I'm a freelance video game journalist with hundreds of articles under my belt. I got my start writing reviews for my college newspaper before I decided I could do more with a news source focused on video games, so I started an independent blog. About a year later, I joined the fantastic Gamer Limit as a blogger and freelance staff writer. In continuing to get involved with the video game community, here I am.
I have a confession to make: I missed out on the Prince of Persia trilogy.
Yes, some of the most lauded and famous sixth generation games completely escaped my radar. Iím not even sure why. I had a PS2, but I was going through a JRPG binge at the time. The most exposure I ever had to the trilogy was a brief bout with Two Thrones modified for the Wii which controlled as awkwardly as most third party Wii games so Iím inclined not to count it. I took particular note of the series after people started talking about it in hindsight, and after playing the 2008 iteration of Prince of Persia I became even more curious. HD-ification of the previous console generation has given me a chance to repent for missing out, so letís see what this trilogy is like.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
I had an idea of what to expect when I loaded up Sands of Time, but for a game from 2003 itís aged remarkably well. The story begins in mythical Persia as our titular unnamed Prince conquers foreign lands in the name of honor and glory for his father, King Sharaman. The cocky, arrogant Prince discovers an hourglass containing the magical Sands of Time, as well as the Dagger of Time. When a traitorous Vizier serving King Sharaman tricks the Prince into releasing the Sands, all of the people of Azad are turned into monsters, with the sands sparing only the Prince, captured prisoner Farah, and the Vizier. The Prince teams up with Farah to stop the Vizier and return the sands to the hourglass and restore his kingdom.
Sands of Time has a whimsical storybook nature to it that makes the game very easy to like. The Prince has a voiceover narration but it actually serves a relevant purpose rather than being a method to feed us exposition. Most of the development is actually left to the characters and their actions in an effective display of a storytelling tactic known as ĎShowing, not tellingí. Any writing can explain to us the humility the Prince experiences, but showing the Princeís robes gradually being torn and his body wounded gives us a physical representation of the changes he goes through. The banter between the Prince and Farah plays off of their personalities and develops them very effectively.
Gameplay is one of the earliest examples I can think of that counts as parkour rather than platforming in a strict sense of the word. The Princeís slick movements coupled with the ability to quickly climb across massive structures, vault across walls, and wall jump makes the progression feel like a perfect balance between adventuring and puzzling. Sands of Time actually feels more freeing than its linear nature suggests because of how accessible most of the actual levels are. The parkour gameplay blends goes hand in hand with the beautiful Persian architecture to let you climb massive structures and statues.
In a way parkour becomes like a puzzle as you scan a large, open room looking for your initial ledge or climbing point. The game will often guide you but stops short of holding your hand, letting you develop your skills and understand the controls as you gradually figure out how to best get from point A to point B. A recurring theme for the entire trilogy is that controls and parkour are much like riding a bike. Itís a bit tricky to get timing down when it comes to wall-jumps, but once you it becomes effortless.
Combat is and has always been one of the very sore points of the entire Prince of Persia series, up to Forgotten Sands. The first time you acrobatically dance around your foes with leaps and dodge rolls is fun. So is the first time you vault over an enemy and efficiently slice him in the shoulder to finish him off. However, unlike the parkour thereís virtually no variation and itís the same techniques and finishers used several hundred times. Repetition is only fun when we choose it. Combat is forced on you in a way that slows the flow of gameplay rather than contributes to it, although the graceful abilities themselves convince me that the development team at least tried to make it work.
Sands of Time famously incorporates the Dagger of Time, which among other abilities allows the Prince to rewind time and save him falls, mishaps, and even death. Time as a gameplay mechanic was nothing new at the time but even today itís rare to see it used with as much finesse as there is here. The flexibility, freedom, and ability to correct your own mistakes is almost unmatched with this signature ability.
Did you mess up in combat and lose three quarters of your health? Rewind ten seconds and the Princeís wounds instantaneously heal. Wall jump the wrong direction and fall to your death? Rewind and start over. Your limited number of charges can be recharged by absorbing sand from dispatched enemies, making the mechanic both limited but also very accessible. You also have the more traditional but equally effective ability to freeze time.
This is more of a retrospective on the entire series than Sands of Time, but art and music direction are stellar throughout the entire trilogy. The art is somewhat exaggerated, giving the Prince and other characters a cartoonish appearance that looks expressive and human in 2003, which is an impressive feat when compared to more ďrealisticĒ games during that time period. Iíve already addressed the storybook nature of the game, which is enhanced by the superb Middle Eastern music.
