Saturday, November 28, 2015

Glittering Prizes

Etrian Mystery Dungeon is the result of a collaboration between Atlus, responsible for the Etrian Odyssey series, and Chunsoft, developer of such titles as Shiren the Wanderer and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. It is a turn-based roguelike set in the Etrian Odyssey universe and features several classes lifted straight from main entries in the series. The skill tree system returns from Etrian Odyssey IV, but subclassing is noticeably absent, ostensibly for the sake of simplicity. 

Gameplay is not altogether too different from Etrian Odyssey, when it comes down to it. Players are tasked with plumbing the depths of various dungeons, acquiring gold, items, and experience as they do so. It is possible through repetitive journeys into these dungeons to progess further down where a boss will frequently await. Of course, conversely to the main Etrian Odyssey series, the dungeons in EMD are mostly randomized. Each trip will likely be very different from the last. There also isn't much in the way of puzzles or unique exploration mechanics. The ninja class can walk on water to subvert certain obstacles, but it's seldom necessary to think outside the box to progress.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon almost feels like an arcade game with heavy RPG elements. Each of the four characters in your party has a fatigue gauge that gradually drains as you walk around--but it can be replenished with food and by walking over some suspiciously-colored amber tiles scattered throughout the dungeons. These tiles also restore 1 TP apiece, meaning it is possible to sustain very long journeys into the labyrinths. This is good, because the series staple item Ariadne Thread--an item which allows instant return to town--is much more rare this time around. It is only infrequently available to purchase and drops seldom from slain monsters. Combine this issue with the fact that you'll lose all items upon death and you'll run into plenty of frustrating situations and lost progress.

The Etrian Odyssey series has always been punishingly diffcult, but Etrian Mystery Dungeon really ramps it up as far as penalties are concerned. Losing equipped items upon being vanquished is insanely frustrating, particularly when you have gear you've wasted precious armory scrolls on to upgrade. There's no way to restore a previous save to try again, either--because the game automatically saves your progress upon death. You can choose to call your party back and lose precious items, or send a rescue party (comprised of characters you'll also have to have leveled up prevously) to bring them back. Now, assuming your rescue fails, those party members will lose items too. I can't imagine why anyone thought this was a good gameplay concept.

The base game is actually pretty fun, even if the options for character building are thin in comparison to the third and fourth games of the series. The Protector class invalidates most other available strategies due to the game-warping power of Provoke--a taunt that works without fail and consistently protects party members from harm. I couldn't help but be reminded of the imbalanced power of the Protector and Medic classes from the original Etrian Odyssey. I wanted to try the ninja as my "tank"of choice instead, but it would have made the game a lot harder and by a certain point I just wanted to be done with it.

I have mixed feelings about Etrian Mystery Dungeon. I really enjoy the concept--and I do think Etrian Odyssey works in roguelike format--but I think the classes could have been a little more interesting and the dungeons themselves more inventive. I'd jump to try a more polished sequel, though.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Etrian Countdown

Sometime early last year, I read an article previewing a game called Etrian Mystery Dungeon, a spin-off of Etrian Odyssey, a series of dungeon crawlers featuring random encounters, turn-based combat, and mapmaking. I'd already decided to tackle the EO series by this point after successfully completing (and greatly enjoying) Persona Q, another spin-off/crossover with Persona 3/4. I wrote about this game at length at the very beginning of the year. Sometime shortly after that, I started Etrian Odyssey, with the goal in mind to complete all four of the principal entries of the series and then follow with Etrian Mystery Dungeon. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I completed the first three games of the Etrian Odyssey series sequentially without really playing anything else in between. Each took me about a month to plow through due to their unparalleled difficulty and complexity. Although I found the games to be immensely frustrating, they were also quite rewarding. I was already familiar with the gameplay thanks to Persona Q, but found it somewhat difficult to adjust to the lack of frills by comparison. Persona Q had a wealth of Etrian Odyssey titles to draw on to streamline the experience--and unlike the main entries in the series, Persona Q featured no classes or complex skill trees to navigate. Most of that side of the gameplay came from the Persona series. Etran Odyssey is brutal and unforgiving by comparison, but I found it quite satisfying to conquer the game's challenges as I plumbed the depths of the games' respective labyrinths.

What I found compelling most of all about Etrian Odyssey has nothing to do with the dungeon design or mapmaking. To be honest, I mostly found these aspects pretty frustrating, especially in comparison with later entries in the series. What interests me most of all about each successive Etian Odyssey entry is the amount of gameplay to be found in putting an adventuring party together. There are a number of classes available in each of these games, all with a series of unique abilities with woefully vague descriptions. I found myself doing a ton of research on classes, builds, and party compositions as I played through these games--but I still derived a lot of satisfaction from exercising creativity in putting my party together.

