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1:21 PM on 08.19.2013

First Impressions: Europa Universalis IV

I'm a long-time fan of Paradox's games.  Ever since I discovered Europa Univeralis (EU hereafter) 2 about 11- years ago, I've been obsessed.  I've shoveled time into the likes of Victoria, Victoria 2, CK2, and EU3.  So, as a long-time fan of Paradox, how do I feel about their new game?

Simply put, this game is great.  It takes EU3 and improves upon it in every fashion.  They streamlined almost everything (especially the UI) and made the strategic choices -much- more clear pretty much across the board.

Let me give you an example here.  In previous EU games, diplomacy was easy to game.  Give a country a lot of money when you need them; ignore them otherwise.  Make alliances just before starting a war and avoid going to war for your allies.  Then.. well.. re-ally with them once their war ends.  Sure, they're a bit upset, but you can take care of that with a little bit of cash and a royal marriage.

EU4 changes all of this.  You have a limit on the number of diplomatic relations you can have.  You have a limit on the number of diplomats you have.  You can only improve relations (no cash involved) up to a certain level.  If you fail to show up for an ally's war, they -will- remember it for years.  Do it twice, and you'll probably no longer be a serious choice as an ally anymore for said country.  Simply put, you can't just do what you want with diplomacy anymore.  They've clarified and reinforced the strategic element.  You need to carefully consider your options and stick with your plans.

In a game as Ireland, for example, I fought dozens of wars for my ally France.  I decided to skip out once, because of domestic issues, but I found France no longer willing to ally with me.  I was then obliterated by the UK, which no longer had any worry about going after me.  I reloaded and fought that hard war for France, but they stuck by me in recompense.  These are hard choices, but they are important choices.

This approach colors the entire sequel.  The monarch power system, which replaces the old sliders, tech, and ideas, is all about creating hard but important choices.  Do I get that awesome military idea, or do I stay level with everyone else's tech?  Do I expand my empire, or do I keep my administrative tech up to date?  Do I build a bunch of tax/production buildings, or do I increase my stability?  Again, EUIV highlights strategic choices above all else.  The monarch power system is a harsh, unforgiving system, but it highlights the importance of the choices you make as a player.

The trade system is also entirely different than the trade system in EU3.  I won't go into much detail here, but, suffice to say, it works very well.  You actually feel like you're making a trade network, rather than just playing Center of Trade whack-a-mole.  The new trade system depends strongly on sending fleets of light ships to "Protect Trade" in different trade nodes.  This creates an interesting new dynamic, where you need light ships to sustain your trade network but heavy ships to protect your light ships in war.  Managing the ratio here is another example of the strategic choices the game gives you.  It also means that war can be disastrous for your income, as any unprotected light ship fleets may need to head into port.  You can also embargo other countries in order to hurt their trade in nodes where you have the trade power to do so.  However, doing so will create a casus belli as well as massive negative relations with said country.  The result is that the trade system feels closely tied to the diplomatic elements of the game, highlighting the strategic importance of the decisions you make diplomatically and economically.

There are plenty of other differences as well.  The AI is much better at fighting wars.  Coring, diplo-annexation, religious conversion, and cultural conversion are all very different.  They are tied more to other systems in the game and are much less dependent on chance.  In every case, you actually have a progress meter, and you can tell, rather easily, what is impacting said progress in one way or the other.  In EU3, by contrast, random numbers dictated most of these elements. 

There are loads of other differences, but I won't go into every single one.  I'm just trying to give a sense of how the game generally plays.  The truth is that Paradox has really hit the ball out of the park here.  The game feels much richer than EU3 ever did, and everything just slots together nicely.  In some ways, EU3 felt almost too.. disconnected from its game mechanics.  Many of the mechanics were relatively easy to maximize, and they didn't connect to each other in clear, important ways.  EUIV has definitely placed game mechanics and interoperability to the front, which does a lot to make the game fun.  It also does a much better job introducing and explaining itself, though a true noob will probably still want to check out some guides.

Are there problems with EUIV?  Certainly.  The game has a few technical issues (most of which I haven't seen myself but have seen evidence of), and the balance is a little off.  Light ships are a bit overpowered as is, and, at times, it feels like the monarch points system is a bit too disconnected from the other mechanics.  However, all in all, we have a great start to a great game.  It's easily amongst the best games "at release" in Paradox's history (alongside CK2), and I highly recommend it for any fans of the series.   read


11:21 AM on 03.02.2013

The Roots of Japanese Strategy RPGs

The following piece is neither thorough nor polished. Essentially, over at Brad Hates Games, there was some discussion about the importance of Shining Force for the Japanese strategy RPG genre. I argued that Fire Emblem was more central (outside of the U.S., I mean, where Shining Force was one of the few games in the genre to get released), but I decided to look more into this. What are the roots of strategy RPGs? Why are they called "simulation" RPGs in Japan?

Here's what I've found!

First, if there was any question, I looked into Japanese sales figures for Fire Emblem versus Shining Force. Though I can't find -anything- about the first two Fire Emblem games' sales figures other than vague statements, Famitsu seems to put the third Fire Emblem game, for the Super Famicom, at about 700-750,000 sales in Japan. Shining Force 1-3 all see about 100-200,000 sales each. The clear winner here is Fire Emblem.

However, the truth is more complicated. It turns out that, while Fire Emblem was almost certainly central in the genre's early days, that it probably wasn't the key game for the genre. In order to get beyond simple sales figures, I decided to try to track the roots of influence for "major" games in the genre.

First off, since we're already talking about it, what about Shining Force? Shining Force’s creator Hiroyuki Takahashi seems to have played Fire Emblem but directly rejected it as a major inspiration. He criticized the game's pacing and cites the older real-time strategy game Silver Ghost as a more central influence on the strategy aspects. Perhaps more importantly, for the narrative I develop below, he essentially says that the goal was to clone Dragon Quest but make the battles more fun. On one hand, this seems absurd, as the two games seem to have much in common. In fact, of the first couple generations of strategy RPGs, I'd say Shining Force and Fire Emblem share more in terms of interface and basic setup than most other games in the genre. On the other, Shining Force does have some major differences with its peers. The ability to explore towns, for example, and the world map both set this game apart. In fact, neither option has ever really become standardized in the genre. This may add meaning to his claim to be copying Dragon Quest more than Fire Emblem.

In terms of other series, I've had some trouble tracking influences. I can't really find much for Disgaea or Vandal Hearts, for example. However, I have found some interesting information about Yasumi Matsuno's (creator of Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre/Final Fantasy Tactics) influences. Considering that Tactics Ogre (which is in the Japan's Top 10 Games of All Time according to Famitsu) and Final Fantasy Tactics are perhaps the two most important games in the genre, I think this is particularly notable. For his part, Matsuno also fails to cite Fire Emblem as an inspiration. He cites Master of Monsters, another early strategy with RPG elements. Interestingly enough, Master of Monsters is from SystemSoft, which also made Daisenryaku. For those unaware, Daisenryaku is an early Japanese computer wargame with a close attention to detail. It was central in the early days of Japanese wargaming, and the series still survives to this day. Why is this important? Well, not only did Matsuno directly cite Master of Monsters, which was sort of a fantasy Daisenryaku, as an influence, but Quest, the company he worked at, actually started by porting Daisenryaku to the Famicom. Needless to say, there's a strong connection between SystemSoft's work and Quest's own.

However, Daisenryaku's influence does not end there. It also served as a major.. *ahem* inspiration for one of Nintendo's own titles: Famicom Wars. If you aren't familiar with the series, you're probably familiar with its Game Boy Advance sub-series Advance Wars. Not only is this notable in its own right, but Famicom Wars developer Intelligent Systems (owned by Nintendo) would later take the Famicom Wars structure, add RPG elements and a fantasy setting and make... Fire Emblem.

There's more Daisenryaku's influence. The “10 unit” health standard established by Daisenryaku (and which was also used by Famicom Wars/Advance Wars and Military Madness/Nectaris) was also used by Langrisser, another prominent early simulation-RPG in Japan. This "10 unit" standard I refer to represents games where all units have 10 total hit points. The variance between units takes place in attack and defense values rather than hit points, and each hit point corresponds with a unit-within-a-unit. This means that, if your tank or soldier unit has 9 instead of 10 hit points, they can only inflict 9 damage maximum instead of 10. With this mechanic, the Langrisser games tend to feel closer to Famicom Wars and Military Madness than to the JRPGs of the era. For example, it's the only simulation game with RPG elements to keep this Daisenryaku-sourced 10 unit health standard. Fire Emblem, Master of Monsters, and the Ogre series all took a less standardized approach. This is probably because of Langrisser's use of both generic and non-generic RPG-like units. In any case, the fingerprints of Daisenryaku and the early simulation-RPGs are all over Langrisser, adding to Daisenryaku's importance. Langrisser also utilized the permanent death mechanic pioneered by Fire Emblem but that's neither here nor there.

In a weird way, the breakthrough game for the console fantasy strategy-RPG genre was not a console game, a fantasy, or an RPG. Daisenryaku influenced Famicom Wars and then Fire Emblem; Master of Monsters and then Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics; and almost certainly played a direct or indirect role for Langrisser. From this perspective, I think I finally understand why strategy RPGs are often called “simulation” games in Japan: because they’re directly descended from, essentially, hardcore computer wargames.

For its part, Shining Force comes across, in some ways, as quite a bit different. It’s not really built on Daisenryaku in any but the most indirect way. You can explore towns, you have a world map, there’s more of an emphasis on RPG mechanics and tendencies, and terrain, IIRC, only effects mobility. In almost all of these other games, terrain directly impacts combat capability, which is almost certainly a holdover from the military sim sources of the genre. The only thing that tempers my view on this is that Fire Emblem Gaiden, the second game in the series, also had explorable towns and a world map. Oddly enough, Fire Emblem Gaiden came out the same week as Shining Force! However, that was basically seen as sacrilege among the Fire Emblem faithful, and town exploration has yet to return to Fire Emblem.

If anyone has additional information to add here, such as the influences of the creators of Disgaea or other prominent strategy RPGs/simulation RPGs, feel free to post. I'm particularly interested in direct quotes, although obvious mechanical similarities could be interesting as well. Also, if anyone disagrees with the story above or has more information on these series, please enter the conversation. I haven't exactly done a great or thorough job here, but I think what I've discovered is somewhat interesting.


Companies Discussed Above, Their Relevant Games, and Relevant Release Dates
SystemSoft: Daisenryaku (Genda Daisenryaku: 1985, Famicom Daisenryaku port by Quest: 1988), Master of Monsters (1991)
Enix: Dragon Quest (1986)
Intelligent Systems: Famicom Wars (1988), Fire Emblem (1990), Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992, same week as Shining Force I), Fire Emblem Monshō no Nazo (1994).
Quest: Famicom Daisenryaku port (1988), Ogre Battle (1993), Tactics Ogre (1995). Also, major talent associated with Quest went on to make Final Fantasy Tactics for Square in 1997.
CareerSoft: Langrisser (1991). They were also responsible for the older, related turn-based tactics series Elthlead (Original: 1988). However, that series is fairly different and not as obviously related to any other strategy or simulation series.
Climax Entertainment: Shining Force (1992), co-developed with Camelot Software Planning
Camelot Software Planning: Shining Force (1992, same week as Fire Emblem Gaiden), Shining Force II (1993), Shining Force III (1997)

Timeline
1985


Daisenryaku (Pictures actually of 1986's Daisenryaku 88)
1986
Dragon Quest
1988


Famicom Wars
Famicom Daisenryaku port
1990


Fire Emblem
1991


Langrisser
1992


Shining Force I
Fire Emblem Gaiden
1993
Shining Force II
Ogre Battle
1994
Fire Emblem Monshō no Nazo
1995

Tactics Ogre
1997
Final Fantasy Tactics
Shining Force III

All pictures from MobyGames.   read


9:27 AM on 07.10.2012

Final Rankasy 4, The Mainline Final Fantasy Ranking Continues, With Second Place

There's been a long road up until this point. We've covered the brokenness of Final Fantasy 2 (11th place). We've covered the problems that held FF8 and FF12 back (9th place). We have discussed the original Final Fantasy and its role in JRPG history (8th place). In the last two articles, we broke down the "solid core" of the FF series, with FF3 and FF9 tied for 6th place, and FF5 and FF10 tied for 4th place.

Here we are folks. I am about to reveal the two games tied for 2nd place. In addition, if you are remotely capable, you will be able to figure out the best FF ever as well. Of course, that will be discussed in its own entry, but this is it folks. FINAL RANKASY 2012: THE TOP THREE REVEALED!!!

So what's second place? What's getting held back for best of the series?

FIND OUT IN
FINAL RANKASY 2012, PART 4

Tier 2, Review Score: 9.5
Final Fantasy 4 and 7

Final Fantasy 4 (SNES), 1991

In previous articles, I discussed how FF3 and FF5 chose "gameplay" in the eternal struggle between gameplay and narrative. FF4, however, chose narrative. Fo realz.

Sure, for today's jaded, spoiled gamers (when I was your age...), FF4's story may not seem particularly awesome or well done. The presentation capabilities of the era were constrained (understatement of the year), and the story may seem sort of.. commonplace. In a lot of ways, FF4's story is a generic JRPG story as of 2012.

However, let me take you back over TWENTY YEARS to 1991. Now, all of a sudden, FF4 doesn't seem commonplace. It seems -revolutionary-. Literally, JRPGs just -did- -not- -have- -good- -stories- back then. They didn't even really try! In the Final Fantasy series, FF2 is the only game that gave a half hearted effort. Yeah, that's right. FF2. You might remember it as ranking dead last on this very list. Yeah, like I said, the stories just weren't very good. In fact, the only JRPG I can even think of with a half decent story at this point was probably Phantasy Star II for the Genesis.