As much as I loved Sands of Time, I cringed a little, realizing what was nextÖ
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
Letís address the notorious tonal makeover of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and get it over with. Iím still at a bit of a loss about the decision to essentially take a gothic art brush to Sands of Time. Just look at the box art. The Prince is notably darker, violence is much more pronounced, and the soundtrack delves into bizarrely out-of-place heavy metal rock. Gone is the whimsical nature of the first game, and this new direction doesnít seem to mean anything other than a superficial attempt at dark maturity Ė and backfiring spectacularly. Itís such a startling contrast to the earlier free-spirited nature that I can only wonder what the point was and who at Ubisoft is to blame for it.
Warrior Within actually is a solid sequel if you can look past the Princeís incessant ďdarkĒ growling. The story is an interesting concept on repercussions, as the Prince is hunted by a beast known as the Dahaka. The Prince learns that he escaped his fate by not dying after releasing the Sands of Time, and the Dahaka is attempting to kill the Prince to restore order to time. The Prince sets sail for the Island of Time to prevent the Sands of Time from being created, thus preventing his past self from releasing the sands and changing his fate.
The writing is still strong but the narrative doesnít possess the same charm or effective development as its predecessor, owing largely to the abandonment of the original theme. The dark atmosphere degrades the Prince into a generic tough guy and new heroine Kaileena doesnít have any of the chemistry with the Prince that Farah had. Instead she falls into the predictable sex object role, proudly showing off her cleavage and existing as a love interest just by virtue of being a female tagging along with the Prince. I liked Warrior Within and I liked these characters despite their problems, but in terms of story itís a big step down from Sands of Time.
Gameplay focuses much more heavily on combat than Sands of Time did and improves it dramatically. Fighting is diverse, visceral, and complicated in a manner predating God of War. Highlights include lengthier combo attacks that flow beautifully and the brutal finishers are extremely satisfying to pull off. The ability to wield two weapons at once and pick up other enemiesí weapons does a lot to mix up fights. Combat actually becomes a relevant and surprisingly enjoyable part of gameplay rather than a series of boring interims. Itís one of the big accomplishments in Warrior Within and enough to compensate for the atmosphere, at least for me.
The rest of the core gameplay maintains what makes the Prince of Persia series as a whole excellent. The Persian architecture and crisp visuals have been upgraded to allow for more variety as the parkour continues to shine. Wall-leaping, shimmying, balancing, and slicing your way through a tapestry to a floor, among other parkour abilities has been refined to the point of feeling like a balletic art form.
Warrior Within is somehow both experimental and imitative. The development team was clearly trying to listen to feedback by improving the combat but keeping the superb parkour, but it seems like they wanted to opt for a new direct to keep the story fresh. Itís laudable that they didnít try to rehash the first game and took the narrative somewhere else, even if it didnít work. Warrior Within was still very enjoyable, and the ending left us wide open for the third installment.
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
Ubisoft Montreal evidently realized they did the Prince wrong with the gothic treatment and wound their own clock back, in a way. The resulting Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones feels like a return to form. As the Prince sails into Babylon with Kaileena, he discovers his old enemy, the Vizier, besieging the city. Another consequence of meddling with time has resulted from the Princeís actions. Because of events in the second game the Prince erased the events of Sands of Time, thus the Vizier was never killed.
This was a unique idea when it comes to time travel stories and an interesting way of exploring the ripple effects time has, not to mention it aptly characterizes the Prince as the likeable royal who canít stop messing with things. The only problem is what I alluded to in the Warrior Within segment. While Warrior Within tried Ė albeit poorly Ė to take the series in a new direction the new romance between the Prince and Farah (who does not remember him) tries the same banter they had in the first game, but it doesnít have the same spark as in the first game. Beyond this the story still builds on the Princeís character arc, in this case helping the Prince come to terms with everything heís caused.
By the third game in the series gameplay has been polished to a lovely sheen. Combat is still entertaining and dynamic, although much less visceral so it feels more like Prince of Persia than God of War. Combat also feels much more fast-paced, with the ability to climb about on walls and surprise kill enemies before they can react. The new quick kill system means you can dispatch enemies with greater speed and finesse. Pacing has always been a high point of the trilogy, but itís bordering on perfect by Two Thrones.
The bosses in Two Thrones also deserve a particular shoutout for seamlessly blending the different types of gameplay. Rather than make certain bosses purely combat-based or parkour-based, different encounters test you based on everything youíve learned. Without wishing to spoil, bosses require variations of parkour, sands of time techniques, quick-kills, and combat. Balance is the biggest strength of Two Thrones and it translates to the boss encounters.
