Friday, November 13, 2009

Beautiful Slog

If you’ve read any game forum bitching from me over the last two months, it has largely revolved around one game, Odin Sphere for the PS2.

Back in 1997, a game called Princess Crown came out for the Sega Saturn. This game was being hailed as the cat’s ass at the time, for its phenomenal graphics, outstanding music and production values, and its real-time battle sequences. Being the import-crazy fan that I was (am) and with all the critical nods, it wasn’t long after its Japan-only release that I bought a copy. It didn’t disappoint. The combat was kind of quirky. Although it looked like a 2d fighting game, it still had something of the ‘we each take a turn’ flow of an RPG. It was in real-time, but the recovery times, power bar, and other aspects made it so you couldn’t just whale away like you might in Street Fighter. It was more tactical. Timing your defense (blocking or evading) could be difficult, especially given how committed you were once your character entered the combo slash sequence. Wise item use was also required, with inventory management important even during a fight. But the cool story, amazing artwork, and just all-around uniqueness of the game made it enjoyable and memorable. Once you got the hang of the fighting, the only downside was that all those incredible art assets meant that the development time and budget would only go so far, and to get the game up to an appropriate length quite a bit of repetition is involved in backgrounds, enemies, and soundtrack.

I guess the length a game of this type needs to be will be a major fiber in the fabic of this ‘blog entry. Odin Sphere was released ten years after Princess Crown, but is still very much a similar animal. Now on the next generation of hardware, Odin Sphere kept Princess Crown’s core play concepts the same while improving in almost every area (except the aforementioned length). Again, the fighting is quirky and oddly reminiscent of RPG combat, with copious inventories and gaining levels in both magic points and hit points.
But the graphics, animation and music are onto a whole ‘nother level of kickass. HG101 states this as making all other PS2 games ‘embarrassing’ by comparison, and I have to agree...with the addition that if you are a fan of 2d artwork it might make ALL other games embarrassing, even through the current generation. I’m not going to go so far as to say it is the best looking and sounding game EVER, but it is probably in the top few. I’m not even going to brook discussion about that. If you go online and watch videos of this thing and still don’t agree, you’re fucking blind and an imbecile. Begone.

I dislike the term 'action-RPG' because it has come to mean so many different things to so many different people... and ANY game with a protagonist that progresses in his/her abilities (levels up usually) and isn't turn-based seems to get saddled with that epithet. In this case action-RPG seems to be appropriate, to me at any rate, since I tend to use it exclusively for RPGs that have combat and movement in real-time and not games like Dynasty Warriors or Castlevanian: Symphony of the Night.

In this game, the blending of genres is done well on the surface, but as I played became central to the issues I have with the game. On the one hand, if you play a role-playing game, you know what you're in for time-and-effort-wise. Whether the game is long or short by RPG standards, you understand going into it that it is going to be detailed, involved, and more brain-centered than twitch-heavy. Action games are just the opposite. Your brain may be engaged in sorting out puzzle sections, finding all the hidden items, or figuring out how to beat a boss, but the game is still expected to move along at a brisk pace, and your progress is down to your (physical) skill at jumping, hitting, or shooting. If an item is absolutely necessary for progress it is usually provided to you right in the flow of the game. To me there are two totally different mindsets in place here. Playing an RPG is like settling in with a good long book. You learn about the characters and their backstories, there's no hurry to blast through it. The exploration and learning is THE thing. Action games are more like an issue of monthly magazine. Colorful, entertaining, quickly moving you along to the next treat for your senses, and (with the good ones) over too soon.

For Odin Sphere, the action elements propel you through the game... run through each area to defeat the hordes of enemies and get to the incredible boss. But the RPG elements run counter to this and actually hinder you. George Kamitani, director of Odin Sphere, acknowledged this problem in a recent interview. He called it 'confusion' for players over whether they should be approaching the game as an RPG, and taking time to level up, OR as an action game, taking on the enemies through sheer skill. He calls it exactly right. Because of the fighting game nature of the combat, even though it is quirky to learn how to fight without getting hit too much, once you get the hang of it you can make up for a lack of items and hit points with skillful play. Until you get to a boss. Then your failure to 'level up properly' will hit you right in the balls. The bosses do not play like fighting game opponents and frequently have shit dropping from the sky or area effect weapons. Going in to these encounters requires you have enough healing items, and enough hit points to be able to weather the undodgeable attacks... exactly what the player, heady with his action/fighting skills, probably did not account for. Your characters move quickly. The controls are responsive. The item inventories are available right there on the main screen, with no flipping through menus. Everything 'feels' like you should be able to just 'fight' your way all the way to the end. Once I'd figured out the timing, and how to avoid getting hit so much, the combat worked pretty well. And the levels were brisk and short.

But no. There's a reason why the game makes it simple to back out of various screens or return to the overworld map to choose a new area; you are going to have to grind for items and levels. By the time you get your ass leveled and equipped to the nines, upon marching through the areas again on the way to that boss you need to beat, you will find the all the rest of the fighting to be a cakewalk. The bosses are really the only thing you NEED to approach with an RPG mindset, but the effort involved will take up a lot of the time spent in the game.