The first two games in the series were host to several glaringly broken mechanics, most notably the ridiculous power of the Medic's Immunize in the first game, and the entire Dark Hunter class in the second. And you'd better believe I abused them both--because even with access to these powerful mechanics, these games are hard. When I got around to playing Etrian Odyssey III, I discovered there weren't very many especially powerful mechanics to abuse and so I felt I made slower progress. Fortunately, it was also the first game in the series to introduce dual-classing, a mechanic that vastly increased the complexity of the party composition process. Each character could effectively be two classes at once with surprisingly few restrictions. More restrictions were inevitably put in place by Etrian Odyssey IV--which I didn't end up playing until several months later.

After playing three Etrian Odyssey games straight, I was beyond burnt out. I saw dungeons and maps in my dreams. I was intrigued by the pretty 3D graphics of Etrian Odyssey IV and curious about how it would take the sublcass mechanic and sailing mechanics from EOIII and expand on them--but I knew at the time that I just didn't have the heart for it. My original goal was to blaze through the EO series and be ready to play Etrian Mystery Dungeon around release day, but that certainly didn't happen. I finished the third game almost a month after EMD's release, so I left it to languish while I played a lot of other games. It wasn't until probably four months later that I finally did get around to it.

I found Etrian Odyssey IV pretty refreshing after a break from the series. The graphics were massively improved and the gameplay and interface significantly streamlined. Sailing became flying (with an airship) and was integrated more into the main gameplay instead of being separated into its own thing. The dungeons are separate and have distinct identities instead of being interconnected into one giant Tartarus-esque super labyrinth. The classes are interesting and distinct. It is probably the most solid entry into the series so far, even if there are certain aspects from Etrian Odyssey III that I prefer. I missed creative classes like Ninja and Wilder--but was pleased with new additions like the Imperial and Nightseeker. As with all Etrian Odyssey games, it did eventually become a bit of a chore what with the endless grinding and soul-crushing repetition of venturing ever deeper into the game's deepest dungeons--but I still felt immensely satisfied when I finally completed it.

At this point I decided to take another break. Earlier in the year it had been no big deal to play several Etrian games in succession, but I think that wore me down for good. I worked on other things for a month and then I finally started Etrian Mystery Dungeon, a full seven months after it was released. I finished it last night, but now that I've written so much about the events leading up to it, I think I'd rather talk about it in my next entry.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Saviors of Orience

I discussed at length the possibility of buying a PlayStation 4 several months back on this blog but I didn't follow through on those plans until relatively recently. Final Fantasy Type 0 HD was my only game purchase at the time, but I have since also acquired Disgaea 5. I've finished Type 0 (after a month of playing in short bursts) but won't be able to play Disgaea 5 until I've finished Disgaea D2 for the PS3. Of course, I've been a lot busier lately, so there's no telling just how long it's going to take me to work through my current round of games. I may be a bit burned out by the time Disgaea 5 comes into the rotation--and then of course there's Final Fantasy XV and Persona 5 on the horizon.

Of course, Type 0 is not a straight up PS4 game. It's an enhanced port of a game originally only released in Japanese on the PSP. In some cases, this is blindingly apparent. While the game's main cast of 14 playable characters received a massive graphical overhaul, the game's host of NPCs are noticeably blurry and indistinct on my 46" HD display. The graphical inconsistency isn't a dealbreaker of course, because the gameplay itself is quite fun. Unlike many main series Final Fantasy games, Type 0 is structured more like an action game, with an emphasis on controlling a single character at a time--although it is simple to quickly switch between different characters.

Each of Type 0's 14 playable characters have distinct gameplay from each other, although I definitely enjoyed some more than others. The characters, 12 of which feature numeral-themed names such as Ace, Cinque, and Seven, fall into a few loosely defined roles such as melee damage dealers, ranged attackers, and supports. Sice wields a scythe and gains power from slaying opponents without taking damage. Cater uses a chargeable magicite pistol capable of discharging elemental blasts. Deuce batters her opponents with bubbles emitted from a flute, of all things, and ends up being surprisingly powerful once she's acquired enough experience.

The game is story-driven, but broken up into missions separated by stretches of "free time," during which the player is afforded the opportunity to undergo some frankly pretty menial and pointless quests and acquire information about the game world. I found myself utterly bored by the game's lore and many of the characters, even if I did think a few of them were well designed. Nine's brash personality and voice acting are particularly questionable, but I did enjoy hearing from Matt Mercer (as Trey) and the newcomer providing the voice of the card-slinging Ace. Regardless, plot is not the game's strong point--I found myself glazing over in disinterest on multiple occasions as the game's text washed over me. Type 0's sole non-numeral playable characters, Machina and Rem, play a pivotal role in the trajectory of the plot but I couldn't begin to even summarize their importance.