The Dark Prince is arguably the weakest point of Two Thrones in terms of both gameplay and story. If youíve seen the box art, you can probably figure out that heís the Princeís dark side and the Prince has to overcome him, but in practice it just feels like a leftover from Warrior Within. Giving physical representation to the Princeís inner demons just feels like an excuse to not use the characterization from Sands of Time, and the Dark Princeís gameplay segments are surprisingly stale and unrefined.
By this point in the series, thereís not much else that can be said. The story is a step up from Warrior Within, gameplay and parkour continue to be solid, and the art direction and narrative have return to their Persian roots rather than dabbling in dark heavy metal themes again. In a nutshell definitely back on the right track, but Sands of Time was still probably the high point.
The Prince of Persia trilogy has very big ups marred only by some mildly grating downs. As a flighty parkour-puzzle hybrid itís second to none, and the combat becomes just as enjoyable by Warrior Within. The problems throughout the series Ė dull combat, bizarre gothic presentation Ė are all just blemishes on what winds up being an exceptional trilogy. Ubisoft picked a great compilation to HD-ify.
Brink is one of those unfortunate games where you see the vision of what the developers wanted as you play but it doesnít show up on the actual disc. This far future acrobatic opus attracted attention as a new intellectual property that combined run-and gun action with graceful parkour reminiscent of Mirrorís Edge. The ambitious nature of the game is laudable in an era where most shooters opt to capitalize on the success of Call of Duty but ambition can only take you so far. In this case the finer points of Brink are constantly undercut by a lack of direction, unfinished gameplay, and buggy nature.
Brink is a multiplayer-centric team-based shooter on an Earth flooded by rising waters, driving survivors to The Ark, possibly the last bastion of humanity. War has broken out between The Security, which wants to impose strict order for the sake of humanityís survival, and The Resistance, which strives to escape The Ark and the Securityís regime to search for other human survivors that may be out there.
Whatís odd to me is that during the campaign Brink seems to strive to stand on its own as a story despite the lack of any meaningful character interaction or development beyond a few cutscenes explaining the parameters of each mission. The missions keep trying to make us think about the consequences of the actions of both sides and depict the Security and Resistance as morally gray with no definitive good guy but it falls completely flat. The nature of the actual game means we have no emotional investment in the story. Itís disappointing because the setting and relationship are depicted in interesting ways. Splash Damage had the framework for a really solid single player story and they abandoned it. Itís just one of many examples of what could have been in Brink.
The gameplayís intent is to be objective-based team gameplay and for the most part itís functional, if run-of-the-mill. The plot-driven nature of the game could have been used for interesting scripted objectives as a way of making Brink stand out in the crowded online shooter multiplayer market, but ďobjective-based gameplayĒ generally means running to point X and either hacking it or defending it. Each team only has one spawning point outside of medics reviving you so what typically happens is both teams reach X at the same time, gun each other down, mass revive, and repeat the process. Even if you manage to seize your position maps are so surprisingly linear that an organized team can camp every possibly entrance point and make it almost impossible for the other team to breach it.
The much-touted parkour is also rife with its own problems. The concept of being able to smoothly vault over stairwells and up ledges could offer a lot of freedom in what might otherwise be conventional maps, but unresponsive controls make parkour a game of roulette. When youíre racing towards an outpost under attack and leaping over hurdles the game becomes halfway exhilarating, but often the action wouldnít register and my character would instead furiously run into a railing. The linearity of the maps means the game never really encourages you to use parkour and there arenít enough platforms or ledges for you to take advantage of it more than a few times per game. When you factor in that people are shooting at you and by using parkour you leave yourself open to enemy fire you might as well just cut out the middleman and run everywhere.
Playing with human teammates is also mandatory because the AI in this game went to the same primary school as Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5. Both AI teammates and opponents get more confused by anything more complex than walking to their objective, and even if they do they wonít even bother to hack it or defend it sometimes. Itís common to ambush an enemy making a beeline towards an objective who then completely ignores you even as you riddle them with bullets, and medics have a painful, Gears of War 2-esque habit of half-ignoring you when youíve been killed and need to wait for healing. Several times I caught a group of opponents camping around their objective without actually interacting with it, leaving me wide open to take it back.
There are enough players on Brink Ė or at least on the Xbox 360 version Ė that you can get a team together reasonably quickly but some of the problems you encounter when playing with bots are amplified online. The linearity of battlefields makes the rush to take control of objectives even more of a chaotic stalemate. When a human team camps on top of a safe they need to be defending as a group, you might as well just leave the game and save yourself the dozens of failed attempts to retake it.
