Saturday, February 27, 2010

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: The Best Kind of Sequel

There are many ways to do sequels in the video game world, but the most common can be summed up as "More of the same, only better." Keep what was good about the original game, tweak the things that can be improved upon, and fix anything that was broken. By that logic, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 is a resounding success.

The primary problem with the original Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a lack of easily accessible information. The GBA's screen was just too small and low-res to contain the large amounts of information a relatively complex RPG really needs, and the move to the DS fixes the problem as expected. It also adds more quests, more classes, more races, and a few other innovations that generally work to the game's benefit.

The worst of the new innovations are a set of quests called Clan Trials, which offer significant benefits, but can be excruciatingly repetitive. Also, the twenty new classes and two new races are somewhat weak, as many of the classes are redundant or even outright bad, although there are a few gems like Raptors and Tricksters.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 also has some fun with traditional RPG tropes. The characters at one point talk about how, death is rare in the game world thanks to healing magic and resurrection items, winking and nodding at decades of RPG fans who've made the same point. Even better than that, FFTA2 fixes the age-old RPG problem of new-town/better-items by adapting Final Fantasy XII's "Bazaar" system, where defeating enemies gives the player random items which can be traded in to unlock new items. The plot, meanwhile, is trifling, and the game realizes this and happily spends virtually no time on it, recognizing that the player wants more questing, less talking.

Square Enix has their tactical RPG form honed to a science, and it shows with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2. Veterans of the form will find significant improvements and interesting new quests, while newcomers to the genre will discover a game that's fast and easy to play, but filled with action and complexity. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Okami: This Is Not The End, My Wolfy Friend

Okami is a beautiful, interesting game and will get the full review it deserves soon enough, but for now, I'm interested by its beginning. Or middle. Possibly end. I'm not entirely sure. Either way, the first major section of the game is either a bizarre, poor game design decision, or a brilliant subversion of the heroic form.

The storyline of Okami is fairly similar to most other fantasy-based games - there's an ancient evil, a rebirth of an ancient hero, a quest to discover magical items to defeat the ancient evil, and so on. That's all fairly straightforward, but what's not is that that part of the game ends after 10-15 hours of play. The Big Bad, an ancient many-headed serpent named Orochi, is the focus of the game's intro and the entire plot of the game at first, complete with prophecies and quests to get items to weaken him. Then, all of the sudden, before the player has collected all of their powers, they are suddenly pushed into Orochi's sealed cave, a long, puzzle and combat-filled dungeon complete with heroic music implying that this is indeed the final confrontation with ultimate evil.

There are a few clues that it's not quite the ending that it seems to be. The game offers a wide range of collectibles, as most action/adventures do, and the player certainly won't have a complete collection of magic, items, or the various other tchotches involved in Okami. But it's still not quite so overwhelmingly obvious that I wasn't concerned that I'd missed out on half the game.

This is, generally, poor game design. If the player feels like they've completed the game, they're more likely to shelve it. If there were a Star Wars game which involved the destruction of the Death Star and death of the Emperor, a final level involving wandering around Endor picking up the garbage probably wouldn't go over terribly well.

On the other hand, Okami isn't a terribly serious game, and there's plenty of reason to believe that the heroic fantasy faux-ending isn't so much a game design failure as it is an elaborate joke. In the game world, the ancient evil was vanquished by a legendary hero and a wolf-god sidekick. The player becomes the wolf-god Amaterasu, and the ancient hero's descendant, Susano, works alongside Amaterasu in order to defeat the Big Bad. In most games, the player would be Susano, fulfilling his destiny and defeating all evil everywhere, then hooking up with his sweetheart at the end.

The subversion comes from Susano's character. He's an incompetent boob and drunken layabout who is basically guilt-tripped into trying anything at all, and once he does make any attempt at being a heroic warrior, it's only the efforts of the player, who uses magic to make Susano appear competent, which make him succeed.

If the first part of Okami is viewed as Susano's story, it's an amusing satire of fantasy game tropes. The hero is a shiftless dreamer who is forced into action, and then, based entirely on the help of his sidekick, succeeds in destroying evil and getting the girl (his village's sake brewer). Amaterasu may spend a good 15 minutes defeating the Big Bad, but Susano skates in and does his super-secret evil-destroying technique which finishes an already-completed job.

Unfortunately Okami doesn't make its satire explicit, which leads me to wonder if the scenario creators intended to satirize generic game plotting at all, or if they just stumbled into an interesting concept and stumbled right back out with a bit of genre-savvy winking at the audience.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Genres Aren't Going Anywhere

I've been running a little roughshod over the comments on this post at the Brainy Gamer, when it's really well worth a post of my own.

The post is mostly about Mass Effect 2, but makes more dramatic statements about the nature of game genres at the moment:

More than ever, genre categories seem like arbitrary labels we apply to games so they can be properly shelved.

I tend to disagree with this, and it might be in part because I'm not "in the now" in game industry terms. In general I try to step back thanks to my history-based lens, but it's even more apparent in that I really haven't played very many new games or been immersed in the gaming press for the past five years or so. It all kind of looks the same to me - not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that I'm very hesitant to say that any new game will be so important that it breaks down genre boundaries.

There are a few reasons for this. First, I tend to think that genres are a necessary part of human existence. We categorize information. They're shortcuts, or hacks, which allow us to judge new info quickly, and act on it accordingly. Sometimes this doesn't work perfectly, of course, and more often it requires major caveats along the lines of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic movie that's funny, but there's no way in hell that it's a romantic comedy" sort. But these caveats, which critics like myself may focus on, don't negate the inherent use of classification. There will always be a use for if-you-like-x-you-may-like-y.

Second, as long as genres have existed, genre-bending has existed. As I mentioned in the comments, Deus Ex was a first-person shooter role-playing game, and Quest for Glory was a role-playing adventure game, and modern action sports games like Madden have long-term strategic "franchise" modes. A single example of a game isn't enough to indicate that genre-bending is bigger now than it was then. Sometimes great games which fit between-genres redefine their genres, like franchise modes in Madden, whereas in the case of Quest for Glory, they might just be interesting experiments. If you'd asked me in the late '90's which game was more likely to redefine the computer role-playing game, Fallout or Diablo, I'd have said Diablo in a heartbeat. It had the critical and commercial consensus, and was immediately accessible. Yet Diablo has barely spawned clones, let alone a genre, whereas the Fallout style of gameplay, through Bioware, has become the default for CRPGs.

Even if does demonstrate a pattern where FPS/RPGs become common, then that's not going to eliminate the concept of genres: it'll create a new genre. Way back in the '80's, there were adventure games based around using items to solve puzzles, and there were action games which were often real-time reflex-based games. When games like The Legend of Zelda started combining puzzles with reflexes, the previous genres didn't disappear, instead they created the Action/Adventure genre!