Combat missions make up the bulk of Type 0's gameplay and in most cases these are really fun. Each character has different strengths and weaknesses. Queen has a strong aptitude for lightning magic, for instance, but this doesn't mean she's pigeonholed into using a particular type of lightning sgapell. In keeping with the game's decidedly military theme, most elemental spells mimic the function of weapons such as rockets, missiles, and rifles. Thunder-ROK allows the player to aim with a crosshair, for instance, and Fire-SG explodes out at close range. These elemental spells are available to all characters, but aptitude determines their strength. Of course, each character also has access to an array of unique skills and spells, such as Queen's wide-area life-draining spell and Sice's target-seeking whirlwind attack.

I did find myself having to grind for experience a pretty excessive amount in the game's latter half, and I found myself more and more disinterested at the trajectory of the plot. The final dungeon was fairly long and involved, but the final encounter itself disappointing. In fact, it seemed the game was playing itself more than anything. I wouldn't say that Type 0 is an essential entry into the Final Fantasy series, but I had fun with it an it tided me over until I could get another PS4 game. It also somewhat satisfies my completionist tendencies--it's one more Final Fantasy game stricken from the list. Now, if only I could finally get around to finishing Final Fantasy X. . . 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Little Infinities

I don't have a particularly good reason for not updating recently, but I do have a short list of flimsy excuses, including but not limited to being busy, being tired, and not feeling inspired. Of course, there's no shortage of things on which I could write and in fact I've been maintaining an informal list of topics to discuss. I feel these things fading from my memory even as I type this, unfortunately. I don't generally like to write blog entries that summarize the things I've been doing recently because I feel it really squanders a lot of the potential of some of the subjects about which I choose to write. I may be left with no other choice, however, since very few of these subjects are still fresh in my mind.

Some weeks ago, I attended a showing of The Martian, a science fiction film starring Matt Damon. I don't go to a lot of movies, but it's a fun thing to do if you have a special person to accompany you. The film seems to have received a lot of critical acclaim so I assumed I would enjoy it--and I did, to a point. I feel it really only explored the idea of being isolated on an uninhabitable planet on a very shallow level. The whole movie was a bit saccharine and overly feelgood in a Hollywood way, which  is not what I was expecting after reading reviews of the film. Maybe I'm cynical about this kind of thing, but I was really craving something a tad grittier--which is not to say that humor is entirely out of place, but it felt a little forced and unnecessary in the case of The Martian. I'll have to read the book sometime to see if the tone is similar. Even if that's the case, it still might be an interesting read, and after all, I have been reading a lot more recently.

Speaking of investigating a film's source material--I watched both the film version of The Fault in Our Stars and the book of the same name recently. Of course, I did this in what would probably be considered backwards order since I read the book after watching the movie, but it was interesting to note the differences between the two. It's definitely a book targeted towards young adults, but the material had more than enough depth to appeal to me. Although I enjoyed the film, I did feel it was a tad sentimental in tone--and this is a trait from which the book itself does not suffer. The Fault in Our Stars is a refreshingly straightforward glimpse into the life of a teenage girl by the name of Hazel Lancaster with terminal cancer and her relationship with Augustus Waters, a boy she meets in a support group who has recovered from a milder case of the life-threatening disease. Cancer did succeed in taking his leg, but not his life. For Hazel, her days are perpetually numbered, a fact that gives her a substantially different outlook on life than her former peers.

In my previous entry, I wrote about Norwegian Wood, a book I very much enjoyed. Before moving on to The Fault in Our Stars, I read a French children's story from the 1940s by the name of The Little Prince. Although short and relatively simplistic, it's a wonderful book packed to the brim with allusions and symbolism. The titular prince himself lives on an asteroid floating in space beyond the earth, tending to his best friend--a rose encased in glass. He maintains his miniature volcanoes--he rakes the coals--and wonders what lies beyond his home. On his journeys he meets other asteroid residents and eventually makes his way to the earth itself, where he meets an airplane pilot who has crashed his plane. Technically, it is through this pilot's eyes that the story is told. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of Le Petit Prince, was a pilot himself and in fact lost his life flying shortly after the book was released. He left behind an impressive final work.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

On Sundays I don't wind my spring.