In comes FF4, and, boom, we're talking just a different set of expectations. The characters had story arcs, in which they developed, changed, and became different characters. They also had backgrounds, motives, families, friends, hometowns, histories, relationships, and jealousies. Many characters we got to see redeemed, but, in the process, many others were lost. There were so many touching moments in this game, that it's hard to even talk about them competently. SPOILERS: there's when Cecil rids himself of his dark powers.. or or when Cid bombs himself to close the entrance to the underworld.. or or when Kain redeems himself.. or or SPOONY BARD /spoilers

Seriously. Good stuff. Great characters. Awesome.

Like all FF's before FF6, the story basically boiled down to "collect crystal, kill bad guy." However, it was the particulars of the story that really set it side from the competition. It was the development and time given to a (rather large and colorful) cast of characters, in which almost everyone had some time to shine. The game had some great twists, and you visited some utterly fantastic locations. Hell, from the word go, the cinematic approach with the opening scene.. phenomenal. This game knew how to sell itself, and it did a bang up job.

Up until FF6, FF4 easily has the best story and presentation in the series, and it's still a contender.. all these years later.

Outside of the narrative, the game still has a lot of great strengths. The dungeons are all made very well, and the battles are interesting. FF4 saw the introduction of the LEGENDARY Active Time Battle (ATB) system where turns were given a "real-time-esque" flavor, with the loading bars. It added a lot to the battles in the series, and it was used through FF10. I also like that you have relatively large parties, and I think the summoning system and the magic systems worked quite well. Also, most of the different classes had special abilities, which added a fun element to the battle system.

So, if it's so great, why not number 1?
Well, despite all of its strengths in terms of narrative and presentation, FF4 ain't perfect. More than anything else, I think its progression system just pales in comparison with its immediate predecessor (FF3) and successor (FF5). In those games, you had the HOLY AWESOME job system, while in FF4.. well.. you level. And you occasionally can do more things. That's pretty much the progression system. There's really no party member customization here. In fact, in the original release, you couldn't even really pick -who- would be in your party. You were basically straightjacketed into doing things pretty much how the developers anticipated. I believe the re-releases (starting with the GBA version) have added some ability to select party members for the end-game, but I haven't played them.


All in all, FF4 is a phenomenal game. It revolutionized JRPG narrative; introduced the ATB system; had large parties of classes with unique abilities; had fun dungeons, solid town exploration, and interesting areas; and it had a large and fun cast of characters. However, the lack of an interesting progression system or any real form of party customization definitely hit FF4 in the stomach.

Still, to be fair, that's not the real reason FF4 isn't number one. The real reason is because the actual #1 game is just too God Damn great. FF4 is awesome. If you haven't played it.. go play it. Right now. I'll wait here.


Final Fantasy 7 (PSX), 1997

Let me get this out of the way immediately: Final Fantasy 7 is overrated.

There. I said it. FF7 is an overrated game. It is routinely discussed as the the best JRPG of all time or the best FF game of all time or the best PSX game. Because of its popularity, FF7 is basically its own brand. There's a movie, a shooter game, a prequel action RPG, a cell phone prequel and much, much more. There are people out there who probably think FF7 is Final Fantasy and vice versa.

However, FF7's overrated status has lead to a large reaction. Now, on gaming forums and blogs, "informed" gamers regularly crap on FF7. Ridiculous statements like "FF7 is teh worst evar" have become almost routine. Your view of FF7 is essentially a signal for whether or not you "actually" know JRPGs. Whether or not you actually have taste.

So.. to summarize: Final Fantasy 7 is simultaneously overrated (by the mass public) and underrated (by so-called hardcore gamers).

So why does it deserve second place?
I think there are four elements of FF7 that make it worthy of this high placement: Narrative presentation, large world, solid story, and solid gameplay mechanics.

1. Revolution in narrative presentation
Remember how I was just saying that FF4 revolutionized the JRPG story and narrative? Yeah, take that and multiply it by about 10 billion billion. Seriously, if FF4 kicked it up to 11, FF7 kicked it up to 11,000. Square took the PSX by the balls and made it its bitch. Hell, let me correct myself. It didn't just revolutionize JRPG narrative/story. It revolutionized video game narrative/story. Can you even think of a game that impressed you with its presentation before FF7? Sure, games like Ninja Gaiden for the NES were impressive, but FF7 went much further. It wasn't just cool for you to watch. It was the kind of thing where you want to show people who don't even play video games. "Look at this crazy ass shit!"

I'm sure that the TENS of THOUSANDS of people who will eventually read this are sitting there and stewing. "CINEMA?" they scream. "IN MY VIDEOGAEMZ?!! THE THOUGHT!" However, I want to clarify that FF7 was the first game to do this. This is years before games ruined FMV by overusing it and only using it for the most idiotic, common denominator action scenes imaginable. When FF7 came out, there weren't any video gamers sticking their nose up at it as they might now. It's sort of like how the Matrix had awesome special effects but then copy-cat (and the God awful sequels) ruined everything the Matrix did. Try to remember a time before crap like this (http://youtu.be/SGXYaKA9rjI?t=9m15s). That first time you saw those FF7 FMVs as a young one, you were impressed. Don't even lie to me.

And, you know what, FF7 didn't just introduce these narrative elements. They used them. Well. I don't care who you are, the cutscenes in FF7 sold the story for me. I'll discuss the story itself a little further on, but damn. Just... damn. Remember when Sephiroth burned-- or when he stabbed--- or when Meteor-- or like when Cid had the spaceship---Oh man.
I think I'm overloaded on crazy FF7 memories.

Seriously. In terms of narrative presentation, FF7 changed the whole ball-game. Sadly, FF still hasn't used the cinematic approach as well as it was used in FF7. In FF7, its use was still almost minimalistic. It wasn't used to tell the story. It was used to enhance the story, especially in certain parts. There also wasn't this crappy fanaticism about voice actors that plagues modern RPGs. FF7 is probably the best game in the series when it comes to presentation. I'm also going to just state that the music is awesome, the art work is awesome, and the world.. well...

2. Large world
Jesus Christ this game is FUCKING HUGE. Remember the first time you went to the Golden Saucer? Hell, remember the first time you left Midgar and realized there was a world map? Remember breeding gold chocobos and playing defend the base real-time strategy games? Remember how Yuffie and her whole Japan-esque town is optional? Seriously. This game is huge.

However, unlike, say, FF12, the world is also -oozing- with character. The location artwork is top notch, with almost every location just looking -good-. Each town also has its own feeling and character. Beach resorts, electric playgrounds, mining towns, quite villages, industrial mega-hubs, desert valleys, military bases, etc. etc. etc. This game has it all.

3. Solid story
FF7 has a variant of the "asshole tries to destroy world, so you stop him" story, but it's done better than most of the other games in the series. I think what really sets FF7 apart is the personal relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth. Other games have shades of this, but it's never made such an important part of the story. It's central to Cloud's character, and it also tells you a lot about Sephiroth, who he is, and why he does what he does. In fact, Sephiroth is almost certainly the most well developed primary villain in a Final Fantasy game.
Also, FF7 has "that moment." You know. That one.
This wasn't my first death in a JRPG. Not by a long-shot. My personal first as in Phantasy Star IV, followed, IIRC, by Phantasy Star II. However, as impressive as those are (especially PSIV, everyone needs to play that damn game), FF7 just blows them out of the water. The character development; the cinematography; the music; the character interaction; and the story all come together to leave you really feeling it. I think "her" death still might rank number 1 for me. Honestly, it's that well done, and, in 1997, it truly blew the competition out of the water.

Overall, FF7 has a solid story with interesting, well developed characters; lots of twists; and a satisfying ending. Really, what more can I ask?

4. Solid gameplay
FF7 lacks the jobs system.. unfortunately. However, it's materia system allows for quite a bit of experimentation and customization. My only problem with it, really, is that material availability is scarce early, which encourages a "jack of all trades"-type approach to how you build your party. I also wish the party members had a bit more in terms of built-in natural battle tendencies to set them apart. Besides some differences in stats and the different limit breaks, the different characters are largely blank tablets. This is good, but I think we could've had it all with the materia system. Unlike the jobs system, I'm not sure the materia system really stands on its own.

Still, the battles are fun; there's tons to do; the end-game is great; the dungeons are interesting; and.. well.. the gameplay is just solid all around. Good job guys.


Still, as I said above, the game is overrated. Why do I think so?
1. Small cast of characters, only a few are developed
Honestly, do you really give a shit about anyone besides, say, Cloud, Aeris, and Tifa? Vincent has some interesting back story elements, but, for the most part, he's not a part of the story. After all, he's optional. Ditto with Yuffie. Cid is a good character, but I don't know that I really cared about him after his inital story arc (which was, admittedly, quite fun). Ditto with Barrett and Red XIII. Cait Sith was almost more comic relief than character. And.. well... that's that. That's the entire list of characters. Compared with FF4 or, even more crazily, FF6, this just seems anemic. This is probably my biggest problem with this game.

2. Three characters fight at a time
Seriously, only three? Big disappointment after the SNES games.

3. Materia system is fine but doesn't entirely stand on its own
I pretty much covered this above, but, yeah. This.

4. Cloud's story seems needlessly crazy at times
Seriously, does anyone even understand what happened to him early in Disc 3?

These might seem like nitpicks, and, to some extent, they are. Otherwise, FF7 wouldn't be getting second place. However, overall, FF7 doesn't quite hit the sweet spot when it comes to either character development (outside of the main trio, of course) or gameplay. That's what holds it back from being number 1.

Well.. that and FINAL FANTASY 6 IS @#%$ING AWESOME



FINAL RANKASY PART 4, FINAL THOUGHTS
So, yeah, there you go. FF4 and FF7 are tied for second, and, next time, I'll talk about why FF6 is the best in the damn series.

I don't have a lot of final thoughts to add this time. I think I've largely covered my feelings in this insanity above. One thing I'll address here is a simple question: why are FF4 and FF7 tied? Simply put, I think both were revolutionary upon release and both have aged well. FF7 was basically the FF4 of 1997, and FF4 was basically the FF7 of 1991. They were both narrative focused games with less focus on gameplay. FF7 has maybe aged better, but it was also released significantly later. 6 years may not seem like a lot these days, but that was essentially an eternity in terms of mid-90's game design. Keep in mind, we went from Super Mario Brothers to Mario 64 in 11 years. I don't think FF4 should be needlessly punished for being released when it was released, nor do I think FF7 should get bonus points for being the first FF released on the PSX. I think FF7 deserves credit for what it did to narrative, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't deserve points purely for being released on a technically superior platform.

I also think that, despite the weaker progression system, FF4 actually plays better than FF7. It has a tight, fast, minimalist quality combined with large party management and more difficult gameplay, especially if you play a version other than the Easytype release the U.S. initially received. FF7 has the advantage when it comes to narrative presentation, world size, and minigames/side-quests, but, otherwise, I think FF4 plays a bit better. I also think that FF4 has a larger, more varied, and more interesting cast of characters, although the central drama in FF7 is rather significantly better than the central drama of FF4.

So there you go. Maybe that will sell you. Maybe not. But that's my viewpoint.   read


10:05 AM on 07.07.2012

Final Rankasy 3: Electric Bugalee

I ran out of silly titles for this series. Whatcha gonna do, y'know?

So, to recap, I am ranking the Final Fantasy mainline games, except for side-games, 11, 14, and, for no good reason at all, 13.

Up until now, the rankings have been as such:
FF2 (11th place, 7th tier)
FF8 and FF12 (tied for 9th place, 6th tier)
FF1 (8th place, 5th tier)
FF3 and FF9 (6th place, 4th tier)

Let's see what comes next!


FINAL RANKASY 2012, PART 3

Tier 3, Review Score: 9.00
Final Fantasy 5 and 10
Editorial note: As noted last time, I consider Tiers 3 and 4 to be closer together than most of these tiers. That's why there is less differentiation in the review score. /editorialnote


Final Fantasy 5 (SNES), 1992

Having already talked about Final Fantasy 3, I think I'll find talking about Final Fantasy 5 a lot easier. Honestly, just re-read that whole commentary, upgrade the good parts, downgrade the bad, and boom. You have Final Fantasy 5.

You probably want more than though, eh? Alright. Let's get going!

So what's good about it?
Like FF3 before it, FF5 stands solidly on the side of gameplay vs. narrative. FF5 takes FF3's great job system and.. well.. improves it. More jobs, more interesting jobs, better switching mechanics, etc. etc. Honestly, it's a really cool system. As with FF1, there are entire websites devoted to playing this game with different classes and combinations of classes. It's still nowhere near, say, Final Fantasy Tactics (which, IMO, has the greatest variant of the jobs system), but it's one of the best progression systems in a mainline title. So there. It has that going for it.

Beyond the progression system, everything just feels right in FF5. Towns are fun to explore and filled with little secrets and treasures. Although the combat system itself is the same as in FF4, the fights are well-designed, balanced, and polished. Even with all the possible variety in terms of class combinations, the game never gets too hard or too easy. The dungeons are a good length, and the settings and places have character. You feel like you know what the developers were trying to do with each section, and they generally pulled it off. The game is largely linear, but there are a few secret things to do off the beaten path. Overall, the basic gameplay is simply all there. Anything I'd say on this topic would just be variations of this basic idea.

