This is probably going to be the most hypocritical post I’ve made in a while. (Also long. Strap in.)
Not too long ago,
I went on record saying that games don’t need combat -- swordplay, gunplay, Kid ‘n Play, what have you -- to succeed. Video games are a medium with plenty of possibilities, and the moment we start to limit our understanding of what they can do for us is the moment all of us start to lose. So I advocated a sort of “alternate universe” or AU Mass Effect
as an example of how you could have a game without combat. Playing as a researcher and exploring the galaxy in a modern-day, beefy-budgeted adventure game sounded pretty good on paper; if it were real, it might be a dream come true for some ironsight-weary gamers. And now my theoretical game puts an undeniable, almost shameful focus on combat. Contradictory? Yes. But I wouldn’t comment if I didn’t think it had potential.
And that is why I unveil my dream game here and now! Like, right now, as soon as I finish this sentence -- can you feel the suspense, knowing that as soon as I add a period to this string of words, I’ll have revealed to you the game that I’ve had brewing in my heart of hearts for genera…
Okay, enough hamming it up. Let’s talk about FM Punks
Truth be told, this post is kind of cheating. I haven’t been thinking about this since the Destructoid prompt popped up; I’ve been mulling it over for a while. I fancy myself a writer, but I know I’m a gamer -- and often times, there’s a huge overlap between the two whenever I have a moment to myself to think (or daydream, or zone out). So sometimes, I’ll think of a story and its nuances from the lens of a video game. Is that a good idea? Probably not. But for the moment, it works for me.
That said, let’s break this down bit by bit.
The premise is simple enough: psychic children deported to a man-made island gather into gangs and compete against each other for resources, territory, and political power.
That’s the gist of it, but if you’ll allow me to explain I’ll dispel those dirty looks you’re giving me. In this AU Earth, children have had the potential to turn into Espers for a hundred fifty or so years. Some of these Espers are unchanged, and can go about their lives freely. Others start going on power trips, and cause damage to suit their fancies (like getting some cool toys, I’d wager). Still others lose their grip on reality, and start wreaking havoc without a second thought. It isn’t long before a war breaks out, ALL Espers -- regardless of threat, innocence, or age -- are deemed unsuitable to live in tandem with the normal humans (Normals), and they get socially shafted. Separated from families, stripped of their rights, monitored heavily by the government…it all comes to a head in the sixties, when Espers get shuttled from their homes to Kulitta Island. It starts off as a spiffy new home for Espers, a place where the children and the Normals can potentially live in peace. Unfortunately, the government sticks its nose in a little too far, ends up starting another conflict, and the island falls out of their control. They still manage to drop Espers off there, and they can contain them via strict coastal control, but the children own the island. They do as they see fit, be it live in harmony, do as children do, fight it out for glory, or campaign to take Kulitta…and then, the mainland that expelled the children.
There are also subplots about the original Esper -- a genius pianist -- haunting the present and playing chess with people, a psychotic butterfly girl, flowers that turn you into undying ghouls, and bringing music back to Earth without driving Espers insane. Also, references to Tekken
It’s…interesting, is what I’m getting at here. Also potentially controversial, but when has that ever stopped anyone?
Well, that’s enough story talk. Let’s get to the meat of the matter, yes?
You won’t be playing as any space marines today; the story focuses on the 13-year-old Raiz (rhymes with “days”) Lagarta, an Esper who’s lived on Kulitta since he was eight. In spite of his piddling height, he operates with a level of professionalism and skill not unlike Solid Snake…though the same can’t be said about many of the other, wilder characters in the game. Regardless, it’s up to players to take control of the young esper, and build a gang that can control the entire island. Why? To make a fighting force strong enough to take on the mainland’s encroaching soldiers -- an army with aims to wipe out the Espers once and for all.
How? Through turn-based strategy.