Life has been pretty interesting lately; I've broken from a lot of my normal routines in some important ways. I've frequently lamented the fact that I never read anymore over the past couple of years even as I contributed volumes upon volumes of text to this blog. I felt myself improving as a writer just by turning it into a routine, but it's an accepted fact that reading the work of others is one of the best ways to improve. I'm not sure why I neglected that for so long or why I've had a number of false starts. My last honest attempt was Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a book I very much enjoyed--until stopping about 3/4ths of the way through it for reasons I cannot articulate.

I think one of the more wonderful things about relationships is that they tend to encourage you to try new things and to broaden your horizons in order to make yourself into a better person. There is something beautiful about sharing those things that you're most passionate about with someone for whom you care for. I'm now more comfortable driving an hour away to the marginally bigger town neighboring mine, for instance--and I'm more comfortable doing it on a regular basis. I've spent a lot of time cleaning my house and scrubbing away the dust of neglect that has settled over my home like some implacable cloud. I've spent more time watching movies, of course, and as I hinted, I've started to more seriously make an effort to read, starting with another Murakami classic, Norwegian Wood, a book I happened to come across as Barnes & Noble. I remembered it being recommended to me sometime ago--and I already knew I enjoyed Murakami's writing, so I decided to give it a shot.

Norwegian Wood is evidently more straightforward and simply told than other books in Murakami's catalogue. What I read of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle certainly bordered on surreal, whereas Norwegian Wood strikes me more as a memoir of sorts, a tale of the protagonist's experiences throughout college, told through the voice of his older self, who remembers the events of those days with startling clarity. It is a story of love, of loss, of a stoic loner who has difficulty opening up to others but will listen intently to what they have to say. I was stunned by the effortless beauty and tragedy of many of these stories, particularly when it came to the stories of Naoko and Reiko, two principal characters with which the protagonist, Toru Watanabe, interacts.

Watanabe recounts his experiences with an anal roommate nicknamed Storm Trooper, whose rigid adherence to routine and cleanliness earned him the moniker. He is a source of laughter (and not a small amount of ridicule) for Watanabe and others with which he converses throughout the story, but he finds himself struggling with a dull emptiness when he disappears without a trace. Nagasawa is a charismatic womanizer who nonetheless finds himself drawn to classic literature like Watanabe himself and thus strikes up a friendship and drags him into his various hijinks. Norwegian Wood features several colorful characters like these that all have their own unique perspectives and connect with Watanabe in their own ways. I found myself identifying with him as an introvert, as he so frequently found himself in situations where he spent times with others in intimate one-on-one situations. It seemed clear that this is with what he found himself most comfortable--and always he is more content to listen and consider the words of others before contributing his own.

There is a tragic beauty to Norwegian Wood and how it handles issues of love and loss, and the depths it plumbs in discussing the sickness with which one's heart finds itself stricken when those one loves and cares for are taken from them. Murakami is frequently startlingly frank with his approach toward intimacy and sexuality--refreshingly so. I found myself affected with a not insignificant level of melancholy upon finishing the book, although not out of dissatisfaction. I found myself drawn to the struggles of Watanabe and Naoko, of their shared love and their conflicts, and how in some way they were never resolved. Just like real life, there is frequently never a solid and final answer for some problems--and even when things seem to be getting better, it is never certain things are going to work out. Watanabe and Naoko are connected by their love for a fallen friend, Kizuki, whose death reverberated through their lives in unpredictable ways. For Naoko, who loved Kizuki, it caused a wound that might never fully heal.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sometimes, I think it would have been better if we never met.

I think it's safe to say the past few days have been incredibly emotional for me. Things have been exciting and in many ways wonderful, but I have also experienced a great deal of anxiety as a result. Because of the things that have been going on in my life, I feel like I've been experiencing just about everything more keenly. Everything seems to pack a greater emotional punch than perhaps it would under normal circumstances. I've been revisiting some of my favorite music and dabbling in some new stuff and really connecting with music on a level that I haven't in some time. I've also just finished The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky some two months and change after starting it and find myself blown away by how my reaction to the game has evolved over the course of its playtime.

Trails in the Sky is a PSP (and PC) RPG developed by Nihon Falcom, the company I'm led to believe is also responsible for the Ys series of games, none of which I've yet played. Trails in particular seems to be a labor of love as the level of detail in the dialogue is extensive. Based on what I've read, the North American localization team found themselves saddled with a tremendous workload in sifting through the colossal script and translating it to English. I've only recently learned that this team (XSeed, I want to say) have taken on what must be an equally monumental task of translating Trails in the Sky Second Chapter, which predictably picks up right where this one leaves off. Having just completed the game, I can scarcely wait for the sequel's North American release.