Also, in comparison to FF3, the story has gotten a bit of an upgrade. There are preset characters now, and, well, they actually have character! They also interact and banter in funny-yet-endearing ways, and there are even a few 'heavier' moments when it comes to the storyline. Also, spoilers, the world you're exploring changes a couple times. Like some of the other games on this list, that adds a lot of exploration to an already fun game.

So what's bad?
Well, the story and characters are better than FF3, sure. However, in comparison to its immediate predecessor (FF4) and successor (FF6), well.. FF5's story just doesn't compete. It's a -fine- story, but FF4 and FF6 are just phenomenal narrative achievements by comparison. It's sad to see that Square didn't really try with FF5. FF5's story and character development are more typical of the NES era of FF games than the SNES era.

There's not a lot more to say than this. The villain isn't interesting; there aren't any major plot twists (other than the shifts in the world, as noted above); and the "heavier moments" don't really pack much of a punch.

If you play JRPGs for the combat mechanics, progression elements, and exploration, go play FF5. Immediately. It's one of the best in the series in terms of pure gameplay. However, if the narrative is what compels you to make progress in a JRPG, FF5 might not be for you. Overall, it's a great game, and I wouldn't put it so highly on this list if I didn't recommend it. However, it's definitely holding the bac flank of the SNES-era.



Final Fantasy 10 (PS2), 2001


While people will be angry at me for listing FF8, FF9, and FF12 too low, I'm guessing I'll catch flak for listing this one too high. And, you know what? I understand. I understand all the hatred and criticism for this game. Hell, I've watched the entire (massive!) Spoony Experiment review and laughed my ass of. So much truth there....

Still, despite all its weaknesses, IMO, FF10 is a great game. It's just a great game with a lot of flaws.

Let's break tradition and discuss flaws first.
So what's bad about it?
Simply put, the GOD DAMN CHARACTERS. Don't get me wrong, there are still some good characters here. Yuna is actually relatively likeable. Auron is a silent badass. And.. umm.. okay I think that about does it. Tidus is borderline insufferable. His hair, his style, his voice, his personality, etc. etc., I dare say that I hate Tidus more than Squall. Tidus isn't the asshole Squall was, but, Christ almighty mad, just chill out for a bit. Wash those blonde highlights out of your hair and put on some proper clothes!

Sorry, I'm getting sidetracked. But, yeah, the dialogue and voice acting for these characters ranges from "meh" to "AHHHHH" and goes nowhere near "Yay!" Considering the amount of time you'll spend in this game just watching the characters banter, well, that's a big negative.

There are other issues as well. Although it doesn't suffer from the destructivitis of FF9 when it comes to towns, there still aren't a lot of towns to explore. The game makes up for this a bit by, essentially, removing the world map. As a result, lots of places feel -sorta- like a town, and the world feels bigger than usual. Still, I'm a big fan of having lots of towns to explore and learn about. I keep hoping this will become the norm again in the FF series, but, with 13 apparently jettisoning towns entirely, I guess I should keep my expectations low.

The game also suffers from Hardcore-completionitis, which is a disease most clearly contracted by Kingdom Hearts 2. It basically involves you do LOTS and LOTS of INSANE BULLSHIT in order to get anywhere near a complete game. Let me give you an example. In order to get everyone's ultimate weapons, you have to go way above and beyond the call of gaming. For Lulu's, you get to dodge lightning.

That might not seem so bad if you haven't played FF10. Let me be clear here: THIS WILL RUIN YOUR DAY IF YOU ATTEMPT IT. Basically, it's a rhythm game, only the rhythm makes no damn sense. I must've spent 3 or 4 hours just to get this one item, and that doesn't count the item you need to make the event feasible. If you don't earn the ability to avoid random encounters (which, itself, is very time consuming to earn), you also get attacked while trying to play the lightning rhythm game. Seriously, this is a gigantic exercise in frustration.

I'm sure I don't even need to remind you people of Blitzball. Although I actually enjoyed the game, you have to play this thing FOREVER in order to earn all of the rewards. Seriously, you're going to be spending almost as much time on Blitzball alone as you spend in the Golden Saucer in FF7. It's pretty ridiculous.

So yeah, the writing is ridiculous, the characters are obnoxious, and, in order to get the best items, you basically have to be a masochist.

So what's good about it?
I don't fucking care. Everything else.

The story, despite the shit characters, is actually.. well.. good. It's a variation on the classic "Evil thing wants to destroy world" trope, but it's one of the better variants on this in the series. Even while hating Tidus, I got a little emotional during parts of the end, and, God dammit, I liked some of the plot twists. It certainly helps that Yuna is still likeable, even if damn near nobody else is.

Also, the combat system just works well. I'm finding it difficult to talk about why I liked the gameplay in some FFs more than others. Some just draw you in, make you a cup of tea, and play with your balls while you're enjoying yourself. FF10, IMO, is one of these games. The combat is just smooth; the battles are balanced and make sense; you can quickly swap out characters for different tactics and strategies; and I really enjoy the summoning system in FF10. It's basically the last game in the series to have the FF4-originated Active Battle System, but it's an appropriate sendoff. It definitely makes use of the battle system.

I also like the progression system. Although I'm INSANELY JEALOUS of those who can play the International Version, what with its more open-ended progression system (I also gather that FF12's Int'l Release has a better progression system, which I'd be curious to try), I still think the original system works well. It gives you the option to take characters down the "roads less traveled," while also letting you treat the progression system as essentially a preset class system. I also thought the interface was fun and enjoyed unlocking new bonuses (DON'T JUDGE ME). I think more options would've been better, as this could've been an actual competitor to Thee Holy Jobs System otherwise, but, as is, it definitely worked well.

Also, despite all my anger above, I really enjoy a lot of the minigames and such. I had a lot of fun with Blitzball (essentially, a turn-based, RPG sports game), and I enjoyed all the new options FF10 gave you once the world opened up towards the end.

To summarize, FF10 has shit characters, some insane completionist objectives, and doesn't have as much town exploration as I'd like. However, it has a good story, solid gameplay, lots and lots of content, and a good progression system. If you haven't played it, you should give it a shot sometime.



FINAL RANKASY PART 3, FINAL THOUGHTS
These are both great games. FF5 is short on story, but high on gameplay. In terms of gameplay-centric SNES-era RPG's, FF5 deserves a spot near the top. However, its narrative deficiencies keep it from competing with the final three games (FF4, FF6, and FF7).
FF10 has crap characters and a few weird design choices, but the gameplay is solid and the story is good. If FF10 didn't have voice acting, it might actually be ranked higher. The annoying characters make a great game much harder to enjoy. You really need to just bite your land and deal with the obnoxious character dialogue because the rest of the game is great. Still, the top three games have great stories, great characters, and great gameplay. That's why FF10 is tied for 4th.

**BONUS ROUND: FFX-2**
FFX-2 should've been good. They took a great game, got rid of its most annoying character, and added the God Damn Thee Holy Job System!!! But nooooo! Square had to up the annoying character dial to 11; replace the good story with a terrible, largely unconnected and unfeasible story; and shove shitty J-pop down our throats.
However, even worse than all of that, they took the insane Completionitis bullshit from FF10 and made it into a way of life. I got 5 hours into this game, then realized I didn't talk to a moogle in the first area. Guess what? Goodbye 100%! Goodbye good ending!

And goodbye FFX-2 because that was the last time I played that disappointing piece of crap. So much potential.. wrapped in a turd burrito.   read


6:37 PM on 07.06.2012

Final Rankasy 2: The Ranking Continues (8th-6th place)

Welcome to the second installment of Final Rankasy, which ranks the top 11 best Final Fantasy games (not counting 11, 13, or 14 or any side games) ever made!

Last time, we covered Final Fantasy 2 at 11th place (by itself in the seventh tier). We also covered Final Fantasy 8 and 12, which were tied at 9th place (forming tier 6 of the FF series). This time we'll be looking at the three games that make up tiers 4 and 5.

FINAL RANKASY 2012, PART 2

Tier 5, Review Score: 8.5
Final Fantasy (NES), 1987 (though not until 1990 in the U.S.)


Let me start by saying that Final Fantasy 1 is easily the hardest to rank in the series. Its ranking is almost entirely dependent on how you weigh impact on release vs. current playability. For my part, I've done my part to balance the two, and, well, this ranking is the result.

So what's good about Final Fantasy 1?
Honestly, there's a lot here that is just great regardless of era. The music in this game is phenomenal. It's not surprising that its theme is still a big part of the franchise even all these years later. The graphics, for the time, were quite good. Don't believe me? Play Dragon Quest. Come talk to me after.

Hell, "play Dragon Quest" should be the slogan of FF1. Don't like the interface? Play Dragon Quest 1. Then tell me how much better FF's interface is. Graphics? Check. Story? Check. In terms of basics, FF1 outclassed the premium franchise of the genre. Sure, DQ2 introduced multiple characters, but FF1 had multiple, customizable characters. DQ3 would have a similar feature when it was released a few months later, but, still, this was impressive.

I remember, as a kid, being really impressed with FF1. It was my first RPG, and I become mildly obsessed with it. However, as time wore on, I remember getting the impression that FF1 wasn't all great. In Japan, it was basically a typical DQ-clone; it didn't bring a lot new to the genre; etc. etc.

Lately, I've come back to my initial view on FF1. Dr. Sparkle, over at the gaming blog Chrontendo, is playing through every famicom/NES game ever released. Watching his series, I've come to realize that most other JRPGs were dreadfully terrible, and that FF brought elements to the table that I never even thought about. For example, elemental attributes were a bigger element in FF1 than in any game before it. If you think about it, that was essentially the basis of the game and, until FF6, the entire franchise. It was all about those elements, baby.

On release, FF1 had great graphics, great music, a decent (though goofy) story, new mechanics, more polished and interesting battles, and a customizable party system. It was big news.

As for current playability, FF1 still has a lot of strengths. The game's old school difficulty almost feels like a different genre in comparison to its descendants. Going into a cave, daring to look for treasure, and making it back to town? Does that sound like a short leisurely activity, or a long, arduous trek filled with death and the possibility of failure? You really need to prepare for dungeon trips in FF1, especially in the first third of the game. You need to get the best equipment, the best spells, and a solid stock of items in order to make it home again.

However, FF1, for all the talk, is not that hard. After you get the airship and your class changes, the game isn't really that difficult at all. Through most of the latter parts of the game, you can deal with ghosts and poison easily, which are the real threats in the early game. Also, cabins and houses become more readily available, along with modes of transportation. This makes traveling relatively easy once you get a bit into the game.

The combat system, because of the smart little changes here and there to JRPG standards, is still fun to use. You need to plan appropriately to make the most of your force. Classes feel and play differently, and there's entire websites dedicated to different combinations of classes. The graphics aren't great anymore, but, unlike say DQ1, the graphics aren't terrible. You'll always know what the graphics are trying to convey, and, occasionally, you'll see a spark of that latter day FF spirit.

So what's not-so-good about it?
On release, as mentioned above, the game was solid and well polished. However, despite some real additions to combat and class/party customization, the game wasn't terribly innovative. It stands quite close to its Dragon Quest forbears. If it was as genre defining as DQ, this game would undoubtedly be higher on this list.

For current playability, FF1 is probably going to be hard to digest for a lot of folks raised on later systems. It's a fun game, and I do think the higher difficulty levels (especially early on) give the game its own taste. However, it's probably going to seem old and worn in pretty much every regard for modern gamers. Except for FF2, the failed experiment, every other game in the series expands on and improves upon the basic ideas shown in this first installment.

So, overall, I think FF1 is a very good game. However, it hasn't survived the test of time as well as, say, Final Fantasy 3 and 4, and it wasn't nearly as innovative or ground-break as Dragon Quest 1 and 2. That leaves it as the lone entry in the "solid" tier 5 of Final Fantasy games.




Tier 4, Review Score: 8.75
Final Fantasy 3 and 9
Editorial note: I nearly combined Tiers 4 and 3 into one "mega-tier" of 4th place games. However, I thought that would've been a total sell-out, and I final decided on an even split. However, that's why the "review score" changes are minor between Tiers 4 and 3, and, honestly, I do not consider these games to be "much worse" than those games. This is the split I decided on, and I think its right. However, I wouldn't lay my life on the line for it.. while I may do so for Tiers 1 and 2 (>:-)).


Final Fantasy 3 (NES), 1990


Let me start by saying that I have not played the DS version or its re-releases. I'm not against that version or anything. I just haven't had the chance to try it yet. This review covers the original NES release only.

In the war between "narrative" and "gameplay," Final Fantasy 3 stood solid, along with FF5, on the side of gameplay. I think if you understand that you have all of its weaknesses and strengths wrapped up in a nutshell.

On the good side, this game is fun. It has the first iteration of the AWESOMESAUCE job system. Oh yeah, that's right. That awesome system that made FFT totally great?! And the one that turned FF5 from meh to yeh?! Yeah, it started here, and it's glorious. Sure, it's not nearly as polished as later iterations. For the most part, you can't really keep much after job switches. I guess the idea is more that your members are capable of switching between classes when needed rather than keeping abilities and creating mixes of classes. Still, it's a definite step forward for the franchise.

Also, there is an intangible element about the gameplay that just works in FF3. The battles are, all in all, fun; the dungeons are well-designed; and the job system works well. This is a well designed game, through and through. The graphics are also good, as they look almost like a hybrid of FF1 and FF4. You can even see the graphical forbears of FF4's NPC's in some of the sprites. The game world is also relatively large with a lot going on. Honestly, for an 8-bit RPG, the gameplsy is exemplary.

