Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Final Fantasy X

I am not a JRPG boy. I like my role playing games in a Western flavour which means exploration, customisation, story branching and a unique player experience are all par for the course. My trip through Baldur’s Gate might be very different from that of my neighbour, and my journey through Morrowind certainly would be, but that’s what’s so great about Western RPGs. Even the most rigid titles adapt to your own personal gameplay style. Want to play Mass Effect through as a psychic peacenik space hippy and not a gun-toting soldier out for blood? Knock yourself out, kid.

This is not the way of the JRPG, where character customisation is often limited to renaming the lead character from ‘Crono’ to ‘Boobies’. Which isn’t to say that this individualism is replaced with a deeper story or more sympathetic characters, resulting in a richer and more absorbing experience. In fact I’ve never played a JRPG that has a more engrossing narrative or more memorable characters than those in than any of Bioware’s games. Which leaves me wondering just what people find so appealing about JRPGs.

And they do. The ongoing success of the Mass Effect series has gone some way to redress the balance between the two hemispheres but it’s the Final Fantasies and the Dragon Quests that dominate RPG culture. Convention-goers are much more likely to dress up in towering spiky wigs and wield gunblades than they are to cosplay as a Krogan warrior or an Asari consort. You hear strange tales coming from Japan about the economy suffering as a result of so many people taking a particular day off work just to play the latest Dragon Quest title. As a Westerner it’s bizarre to think of these games in terms of the popularity associated with the Call of Duty franchise. One’s a dumb-as-a-rock first person shooter and the other, well, the other’s an RPG. It’s weird.

So when the opportunity to revisit the old PS2 back catalogue presented itself I thought I’d pick up a copy of the highly-acclaimed Final Fantasy X to see what all the bother was about. It’s not like I’ve never touched a JRPG before you understand, but this game constantly appears on lists of the systems best titles. If anything could sell me on the JRPG it would be Final Fantasy X, right?

One hundred minutes is, of course, nowhere near long enough to explore such a title. JRPGs are made for longevity; the fans demand it, and seem to harbour a certain sneery attitude toward shorter games. After a hundred minutes I still hadn’t played my first game of Blitzball, a sport that’s introduced at the very start of the game, and I’ve heard some FFX fans mention they’d spent hours upon that particular minigame alone. But one hundred minutes of any game should be enough to show the player a sparkling core of gameplay and give them an inkling as to whether or not they’ll like the rest game.

After one hundred minutes my first impressions weren’t negative, but I’m afraid they’re not entirely positive either.

I’ve always hated that JRPGs speak in stilted riddles. When reading or listening to dialogue I’m always aware that this is a game made for a faraway audience, that’s been translated from a faraway language. Final Fantasy X does not buck this trend. Nothing in it feels natural, and in a title that’s otherwise highly polished this awkwardness stands out as a terrible flaw. The characters undergo titanic mood shifts far too often, leaving them seem brittle at best, unhinged at worst. They voice their thoughts often and when they do it it’s out loud, in a comic book style, but their thoughts are usually half-formed. “But that means-!” is a phrase that typifies this kind of dialogue. It’s there to indicate the character has come to a certain conclusion, but the dialogue surrounding it doesn’t expand upon that conclusion, leaving the gamer to hazard guesses as to the conclusion - or even the mood - of the character itself. Maybe if the voice acting was a little better we’d be able to fathom the emotions of the characters; sadly it’s merely competent, and errs toward that of a cheap import cartoon voiceover. If the Pokémon voice track has you reaching for a shotgun in order to end the pain, you might want to turn FFX’s sound down.

In spite of the acting and dialogue there is something deeper to these characters, something to latch upon. Take Tidus, the main player character. He has the spiky hair and the massive sword, and he’s cocky almost to the point of obnoxiousness, but he’s also a sports megastar whose father abandoned him as a child and left him angry, bitter and confused. Further subtleties of his character are screwed by the broad mood changes and poor translation, but there’s enough emotional content there to grab onto.

It’s the same with Yuna, the squeaky-voiced summoner who’s trying to follow in her father’s priestly footsteps, or Wakka, the burly, big-hearted idiot who pines for his dead father and hides his grief between Blitzball and improbable hairstyles. This disparate band of misfits might be irritating and something of a cliché, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t endearing. It seemed terribly unlikely that I’d ever come to care for them when I first met them but one hundred minutes into the game I was starting to smile at magician Lulu’s callous put-downs, and Wakka’s oxen stupidity.

But the real pull for me - the factor that keeps me playing in spite of my better judgement - is the story. Which is strange because I’m not sure I actually like it, and I definitely don’t like how it ties into the gameplay itself. You begin the game as the aforementioned Tidus, sweeping into town in a limousine, signing autographs for swooning fangirls and pegging it towards a gargantuan Blitzball stadium across silvered walkways, beneath neon lights and vid screens showing endlessly repeated footage of your missing father. And there’s something there, something different to all those other spiky-haired heroes with daddy issues who have something to prove to themselves. Tidus has already proved himself worthy to take up his father’s mantle - he’s a star, he’s beloved. When you reach the stadium (and in a master stroke the fans cheers and well-wishes you encounter along the way intermingle with your own, internal narrative, blending the here and now with future reminisces) the crowd goes mental, and every tuck, toss and turn of the Bltizball game is met with fresh applause and adulation. All the while, mysterious figures watch as the nearby ocean erupts to engulf the city, destroying skyscrapers and walkways, sending flurries of demonic ‘Sin-spawn’ down to terrorize the citizens and finally sweeping you into the heart of the aquatic attacking demon, a water-monster called Sin.