It makes sense. Right now, modern warfare is popular among the kiddies; this is an opportunity to tap the same vein, but provide a different spin on it. For example, let’s take a look at this art from one of the Motorstorm
This is, in a nutshell, what Kulitta looks like. Some fifty years of clan-to-clan psychic combat and the abandonment of the island by the mainland will do that to a place. Urban decay pervades the entire island, and resources often lie amidst the rubble. More on that later; combat is what you’ll be focusing on more than spiffy graphics. Moving your Espers strategically through a map is vital if you want to clear a mission; you’ll need to use cover, try and take the high ground, hold positions, or just plain hide. You’ll have plenty of time to make your moves during your turn, and unless your enemies are being stealthy you can monitor their positions and act accordingly.
Where things get interesting is how you use your psychic powers. Each Esper will belong to a certain class, like the different unit types from Valkyria Chronicles
. Some of your teammates will have strong extra-sensory skills, letting you sniff out hiding enemies…and if you’re willing to spend their PSI (their mana, if you prefer), they can actually predict the enemy’s movements. Others, while lacking in combat ability, make for some solid support units…usually by brainwashing an opponent into moving onto a certain space, right into a player-bred ambush. Or they can take the classy route and put up some illusions. You could have Espers that aren’t particularly durable, but make up for it with extreme movement range -- along with flight to reach extremely high places, and the power to move along walls as if they were typical ground spaces. You’d have tanks that like to get up close and personal with opponents, slamming them about with telekinesis, and snipers to provide long-range support through concentrated PSI attacks.
There’s a caveat, of course. Each member of your fighting force has a set amount of PSI for use, and taking certain actions depletes it. If for some reason a unit runs out of PSI, they’ll enter a state of exhaustion; they’ll have lowered stats and reduced movement range. Worse yet, if they stay exhausted for too long, they’ll konk out -- almost as if their HP dropped to zero. How do you fight efficiently, then? When you use PSI, part of it will remain on the field, and gather at a certain location on the map (and in some cases, PSI naturally accumulates even without unit usage). Move your units over there, and you can fill your meter back up -- or have them distribute the energy amongst the team as needed. Your enemies will have the same limitations, though, meaning they’ll be heading for those PSI depots as well. Better get ready for a fight, yeah?
Where things get (even more) interesting is the battles themselves. Taking a page from Namco X Capcom,
you’d enter a sort of fighting-game mode where you have a limited amount of time to do as much damage to your opponent as possible. Combos and juggling with your multitude of psychic skills would help, and the longer you can keep your enemy unable to attack the less likely they are to counterattack you in the same skirmish. If you have the energy, you can pull off a powerful super move to try and finish them off. Or you could save it for later; doing so will allow you to call in nearby teammates to do even more damage in later skirmishes, and even use a fearsome team super move. Do well, and you can rout an enemy before they’re even ready to raise their guard. Do poorly, and your team will get incapacitated one by one. Why? Because everything you can do, they can do just as well -- maybe more so, because you’re often outnumbered and overpowered by stronger clans. Good thing you’re such an awesome strategist!
You do have one saving grace, though. Much like Advance Wars’
CO system, in each battle you’ll be able to choose a leader to take to the field. You’ll start off with Raiz -- the typical all-rounder, though with a slight emphasis on long-range attacks -- and earn other, more specialized leaders as your influence spreads over the island. You’ll move Raiz across the field just like any other unit, but his skill set is different from his comrades. For one thing, he has a special “Command Gauge” that fills up slowly as he attacks. However, you can fill it up even faster if you’re fighting efficiently. How so? Well, one of the special abilities that only the leaders can use: “F-Impact.” It’s a little like the Rengeki system used in the .hack games;
if you catch an enemy off-guard, or force him into a panic, or just batter him in a skirmish, they’ll enter a unique state where they’ll be more vulnerable to attacks (complete with some dope-ass shout of “IMPACT!”). The leaders can take advantage of it, and blow ‘em away with a very damaging strike. Doing so fills up your Command Gauge, which offers stat bonuses to your fighting force (and varies from leader-to-leader; one provides huge power boosts, while another focuses on speed). You can spend a little bit of meter to protect your teammates from enemy attacks -- even during the enemy’s turn -- and have the leader attack as if he’d initiated a skirmish. But if you wait and fill up the gauge, the fun really begins.
