Thursday, June 23, 2011

Composed In The Baroque Mode

I’ve been sinking quite a few hours into Sting’s role-playing game, Baroque for the Nintendo Wii. One variant of the several, historically mutable, definitions of the word ‘baroque’ is: ‘adorned or decorated so heavily the original intent is unclear’.

That would definitely fit this video game and the choice for that title has to be intentional despite Japanese developers penchant for devising titles in English that are nonsensical or ill fitting. Baroque’s mechanics are so convoluted (though the controls are simple) and its narrative so obscure that, personally, I’m incredulous that somehow this thing actually got made at all, let alone was successful enough to warrant conversions to multiple platforms.

In the heyday of the Sega Saturn, the lion’s share of my purchases were Japanese import titles. Baroque first released in 1998 looked really interesting from the screenshots and descriptions. Very murky and mysterious and cool. But the Japanese-only language issue was a problem. I’d just gone through Samurai Spirits Bushidoretsuden, the Samurai Shodown RPG, with the help of a guide and that was pretty damn labor-intensive. Good game and fun, but a lot of work. I also had the Saturn’s Japanese-language Grandia in my to-play stack. I really didn’t want yet another guide-aided slog. So I didn’t buy it.

Flash forward nearly ten years, and I see copies of a game called Baroque at my local GameStop in both the PS2 and Wii sections. WTF? Cover art and screenshots looked sort of like the game I thought of as Baroque, but not as dark and evil. Yep, plot description seems to jibe with my memory. I looked up online to be sure. Sure enough Atlus USA published remakes of the RPG Baroque in the United States. Not only was the game now totally accessible to my English-speaking self, but a lot of additional information was also in the form of an online mini-community. And while trying to avoid outright spoilers, I was reading that Baroque’s graphics were brightened up, the mechanics for controlling and fighting modernized, but that it was still considered a grueling hardcore dungeon crawl (original Wizardry came to my mind reading that stuff).

I’m already on the fence about RPGs as it is. Given that I used to play pen & paper role-playing games, and used to work for Games Workshop (not an RPG company, but fantasy toy soldiers and a lot of its customers and staff are also role-players), you’d think the genre would form a regular part of my balanced breakfast, but not so.

My indulgence in RPGs has never been more than occasional. I’ve racked up far more minutes in action games with RPG elements; basic item management and leveling up as games such as Odin Sphere or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But actual role-playing games I have played I can probably count without having to include my toes or other appendages. Two real reasons: one, I’m impatient with the learning curve and strategy aspects. While I like ‘exploring’ well-conceived game worlds, I want to just get to it. And I am (or believe I am) suck-ass at the more think-y aspects of many games including puzzles and tactics. Two, RPGs typically require A LOT of time put in. I play a lot of video games for a working parent, but sometimes it can be sporadic. I mostly go for short-burst pick up and play games that suit my lifestyle. So that’s why my ‘currently playing’ list is so dominated by arcade games like fighters and shooters. When I do have some kind of long-play title I’m working on, it’ll be an ‘action-RPG’ (SOTN mentioned above), or some first or third-person shooter, games that are not nearly as intricate and attention-demanding as RPGs are. I’m also pretty easily immersed. I don’t require dense, novel-trilogy levels of detail. I grew up as an arcade gamer and so it isn’t so easy for me to find the patience for games that really drag out at all, let alone to the levels many RPGs pad themselves out for maximum perceived value.

So weirdly, I am in some aesthetic ways someone who should like RPGs, but based on practical concerns I tend to shun them. Every now and then I'll get enough of a hankering. Most recently I played through Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast. I also bought the Virtual Console version of Chrono Trigger, like two weeks ago, but my kids have beaten me to that one for now. Baroque’s bizarre science and religion mash up story… revealed as your character continually cycles through death and rebirth…looked pretty intriguing. That the play style involved some ‘roguelike’ features; randomized dungeons, complete reset of characteristics and items upon death, just made it appealing to the so-called hardcore (okay, masochistic) side of my gamer self.

In any case, I chose to go with the Wii version. And the wiimote/nunchuk combination works fine with the game. The combat in Baroque is rather action game-y and the part of the game that resembles ‘standard RPG’ mechanics the least. You have to actually run around and fight in real-time. You can avoid enemies or circle around them to strike when they are vulnerable. My understanding is that this was tricky in the Saturn original. The dark graphics and the limitations of a first-person view made fighting difficult. Switching to third-person and clearing away the murk makes Wii Baroque much less frustrating, although it is still tough until you learn what you are doing. These fixes came at the expense of much of the game’s evil atmosphere. It may have made things difficult, but Saturn Baroque had a grim, grimy ambience that is lost to a shinier (but still fairly plain) new version. The soundtrack has been re-done too. The new one is fine to me, and quite fitting for the game, but players of the original frequently say it isn’t a patch on the Saturn’s moody industrial tunes. The story itself is largely unchanged.