When you wake up a thousand years have passed and with it, the grandeur of your home city. In its place are a series of fishing villages, temples containing tedious puzzles revolving around juggling spheres, and the rest of the game.

It’s a big letdown. It feels like you’ve been promised Blade Runner only to be given Doc Hollywood. But again, there’s enough to grab onto and hope for the best.

That’s the feeling I emerged from the first one hundred minutes of Final Fantasy X with - a sort of hopeful disappointment. While the game is often beautiful in a primitive sort of way, it revels in its own narrowness. There is only the one path through the game, and every battle, puzzle and plot-point you encounter is just another obstacle to surmount. Battles - still simplistic this early into the game - are defeated with a set sequence of button presses. In fact if you deviate from the battle plan the game actively scolds you, telling you to leave certain enemies to the group member who deals with them the best. There’s no room for improvisation - there is only the plan. There is no room for exploration - there is only the path.

While I can’t say I dislike FFX, I can’t say I find much joy in it either. JRPGs have often come under fire for being more akin to interactive novels and movies than anything else, and I think it’s fair to say that thus far, that’s exactly what FFX is. It’s something to sit and watch rather than something to experience, and for a game that’s something of a sin. When a cut scene ends it’s simply a case of moving from point A to point B and climbing the obstacles you encounter until you reach the next cut scene and progress the story. It’s almost like the game is happening to someone else and you, the player, are just a voyeur.

I feel sad that I went into this game hoping it would change my mind on JRPGs; if anything it’s reinforced my opinion of them. Pretty cut scenes, obtuse battle systems, dodgy translations and plenty of pointless, non-interactive scenery - all these are evident in FFX, as they are in pretty much any JRPG you could mention. And again, I wonder why this genre has such fervent and dedicated fans when compared to the open worlds of WRPGs they are little more than narrow, well-decorated corridors.

Still, I’ve only played one hundred minutes of a fifty hour game. Maybe it’ll change my mind after all.

Friday, 7 January 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Culdcept

Culdcept was released on the DS in Japan. Think about that for a moment.

If you know the game, chances are your eyes are boggling, your jaw is dropped and your tongue is lolling. Your hair stands on end and you’re looking like Large Marge, the phantom truck driver from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, because the sheer impact of this dangerous knowledge is too powerful to contain within your physical body - you need something in claymation to convey your feelings, and you’ll probably need a translator on hand too because those aren’t words you’re speaking but gibbers and hoots, and howling discord.

It’s insane. It can’t be. It’s simply too dangerous to put a game like this on a card the size of your thumbnail and let anyone play it anywhere, and at any time.

How has Japan not fallen? Why haven’t its planes crashed from the sky, its cars smashed in the streets, its buildings crumpled and its sewers overflowed with filth? Why hasn’t this mighty country been brought to its knees by a sudden slothful plague of inaction caused by the release of Culdcept DS? Why haven’t pilots, drivers, janitors and plumbers alike stopped in their tracks, mesmerised by this ingenious, devilish little title?

I’ll tell you something: It beats the hell out of me. But considering the game never had a global release it seems clear that someone did realise the potential this game had to being about Ragnarok, and what a narrow squeak the Japanese release of it was.

Talk about your gaming crack . . .

I’ve been playing the PS2 release of Culdcept. It was one of only a couple of completely unfamiliar titles that appeared on a list of game developers’ favourite PS2 games. In amongst mostly-safe selections like SSX3 and Shadow of the Colossus, Ken Levine of Bioshock fame mentioned Dark Chronicle - my all-time favourite JRPG - Mercenaries, and Culdcept. This was an unconventional selection and one that caught my eye. When I read his reason for adding Culcept, even though it hadn’t had a European release on any format, by hook or by crook I knew I had to play this game.

Ken’s reason for adding it - and my reason for getting it - was this: It’s like Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering.

Now anyone who caught my appearance on Michael Fox’s Little Metal Dog Show podcast knows I’m not a fan of Monopoly. Neither am I much of a fan of Magic; I tried it once as a teenager, and was soundly beaten by a twenty-something who was trying and failing to grow a beard.

But the two of them mushed together? How would that even work? I had to play it.

I tracked down a cheap copy on Amazon. played it on my wife’s NTSC PS2, and when I slotted it into the drive something magical happened. The disc drive that had been stuttering so badly it would only recognise a game disc if the entire console was turned upside down and laid on its lid worked. It worked quietly, it worked flawlessly. Where Suikoden III, Valkyrie Profile 2, Final Fantasy X and numerous PS1 games had failed, Culdcept had worked.

The game hadn’t even begun and I was already impressed.