Perversely, there then seems to have been a realisation on the part of the designers that the game really IS too fast for something so akin (in spirit at least) to an intricately plotted RPG. 'We have all this great production-- graphics, soundtrack, voice acting, writing-- we need to keep the players in here for a while'. So in addition to the need to grind to beat bosses, they also made five characters you have to play through, all of them seven chapters (areas) in length, with complete stories for each. The plot of each character is unique, as are their combat attacks, but the stories intersect and overlap so you have to go through the same limited number of areas, enemies and bosses every time. Each character has maybe one boss that is unique to them. This is a way for Vanillaware to use the same production assets to give you a game five times longer than it would be if it was just a one-character action game and fills it out to decent-sized RPG length.
As I said though, it doesn't PLAY like an RPG. It was just a drag to have to go through the same areas, with the same enemies over and over again. The unique attacks for each character helped. And fortunately (this is a big fortunately) subsequent characters get access to all the stuff learned by previous characters. So if you found a really useful potion recipe early on, you can equip with it very quickly in the later stories. As there is a grinding opportunity purposely made available to you right before the climax, you can even take early characters and go get some of the later-found recipes and items for them. For instance, you don't learn to make the super-healing Elixer potion until the third or fourth character, so you need to take the first few back out to make some Elixirs in preparation for their final encounters. Honestly, five characters to go through is too much. Or if they'd felt it important to have the player actually BE all five, then they could've cut the number of chapters each from seven down to four.

All this verbiage makes it plain that the game is a slog. No matter how beautiful, most players are not going to want to see the same thing over and over and over again. So why keep playing? Why did I plug a little over fifty hours into this thing?

It has quite a bit more going for it than just being pretty or having a great soundtrack. Both those aspects get repetitive no matter how well done. The framework that all these stories hang upon is the idea that a little girl is up in her attic reading each character's plot as a book. The books all tell some aspect of the world's prophesied final days. Each character is a key figure. So as you read each book, the characters meet each other, or you learn about a sequence of events from another point of view. As you play, all of this echoes a poem written about the game world's 'armageddon'. The poem has a number of stanzas with allegorical figures described participating in the end times. Seeing how this is all going to play out is pretty appealing since, in spite of too much time spent playing them, you really do learn to have an interest in the five. The plot is melodramatic in the extreme. Every character is doomed, sad, and depressed. Though they typically end up on a positive note in each of their respective books, they go through angsty, abusive hell to get there. There are lovers torn apart, parental yearning and abuse, heroes with no idea their true past, etc. etc. But Odin Sphere has such a good localisation in both the actual dialogue written and the voice acting that the game really sells the drama. Going through the first book, I was amazed by the quality, but rolling my eyes at how 'serious' it all was (so soon in the game). Several hours later I was totally buying into it, and actually found myself quite moved at parts. The scenery, soundtrack, and enemies may be repetitive but I was really rooting for these characters to turn out okay. As you get to the later books you already know how some characters are going to end up, but the game is so well done that it is still fascinating to see how they get there.

The final character, Velvet, has a story that ties up the threads from all the other protagonists. She knows more, and discovers more, than the others about the nature of the events they've all been going through. Her book finally reveals the prophecy poem and ends the individual character narratives. It is at this point that the tales from the books intersect with the larger meta-frame of the girl in the attic. A last book becomes available and playing it makes the final fate of all the characters known. The suspense ratchets up another notch, as the player is faced with one last encounter for each hero, all but one of them an uber-boss that you have never fought up to this point. As grueling as the grinding and repetition got to be, after all the heart and effort put by the designers into the game (and by the player in getting to the end) the climax plays out in truly epic fashion. I was hoping (and had read) that the end made all the work worthwhile. And it really did. Apart from the armageddon encounters being visually incredible (in an already incredible-looking game, mind you) they were mostly unlike anything that had gone before, and forced me to take two characters a little ways back through their individual books to get a few more items. After you are done, if you match the right character to the right finale (the prophecy gives clues to how to do this) the ending is a 20 minute piece of sheer awesome. I'd venture to say it might be the best video game ending ever... certainly in terms of how much work went into it.
It kind of took knowing that the last book was going to be great, though not how it would actually play out, to keep me grinding on. I kind of feel bad for anyone who tried this early on in the game's shelf life and just petered out playing it. To be fair, each hero gets their story done faster than the previous ones, because the player is better AND they have access to previously discovered assets. But in those days just after Odin Sphere's release new players would have to have played Princess Crown to have some idea what the game could have in store, and Princess Crown was released TEN YEARS prior.

My kids who had been following my progress through the game off and on, were riveted by most of the armageddon encounters and the ending. So much so that they immediately started their own save files, though I doubt they'll actually persevere through the game.

Odin Sphere winds up being one of those things I would recommend with reservations. Like a movie you know is great but has subject matter that could be objectionable. Now that its over, I'm really glad I played it. And all the levels, cutscenes, and ending bits are available for replay at any time. If I wanted to play it again it would be a relative breeze, given the ability to skip around, and the awesome saved state of the heroes. Its odd having something with so much going for it that you still have to do so much explaining about the drawbacks. That's what this whole post is, and that's what I'd have to do in recommending the game to a potential player.
If you don't mind grueling stretches of repetition, going through the same motions again and again just for snatches of plot, its really great! Some kind of sales pitch that is.

Vanillaware has recently released Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Nintendo wii. I've mucked around with it a bit, and it looks to have similarly stellar production values and artwork. Based on the aforementioned interview with the director, Vanillaware knows all the drawbacks to Odin Sphere and addressed them in this new game. They've gone for more of an action game, keeping the items and leveling up, but making placing it more in the flow of the game. It appears that if you get somewhere then you are equipped to deal with whatever appears there. There are also only two characters to play through. I don't know how long their stories are yet, but it would be almost impossible for this game to be bloated like Odin Sphere. I know there is repetition. That's pretty much the price you pay for the incredible graphics and music on the budget of a smaller studio. See my blog entry about Earth Defense Force 2017 for a related topic.

I'm looking forward to it, but I need a break. I'm going to concentrate on driving games and a few STGs before tackling Muramasa.
Hm. Those games are also from cult Japanese developers. I smell 'blog entries coming on for those too.
(image kyped from HG101)

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