The game also features a now-traditional experience system where you gain new equipment and gear as you level up. Just like in games like Modern Warfare 2 if you opt to allow players with higher ranks into your games youíll be at a severe disadvantage until you yourself level up. Youíll also need to level up because a lot of the better upgrades are closed off until you go up in rank and get access to some cookie cutter strategies youíll tend to notice online, like making a slow-but-heavy Medic who can freely revive teammates while being impossible to kill (this was brought up by Penny Arcade, no less). Thereís always going to be some disadvantage for new players in a system like this but Brink arguably goes too far.
Brink has a slew of interesting ideas that the developers seemed to implement in all of the wrong ways. Parkour is offset by poor controls and linear maps. Objective-based gameplay is hampered by a glaring lack of objective diversity. A potentially interesting narrative is squandered by emphasis on multiplayer. At the best of times Brink is functional but it seems like Splash Damage was overwhelmed by everything they tried to do. Ideas can only take you so far and whatís left is a mediocre shooter with some unexpectedly good presentation that canít mask the lost potential behind the curtain.
I read a very enjoyable article a few weeks ago on Kotaku. ďSpeak up on KotakuĒ is basically an opportunity for users to say their pieces on anything gaming related, and the best get published on the website itself. User Acast010 railed against people complaining about video game industry sequels, correctly noting that complaining about sequels is commonplace despite lots of fantastic new IPs for this generation and that despite everyone clamoring for sequels to their favorite games, people then tend to be unhappy when theyíre finally announced.
It reminded me of an article by David Wong on Cracked. Let me preface this by saying Wongís article, called ďThe Most 6 Ominous Trends in Video GamesĒ does have a lot of valid points and I love reading Wongís work in general. My particular issue comes with point three, that weíre ďon the verge of creative bankruptcyĒ. There are a lot of responses I could marshal to that claim, but one statement in general caught mt eye.
ďEverybody complains about sequels and reboots in Hollywood, but holy shit, it's nothing compared to what we have in gaming right now.Ē
Is it, now? Letís check the validity of that claim.
Letís take a look at the current state of the movie industry. Take a look at the Top 50 films for the last weekend (of July the 22nd). Note that this is a single weekend, and among the films listed are:
#2: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 #4: Transformers: Dark of the Moon #7: Cars 2 #20: X-Men: First Class #22: Kung Fu Panda 2 #23: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides #25: The Hangover: Part II #31: Fast Five (Fast and the Furious 5, basically)
Not only are those all sequels, but three of them are in the top ten and seven are in the top 25. Three of them also do exactly what Wong criticized something like Fable: The Journey for doing by removing the number in favor of a subtitle, four if you count X-Men: First Class since itís a prequel. Letís also bear in mind that summer is considered one of the biggest if not the biggest time for movies, comparable to video games during the holiday season.
Fair enough, thatís only one weekend, right? Itís only scratching the surface of the titanic sequel pumping Hollywood is doing. As it turns out 2011 will break the all time record for movie sequels released in a single year, with 27 films of 2011 being sequels. This article was also in February, meaning the number has likely gone up. That average to about one sequel every two weeks and, according to Slashfilm, around one fifth of total releases.
Iím sure the counter-argument would be that sequels represent a higher percentage of the video game industry. Thatís a difficult claim to prove or disprove either way, but even if it were true, so what? Being a sequel doesnít automatically disqualify something from being a good product or we wouldnít have films like The Godfather Part II or Toy Story 2 or 3. Being a sequel doesnít necessarily guarantee itís going to be a carbon copy of the first game that lacks any originality at all, either. Half-Life 2 felt like a standalone game rather than a Half-Life sequel and Resident Evil 4 was only tangentially related to the series.
If youíre looking for a big picture of sequel-mania in Hollywood, as of the end of April there are currently 95 sequels in development in Hollywood. These arenít all sequels to recent modern movies like the Transformers films or on-going sagas like Harry Potter either Ė some of the listed sequels include Bad Boys 3, Bad Santa 2, Beverly Hills Cop 4, Evil Dead 4, and Ghostbusters III.
Of course, donít assume Hollywood wonít wring every penny they can from recent cash cows, as theyíre hard at work on Final Destination 5 (with promises of 6 and 7), Alvin and the Chipmunks 3, Indiana Jones 5, James Bond 23,[/] and [i]The Karate Kid 2 (of the Jaden Smith remake) to name a few. This isnít even getting into would-be sequels in the dead zone of Hollywood development hell, in which case you could conservatively double that number.