You can spend that meter to have your leader enter their “Fatal Mode” -- a souped-up version of their normal selves, and capable of wreaking some real havoc given the chance. Raiz, for example, whips out an electric guitar surging with lightning…and is also equipped with a circular saw. With it, he cuts not through limbs and organs, but enemy PSI -- depleting their meter so they’re rendered unable to fight. Essentially, he’s a super-unit for a limited time. Or if you’ve got your units taking center stage, have your leader use a “FM Burst” -- a buff that gives your entire team dramatically boosted stats and/or a bonus ability for a short period of time. If you can use those skills effectively, you can beat any enemy…provided of course your leader doesn’t bite it. If your leader gets K.O.ed while in Fatal Mode, you automatically lose the mission. You don’t have to worry about such a big penalty if they’re K.O.ed outside of that mode, but there’s a threat that’s arguably worse. The Command Gauge flips, and turns into the Panic Gauge; the longer your leader stays out cold, the more your team starts to suffer. Let it increase too much, and you’ll face reduced stats, lowered PSI, and even units that refuse your orders and fight one another. And if the enemy leader captures your leader, it’s all over. Using a leader -- or anything in the game, for that matter -- involves measuring the risks and rewards, and acting accordingly. Use the terrain and your squad’s skills to your advantage, and you’ll be fine.
Even though winning in missions is important, what goes on outside of them is just as vital -- maybe even more so. You’ll have a home base that you attend to between missions, and can explore to your heart’s content. You can talk with your teammates to learn more about them; you can find out about their thoughts, opinions, hopes, and of course what their lives were like before being dropped on the island (assuming they weren’t born there). The more you converse with your comrades, the more loyal to you they’ll be -- and the better they’ll perform in combat. Who knows? You might even unlock some hidden potential…
You’ll also have to settle disputes both internal and external. You’ll have to put out fires between comrades when they’re fighting, which may not only affect their loyalty to you, but the team’s unity as a whole. You can still boost your overall approval rating by doing side missions for characters, but the most effective way is to make sure that they’re all well-kept with resources. Searching areas for resources (and finding them in battles a la treasure chests) adds to your team’s pool, and therefore you can keep your home base nice and comfy. If your pool’s full, life is good and the team will stay happy. If the pool’s running low, people will get antsy and be more likely to break into fights…to say nothing of their performance in battle. Beyond that, resource management and acquisition will affect your relationship with other clans. Need to befriend a rival? Offer tribute. Want to try and hamper a tough opponent? Launch a mission and cut off their access to supplies. Much like Mass Effect
, you’d be able to choose between cooperating with other clans via diplomacy, or using tactics and aggression to gain more power. Of course, you may have to put those rivalries aside once soldiers from the mainland -- and threats beyond -- start stomping around your turf.
Your home base -- and allied territories, once you have them -- offers more than just a chance to make war. While you’ll still use your downtime to develop new techniques and equipment, and manage your units’ particulars (again, like Valkyria Chronicles
), you’ll also have a bit of time to explore the surrounding areas, look for resources and clues, sift through the records of the island -- clan history, skirmishes, backstory, etc. -- and intercept radio chatter from the mainland. Sometimes you’ll get to hear from the army creeping through your land; other times, you’ll get transmissions from their TVs (oftentimes hilarious transmissions); you might even get to hear from your teammates’ families, if you’re lucky. The idea is to be able to spend as much time off the battlefield as you do on it -- and the more you do, the better off you’ll be once you get in a fight.
And now for what’s really important some of you gamers: dem graffecs.
We’re all aware of the gritty graphics engines that grip a lot of games. Given FM Punks’ urban decay aesthetic (for the most part), you’d think that the visuals here would be the same. I say thee, nay.
