Thursday, August 18, 2016

An Aimless Journey ~ Ys: The Oath in Felghana

I'm trying something new today. I've shifted focus recently to video reviews and almost completely abandoned the blog/article format, but I still think it's possible to do both. I'd like to continue doing video presentations of these games, but I realize videos aren't everyone's cup of tea. Some would prefer to read an article, particularly if they're in an environment where sound is not available. Even then, some just don't want to invest the time into watching a video. Some of you are particularly fast readers, much like myself. I typically don't invest a lot of time watching videos either, so I get that. What I've decided to do to please both crowds is to present my reviews in both a text article format and as a YouTube video. I will link to the video here on my blog as usual, but I'll also present the review in text, accompanied of course by screenshots! The content of the article and the video will be very similar, so it's probably not necessary to experience them both, unless you're just that dedicated.

So, without further ado, here's my review of Ys: The Oath in Felghana and comparison to Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, which I also played for the purpose of this article.

I was attracted to the Ys series initially because it’s the flagship series from Japanese developer Nihon Falcom, who also produced the excellent series of turn-based Legend of Heroes RPGs. I’m interested in tracing the lineage of long-running video game series and before recently, I knew absolutely nothing about Ys. The Ys series is extremely difficult to really wrap your mind around because the games have so many different versions, releases, and remakes. I found the prospect of unraveling the series mysteries exciting. As a result, I’ve decided to play through the series more or less in order, without skipping some titles that have been subsequently remade. There are some version that are simply ports that I won't play, such as a lot of the PSP versions of these games.

I’m continuing my journey through the Ys series by picking up with its third entry--and two different versions of it, at that. I ended up playing both Ys III: Wanderers from Ys for SNES and its remake, Ys: The Oath in Felghana for PC. Wanderers from Ys is the earliest available North American localization of Ys III, although it was not the true original release. Wanderers from Ys was actually available on both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, with some minor differences in graphics and localization, but its original incarnation in Japan was on a line of personal computers, the PC-8801 series, much like the first two games of the series.

Wanderers from Ys takes place in Felghana, a few years after the events of Ys I & II. Adol has been adventuring with his buddy Dogi, who he met in the original Ys title in Darm Tower. They decide to visit Dogi’s home town of Redmont after he has his fortune told and the crystal ball explodes. According to Adol, their journey is “aimless,” and he’d like to visit Dogi’s hometown anyhow. Oath in Felghana skips a lot of this exposition and starts you on the journey in media res, although alludes to the crystal ball in the cinematic cutscene following your introduction to Dogi’s childhood friend, Elena.

Never mind, it's probably fine.
Felghana, once a peaceful area, is now besieged by, what else, monsters. It’s up to Adol to determine why this is happening, which inevitably leads him to exploring a quarry, some ancient ruins, a lava pit, snowy mountains, a massive castle, and of course, a clock tower. The environments, enemies, and bosses are reasonably diverse, especially for a game originally released in 1989. Unfortunately, many of these bosses are very unsatisfying or frustrating in some way. Most bosses can be defeated through the use of one cheesy strategy or another, and others are just incredibly frustrating, due in no small part to the SNES version’s greatest flaw--it’s hit detection.

Seriously, it’s bad. It seems your sword attacks only hit opponents about half the time. I noticed this as soon as I ventured into the game’s first dungeon, where I would clearly hit enemies two or three times before they reached me, but I’d still somehow take damage. This meant that the only way I could ensure I could progress through these dungeons was to level up enough that I could take out enemies in a single shot. And of course, the pacing of the game is terrible. Even just progressing to the second screen of the initial dungeon puts you face to face with enemies that can kill you in a couple of hits. Even the bats in that area require you to level up 4 or 5 times before you can even damage them. Much of the “strategy” involved in normal encounters in Wanderers from Ys simply consists of becoming durable enough to shrug off damage. It’s seldom possible to avoid it altogether.

Well, I'm screwed.
Oath in Felghana is an entirely different story, and rightfully so since Falcom had roughly 15 years to learn from their mistakes. Using the 3D engine from Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (which I haven’t played yet), The Oath in Felghana translates the encounters from Wanderers from Ys into an entirely different format. It is now possible to dodge, hop and run wildly around in circles, encountering opponents from different angles and vanquishing them without taking damage, if you’re skilled enough. Enemies frequently drop temporary attack and defense power-ups as well, encouraging you to zip from screen to screen, taking out enemies as quickly as possible. Defeating enemies builds up a gauge that allows you to enter Boost Mode when filled, increasing your attack power and defense dramatically for a short period of time. This adds another layer of strategy to regular encounters and bosses. The pacing is wonderful and the enemies aren’t often annoying or unfair--although that’s not to say they’re pushovers, either! Enemies can become quite challenging, especially in the last couple of dungeons.