Even if you went out of your way to quantify how many movie sequels versus how many video game sequels there are in a given year, entertainment mediums are saturated with sequels. The very interesting thing about video game sequels is that they can adapt to new technology and thereís always room for tweaking and improving gameplay that didnít work in prior games. Assassinís Creed II, Mass Effect 2, and Grand Theft Auto are just a few examples weíve seen of how sequels build on foundations, expand gameplay, and ultimately result in better games. Films donít even have that luxury; I canít quantify the good-to-bad ratio of film sequels but if I had to guess I would assume there are far fewer good movie sequels than game sequels.
As far as Iím concerned, with video game sequels we have it all. Ours is debatably the only medium where sequels reliably stand a really solid chance of being significant improvements over their elder siblings, and itís only gotten better as technology, writing, and production values for games have improved. Itís disingenuous to assume that sequel pumping is exclusive to video games and bordering on naÔve. This especially applies when sequels have given us some of the most celebrated games of not only this generation, but generations past with classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, Thief 2, and Final Fantasy VI (the latter of which counts as a sequel by virtue of the number in the title). Yes, sequel-mania can be a problem regardless of what industry youíre analyzing, but it wouldnít hurt to look at the glass half full sometimes.
Donít get me wrong. Would I like to see more new intellectual properties? Absolutely, but Iím not going to turn my nose up at some of the amazing sequels I listed earlier or the ones referenced in Kotakuís article. When all is said and done, you can have it both ways. Portal can exist and Portal 2 can exist, and we can enjoy both of them. Acast010 said it best: Videogames are fun. Letís all just have fun.
Iíve had a rollercoaster of a history with tactical RPGs. I played Silent Storm until my PC overheated but after three attempts I just havenít been able to get into Disgaea. Tactics Ogre is something Iím even more ambiguous about because the last time I played it in 1998 I was young enough that I had trouble figuring out these crazy nonlinear storylines. As it stands, Tactics Ogre was a widely celebrated game but Iíve heard that it requires a certain Ďtasteí in order to enjoy it or that it puts people off. This is a remake so I canít really count it as a rose colored glasses review, but letís see how it holds up.
Mind you, I did take a crash course with the original game as I played Tactics Ogre to see how the new one stacked up, and the first thing I noticed is that the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together does what so many remakes fail to do: Take advantage of the new technology and take time to fix things that didnít work. Iíve reviewed plenty of remakes that are little more than slightly upgraded ports with leader boards, the occasional HD, and maybe a new mini-game mode. Sometimes itís a short development cycle or a misguided sense of purism (like when people complained about Nintendo fixing the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time 3DS) but Tactics Ogre falls prey to neither of those.
Whatís particularly laudable about this is that I actually enjoyed the PlayStation version of Tactics Ogre to a point. Itís aged as poorly as most PlayStation One and its counterparts from the fifth generation, but the mercilessly long and frequent load times and mess of technical glitches that infested the PlayStation version have been ironed out smoothly here. Tactics Ogre on the PlayStation had problems but Iíd give it a tentative pass for a relatively straight port. Instead the game goes above and beyond to trim fat and tweak integral parts. Whatís left is a game that represents its genre very well, but it may not necessarily be a genre that appeals to fans of shooters or less story-intensive games.
The overall gameplay is still your traditional tactical RPG setup. You have a big world map full of key points to travel and visit, where you encounter story advancement or battles. Like most tactical RPGs battles take place on a grid from an isometric perspective. The uniqueness of Tactics Ogre stands out in individual customization. Characters earn Battle Points in combat, which are spent on abilities. Your characters can select from a diverse variety of abilities but only a few of them can be used in battle. The game is well balanced for something as complex as a tactical RPG and thereís no one group of characters or classes that breaks the game.
Fans of the original Tactics Ogre may also recall the constant grinding and micromanagement you had to do because enemies scaled upwards to the level of your strongest character, meaning weaker characters needed to be leveled up so they werenít liabilities. The PSP iteration introduces a class-based leveling system where all characters of a particular class are scaled to whatever level the class is. This cuts out a lot of fat from the game and itís gratifying to see a remake not try to pass off excessive grinding as an integral part of gameplay.
The problem is that this leaves classes in the dust rather than individual characters. New classes start off at a low level even early in the game when youíve been leveling up the classes youíve had access to, and as the game goes on this becomes a progressively bigger issue. In a worst case scenario you may have to do a lot of grinding to get a class up to par, but given the alternative Ė especially in the original game Ė Iím inclined to let this slide.
