Sunday, March 23, 2014

Diary Entry #21: Phantasie and More Koei Khaos!

               A little exhausted by writing all that Koei stuff, I decided to play an SSI RPG. Well known for their strategy titles and the Goldbox games, SSI made a ton of strange, primordial computer RPGs. Games like Rings of Zilfin, Wizard's Crown, Demon's Winter and Gemstone Warrior are all worthwhile games that paved the way for future CRPGs. Phantasie 1 is one of their earliest, released in 1985. 

               The game is pretty straight-forward: you're a P on the overworld, a dot in a dungeon, and a party of six in the battlefield. You move between different dungeons and towns, few of which really seem absolutely necessary. In fact, after plugging away for hours, I'm still unsure exactly what my main goal is. 

               Dungeons are pretty fun to traverse, with the entire area auto-mapping itself as you crawl about. Descriptions of the rooms are located at the bottom of the screen, forcing you to use your imagination while limiting the descriptions. I probably would not be playing this game if this prose was in a verbose Temple of Apshai vein.

I always have a party member named the Snea. One time I tried to name
a character The Sneak, but I only could fit The Snea. He's a staple in all my journeys.

               Battles are fairly engaging. You select actions via this fight screen, determining whether you'll use physical or magical attacks. As you can see, characters start with some pretty low HP: Snea and Chris's HP actually max out at 2 and 5, respectively.

               One way to counteract this is to allocate more experience to your weaker party members. Whenever you reach town, you get the option to distribute more experience and gold to any party member. I remember this function being particularly useful in Phantasie 3, a game where enemies can lop off limbs from a party member. In order to regenerate their body parts, I needed to level up my healers until they finally get Healing III and IV so I could put my characters' arms, legs, and heads back on.

               I really enjoy this game. Here's a mini-rogues gallery below for your pleasure, which I hope to expand as I continue the game. Just click 'em to make it bigger. I've played through the first three dungeons, and I'm looking forward to getting around to the rest soon.

               Anyway, back to the Koei coverage. 



               I was hardly impressed by the additions made in Nobunaga's Ambition II. Released in April 1991, the game adds the generals concept from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, allowing you to recruit other people who can fight alongside you in battle. This addition is also seen in the Game Boy version of Nobunaga's Ambition, so it's not particularly surprising to me.

               There are brand new options in the combat system and a new night/day feature in combat as evidenced by the screenshot. I liked the addition, recalling the times in Ultima V when visibility shrinks down after dusk. Unfortunately, the new combat mechanics is better used in the next Koei game, Romance of the Three Kingdoms II.


               While the previous Romance of the Three Kingdoms had some very interesting battles, it's sequel improves on the established systems while sprinkling in a ton of new features. I was shocked by how much fun I had fighting. I actually completed about three fights, but I only took screenshots from the very first one. 

                During my attack on Gongsun Zan, I figured approaching from the west and south would be the quickest and most efficient way to attack my three opponents. Just within reach, Zan cleverly starts a series of fires, preventing my approach from both directions. My warlord, Liu Bei, is actually on fire in this screenshot, slowly losing soldiers over each turn. Despite this minor setback, it eventually rains and the fires are all doused and I'm ready to kick butt.

               The new simultaneous option allows for my units surrounding Zan to all attack at the same time. Each of my units gets to use this option, speeding up the battle process. I end up using this strategy in all my proceeding battles, bullying everybody until I'm victorious! That's what I call ambition.

               I really want to come back to this game in the future, as it's probably the best of Koei's NES historical simulations from a combat perspective. I prefer the resource management of Genghis Khan and the novelty Bandit Kings, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms II is simply the better game. This title marked the end of Koei's Japanese/Chinese-themed historical simulations for the NES, but they did have one French-themed game.


               Released only two months after Romance II's September 1991 street date, L'Empereur is surprisingly dull. It tweaks a lot of time-tested features and adds a lot of weird features that just turned me off. There are multiple scenarios and France seems awfully small compared to the maps of previous games, but this wouldn't matter if combat was still fun.