On the downside, the game's story is.. well.. it's there I guess. There is technically a story. In general, the story is comparable in quality to FF1, with just a little bit off substance added around the edges. For a game released two years later (after Phantasy Star 2!), it's a little underwhelming. Also, as in FF1, the four main characters are blanks. It's not until FF4 that we see FF really take story and character seriously.

In terms of current playability, the focus on gameplay, IMO, makes FF3 easier to recommend. RPG stories tend not to age well, especially when you're talking about something on an 8-bit console, but solid gameplay is ageless. If you're willing to look past a bit of retro difficulty and the blank story, FF3 is definitely a solid installment in the series. If you like this general idea, but you want something a bit further on with some more polish.. play FF5.


Final Fantasy 9 (PSX), 2000

This is the other ranking that will, no doubt, earn me entry into the halls of Dtoid infamy. FF9 seems to be a leading candidate for "best of the series," and, honestly, I can see why. It's a conscious attempt to give a "throwback" to the retro days, with a medieval-ish-with-maybe-some-steampunk setting, crystals, black mages, and all that good stuff. It's also much better than its immediate predecessor and is one of the three best Final Fantasy games made after the SNES era. Impressive.

So what's good about FF9?
Honestly, FF9 is generally pretty solid. The graphics are good; for the most part, the artwork is enticing; the story is decent; the characters actually have a bit of -character- to them; and they haven't done anything FF2/FF8/FF12-style that completely ruins a core element of the game. I also generally like the item-based progression system. It gives off an almost Esper-y vibe. The class system is generally well-implemented. Like, say, FF4, each character has a base class that dictates their capabilities and approach to battle. I also like the return to four-person parties, and I think the Active Time Events were generally well-designed and well-implemented.

So what's bad about FF9?
It may be hard to put into words, but FF9 doesn't seem to be spectacular in any one way. It's a well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades sort of FF game, with a bit of everything but no specialties. The Red Mage of FF's, if you will.

The art work is good, and I like the return to the retro medieval epic setting. However, the character artwork is.. well.. off-putting. I'm sure this is one of the central disagreements I have with this installment's fanbase: I really don't like the character artwork. It may sound strange, but this is definitely an element of the game that kept me from being drawn into the story and the characters. It just all seemed so silly.

Some argue that, like the crystals and the medieval/steampunkish theme, this is a return to the retro sensibilities of the earlier entries in the franchise. However, I just have to disagree here. The early games had seemingly "super-deformed-esque" graphics because of the limitations of sprites and the way artwork was implemented. The actual character artwork wasn't silly at all. In fact, it was downright pretentious.

Here, let me give you some side-by-sides.

Here's the official artwork for Locke (from FF6) and Zidane (from FF9):





Here's the artwork for Kain (from FF4) and Steiner (from FF9):




Keep in mind, I'm picking the less ridiculous characters from FF9 here.

Just a few others:






Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing objectively bad about this art style or approach. I'm sure there are plenty of people who love it, and which think its add a bit of unique charm to FF9. However, nothing about the artwork recalls earlier days of FF, and, personally, I find it more off-putting than charming.

The graphics are technically excellent, and a lot of the environments and settings are stunning. It puts, for example, FF12's comparatively bland world to shame. I just find that the approach to the characters makes the game hard to take seriously.

However, the game never goes full on into silly or parody mode. The game isn't especially funny. The characters do have character, but they aren't my favorite FF characters by some margin. The central story is actually somewhat dark, especially as you get later into the game (more on this below). As a result, it seems like there are just some bits of silliness there, by themselves, isolated from any sort of connection to gameplay or narrative approach. I just don't understand it.

The story is decent in this game, but there is nothing in particular that stands out about it. There aren't any "HOLY SHIT" moments I could write a Memory Card about. Vivi is a character with an interesting backstory, but, again, the whole approach tends to take me out of the game. I never became emotionally connected to the world, the characters, or what was happening. The ending didn't impress me, and the final boss seemed to come out of nowhere. It's not a bad story, but it's not a game that can sell itself on story alone.

As for gameplay, well, it's basically in the same situation. The FF4-originated battle system is still there in all its glory, but FF9 is not a game that pushes it to its limit. This isn't, for example, like FF3 or FF5, where gameplay drives the game. The battles work, but I don't remember being particularly enthralled. Item-based progression is interesting, but it's somewhat lackluster on its own. The constraints of the FF4-style class system hold the game back from doing anything really interesting with character customization (FF4 has the same problem), so all you can really do is pick your party members and give them interesting abilities through items. All in all, the game plays fine, but it's not a game that clearly focused on gameplay. In the battle between story and gameplay (where FF3 stood solid with gameplay), FF9 is on the sidelines, yawning and staring at its watch.

One final issue I want to discuss is the towns in FF9. This will have spoilers, so be careful moving forward.[i].
Simply stated, I was underwhelmed with the number, size and explorability (yes, I made up a new word) of the towns in FF9. From the word go, there aren't too many settlements in this game to even explore, and the few that are available don't seem as fully realized as some of the towns in earlier installments. However, more problematically, most of the damn towns are destroyed as the game goes on. By the end of the game, you have barely any places to visit or explore. I mean, think of FF6 as a comparison point. NPC dialogue in towns often changed to match larger story shifts; there were loads of towns, filled with secrets, backstory, and atmosphere; and, halfway through, the towns all got significant.. redesigns. Awesome stuff. Seriously.
Exploring towns was always a major part of my love affair with these games. It was unfortunate that FF9 didn't really concentrate on delivering on that front.

Overall, FF9 isn't a bad game. In fact, none of the central elements that constitute the game are bad. It's just not a great game. The character artwork is a little off, especially in comparison to the tone and approach of the story over all. The battle and progression systems work, but there is nothing exemplary or innovative about the systems either. The settings look great, but there isn't a lot to explore in terms of towns, especially a little later in the game. It's a solid effort, which earns it a tie for 6th place in the FF series.


FINAL RANKASY PART 2, FINAL THOUGHTS
Again, I basically talked about these games in isolation, so I wanted to say a little bit about this set of rankings in general.

These two tiers, along with tier 3, make up the "solid core' of the FF series. If it wasn't for these games, we might talk about a few entries here and there, but the FF series just wouldn't be the same. Part of what's so impressive about Final Fantasy is the general level of quality that they've maintained for so long. These three games are solid examples of JRPGs of their eras, and they're all recommended even today.

Still, there are things that keep all of these games from excelling. FF1 would be hard for relative newcomers to enjoy. FF3 is fun, but the story is nearly non-existent. FF9 is solid overall, but it doesn't excel in any one area either. Also, strange character design choices and a lack of emphasis on town exploration take a bit of the wind out of FF9's sails.

Regardless, these are all very good games. If you haven't played these and you love JRPGs, you should play them immediately! Well.. unless you have played any of the remaining FF games. Otherwise, you should play those instead.

To sum up the rankings fo far:
11th place: Final Fantasy 2 (tier 7)
Tied for 9th: Final Fantasy 8 and Final Fantasy 12 (tier 6)
8th place: Final Fantasy 1 (tier 5)
Tied for 6th: Final Fantasy 3 and Final Fantasy 9 (tier 4)

To be ranked: Final Fantasy 4, Final Fantasy 5, Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy 10   read


11:17 AM on 07.06.2012

Final Rankasy: Ranking the Mainline Final Fantasy Games, Part 1

I'm here to engage in a pretty standard practice: ranking the mainline Final Fantasy series. Although I've been considering this for a while now, Stealth's ranking of the side story games finally gave me the inspiration to get this started. Sure, it's hardly insane or new to rank these bad boys, but I don't often see attempts to rank the -whole- series. Usually, I see arguments over the best entry or the top 5 or something. I'm going to try to talk about the whole mainline series.

However, there are exceptions here as well. I will not be including FF11 or FF14 on this list, as they are MMORPGs. I basically consider them numbered side-games, as the FF series is all about the single-player. I don't include any side games, including spin-offs (numbered or otherwise) to FF4, FF7, FF10, FF12, or FF13. I also don't include 13 because I haven't played it. Chances are, it wouldn't do well, but it doesn't really matter. Consider this an up-to-date list as of 2009 if it makes you feel better about FF13's placement.

Now, before I get started, here is my basic approach. When ranking these games, I consider two factors:
1. Is this game still good/entertaining/interesting?
2. Was it good/entertaining/ground-breaking/innovative at release?
Obviously, the distance between these factors shrinks as you get further into the series. With FF1, retro factors will be more important than, say, FF12. However, I will still consider -current- playability/etc. even with the older games. Don't worry, this will not be a "back-loaded" ranking system.

In general, I've separated games into 7 tiers of quality. Why? Because I there were a fair number of ties, and, given how difficult it is to rank different games or different eras on the same list, I decided not to break those ties. Each tier comes with its own "review score" to give an idea of how I feel about the game. Too often, we tear down games we feel indifferent about in order to build up our favorites. The idea behind this review score is to give some sense for the actual quality of a product, outside of the FF context. In other words, I want to demonstrate that most of these games are -good- even if there are better entries in the series. Finally, without further ado...

FINAL RANKASY 2012, PART 1

Tier 7, Review Score: 7.5
Final Fantasy 2 (NES), 1988


As you can see by the review score, I do not think FF2 is a "bad" game. In a lot of ways, FF2 was a revolutionary entry into the series. It was the first in the series with preset characters, and it was the only one in the series to have preset characters until Final Fantasy 4 for the SNES. It also introduced an interesting conversation mechanic. When you talk to NPCs, you can "remember" important/key words, and use those words with other NPCs at important moments in order to move conversations forward. You also have a rotating fourth slot for temporary characters, which gives you more variety in terms of gameplay and a wider cast of characters to interact with and learn about. This all goes with the strongest story pre-FF4, as Square reaches into its "high drama" bag for the first time. Overall, FF2 is the best NES FF when it comes to story, character, and narrative presentation.
FF2 also came after FF1, which was already quite a force of innovation. I'll say more when I get to FF1, but, suffice to say, FF1 spiced up and retooled Dragon Quest's combat system in a good way. FF2 gains the strengths of FF1's enhancements and adds some of its own on top.

So why is this last? Two words, folks: progression system. The developers at Square decided to play with a new approach with Final Fantasy 2. Instead of leveling with experience points, they implemented a system in which repetition of specific skills causes the improvement of said skills. In a lot ways, it's similar to the system used in Bethesday's Elder Scrolls' games, and it's the direct antecedent to SaGa/Romancing SaGa's progression system. This makes sense, as Akitoshi Kawazu was a main designer for FF2, and he went on to create the SaGa series.

However, while this approach works in some of the latter games, it just doesn't work in FF2 at all. You either grind endlessly for a pittance of progression, or you abuse the Hell out of the system by killing all but one enemy, beating the crap out of your own team, then healing your own team. Boom, you're all Gods now, fit to deal out death and destruction at your whim.

Honestly, when I say this shit is broken, I -mean- it. Abusing the system is incredibly easy, while playing within its imagined confines is difficult and.. well.. not fun at all.
The unfortunate result is a game that isn't fun to play now and wasn't all that great at the time of release. Sure, it had smart innovations and cool, new ideas, but the implementation is just not good enough. Well, at least Akitoshi Kawazu was given the SaGa series to implement his ideas....

(One thing I'll admit is that I haven't played any of the game's myriad remakes. If any of these make substantial changes to the progression system, it could do a lot for the game. Anyone play any of the FF2 remakes?)



Tier 6, Review Score: 8.0
Final Fantasy 8 and Final Fantasy 12

Final Fantasy 8 (PSX), 1999

Boy, I bet I just pissed off two of the three people that will ever read this. Yes, next to last is a tie.. between FF8 and FF12. Keep in mind, I'm giving an 8/10 to both games. I don't think they're "bad." They're just not terribly great for Final Fantasy games.

Let me start my talking about the good aspects of FF8: ____________
Nah nah, I kid, I kid. There are some legitimately good elements. The presentation is great, with a solid mixture of cinematic cutscenes and good, dramatic music. The art design is quite impressive, especially when character models are contrasted with, say, FF7. The battles, themselves, are pretty standard affairs. Nothing terribly broken there.

However, FF8 manages to bollocks up just about everything else. Let's break this down into two elements: 1. Characters and story, 2. Progression

1. Characters
In better FF games, the characters have interesting backgrounds that are slowly revealed through character development and new story arcs. Who's that guy? Oh shit, he's a ninja! He'd kill his mother for a nickle! Oh, it turns out that...*insert spoilers*, and you find out through a series of random dream sequences! Well, who is that guy over there? Oh, he just loss his family when a villain poisoned his castle. He fights to redeem their memory and make the world a better place. How about this one? He's a "treasure hunter" (i.e. - thief), who is trying to bring life back to a loved one....

In FF8, all the characters have the same, boring background. Who's that guy? He grew up in an orphanage. Who's that girl? She teaches here. Also, she grew up with the guy in the orphanage. How about that guy? He works here, and he grew up in the same orphanage. And that girl? Ditto. And him? Ditto. Ditto. Ditto. Dittodittodittodittoditto.

Jesus, what a terrible decision.

Also, on top of the lack of a proper background, all of the characters are lame. Zell? Why he's a silly guy! He wears crazy clothes! Selphie, well she's a silly girl. Sometimes, she's clumsy, and she's super girly! The teacher chick? She's a teacher! AND a chick!

Of course, none of this compares to Squall. Squall is officially the worst hero in a major RPG. Seriously, this guy makes pretty much everyone else look like Hero of the Year. He's an asshat.