The bulk of Trails proceeds in a very low-key fashion as main characters Estelle and Joshua travel between the various cities of the nation of Liberl, completing tasks (mundane and otherwise) posted on the local mission boards in pursuit of their training as bracers. Bracers could be described as mercenaries for hire, but are also often tasked with jobs not requiring combat in any way. In order to be considered full bracers, Estelle and Joshua, children of legendary S-class bracer, Cassius Bright, must travel to the five cities of Liberl and attain letters of recommendation after proving their worth. Of course, as is so often the case, there's a more complex plot lurking beneath the surface, but there are only hints of what may be to come early on in the game.

Estelle and Joshua find themselves coming into contact with a variety of different characters in their travels over the span of a remarkably long playtime. For me, I finished at right around fifty hours after having been reasonably thorough completing sidequests. I didn't do every single one, but I did all the ones I felt I could realistically accomplish at the time without sacrificing a lot of time. I almost wonder if I would have enjoyed the middle sections of the game more if I'd skipped more of those sidequests. I found myself much more drawn into the arc of the game by the time I hit the fifth and final city of Liberl and was pulled directly into the main plot. The number of available sidequests during this part of the game dwindled dramatically and I think the game's pace improved for it.

For a sizable portion of the game, Trails in the Sky feels very much like a slice-of-life anime about the hijinks of a couple of teenagers who can't seem to locate their father, but as more and more details about these characters emerge, the tone becomes more serious and the plot comes to the forefront. I really enjoyed the contrast because it went a long way toward fleshing out the principle characters--even if a few of the companions encountered along the way might not feel as three-dimensional. I couldn't help but be reminded of the format of the anime Full Metal Panic, which begins very light and comedic before the layers are peeled back and the plot comes to the forefront. I could definitely draw a couple of parallels between Sousuke Sagara and Joshua.

Of course, while I did enjoy Trails in the Sky's ending, it did leave a lot of loose ends to be tied up. There's still a lot I'd like to know about Joshua and what Estelle is going to do in the wake of the events of the ending. I'm really hoping the Second Chapter localization doesn't get stuck in development hell, because I'm really looking forward to playing it.

Monday, August 31, 2015

As long as there's at least one person in life that understands me, I'll be okay

I've settled into a kind of melancholy over the past few days not necessarily due to events in my own life (although I'm sure those play a part) but instead due to a profound emptiness from finishing the anime series Toradora! I don't watch anime often but I've definitely warmed up to the idea over the past couple of years, as a number of scattered entries on this blog will attest. I wouldn't say I've been profoundly affected by any of those that I've watched, aside from being immensely entertained by Nichijou and drawn in by the drama and action of Attack on Titan. 

Toradora! is exactly the kind of anime I've always (subconsciously) been looking for. It doesn't take itself too seriously, it's not about saving the world--it concerns itself primarily with every day life and the relationships between a group of friends. These same elements are what draw me to the Persona series and to visual novels. The dialogue and interactions between characters are more important than the overall arc of the plot. The friendship between Ryuji and Taiga, their shared hardships and idiosyncrasies--they're so funny and poignant, and so entertaining.

I think I'd watch a lot more anime in general if I weren't so obsessed with multitasking. Toradora! has an excellent dub so I was able to watch it while playing Etrian Odyssey IV. I'll admit, however, that there were many occasions where I was drawn in enough that I found myself ignoring the game and paying close attention to what I was watching. I found something to like in all of the anime's principal characters. Ryuji is kind and driven despite being dismissed for his startling features. Taiga is extremely short both in temper and figure but hopes desperately that she'll find the courage to let herself have what she wants. Minori is immensely motivated and cheerful despite being beset by setbacks at every turn. Kitamura (voiced by the ubiquitous Johnny Yong Bosch) is almost comically well-adjusted but still grapples with his own personal demons.

Ryuji and Taiga form a friendship in order to help each other achieve their goals. Ryuji likes Minori. Taiga likes Kitamura. They both resolve to help the other impress their crushes and a lot of hijinks result. The setup could easily become a very formulaic story but I was so impressed by the amount of respect each character was given in the situation. Minori and Kitamura are never treated as idyllic unobtainable avatars of perfection. They are revealed to be characters just as fleshed out as any other--and I came to root for them just as much as I was rooting for Ryuji and Taiga.

So, now, I do feel some emptiness from having finished Toradora! not just because I miss watching these characters grow and evolve--but also because the resolution left me feeling a little unsatisfied. The last couple of episodes are very cathartic in some ways but I can't help but feel that a couple of the principal characters were left with no particular resolution. My heart breaks in particular for my favorite character, even if I know instinctively that this character is definitely going to be fine in the long run.