Saturday, November 22, 2014

Diary Entry #45: Star Ocean 2 Do Not Have The Value

            I remember balking at ads for PS1 games throughout the late '90s. At the time, I was an NES purist. We only owned three different game consoles: the Sega Game Gear, the Sega Pico, and the NES. I balked at the silly 3D images of Final Fantasy VII's huge marketing campaign, thinking about how stupid it all looked in comparison to my beloved 8-bit Final Fantasy.

            But in 1999, Star Ocean: Second Story's ad was played continuously on Cartoon Network. Years later after the actual content of the ad has faded from my memory, I can still recall how the ad made the spry, twelve-year old me feel. Did they show the little 2D people running around hitting each other? Did it show clips from the games 3D cutscenes? My girlfriend and I have only managed to uncover an old French ad, but I'm pretty sure the original ad had a robotic female voice telling me about the game's features. I do remember the ad boasting about the eighty different endings available in the game, which to me was unheard of. I could play this game EIGHTY TIMES and it would never be the same!

            Based on how often they ran the ad, this was Enix's attempt at having their own Final Fantasy VII, but I never really heard anyone talk about the game. If anyone ever did mention it, my eyes lit up and I started blathering on about how great this ad was.

            Eventually, I managed to pick up the PSP remake of the game. The battle system was ingenious, with everyone running around wildly swatting and casting spells at creatures. You could set it up so that the game would play itself, or you could switch between your party members and take control of any of them at one time. Still, something didn't sit right with me. I wanted to play the original Star Ocean: Second Story, the one whose ads lit my face up and finally got me interested in 32-bit gaming.

            And now, fifteen years after that pivotal commercial, I'm knocking on the final boss's door. I broke down, got the game, and went through virtually everything Star Ocean 2 had to offer. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my deeply-rooted personal hype.

            The company behind the game, tri-Ace, is either a very lucky company or an extremely talented group of developers. Over the past twenty years, they've gone from being a small independent company to being vanguards of the Japanese RPG. After years of Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile games and releasing seven games in their first decade of existence, the past several years have seen them developing three games a year for big name publishers like Square Enix and Sega.

            Founded in 1996, the company was comprised largely of people who left Wolfteam during the troubled development of Tales of Phantasia. Prior to that game, Wolfteam was known in the west for it's Genesis and Sega CD games, ranging from the Castlevania clonery of Earnest Evans to the FMV auto action of Road Avenger. Phantasia benefits from this pedigree, reinventing the side-scrolling action RPG into something entirely new. Rather than having a Zelda 2-esque action title, the game's traditional JRPG random encounters are all in real time, with most of the strategy lying in your positioning of your party and timing of discrete attacks. Even better is the over-the-top use of digitized voice effects, with every character spouting silly battle cries and victory pomps. It's all very fun, and you can tell the Super Famicom hardware is being stretched to its limits.

            With all the main designers moving to tri-Ace, it's no surprise their first game uses some very similar principles. Star Ocean uses tons of recorded voice and a real-time battle system, although it's one of the first "it plays itself" style games. Ditching Phantasia's side-scrolling view, fights take place across a large battlefield where characters automatically attack based on the player's menu options. At the time, this was probably super innovative, but nowadays it's Square Enix's status quo. Final Fantasy XIII's battles are a prime example, forcing the player to choose between different fighting styles and just watch everything automatically unfold. Not surprising that Final Fantasy XIII's two sequels were developed in part by tri-Ace. 

            Expectations were astronomical coming into the game, and at first, I thought everything was alright. Great battle system, complex-ish skill development, cool digitized voices during fights, and some fairly interesting visuals peaked my interest. Unfortunately, early on, the games awful storyline managed to ruin much of the enjoyment.

            The game features two scenarios, although I'm sure they're largely the same. Claude is in the space military because he does whatever Commodore daddy tells him to, and Rena is part of a mystical race with special powers. Of course, they've got a budding romance thing that EVERY CHARACTER has to comment on or allude to in the first five hours of the game, and they're ALWAYS embarrassed by the implication. Here's a small thumbnail gallery of examples:

            It's obnoxious, and it doesn't get any better as the game goes on. Later, the game tries to shoehorn in a bunch of pop-psychology crap about the tension between Claude and his father. Perhaps the most striking scene is near the beginning of the second disc, where we delve deep into Claude's brain and uncover this: 

            How do I react to these decadently pixelated close-ups? Was this what developers had in mind when they created sprite scaling and rotation effects?

            Who writes this crap? Who does this appeal to? Embarrassed that someone might think you have a boyfriend? Shouting at your super-pixelated father? Perhaps the girlfriend-less, twelve-year-old me could relate to it. Crotchety old me doesn't.

            Even more trashy are the CG cutscenes. This strange pink Elvis demon looks even worse than pixel-face dad. I understand that Final Fantasy VII had a ton of awesome cutscenes, but those were integrated in fun and interesting ways. Here, there's just four random cutscenes that mostly look like trash.

            It's unfair to say any game is bad just because the story sucks, but Star Ocean's dialogue is so verbose and the cutscenes are so long that it totally ruins the experience. Do I really have to know what everybody thinks of each other? Do I really have to wade through twenty lines of dialogue about how cute a character is or general "how's everything going?" type deals. I don't mind the thirty second spell cast animations, but why do I have to know what everyone's thinking at all times?

            All of this functions to wear down the player, forcing them to endure hours of wordy garbage to go through the occasional dungeon. Perhaps the second biggest problem was no effort on the games part to explain the smithing or crafting aspects of the game. The only time I actually needed hyper-powerful weapons was the last two bosses, which is just plain rude. 