Another tweak to the gameplay has been the difficulty, which players of the original may recall as being on romhack level in terms of brutality. Let Us Cling Together has the same transition from System Shock 2 to BioShock in that the designers sit down, proceed to tone down the difficulty, and then never actually stop. The game is much more reasonable but the Chariot Tarot system goes too far. I still appreciate the game being more user-friendly and rewinding the battle system is okay to a point, but letting you rewind over 50 turns just feels like playing with cheats on.
The story of Tactics Ogre is something is difficult to tackle because the actual delivery of the story is what hasnít aged well rather than the quality itself. We live in an era where less is more. Games today excel when they say little but do a lot like Portal or Red Dead Redemption. Itís an engrossing story when it wants to be, delivering a thoughtful narrative about the war-torn nation of Valeria and clashing ideologies of the role of government. The problem is that it gets so bogged down in exposition that it tends to lose sight of what makes it strong. Similarly Final Fantasy XIII youíre given no real proper introduction to the world and all the make-believe terms and people make things a lot more complicated than it should be.
Whatís much more impressive is the nonlinearity of the story, which was and still is way ahead of its time. A lot of games claim that ďeveryĒ decision has a consequence but itís rare to see a game like Tactics Ogre where a great number of your choices actually have significant consequences, be they more predictably far reaching decisions or even seemingly unimportant choices such as planning a direction of attack. It makes you consider your choices very carefully and several times I paused the game, put my PSP down, and thought for a good several minutes about choices I was confronted with. We all like to see the best outcome and Let Us Cling Together actually obscures it, meaning modern Ďmoralityí games could learn from this system.
New to the PSP iteration of Let Us Cling Together is the World system, which augments the nonlinearity of the game beautifully. In a nutshell it lets you revisit certain sequences of the game where you are presented with choices and lets you explore alternate outcomes. I was initially a little disappointed that you need to play through the entire game to unlock the World system rather than just unlocking the ability to revisit specific points as you unlock them, but it would be too tempting to analyze every possible outcome as you play the story, so it gets a bit of a pass. In fairness, itís also an excellent way to reward players by presenting them with the ability to see what could have been.
Let Us Cling Together is a game from a different era of RPGs, and as I played I increasingly got the sense that some things that put me off are things that JRPG fans or nostalgia buffs in general will enjoy, like the heavy story. The game has its share of problems but it certainly holds up as a tactical RPG, and the nonlinear story branching was and continues to be impressively ahead of its time. As I implied at the beginning TRPGs havenít always been my cup of tea but the game does what it sets out to do and itís a great representative of the genre.
Right on the heels of the less-than-glowing retrospective I gave Xenogears, another classic JRPG is up to bat. This is Vagrant Story with no rose colored glasses.
When you grow out of adolescence and mature into an older gamer, you notice certain things about your childhood amusements. One particular thing I keep noticing is that games I used to play when I was little feel like pulling teeth now. I canít remember how I lasted more than ten minutes on Quest 64 and donít even get me started on what itís like to play the original Goldeneye. Having not played Vagrant Story as a child I certainly hope the kids who did grew up to be members of Mensa International, because this game is more complex than advanced nuclear physics lectures.
Vagrant Story is one of those games where it seems to be designed for a specific clique in mind. Not even a target market like shooter fans or RPG fans, but a narrow group of extremely dedicated people who will take time to play it. Games often have learning curves when theyíre complicated, but Vagrant Story could have its own eight week correspondentsí course for everything you need to figure out. It has its finer points, but the unprecedented learning curve will turn all but the most hardcore of JRPG purists away.
On a basic level I applaud Vagrant Story for not confining itself to the arbitrary ďgenreĒ defining elements of RPGs that BioWare eventually rescued us from. Combat is real time, which is surprisingly ambitious given how easy it was to create turn based combat by the 2000s. You can run and jump, making the game feel much more flexible and less static than a lot of JRPGs, and the game makes an effort at trying to incorporate puzzle and platforming elements into gameplay. The vision and the energy in Vagrant Story is something you see Ė the problem is that it manifests in ways that donít accommodate players.
The setting and story encompass dozens of factions in a huge world; this sounds better on paper than in practice. The game makes a feint at attempting to convey everything thatís happening to the player but pretty much just shoves you into the story and hopes you have a strategy guide in your lap. Your main character, hilariously named Ashley Riot, is sent by the Valendia Knights of Peace to investigate another characterís involvement with a religious cult called Mullenkamp and its leader Sydney Lasstarot while another person called Romero Guildenstern is trying to capture Lasstarot without Valendiaís approval, but heís under the orders of a religious cardinal and it turns out thereís dark powers hidden with people-yeah, this is where I gave up, too.