So, yeah. The characters in this game are uninteresting and all share the same backstory. I bet that saved the developers a lot of time. Probably the only interesting character in the game is Laguna. It's sad when the best thing you have going is a largely unconnected side-story.

The story is better, on average, than the character set, but it's not night and day. The story is passable. At first, it looks like there might be some interesting political stuff happening, but, no. That's not in the cards. It's an evil wizard (sorry; sorceress) who plans to.. mash time together. Or something. It doesn't really make any sense, and the motivations of the villains are highly suspect. Still, it's typical RPG fare. Evil villain wants to blow everything up. You need to get MacGuffins and stop her. With good characters, I think they still could've made something with this general storyline, but, alas, it was not meant to be....

2. Okay, here is where I have my real problems with this fracking game: the progression systems. Much like FF2, FF8 goes out of its way to completely change every facet of progression. Also like FF2, it fails miserably.

Here are my major problems:
a. Spell system and junctioning
I hate the spell system in this game. It basically turns spells into glorified items that you have to steal from enemies. It took all the "magic" out of the experience for me (ha... ha.... ha), as nothing magical ever felt permanent. You never got the same sense that you finally perfected your glass cannon Black Mage. Instead, you got a cool item.. that you can use. Once. Then you need to get more. I guess this is -entirely- opinion-oriented (as is this whole Rankasy enterprise), but I really disliked this system.

Junctioning, I was more okay with, but I was never quite sure what its role in the game was supposed to be. I play pretty far in the game without even glancing at junctioning, and the game never felt difficult (I'll get back to this below). However, if you abuse junctioning, you basically auto-win the game. Honestly, like FF2, this seems like a poorly thought out experiment in progression.

b. Difficulty curve
This game's difficulty curve makes no damn sense. I made it halfway through disc 3 with my highest level character in the low 20's. I remember having a somewhat hard time on a boss, looking up a FAQ, and realizing I was -over twenty levels below the recommended level-. Wow. Honestly, I was so shocked that I almost stopped playing there.
Keep in mind, this wasn't my first rodeo. I beat FF1 at the age of 7. Before trying 8, I had played 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. I didn't grind, but I also didn't avoid grinding. The way the game ranked monster difficulty to your level, the massively abusable junction system, the abusable summon system, and other flat out mistakes in design create a system which -just doesn't work-.

c. Items and money
Hey remember when half of the fun of RPGs was raising money and buying cool new weapons? Say goodbye to both. Who needs the fun of earning money, when you can just run around and get paid automatically?! Personally, I always find test-taking to be more fun than killing monsters. That's why I spend my time on a test-taking blog, instead of a video game blog.
/sarcasm

Seriously though, progression in this game is fracked. There's no fun; no real customization beyond junctioning; crappy magic system; terrible way of making money; watered down item system; and the play balance on leveling is just completely broken.

So, overall, FF8 has a mediocre story, bad progression elements, bad characters, and the worst main hero ever. Why is it higher than FF2? Honestly, the FF2 progression system is far more thoroughly broken than the progression elements in this. The progression elements in FF8 are -functional- but not well designed. In FF2, I'd argue that they aren't even functional.

Relative to other games, FF8 is still good. The graphics and artwork are great. The battle system is mostly untouched. The presentation of the story is great, even if the story is mediocre. And there's a lot of fun things to do, including the card game. However, it falls far short of other entries in the FF series.


Final Fantasy 12 (PS2), 2006

If anyone ever reads this, this is the ranking that I really expect to get me into trouble. People seem to really love this game for some reason, and it continues to be well scored and well-reviewed. Let me be up front and say that I -played- this damn game for over 90 hours. I saw everything it offers. I understand what it is and what it's trying to be. Don't respond by saying I didn't play it through, because I did. However, at the end of the day, these are all opinions. The things in FF12 I consider weaknesses, you may well consider strengths. My opinion does not make your opinion less valuable. If you disagree, feel free to post below or create a counter-blog, and we'll move forward from there.

In short, I'm not a fan of this game, and I really don't understand the praise it gets. Let me break this down into four sections: Characters/Story, Battle System/Summons, World, Progression.

1. Characters/Story
I was actually a fan of FF10 (I'll say more about this later, of course), so, when FF12 was getting close to release, I was absolutely ecstatic. On top of this, FF12 was coming from some of the talent that worked on FF Tactics and Vagrant Story! In addition, the story approach seemed more in-line with FF Tactics (medieval politics, war, history), and it even shared the same world! If FF Tactics was part of this list, it would be tied for second place, so, suffice to say, I was excited. I even preordered the Collector's Edition. I also remember when I started playing FF12, how the story seemed to be setting itself up for some FFT-style craziness. What's this Empire? There was an invasion? And an assassination? What's the real story here? How are these polities connected?

Long story short, the only part of Tactics that 12's story really echoed was the final chapter of Tactics.. where everything became standard RPG nonsense. After setting up high politics, I realized about halfway through that the big shift in tone was never coming. Instead, we were gearing up for a MacGuffin chase in order to destroy the Big Evil that threatens the world. **rollseyes*

Truth be told, I think they still could've hit the ball out of the park with this story if it wasn't for the characters. Honestly, there is -one- interesting character in this game, and his name is Balthier. Despite spending over 90 hours on this game, I honestly can't even tell you much about the other characters. I remember Vaan and Penelo were really annoying. Fran looked silly but was pretty boring otherwise. Honestly, looking through the characters and story, it's incredible how much of this I seemingly blocked from my memory. Keep in mind, I have fresher memories of games I haven't played for a longer period of time, such as FF4, FF6, and FF7. I even remember more of FF8 than FF12, which is.. sad.

It's hard to sum up my thoughts on this, but perhaps this is close: FF12 seems like it has an interesting story, but it doesn't quite pull it off. Also, the characters lack character, except for Balthier. Balthier, admittedly, is a badass.

2. Battle System/Summons
"You know what I want in my single player console RPG? A battle system based on MMORPGs!" - Nobody ever ever

Long story short, I hate, hate, hate the damn battle system in FF12. It's just boring and lame. There's no strategy. There's no thinking. Hell, there's usually no -input-. For 90% of the battles I fought, I just walked around in circle while my characters did whatever the Hell they wanted. Even in boss battles, I only made slight adjustments to the formula.

The whole macro thing would've been fine if, say, you could still impact the battle in other ways. Like, say, FF7 Crisis Core, I could see myself enjoying a bit of action in the RPG formula. Rolling away from attacks, finding good ground, and responding appropriately. I could deal with macro if it was on top of this format.
However, instead, it's the worst of all worlds. Your characters basically do whatever they do no matter -what- you're doing with them. I could be running Balthier all over the place, but he'll still be attacking the same, using magic the same, etc. as if I wasn't doing anything at all. Except for melee weapons, there's no -space- in this damn battle system. This wouldn't be a problem if your primary role in battles wasn't to.. move your characters through space. Truly.. I don't get why people found this battle system acceptable. It'd be one thing if I was playing an MMO, where this system maps well onto the needs of having many players take actions simultaneously in a centralized, digital environment. However, I just don't see the upside.

Also, summons are incredibly, incredibly useless in this game. Feel the power of my.. summon.. which just replaces my party.. with one entity barely as powerful as they are individually. Seriously, screw up city, all around.

3. World: FF 12 is simply not well realized as a world. The cities are boring, with none of the typical fantastical awesomeness from the series. I mean, seriously. Go play FF10 for a while. Run around the cities and dungeons. Then do the same in FF12. Notice how everything is boring, and how there's nothing interesting to see? Strange. The cities also lack NPCs that say anything meaningful. Sure, you'll get some content here and there, but it's usually framed in the most soulless, uninteresting way possible. Most NPCs, if they say anything, will give you meaningless, trite nonsense. There's really nothing of substance in any of the cities to make this world feel dramatic, interesting, or real.

The dungeons are even worse. Play the dungeons for any of the games from FF7-FF10. Notice how the artwork on the backgrounds is done to make things look epic and fantastic. They draw your eyes. Now play the dungeons in FF12. Notice how your perspective removes anything of note from your point of view. Also, notice how the dungeons feel randomly generated, even though they are not, in fact, randomly generated. Seriously, this was a very underwhelming showing for Square's staff. None of the locations have any character at all.

4. Progression
FF12 has better progression systems than, say, FF8 or FF2. However, there are still flaws. Most notably, it doesn't appear that there is any incentive to engage in anything but "jack of all trade"-style progression. Pick one weapon for each character (preferably with no overlaps), then pick up all the cheap great skills. Since starting skills are so cheap, there's really no reason not to get them for everyone. Sure, there is a bit of customization past that point, but it's hardly substantial. Really, when it comes to the leveling system, I don't hate FF12's. I just think it had more potential that could've been reached.

Overall, FF12 just feels like a whiff from Square. Lackluster characters, standard storyline, underwhelming atmosphere and world-building, and lame, lame, lame battles. I probably would've been a lot more open to everything else if the battles weren't so sub-par, but there you go.

Still, the overall presentation of the game isn't bad. There's a -huge- amount of content in this game, even if you just want to run through the main storyline. The broad thrust of the story isn't bad; it just doesn't set out into new territory as I thought it might. Really, with better writing and more interesting characters, the story would've been fine, probably. The biggest problem by far is the combat. If you can get by the combat, the game is definitely playable for RPG fans.


FINAL RANKASY PART 1, FINAL THOUGHTS
I basically reviewed FF2, FF8, and FF12 as individual games. Briefly, here are my thoughts on why they're ranked as such.

FF2 is okay, but the progression system is so thoroughly broken that I thought it had to be the bottom. I think it would be unfair to say any FF game is worse than FF2, when it's nearly unplayable. FF8 and FF12 form the bottom of the "playable" FF series to me, personally. Neither games adds a lot to the old formula, but what these games add... tends to subtract from the core experience. In FF12, the new battles killed the fun, while, in FF8, the retooled progression system took the wind out of the game's sails. I also think both games lack interesting characters to bring more depth to their relatively standard storylines. However, at the core, I think all three of these games have problems with gameplay, which is more damning than storyline. I mean, sheesh, I loved FF10, and FF10, arguably, had characters -at least- as annoying and bad as FF8 and FF12. However, more on this will wait for a later session....   read


9:28 AM on 06.24.2012

Livin' La Vida Ninja: Why Ninja Gaiden 1 (NES) Capture Ninjaness Better than NG2

Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 are commonly agreed to be classics of the action platforming genre and of the NES more generally. They both combined tight controls, solid presentation, good music, fun level design, and high difficulty levels for good times.

However, there is a bit of a tendency for NG2 to be seen as an improvement over its predecessor. The common line is that NG2 added a bit more interesting level design and climbing controls, while also toning down some of the frustrating elements that made NG1 so difficult.

I disagree. While I love NG2 (which was actually my introduction to the series), I think that NG1 had a coherent, tight game design, which encompassed the controls, the level design, the music, and the presentation. NG2 is a fun game, but the added and modified mechanics, IMO, took away from the coherence. It made NG more like other games, rather than focusing on what NG1 did best: make you feel like a God Damn Ninja.

I'll sum this argument up in two parts: 1. Ninja Gaiden's design, 2. Ninja Gaiden 2's changes

Ninja Gaiden 1: What is an action platformer?
I think the big source of confusion for NG1 is the lack of awareness of genre. To put it simply, I don't think NG1 is really a platformer at all. Most of the game is about combat management. How do you approach an enemy? How do you respond? What items do you use?
The environment (including platforms) plays a role, but the game isn't about making hard jumps. It's about dealing with enemies -while- making hard jumps. It's about knowing that God Damn owl is coming and being able to deal with it, while jumping a chasm and latching onto a wall. In general, this isn't a platformer. This is an action game that uses platforming elements to accentuate the action.

Once you realize that the focus in NG1 is on making the player feel like a GD ninja, and that it's actually an action game, everything else makes sense. I'll be discussing particulars in this order: 1. Pop-up enemies, 2. Tunnel levels, 3. Controls, 4. Music/Presentation

1. Pop-up enemies
One of the favorite criticisms of Ninja Gaiden 1 is that the damn enemies pop up out of nowhere. There are lots of points in the game where, if you just stand still, an endless barrage of clones will continue to pop-up and attack you in the exact same way. This, to many, feels cheap and unfair. And, to some extent, they're correct. However, there are two damn good reasons for this mechanic:

a. KEEP RUNNING!
Because of the pop up enemies, there is a strong incentive in NG1 on RUNNING AS FAST AS YOU CAN THROUGH EVERY GOD DAMN AREA. You want to stop and take a break? TOO BAD, THERE IS AN ENDLESS BARRAGE OF NINJA COMING! You need to slow down and get a tactical-YOU'RE DEAD. YOU'RE ALREADY DEAD.

The pop-up enemies -force- the player into a certain kind of playstyle: fast, visceral, responsive rather than generative. In other words, it forces you to play like a GD Ninja.

Sure, there are other ways of forcing this kind of play-style: timer, slowly reducing health, etc. However, I'm not sure that any of these approaches is an appropriate replacement. Not only do they have their own problems, but they don't force the same -kind- of speed onto the player as pop-up enemies. In NG1, your speed isn't forced onto you by an abstract timer. It's forced onto you by ENEMIES POPPING UP EVERY WHICH WAY. Complaining about pop-up enemies in NG1 feels sort of like complaining about "all these damn bullets" in a bullet-hell game. It just shows a lack of awareness of what makes a game a game.

b. Tunnel levels
NG1 doesn't have very interesting level design from a platformer perspective. Almost every level is a one screen tall tunnel, going either left-to-right or right-to-left. However, again, NG1 isn't a platforming game. It's an action game where you're a GD NINJA, and the tunnel levels are perfect -for this game design.-

I think my argument will be more clear once I discuss NG2, but, suffice to say, the meat of each level is RUNNING AS FAST AS YOU CAN through a NEVER ENDING GAUNTLET OF ENEMIES. The level design is there to emphasize this playstyle. There are platforming flourishes, as well as walls to climb and other features here and there. However, the level design here is closer to Ninja Warrior on Spike TV than Super Mario Brothers or Mega Man. Speed and combat. That's the whole game.


