a way - e.g. Is this turn in the plot another ruse to get me into a long gameplay segment?

The sad reality is that players are more likely to base their expectations on a single bad experience than to a positive experience. That's why you can read fans complaining about the smallest things. Although the things themselves feel small, it might have happened that they have changed the player's expectations and in doing so in fact ruined the entire experience for them. Although this is just my (educated) guesswork, it definitely is something to think about. I have no doubt that The Last of Us's lack of realism has been a turn-off for some players.

3. About stealth, again

I keep going on about this topic - and that's a good thing since I keep re-evaluating my feelings about stealth games. This is the essence of this blog: coming to understand why certain solutions work for me while others do not. I am doing so because I believe it will help as a player (to pick games better) and as a developer (obviously). The Last of Us is a game where I both loved and hated stealth mechanics, and thus it is a good ground for me to explore my relationship with this subgenre. The biggest differentiating factor between stealth scenes I liked and the ones I did not was their setting: I consistently liked outdoor encounters and disliked indoor encounters. Being indoors or outdoors is not the actual explanation though. Rather, it is indeed the degree of freedom which simply happens to be larger in outdoor environments - especially in The Last of Us.

This preference also explains why I consider Dishonored my absolute favorite game in this genre - not only does it take place in quite open environments, it also gives the player superpowers that open up even more possibilities. The more closed the environment, the more stealth starts to feel like a puzzle. This happens because the solution space for a given problem shrinks. Turns out I don't like this one bit. While I have nothing against puzzles, if I want to solve puzzles, I'd rather play puzzle games. There's often a sort of uncertainty in stealth puzzles, and I really don't like that largely because there are too many variables that are hidden from the player. The control of the situation slips from the player's hands because instead of being able to make their way through the encounter, they are playing a guessing game to figure out the one solution that actually works.

Free saving is another feature that highly affects my stealth experience. I don't mind redoing boss-fights in arcade games, because the challenge remains interesting even after defeating the boss for the first time. Likewise, I love strict time attacks in racing games - driving the same track, perfecting one corner at a time, great times. However, I really really hate redoing stealth segments. It is fun to stalk an enemy for the first time, especially if it ends in their death - it's not fun to do the same thing all over again. The difference here is that the "mechanic" involved in stalking is often *waiting*. So while I don't mind playing through a challenging segment again because it will improve my skills, waiting is not really a skill - it's just a colossal waste of time. The more the stealth segment is like a puzzle, the worse it gets because I will just be doing the exact same things every time. I always succeed because I already figured out how to do it.

Coincidentally, Dishonored has free saving while The Last of Us did not. A lot of games are better off without free saving, but seriously, that feature is absolutely necessary in stealth games. Moving very slowly and waiting simply are not fun game "mechanics" - the real challenge was in scouting the situation and figuring out a way through it - and since that knowledge is not lost when the player dies, all they have left to do is to repeat the same steps. I guess we can coin a term for this: retry value (related to replay value, obviously). If repeating a segment poses no challenge to the player, its retry value is very low whereas if it remains challenging every time, its retry value is high. Games with high retry value can actually benefit from not having free saving whereas games with low retry value absolutely must have free saving or very frequent checkpoints.


The Last of Us is worth the hype, and calling it PlayStation 3's last big game might very well be appropriate. It is impressive in so many ways - it's beautiful to look at, runs smooth and has a solid story to boot. Most importantly though, it has so much elegant design. It is one of those games that really make the player feel like the world has ended. It accomplishes this not through realism, but game mechanics that give rise to compelling model of scarcity. Yet another strength that went unmentioned is that the game achieves a lot in segments where nothing at all happens. As opposed to what might be expected of a videogame, The Last of Us actually has rather lenghty parts where no fighting is going on and the player is simply wandering through scenery - and somehow these feel like the strongest moments in the game. Part of their allure is built by conversation. There's a lot of that, and most of the game's dialogue takes place in-game rather than cutscenes.

Although the game is beautifully designed, its mechanics are not ultimately *that* interesting on their own. The beauty is in the atmosphere - the final aesthetic - of the game. In this sense it is the paragon of modern games where everything from technology to writing to game mechanics come together to support an enchanting player experience. It is also a game that uses the strengths of the medium to create something powerful that simply could not work in any other media. I do think it's required playing before putting your PS3 to rest - whether you like zombies or not.