Pew pew pew.
Like Ys I & II, Wanderers from Ys features different rings that can be equipped to boost attack or defense, to heal, or even to grant temporary invincibility. Unlike those games, however, usage of the rings consumes Ring Power every second they’re equipped, meaning their effects are always temporary. Oath in Felghana abandons the ring system entirely and instead incorporates elemental bracelets. The fire bracelet is more or less identical to the fire magic from Ys II but the wind and earth bracelets are completely distinct from it. I found myself using the wind bracelet a lot in combat with standard opponents, but the bracelets are required for use against many bosses and for platforming as well. You can light torches with fireballs, glide over gaps with wind magic, and break through walls with the earth bracelet. I absolutely love when games make acquiring new abilities important on multiple levels. Discovering the fire bracelet doesn’t just mean that you have a new spell in your arsenal--it means that you have the ability to uncover content that was previously unavailable to you because you had no access to a projectile or couldn’t light a torch. For this reason, none of the abilities or spells available to you in Oath in Felghana feel extraneous or unnecessary. Conversely, the Healing, Time, and Protection rings from Wanderers from Ys are close to useless. The strategic uses of the Power and Shield Rings are somewhat interesting, but I wasn’t at all sorry to see them go in the remake.
Fully loaded.
The Oath in Felghana removes the ability to save anywhere, which is probably the only negative thing I can say about it as a remake. There are often long stretches of dungeon without access to a save point and it’s not difficult to get overwhelmed and killed after you’ve been adventuring for some time. I think removing the ability to save anywhere is okay, but more frequent access to Travel Monuments would have been nice. I’m much more a fan of difficult boss encounters than I am of difficulty through attrition--that is to say, difficult only because you spend a long period of time potentially without access to healing, taking on wave after wave of monsters. This is not usually a huge problem in Oath of Felghana, but I can recall one specific instance where I died three different times right after acquiring the Terra Bracelet, only a few screens before finding a Travel Monument. I wasn’t given very much time to experiment with my new spell, which I assumed was required to defeat the foes just ahead of me, so I unwisely assaulted them head on and lost a lot of progress several times.
Fun fact: The revival item in Wanderers is bugged and doesn't work at all.
Make no mistake, though--Oath in Felghana is a very difficult game, much more difficult, in fact, than Wanderers from Ys, which derived most of its difficulty from its poor hit detection and unresponsive controls. The Oath in Felghana is difficult because it’s designed to be that way, and this is due in large part to the variety of boss encounters the game has to offer. The original game had a lot of bosses, but many of them were very forgettable since several of them could be successfully cheesed in a manner of seconds. Halvager and Jilderos spring to mind as bosses that require almost no strategy at all.
I literally stood here and attacked the whole time.
The Oath in Felghana overhauls all of these boss encounters and adds a couple of new ones as well, and most of them are very interesting and diverse challenges. One fight from Wanderers that I found to be insanely frustrating was the Ellefale fight, which requires insanely precise positioning and timing to overcome. Combine that with the fact that your attacks miss the boss entirely more often than not and colliding with the enemy chunks off about half your health bar and you have a recipe for disaster. Ellefale in The Oath in Felghana essentially uses the same formula but from a different perspective. The fight is still challenging, but much less frustrating since this time you have access to fireballs that always hit their target, assuming you’re aiming them correctly. It also introduces a mechanic in which bosses tend to acquire new attacks when they get low on health. Just about every boss in the game does this, meaning they all become substantially more difficult as the battle progresses.

Another good example to consider for comparison is Istersiva. In Wanderers, this boss is really nothing special. It’s one of the only times you ever need to use the Time Ring to slow down enemy projectiles--which is neat, I suppose, but it never shows its use beyond that. In Oath in Felghana, Istersiva is just another in a long line of insanely active boss fights, requiring you to move constantly and dodge a stream of projectiles covering your entire screen. It also has two or three different phases as you wear down its health. It begins as a grotesquely fanged sand worm until it merges with the crystalline structure adorning the boss chamber and begins hurling scores of energy blasts at you.
Dodging stuff is fun.
The harpy fight in Wanderers from Ys is another boss battle that received a pretty dramatic upgrade for the remake. In the original version, the harpy flies listlessly from side to side and throws out orbs that can be fairly easily dodged. In Oath in Felghana, the fight becomes a struggle against three harpies, all with different elemental affinities. One is weak to physical attacks, one wind, and the other fire. In fact, none of them will take damage at all from opposing elements, meaning Adol must switch between methods of attack to slowly wear them down. Conventional wisdom might suggest you take them on one at a time, but this is a dubious solution at best since the harpies enrage when one of their allies falls, dramatically increasing the difficulty of the fight. The best solution then becomes defeating them as close together as possible, which is a very fun challenge.