3. Overall, the controls in NG1 (as well as NG2) are tight. I mean, like, really tight. Like jump a bit in the air.. but manage to attack twice in the air tight. Tighter than damn near any other NES game tight. This is a game where you're given all the tools to be a total badass. You just need to find a way to use them. Again, this is all meant to emphasize the fast-paced combat mechanics and the run, run, run playstyle.
However, one element of the controls that gets criticized is the wall controls. Rather than simply climb up and down walls, you need to jump up them with some somewhat difficult timing. I'll get back to this when discussing NG2, but there are two things I'd like to say about wall-climbing as its constituted in NG1: a. It was designed consciously to be like this. Remember, there -are- surfaces in NG1 which you can climb NG2-style. They already exist in NG1. They just -chose- consciously to make most walls more difficult to climb. b. The added complexity of the wall jump, in my mind, makes it all the more satisfying to utilize. Really, it's not as hard as some make it out to be, and it's a lot more fun to successfully pull of than simply pushing up and down.

4. Music/presentation
I don't have a lot to say here that hasn't already been said. The presentation is awesome. The music is awesome. Go listen to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZLXcCe7GgA
Doesn't that make you feel like a ninja? Doesn't that make you just want to go out and do epic things with anime-esque abstract movement effects rolling in the background?
Again. This game is all about being a GD ninja. Presentation and music just add to the effect.



WHAT DOES NINJA GAIDEN 2 DO DIFFERENTLY
1. Level design
The tunnels in Ninja Gaiden 1 are perfect for speedy, actiony, intense gameplay. NG2, however, went far more into platforming. Platforms, in general, play a much bigger role in NG2; there are vertical areas rather higher than one screen; levels, in general, have a much more expansive feel to them; and, most importantly, there are the environmental hazards.
In my view, while these are find additions to a platformer, they miss the point of NG1 entirely. Let me give you an example: how do you play the second level? With the wind gusts? Oh, what's that? You just stand there until the wind is right. Hrmm. Okay, how about the level where the lights go out. How does that impact your play style? Oh, you just stand and wait until you can see fine? Hrmm. How about the level with the lava, where the rocks spit out intermittently? How do you deal with the rocks? Oh.. more standing and waiting. Hrmm....
Standing and waiting is NOT what NG is about. It misses the whole point. It's like playing a Sonic game without loop-to-loops. And you do it in NG2. A lot.
The other hazards don't seem to get the point either. The water hazard makes you go more slowly half the time, and the ice level takes away the tight-ass controls that the series is known for. I could forgive the game if there was a strong focus on dealing with enemies while managing the hazard but, truth be told, that's not entirely true. Sure, enemies attack you, but it's nothing like NG1. The platforming elements in NG1 were infamous for piling on the deaths. Half the time in NG2, while you're dealing with a hazard, you're, at most, dealing with one or two slow-or-even-standing-still enemies. It's just not the same at all.
The multi-tiered platforming also misses the point. When you mess up in NG1, you die. When you mess up in NG2, you.. redo all the pain-in-the-ass jumping you just did. It just doesn't feel as visceral or intense. It feels more like Mario shoe-horned into NG1 than like a proper ninja adventure itself.

2. Combat
Let me make this short: nearly everything about NG2's combat changes makes things easier for you. Special powers are less expensive, and you earn more power. You can attack off walls. You can have up to two clones. Etc. etc.
However, the overall impact of these changes is to: 1. Make the game easier, 2. Make combat less precise. In NG1, other than a spattering of shurikens, you had to rely on the tight controls and your own instincts. In NG2, you don't even need to do anything half the time. When clones are combined with plentiful special power, combat almost ceases to be a frightening event at all. It just takes the feeling of being a ninja away. With the fire power you pack in NG2, combat is almost more like Contra with a health bar than NG1. Almost.

3. Wall climbing
Again, there is a loss of ninja badassery and an expansion of accessibility and platforming. Walls are much, much easier to climb, and you can attack off of them now. This leads to some more interesting uses of walls as platforms. Sadly, there's no replacement for successfully jumping off a wall, killing an owl with your sword, and managing to latch back on before another enemies knocks you sideways. The emphasis is just.. different.

CONCLUSION
Let me clarify the above by saying that I still love NG2. It's a great action platformer and is a solid sequel to NG1. It's also not as different as I may indicate above, as I'm focusing on the differences in order to make a point about what NG1 is. For most people, NG2 would almost seem -too- much like its predecessor.

However, I do think there are misconceptions about NG1 and 2, and I wanted to outline my viewpoint here. Personally, once you get good, there really isn't another game like NG1 on the NES. The pacing, the intensity, the skill required, and the payoff (both in terms of presentation, music, and out-and-out gratification).. it's just.. beautiful.

So there. NG1. FANTASTIC GOD DAMN GAME!   read


8:37 AM on 06.24.2012

4x Flashback: A Comparison of Alpha Centauri and Civ 4

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (with Alien Crossfire expansion) was a bit of a revelation for 4x gamers back in the day. On one hand, this was clearly a Civilization game. Alpha Centauri was the planet space colonizers sought in Civ 2; the mechanics and play style are almost identical; and it has Sid Meier's name plastered all over it, just to prove the game's lineage. Of course, SMAX (Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire, from here on, this is how I'll refer to Alpha Centauri overall just to make life easier) wouldn't exist at all without IP conflict. This is where Civilization: Call to Power emerged from. However, in the grand scheme of things, SMAX is clearly a Civilization game in all but title.

However, despite being a Civ game, SMAX is also something different. It does different things and has a somewhat different base of assumptions than the Civ games. Overall, it's quite amazing how just a few small changes can complete shift the entire experience of a game. There are mechanics and ideas in SMAX that I'd hate to see relegated to the dustbins of history. As a result, I'm writing this comparison point of SMAX and Civ 4. I want to give a sense of what Civ 3 and Civ 4 did right, what SMAX did right, and what SMAX did wrong.


JUST TO GET A BASELINE: HOW IS SMAX LIKE CIV 4

Before I begin, if you haven't played SMAX, I want to give some sense for the similarities. SMAX plays pretty much just how you'd expect a Civ game to play. You have workers (called formers); settlers (colony pods); nutrients (food); minerals (production); and energy (gold). You choose research priorities (although, for the most part, you choose general emphasis rather than specific tech); socially engineer your civ (just like Civics in Civ 4); set taxation/science/luxury priorities; interact with other civilizations; etc. etc. In a lot of respects, SMAX is a lot like Civ 4. In fact, it's probably more like Civ 4 than Civ 5 is....



SO WHAT DOES SMAX DO THAT CIV 4 DOESN'T

I want to discuss SMAX's unique aspects in three parts: 1. Look/feel/pacing, 2. Combat mechanics, 3. City mechanics.

1. Look/feel/pacing
SMAX does a lot to set itself apart from the Civ games visually and thematically. To put it lightly, you won't be confusing Alpha Centauri for Earth. The planet -looks- alien, and the fungus mechanics (fungus covers much of the landscape, making development and movement more difficult) add a twist to the standard Civ formula. The interface expands on this basic approach and, again, just emphasizes the alien nature of the game.
There is also quite a bit of story to SMAX. Factions have well detailed histories and proclivities. There is a lot of story introduced early on, and, occasionally, more bits of story will appear here and there. The various technologies are all built on science fiction and the pseudo-history of the setting. Honestly, it all comes together well. SMAX actually might do a better job of building a theme and following through with it than any other game in the series. Honestly.
However, in terms of actual gameplay, the pacing for SMAX is actually quite a bit different than in the Civ series. Unlike in Civ, there isn't the same emphasis placed on "eras." Also, since you start out with a relatively advanced society, the beginning parts of the game tend to feel a bit shorter than in, say, Civ 4. Meanwhile, you can engage in mechanics and strategies halfway through a campaign of SMAX that you wouldn't be able to do until nearly the end of Civ 4. The pacing is just all kinds of different, which has a rippling effect on the rest of the game. Combat feels quicker, larger, and more aggressive, for example. While it's actually pretty comparable to end-game Civ 4 combat, it hits that point much more quickly.
At the end of the day, I'm not sure there is anything about SMAX's look/feel/pacing that could be gainfully employed within a proper Civ game. The only possible exception is the expanded end-game, which I'll discuss more later. However, it's thematically rich and interesting on its own. This just begs for a revival....

2. Combat mechanics
There are several shifts in combat mechanics I want to talk about: a. longer end-game, b. focus on attack, c. creating your own units.

a. As noted above, SMAX certainly has a longer end-game than Civ 4. This directly affects the way combat feels and is employed. For example, you have missiles fairly early in the game. In my most recent game, my AI opponents were absolutely pounding me with missile attacks less than halfway through my campaign. In the Civ games, missiles are end-game only. This should give you some sense of the difference.
Air strikes are also introduced relatively early. Drop pods come a bit later but still earlier in the game than in the Civ series. Overall, the shift in end-game mechanics just brings out a whole different flavor of combat. There aren't 2000 years of mace-men and catapults here.

b. The longer end-game is just one element of SMAX that leads to a stronger focus on aggression in combat. Also notable is the complete lack of attack/defense balance. Basically, more so than in Civ, attack units tend to have more attack power than defense units have defense power. When combined with the narrowed early and mid-game and the longer end-game, you get a -much- more aggressive game. Cities can change hands with some ease, as taking cities is often easier than holding them. You tend to be more careful in your diplomacy and better prepared for things turning awry. There tends to be more combat units -generally speaking- than in the Civ games, as you constantly prepare to turn back an attack or engage in on yourself. As with the pacing and themes of SMAX, this isn't necessarily better than Civ. However, it is an interesting different approach.

c. The biggest difference, however, is that SMAX allows you to create your own units. You actually research different sub-components of units: weapon, armor, reactor, and special abilities. At any point, you can mix and match different sub-components and create new units. This allows you to create end-game units with beginning-game armor, drop pods, and naval attack, just as an example.
On one hand, I think this is a great example of the difference between macro-strategy and micro-tactics (Civ 4 vs. Civ 5), as I discussed in my last blog. This is definitely a mechanic that focuses on macro-mechanics.
However, on the other hand, I'm still not sure what the overall utility of this approach is. As a result of it, units tend to look generic and undifferentiated. Your workshop units are auto-upgraded when you research relevant new technologies, which takes away some of the need away. In the end-game, you have some flexibility in creating your own interesting combinations, but, overall, I wonder if it's really a necessary wrinkle in the Civ fabric. Still, it's an interesting experiment.

3. Development mechanics
This is where the game really sets itself apart: the development mechanics. Perhaps this will be easier to explain with an example than with words: in my most recent game of SMAX, I had a decent little land empire, but I was surrounded on two sides. So, I expanded onto the water. Not ACROSS the water, mind you. Onto it. And those are some of my best cities!
Simply enough, by the 75% stage of a SMAX campaign, you'll pretty much be able to do anything you want in terms of development and cities. You can terraform land up and down. You can expand sea and/or land. You can develop land and sea tiles with different sets of formers (aka workers). The sea is basically its own entirely self-sustaining battlefield in this game, as you can use naval units to seize sea-cities. In general, you just have so many damn options in SMAX. Again, the idea of an extended end-game comes to mind. The things you can do halfway through SMAX seem like things that you should be able to do with future tech in the Civ games. It's sad that these elements are relegated only to SMAX because they are interesting and fun.


WHAT DOES CIV 4 DO THAT SMAX DOESN'T

There are a lot of little differences. Civ 4 has leaders, which are nice but not central, IMO. It has a more advanced city defense system, which I do tend to see as an out-and-out improvement over SMAX. Civ 4 has religion, but, again, I don't think this is a central difference.

If there is one thing that really sets Civ 4 apart from SMAX.. it's culture. It's amazing how much you can miss a mechanic when it's gone, and culture is rather sorely missed in SMAX. Culture just makes sense, and it leads to sensical decisions in terms of expansion, foreign relations, etc.

Here, let me give you an example of why SMAX really misses culture: in all of my recent games, I've had friendly civs come up.. and build cities right next to my capital. Now keep in mind, I don't mean 7 or so tiles away. I mean they're close enough that they're seizing core tiles from my damn capital. And there's nothing I can do about it short of declaring war. Le sigh. I wasn't even given a warning or an indication that it was happening!

This may not seem so terribly bad.. until you realize that you can build sea cities. Guess what, pretty much all cities are vulnerable to having tiles stolen when sea cities are possible. As far as I can tell, the only real defense is to just continually expand in all directions. In fact, when combined with the combat mechanics and a few other design elements*, this seems like a central way to play SMAX, depending on your Civ.
While I understand why that could be a fun way to play, the lack of culture makes it almost a necessary way to play. You can't just concentrate on a small set of core-yet-gigantic cities while making friendly with neighbors because, well, they'll steal your GD land.
Oh culture.. I miss you so much/

*I won't get into the particulars here, but a lot of wonders/Civ abilities/etc. tend to encourage endless expansion as well. That seems to be a big strategy being pushed here.