But the most impressive thing about Culdcept is that Ken Levine was right, as was the Wikipedia page about it, as was anyone who’s ever played the game and came away from it describing it thusly: Culdcept is Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering. And it bloody works.

It’s strange charm begins with the opening movies. There’s the usual JRPG gumph about goddesses and magic, and then there’s some kind of space ship heading toward the camera, only it has an old man’s face on the bow and isn’t a space ship at all but a sentient walking stick sent by God to find people who are really good at playing cards. Even by JRPG standards it’s a bt wonky.

Thankfully when the old man walking stick is rendered in-engine it’s much less frightening, hopping about like Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout, spinning in place when it’s flustered and addressing me by name when it asks me to join it’s card-accruing quest.

Then a demon shows up and challenges me to a duel. It’s that kind of game.

Here’s where the magic starts. Here’s where Culdcept presses its needle-jaws into the soft flesh of your brain. This is where your addiction begins.

Level one is a simple loop of five by five squares. The graphics are isometric 3D with 2D sprites, and the level looks like a diamond. You and your opponent must follow dice rolls and race around the board. When you land on a square you have the chance to play a monster card from your hand, which will hold that square for you and accumulate magic points as you move on. The squares are different colours, indicating different land types. If you match your monster type to the land type - by playing a merfolk card on a water square, for example - you accumulate more magic and your monster gets stronger. You can also spend magic to level up your land, which raises the toll for that square.

This is where the Monopoly element comes in. By placing a monster on a square you effectively buy that square. Any player that lands upon it must pay the toll, unless they summon a monster of their own and defeat your monster in combat. Which is where the Magic: The Gathering element comes in.

Though the game informs you if the challenging monster is likely to beat the defending monster, both players can augment their monster’s abilities using weapons, armour and spells they might have in their hands. There are other spell cards that can be played at other points in the game, enabling players to fudge dice rolls, destroy their opponents’ cards, and weaken or attack monsters already in play.

It’s all oh-so baffling at first. There’s a rough tutorial in place that fills you in on what’s happening, and an online help system that can be accessed at any time, but any hints you might get as to how to play the game are sandwiched between character banter and it’s difficult to make head or tail of the proceedings. Why did I just lose that fight? What did that spell do? What difference does levelling-up land make? Why did the music just change?

Why did I just lose?

As opaque as the game is, there’s enough charm there for it to seem like fun, even if you have no idea what’s going on. It makes all the right sounds, the limited monster animations add a lot of character to them, and by the end of the first game I was growing rather attached to certain monsters - even if they tended to be the ones who kept winning battles.

And then, right after I lost my first game, something clicked inside my head. Almost as if the game could read my mind it seemed to say “Aw, that’s too bad. Here, have these new cards and try again.”

This is one path to addictiveness Panorama should have covered. Rewarding failure in the attempt to get you right back in the saddle.

It worked. The bouts last so long and can’t be saved mid-match, but as soon as you finish one and see your fresh set of cards you’ll be itching to try them out. Even though I couldn’t play Culdcept again for days I kept thinking about the difference these new cards would make. The Fire Drake! That looked powerful. With a card like that in my hand I bet I could take that pesky demon down a notch or two.

Winning cards is only a part of the whole collectible card game addiction. Once you have them you can remove your older, weaker cards and replace them, in time reconstructing your entire deck. There are ten slots in which to save custom decks, so if you want one geared towards playing on a certain kind of land as well as one that revolves predominantly around magical attacks, hey, knock yourself out.

Back in the saddle I raced around the game board. Suddenly my rolls were more favourable, my hands luckier. My new cards came in handy as I positioned a hornet over a desert, swapped a few land squares around to bolster its attack and the attacks of the monsters around it, and played some pustulant larva thibg that, though it required that I sacrifice a card from my hand every time I used it, managed to worm its way through the enemy’s defences and cause him grevious toll shock every time he landed on its square.

I ran through the game to a glorious, almost embarrassing victory, and with the demon sent packing I got to gloat over my newly-won cards and fantasise about all the tactical advantages they would offer me.

And then it was back to the game board for another practise round against my moustachioed walking stick friend.

And another.

And though I can’t claim to have gotten very far in the game or to have plumbed the depths of strategy it offers, I’ve looked at the mammoth grid where all your cards are catalogued, seen the multitudinous empty spaces within, and I know that this is a game I could play for a very, very long time. It’s the kind of game that would so effortlessly lend itself to handheld play that the only reason Culdcept DS was never released outside of Japan must be because its so insanely addictive it would have been dangerous to do so.

I could recommend Culdcept unreservedly, but to be honest you’re not going to get a recommendation any better than the one Ken Levine game put on his list of PS2 favourites. It’s Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering. If you don’t like the sound of that then by all means steer clear, but if you do and you can track down a copy and have the means to play it then man, I hope you don’t have an addictive personality, because this game will destroy you. It’ll take your eyes, your thumbs, your smile and your brain, and it’ll melt them all down into a cheery gaming gloop that exists for no reason other than to appease the goddess Culdcept. And you’ll love every gelatinous minute of it.