This is barely denting the impenetrable story and while itís mildly interesting when I understood snippets of it, you need to have a Wikipedia page open to get a sense of whatís going on. It goes back to the recurring feeling I suggested earlier that Vagrant Story is a game that just doesnít let you in. The game has an in-crowd of dedicated players possibly committed to understanding the labyrinthine story and gameplay mechanics but the rest of us laypeople can only watch from the sidelines. The writing is decent but suffers the same problem from Xenogears where tidal waves of it are thrown at you without giving you time to absorb anything.
Combat is a good example of Vagrant Story attempting to throw way too much at you in too little time. The inefficient menu-driven combat is made all the more awkward by being able to hit specific parts of an enemyís body, and thereís a completely unnecessary ďriskĒ meter that makes it easier to miss. You need to worry about a weaponís ďaffinityĒ because various weapons have different effects on different enemies. Not only does this give rise to a lot of tedious busywork when you need to micromanage every single piece of equipment, but your gear actually changes alignment over time. You have to worry about chain abilities, defensive abilities, break arts, and enough specifics of combat that I could fill a book (and Iím sure someone did when writing the strategy guide). Some of these ideas are interesting, like chain abilities requiring you to time hits in a manner similar to a rhythm game, but this is not video game combat. This is basically a giant game of inventory management, except youíre paying except being paid.
It also has the problem as Final Fantasy VIII where the process of combat is extremely padded. Your attacks barely dent your enemiesí considerable health meters. Even when you chain combos you spend a lot of infuriating time missing because of the risk meter. The system and the ability to hit various enemy body parts suggest another quaint claim to being realistic. In turn this just becomes another object lesson in trying to be realistic. Eleven years hasnít done much for the realism of Vagrant Story, and I suspect it wonít do much for todayís so-claimed realistic games either.
The puzzle elements in the game go past ambition and just venture into the realm of being lazy. The puzzles in this game involve a lot of boxes. Sound familiar? Push boxes, pull boxes, stack boxes, and most of them just wind up being a variation of ďStack this number of boxes so Ashley can get where he needs to goĒ. Essentially this does nothing but add another phase to the ďWalk across the room, enter door, proceed onwardĒ mechanic, but the game is rife with this kind of padding in and out of combat.
Visually Vagrant Story comes out as aging better than most 3D games on the PlayStation, but it has the reverse problem of Final Fantasy VII. Character models look surprisingly crisp almost to the point of being on par with stuff Iíve seen on the PlayStation 2 or PlayStation Portable, but backgrounds are another matter. All of the brown and gray stone bricks and caves make Vagrant Story almost feel like a third person Quake, and the environments all have a primitive quality to them like someone smeared brown and gray paint all over the walls. Music is classic Squaresoft, that is to say, fantastic, but itís just one good point weighed against a lot of poor aging and bad design.
Vagrant Story is not a game for the faint at heart, or the casual player who wants to play a game in 30 minute bursts in between working on a project or looking after a family. This is a game that demands your commitment and will firmly lock you out if you donít take hours of time to learn the excruciating amount of detail required to play this game both from a story and gameplay perspective. As big as it was for its time, look past the behemoth presentation and Vagrant Story is just a repetitive, needlessly complex JRPG opus on the PlayStation.
As some of you regular blog readers may have noticed, I briefly disappeared off the face of the Earth. Starting a business keeps you busy, but things have cooled off, so I'm happy to return to video game writing. I've got a lot of backlogged content to publish and more time to do it now. I thought I would start off with something I'd gotten interested in a while ago.
It's an interesting effect to play games from 10 or 20 years ago that you missed altogether. What some person views through a nostalgia filter you just see as a poorly aged, barely functional game. As it happens, I missed a lot of the classic PlayStation JRPGs, which are now arriving on the PlayStation Store. So this is the beginning of what I hope will be a series called Rose Colored Glasses, where I take a look at an old game without any of the nostalgia that players may have, even on a subconscious level.
Xenogears is one of the most venerated classics of the PlayStation era. The game is hailed for being groundbreaking in terms of storytelling, but more than 13 years later itís made the march to PlayStation Network. Has it aged into a timeless classic like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or will it be one of the many casualties of the dark ages of early 3D graphics like Resident Evil? Letís dive right in.