Now having spent a considerable time with the game, I do find even the new version to be problematic. Most players used to other games would probably find the combat inflexible, the dungeons repetitive, and the dying/resetting aspect quite off-putting. None of that bothered me. The graphics, sound, music, and controls; none of these are cutting-edge, but they all came together for me personally.

Nope, my difficulty comes from the very heart of the game designers’ philosophy, and one of the things that made me want the game a decade ago. The way the mysterious plot and the in-game objectives are doled out.

As I said in the beginning, Baroque hides the particulars of its narrative points under layers and details. At first, you play and are trying to just figure out how to survive. Then you are trying to figure out how the items work or interact with each other. Then you are trying to figure out how to find or keep the best items. THEN you want to figure out what to do next. Apart from just going through the dungeons—what is the point? Well, NONE of this stuff is spelled out for the player. The manual has a lot of words in it but doesn’t really put the system together. The manner in which items are used for various effects (there’s no magic system) is discovered through trial, error, and numerous deaths. The non-player character dialogues are cryptic in the extreme, but critical to the game. All of this reflects the Japanese original quite accurately and effectively simulates your avatar who, in the story, has no memory and no idea what to do. Story and objectives are progressed by hearing dialogues, but it can frequently take many conversations with multiple characters just to dial in a single goal. And the whole time you are running around trying to find these conversations, you are highly vulnerable and still trying to work out other basic aspects of the game, like trying live long enough and not just die and repeat the upper few levels of the dungeon…again.

Most dialogues are triggered by items given to the speaker. There are hundreds of items in the game, with the player having a limited inventory. So again, a lot of running around and experimenting. This may be the first collect-a-thon type of game where collecting every goshdamn thing is integral to the story and not just a bonus for completists. You can complete a Mario game without finding all the stars, but in Baroque, you really have to pay attention to what you’ve acquired so you know what moves the game itself along. Add to THAT enemies and objects that can take your shit away from you… and yeah, a TON of work. And you MUST die multiple times. On paper that seems like a cool, hardcore concept, but in practice it isn’t so simple when the game severely limits what you will be able to keep with you the next time you resurrect. There IS a system for moving items around or hanging on them for your next incarnation, but the way its done is all part of the game’s strategic underpinnings… and while I wouldn’t say it is tedious exactly… it is a lot of work.

The game lets you save after each completed dungeon level. So I kind of found myself keeping a couple of save points running at all times, so that I could revert to a previous happier moment if something untoward happened, frequently the loss of a needed item rather than a death. I generally didn’t allow myself to ‘die’, as it were, until I’d gotten to the end of each dungeon run, where you have to either die or be absorbed by the game’s deity. Which usually furthers the narrative.

At this point, near the completion of the game, I’ve had numerous restarts from save points but my character himself is on his eleventh incarnation. From my understanding this is pretty fuckin’ speedy. A lot of players have logged many many more hours than I have. Here’s the thing, though. This is a game for completionists. For players who like to winkle out every detail and every nuance. It is for gamers who don’t mind plugging through the same hallways and rooms, because there’ll be some other weird item to find or slice of dialogue to hear. The game has extensive screens for tracking everything you find. I get the appeal of this, and I even find it compelling myself to a certain point… but it isn’t for me. I made time for an RPG, but I didn’t make time for the most demanding collect-a-thon I’ve ever heard of. So I did something I’m not proud of:

I used a guide.

Not just for one hint. Not just to find some devilishly well-hidden item. I mean I used it EXTENSIVELY.

It happens every now and then that I’ll hit up an online guide or walkthrough when I’ve reached my limit on trying to figure out an objective. That’s probably my most common reason. I can’t get my head around the various clues given in the game, if in fact there are any clues—some games as we know, don’t always work logically—so I hit up some online help to connect me to the next step. Less frequently I might look up tips or strategies to beating a troublesome level or boss. But in the main, I consider it pretty easy to get too much help and spoil the experience. So I try to be judicious. This is really the way most mature gamers use helps or walkthroughs, but it has been a bitch to explain to my son, who doesn’t understand how figuring shit out is ‘more fun’ than having your hand held through the whole thing. I’ve resorted to hazing and sarcasm to keep him away from guides.