Say what you will about the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm
games (or Naruto
in general), but damn it if they don’t look fantastic. The colors, the variety, the little details here and there…I’m assuming that there were some shortcuts taken to make everything look good, but the fact remains that if an anime tie-in could look convincingly amazing, an original and well-funded project could do the same. Only, you know, better. An art style like that would lend a sense of uniqueness and vibrancy to each character -- if they’re bound by realism, I’d argue that it’d be limiting their visual effectiveness. In battle, expect to see some impressive effects: whooshing wind, splashing water, models that stretch and warp when moving at high speed, and particle effects that would leave you bursting with energy. And a punk-rock aesthetic would pervade nearly every element of the game -- from graffiti and murals along walls to the very menus you use.
And rest assured you wouldn’t just be visiting run-down cities. Coastal towns, complete with splashing cyan waves, sitting right next to teeming jungles. Rainforests, brimming with dewdrops after a typical storm. The remains of battle-worn buildings and towns turned into vine-shrouded skeletons. Mountain passes and valleys where only the bravest Espers roam, building their tin-roofed sanctuaries in some semblance of peace. Snow that crunches underfoot as you explore a mountain’s towering summit. Caverns deep within Kulitta’s earth, where Espers and invading mainland forces build camps to mine for rare minerals. The world is vast and colorful, and begging for intrepid Espers -- and players -- to explore, uncover its secrets, and even conquer it if they dare.
But graphics are only half of the equation. Music-wise, I imagine the soundtrack would run the gamut. Soft, acoustic guitar pieces would fit when exploring your home base, albeit with a variable mix; when loyalty is high and there are lots of resources to go around, the music is happier and more lighthearted; when there’s tension, the music is sad and slow; when things are at their worst and a fight’s about to break out, expect some brusque, tense tones. Areas would also have their own music, of course, and the territories dominated by other leaders would have their own tunes. What’s important is that each leader has one instrument that dominates their songs. Raiz, naturally, has guitar-based pieces -- soft and mellow when outside of battle, but more gritty and melodic (and metal, of course) when the fighting actually starts. Ashen, a scheming bigwig on the island, has violins with a more malicious yet cultured bent. Of course, their themes change in accordance with what’s going on in a fight. Do well with Raiz, and you’ll get a heroic swell; have him go into Fatal Mode, and you’ll get a song that screams “It’s ass-whoopin’ time!” If he gets K.O.ed, the music will get panicky and desperate…just like you. And it goes beyond just listening; units can even get damage bonuses if they attack in sync with the beat.
Sounds awesome, huh? What, it doesn’t? Well, good thing I have a defense prepared!
Trust Me Time!
Turn-based strategy games are due for a big comeback. It’s been years since the last one was on consoles, and much too long since the last Advance Wars game. I’m of the opinion that sometimes, games should give players a chance to take things slowly, and assess the situation before making a move -- in other words, applying strategic principles to their motions. I’m not so bold as to say a game like Call of Duty
or Gears of War
doesn’t involve strategy; what I WILL say is that the strategy in those games is covert
, while the strategy in FM Punks is overt
. Being able to take a moment and think to yourself “Wait, if I move this unit here, will I be counter-attacked?” or “If I have this group build a new windmill, will that attract unwanted attention? And do we even have the resources to recover?” can contribute a lot more to a sense of involvement. With superior planning and cunning, you’ll not only be able every challenge as they come, but a sense of pride that rivals no-scoping a n00b.
You’re living in a deep, immersive world. And more importantly, the motions you make shape it as you see fit. You’re moving towards a conclusion in a story full of twists and turns, showdowns and sacrifices, but you can take solace in knowing that the choices you make mean something -- from forming an alliance with an old rival to reassuring a nine-year-old boy who misses his mom. Large conflicts spanning the entire planet, or small squabbles about whether vampires or werewolves are cooler (hint: it’s the Swamp Thing); a threat of total wipeout, or just being able to play basketball with some of your pals…you’re living a life that you’ve earned, day by day, through fighting and friendship alike.
That’s the kind of game I’d want to play. Wouldn’t you?
Incidentally, if there’s anyone willing to fund my project…well, you know who to call. (I hope my contract involves a “hot dogs on demand” clause.)