I think it’s safe to say at this point that I didn’t particularly care for Wanderers from Ys, but I did happen to quite enjoy the music. Even with its primitive sound, it’s easy to hear just how well composed and memorable those tunes are, even if the boss theme does eventually become grating. The Oath in Felghana preserves the spirit of these pieces but also greatly expands on them with energetic new arrangements featuring mostly live instrumentation. Music in this series is a real strong point, and The Oath in Felghana outdoes even Ys Chronicles on that front, if you ask me.

Y’know, I did enjoy Wanderers from Ys strictly because of its historical perspective. It was for a long time considered the black sheep of the Ys series and I think it’s interesting to get a feel for why that is. Breaking from convention is certainly not always a bad thing and the sidescrolling gameplay could have definitely worked in the game’s favor--but uninteresting boss encounters, poor pacing, and awful hit detection in the SNES version made it a miserable experience to actually play. Conversely, The Oath in Felghana rebuilds the game from the ground up and turns it into an exciting and incredibly crafted action RPG. I can only hope that the rest of the series has content of similar quality to offer.
Thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The White Wind Howls - I Am Setsuna

Oh boy, this one took me awhile. This one's very analytical, even in comparison to other videos, and focuses a lot on comparing I Am Setsuna to Chrono Trigger. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Twin Goddesses ~ Ys I & II Chronicles+

I've been meaning to start the Ys series for a really long time, and I finally did it! I enjoyed these games for the most part and I'm excited to see what else the series has to offer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Power of Music ~ Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

This is my first time doing a video on a console game, and it was quite the undertaking recording over 50 hours of footage and then poring over it for relevant clips. I'm pretty proud of it, though.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Coming down with a case of despir ~ Tales of Hearts R

For reasons that have a lot to do with my obsessive need to complete entire series of games, I have played through the majority of the Tales series. I finished Tales of Xillia 2 earlier this year and played a whole pile of games in the series last year, and my opinion of them as a whole is decidedly mixed. One thing that is a constant for the series is the fun inherent to the battle system--and it's always a little different each time. Some Tales battle systems are better than others, but I'm generally a fan no matter what. It is because of the gameplay that I can so frequently resign myself to slogging through volumes upon volumes of uninteresting and uninspired dialogue delivered by unenthusiastic voice actors. Tales of Xillia 2 was particularly bad about this and it didn't help matters much that the whole game thrived on reusing content from Tales of Xillia.

In combat
Before embarking on Tales of Hearts R, I'd heard that it wasn't considered one of the strongest Tales titles. Since I personally believe the series is inconsistent at best, I was a tad hesitant to jump right into it. As such, it took me several months after purchasing it (I purchased it at the same time I purchased my Vita) before I decided to finally play it. And you know what? It's not bad--not half as bad as I was led to believe.

Tales of Hearts R is an enhanced remake of the original Tales of Hearts for Nintendo DS. It was originally one of two Nintendo DS Tales titles, the other being Tales of Innocence, which never received an American release. Both titles received enhanced remakes for Vita, but only Tales of Hearts R made it here--and even then, no English voice acting was ever recorded. It's a little jarring to hear all of the game's dialogue in Japanese, but I honestly don't mind it at all since from what I can tell the voice acting is well done. Obviously I can't discern any nuance in voice acting delivered in a foreign language, but the voices seem to fit the characters pretty well and I can easily associate the voices with each character. I can't honestly say this is a downside to the game at all since Tales frequently has mediocre voice acting anyway.

Personally, I'm craving sriracha mayo
Games in this series frequenty have ridiculously convoluted and nigh-nonsensical plots, and Tales of Hearts R is no exception. You see, characters in the the Tales of Hearts universe possess what are called Spiria, which essentially govern emotions, skills, thoughts, and whatever else the game's plot demands. Kor and his ragtag group of companions are what are called Somatics, due to the mythical Soma weapons they wield. Somatics are capable of entering an individual's Spiria Nexus to weed out creatures called Xeroms that are possessing these individuals. A strange illness called Despir has swept across the land, leaving people listless and unable to participate in daly life. It's likely that Xeroms are responsible, but before the group can do anything about that, Kor somehow manages to shatter Kohaku's Spiria Core (don't ask me) and sends shards that represent her emotions flying in all directions. So, for the first half of the game, Kor and his companions must travel with a soulless, emotionless Kohaku while they track down her emotions.