               But it's not. I decide to attack whoever is next to me as there appears to be very few options for resources.  My first battle is incredibly off-putting: out of the blue, some purple units show up and start attacking me, too. I'm guessing they're supposed to be reinforcements, but whatever. There's a cannon unit that can attack multiple positions at once, but I can't figure out how to determine what spaces it attacks. My Koei prowess that took me through all the previous games without a manual did not work here, which makes me want to label this game decidedly un-Koei. My first impressions are probably a little too judgmental and more than a little influenced by the fact that it's my seventh Koei game in a row, so I'll give it a shot in the future.


               The first thing I noticed about Gemfire was that it had tactical RPG battles similar to Shingen the Ruler, though Koei was probably taking more cues from the hugely influential Fire Emblem. It also does away with any pretense of historical simulation, featuring a full on fantasy setting complete with wizards, dragons, and trolls. It looks a little silly, but you can't imagine how pumped I was after the introductory sequence. Maybe I just needed something different, but then again, maybe this game is just totally awesome.

               These wizards totally kick ass. I'm aware of other fantasy-themed strategy games, such as SSI's Sword of Aragon, SystemSoft's Master of Monsters, and Julian Gollop's Chaos series, but I was surprised how well Koei adapted their typical brand of grand strategy into a totally unique game. The resource management is dumbed down to be sure, but it's still there, and drawing back from this allows for some excellent wargaming to shine through.

               I start as Lord Karl. I notice the typical Koei map and typical Koei stat sheet, but I'm astounded that they fit on the same screen. As mentioned before, the resource management is streamlined so you only have to deal with buildings, land, armies, food, money, and whatever that flag means. I decide to put most of my money towards recruiting troops so I can start waging war. With three territories and plenty of food, I see little point in waiting to stir things up.

               My adviser Zorax informs me that I should hire monsters. My jaw literally drops. After dealing with the same generals-with-armies setup throughout every other Koei game, it's amazing to finally have unique armies. Not only can I pay trolls and dragons to hang out with me, but Zendor, Master of Lighting, is also anxious to fight by my side. I'm overwhelmed with excitement.

               Battle is fought on a square field dotted with fences or walls. Fences can be constructed to prevent enemies from reaching your base flag or protect you from any undesirable offense. Every unit can break down or build up fences, so their usefulness is never a guarantee.

               In my first battle at Dunmoor, I have a cavalry, an archer, two fencers, and my bro Zendor. My plan is to have Zendor attack the rival wizard, while my other units will move further north and attach one opponent at a time.

               My strategy is largely effective, although I quickly realize that the direction you're opponent faces largely determines how devastating your attacks will be. I set up a fence behind the opponent's wizard and start attacking him from the rear. Meanwhile, Zendor assaults him from the front. Zendor is probably the only character who can easily take the wizard's attacks, so I'm glad the opposing wizard exclusively attacked him for whatever reason. It allows my cavalry to slip right past him so he can attack the remaining units from the west while my fencers come down from the north.

               With only my opponent's archer remaining, I have my cavalry make short work of him. I win the battle, although my rival prince quickly attacks again and overtakes Dunmoor with little effort. Evidently I didn't feel obliged to take any pictures of that failure, so you'll just have to take my word that I'm not the greatest Gemfire player in the universe.

               I quickly attempt an attack on Hyland, which is easily overtaken using the trolls I hired. Although their base is surrounded by an unbreakable wall, I have plenty of units to attack from both sides. With little effort, Hyland is mine, though again the opposing force swoops in with superior forces and pushes me back out of the territory. Damn!

               After my vacation starts in the next few weeks, I'll have more free time to work on mastering Gemfire's mechanics. My friend Will also expressed interest in playing through Gemfire with me, which will definitely motivate me to finish the game. It'll be nice to have actually beaten a Koei game that isn't Nobunaga's Ambition Game Boy Scenario.

               Tomorrow I'll be picking up a bunch of cool PS2 games and Dragon Valor for PS1, so I'll post about those, the Game Boy Color games I recently bought, and a trade I made last night for the unlikeliest party game ever conceived.

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