ANY OTHER CRITICISMS FOR SMAX
There are a few other problems I have with SMAX: the game encourages micro-management, which makes the end-game unwieldy. You know how, towards the end of Civ 1/2/3/4, you have a million cities and a million things to do every turn? Remember, SMAX basically has an expanded end-game. You hit that point sooner, and it can become sort of brutal. The sea cities; the lack of culture; the ecological and alien mechanics; the aggressive, large-scale combat mechanics; and the openness of tile development all just exacerbate this sense. Overall, the end-game can take a -long- bloody time to play through.


SO WHAT SHOULD I TAKE AWAY
Here are a few take-away points from the above:
1. Culture mechanics are great. It's hard to remember what 4x life was before culture.
2. SMAX is paced differently than Civ 4, which leads to a different playstyle.
3. SMAX lets you build sea cities and change the terrain how ever you want. It feels sort of like an expanded Civ 4 end-game.
4. SMAX, despite very much being a Civ game, also feels like its own entity, thanks to the theme, the art style, the pseudo-history, and the shift in pacing. It's amazing how much it creates a "Civ for future colonists."
5. However, Civ 4 is probably the better game overall, if only because of culture mechanics and somewhat less micromanagement in the late game.

There you go.   read


1:09 PM on 06.19.2012

A few statements about Civ 5

I've read the RPS and Joystiq reviews, as well as some of the other chatter happening around the tubes, and I've come to the conclusion that there are a lot of misnomers out there about Civ 5's mechanics and its impact on the franchise. Without further ado..

1. One-unit-per-tile is not necessarily "better" than unit stacks

There seems to be this prevailing wisdom that OUPT has been outed as some sort of glorious revelation. In the dark days before, we walked up hill both ways in three feet of snow in order to play a 4x game with stacking. Nowadays, however, we've advanced beyond such -dated- and -ridiculous- combat mechanics as stacking.

The truth is, it's all bollocks. There is nothing inherently -better- about either approach. Here are two reasons why:

a. Strategy vs. Tactics
My first issue with this argument is that it refuses to see the distinct impact these combat mechanics have on the game more generally. OUPT combat encourages tactical thinking, with positioning, range, land type, and other "local" features dominating the process and outcomes of warfare. Stacking, however, tends to result in combat being more macro-based. You win wars by making the best use of your resources and being prepared, diplomatically or otherwise, for any situation. Of course, neither Civ 4 nor Civ 5 are completely tactical or grand strategy. But the distinct combat mechanics do tend to result in different emphases on each game.

In Civ 5, you'll need to spend more of your time on positioning, approach, formation, etc. In Civ 4, you'll spend more time on your cities, advancements, micro-mechanics, etc.


b. Stacking isn't necessarily mindless
Another issue I have with the party line is that stacking is some sort of mindless activity. You simply dump all of your units in a stack and, hey, go destroy. The truth is that Civ 4, especially in its best moments, accomplished quite a bit more with stacks than that. Also, even beyond Civ 4, there is a lot of room for making better use of the stacking approach.

For example, during the end-game, war became actually pretty multifaceted. You need to have your reinforcement lines upkept to keep your troops in decent quantities. You need to have bombers and fighters in decent locations in order to support combined arms invasions of highly fortified cities. Prime points for bomber strikes or reinforcements became natural targets, which would be defended with harsh resistance. In order to take a city, you'd often have to bomb its fortifications to submission, weaken defending troops with suicide strikes and artillery bombardments, then try to establish a final breakthrough with your armors. Depending on your reinforcement route, you could either leave infantry behind to quell resistance and defend the city itself, or fly in paratroopers to help with the task. Combined arms utilization and road mobility were central elements to the combat in the game. It wasn't all "stacks of doom." Even in the early game, stack composition mattered greatly, and it shifted depending on what kinds of resistance you were facing. Overall strategy was still central to conflict in Civ 4, but tactical elements were involved, especially in ways that were highly entangled in the greater strategic environment.

Even where Civ 4's combat had issues, there are solutions other than the OUPT approach. Supply rules. Less stringent restriction on unit spacing. OUPT isn't the one-and-only answer.



2. Simplicity isn't necessarily better
Another argument often made about Civ 5 is that it dropped all the "bloat" of its predecessor. From this perspective, while Civ 4 was fun, it was overly complicated and confusing for its own good. Civ 5 did away with the confusion and, in the process, made a game that was cleaner, clearer, and more fun.

However, again, there simply isn't anything -necessarily- better about a simplified approach. Here are two reasons why:

a. Clarification without simplicity
If there is one thing I honestly like about Civ 5, it's the interface. It's smooth. It's milky. It's polished. It makes sense. I was asked recently what I like most about modern games. I said the interface. With exceptions (*cough*Skyrim*cough*), modern interfaces are just far better than in the olden days, and Civ 5 is no exception to this rule. It's interface is head-and-shoulders above its predecessors.

However, I think there is a conflation, on the part of many gamers, of the interface's simple quality, and the overall simplicity of the game. In other words, I think people took the excellent interface as a sign that -complexity- itself is undoubtedly a bad thing. And that's incorrect. Superior interfaces improve all experiences, including both games with simple concepts -and- games with more complicated mechanics. If anything, I think UI improvements are -more- important in complicated games than in simple ones. Sometimes, a good UI can save hours of instruction book, patch notes, and forum reading.

So, simply enough, I want to call on people to carefully differentiate Civ 5's excellent UI and its mechanical simplicity.


b. On depth in the Civ series
Although I still enjoy Civ 5, and I understand why people like it, I can't help but feel that Civ 5 isn't a sequel to Civ 4 at all. It's actually a sequel to Civilization Revolution, which started as an attempt to bring Civ to consoles and which also lead to an iOS release. I haven't played the original console version, but I have played the iOS release extensively. It's very fun. It's Civilization, only with a speed, simplicity, and sense that makes sense in a mobile environment.

However, after I played a few games, I came to realize.. most of these games ended up being rather similar. My choices were often restricted. Whole pathways of the game that I was used to were gone. Little features, like in-depth statistics, a true ending, the palace, city details, advisors, the top 10 lists, etc. etc., were all missing. At some point, I just felt empty playing the game. It felt sort of generic and heartless.

After playing a few games of Civ 5, I quickly caught on to the similarities. The solid interface. The simplified mechanics. The lack of mechanical depth or flavor stats/lists/city details/etc. The lack of options. Civ 5 is a game that is easy to start playing, but, IMO, easy to stop playing. It simply doesn't root itself into as deeply as its predecessor.

Recently, I've been playing some Alpha Centauri. It's really amazing to match SMAC/SMAX and Civ 5 up back-to-back. It gives you a sense for, despite some common genes, how different these games have really become. They basically represent different feature sets, different challenges, and different experiences. I mean, in SMAC/SMAX, you design your own unit types. Consider how that stacks onto the strategy vs. tactics argument discussed above.

For some people, Civ 5 is more than enough. It's easy to learn. It's fun. And it's highly polished. The OUPT approach is perfect for this group, as the strategic elements are self-evident. It has a euro-board game style of abstraction that matches well onto short, fun gameplay sessions.

There are also a few other games released recently with similar strengths. Warlock: Master of the Arcane is also good for a few short campaigns. Endless Space, thus far, hits on a lot of the same tendencies.

However, for my taste, I want a game meant to be dug into. I want a game that will tell me my whole story with statistics, advisors, excellent narration, temple improvements, and tons of options. I want the interlocking mechanics to balance each other out, so there isn't just one focus or one approach. I used to be sure that the Civilization series would provide that level of depth, but I understand that it can't now. I hope the rest of you enjoy it. Just remember that it's not a clear-cut, black-and-white improvement. It's its own thing, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. If Civ 4 is 4x, Civ 5 is 4x-lite.. and that's not necessarily a bad -or- a good thing.   read


1:29 PM on 06.08.2012

Initial Thoughts on Endless Space (PC, 4x/Strategy)

So, as I mentioned might happen in my post about Warlock, I broke down and bought Endless Space.

For the unaware, Endless Space is the first game from Amplitude. Amplitude is a new, independent PC game developer focused on increasing customer-developer relationships through the GAMES2GETHER initiative. Endless Space is, itself, a 4x strategy game that generally models itself on the Master of Orion family of 4x games. If you know your space 4x, then Endless Space plays most like Galactic Civilizations II, from Stardock. Endless Space also has multiplayer support (yay!), but I'll get back to that....

For those less familiar with the sub-genre, basically, you develop your first planet or solar system. Colonize new planets/solar systems. Research new technologies. Raise and spend taxes. Engage in diplomacy with other powers. Fight those powers militarily. And, hopefully, you conquer them all and win the game.

To tell the truth, Endless Space doesn't do a lot to revolutionize this formula. Almost every major mechanic of the game has been in the other mainstays of the genre. In terms of combat and war, Endless Space plays a lot like GalCiv 2, in particular. You design your ships through a similar process. You research three different kinds of weapons and three, parallel, kinds of armors, and you use these weapons as necessary, depending on the threats you face. Also like GalCiv 2, combat is more or less automatic. You watch it unfold through a short quasi-cinematic cutscene, with the results depending on the decisions you made prior to combat.
However, unlike GalCiv 2, you can have -some- impact on the outcome. Each battle is split into three "phases." During each phase, one of the three weapon types is uniquely effective. Additionally, once per phase, you are given the choice of using a "card." Cards basically represent strategic plays you can make. For example, you can play cards that will, for the length of a phase, increase your accuracy, decrease your opponents shields, increase repairs, etc. etc., while your opponent receives the same opportunity. Also, each card has a type, with certain types being capable of blocking other types. It basically adds a layer of rock, paper, scissors dynamic on top of the card system. Although cards are not enough to change lopsided battles, they can spell life or death for more balance battles.

Outside of combat, the major contribution Endless Space makes to the genre is its interface. That may seem absurd.. but only until you play Endless Space. Seriously, -everything- feels right. Smooth. Comfortable. Intuitive. Like Butter. Even little things demonstrate the investment put into this. I'd find it hard to go back to older space 4x games after this. Also, if you're not sure what some sort of number or statistic refers to.. hover over it. Almost everything has a concise, helpful hint. If you're still confused, the tutorials do a great job of covering all the necessary concepts with minimal discomfort. You can basically master the interface and the basic mechanics in 5 minutes. It's very impressive.

There's also a "hero" system. Basically, your heroes function a lot like heroes in Distant Worlds Legends and the newer Total War games. You put them in charge of fleets or solar systems (depending on their capabilities), and they yield a number of bonuses for the object of their command. Military heroes buff your fleets' offensive and defensive power and open up new cards to employ during battle. Administrative heroes buff output of the four major resources (dust, which is basically gold, science, food, and labor), reduce unrest, and can increase the defensive capabilities of your solar systems. These heroes come equipped with different starting statistics and abilities, and they gain experience and levels as they are used, which allows you to add new abilities as necessary. Overall, it's adds a little spice and variety to events, but the hero system doesn't play a -huge- role in the game.

The game, other than the systems outlined above, is pretty much standard space 4x fare. The main unit of your empire is the "solar system," although planets have -some- micromanagement within solar systems. However, your solar system has a single production queue, through which even planet-specific advancements are built, a single labor value, a single food value, etc. etc. Planets are more akin to the resource tiles of Civilization than to cities themselves.
Different planets have different basic capabilities, based on your techs, advancements built, bonuses and maluses, the presence of special resources (or the lack thereof), planet type, planet size, etc. etc. There are a number of different planet types, although many require more advanced technologies to settle. Towards the late game, you'll also be capable of terraforming planets into different planet types. Eventually, you'll also be able to survey any moons as well, which may contain bonus features or allow for new kinds of exploitation.

Solar systems are connected to each other through space lanes, sort of like Sins of a Solar Empire. You cannot fly outside of these lanes until you research later techs. Even then, you travel much more slowly outside of the lanes. As a result, despite taking place in "Endless Space," spatial tactics tend to involve the seizure and protection of central solar systems. It definitely adds a neat tactical flourish although, as noted, this is hardly unique for the genre.

So, now that I've talked about it for a while, what do I think? Endless Space is good. Really good. And it has the room to grow into greatness.
I do have my complaints. As noted above, it feels a little generic at times. It doesn't do a lot to set itself apart. Also, the ending is pretty underwhelming. Every 4x developer (including Firaxis!) should play Civ 4 and see how a 4x game -should- end. There should be stats galore, a chronological, animated map of history, charts, etc. etc. Make it memorable. Endless Space, sadly, gives a very short (mostly unexplained) summary of your "points" and gives you an option to go back to the main menu.
On top of these, the rock, papers, scissors element of the card system seems a little unnecessary. I'm not sure why the strategy of the cards isn't enough. Also, since the computer seems to pick cards at random, it renders the card system.. rather random overall. I've taken to just quickly clicking a base selection of cards and hoping for the best. The card system could be more than this.
Also, the game just feels.. sort of empty at times. There's little character. The diplomacy, which isn't entirely implemented as of yet, feels too mathematical. None of it feels like characters are interactive.
Probably most damning, however, is that it's sort of a shallow game. None of the mechanics are incredibly deep or unique. None of it has been simplified or dumbed down, per se, but, still, the game just feels light at times. This could likely change during the months ahead, but it's something to consider for those interested.

However, for all of the negatives, it's very fun and dangerously addictive in its current -beta- state. The UI is fantastic, the graphics are good, and the game feels rather coherent and feature complete. Overall, it's quite impressive, even if it was being sold as a full release. It's a little simplistic and generic, sure, but it's also well-polished, addictive, and fun.