If I’m going to use help in any significant way, I’ll buy the actual printed official book and use it AFTER I’ve completed whatever basic story mode or campaign is the backbone of the game. As I said, I’m not a collector-maniac in video games, but sometimes it is cool to continue to poke around for stuff. So for some games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, or Brutal Legend, I liked the game worlds so much that it was fun to buy a guide, and explore to get to previously unseen areas or find items or learn to play the game better or in unconventional ways. I don’t think looking under every rock and tree is loads of fun, but having the guides gives me a bit more incentive to spend some extra time in a game world without the tedium of endless clueless searching. I also frequently buy guides for fighting games. For some reason I just prefer my move lists in front of me in print, rather than pausing the game to look it up onscreen.

I avoided buying Saturn Baroque because I didn’t want to eke through it inch by inch using a guide to get around the Japanese…but that feels like what I did with the English version anyway! As I was playing, early on it became apparent I would not have the patience to work the details of this game out on my own. So I went to a walkthrough intending to just learn how the items, item combination, and inventory system worked.

But as I played and discovered that every single tidbit of information (necessary and otherwise) was going to be delivered in the same obtuse, miserly manner, I caved and started fishing out what my actual goals and objectives were. Who to talk to, where they were located, and what item to give them. I managed to avoid actual plot spoilers, so the central desire to find out what ‘the story’ was about remained for me, but that was about the only discovery aspect I got to experience. As much as I hate using a guide it is hard for me to say this actually ruined the game for me. I would like to stumble upon meaningful events on my own, but the amount of play time required for this was just more than I could possibly afford. So I sort of reduced the actual play mechanics to the same level of directness that almost every other RPG employs. ‘Take this magic book to the wizard who lives in the tower’ might be something an NPC would say to you in your traditional role-playing game, so I kinda forced that onto my game of Baroque. I’m not thrilled to admit it, but as compelling as the story is, I would NOT have stuck with the game if left entirely to my own devices. Life’s too fucking short.

In hindsight, I can now see a sort of ‘play formula’ that I could’ve used to get through the game without a guide to the objectives. It’d still require that the player know more about the basic mechanics than the manual or the game really tells you, but I could write up a breakdown that would leave all the surprises and discovery intact while giving the player a better shove out the gate. And in fact, some people have done this; they just aren’t quite ‘explanatory’ enough, I don’t think. Maybe I should start up a page on this blog for this purpose. ‘KOG’s Truly Useful Guide To Baroque’.

Here’s an odd final note: Like some RPGs (and a few other types of games), Baroque has a post-campaign scenario, an endgame. If a player completes these epilogues it’ll usually net you the complete, true, or additional ending. Chrono Trigger is pretty well known for this, allowing you to take your fabulously leveled-up protagonist back through the story, now able to take on the final boss at his earlier appearances in the game and so get a different ending, depending on where in the chronology you destroy him.

After Baroques’ credits roll, you strangely find yourself resurrected yet again. Ostensibly, this would help the collecto-freaks this game caters to continue to work at filling in all the item slots in the database, but supposedly if you accomplish such-and-such-and-such (yes, I used the guide to see if there were, in fact, any goals in this endgame) you actually bring some dead NPCs back to life and redirect the course of events again. The such-and-such-and such are actually pretty complicated, involving hunting down dozens of items and bringing them out of the dungeon over the course of multiple runs. So I figured that was pretty much all she wrote for my continued involvement. As I said, this game makes fanatic collecting a literal part of the game, and there’s this huge stretch ahead that I didn’t really want to indulge. But on a whim, I thought I’d just check out the dungeon one last time, seeing what was different now that I’d ‘saved the world’.

Not much was. BUT. At the bottom of the dungeon, I got the dialogue saying I’d triggered the final set of events. I didn’t DO the such-and-such-and-such that the guide says you need to do. I just played as well as I could and then went back in one more time for old times’ sake. So just to test if I really was in the final stretch, I entered the dungeon and headed right for the floor the guide indicated would house the first set of ‘final’ enemies. And there they were. I was loaded up on invincibility items (just in case) and it wound up that I needed them. Then I actually killed the creatures. So now I find myself somewhat jazzed at the idea of actually completing the full story arc, which seemed like a lark only a day ago. I don’t know how it happened, but I am only three or four dungeon runs from finishing the narrative aspects of the game. One run for each set of the final enemies. It seemed like I was going to have to resort to reading the dialogue online or watching Youtube clips of the final section, but I’m glad I held off on doing that.

In a day or two, the game should be done, and I’ll feel really fortunate that somehow, using a guide, I manage to play this intriguing, difficult game while divesting myself of all the bullshit in it that would’ve made me throw in the towel ages ago. Despite my guide-guilt I feel like it’s a really good game, but there’s so much about it that makes it difficult to just outright recommend.

(image kyped from Daily Record UK)


  1. I love this game. And Roguelikes in general. Good (if very, very long) review ;)

  2. Bastard.
    Long time no see.
    I hope everything's okay with you.