Since we all know itís coming, letís just get it out of the way: Yes, Xenogears has aged as poorly as most of the original PlayStationís library. Effects like fire look like shapeless blobs of tomato paste as early as the first cutscene and the isometric view of the game makes it easy to get lost in environments when colors blend a little too well. Indoor environments in particular can be confusing to explore as early as the first house you find yourself in. As Iíve said before early 3D always looks messy, and Xenogears simply isnít an exception.
To the credit of Xenogears it features a 3D sprite-based appearance rather than the hideously malformed Ďrealismí that Final Fantasy VIII touted back in its prime. It doesnít look quite as good in retrospect as Secret of Mana, but individual sprites are distinct enough that I could at least tell one from the other, and choosing the cartoony appearance rather than full 3D means the game is at least reasonably easy on the eyes. Everything is colorful and distinct enough for me to acknowledge that Xenogears was the pinnacle of visual work for its time, and the aging mostly comes from natural wear rather than visual style.
What impresses me much more is the narrative, which is a very noteworthy deviation from most JRPGs at the time. Forget your plucky twelve year old who gathers a motley crew to kill Satan through the power of love and friendship. Xenogears opts for the darker, Final Fantasy VII route but is much more direct in the subject matter it tackles. From a relatively light opening Xenogears delves into thoughtful criticism of religion and followers, the role of deities, and how seemingly little control over their fates humans really have. Iíve seen dark storylines in early JRPGs before but theyíve never been displayed with as much finesse as in Xenogears, and itís what really held the game together for me. The story doesnít pull any punches but stops just short of being heavy handed in its messages.
The story proper concerns Wei, an amnesiac in a world where two superpowers war for dominance and mechs known as gears are used in combat. His quintessential team of followers band together to uncover the mysteries of their world. The story follows a conventional JRPG thread but the writing is far superior than what people may be used to for 1998. World religions are represented in the game through theology and symbolism, and philosophy is integrated into the game. Itís unusual to see references of the works of Sigmund Freud or Friedrich Nietzsche in any JRPG but everything is tied smoothly with the plot in a way that makes Xenogears stand apart from most of its companions on the PlayStation.
Gameplay is an interesting mix of Ďclassicí turn based combat at the time and more progressive JRPG combat that edges into interactive territory. Let me make my position clear: Random encounters arenít a part of the gameplay experience. The only reason they even existed is because it was easier to compute a single algorithm than to waste precious limited space populating worlds with visible monsters, which is why we donít see random encounters at all anymore. Theyíre intrusive here as they are in any game. This is hardly a problem exclusive to Xenogears, but random encounters just donít translate well into this day and age.
The combat is turn based but given flavor with a system that gives you a degree of interactivity rather than purely trading blows. Your characters use a number of Attack Points (AP) for offensive abilities depending on the power of the attack, and as the game goes on you can use more per turn. AP attacks can also be stored for combo ďDeathblowĒ attacks, which are learned by repeatedly using specific abilities. This wasnít necessarily the most creative method of unlocking abilities but itís good to see a JRPG that rewards the large amount of fighting you do in any JRPG.
Archaic elements of gameplay also show through. As interesting as the narrative is, the story is conveyed through tedious hours of completely static cutscenes. This isnít helped by the lengthy walls of texts youíll have to navigate through to get any semblance of whatís going on. Using the D-pad for movement rather than the comfy analog stick feels grating after two generations of 360 degree movement, and holding the circle button to run is as agitating as it continues to be in modern games like Batman: Arkham Asylum. The biggest issue is this: Whereís my map of towns and actual areas, rather than just an overworld map? I got lost in the very first time because the lack of direction early in the game means you have no indication of where to go.
We often associate big, spiraling budgets with the AAA games of today but Xenogears suffers the problem of a weak finisher because of monetary troubles despite being made more than a decade ago. After two very strong acts the game quickly starts to lose steam around the third disc, when itís easy to see the development team cutting corners. Thereís a bizarre shift to 2D near the end, although this comes across less as more artistic philosophy and more an attempt to make sure the game didnít wind up breaking the bank. The actual story ending wraps things up nicely but thereís a sense of rushed urgency about the finale thatís difficult to ignore.
Xenogears has its share of issues related to its aging and it comes from an era where more was more when it comes to writing, dialogue, and narrative. That being said I still see why itís revered as one of the classic RPGs of its time. The rich narrative was interesting enough to keep me playing and the combat is reasonably enjoyable despite my established hate for random encounters. If youíre a nostalgia buff going through classics you missed, Xenogears definitely stands as one of the better games on the PSX pile in hindsight.