This is all ignoring the multiplayer components, which I have yet to sample. In any case, the fact that this game has multiplayer support is.. well.. very impressive. The game's UI, the simple mechanics, and the whole structure all feel well designed for multiplayer. I have no doubt that Endless Space's multiplayer could become very popular.

So, yeah. If you LOVE 4x games (especially ones set in space), consider trying the beta as it is. Even now, it's in a better state than Sword of the Stars 2 or Elemental. If you enjoy strategy more generally, maybe wait and see how it develops as it gets closer to full release. Amplitude is doing a great job of updating and supporting ES thus far, and I have a feeling this game is just going to get better and better. However, if you've played too many space 4x games in your life or if you just don't like the genre, skip this. It doesn't do anything revolutionary, and I doubt it will change any minds.   read


3:14 PM on 05.12.2012

So.. you like Retrogaming? Here's a list of great blogs

Maybe there are rules against this. Maybe it's been done before, or there are threads like this on the forums. Maybe you've already heard of all of these. If so, I apologize, but, if I help anyone discover some great retrogaming blogs, it's cool with me.

First off, I want to talk about Chrontendo. Holy shit. Chrontendo: http://chrontendo.blogspot.com/
If you consider yourself a big fan of the famicom/NES, stop what you're doing. Go watch a bunch of Chrontendo.
For the uninitiated, Chrontendo is a "chronogaming" blog (perhaps the most successful), which aims to play through every famicom/NES game ever made. Every. Single. One.
Every single Japanese pachinko game. Every platformer. Every Dragon Quest-clone. Every shitty mish-mash of 2d platforming and RPG mechanics. And it's wonderful.
The blog itself is really just an addendum to what really counts: the video series. He has already made 43 ~hour long videos discussing every single famicom/NES release from 1983 through March of 1989. Of course, he still has a long ways to go, but, already, it's a stunning achievement. Not only is it an incredibly informative series, but it's entertaining. Dr. Sparkle (as he calls himself) is funny without being distracting, and manages to combine dry humor, documentary-style narration, and obscure pop culture references in a way that just -works-. Every game gets at least a few minutes of coverage (with the exception of some of the aforementioned pachinko games and a few other meaningless releases), but big releases tend to get quite a bit more attention. In fact, his coverage of major releases tends to be comparable to what you'd find from most decent articles that just focus on these games. The fact that they're couched in the greater series and contextualized really just adds heaps of interesting information on top of everything else.
In addition, there's quite a lot of "bonus content." He includes large, in-depth specials on the history of adventure games, arcade games, PC games, and more. He also has chronogaming projects going for the Turbografx 16/PC Engine (Chronturbo) and the Sega Master System (Chronsega). It's thought that he'll add the Genesis to the list in the near future, although that has not been confirmed. In any case, if you enjoy any of these systems or retrogaming in general, check this website out. Crème de la crème.

Second, Hardcore Gaming 101: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/
Unlike Chrontendo (and a few other sites I'll talk about), this is not a chronogaming blog. Basically, it's a retrogaming website that contains in-depth articles on lots of retro games and series. And.. when I say lots.. I mean it: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/alpha.htm
Don't care for my (relatively inept and shallow) summary of Langrisser? Here's four pages of in-depth information (probably the most in a competently arranged, accessible format in English on the entire internet): http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/langrisser/langrisser.htm
Always wondered what was up with the Ghosts'n'Goblins series? Here is 6 pages of in-depth discussion: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/gng/gng.htm
Ever curious what fighting games were like before Street Fighter II? http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/fighters/fighters.htm - Enjoy. By the by, there are 31 (!!) games covered here.
I mean, sure, Wikipedia is great, but, for the games covered, this is goes much, much deeper than Wikipedia.

Third, CRPG Addict: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/
Do you like computer/western* RPGs? You should definitely check CRPG Addict out. Like Chrontendo, this is a chronogaming project, but genre specific (RPG) and for the PC rather than the famicom/NES. Also unlike Chrontendo, the CRPG Addict attempts to play each and every covered game through to fruition. He also avoids reading FAQs or walkthroughs and tries to figure them out the way a young'un in the 80's would've had to. He also follows pretty strict rules (especially regarding saving and system abuse), and he writes several in-depth blog posts detailing his progress and thoughts. In the end, he reviews the game and places it in CRPG history. Cool stuff.
Already, he has (pretty much) fought his way up to 1989, which is damned impressive. True, despite his intentions, he hasn't beaten quite -every- game, but he really puts up a herculean effort even when he fails. In any case, it's an incredibly impressive project, but, beyond that, you can learn more about CRPG history through his blog than through just about any other source. Highly highly recommended.

The CRPG Addict has been so successful that he has spawned a number of followers. Probably the best of these is the Adventure Gamer's blog: http://advgamer.blogspot.com/. He follows pretty much the same rules and standards that the CRPG Addict follows, although with PC adventure games rather than RPGs. Despite starting far later, he has already made it to 1988, although a lot of the difference is due to the relative ease of games in the two genres. Absolutely nothing faced by the Adventure Gamer compares with, say, Rogue. Still, he's quite active, and his posts are entertaining. If you like adventure games, check it out. There are other good CRPG Addict followers as well. However, the Adventure Gamer is probably the closest in terms of quality and quantity.

There are also a number of sites that follow the AVGN in terms of approach, but do so with a different set of games. Of particular note are the Clan of the Gray Wolf (http://www.clanofthegraywolf.com/), which focuses on 16-bit games, especially RPG's; Pat the NES Punk (http://thepunkeffect.com/), which is perhaps the closest to the AVGN in terms of style and approach; and Turboviews (http://buccisarcade.com/turboviews/), which tends to have a bit more documentary-style narration. Spoony of the Spoony Experiment also does some absolutely great game reviews, although I'm guessing most of you have heard of him.


Another interesting blog is Brad Hates Games: http://bradhatesgames.wordpress.com/. Brad Hates Games sort of merges the tendencies of the AVGN-style sites (which tend to focus more on humor) and chronogaming sites (which tend to be encyclopedic in their approach and coverage) without really being of either type. The main "series" running at Brad Hates Games is entitled "Revoking the Seal of Quality." Basically, the writers decided that most games on the Genesis did not actually deserve the "Seal of Quality," and they make light-hearted, humorous posts where they "revoke" the seal from various games. Not all games have their seal revoked, however. 50 Genesis games were allowed to keep their seal, and the site had a long March Madness-style tournament revealing the top 50 games on the system. Following this, they wrote longer, in-depth entries on each of these 50 games, in order. Considering this has been going on for about four years, there's actually quite a lot of content to take in here. They've also recently expanded the revocations to the SNES and the Dreamcast. In the last couple weeks, they've also started a similar countdown for Mega Man robot masters. They also have some random posts with a bit of meatier content. For example, they interviewed one of the creators of 'Rings of Power,' while doing their top 50 review. Overall, it's a site that has a lot of content, is genuinely funny, and also gives a lot of information to those who love retro games.

I'll stop there. Hopefully, some of you will enjoy these sites.


*I prefer the terms "western" or WRPGs and "Japanese" or JRPGs, but that's a whole debate onto itself.   read


10:15 AM on 05.09.2012

Initial Thoughts on Warlock: Master of the Arcane

I know there aren't many PC gamers on Dtoid, but I figured I'd add my thoughts on this game anyway. Let's see how it goes.

If you aren't aware, Warlock: Master of the Arcane (simply Warlock from here on) is a 4x game that borrows heavily from Civilization 5. The 4x genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) is basically how people refer to Civ-clones. Arguably, all four of the x's would also fit into an RTS game, and, indeed, the Sins of a Solar Empire series -does- combine RTS and 4x. In any case, Warlock is a game like Civilization and Master of Magic, where you start with one city and try to expand your control using technology (magic, in this case), military power, and economic growth. Also, like those games, this is Turn-Based Strategy. Go elsewhere, if that's a turn-off.

More specifically, as noted above, Warlock takes a lot of inspiration from Civilization 5. Like Civ 5, it uses a hexagonal map. Also like Civ 5, it uses the "one-unit-per-tile" approach to combat. A lot of the interface and controls are ripped straight from Civ 5. It also feels like a Civ 5 mod at times, as the inspiration is really quite obvious.

However, this being based on fantasy rather than history, Warlock also takes quite a bit of inspiration from Master of Magic. For those who are unaware, Master of Magic is a fantasy TBS 4x game from 1994 made by the same people that made Master of Orion. While, on the surface, Master of Magic looked like a Civilization ripoff, it actually did quite a bit to change up the emerging 4x genre: 1. It replaced science with magic, 2. It added significant role-playing elements, including heroes with equipment, levels, and skills, 3. It added portals that go to a second world, 4. New (typical fantasy) races were introduced into the game, with different units, strengths, and weaknesses, 5. It added an tactical mode, where you actually fought the battles initiated on the strategic map. Master of Magic was a huge game for the genre, and it had a rather large impact on the fantasy 4x sub-genre. Most of these additional features (portals, tactical combat, spells instead of science, RPG elements, more races) would be seen in its various followers: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples, Age of Wonders, and Elemental.

Warlock steps into this timeline by marrying the two divergent trends in 4x gaming. From Civ 5, it takes the interface, the combat system, and the general flow and look of the game. From Master of Magic, it takes additional races (undead and monsters are added to humans), portals to other worlds, RPG elements, and the general fantasy setting. However, despite the prevalence of borrowing, Warlock ends up feeling rather singular. The game comes across as far more about combat and exploration than, say, Civ 5, and less about RPG elements and tactical combat than Master of Magic and its ilk.

This all boils down to an interesting truth about Warlock: it's basically a 4x-lite game. For all the borrowed elements from deep, long, ambitious games, Warlock just isn't meant to be played with that sort of scale or attitude. This is a game where you'll spend far more time fighting than developing or exploring. In fact, I'd argue that Warlock -almost- feels like a blown up 4x version of a game like Master of Monsters or Dark Wizard or even Advance Wars at times. The focus on combat is really this strong. From the first turn until the last, you'll be controlling a significant (and growing) military, and all the incentives are placed on continual warfare. There are non-military ways to win the game, but even this depend on a robust military presence. Good luck getting the resources necessary to defeat a God or take all the Holy Lands without having the strongest military in the game.

So, basically, don't go wondering into Warlock hoping you'll be able to win with one well-managed supercity. This is a war game with a fantasy 4x engine. However, this isn't a -bad- thing. It actually works fairly well. I never felt bored. I never felt like I was cycling through turns. Try the demo and see if the pace is worth it for you.

In any case, there's a lot more to say here. The upgrade options for each unit are quite robust. Basically, there are four types of upgrades: equipment-based, experience-based, type-based, and magic based. You get access to new equipment by building equipment buildings, like smithies, iron forges, silver forges, gem shops, potion shops, and more. Once you have access to equipment, you can buy specific pieces for each unit. For example, you know your warrior is about to go toe-to-toe with an elemental? Buy some amulets and some decent armor, and you'll be able to withstand a lot more elemental damage. Experience based upgrades come, not surprisingly, from experience in fighting and living (each turn autogenerates some experience). These are very similar to upgrades from Civ 5: increased attack, increased defense, increased defense in rough enviroments, increased abilities to move over rough terrain, etc. etc. Magic based upgrades include enhancements and curses placed on your units either through your own means or by your enemies. These include resistances, weapon enchantments, and lots of movement enchantments. Finally, type-based upgrades involve the ability to "upgrade" your unit to a more advanced type once the prerequisites have been built. Equipment, magic, and experience based upgrades follow your unit as it is promoted. All in all, it's a rather deep and interesting system. By the end, you're main fighting forces should be nigh-unstoppable by all but the most fierce-some opponents.

As noted above, there are portals to other worlds. These other worlds include incredible resources that you can tap for more mana/money/food, more equipment, or new unit types. There are also lots of holy lands on the other side of portals. Holy lands allow you to build temples to the various "gods" that exist in this universe. These temples give you increased relations with the god they're dedicated to, as well as access to special, powerful (and expensive!) units. Currying favor with Gods also grants you access to spells and abilities not available otherwise. All in all, there is a lot going on in this game, even if the scale and the pace of the game put the focus entirely on warfare.

There are downsides to the game, unfortunately. Some of the mechanics aren't entirely clear. The AI cheats in order to be competitive. Multiplayer isn't included yet, although it is supposed to be coming as a patch. Despite the 4x genre, there aren't any fun statistics or charts available, either in-game or during the end-game. One of the victory conditions, the ultimate spell 'Unity,' is currently not enabled in the game. Additionally, you cannot select available victory conditions, and there is no information in-game on how either you or your opponents are doing when it comes to victory conditions. Diplomacy is shallow. Not only are advanced options not available (like preventing other players from entering your domain), but the AI seems somewhat easy to game through diplomacy. For example, I once declared war, took a city, then bought peace (for a cheap price) to prevent a counterattack.

However, seeing the release as just the beginning, there is a lot of potential with this game. If they fix up some of the confusion about mechanics; add in multiplayer; better balance the AI; add some better diplomatic options; add in some Civ 4-and-before style charts and statistics to, at least, the end-game; and give some more robust non-military options, I think we would have a classic here. As is, we still have a fun, if unambitious, title that will suck up hours of time.. if you let it.

Overall, I think Warlock is definitely a good game with the potential to become a great game. If you enjoy 4x at all, I'd at least give the demo a shot. If you like fantasy 4x games and you enjoyed Civ 5, you may just want to buy it right now. Luckily for us, the game's launch price is a paltry 20 dollars. This is certainly worth that much money even in its current state.   read





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