            And the eighty different endings? My one sucked. The characters just talk some more until the game ends. So much for playing the game seventy-nine more times.

            The game ends with the phrase "DO LIFEFORMS WHICH DO NOT EVOLVE HAVE THE VALUE?" Probably a desperate attempt to draw from the genes/cloning themes of Metal Gear Solid and FFVII. Talk about a flaming bullshit aftertaste. And why keep that as the only piece of Engrish in the entire game?

            So my hopes and dreams were deflated. Moving on.

            Currently I'm dabbling in both Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean 1. I compared them a little bit here, but I look forward to going into much more detail. I'm also playing Hokuto no Ken 4 for the Famicom, and I'll probably start something else. Either way, I'm going to be playing four RPGs at once.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Diary Entry #44: Ain't No Ghetto RPG Party Like A PS1 Ghetto RPG Party

            A lot of people heap tons of praise on the SNES RPG library. With all the Fantasies and Illusions and Brain Lords, it's jam packed with JRPG classics. Still, there's a problem: a huge chunk of these greats stayed on the Super Famicom, never to reach American shores. Most criminal is the loss of Akitoshi Kawazu's directorial output, the Romancing SaGa games and the phenomenal Treasure of the Rudras.

             Even more criminal is that we missed the JRPG dung heap. No Hokuto no Ken V, no Ancient Magic: Bazoe!, no Aretha 2, no nothing. It wasn't until years later when games like Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon took JRPGs to the top of the sales charts, and all of a sudden many companies were releasing anything remotely RPG-like for a quick buck.

             Monster Seed is a grand example of this. Developed by NK System, whose only other game is the awesome looking Koukai Sarena Katta Shuki: The Note, Monster Seed is Pokemon with an extra chromosome added in for good measure. Imagine having to punch Psyduck in the face and he cusses back at you. That's Monster Seed.

             Rather than catching animals in the wild, you have create them in a strange incubation machine. The creatures are created through a strange process involving choosing different fluids and a setting a specific baking temperature. In the end, you get something that looks like this:


             Battles are on a square-grid map similar to tactical RPGs, with characters taking turns moving about and picking their attacks. When calling your creatures, they initially appear as little glowing orbs for one or two rounds before actually appearing, a feature that never really effects anything since it takes the opposing Monster Seeder the same amount of time to generate their allies.

             One of the worst aspects of the game is how small the battle areas are. This ugly and confusing fight pretty much characterizes the entire game, with six or seven creatures all snuggling together and sometimes hitting something.

             The dungeons are pretty straightforward, but I do appreciate the occasional old-school touch. In the first dungeon, the player character has to avoid giant spikes and pendulum axes to survive. Not nearly as cool as Wizardry's poison/exploding treasure chests, but the thought counts.

             Arc the Lad is a much bigger name series in Japan, published by Sony themselves and probably getting a nice marketing push as a result. With it's 1995 release date, it's one of the PS1's first RPGs, although it wasn't published in America until the immortal Working Designs brought it over six years later. As usual with the company, the dialogue is spiced with some goofy humor, but everything else remains intact.

             In comparison to the Final Fantasy VIII's and Legend of Dragoon's people were accustomed to by 2001, Arc the Lad looks like a 16-bit shit. Super-deformed midgets riding airships and talking about defeating the big evil is something JRPG fans have experienced countless times over. To be fair, Arc the Lad should be compared to other games from 1995 like Chrono Trigger, but it's difficult to cast aside the notion that this game is simply archaic.

             The battle system doesn't do much to add any complexity. Imagine the most generic tactical RPG of all time and you've got Arc the Lad. There's no rock-paper-scissors system or formation-heavy planning. Walk up to stuff, press attack, do it again. 

             The only battle variety occurs when enemies block your magic attacks. This can really ruin any battle where strong attackers are present, although this predicament seldom appears. My personal favorite magic attack involves a strange angel figure appears out of nowhere and showers the enemies with thunder and lightening. Looks awesome and terrible.

             The grand, sweeping melodrama is refreshingly stupid, especially since I just dipped my head into the obnoxiously stupid Tales of Xilia. Everyone's got a chip on their shoulder, ranging from parental fatality to wishing they were a musician. No confusing "I harness the power of elemental spirits that I lost so please help me kid who's still in high school" garbage, just a bunch of pissed off rebels who are ready to kick some evil ass.

             Refreshingly stupid is really the only way to describe Arc the Lad, packed full of the same old stuff in the most direct package possible. Concise battles, goofy cutscenes, and a whole lot of little else in between. Moves quick, kicks ass, great game.

             Digimon World 3, on the other hand, confuses the hell out of me. The opening cutscene, comprised entirely of your character walking into different rooms, is way too long, and finally ends with you meeting your Digimon. Why do so many Pokemon rip-offs have the monsters speaking in English?

             The battles look totally high-tech; bright pink Digi-worlds like these are one of the reasons they put seizure warnings on video games  nowadays. You'd think a game coming at the tail end of the PS1's life would look awesome, but Digimon World 3 looks absurdly cheap.

             These old men want to become Digimon. What?

             I've walked around the Digi-city for twenty extra minutes and could not find a way to fight anything else. I give it a 2/1000. You can simplify that to a 1/500 if you want.

             In addition to these greats, I've also played Granstream Saga and Beyond the Beyond, with the latter playing a lot better than most of Camelot's Shining games. I might continue Tales of Xilia, I might play Arc the Lad. I might play my guitar. I could probably use a shower. Not all at the same time.