It wouldn't be a JRPG without a bath scene, right?
I feel it's no real spoiler to reveal that Tales of Hearts R eventually comes to be less about saving a girl and more about saving the world. It is inevitable, not only for the Tales series, but also for just about every JRPG in existence, that the world must come under threat and it's up to a group of spunky teenagers to save it. Of course, in Tales of Hearts, the cast is at least slightly more diverse. Gall is probably in his 40s and Ines maybe her 30s, but the rest are firmly in the teenager camp. Interestingly, Gall and Ines are probably the best of the cast, gameplay-wise, and the characters themselves are not terrible.

Tales of Hearts R features a lot of these cut-ins
Kor Meteor is the protagonist of the game and as such is the most bland and boring character of them all. He has a can-do attitude and his slogan is "Kor Meteor doesn't try, he does!" which is pretty optimistic but also painfully short-sighted. Kohaku has no personality for a good chunk of the game thanks to Kor's idiocy but later becomes a sometimes soft-spoken, sometimes upbeat teenage girl with an unhealthy preoccupation with miso. Despite the game's title bearing her name (Hearts), her personality never really crystallizes in a satisfying way. She's important to the plot but only really exists as a damsel in distress and a vessel for moving the game forward. She's useful in combat but doesn't otherwise carry her weight as a character. Hisui is Kohaku's brother and seems to exist mostly to be overprotective of Kohaku and to yell at Kor a lot.

It's always something with you, Hisui
The other characters all have their own motivations and backstories that make them interesting in some way. Gall, a character that didn't exist in the original version of the game, joins the party with little in the way of preamble. He's the oldest of the cast (although probably not beyond his 40s) and is made to never forget it. He's dedicated his life to ridding the land of Despir because of someone close to him. Ines is a successful merchant that has Kor and his compatriots on the hook for quite a lot of money and thus decides to travel with them. Beryl is a young painter (and magician) who struggles with self-esteem issues. Chalcedony is a Crystal Knight with an admittedly pretty cool Soma weapon that gifts him with angelic wings. He is introduced as a combative, egotistical jerk, but gradually softens his personality over the course of the game. Kunzite is a robot.

Beep boop
What struck me most about Tales of Hearts R is the variety in the combat system. Each of the game's eight characters features a unique play style, most of which are pretty fun. Kohaku has fire-infused aerial martial arts combos and lots of fierce kicks. Ines has a mix of hard-hitting attacks with her improbably huge blade weapon as well as a slew of icy projectiles and strikes. Gall wields a machete and axe in combat in pretty inventive ways from mid- and close-range. Kor's combat style is about as vanilla as he is as a character but it's still fun in its own way since he epitomizes the style of most standard Tales protagonists.

Tales of Hearts R also places fewer restrictions on combat than some other games in the series with the ability to freely combo between standard attacks and artes in any order you wish. The strategy involved in putting together effective combos from the massive pool of moves available is probably the most satisfying thing about the game and the primary reason I'd recommend it. The chase link mechanic adds a lot of meat to the gameplay in that it allows you to greatly extend and lengthen your combos by knocking opponents into the air and quickly teleporting after them. The gauge that typically governs the number of attacks you can perform in a row refills upon a successul chase link, which means that you can keep a combo going for as long as you can maintain the chase link--which of course is extended by landing continous attacks and performing combination moves. If not or the addictive combat sytem, I doubt I would have felt justified in soldiering on through a plot that is admittedly pretty asinine.

I mostly played Kohaku, Ines, and Gall
Tales of Hearts R is a game I can hesistantly recommend beacuse the characters aren't that bad and occasionally you'll run across some clever lines or memorable moments. Still, though, the game's primary redeeming factor is the combat system, which takes some time to really take off. It's worth it for a Tales fan, which begrudgingly, I realize, is what I am.

Okay, that's pretty good

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ritual Overthrown ~ Momodora I, II, and III

The Momodora series is a great group of indie platformers. I'm excited to play the fourth game of the series really soon.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Chosen One ~ Dust: An Elysian Tail

Right on time, I've got another video out. It seems unlikely I'll keep doing this every week (since that's what I wanted to do originally when I started with the MMZ videos) but I'll give it a shot.